From top: JobPath promotional photo; Eamonn Kelly
In the fourth part of a series of articles examining ‘job activation’ schemes in Ireland, Eamonn Kelly asks if they are voluntary or madatory
The power to sanction, that is, the power to directly cut the allowances of Jobseekers, was withheld from the employment activation companies in Ireland. No reason for this was given, though Joan Burton gave the impression that it was a kindness of sorts being extended towards Jobseekers.
It’s more likely though that there were other, more serious considerations in play. It’s okay farming out powers like that in Britain where there is little chance of the newly empowered private company suddenly taking over the whole show.
Over there they have Trident submarines and nuclear stockpiles to see off that type of temerity. But here? Well, best to be careful with the power.
That however didn’t stop the Department of Social Protection from loaning powers out every now and then when it suited, as we’ll see in this fourth part of the series on JobPath.
Recently, while watching a Newsnight discussion on BBC, featuring Ken Loach talking about his film “I, Daniel Blake”, he was set in opposition to a seemingly fairly non-descript right-wing opponent. During the discussion, something the right-wing opponent said rang bells.
He said, and I paraphrase, These people are not being sanctioned for not having a job. They are being sanctioned for failing to do what they agreed to do. Elsewhere in the same discussion, the same person said that the majority of the public approve of the benefit sanctions system.
Ken Loach’s right-wing opponent on Newsnight wasn’t just some non-descript economist the BBC shipped in for convenient counter-balance. His name is Matthew Oakley of WPI Economics (Westminster Policy Institute).
In 2014 he led the so-called Independent Review of Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions that reported to Parliament. I say so-called, because Mr Oakley was also the team leader who dreamed up the benefits sanctions system during his time in the right-wing think tank “Policy Exchange”, (the same group, incidentally, that recently recommended Ireland leave the EU).
The CV on the WPI website says:
“A number of policies, including reforms to public sector pay setting, conditionality and sanctions in the social security system and the functioning of employment support in the UK, can clearly be traced back to recommendations in reports he authored.”
Mr Oakley had the approach to implementing the Benefit Sanctions system distilled to a two-pronged strategy: gain public approval for taking stern action against the Jobless, and find some way of getting the jobless to agree with the stern actions being taken against them. A twin strategy that is very similar to our government’s strategy in the promotion of JobPath.
Gaining public approval for the idea of JobPath appears to have been achieved by casting doubt on the integrity of Jobseekers as a class of people, inciting disapproval, often times verging on incitement to hatred.
This aspect of the campaign for public approval of the JobPath system was most notably championed by the present Taoiseach. The other prong of the strategy presented a slightly more awkward problem. How do you convince people to agree to engage with a system that is clearly aimed against them with such negative intention?
JobPath was a bit opaque from the very start. It was difficult to nail down precisely what the “service” entailed, or its relationship to Jobseekers. Was it compulsory or voluntary? An obligation or a choice?
The word “mandatory” was invoked from the Social Welfare legislation, though the minister for social protection at the time, Joan Burton, said that Jobseekers would be “invited” to participate.
Then there was the concept of registrations, for which the DSP would be paying the private companies a fee for each registration acquired, and which some commentators were referring to as a “commission”.
Again, this seemed to suggest a voluntary aspect in registering for a “service”. From this perspective, it appeared to be that the private companies were offering a service that, in the words of Joan Burton:
“will provide intensive individual support, advice and coaching to jobseekers, and will also help participants to address social inclusion barriers and improve personal well-being.”
Leaving aside for the moment the insinuation that the problem of unemployment is due to personal character flaws in the jobless – a recurring theme, likely part of the strategy to win public approval – the minster’s description of the service suggests that Jobseekers would essentially be agreeing to avail of this service and would, accordingly, register with one or other of the private companies providing the service.
From this perspective, the Jobseeker would essentially be voluntarily hiring the company providing the service, and by registering would be entering into an agreement with the company to help the jobseeker find work.
There are very clearly two conflicting concepts at work here: availing of the “service” is a choice, but participation appears to be framed also as mandatory. The idea of choice is given further credence by the minister’s use of the word “invited”.
This however, is again countered by the word “mandatory”, which suggests that participation is not a choice, but an obligation. But if participation is an obligation, as suggested by the use of the word mandatory, what significance does the act of registration have?
In a written answer to a question by Catherine Murphy TD on the 30th September 2015 [v] as to the costs regarding the implementation of JobPath, Joan Burton wrote, “Contractors will be paid via a combination of registration fees and job sustainment fees. A registration fee may be claimed only when a jobseeker has developed a personal progression plan…”
From this we can take it that a document called a Personal Progression Plan is the means by which a Jobseeker registers with the companies providing the service, and that the DSP has contracted to pay a fee to the companies after this registration takes place.
Everything hinges on the Jobseeker signing the Personal Progression Plan, which acts as both a contract of sorts between the Jobseeker and the company providing the services, and a receipt of sorts with which the private companies can claim a fee, or a commission, from the DSP, on acquisition of the Jobseeker’s signature.
If, under the existing social welfare acts, participation on JobPath is mandatory, why are the DSP, in times of austerity, paying out public monies to private interests in the form of commissions for these signatures, for an outcome that is already supposedly provided for in legislation? i.e. for a situation where participation is mandatory?
The only possible answer to this is that participation on JobPath is not mandatory under current legislation, but is actually voluntary, as suggested by the minster’s use of the word “invited”.
And that participation appears to be totally dependent on the acquisition of each individual Jobseeker’s signature, or initial, which is then regarded as a voluntary registration to the “service”, for which the DSP is contracted to pay a fee to the private companies.
In the next part, we’ll look at how these valuable registrations were harvested.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance writer.