With Stormont yet again teetering on the brink, this time over the Renewable Heat Incentive, people may have missed the following cracker of an example of obfuscation from the Minister for Communities, Paul Givan MLA.
At the end of October Eamonn McCann, People Before Profit MLA tabled an Assembly question for the Communities Minister in relation to sanctions and the Steps 2 Success programme. He wasn’t referring to the 5000 plus sanctions that have been imposed on unemployed people forced on to S2S between October 2014 and May 2016, for reasons as arbitrary as turning up ten minutes late for an appointment.
No, Eamonn McCann’s question, asked who was holding the 3 private contractors delivering the Steps 2 Success programme to account:
‘ To ask the Minister for Communities to outline any sanctions his Department plans to impose on Steps 2 Success private contractors that fall short of the performance standards expected in relation to getting people into, and staying in, a job”.(emphasis added)
The Minister’s answer, delivered on 8 December, was worthy of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty and his explanation to Alice about how he used words ‘to mean just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less’.
The Minister began by outlining how the Department monitors the performance of the private contractors:
“The S2S contract has a set of performance indicators, against which the performance of the programme is measured. The main measures of success focus on the percentage of participants moving into and sustaining employment”
He then made the following, fairly unequivocal sounding statement:
“Unsatisfactory Performance will not go unchallenged by the Department. Prompt and appropriate action, up to removal of contracts, will be taken in all cases where a Lead Contractor falls short of the required standard, in order to protect the Department’s legal position, safeguard the use of public money and ensure that Steps 2 Success achieves its objectives, including the need to deliver value for money”. (emphasis added)
Sounds like a man who means business and is not going to let private contractors off the hook if they don’t deliver, doesn’t he?
But here’s the truth of it, in the Department’s own black and white figures.
On at least 5 out of 8 key performance indicators set for Steps 2 Success providers by the Department for Communities, providers have been scored as either ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘needs improvement’.
The Department’s target rate for young people aged 18-24 sustaining employment for 6 months on completion of the programme is 23%. From October 2014 to March 2015 only 19% of those who secured a job on completion of the Steps 2 Success programme were still in that job after 6 months. The expected performance level for 25 years and over is 21%. Only 14% of those who secured a job on completion of Steps 2 Success were still in that job after 6 months. The overall performance level was only 14%. This also varied by private contractor, with People Plus in the northern region only achieving an 11% success rate.
There is considerable evidence that shows that getting somebody who is unemployed, particularly if they are younger, into a job is not the biggest challenge. Making sure that the job is a sustainable, decently paid one with the appropriate support and career progression opportunities in place, is the actual challenge.
So, 86%, or the vast majority of those who are moved into employment are not in those jobs 6 months later. The obvious question then is – where are they? This question was also put to the Minister by Eamonn McCann MLA. In relation to young people aged 18-24 the Department has stated that it has no information on the onward education, training or employment destination of those young people who are no longer classified as NEET, so in effect, no monitoring in being carried out.
With so little information being provided by the Department, a key concern is that people are effectively in being recycled, between Steps 2 Success, short periods of work, often on zero hour or temporary contracts, before returning to the dole.
The Committee for Communities will examine the Steps 2 Success programme and the use of benefit sanctions in January 2017. The Right to Work; Right to Welfare campaign will provide evidence gathered over four years outside every dole in the city of people experiencing failing work programs and unjustifiable financial sanctions.
The Committee for Communities must examine the disproportionate and punitive use of sanctions used to punish Steps 2 Success claimants, in contracts to the lack of any sanctions imposed on programme providers for their well evidenced failure to deliver.
In light of the mounting evidence that, not only does the current sanctions regime have devastating impacts on the lives of vulnerable individuals and their families, but that it also costs more to implement than it ‘saves’ government, the Department for Communities must call time on this regime and adopt a human rights compliant model which ensures due process and impact assessment.
R2W have developed such a model in the form of the People’s Proposal, which has to date gained significant political and civic society support, including from NIC-ICTU, NIPSA, the Green Party and People Before Profit.
The Committee for Communities must also scrutinise the lack of action to hold well paid Steps 2 Success private providers who are failing to deliver to account. The committee can demand that action be taken by the Minister to back up his talk of ‘prompt and appropriate action, up to removal of contracts’.
The public deserve Real Jobs and work programmes that actually work, not failing government sponsored schemes which benefit only private companies.
 Since 1 October 2014 to 31 August 2016 a total of 5333 sanctions were imposed on Job Seeker claimants taking part in New Deal/Steps to Work/Steps to Success programmes. The vast majority of these sanctions, 3,830, have been for ‘failure to attend an interview’ with a Steps 2 Success provider.