Other Questions

Social Welfare Fraud

Micheál Martin

Question:

6Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Minister for Social Protection her plans for control savings this year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [20561/12]

The Department's control savings target for 2012 is €645 million with an associated target of reviewing 985,000 individual welfare claims. Control savings are a valuable performance indicator for the Department of year-on-year control activities and this year's targets will be kept under review during the coming months. It is important to point out that control savings are not actual moneys recovered by the Department, but an estimate of the value of the various control activities across the Department's schemes. They represent an estimate of the value of prevented future social welfare expenditure on claims that would have been incurred if this control work had not been conducted. They do not include any case where the customer voluntarily told the Department of a change in means or circumstances, leading to an adjustment to his or her rate of payment.

Actual moneys recovered arise where the Department has raised an overpayment in an individual case. In 2010, a total of 51,950 overpayments were assessed on scheme cases, amounting to €83.4 million. This represented 0.41% of total departmental expenditure. Overpayments arising from activity suspected of being fraudulent amounted to €25.9 million, representing less than 0.1% of total expenditure. The overpayments figures for 2011 will not be available until they are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

This morning, Deputy Sean Fleming and I discussed various additional targeted fraud initiatives, including the initiative that I launched for the 2011-13 period. It will target specific high risk areas through the work of the special investigations unit.

Additional Information not given on the floor of the House.

The Deputy may be familiar with the Department's 2011-13 fraud initiative, which sets out a range of actions to combat fraud and abuse of the social welfare system and to ensure public confidence and trust in the system. These actions will be reviewed periodically and updated, as required, given emerging trends. The consequences for social welfare fraud can be severe. Prosecutions may be taken against persons who defraud the social welfare system and employers who fail to carry out their statutory obligations. A person found guilty of abusing the social welfare system may be fined or imprisoned.

I am conscious of the need to protect public money and I am determined to ensure that abuse of the system is prevented or, where detected, dealt with effectively. With this in mind, I propose to give social welfare inspectors increased powers via the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2012, which is before the Oireachtas. The proposed new powers will enable inspectors to detect and combat social welfare fraud at ports and airports, make inquiries of landlords and require identity checks for social welfare claims.

I thank the Minister for her information and I am pleased by her confirmation that what is often referred to as a control saving as a result of fraud is not actually cash saved, but is instead a notional saving in a future year. Will the Minister identify some of the high risk areas in question? We discussed some of them this morning, including the 1,400 people at the ports and so on. Through publicity, any person who is chancing his or her arm in a particular area might know that those areas will be closely monitored.

I submitted a parliamentary question, but the Minister did not have the information with her. She might have it now. If a one-parent family is struck off because the parent is cohabiting, that person could immediately move on to jobseeker's allowance or become an adult dependant under someone else's claim. The Department would count the savings from removing that person from one set of payments, yet he or she might have moved into a different category of payment by the next morning. Is there a real saving? Where there is a suspicion of fraud, has the Department a mechanism whereby it can follow up with people to determine whether they have moved on to different payments?

I can cite an example of some of the targeted examinations conducted by social welfare inspectors. Last June, 320 clients were visited, of whom 99 were called for further interview. A total of 43 clients had their payments suspended - 18 for not attending their interviews, 16 for no longer being at the addresses stated and nine for non-compliance with requests to supply information, for instance, rent and mortgage data. This work generated savings of €140,000.

Last April, there was a selective signing initiative at social welfare local offices. A total of 900 persons were required to attend for signing and interviewing in the course of two days and to present photographic ID and documentation. Of the 900 invited, 730 attended. Seventy non-attendees were excused, 36 people had found work, 37 people's claims were closed and 13 persons admitted to working casually or temporarily. This accrued a saving of just over €300,000.

Under the non-residency project, approximately 2,800 people received home visits and were interviewed about their claim status. A total of 308 claims were terminated as a result of the special investigations unit's work, generating savings of €3.24 million. A cleaning company received an on-site inspection to determine whether everyone working for it was registered for tax and insurance. Much of this type of work is done in conjunction with the Revenue Commissioners and is called feet on the street.

I have listened to the debate on control savings, but will the Minister answer two short questions? Does she agree that the figure for fraud is €25 million, approximately 0.1% of the entire budget? Is it correct to state that the figure of €645 million, the latest figure devised by the Minister and her Department, was arrived at through the bizarre logic of assuming a situation in which no controls or inspections were initially in place? As the economist Mr. Michael Taft stated, this is like the Garda estimating the number of murders that might take place were there no police force. The overpayment element of control measures equated to €80 million and fraud accounted for €25 million. It is a long way from the €650 million cited by the Minister.

Is the Deputy saying in a roundabout way that he does not believe there is any fraud in the system?

I said fraud cost €25 million and I called for more inspectors.

The vast majority of people who claim social welfare entitlements are absolutely honest but, to return to the example of the special projects I outlined to Deputy Fleming, if Revenue and social welfare inspectors visited a building site on which somebody from the North of Ireland is working it would not be possible without massive surveillance to determine how long he or she has been there. Generally, one will be told that the individual just started working that day.

That is NERA's job.

We also co-operate with NERA on many of these inter-agency issues. However, we do not have a way of proving that an individual was working at a site for longer than he or she suggests. The saving on the control side comes from preventing that person from claiming in the future because he or she has on examination been discovered to have made an improper claim. There is no capacity in that case to prove fraud. In other cases, people have welcomed that the Department contacted them on, for example, the lone parent allowance because they had paid PRSI previously and they wanted to know that it was being properly spent on pensions, child benefit, etc.

If a recipient is no longer at the address he or she supplied to the Department, Deputy Fleming will be familiar with the basic auditing procedure of writing a letter to determine whether the payment should be discontinued. I am not saying that a significant number of people are acting this way, merely that there is a level of fraud in the system and it is important to implement measures to reduce it. If one is making payments to people which are no longer appropriate because of fraud or any other reason, one saves on future expenditure by discontinuing them. That is an internationally accepted measure.

Social Welfare Code

Dessie Ellis

Question:

7Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Social Protection her response to the all-party Oireachtas committee report on the single working age payments recommendation that carer’s should not be included in a single working age payment. [20602/12]

Dessie Ellis

Question:

15Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Social Protection her response to the all-party Oireachtas committee report on the single working age payments recommendation that the value of the existing earnings disregards secondary benefit and means or capital allowances be maintained; and if she will offer a commitment to that effect. [20603/12]

Pearse Doherty

Question:

18Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Social Protection her response to the all-party Oireachtas committee report on the single working age payments recommendation that the current rules preventing access to activation programmes by recipients of one parent family parent, disability allowance, carer’s allowance and qualified adult dependent, for example, rules that a period of time must be spent on jobseeker’s allowance before one can be eligible to participate, should be removed; and her plans regarding same. [20605/12]

Seán Crowe

Question:

28Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Social Protection her response to the all-party Oireachtas Committee report on the single working age payment recommendation that she not proceed with the proposal for a single working age payment at this time. [20601/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

32Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Minister for Social Protection her response to the all-party Oireachtas committee report on the single working age payments recommendation that any programme of social welfare reform must be driven by an explicit anti-poverty and gender equality objective; and the steps she will take to ensure this becomes the case. [20604/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 15, 18, 28 and 32 together.

The Department of Social Protection has been exploring the option of a single payment for some time and published the report on the desirability and feasibility of introducing a single assistance payment for people of working age in November 2010.

The single working age assistance payment or single payment is a proposal to create a single social welfare payment that would cover all people of working age, including those who are currently classified as unemployed, with a disability or parenting alone.

The introduction of a single payment could potentially be a key development in the pursuit of a more focused and purposeful activation agenda delivered through the national employment and entitlement service, NEES. The single payment would provide recipients with access to the supports or services they need to enable them take up employment or avail of education and training opportunities, thereby producing better outcomes. The single payment would also be an opportunity to address the current complexity of Ireland's social welfare system by streamlining a number of different payments for people of working age, thereby making it more transparent and accessible.

I have noted the all-party Oireachtas committee report on the single payment and its recommendations. Given the specific nature and purpose of carer's allowance, the Government has decided to exclude it from any single payment proposals. However, I wish to emphasise that no other decisions have been made regarding the structure of the single payment or whether to proceed with its introduction.

Proposals on the single payment will be further developed by the Department over the coming months. The other recommendations of the all-party report will be considered in the course of this process. The outcome of the process will be considered by Government later this year.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that the carer's allowance will be excluded. It was excluded when the Department originally considered this matter but it reappeared subsequently. I ask for clarification on the half-rate payment and whether all carer's allowances will be excluded. There are two different types of half-rate payments, one for care of a second person and the other for those who also receive other payments.

The Government has decided that recipients of the carer's allowance will be excluded from the single payment given that they are providing full-time care. Recipients of the half-time carer's allowance are generally either in receipt of another payment or are in part-time employment. The decision will depend on their situation but the decision includes carers generally.

The carer's allowance is fundamentally different from other schemes in terms of its objectives and measurement of a successful outcome. The underlying premise of the single payment is that people are available for work even if there are barriers such as disability or lack of child care, training or education. The success of the single working age payment is dependent on the availability of services of an appropriate nature. However, the underlying premise of the carer's allowance is that people are not available for work because they are providing full-time care and attention for someone assessed as needing care. The desired outcome is that they continue to receive carer's allowance as long as they continue to provide care.

In terms of public policy, all parties in this House recognise the valuable contribution that carers make to family members who are ill or require special attention, whether children or elderly relatives. The carer's allowance is not specifically a working age payment because it is available to anyone over the age of 18.

This is a significant announcement which I think will be welcomed by carers' associations. The report of the joint committee recommended that carers should be able to opt in to the single payment. The logic behind the recommendation was that a carer could thereby access activation measures where the relative was so ill that he or she was about to be hospitalised or institutionalise.

That is a matter I am prepared to consider but we have until now confined our deliberations to the principle of the single payment and the significant role of carers.

Social Welfare Appeals

Willie O'Dea

Question:

8Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection the waiting times for appeals in her Department; the measures she has taken to address this issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [20570/12]

I am advised by the social welfare appeals office that, based on figures for the first quarter of 2012, the average waiting time for appeals dealt with by summary decisions was 22.4 weeks, and 40.9 weeks for those that required an oral hearing. The comparable times for 2011 were 25 weeks and 52.5 weeks, respectively. In this regard I have already circulated to all Deputies a report on the performance in the first quarter.

These processing times are calculated from the registration date of the appeal to the date of its finalisation. They include all activities during this period including time spent in the Department for comments by the deciding officer on the grounds of appeal put forward by the appellant, and any further investigation, examination or assessment by the Department's inspectors and medical assessors that is deemed necessary. A considerable period of time is added to the process when an oral hearing is required because of the logistics involved in this process. By its nature and because it is a quasi-judicial function, the processing of appeals takes time even at the best of times and reflects the fact that, by definition, the appeal process cannot be a quick one. It is also necessary to arrange locations for interviews and so on.

In an effort to reduce the processing times, the Department appointed 12 additional appeals officers between 2010 and 2011. In addition, a further ten appeals officers, formerly employed by the community welfare service of the HSE joined the office as part of the integration of the community welfare service appeals services into the social welfare appeals office. This brought the total number of appeals officers to 39. In addition to this, the office has improved its business processes and IT support.

I am assured by the chief appeals officer that she is keeping the methods of operation by which the social welfare appeals office conducts its business under constant review, and that the processes are continually being enhanced to reduce the backlogs in the office and, overall, to reduce the processing times for dealing with appeals. Progress is being made.

I understand that appeals take time. One of the main issues with which we deal in our constituency clinics is the amount of time it takes for an oral hearing especially when a medical report or additional medical information is required. Some time ago a report indicated that in approximately 50% of the cases going to the appeals office, something is granted by that office. In other words, the decision is changed to some extent. That begs the question for the poor individual who was left depending on a community welfare officer payment for the extra 44 weeks or a year or more as the case may be. They need to pay for what according to the appeals officer was possibly a wrong decision by the Department in the first place. Can the Department learn from the cases being decided in an appeals office to try to get the right answer the first time around? That would be the best way to reduce the delays in the appeals office. It is not just about staff but to reduce the volume of cases going there, which can be done by getting a more accurate decision by the Department in the first place.

In 2008 there were 15,700 appeals and in 2011 there were 34,000, indicating that the volume of appeals has more than doubled. For the first time since 2008, in 2011 - particularly in the latter part - we have begun to make serious improvements in the processing times, particularly on new applications. IT improvements are being made and much of that work will be completed by June. Because of the quasi-judicial function, in 2011 a root and branch review of the process within the appeals office was carried to identify causes of logjams and to ensure the operating model in the appeals office is fit for purpose. The basic principle underlying the review was to gain efficiencies and improve the services to customers. The outcome of the review indicated that the process where there is a two-stage consideration of each file, where the file is vetted and either a summary decision is made or where an oral hearing is required, the placing of the file in a new queuing arrangement to be listed for oral hearing, was causing unnecessary delay and lacked transparency.

A new model was devised and has been implemented. An officer is now assigned a caseload and he or she will either decide the case summarily or if an oral hearing is warranted will take the case to oral hearing. The benefits of the new process are that it will be quicker for the person applying and there will be no second queue. The appeals office will be in a position to give an appellant an indicative timeframe for a decision once a file has been assigned. There is less file movement and ownership of a caseload by an appeals officer carries an incentive to process the caseload in the most effective way. However, it is still a work in progress to try to improve it.

My question is on a related issue. Because appeals take so long, people then approach the community welfare officer thereby adding to the bureaucracy. The sooner those backlogs in appeals are dealt with the less the bureaucracy in the Department as a whole. More reviews of different payments happen resulting in a logjam in them also. There are logjams in internal reviews in benefits such as the domiciliary care allowance and family income supplement. In some cases the payments stop and people go without a payment, which is a bad habit.

I would be very concerned about the domiciliary care allowance because I know it is so important to parents. We have already introduced new arrangements. For instance when a case is due for review, the parents now get three months' notice that the review is to take place. They will then get a further two months to make submissions through their medical advisers or other advisers. From now on when a person is granted a domiciliary care allowance and if there is to be a review date, that review date is indicated. The system I found when I came to the Department did not provide for that. The first stage when parents get the domiciliary care allowance is advising them there will be a review and when that review is likely to take place. When the review date is approaching they are then given three months' notice and then two months. That should considerably improve the capacity of parents to be able to deal with this in a reasonable period of time because I am aware how important it is. We are also carrying out other in-depth reviews and I will revert to the Deputy when that work is complete.

Social Welfare Benefits

John Browne

Question:

9Deputy John Browne asked the Minister for Social Protection the changes that have been implemented in the eligibility for disability allowance; if additional tests are being undertaken by her Department; the numbers affected by changes; the numbers refused in 2010, 2011 and to date in 2012 as a percentage of total applications; the savings involved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [20546/12]

No changes have been implemented in recent years to the underlying eligibility conditions for disability allowance. The budget 2012 proposals relating to disability allowance have been referred to the independent advisory group on tax and social welfare, under the chairmanship of the barrister, Ms Ita Mangan. I expect the review will be completed by September 2012.

Disability allowance is a means-tested payment for people with a specified disability whose income falls below certain limits and who are aged more than 16 and less than 66, and are habitually resident in the State. Expenditure in 2011 was more than €1 billion in respect of some 103,000 recipients.

A person's means are assessed to determine the rate of payment he or she is entitled to receive. The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes, including disability allowance and child benefit with effect from 1 May 2004. A person who does not satisfy the habitual residence condition is not eligible for specified social welfare payments, including disability allowance, regardless of citizenship, nationality, immigration status or any other factor. The purpose of this condition is to safeguard the social welfare system from abuse by restricting access for people who are not economically active and who have little or no established connection with Ireland.

The number of claims for disability allowance refused for any reasons in 2010, 2011 and to end of March 2012 was 10,316, 14,116 and 3,458 respectively. The percentages of claims refused in 2010, 2011 and the first quarter of 2012 were 54%, 58% and 60%, respectively. These statistics refer to initial decisions only and do not reflect cases that were subsequently allowed following a deciding officer's review of additional information or evidence supplied, or following a determination by an appeals officer of the Social Welfare Appeals Office. The appeals office tells me that a total of 4,758 disability allowance appeals were determined by appeals officers in 2011, of which 1,830, or 38%, were successful or partly successful and 2,928, or 62%, were not successful.

The Minister has actually given us the answer that most people wanted to know, even though she said officially there was no additional test. She has proved the point I wanted to make in the question by saying that in 2010 the percentage of disability allowance claims that were refused was 54%, in 2011 it was 58% and in the first three months of this year it has risen to 60%. The figure is obviously rising. In a two-year period the percentage of claims being refused has risen from 50% to more than 60%. That is the change I am talking about. She did not change the rules, but she changed the method used to make the decisions.

Some of these were summary decisions. What category of staff members made these decisions? Were they made by medically qualified people? It is a medical issue. How many medical staff are dealing with claims of this nature, such as disability allowance and invalidity pension? Are these medical staff qualified doctors, occupational therapists or similar? Could the Minister specify the categories of staff that have increased the number of claims refused by 20% in the last two years?

As I said to the Deputy earlier, the number of applications has continued to rise, particularly over the past six or seven years. Obviously the major increase in the volume of applications has put the system under pressure. The people who carry out assessments are medical assessors, who are qualified medical personnel, generally with training and experience in occupational medicine. It is open to anyone to submit an application for disability allowance; each application is examined by the Department and a decision made based on its merits. The OECD has international statistics showing that in times of recession and high unemployment, although the incidence of absenteeism through illness tends to fall - perhaps reflecting a more precarious labour market - people may make more applications for disability allowance because of long-term unemployment and certain medical problems. This is recognised internationally.

The illness and disability schemes have seen substantial rises in both recipient numbers and expenditure over the last decade. Total expenditure on short and long-term illness and disability schemes has increased from €1.1 billion in 2001 to €2.1 billion in 2006 and €2.7 billion in 2011, while the number in receipt of these payments has increased from 173,000 in 2001 to 216,000 in 2006 and 242,000 in 2011. There has been an enormous increase in the number of people participating in the different schemes.

The Minister mentioned that 38% of refusals were overturned on appeal. That is a large figure which the Department should be concerned about and should attempt to address.

When will the Minister confirm she is not going ahead with the changes to the disability allowance for 18 to 24 year olds? She pressed pause at Christmas but did not say it definitely would not go ahead.

The purpose of the change was as follows. Under the current system, eligible 16 year olds begin to receive disability payments in their own right. I know the Deputy supports that, but my view is that between the ages of 16 and 18 the child is still dependent and therefore the payment should be made to the parents. I know the Deputy disagrees with me on this. Many parents who have a child with a disability have expressed the view to me that it is not the best thing for a child of 16 to receive a full disability payment in his or her own right, and that it should be made to the parent. The Deputy has a different view, but I think it is far better to make the payment to the parents until the child is 18. In fact, some children with severe disabilities are reliant on their parents far beyond that age. It is important that we recognise the authority and role of parents with regard to their under-18 children. When the report is presented by the advisory group, I will bring it to the Government and then to the House.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.