Priority Questions

Youth Guarantee

Willie O'Dea

Question:

1. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of training or education places that will be set aside next year as part of the youth guarantee for young persons who are out of work; the number of young persons who will qualify for the youth guarantee scheme at this time; the ratio of her Department case officers to the number of unemployed persons currently; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50875/13]

I am trying to ascertain whether the Government is committed to introducing a full blown youth guarantee scheme in this country whereby everybody who is not more than four months unemployed will be entitled to either a job or a place in training or education and when will the scheme be in place. I am also trying to ascertain whether the ratio of caseworkers to unemployed people has changed since we previously asked questions in the House when the Minister indicated it would change.

I did not get the first part of the second question.

On the previous occasion the Minister answered questions in the House she indicated the ratio of caseworkers to unemployed people would change and I would like an update.

During its recent Presidency of the European Union, Ireland prioritised the provision of the EU recommendation on the provision of a youth guarantee under which every young person should be guaranteed an offer of employment, training or further education within a target period of four months of becoming unemployed. Ireland also took the lead in discussions which led to the provision of a €6 billion EU spending provision which is to be front-loaded to cover programmes undertaken in the first two years of the multi-year financial framework, in 2014 and 2015. Ireland took this approach because it is acutely aware that persistently high levels of youth unemployment have a prolonged and disproportionate impact on the lifetime productivity and earnings of the young people concerned. We are in the process of developing a national implementation plan for a youth guarantee in Ireland and expect to forward this plan to the European Commission by the end of the year. The position in Ireland is that approximately 35,500 young people who registered for unemployment payments in 2012 remained wholly unemployed for four months or more, the threshold referred to in the EU recommendation on a youth guarantee. A significant number of young people also leave the register in the fifth or sixth month of unemployment. Trends in 2013 to date suggest the number of new registrants crossing the four month threshold will fall to about 31,000 for the full year. Data included in the most recent quarterly national household survey published by the CSO a few days ago are also encouraging. These showed the rate of youth unemployment, covering those aged 15 to 24 years, decreased from more than 31% to 26.5% over the year to the end of quarter 3 of this year.

I will answer the Deputy's second question as a supplementary.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Places on activation programmes are not generally reserved for a specific age group. Expected take-up by unemployed young people on programmes offering full-time opportunities is expected to be in excess of 27,500 next year. The programmes involved are JobBridge, Tús, community employment and Gateway, JobsPlus, the back to work enterprise allowance, FÁS and SOLAS training for the unemployed, Youthreach and community training centres, MOMENTUM, the back to education allowance, the vocational training opportunities scheme and initiatives related to entrepreneurship and international work experience under consideration in the context of the youth guarantee. These figures do not include young people progressing in the normal way through initial training such as apprenticeships, post-leaving certificate courses and vocationally oriented third level courses, all of which contribute to a guarantee of places for young people leaving second level education.

I thank the Minister for the reply but I do not know whether I am any the wiser. Perhaps when I read the record and see what has not been said, I will know. As the Minister well knows, the pledge of €6 billion by the European Union, welcome though it may be, is regarded as totally inadequate. Taking a pledge of €6 billion over seven years, Ireland will receive a very small amount. It is estimated a properly funded youth guarantee scheme, along the lines of what exists in Sweden, under which the four-month criterion is met, would cost anything between €300 million and €400 million. My second question to the Minister is whether the Government is prepared to commit the resources, together with what it receives from the EU, to increase the figure to whatever it costs to provide a fully blown youth guarantee scheme to everybody who is unemployed for a period of at least four months and when will the scheme be in place.

In reply to the second part of the Deputy's first question, there are approximately 300 employment service officers and advisers. This means the ratio of the 315,000 full-time live registrants to employment service officers is just over 1000:1. The good news is a further 300 staff are being re-assigned to these roles as I speak, which will reduce the ratio by half in the absence of any change in the numbers on the live register. As Deputy O'Dea is aware, numbers on the live register are decreasing and the numbers at work for the quarter ended September last increased by 58,000, which when compared with the loss of 300,000 jobs which took place under Fianna Fáil after the guarantee, is a recovery and a turnaround.

When will the youth guarantee scheme be in place? Answer the question.

With regard to the funds allocated in the context of the youth guarantee overall, Europe has provided €6 billion. The good news from an Irish point of view is it is calculated countries with high levels of youth unemployment, and we qualify because of the crash I spoke about, will receive €64 million over the two-year period of the front-loading, and the Government will match this. I can go through some of the detail in answer to a further question.

The total of €64 million over two years is €32 million per year, and the Government has committed €14 million for the first year which, added to the €32 million amounts to €46 million. This is way short of what is required. Will the Minister indicate when a properly functioning youth guarantee scheme will be in place? On the previous occasion we had questions the Minister promised she would reduce the ratio. I thought the ratio was 800:1 but it is more than 1,000:1, which is farcical. Now she will reduce it to 500:1, which again is unworkable.

The last day she indicated that this reduction in the ratio was taking place immediately. When is that going to take place? Where are the staff going to come from? There have been indications from the Government that it does not have any budget to employ extra people to do this sort of case work for the unemployed. Will the Minister be taking them from elsewhere in the Department and if so, how will she make up for the deficiencies that will occur there?

I will be very happy if the Deputy comes to the opening of the new Intreo office in Limerick before or shortly after Christmas. I am sure he will make himself available to do that. If he does come, he will have a great opportunity to see the new processes and the very good work of the employment services officers.

About 700 were transferred over from the old FÁS employment services to the Department and 1,000 people were transferred from the community welfare service. Those people have much experience from their old jobs of interviewing and dealing with people on an case by case basis. Some of them will also be dealing with employers, because we are going out knocking on doors to get people jobs and tell employers about the very good schemes we have established, like JobsPlus, which is an employer subsidy. That resource is in train at the moment-----

So they are all being reallocated from within the Department.

-----and I look forward to inviting the Deputy to the new Limerick offices.

We are over time. Thank you Minister.

The first part of the conversion has almost been completed.

Job Initiatives

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

2. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social Protection the rationale underpinning her decision to prevent the disclosure of the names of companies which have used the JobBridge scheme in view of the significant benefits these companies derive from the work done by interns paid for by her Department; and if in the interests of deterring abuse of the scheme she will make a statement withdrawing the expectation of confidentiality that she has created for the companies involved. [50873/13]

I am trying to get the Minister to indicate why she is refusing to disclose to the public the list of companies availing of the JobBridge internship scheme, which is a State-sponsored scheme. Will she end the expectation that these companies have confidentiality, which is an expectation that she and her Department have created?

The JobBridge scheme has made good progress since it came into operation on 1 July 2011. Over 23,000 internship placements have commenced to date, and over 11,000 companies have participated in the scheme. There are currently over 6,400 jobseekers participating on the scheme and over 2,300 posts advertised on the JobBridge website. Independent research indicates that over 60% of interns who finish placements progress into paid employment. These progression outcomes are exceptionally positive and compare very favourably with European averages in this area.

The question of whether the names of host organisations should be published is a matter which has arisen from time to time. I have taken the view that as participation as a host organisation is voluntary and as host organisations receive no payment from the State for their participation in JobBridge, it is not necessary to publish their names and I have decided that their names should not be published. In coming to this view I am informed by the very high progression rates to employment under the JobBridge scheme and am concerned that nothing should be done which might discourage employers from voluntarily offering internship opportunities, and deprive people who are unfortunately unemployed to gain valuable experience and get on the road to becoming fully employed.

A feature of the JobBridge scheme is that the Department required host organisations to put in place a coaching and mentoring process for each intern and to submit a monthly compliance report to the Department. The Department monitors compliance with this requirement. It also conducts randomised site visits and over 3,876 such inspections have been performed. Given that there are 11,000 host organisations, that is a really high rate of onsite inspection, along with the desk-based monitoring that also takes place. As a consequence of these visits, 32 host organisations have been excluded from any further participation in JobBridge. It is important to highlight that the overwhelming majority of host organisations are abiding by the terms and conditions of the scheme.

In a letter she wrote to the Ceann Comhairle to justify her refusal to answer a similar question in the past, the Minister stated that host organisations participate in the scheme on a voluntary basis and receive no payment or other benefit from the State in respect of that participation: no benefit. What does she call 39 hours of work each week undertaken by the JobBridge participants at the expense of the Department of Social Protection? Given that JobBridge allows employers to put off recruiting paid staff for up to nine months, this amounts to a benefit of wage avoidance for those companies.

There is also no doubt that real job creation is being postponed in this very manner. According to the Minister's own Indecon report, which she often quotes, 29% of those companies which are honest enough to admit it, stated when surveyed that in the absence of JobBridge, they would have offered paid employment to their interns. That is just a level of displacement and wage avoidance. Is it not illogical for the Minister to state that she cannot publish the names of these companies, when in the first instance, they are published on the website when they are offering internships?

This is a State subsidy, and in each case the public is entitled to know the companies that are benefiting.

It is a pity that Sinn Féin is so hostile to jobs for people who are unemployed. I sometimes think Sinn Féin seems to have a vested interest in keeping the maximum amount of people parked on the live register without any opportunity to progress, be it in education, training or work experience. It is an unfortunately short-sighted view that the Deputy and his party have taken. It makes me wonder what plans, if any, Sinn Féin has ever brought forward for serious employment creation in this country.

I wish the Deputy had been with me a couple of weeks ago when I was at a function hosted by the Crafts Council of Ireland. It is a very reputable body and I am sure Sinn Féin would approve of it, and its aims are to foster crafts and creativity in this country. Its members are small-scale employers of people - often just one or two - who are craft workers and who produce very beautiful work in many cases.

You are over time.

I met two carpenters who had been working on lots of jobs at the height of the boom, just before the crash. They are now becoming craft workers in wood, and they are doing that through an opportunity via JobBridge to see if it works for them.

Thank you Minister.

What problem can Sinn Féin have with having that kind of opportunity opened to people who are on the live register?

The Minister did not answer the question as usual, and she distracted people by talking about Sinn Féin's position on jobs. I have been a proposer and a supporter of some of the proposals she has brought forward, such as JobsPlus. She cut the training allowance for CE schemes, but I supported an increase in the training allowance.

The Minister has created an expectation in these companies for confidentiality, even though there is no confidentiality since their names are published online in the first instance. Can she remove an expectation that she and her Department have created so the public will know what companies gain a subsidy from the Department in the form of interns?

Perhaps the Deputy is more concentrated on the English social welfare system, which is highly directive. Maybe that is what he wants down here because that is what is available in the North. The JobBridge scheme is a voluntary scheme on the part of both parties. A company offers to host. I have promoted the scheme with companies, because when we came into government, we inherited a dreadful unemployment situation, which is slowly improving.

Is there any chance the Minister might answer the question?

It is so important to take every step to help people-----

What about the question?

-----who find themselves unfortunately out of work.

There are seven seconds left to answer the question.

I think it makes enormous sense-----

This is ridiculous. She cannot answer the question.

The Minister is in possession.

-----to have host organisations offering valuable employment experience.

The Minister cannot answer it.

Sixty percent of people then proceed to get employment.

The Minister cannot answer it. She should do so.

I genuinely do not understand the Deputy's position.

If she listened to the question, she might understand.

We monitor it extremely carefully because it is a voluntary scheme. It is not-----

If she listened to the question, she might understand and then be able to answer it.

We cannot hear anything. I ask the Minister to conclude.

As the Deputy said, all the information and data are available-----

Will the Minister provide it?

-----on the website. Why does the Deputy not get some of his legions of researchers to look at the website?

I have asked the Deputy as she is the Minister.

There is nothing hidden.

The Minister said there is confidentiality.

Pension Provisions

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Social Protection the protections provided for in the Pensions (Amendment) Bill 2013 that would ensure that the restructuring of defined pension schemes would place the interests of workers and pensioners first, with particular reference to any instance of continued restructuring and its implications; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51034/13]

As the Minister knows, there is a major crisis affecting defined pension schemes across the country. Some 20% are in trouble.

I believed this question was in the name of Deputy Pringle.

It has been changed.

My name is on the Order Paper. It was in the name of Deputy Pringle but it has been changed.

There is a crisis affecting defined benefit pension schemes. We know about the current crisis in the ESB and Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. We are also familiar with the circumstances of Waterford Glass and of approximately 160 other pension schemes. What will the Minister do about it? Will the pensions Bill sort out this crisis? The Minister made reference to the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom, pensioners are guaranteed at least 90% of what they should get up to a maximum of £30,000. Will the Minister give the full level of protection to workers who have paid into pension schemes all their lives, or will she do the bare minimum? In particular, can restructuring occur on multiple occasions?

Defined benefit pension schemes in Ireland are in general set up under the law of trust. The trustees of such pension schemes have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of all scheme members. The Pensions Act provides for a funding standard which applies to funded defined benefit pension schemes. The funding standard requires a defined benefit pension scheme to maintain sufficient resources to meet the liabilities of the scheme in the event of the winding up of a scheme. Where a scheme fails to satisfy the funding standard, the trustees of the scheme are required to submit a funding proposal to the Pensions Board outlining their plan to restore scheme funding. Section 50 of the Pensions Act makes provision for the restructuring of a defined benefit pension scheme where the scheme fails to comply with the funding standard. The Pensions Board can, either unilaterally or on an application from the trustees of the scheme, issue a direction to the trustees of a scheme to restructure scheme benefits. Such a direction by the Pensions Board only facilitates a restructuring of benefits designed to enable the scheme satisfy the funding standard.

The current provision in section 50 of the Act allows the trustees to consider the benefits of active and former scheme member and future post-retirement increases in benefits. The changes I am bringing forward in the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill, which is currently before the Seanad, will extend these options to include a limited portion of pensioner benefits. Trustees will now have the option to consider up to 10% of pensioner benefits where the annual amount of pension is between €12,000 and €60,000 and up to 20% of benefits where the annual amount of benefits is greater than €60,000. Pension benefits up to €12,000 are protected and cannot be included in any consideration of a restructuring of scheme benefits.

All directions issued by the Pensions Board to date have been as a result of an application to the board by the trustees of a scheme.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Before the trustees make such an application, they must consult the employer, the scheme member, any person receiving benefits from the scheme and the authorised trade union representing scheme members. The Pensions Board has discretion as to whether to issue a direction following an application by the trustees of a scheme. There are no indications that continued restructuring of scheme benefits gives rise for concern. As I said at the outset, the trustees of a defined benefit pension scheme are required under trust law to act in the best interest of all scheme members. The changes I am proposing to section 50 of the Pensions Act will enhance the ability of the trustees to protect the overall best interest of scheme members.

One question Deputy Pringle wanted to ask was whether it will be possible under the Bill for a company to restructure a pension scheme more than once in circumstances where restructuring is allowed? Owing to a restructuring plan implemented by a company, could one lose 10% to 20% of what one expected and then lose the same again, perhaps on multiple occasions, if the under-funding problem persisted? In the framing of the Bill, will the Minister do the absolute minimum required by the European Union or will she do the maximum by really putting the priorities of workers and pensioners first in dealing with under-funded pension schemes? It seems she is acting for the minimum rather than the maximum.

I am sure the Deputy is familiar with the history of defined benefit pension schemes. The employer is the sponsor of the scheme and makes promises regarding the contributions the employer and the contributions of employees, if any, to the scheme, thus determining the level of benefit that will accrue on the retirement of the employee. The reason so many schemes have difficulty is that the context of the promise, made many decades ago in some cases, failed to take into account the happy increase in life expectancy. In the past, one might have lived after retirement for ten to 20 years but this could now be 30 or 40 years, resulting in a fundamental change in schemes' total exposure to liability. It is important to remember that the trustees, prior to making an application to the Pensions Board, will have to have undertaken a comprehensive review of the scheme with a view to its long-term stability and sustainability. The review must cover a number of matters, including the benefits payable under the scheme, the options available for reductions in benefits and the impacts on the various categories of members and others. As the Deputy knows, there are retired members, active members who are currently paying into a scheme, deferred members and people who have already retired but who have not yet reached pension age.

This is a complicated technical matter that is very difficult to deal with.

I appreciate that.

Can a company restructure on multiple occasions with the result that a scheme member would lose out not just once, but several times?

The under-funding crisis is another legacy of the banks. One should remember that many of the funds are in trouble because of the banks or investments in banking shares that have now collapsed. Pension scheme members comprise another victim of the banking crisis.

Many problems with pension funds could be sorted out if we diverted some of the €2.5 billion that is currently spent on tax breaks for private pensions, mostly for the genuinely premium gold-plated pensions of the super-rich or wealthiest in the country, to help with crises such as those in Waterford Glass, the ESB and other companies whose pension schemes are in trouble. In this way, we could actually resolve the problem whereby ordinary workers are being shafted. They are victims yet again of the banking crisis.

With regard to the investment strategies of pension funds, I do not know whether the Deputy has an objection in principle to pension funds. The nature of pension funds is that they collect payments from the employer and employee. Many employers are very good employers. The Deputy seems to believe that all employers are bad but that is not the case.

The Minister should forget about the potshots and answer the question.

Is the Deputy interested in an answer? He just stated the issue is complicated technically but unfortunately that technical complication is included in the answer. I cannot give the Deputy a Ladybird answer on pensions. It is a complex and terribly important issue for hundreds of thousands of people in the country. The Deputy should not treat it as some kind of joke.

The Minister is the one treating it as a joke.

Deputy Joan Burton: With regard to pensions, the Deputy asked about investments. Owing to the tsunami of problems affecting the financial markets, pension funds in Ireland took a terrible hit. The Pensions Regulator has reported on how Irish pension funds were often over-invested in a particular field of investment, which included the Irish banks.

I thank the Minister.

Let me say as well that, in 2010, the previous Government legislated to provide for bonds via the NTMA structure. That did not happen during its term. I am happy to say it has happened during my term. It is one of the items to which the Deputy referred. The demand has been fairly continuous and significant and, to date we have €1.377 billion for investment in amortising bonds.

I thank the Minister.

In other words, the Government has created a vehicle, which has been utilised and which, I hope, will provide an important investment vehicle for pensioners in Ireland in the future.

I must go on to the next question.

It is an important issue.

Social Welfare Fraud Investigations

Willie O'Dea

Question:

4. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection her Department's policy on the use of Garda checkpoints to counter welfare fraud; the criteria being used by her Department in the deployment of gardaí; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50876/13]

Last October, the Minister announced a policy initiative directly involving the Garda in the investigation and combating of social welfare fraud. What I want to ascertain here is whether that policy has been put in place, where, and how successful has it been?

There is a good working relationship between the Department of Social Protection and An Garda Síochána. We closely co-operate with each other in the context of multi-agency operations and investigations to combat social welfare fraud.

A proposal for the secondment of 20 gardaí to the Department of Social Protection to assist with fraud investigation work is currently being progressed with the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána. This pilot scheme has been approved by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It involves the secondment of the 20 officers to my Department's special investigation unit, our key unit in investing fraud. I hope it will be a significant and important resource. The secondment will be for 12 months and the gardaí seconded will undertake the full range of investigative duties in detecting and combating social welfare fraud. It is also envisaged that they will retain their powers as gardaí for the duration of the secondment. They will be appointed with powers under the Social Welfare Acts to enable them to work with officers from the special investigation unit and they will perform all relevant social welfare fraud investigations.

As part of the initiative to prevent and detect fraud, the Department participates in multi-agency vehicle checkpoints, MAVCs, on an ongoing basis with other agencies, particularly the Garda Síochána and Revenue. For example, recently in the mid-west, Deputy O'Dea's region, there was an MAVC aimed at road haulage operators. This checkpoint, which lasted, as is typical, for two hours, resulted in the detection of three cases of concurrent working and claiming of social welfare payments with consequent savings of €67,000.

These checkpoints are carried out from time to time and are aimed at road haulage operators, those driving commercial vehicles, and taxis. Earlier this year there was a specific examination of persons involved in transport in the scrap metal sector.

If I understand the Minister's reply correctly, the multi-agency road checkpoint system has been in place for a quarter of a century but this is a new initiative.

It has not yet come into operation. Discussions are still ongoing with the Garda. Is my understanding of that correct?

Speaking on Newstalk, on 16 October last, the Minister referred to this recruitment of 20 extra gardaí who, she stated, would be concentrating on areas such as airports, etc. She went on to state that the Department will also be looking at areas such as checkpoints in estates and on roads, early in the morning as those who otherwise are claiming benefits are going off to work, either self-employed or working and not declaring it. Is my understanding correct that Garda checkpoints will be set up at the entrance to estates on public roads where residents are going to work with a view to stopping them to ask are they engaged in social welfare fraud or on social welfare? Is that how the system will work?

To give Deputy O'Dea some background that might be helpful, in the period 2010 to 2013 there have been a total of 270 multi-agency vehicle checkpoints.

I am asking about the new initiative, not the multi-agency checkpoints.

The Minister is replying.

The secondment of the gardaí directly to the Department of Social Protection is the new initiative. The multi-agency vehicle checkpoints have been increased quite significantly in recent years.

In case the Deputy is in any doubt, I made it clear that the estates I was referring to are industrial estates. In this case, those being approached - the Revenue Commissioners made the same approaches - would be driving commercial vehicles and there would be checks to see whether drivers are also claiming social welfare. It has happened, for instance, where somebody was signing on sick when stopped by the multi-agency vehicle checkpoint and the person acknowledged having only begun working and merely having not had the time to go down to the local social welfare office to sign off.

I thank the Minister.

Of course, the presence of the multi-agency vehicle checkpoint encouraged the person to go to sign off. That case would be subject to investigation to see whether there was a wider issue.

As the Deputy will be aware, I brought in legislation on airports where a significant project was set up to look at those who may be welfare tourists coming repeatedly to the country with a view of collecting social welfare to which they are no longer entitled having left the country.

I refer to the Minister's own words. She said nothing about industrial estates. She stated that the Department will be looking at areas, such as checkpoints, in estates - nothing about industrial - and on roads, early in the morning. Is the Minister telling us that this will be part of the present multi-agency system or will it be a separate initiative by the gardaí, on behalf of the Department of Social Protection, where the gardaí will be directly involved in stopping and questioning persons on suspicion of social welfare fraud? How will it work? The Minister keeps referring to the multi-agency checkpoints. Wherever the gardaí stop and question persons, will they have to be part of a multi-agency operation or can they do it on their own as a result of this initiative?

First, I will not comment in any detail on the powers of the Garda. The multi-agency vehicle checkpoints have been underway for some time and they are a significant and important technique in terms of detecting persons who may be involved in tax, social welfare or other fraud.

We know all that. Will the Minister answer the question?

On the reason for extending these and enhancing the resources, the special investigation unit of my Department is responsible for participating in these with the Garda Síochána, and having members of the Garda Síochána working with their expertise and powers on a trial basis in the Department------

Will the gardaí be able to stop persons on their own?

-----will significantly enhance the investigative powers of the Department to combat fraud.

Will the gardaí be able to have these checkpoints on their own, not as part of a multi-agency system?

The gardaí, under the Garda Commissioner, can do whatever they wish to do on their own.

So they will be stopping persons on their own.

Deputy O'Dea is speaking about the Garda and the Garda Commissioner's powers. As Deputy O'Dea will be well aware, the Garda Commissioner has powers to do whatever appears to be appropriate to combat crime and provide for law and order in the context of the resources of the force as it sees fit. There is no change in that regard.

Ceist a cúig now. I am sorry. In fairness, Deputies Broughan and Joan Collins are here. We must keep going.

To clarify, the Minister is saying the gardaí will now be able to operate on their own at checkpoints in estates, etc.

I apologise but we must move on to Question No. 5 in the name of Deputy Ó Snodaigh.

Why confine it to the Garda? Why not send in the Army?

Disability Allowance Payments

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

5. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social Protection her views on the delays in making disability allowance payments to 1,700 persons who made successful appeals to the social welfare appeals office; and if she will recruit more staff in order that decisions of the appeals office can be implemented immediately in the future. [50874/13]

What steps will the Minister take to address the increase in the delay between social welfare appeals being successful and appellants subsequently receiving payment from the Department? This delay is now over three months in the case of disabled applicants.

The Department aims to process and pay without delay all successful appeals returned by the social welfare appeals office. There are currently no delays in implementing successful appeal decisions across schemes. The Deputy has been kind enough to acknowledge that we have completely overhauled our IT and processing systems in respect of domiciliary care allowance, carer's allowance and family income supplement. The only area in which delays remain is that which relates to disability allowance. Obviously, we inherited vast delays from the previous Administration. In the case of disability allowance, temporary delays are currently being experienced by some successful appellants. We are working on the substantial backlog which has built up in this area. This is part of the ongoing service delivery modernisation programme the Department is in the process of implementing Said programme has also included the putting in place of a new computer system and more efficient processes to improve the Department's service to customers who are on disability allowance. The disability allowance section is well on its way to eliminating the backlog of new applications. This is the way we dealt with the problems in each of the other areas. The successful clearing of a high number of claims in backlog has resulted in an equally high level of appeals which are been serviced as quickly as possible. I do not know if that makes sense to the Deputy but the processing of claims and efforts to clear the backlog have led to an increase in the number of appeals. If people wish to appeal, they are being accommodated much more quickly. This means that a proportion of cases are returned to the system more rapidly than was previously the case.

Of the 1,700 successful appeal cases I reported to the Deputy in my reply to his question of 19 November, some 500 have been processed and there are now 1,200 disability allowance cases awaiting clearance. The Department is committed to clearing these in the coming weeks. I hope that the vast bulk of them will be dealt with before Christmas. Additional staff resources have already been assigned to this work.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As most of these customers are already in payment on other schemes, arrears due will issue once overlaps with these other scheme payments are taken into account. Any person whose means are insufficient to meet their needs while awaiting a decision on a social welfare payment may apply for means-tested supplementary welfare allowance.

I again assure the Deputy that customer service is a key priority for me and my Department. I am happy to report that major customer service improvements have been made during the past year in the processing of claims and appeals on all the illness related schemes.

I welcome the news that the majority of the 1,200 disability allowance appeals awaiting clearance will be dealt with prior to Christmas. We all acknowledge the progress that has been made in respect of social welfare appeals, particularly in the context of the reduction in waiting times. However, this has made no difference to those on disability allowance whose appeals have been successful because they were still obliged to wait for payment to be restored. In some instances, the delay has been up to three months and this has added to the level of stress on the people involved. I am aware of two cases in which the delay has been over three months. The gap between an appeal being successful and the recommencement of payment never really existed before and it needs to be addressed. I welcome the Minister's commitment to the effect that most of the outstanding appeals will be cleared by Christmas. This will relieve some of the stress on the applicants involved, some of whom have major disabilities. I am of the view that their claims should not have been refused in the first instance.

Another point which must be taken into account is that as most of the 1,200 customers whose appeals are awaiting clearance are already in payment on other schemes, the arrears due will issue once overlaps with these other scheme payments are taken into account. We were obliged to update technology which was very behind the times. I pay tribute to the staff of our Longford office and those across the Department who deal with illness-related and family income supplement schemes because they have worked fantastically well in the context of clearing backlogs and putting the new technology to which I refer in place. When the Department puts in place new technology, it must ensure that the two systems run side by side. Inevitably, therefore, delays occur when we are putting in place new platforms. This is because we must try to ensure that we get everything absolutely right before new systems go live. I thank the Deputy for his comments, which I will pass on to the staff.

In view of her answer, I presume the Minister is confident that the new computer system will allow for future changes. In other words, once an appeal is successful, payment will be made within days or, at most, a week or thereabouts. I accept that it may take longer to calculate arrears. Will the Minister provide a commitment in this regard?

That is the broad objective. I do not want to give an actual commitment at this point because at some stage there could be a flood of additional applications. Given that unemployment is falling and people are returning to work, the chances of such a flood occurring are less than they were previously when huge numbers of people understandably turned to the Department of Social Protection as a result of the collapse in the economy, the disaster which befell the construction sector etc. As we move back into a period of slow recovery in the level of employment, the pressure on the social welfare system will ease to some degree. The new computer and processing systems are working well and, given that we have cleared all the backlogs relating to domiciliary care allowance, carer's allowance and family income supplement, I am confident people will enjoy a significantly higher quality of service. Providing such an improved service would be my objective.