Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for allowing me to raise this issue. I am disappointed that the Minister for Social Protection is not present. She is detained elsewhere. I welcomed her announcement of a couple of weeks ago to the effect that people who were in receipt of social welfare payments and wanted to work during the Christmas period would easily be able to resume those payments. However, the real problem is not with the Christmas period, but with the entire year.

This issue was raised with me by a recruitment company in Kildare. It has approximately 1,000 people on its database. Many of those are on short-term contracts and doing part-time work. The company is being asked to fill in forms for the social welfare office. The form requires it to declare the hours people will work for the weeks ahead, but it is not able to make that prediction. If it writes “Zero” as requested, yet the people work in those weeks, they could be accused of fraudulently taking payments.

The company cannot find indigenous people to take these short-term work contracts. As a result, people who are not on the welfare system are primarily being employed. I am referring to people who come to this country and take advantage of the short-term, flexible hours. Make no mistake about it – the Irish want to work, be it for short or long terms. We must be able to provide sufficient flexibility.

If the Minister’s statement is policy, it must be implemented by every office. What she wants must be acted upon by the Department. We must allow people who want to work for short terms and flexible periods to return to the social welfare system as quickly as possible. Otherwise, we are deterring people from returning to the workforce. The Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, knows as well as I do that, for the sake of their mental health, most people would rather work for two, four or six hours instead of sitting at home staring at the walls or watching television.

If it is policy to allow people to return to the social welfare system as quickly as possible, it must be implemented by all sections of the Department of Social Protection. I will appreciate the Minister of State’s response.

Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (Deputy Dinny McGinley): I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Regardless of the time of year, people on jobseeker schemes should not have any concern about taking up temporary work for fear of delays in getting back into payment when the jobs are finished.

In cases where a jobseeker customer takes up temporary work for a short period or avails of a short-term training course, arrangements are in place to suspend temporarily the claim so that it can be reinstated without delay when the work or training finishes. Effectively, the jobseeker’s claim is kept open while the person works, although the payment is obviously stopped for the period. This temporary suspension, which was originally set at a maximum of four weeks, was increased to eight weeks in 2012 and in March 2013 it was further extended to 26 weeks for educational sector workers. The arrangements are put in place once the customer notifies the Intreo social welfare local office of an offer of temporary work.

In the 11 months from January to November 2013, the temporary suspension has been used on 49,000 occasions. This compares with less than 14,600 in 2012. Even where a person does not avail of these special arrangements, payment can be reinstated within a very short timeframe. For example, in November 2013, almost 35% of all jobseeker claims were awarded on the day the application was received, and these are cases where the special provisions for periods of temporary work were not availed of by the customer. In summary, if a person on a jobseeker’s payment gets an offer of a job for up to eight weeks or gets a chance to go on a training course, they should give the details to their Intreo social welfare local office as soon as possible. The office will be glad to make the arrangements to fast track the claim back into payment when the time arrives.

Although the arrangements for temporary suspension of claims are in place all year round, the Minister recently issued a reminder of the arrangements to all Members of the Oireachtas in view of the increase in opportunities for temporary work at this time of year. The Department constantly reviews its operational procedures to ensure the best possible service for its customers. If the Deputy has a particular case in mind where payment has been delayed unnecessarily, the Minister will be glad to have the case examined by the Department on receiving details from him.

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I welcome that the Minister is willing to meet with the individual, but it is not an individual in this case but a company that recruits individuals for jobs in various other companies. The recruitment company has a problem recruiting individuals for jobs in companies it has on its books. The problem is that people are scared because it takes them so long to get back on the live register after they have come off it. I understand the arrangement whereby they can come off the register temporarily, but the social welfare office asks them to indicate the hours they will work in the weeks ahead. One cannot do that if one’s job is temporary, and people are worried that they might be accused of fraudulently taking money from the Department of Social Protection.

I welcome the fact that officials in the Department are willing to meet with this company to discuss the issues it has, but it is very important, now that we are generating a far more flexible workforce, that we have a social welfare system that is able to cater for that workforce. I hope all social welfare offices throughout the country are doing what the Minister actually wants them to do.

Deputy Dinny McGinley: As the Minister indicated in the reply I delivered on her behalf, if there is a case to be dealt with, be it individual or general, it will be assessed. The Deputy will agree that the Minister’s approach in this has been very flexible. Times have been extended and the response to applications for reinstatement is almost immediate. If the Deputy has the details, I will pass them to the Minister.