Written Answers. - Free Schemes.

Seymour Crawford

Question:

459 Mr. Crawford asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the number of applications for free schemes in hand in his Department; if he has sufficient personnel to deal with the situation; the number of weeks it takes to have applications processed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7542/01]

The free schemes administered by my Department comprise free travel, electricity-natural gas allowance, free television licence and telephone allowance. The number of claims for these schemes has grown significantly in recent years, due both to growth in the eligible population of clients and to progressive extensions of coverage to additional categories of people.

In the normal course, my Department would expect to receive some 104,000 claims this year under these schemes. In 2000, the Government significantly extended the electricity-gas and telephone allowance schemes to cover all persons over age 75, and to recipients of carer's allowance. This involved claims for the various allowances from some 21,300 additional new clients and from carers. This policy was continued in 2001 by the further extension of the free schemes to all those over 70 years of age. These further improvements are expected to benefit some 43,000 new clients resulting in the processing of 80,000 additional claims for the various allowances involved. An additional 10,000 claims are expected from new carer's allowance recipients as a result of changes in the means test for that group.

These improvements have given rise to a once-off high level of additional claims in 2000 and will do so again in the current year. Additional staff and overtime resources were applied by the Department to deal with the extra work volumes in 2000 and further resources are being assigned now to deal with the extra 2001 intake. The increased claim intake must be managed over a period of months and will inevitably have some short-term adverse effect on the service to all free scheme applicants until such time as the abnormal intake is processed.

At the end of February 2001, the latest date for which statistics are available, there were no backlogs of free travel scheme claims on hands. In relation to electricity-gas and telephone allowances 47% of all new claims are being awarded within seven weeks from date of claim receipt. The resources available are expected to be sufficient to process the additional claims work arising this year and to bring claim processing output progressively back to the target level of 70% awarded within seven weeks. In particular all those new clients over 75 who applied under the budget 2000 provisions have had their allowances credited to their utility bills with effect from the due date in October 2000. Claims being received from this group on an ongoing basis are being processed in the normal way as they arise.

The Department is continuing to monitor its ongoing staffing requirements in the free schemes and other operational areas in the light of claim volumes and other work priorities and in the light of the overall resources available.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

460 Ms O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will consider providing companion passes for single persons who qualify for a travel pass; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7546/01]

Companion free travel passes are available to certain people who qualify for free travel and who, on account of their disability, are unable to travel alone. The companion pass enables a person 16 years of age, or over, to accompany the pass holder free of charge. In addition, since September 1998, all people aged 75 years or over, who are unfit to travel alone, qualify for a companion free travel pass.

The review of the free schemes examined the issue of extending the companion free travel pass scheme further and noted that CIE has expressed concerns about the operation of the companion pass, in particular that anecdotal evidence would suggest that some pass holders are quite capable of travelling alone. In this regard, the review notes that companion passes should be issued only to people who have definite needs.

In view of the free travel scheme's objective to encourage recipients to remain mobile, the review recommends that a free travel companion pass should be issued to all people in receipt of invalidity pension who are unable to travel alone. This would standardise the qualifying conditions for a companion pass for both invalidity pension and disability allowance. This proposal, which has expenditure implications, will be considered in the context of future budgets.