Social welfare privatisation kicks in, quietly and unquestioned.

By Mary Murphy.

The Department of Social Protection has contracted two private companies to deliver JobPath, a new activation programme for Ireland’s 178,000 long-term unemployed. This follows a tendering process supported by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion in London.
A British recruitment firm, Seetec, has been contracted to deliver these activation services in the north of the country and Dublin. An Turas Nua, a consortium of Irish-based recruitment company FRS and the UK company Working Links, will run the programme in the south of the country.
It is understood that each contractor must service 25,000 long-term unemployed people a year in their search for employment. They will do this through a supply chain of sub-contracted local, private and not-for-profit, specialist organisations.
We need more scrutiny on the motivations behind this decision and its possible consequences.
The explicit driver for this partial privatisation of Irish public employment services is the inability of existing public services to support large numbers of long-term unemployed people back into the labour market.  Certainly, in a context of wide-ranging institutional and policy reform in labour-market activation, there are significant capacity issues such that the long-term unemployed and working-age social-welfare claimants outside the live register have not yet been targeted by activation programmes.  However, we need to be mindful that, elsewhere, such privatisation has been at least partially motivated by the desire to implement sanctions-driven ‘pay by result’ regimes which many public-sector and not-for-profit organisations have been reluctant or unable to deliver.
Activation policy now appears to be moving towards a ‘work first’ model that stresses job-search assistance with less emphasis on education and training. In many similar ‘work first’ and ‘pay by result’ régimes the most vulnerable of welfare claimants (people experiencing literacy, homelessness, addiction, domestic-violence, and mental health issues) are the most likely to experience sanctions.
This raises questions about the ethics of such activation regimes, reinforces the necessity of monitoring the new regime, and underscores the need  to advocate to support those vulnerable to sanctions. Irish society needs to publicly debate issues of sanctions, when they are reasonable and who should determine their application.
There is international evidence that ‘pay by results’ contracts can push claimants into low-paid, low-quality and temporary employment. This leads to recycling claimants into patterns of ‘low pay, no pay’,  as they move between poor-quality employment and welfare. ‘Pay by results’ contracts can of course require quality, ‘sustainable’ outcomes but the JobPath contracts appear ambiguous on this. Payment to the contractors is conditional on sustainable employment outcomes but a series of temporary job contracts qualifies as a ‘sustainable employment outcome’. Again, this needs to be monitored.
The design of JobPath, based on a ‘work first’ model, means the private-sector company or the individual claimant involved will directly pay for the option of training or education. This will likely mean fewer people being supported in education and training and a re-orientation to short-term and more vocational training. There will be less investment in options with potential to realise better long term sustainable  individual, societal and even economic outcomes.
There remains a significant challenge to facilitate access to activation supports (including childcare) to lone parents, people with disabilities and those who have been without employment for three years or more. The role of the Local Employment Service needs to be clarified on this, as does the future capacity of the statutory activation service Intreo to meet the needs of the long-term unemployed.
JobPath is just another instance of a wider trend towards privatisation of what were previously public services.
From refuse services to community development to home care,  many public services are now to be delivered by private for-profit actors. These changes have ostensibly happened as discrete individual decisions, sometimes for pragmatic reasons.
However, collectively, this pattern has a deep impact on what we understand as citizenship. It has practical effects that are often felt most by the vulnerable and powerless. This level of privatisation needs careful public monitoring and debate. We need to be vigilant to the intended and unintended cumulative consequences of this creeping privatisation. •

Dr Mary P Murphy lectures in the Department of Sociology,  Maynooth University