I propose to take Questions Nos. 38 and 67 together.
I am informed by the social welfare appeals office that 26,000 appeals were received in 2009. This compares to the average number received over the previous four years of 15,000. At the end of 2009, 16,000 appeals were on hand and that figure has now risen to 20,300. In previous years, that number would have been in the region of 5,000 to 6,000.
I understand that during 2009, the average time taken to process all appeals, that is those decided summarily and by way of oral hearing, was 24 weeks. However, if allowance is made for the 25% most protracted cases, the average time falls to 15.8 weeks. This represents an increase of two weeks in the time taken to process appeals when compared to 2008.
Supplementary welfare allowance is a payment of last resort and, therefore, appeals for this scheme are given priority by the social welfare appeals office. The average time for processing these in 2009 were 6.5 weeks for cases dealt with on a summary basis, and 10.5 weeks where an oral hearing was required.
During 2010, changes have been made to the organisation of an appeals officer's work with a view to having a greater number of appeals dealt with by way of summary decision and in a more speedy fashion. As a result of these changes, the average time to deal with summary decisions on supplementary welfare allowance cases has reduced to 4.7 weeks, while the time taken to deal with oral hearings for this scheme has increased to 13 weeks.
While the significant growth in the number of appeals is clearly impacting on processing times, it must also be remembered that the processing time for appeals covers all phases of the appeal process, including the submission by the Department of its comments on the grounds for the appeal, further examination by the Department's medical assessors in certain appeal cases and further investigation by social welfare inspectors where required. Circumstances may also arise where further information is sought from the appellant. Delays can also occur where the appellant submits new information or evidence, often at an advanced stage in the proceedings. In some cases adjournments may be sought by appellants or their representatives.
A number of initiatives are under way which are designed to enhance the capacity of the office to deal with the current caseload and inflows. In that regard, two additional appeals officers were assigned to the office in 2009; a number of additional staff are being assigned to the administration area of the office; the organisation of the work of the appeals officer has been changed so as to increase productivity; a project to improve the business processes in the office is under way and a number of improvements have already been implemented; and significant enhancements are being made to the office's IT and phone systems.
Notwithstanding these measures, it is clear that additional staff are required in the short term to address the backlog that has developed. It has been decided to use experienced retired staff strictly on a short-term basis to supplement the current resources and the services of eight retired officers have now been secured on a part-time basis. To facilitate this initiative, the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010, which is on Committee Stage, includes an amendment to allow these retired officers to decide appeal cases. The chief appeals officer is closely monitoring the situation.