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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 1 Mar 1989

Vol. 387 No. 8

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Means Tests.


asked the Minister for Social Welfare the number of means tests in operation in his Department for the purpose of assessing the financial circumstances of claimants; the number of means tests carried out during each of the past three years; the number of staff involved in this work; and if he will make a statement on the matter.


asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will introduce a self-assessment means test for those welfare payments which currently require means testing; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 and 24 together.

There are eleven social assistance payment schemes operated by my Department, entitlement to which depends on a means test. A number of these schemes, for example, widow's non-contributory pension and deserted wife's allowance apply a similar means test. In some cases entitlement under one scheme carries with it entitlement to additional benefits, for example, fuel allowance in the case of certain recipients of long-term social assistance payments.

Means testing for schemes administered by my Department is carried out by 235 social welfare officers attached to the Department's inspection branch. The number of social assistance claims referred to that branch in the last three years was as follows: 1986 219,856; 1987 227,249 and 1988 234,084. These would include referrals of new claims for means investigation and of existing claims for review of means. They would also include referrals of claim for review of conditions other than means and it is not possible to say what proportion of the referrals in each year related only to means.

It has generally been the practice to have means investigations for all claims carried out at the home of the claimant and this has advantages from the point of view of verifying the circumstances of claimants and also of being able to discuss with claimants the different conditions applying to the schemes. In the context of reviewing the means testing arrangements, however, I have identified certain categories where home visits are not necessary and for some unemployment assistance claimants assessments are now carried out at the Department's local office. Furthermore a measure of self-assessment has been introduced under the family income supplement scheme with entitlement being established on the basis of statements from claimants accompanied by appropriate evidence and with investigations by social welfare officers in only a proportion of cases. The question as to whether self-assessment would be appropriate for other schemes where the conditions for entitlement are more complex is under examination. In addition the possibility of using to a greater extent information supplied for the purpose of one scheme to determine entitlement under other schemes is also under examination.

I thank the Minister for at least examining the possibility of self assessment. Would he agree that if it is appropriate for people in this country to use self assessment for tax purposes surely the most deprived section of the community should be entitled to self assessment for social welfare purposes and obviously have stiff penalties included? Would the Minister agree that in addition to the schemes operated by his Department for means testing the health boards have separate schemes and local authorities have other schemes for analysing the amount of money that is needed for differential rents and that this is a waste of the State's resources? Would he agree that at a minimum there should be one central body involved in means testing claimants or applicants for State benefits? Would be further agree that the sooner we move to a self-assessment system the more effective and the less degrading it will be for applicants for State benefits?

The issues involved differ. I agree with the Deputy that as far as possible the assessments should be done by one body. This is being done to a certain extent and we are trying to increase the extent to which it is being done between the Department of Social Welfare and the health boards and also in relation to local authorities. It is a matter which needs a good deal more work. I agree with the Deputy that the question of self assessment is feasible. It should be extended but there are limits. Over the years we have had examples of assessments which were quite different and which were seen not to indicate the people who were most likely to be eligible or in need of the benefits. Leaving aside the fact that some control is necessary I would agree broadly with the Deputy.

Would the Minister not accept that there is an unanswerable case to be made for a system of single means testing? This whole business, as Deputy Harney has pointed out, of applicants traipsing around from social welfare officers about their benefits to the health board officer for a medical card, to another health board officer for supplementary welfare, while awaiting social welfare money, and to the corporation or the council about their rents — each time they must go through a detailed examination as to their means — is degrading and costly for the applicant who has to travel to each of these offices and is immensely expensive to the State. Would the Minister not accept that there is now a case to be made for the introduction of a single means test? When I raised this issue previously he indicated that an inter-departmental committee was sitting. Can the Minister tell me whether this inter-departmental committee has been doing anything other than sitting on this issue? Have they produced any recommendations or results?

If the Deputy put down a question he would get more detail.

We are continually reviewing, revising, altering and updating schemes. If Deputies look at what has happened in social welfare in the last few years they will recognise that there has been a phenomenal change in upgrading in many aspects of my Department's work. That goes back to computerisation. I recall that in 1985, 80,000 claims were dealt with on computer in a year, now 2.2 million are dealt with in a year. It has probably been one of the greatest changes of any major organisation in the country. I have introduced the whole concept of the one-stop shop. These one-stop shops are developing throughout the country and are based on the concept mentioned by the Deputy of doing as much as possible in one place. We have introduced desk interviews for unemployment assistance where we talk to somebody over the desk and say: "We will take your word for that, that is the situation, off you go and we will pay you unemployment assistance right away." A tremendous amount of work is being done at a time when my Department's staff are under great pressure. That is the reality. Some compliment to the staff of the Department could be in order for the extent to which they are updating, modernising and meeting the kinds of requirements that are being suggested here in the House.

There is no criticism of the staff. The criticism is of the Minister.

Question No. 13 please. Deputy Harney is offering. A brief final question please?

I would ask the Minister to ask his officers to be particularly sensitive when means testing applicants for deserted wife's or unmarried mother's allowances.

All the officers of my Department are asked to be sensitive when dealing with any of the cases. They have a difficult job. In relation to some of the areas there has been an enormous increase in the numbers involved. There is a number of different kinds of fraud in existence. The officers have to go out on behalf of the House, the country and the Department and find these things out. If they did not do that work they would not be doing their job properly. It is not a pleasant job and I will certainly convey the Deputy's views to the Department.

May I ask the Minister in simple form if for social welfare recipients, after they make application and during the period to the date of assessment and payment, he might consider making a standard payment which could be adjusted after the means testing has been completed rather than sending them into community welfare officers who go through a whole rigmarole?

A standard payment in what circumstances?

That they would be paid after they make the application.

They may not be eligible at all. Unfortunately, thousands of people make applications who are not eligible. Another difficulty is that officers are not entitled to pay out money unless they have a reasonable certainty about eligibility. If a person is clearly——

The welfare officer has to pay them and it has to be recouped.

They have separate authority and they do their own assessment as the Deputy is aware. The whole question of community welfare and social welfare is being considered as to the relationship between the two. It is a very big change and that is being actively considered at present.

Is not the ideal solution that all income support systems should actually be run directly by the Department of Social Welfare? That would solve the problem, in the same way as treatment benefit schemes should be run by the Department of Health. If that were the case the Minister would not be in his present pickle with the dentists but, however, we will leave that aside. If income support schemes were run directly by the Department of Social Welfare would that not get rid of much of the duplication?

The Deputy should take note that we treated 350,000 people in the treatment benefit scheme last year.

The Minister is defending his empire.

350,000 people were treated in a very efficient highly computerised modern scheme in which all the eligibility was determined by the contributions because they are paying for the scheme. Let us not forget that it is the employers and the employees who are actually paying for this scheme, therefore, their eligibility arises through social welfare.

The Minister is at variance with the commission.

In relation to income support systems generally that is a matter that can be considered further and it is being considered actively in relation to supplementary welfare allowance.

Question No. 13, please.