Priority Questions

Social Welfare Payments Waiting Times

Willie O'Dea

Question:

123. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of applicants for disability allowance, invalidity pension and domiciliary care allowance in 2012; the average waiting times and total percentage of successful applicants for each; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4268/13]

The Department received 4,339 claims for domiciliary care allowance in 2012, with 4,680 claims processed. There are no claim backlogs in domiciliary care allowance where claims were processed within six weeks, on average, with 34% awarded the allowance.

Scheme

No. Claims Registered

No. Decided

% Awarded of claims decided

Average Weeks to award

Disability Allowance

25,887

26,159

40%

17

Invalidity Pension

11,510

17,775

36%

14 to 16

Domiciliary Care Allowance

4,339

4,680

34%

6

A total of 11,510 claims were received in 2012 for invalidity pension, with 17,775 decided. Invalidity pension claims were processed within 16 weeks, with 36% awarded. However, new invalidity pension claims are now being processed promptly upon receipt and all backlogged claims have been actioned and are either decided or awaiting further information necessary to make a decision.

Scheme

Awaiting Decision - not actioned

May 2012

Awaiting Decision - actioned

January 2013

% Reduction

Invalidity Pension

7,300

3,000

57%

The Department received 25,887 claims for disability allowance in 2012. A total of 26,159 claims were processed, with 40% awarded. Disability allowance claims were processed, on average, within 17 weeks.

The time required to process a new application under these schemes can vary depending on the complexity of the individual circumstances and whether full information is provided by the person claiming at the outset. In addition, a request for a review or an appeal by a person whose claim is disallowed will add to the length of time taken to deal with the claim.

As part of the Department's major ongoing service delivery modernisation programme, new service delivery schemes have been rolled out in the long-term illness schemes, that is, the invalidity pension, the carer's allowance and the disability allowance, during 2011 and 2012. Following the deployment of the new system, an in-depth business process improvement project was initiated in each of the schemes aimed at maximising capacity to deal with weekly intake of applications, eliminating backlogs and ensuring optimum efficiency.

The remainder of the reply will be read into the record.

I wish to emphasise that we made changes to our business processes last year. We have virtually eliminated the backlog in applications for the invalidity and domiciliary care allowances. In the case of the disability allowance we will have all the backlog eliminated shortly. This is in the context of the volume of applications going up and a considerable number of experienced personnel from the Department having resigned in the earlier part of last year.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The business process improvement programme commenced in the invalidity pension section in May 2012. At that time, there were approximately 7,300 new claims awaiting a decision. All new claims are dealt with on receipt, all backlogged claims have been actioned and reduced to approximately 3,000 claims that are awaiting further information or a medical assessment to allow a decision to be made. This number also includes approximately 900 cases which fall to be decided under EU regulations or bilateral agreements. Such cases are more complex and take longer to investigate and decide.

A business process improvement project is under way in disability allowance at present with a view to putting together a plan, similar to that successfully implemented for invalidity pension, for the prompt processing of weekly intake and the elimination of the current backlog. While the plan has not yet been finalised and rolled out, it is anticipated that the backlog of disability allowance applications will be eliminated by the end of quarter 2, 2013.

The Department is holding an information session on its illness schemes tomorrow, Wednesday, 30 January to which all Oireachtas Members and their staff are invited.

I am pleased to advise the Deputy that there are now no backlogs in domiciliary care allowance and invalidity pension schemes. While there is a backlog in disability allowance we have a programme in place to deal with it.

There are two aspects to this, the questions of eligibility and delay, and I will deal with them separately. I sought this information from the Department some time ago and I received figures for up to the end of September 2012. I understand the figures the Minister is providing now relate to the full calendar year. Is that the position?

Anyway, they do not vary much in terms of success rates. According to the Minister's reply there is a 66% refusal rate for domiciliary care allowance. In other words, two of every three claims are refused. It is similar for invalidity pensions: almost two of every three claims are refused and the refusal rate is somewhat less for disability allowance but it remains at approximately 60%. Does the Minister agree that this represents a substantial increase in rates of refusal for these matters in the past two years? It appears that now a person applying for invalidity pension must be even more of an invalid than ever before. The person applying for domiciliary care allowance must have a particularly acute form of autism, cerebral palsy or intellectual disability. Will the Minister explain this dramatic increase in the refusal rates?

Since 2009, when Deputy Willie O'Dea was a member of the Government, the number of claims has increased enormously under all headings, while numerous civil servants have taken early retirement, including very experienced staff. In that context, I undertook a complete overhaul of the system and implemented IT improvements and I am happy to say that by the end of the year the backlog of domiciliary care allowance and invalidity pension applications had been significantly dealt with. There is now no backlog of applications for domiciliary care allowance. Expenditure under the headings under discussion has gone up since last year.

There can be a problem where a person does not provide all of the data and details necessary to support an application. It can mean having to revert to seeking additional information. There are certain areas in which deciding on claims may be more difficult. It must be remembered that a claim is made by an individual, but it is the medical adviser who supplies the actual data to support it.

We now move to Question No. 124.

I understand I am entitled to raise a second query.

That is within the time allowed of four minutes. I have been giving guidance on the time allocated.

In dealing with a priority question we are entitled to ask a second question.

I disagree with the Minister on the issue of times. Her Department's official statement sets out that there is an eight month waiting period for claims for invalidity pension and a further eight month waiting period where there is a need to appeal. That applies to summary decisions, not oral hearings. The waiting period is 16 months from beginning to end. Does the Minister agree that this is unreasonable? Does she agree that it has been the experience of Deputies on all sides of the House that delays are increasing inordinately?

The Minister has 20 seconds in which to reply. I want to clarify the position. There are four minutes available for cross-questioning. I must go by the clock.

Twenty seconds.

Yes, otherwise we will move on to Question No. 124.

Deputy Willie O'Dea should recognise that the Department of Social Protection has completely overhauled its business systems and claims processing times have been transformed.

Not according to the Department.

We have deployed additional staff to clear the backlog. The Deputy's information dates from last August.

It has got worse since.

We have appointed backlog teams and I am very happy to say it is working. Family income supplement claims have been transferred to Donegal for processing. On Thursday my Department is hosting a session for Members and their staff to discuss improvements in the data and information supplied to the Department to assist those with a strong claim to ensure the appropriate information is provided.

The session has been cancelled.

Perhaps that is due to events at the weekend.

I am limiting the discussion of priority questions strictly to six minutes. There are two minutes for the Minister's initial reply and four minutes for supplementary questions and answers.

National Internship Scheme Placements

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

124. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will confirm that JobBridge interns were used by An Garda Síochána, with the agreement of her Department, to work in the highly sensitive area of Garda vetting which included research in respect of personnel working in a full-time, part-time and voluntary capacity in a position in a registered organisation through which they have unsupervised access to children and-or vulnerable adults; and her views on whether this is an appropriate use of interns. [4452/13]

Since it came into operation on 1 July 2011, significant progress in the JobBridge scheme saw 13,960 internships commence by 24 January 2013. There are 5,563 interns on the scheme, with a further 1,888 internships advertised on www.jobbridge.ie.

The Department verifies the suitability of internships before they are advertised to ensure they will provide real work experience to enable an intern to develop new skills that will enhance the intern's ability to secure employment. As such, the Department expects interns to be given real and substantial experience of the host organisation's workplace so the intern is seen by future potential employers as having had real work experience, including real responsibility and accountability.

It is a matter for the host organisation, including in this case An Garda Síochána, to determine if the work involved is appropriate to the intern, taking account of its business needs, including confidentiality and sensitivity of the information to which they will have access, be that commercially sensitive information in the case of a private sector organisation, publicly sensitive information in the case of a public sector organisation or personal information. The duty of care of all host organisations in respect of sensitive and confidential information and in respect of training and proper protocols with regard to access to and use of this information extends to people on internship programmes.

In the case of the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána, as is the case for all of the Civil Service, the requirements of the Official Secrets Act apply to all workers, including interns recruited under JobBridge. It is an offence under section 4 of this Act to disclose information obtained in the course of work unless this disclosure is duly authorised.

I am informed that An Garda Síochána has hosted 13 interns for positions including general office administrator receptionist, project accountant, legal policing researcher and graphic designer.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Of those 13 interns, eight were assigned to duties in the Garda vetting unit, of whom six have completed their internship and two are on placement. The Department has received assurances from the Department of Justice and Equality that these interns were not involved in conducting vetting checks on vetting applicants nor had they access to these data. These interns were engaged in a clerical capacity only.

While the moratorium on recruitment in the Civil Service means that interns cannot progress to a job in the Civil Service, it is clear from the Indecon report on JobBridge that experience in the public sector is very valuable and progression rates are good. The Deputy will know that the Department, as part of its ongoing work to protect the intern and to ensure the integrity of the JobBridge scheme, has introduced a variety of control measures and criteria. Among these measures is the ongoing monitoring of internships by the Department of Social Protection. This involves the regular review of monthly compliance reports and the conducting of random monitoring site visits to ensure the host and intern are abiding by the terms and conditions of the scheme.

In 2012, two monitoring visits were conducted on internships within An Garda Síochána, and one monitoring visit was conducted on internships within the Department of Justice and Equality. In all three cases, the monitoring report found the internships to have been conducted in a satisfactory manner.

Given that Garda vetting can determine the future employment prospects or otherwise of individuals whose organisations or companies have applied for vetting, does the Minister think it was appropriate to use interns to process or be in any way part of the processing of the confidential and sensitive material being assessed and processed by the Garda vetting unit, given that not all of this material is necessarily in the public domain? Details disclosed during Garda vetting include details of all convictions or prosecutions, successful or otherwise, and pending or completed prosecutions in the State or elsewhere. Is it appropriate for JobBridge to be used in this way to fill positions vacant due to the public sector recruitment embargo and to carry out policing duties? Does the Minister agree that this is a form of yellow pack policing or public service?

I have been critical of JobBridge but my point has always been to ensure that the internship experience is enhanced and to prevent abuse of these young or older jobseekers. Does the Minister believe that if a criterion is imposed, it needs to be properly resourced? In this case, the Garda vetting unit has not been fully resourced. Is she sure about the work carried out by those interns in that process and have interns been vetting other interns? That is the implication because everyone would have to have been interns.

In respect of the suggestion that interns have a promise of future prospects of employment, there is no possibility of their being recruited into the Garda vetting unit in the future given the Garda and public sector recruitment embargo so the applicants are being sold a pup.

The redeployment and use of staff is an operational matter for the Garda Commissioner in conjunction with his senior management. Neither the Minister for Justice and Equality nor I have a role or function in that matter. The allocation of all resources, including civilian personnel such as interns, is a matter for Garda management. In this case, I am advised by An Garda Síochána via the Department of Justice and Equality that no JobBridge interns were engaged at the Garda central vetting unit to conduct vetting checks.

I noted earlier that the Garda Síochána hosted 13 interns, of whom eight were assigned to duties in the Garda vetting unit. Six of the latter have completed their internships and two are on placement. My Department has received assurances from the Department of Justice and Equality that the interns were not involved in conducting checks on vetting applicants nor had they access to these data. They were engaged solely in a clerical capacity.

The Deputy asked whether such work experience is valuable, whether in the public or private sector. The Indecon survey shows that more than 50% of people who completed JobBridge internships went on to further work. In respect of the public sector, which faces a difficulty with the embargo, over 40% of people who took on internships in public bodies were placed subsequently in employment. By working in quality internships these mostly younger people got references and work experience, which are very valuable in helping them to find subsequent employment. I cannot see why the Deputy and Sinn Féin are so opposed to young people being assisted in getting work, particularly young graduates who have just come out of college and find it difficult in today's jobs market to find a work placement because they have no previous work experience. The internship gives them work experience.

The abuse of the internship is wrong. The Minister misunderstood what I said.

I support JobBridge if it offers an enhanced job seeking mechanism. It is not such a mechanism if it is being abused, whether in the State sector or private sector.

I remind Deputies and the Minister that we have a programme to complete which involves five priority questions in 30 minutes. We are now well over the time allotted to these questions. We either conduct this session in accordance with the rules and protocols or it becomes a free-for-all. What do Members want? Please help me to do my job.

Community Welfare Services

Joan Collins

Question:

125. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Social Protection if the community welfare offices (details supplied) in County Dublin are being closed and staff services being centralised to Parnell Road and Bishops Square, social welfare offices; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4270/13]

The Department is in the process of major organisational change following the transfer of responsibility for community welfare services and FÁS employment and community employment services. We have taken approximately 1,000 community welfare service staff and 700 FÁS staff into the Department.

The Department is committed to developing and implementing a case management approach across the full range of its services, with a focus on working with the person rather than the scheme. In implementing this challenging programme of change, the objective is to ensure that all services provided are co-ordinated and support customers and clients of the Department through the development of improved processes and the concentration of staff and resources in integrated units. Skilled and knowledgeable case managers will work with individuals in need to ensure that they not only receive the appropriate income supports but are also helped to find a way in which they can participate to the fullest extent possible in their community, economy and workforce.

This is the context in which the services provided in Dublin 12 are being reviewed. The offices referred to by this question are located in Curlew Road Health Centre, Drimnagh, Dublin 12; Cashel Road Health Centre, Crumlin, Dublin 12; and Parnell Road Health Centre, Dublin 12. The hours during which the services are provided are Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9.30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. It is also important to note that the review is ongoing and that a final decision has not yet been made on the location and nature of services to be provided. I assure the Deputy that the overall priority is better customer service and that members of the public and public representatives will be fully informed about the changes being proposed and consultation will take place.

I appeal to the Minister not to move on any closure of the community welfare offices in Crumlin or in Curlew Road. These offices are in the heart of their communities where people can access them. Their staff have significant experience and know exactly who is who and what goes on in the area. They have their ear to the ground with regard to work in the area. Closing these offices and moving the staff to Parnell Road and Bishops Square would be brutal for the people in the community. These people have little or no money and many of them are ill and waiting for appeals on disability. Now they will have to travel further into town although they can little afford the €2 for the bus to get there.

This removal of community offices from the heart of the community is a retrograde move by the Department. Morale is completely down within the offices in this regard. People are worried. Voluntary organisations have contacted our offices on this and they are hugely concerned that these offices are being pulled out of the area. It is the wrong move and I ask the Minister to reconsider it.

I wish to reassure the Deputy that we consult very widely with the kind of community organisations to which she referred. However, it should be borne in mind that we took over a service where we had 1,000 community welfare service officers, many of whom handled not just special payments and rent, but also social welfare assistance. As we move to the new model - this should be good news, it was done with a number of offices last year and it is proposed to do it in a large number of offices this year - what happens is that people who come in for social welfare assistance have their claim dealt with within a couple of days or a week at the most.

As the Deputy knows, people who took the traditional community welfare route often had to wait quite a number of weeks before they got whatever payment they were due. This is a very big change in the service, but it means we can now use the talents and resources of the community welfare service officers to help people getting back to work and education and to take up opportunities such as community employment, as well as providing the traditional service. The assistance services will largely be integrated into the offices, which will free up time for a more targeted person to person service for each person in receipt of a social welfare income.

I do not think that washes from the point of view of the community in the Dublin 12 area. The Parnell Road office is a tiny office. Currently it is very busy, yet the Minister is talking about bringing in claimants from Dublin 6, 6W, Dublin 12 and Bluebell. That is ridiculous and will not work. People will be queuing up outside trying to access the office. I appeal to the Minister not to go ahead with this. Surely, with computerisation that work could be brought to the community welfare offices in Crumlin, Limekiln and Curlew Road. I urge the Minister not to take this step as it will have a detrimental effect on the people who need the service most.

Change is always difficult and it takes some time to implement. However, we are consulting the organisations and we are determined to improve the experience and the service for people, particularly with regard to helping people get back to work and to transforming the long waits people used to face for assistance.

There is no improvement for people with what is happening.

We must move to improve the service.

If the Deputies and the Minister want to continue the discussion, it should be done outside the Chamber. I must take care of conducting the business here. We will move on to Question No. 126.

Social Welfare Code Review

Willie O'Dea

Question:

126. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection when the Commission on Social Welfare and Taxation (details supplied) will be published; if the programme for Government commitment on social welfare rates still stands; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4269/13]

Creating jobs and tackling poverty are two of the key challenges that Ireland now faces and it is essential that our tax and social protection systems play their part in addressing these issues. To this end, and in line with commitments contained in the programme for Government, I established the advisory group on tax and social welfare in 2011, with the aim of harnessing expert opinion and experience to examine a number of specific issues and make cost effective proposals for improving employment incentives and achieving better poverty outcomes, particularly child poverty outcomes.

The group's overall method of working is based on producing modular reports on the priority areas identified in the terms of reference. These areas include, among others, child and family income supports, working age income supports, issues concerning social insurance for self-employed persons and the budget 2012 proposals concerning disability allowance and domiciliary care allowance.

The group commenced its work programme by prioritising the area of family and child income supports. It subsequently submitted its report to me. I have been considering its findings since I received the report. I have held discussions with my ministerial colleagues on the issues raised in it. In this regard, I asked my officials to undertake further analysis of the implications of the reform options outlined in the report. They supplemented their analysis of the report by using the SWITCH tax-benefit model to determine the financial impacts and poverty outcomes that might arise from the proposals made in the report. A detailed assessment of the administrative and operational changes that would be required to implement the proposals was also carried out. I intend to publish the advisory group's report on this issue in the very near future. The group recently submitted to me its report on the budget 2012 proposals concerning disability allowance and domiciliary care allowance. I intend to publish this report in the near future. I understand the group is considering the issues involved in providing social insurance cover for self-employed persons and the issue of working age income supports.

The Minister has told us that the committee was established. We knew that. She has also told us what the group was supposed to do and what its terms of reference were. We knew that also. We need to make the best use of the limited time we have available. When exactly did the Minister receive this report? Why has it not been published to date? Parts of it have been selectively leaked and I have read about it in the newspapers. Given that the taxpayer paid for the report, why should it remain in the possession of the Minister for an indeterminate length of time after it has been produced? The rest of us should have access to it to see what it states. If the recommendations made in the report are implemented, they will have a profound effect on hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. When exactly will the report be published? I remind the Minister that the question I tabled to her referred to the Government's commitment to maintain core social welfare rates. Does that commitment still stand, even within the parameters of the narrowest possible definition given to the term "core social welfare rates"? In the light of the child benefit cuts made in last month's budget, the Minister announced the creation of 6,000 after-school places for primary schoolchildren.

What progress has been made in implementing that measure? The budgetary cuts have already kicked in.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to maintain welfare rates. The commitment relates to primary weekly social welfare payments intended to enable recipients to meet their basic day-to-day income needs. As the Deputy will be aware, there were no reductions in primary weekly social welfare payments, including increases for qualified adults or qualified children in budget 2012 or budget 2013.

The Government has reduced the period of time for which payments are made.

By comparison, the Deputy's party reduced the rates by €16.30 a week.

People are living in penury.

There was a reduction of €8 in one year and €8.30 in another.

At least we can say we increased them over a long period, unlike the Labour Party.

That amounts to €16.30 a week.

We increased social welfare payments enormously.

These reductions were made by Fianna Fáil.

The Minister and her colleagues have never done anything other than reduce them.

People have not forgotten that.

They will find out about it when they go to the polls.

We are getting two voices for the price of one.

The Deputy's second question was related to the proposed creation of 6,500 after-school child care places. I am happy to say the issue is being worked on intensely by my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. We expect to have the scheme up and running within-----

When are the places going to appear?

I expect to have very detailed proposals some time after Easter.

That could mean any time up to next Christmas.

The Deputy will understand the creation of such a system is quite demanding. We will have it up and running in the near future.

Is the Minister still maintaining her commitment to maintain core rates, as she understands them?

What I said to the Deputy is that, unlike Fianna Fáil, which cut the core weekly rates by €16.30 a week-----

We had increased them substantially.

-----in both this year's budget and last year's, this Government did not cut core weekly rates. I cannot comment, however, on budget 2014 decisions, as the Deputy will be aware.

We will move on to Question No. 127.

In that case, the Minister would not regard the cuts to children's allowance, carer's allowance and the length people are paid jobseeker's allowance as core cuts. Her definition is extremely narrow. Fianna Fáil can take pride from the fact it increased social welfare rates in this country very substantially, unlike the Labour Party.

And then cut them by €16.30 a week.

The Minister talks about what the people think. She will find out soon enough.

If she knocked on the doors in Limerick, she would find out what people think about the Labour Party. There is no way it is on 11% in Limerick, I can tell her that.

We are 20% over time, cumulatively. Is that fair? It is not fair.

The Minister spends too much time giving us information we already know.

Information and Communications Technology Issues

Thomas Pringle

Question:

127. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Social Protection the steps she is taking to ensure the efficient operation of computer systems within her Department in order to allow for the effective management of information and to cross reference data with other State agencies such as the Revenue Commissioners; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4440/13]

The Department of Social Protection has a number of systems which have been developed over many years to enable it to pay multiple groups of clients and manage data in regard to the various schemes. These systems reliably deliver over 87 million payments yearly between them. Although developed independently, mechanisms exist on its major systems whereby significant changes made to customer or claim details are automatically notified to other systems.

I apologise for all the technical jargon. Basically, the Department is building a single ICT platform, known as the business object model implementation, or BOMi. The work is carried out as part of the Department’s continuous service delivery modernisation, SDM, programme. As this programme progresses, all the Department’s client and claim related systems will be integrated into the one platform, ensuring that all client and claim information is fully and automatically available across all of the Department’s schemes and places of business.

A high-level group, established between the Department and the Revenue Commissioners, co-ordinates issues of mutual concern between the two organisations, including information sharing. Further information sharing initiatives are put in place as new requirements are identified and specified. The Department also works closely with other agencies to mitigate social welfare abuse and to help them in dealing with their own clients; for example, the Department provides validated information to over 50 other agencies in regard to life events and deaths.

A key priority for the Department is to ensure that fraudulent activity within the social welfare system is vigorously prevented and combated. Social welfare fraud undermines confidence in the entire system. We are co-operating, for example, with the Revenue Commissioners, the Irish Prison Service, the third level institutions, the General Register Office, the Commission on Taxi Regulation, the Department of Work and Pensions in the UK and the Probate Office, just to mention some of the offices with which we co-operate and share information.

On a point that is not within the Minister's control, the question listed on the Order Paper is not the question I submitted to the Department and leaves out a substantial part of the question, although the Minister addressed that part in her reply, for which I thank her as I had thought I might have had to raise the issue separately. Nonetheless, as the Questions Paper should reflect the question that was actually submitted by the Member, I am disappointed.

Throughout last year, I was trying to carry out research in regard to child benefit payments and social welfare recipients. In trying to get the information for that through parliamentary questions, I discovered that different computer platforms, as they are known, in the Department cannot yet cross-reference with each other. This is a very out-of-date system for any Department, particularly one as important as the Department of Social Protection.

I welcome the answer that it is building a single ICT platform to deal with this. What is its delivery date? How fast is it progressing and will it be on target?

The Deputy is correct in saying the Department of Social Protection's systems are separate and, to some degree, in silos. Ultimately, with the development of modern IT and cloud computing systems and other developments, one can envisage a situation where over time they will be brought together. From my experience as a Minister for the past year and three quarters, one has to be very careful when one changes systems that the person receiving the income from that system is not placed at a serious disadvantage. Further to Deputy Willie O'Dea's question about disability allowance applications and applications for domiciliary care allowance, we upgraded that system, but the upgrade took a long time to complete because we had to pay existing clients, include new applications in the new system and deal with the backlog. One thing I have learned is that it takes some time, but the Department is working on the system and will develop it. We have already achieved a significant number of serious reforms and, as I said to Deputy Joan Collins, people using the new offices are finding that the payment process is much faster. For instance, the office in Donegal which is now handling FIS payments has made tremendous improvements in its processing times with the result that there is no backlog. Therefore, it does produce results, but it takes time to manage the changeover.