Topical Issue Debate

Social Welfare Benefits

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and his office for selecting this item, a matter which is affecting many thousands of people and many of my constituents in the Lucan and greater Clondalkin areas. Today, my attention was drawn to a powerful speech by our President in America. He referred to the anger felt in Ireland at the betrayal of trust by individuals and institutions that characterised the Celtic tiger economy. One may ask what this has to do with delays in social welfare payments, but I believe it has a great deal to do with them.

I understand the legislation that governs social welfare claims is section 241 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and that this is being reviewed and debated in the House at present. I welcome the Minister's plan for an integrated service for jobseekers which seeks the merger of community welfare officers from the HSE, the employment services of FÁS and the jobseekers section of the Department of Social Protection. I am also aware the Minister has inherited more than 1,000 community welfare officers in the Department of Social Protection this year.

The reality is that if the Minister or I were so unfortunate as to become ill and we did not have the means, our applications would take up to 17 weeks to process. It takes up to three months or more in the majority of cases and if an appeal is involved, it could take up to 40 weeks. Since there is a shortage of staff in the investigation division, some appeals have gone beyond 60 weeks in cases involving an oral hearing, to which every person is entitled.

I wish to bring another major issue to the attention of the House. Let us consider applications for the various entitlements, including carer's allowance, disability allowance, family income supplement, invalidity pension, etc. A major and significant factor in the processing of these applications is the location of the applicant and the office. For example, I understand applications being dealt with in Tallaght and Clondalkin are from local offices as far away as Clondalkin and Galway. This is causing considerable delays in the local offices. In addition, there are no local offices in some regions. This is the case in such areas as Lucan, Saggart, Newcastle and Rathcoole in my constituency.

I refer to the matter of casual work. Let us suppose a person is on social welfare payments or has a pending welfare payment and that person has an opportunity of casual work, short-term work, weekend work or several hours of work per week. This complicates the system. Many people have been advised not to take up certain opportunities to work because it would complicate the process and may impinge on one's social welfare allowance or one's pending supplementary welfare allowance. Such a person may lose that allowance. Something must be done to address these circumstances. Since people are refusing a small amount of work and there are delays in welfare applications, they are visiting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in an effort to find food and to have food paid for to survive. This is the reality for many today. I realise the Government has inherited the situation and we should not lose sight of that fact. This makes the challenge all the greater.

There is a three month waiting time for the family income supplement for the working poor as well. There are more than 8,500 applicants awaiting an answer. Organisations such as MABS have been inundated with 7,500 new cases. Of the 29 free legal aid centres, a total of 22 are unable to meet the current client lists. Charities are being inundated with requests for help. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton.

The Department is committed to ensuring claims are processed as expeditiously as possible. Schemes that require a high level of documentary evidence from the customer, especially in the case of illness related schemes, can take longer to process. Similarly, means-tested payments may also require more detailed investigation and interaction with the applicant, thereby lengthening the decision process. As part of the Department's programme of service delivery modernisation, a range of initiatives aimed at streamlining the processing of claims, supported by modern technology, have been implemented in recent years. For example, all State pension contributory and non-contributory claims are now processed, decided and maintained on the new processing system. New claims for carer's and disability allowance are also decided on the new processing system, with existing claims due to transfer to the new system in quarters two and four of this year, respectively. Operational processes, procedures and the organisation of work are continually reviewed to ensure processing capability is maximised.

The staffing needs of the Department are regularly reviewed, having regard to workloads and the competing demands arising to ensure the best use is made of all available resources. The Department will continue to source available staff to fill critical vacancies by way of redeployment or transfer from within the Department and other Departments, taking account of the employment control framework target as determined by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Since May 2008, some 990 staff have been assigned to the Department to fill critical vacancies and additional posts allocated to deal with the increased volume of claims. Taking into account the numbers of staff who have left the Department and the numbers of vacancies, a net total of 226 additional staff has been assigned to the Department. The Department also makes judicious use of overtime and employs temporary staff as appropriate to address particular service issues as they arise.

Regarding the Social Welfare Appeals Office, I am advised that based on figures for the first quarter of this year 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 last year were 25 weeks and 52.5 weeks, respectively. 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. The considered processing of appeals must take an appropriate amount of time and cannot be unduly rushed due to the quasi-judicial nature of the work.

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, CWS, of the Health Service Executive joined the office as part of the integration of the CWS appeals services into the Social Welfare Appeals Office. This brought the total number of appeals officers to 39. In addition to that, 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. The Minister is satisfied that progress is being made. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

I thank the Minister of State and the Minister because this is a helpful report. I welcome some aspects of the report. Clearly, the flexibility shown by staff in dealing with some of the issues that arise requiring immediate responses is helpful. The introduction of more modern technology leads to greater efficiency. In particular, I welcome the reduction in the average waiting time although I am sure the Minister of State would agree that other cases will arise that will take much longer.

The Minister may not be in a position to answer this question but notwithstanding the crisis this issue continues to present for quite a number of families, will she take back to the Minister my request that a working group be set up to examine the position? For many people this is a crisis situation in the Department and a working group to monitor it and try to resolve something that is causing hardship for many families might be a short-term solution but might also bring about a quicker resolution to the problem.

I acknowledge the points made by the Deputy. There is definitely an issue regarding casual work and a need for greater flexibility to allow people take up whatever work is offered to them. Equally, the high number of medical appeals that are upheld would indicate there are difficulties at the deciding stage regarding claims that entail medical evidence. That is an issue that must be addressed.

On the Deputy's proposal for a working group, I am happy to take that back to the Minister for Social Protection.

Broadcasting Services

I welcome the Minister. He will be aware of the plans and consideration given to closing RTE's London office in September of this year. I applaud the fact that RTE is taking its cost saving measures seriously. At a time when all businesses are rationalising and examining cost benefit analyses there is no reason RTE should be any different. However, leaving aside the rationalisation aspect, the political perspective in terms of what we signed up to in 1998 is that we have a North-South and an east-west dimension. To digress somewhat, the RTE office in Belfast enhanced its services following the agreement in 1998 but there is an east-west dimension also. We now have a British-Irish Council office, with its secretariat set up in Edinburgh. We are examining enhanced co-operation, building on existing good relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and there is a political perspective in that regard, especially in light of the BBC offices located in London, throughout the United Kingdom and also in Belfast. It also has an office in RTE at Donnybrook.

My point is about journalistic perspective. While we must rationalise, and if that means closing an office I will agree with it if there are savings to be made, we still must have journalistic perspective. I am not a journalist but it will not be good enough if we contemplate introducing a reactionary journalistic perspective to the United Kingdom. It will be inexplicable if we decide to take the human resource out of the United Kingdom. We can consider different permutations in terms of how that can be done. We can examine the model in Donnybrook where the BBC has a desk and also the possibility of an RTE desk being facilitated in London. That is an issue on which we must think outside the box.

I support Deputy Joe McHugh's comments. In asking the Minister for an update on the plans to close the RTE office in London I ask him also for his views on that in light of the role that office has played in the coverage of British-Irish relations, including the steps taken jointly by both countries in respect of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The RTE office in London has covered milestones in British-Irish relations which were important to the peace process. They include the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration and meetings held over the years between the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach.

A bedrock of good quality public broadcasting is news. Talent shows and celebrity quests come and go but the news is the solid part of a public broadcaster or any good quality television station.

Regarding British-Irish relations, I chair the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which Senator George Mitchell attended on Friday last. One of the points he made was that the Good Friday Agreement was the end of the beginning. In agreements on peace processes it is often the implementation that is the difficult part. Much work remains to be done regarding British-Irish relations. Many parts of the Agreement remain to be implemented and many issues remain to be addressed, and the role of RTE in covering all of those is extremely important.

There is a need to respect the fact that many people on this island have a strong connection with Britain due to our history and through emigration. Unionists in Northern Ireland and on the island as a whole identify with Britain. Approximately 113,000 British citizens live in this state. The Good Friday Agreement provides that people in Northern Ireland may identify themselves as Irish, British or both and, accordingly, they have a right to hold British and Irish citizenship. This is another important factor.

As a child of Irish emigrants to Britain, I am aware of our strong connection with the Irish community in Britain. Irish emigrants in Britain object to the closure of the RTE London office. It is important that we maintain our ties with Irish emigrants by keeping open the office, if possible.

I appreciate the contributions of Deputies McHugh and Tuffy and thank them for raising this important issue. I stress, however, that RTE is an independent national public service broadcaster whose remit and obligations are set out in law. Section 114 of the Broadcasting Act 2009 states the principal objects and associated powers of RTE, while section 98 provides that the organisation shall be independent in the pursuance of these objects, subject to the requirements of the Act. As such, I, as Minister, have no function in general day-to-day matters, including decisions on closure or otherwise of any of the corporation's overseas news bureaux.

There is no doubt that RTE's news bureau in London has, as both Deputies noted, played an important role in the organisation's news broadcasting over the years. It has, in the best traditions of good public service broadcasting, delivered high quality news reporting on some events of major importance that have taken place in the United Kingdom and in British-Irish relations, particularly the peace process. I agree the London bureau has played not only a constructive role but has had a formative influence on the evolution of relations between our two countries in the relevant period. That said, as we enter the era of digital media, the necessity for on location overseas news bureaux is not nearly as acute as it once was.

I am assured that the regrettable decision to close the news bureau in London was not taken lightly by RTE but in the context of a restructuring and cost reduction programme across the entire organisation. RTE has a serious financial problem, having incurred a net deficit of €17 million in 2011. Its commercial revenue has fallen sharply from €240 million in 2008 to €168 million in 2011, a reduction of 30%. It is crucial that the key elements of its restructuring programme are completed before the end of 2012 in order that the corporation can return to a break even or small net surplus position from 2013 onwards at the latest.

RTE has informed my officials - it is important to recognise this - that the measure will not mean an end to RTE's long relationship with Britain or the Irish in Britain. The organisation has assured my Department that, as part of its public service remit, it remains committed to covering British news, Anglo-Irish politics, the important economic, trade and business ties between Britain and Ireland and stories from the Irish emigrant community. I am advised by RTE that staff and resources from its news bureaux in Dublin, Brussels or Belfast will be deployed, as appropriate, to cover major news stories in London. This does not require the maintenance of a costly fixed facility or permanent staff in London. When all costs are taken into account, RTE has advised my Department that the cost of the news bureau and sales presence in London was in the region of €800,000 per annum.

This difficult decision is one of many to be undertaken by RTE and its workforce to secure the future of public service broadcasting. I am satisfied the organisation continues to review all its operations and costs to achieve the best balance of efficiency and service within the resources available to it.

As the Minister does not have any direct authority over decisions taken by RTE, I will bypass him and address my comments to the public service broadcaster. "Out of sight, out of mind" is a common saying in business. We want to build on the events that took place 12 months ago when Queen Elizabeth paid a symbolic visit to this country and spoke of creating a space for bridge building and developing new relations. In that context, it is inexplicable that RTE has decided to withdraw a human resource element from the United Kingdom. I do not say this lightly. The Minister is a person who calls a spade a spade. I ask him to use his office and articulate the importance of RTE having a human resource element in the UK. If a significant event takes place in Britain, there is no point buying a Ryanair or an Aer Lingus ticket and instructing a journalist to board the next flight to get the story. Stories develop and relationships are built. I hope the Minister will issue guidance and we will see common sense prevail in this matter.

On the Minister's comment concerning his function, RTE's decision to close its London bureau is a matter of public interest. In that regard, I note the issue was also raised in Westminster through a cross-party motion signed by Margaret Ritchie, MP, Mark Durkan, MP, and a number of MPs from the Labour Party and Conservative Party. The motion states that "on-the-spot access for Irish-based media and engagement in public life in this jurisdiction is vital to fulfil the vision of future British-Irish relations as set out by the Prime Minister and Irish Taoiseach in their historic statement of 12 March 2012".

We are at an historical juncture in British-Irish relations following the visit of the Queen and the peace process is ongoing. If it was important to have a news office in London in the past, it is just as important that RTE maintains such an office today. The move to close the London news bureau is a short-termist decision. RTE is a public broadcaster and I hope that the Minister and Deputies, as public representatives, will influence this decision. Good quality news programming is what distinguishes public service broadcasters from other broadcasters and dumbing down to cut costs will eliminate this distinction.

I acknowledge the conviction shown by Deputies Tuffy and McHugh on this matter and I accept their passion is motivated by the best of reasons. However, they will be surprised to learn that by the end of 2012, the deficit at RTE will have reached €50 million, an unconscionable sum, of which the great preponderance is in the redundancy programme. The organisation faces an acute financial crisis and I cannot acquiesce in it running a bottom line of that order.

In an era of digital media, it is not necessary to have the same on location provision. Rental of accommodation in the heart of London is extremely expensive. If it were possible for RTE to make savings elsewhere, I am sure it would do so.

I accept Deputy Tuffy's point that the decision has a public interest dimension and, while I am not in charge of the day-to-day management decisions of RTE, she is correct that I have a policy responsibility arising from the public interest dimension to which she alludes. In circumstances where I have had to meet the board of RTE about the financial crisis confronting the organisation and when senior management in RTE is doing its best to preserve what is best in public service broadcasting while addressing that financial crisis, it is impossible to give an answer to the House and say the closure of any bureau is not at issue. I am advised by the professional people in RTE that between Belfast, Brussels and Dublin, in an era of digital technology, it is possible to ensure the quality of presentation from London does not suffer.

I do not see any reason we cannot review this decision in better times, but in the short term and a competitive broadcasting landscape, where complaints are constantly made about the amount of revenue available to RTE in the dual sense, we have to assume control of the runaway finances. That is the only reason for this decision.