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.