Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Public Services Card

Bríd Smith

Question:

40. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to set out the cost to date of the unrolling of the public services card; the reason possession of a card is mandatory for parents availing of the new child care scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50381/19]

Will the Minister set out the cost to date of unrolling the public services card, PSC? Will the Minister explain the reason possession of the card is mandatory for parents availing of the new child care scheme? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

Without trying to be rude, I was not really sure what the Deputy meant by "unrolling". If it is what I think she means, as in whether we have rowed back on the public services card, then we have not. If that is what the Deputy means, then the answer to the question of the cost of unrolling the PSC is that there has not been any cost because we have not unrolled it, as it were.

I wish to clarify my question. I am not saying rolling back. I mean bringing it forward. How much has it cost to date to introduce, implement and administer it?

That is no problem. I was not sure. I thank the Deputy for clarifying that. We have not unrolled it. We continue to roll out the PSC through the standard authentication framework environment, SAFE, registration process. Although we have major efficiencies in the Department, we also have reduced payment leakage. The total costs for the project since its inception in mid-November 2019 are estimated at €69.4 million. From the first day we started to the end of November 2019, the estimated costs amount to €69.64 million. This includes a figure of €37 million for our staffing costs. However, it is important to say that none of the staff are new. A large proportion of the staff and the costs would have been incurred even if we did not introduce the SAFE 2 PSC process. This is because we had always sought to authenticate the identity of people who were claiming our services and finances thereafter. Previously, we had the social services card and that would have been administered by those staff. Before that, we had pensions books and free travel passes and a variety of different forms of authentication that would have been manned and womanned, as it were, by those staff members. The SAFE process formalised this approach, established a consistent approach across all of our offices and introduced a higher and more secure standard of identity using the token of the PSC which incorporated a photograph of the person.

If an allowance is made, as it properly should be, for the counterfactual or already existing costs, then the actual additional costs of the SAFE PSC process over the past nine years are approximately €39 million. Of the €69 million in new costs, for want of a better term, existing costs were €39 million. Set against these costs, the Department has realised savings to date related to administrative efficiencies and fraud detection that is conservatively estimated at €20 million.

I will come back to the costs. Will the Minister answer the second part of my question? It relates to the reason the card is mandatory for parents availing of the new child care scheme. The Minister did not answer the second part of my question.

That is fine. We will give the Minister an opportunity to answer now.

It is not mandatory, as I said in response to an earlier questioner on the roll-out of decisions relating to the PSC outside of my Department. How other Ministers employ and use the PSC is a matter for them. As far as I am aware, there is a paper application process as well as the online application process for the national child care scheme.

If the Minister is aware of that, then she will also be aware that the paper application process does not come into force until January 2020. That means an applicant will forgo at least one month of the child care payment. The Government, and the Minister's Department in particular, has been criticised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. The council has commented on how for several years the PSC system has targeted those who can least afford to fight it, in particular, those in receipt of social welfare payments, pensioners and students who need maintenance grants. They will be forced to hand over personal data in exchange for services to which they are already entitled. It really is not good enough that the Minister with responsibility for social protection says that it is the responsibility of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, to make the decision to enforce use of the card to be able to avail of the services. As someone who is supposed to protect those in need of social welfare, the Minister should have something to say about this. The system is targeting the very people the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is describing.

The Minister makes the argument on cost that it is only €39 million extra. To many people that is a great deal of money that could be used to keep child care places open and keep drugs projects and community-based projects in communities that really need them.

First, I dispute the ICCL statement that Deputy Smith has just repeated. I assume what Deputy Smith said is what the council said because I have not heard that from the council. A total of 3.2 million people in Ireland from a population of 4.5 million have a PSC. For us to target the most vulnerable by making them get a PSC really stretches the imagination to its limits.

A total of €39 million has been spent in the past seven years to provide super-fast efficient access to public services. If Deputy Smith believes that is a waste of money, then I do not know what to think. Today, a person can go online and get a passport sent to her house through the post box within two or three days. The comparison with traipsing to the post office to get the form, then to the Garda station and then to Mount Street or sending it in the post and having to wait for weeks for it to come back is striking. If the Deputy does not believe that investing in access to public services on behalf of the people we are all here to serve is good value for money, then I give up.

Community Employment Schemes Supervisors

Niamh Smyth

Question:

41. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to set out the status of a matter (details supplied) relating to community employment supervisors; if further discussions have taken place with unions on same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50172/19]

Martin Heydon

Question:

45. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to set out the status of her efforts to address issues affecting community employment supervisors; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50353/19]

Fiona O'Loughlin

Question:

63. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to set out the status of pensions for community employment supervisors; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50255/19]

Willie Penrose

Question:

68. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection when she plans to address the status of community employment supervisors and provide for their payments as per the Labour Court recommendation of 2008; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46862/19]

James Browne

Question:

69. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to outline the position regarding the 2008 Labour Court recommendation regarding pensions for community employment scheme supervisors; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50147/19]

John Brady

Question:

71. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to outline the status of talks between her Department and representatives of community employment supervisors on their pension entitlements; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50250/19]

Willie O'Dea

Question:

74. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to outline the status of talks with community employment supervisors; the way in which she plans to address the issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50352/19]

As the Minister will know, we have been in constant contact along with our colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe.

There are several questions in the group.

My apologies. The Minister will clarify that Questions Nos. 41, 45, 63, 68, 69, 71 and 74 are grouped.

I know the Minister has done a great deal of work on this. It is a long-standing issue and the Minister has done a good deal of work engaging with SIPTU, Fórsa and various unions regarding the community employment, CE, supervisors' pension claim. The Minister might give us an update on her engagement as far as she can.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 41, 45, 63, 68, 69, 71 and 74 together. I know sometimes it annoys people when we take all these questions together but they are all obviously about the same topic. The questions show the extent of the concern and appreciation that we all have and share in the House for the CE scheme itself and in particular for CE supervisors. I thank Deputy Heydon for continually contacting my office to try to get an update.

As the line Minister, I have a real appreciation for the value of the work that our CE supervisors do. I visit CE supervisors and the participants in the schemes throughout the country several times every month. This is the real value of the contribution to our localities, communities and sports clubs and so on, which are great and we would not manage without them. The real value is that some people arrive to the CE scheme when they are somewhat removed from being active in the labour market or even the social economy in their own communities. They need genuine extra over-and-above support care and attention, monitoring, mentoring and coaching. They get that in spades from our CE supervisors. This is why I made it a priority. I made a commitment to the CE supervisors and the unions to try to address the issues that were arising and still outstanding from the Labour Court recommendations of 2008.

We started our consideration process at the beginning of the summer. It is ongoing. We agreed some parameters. They know what my outcomes look like, I know what their wants look like. The commitment I have given them is that I will not stop until we achieve those. Given that some of the recommendations have very large and tangible consequences, probably unintended from their perspective, it is not as easy a route as some people might think, hence the issue has been floating around since 2008. There have been successive Governments since 2008. We are in deliberations and there is a proposal on the table. That negotiation process is beginning in earnest with the financiers of the country.

The only commitment I will continue to give not only to the Deputies, and I thank them for their support, but to the people who carry out the activation service for the Department of Employment and Social Protection day in day out, is that this issue needs to be and will be resolved and I will not stop until it is.

The Minister deals with these cases in her constituency in Meath East as I do in Kildare. It does jar with the community employment, CE, supervisors when they are told that the voluntary sponsoring groups are their employers. I know they are seen that way technically under the law but everything they do daily involves dealing with the Department, for orders, approvals and other elements of the process. I understand the huge challenge of precedence this creates for us and in particular for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform because if it is paid out it opens out to a wider cohort of people. Are there ways of getting around that precedence issue in the Minister’s deliberations and discussions? I understand that the Minister cannot say everything openly here about the negotiations with the unions but this is a challenge we need to take up.

The Minister for Finance has mentioned the high level forum. Does that body have a role in this process or what is its role currently? We all know the value of the voluntary groups in a host of areas from day care centres to sporting organisations and that the work they do with the participants is key.

The Minister just gave the usual stock response about the ongoing talks with representatives of CE supervisors and confidentiality. All we are asking here is for the Minister to clarify that the Government has not reneged on any aspect that was agreed in the talks process.

There is no stock response here. I have engaged in a process with the union since May. We agreed that we would keep our deliberations confidential and I am not in the habit of breaking an agreement that I have made with anybody. I am not sure what the Deputy means by "stock response".

There are several Deputies, and Deputy Heydon happens probably to be in the top three, who contact me weekly about this because they know and see the value of the work being done on the ground, not just because the participants are delivering the services but because the CE supervisors are delivering a huge service to the participants. It is up to us to deliver a service to recognise the value of that contribution. That is the process I engaged in this May. I am sorry that I am not in a position to give the Deputy the parameters but I am certain that if we were to start megaphone debating on what should or should not be done in the confines of a negotiations process I would be back where I was when there was another Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and no solution would be found. The commitment that I have given the unions, the CE supervisors is that I have taken this on as a challenge. I firmly believe they need to be rewarded and recognised. That change and challenge for me has formed part of the interdepartmental review and the reorganisation of CE and the acknowledgement of the work of our CE supervisors is a very large part of that.

I accept what the Minister says, that the Labour Court recommendation of 2008 is still there in the mix and does need to be addressed. Also this year I understand there is a Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, decision on the CE supervisor who has taken a case. Whether that decision will be appealed by the State I have no doubt that the fact the CE supervisor was successful would encourage others to go down that route. I know this does not affect only the Minister’s Department but also covers the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and I will make the same point to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. It is imperative that we deal with this and do not force CE supervisors down the WRC route where there could be hundreds if not more such actions taken and appeals clogging up the system. I know the Minister accepts that it needs action.

I will cite the example of a participant on a CE scheme who had not worked for several years. She got a job on a CE scheme as a secretarial assistant. At a public meeting we held she told the story that when her seven year old child was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up she said "I want to be a secretary like Mammy". Only then did her mother realise the impact that the years of her not having worked had on her child. That is the role it plays for participants and in our communities. The CE supervisors are integral to that and we have to support them in any way we can.

We all agree that CE supervisors do a great job and unfortunately have been left without a pension. Is the Minister aware of the decision made by the WRC in October which found that in the case of CE supervisors her Department is the employer, that it determines and pays their salary, determines all their working conditions, monitors everything they do on the IT system that the Department controls and supplies to them for their use yet she is saying the Department is not the employer. This is a decision of the WRC and I urge her to implement that decision. A pension scheme was to have been put in place for CE supervisors in 2008. They respected the economic catastrophe and allowed the Government time to honour a Labour Court recommendation made on their behalf and the belief that it would be honoured. I urge the Minister to prioritise this.

With respect to both Deputies I am aware of the WRC ruling in October. I am also aware that we were not there to defend ourselves against that ruling which is why an appeal will be taken. In case neither Deputy is aware, there have been two other cases taken by CE supervisors to the Labour Court and both have fallen because it found that we are not the CE supervisors’ employer.

I want to leave that aside because different judges will say yes on one day and no on another. These people do our bidding, and do it enormously well. They are responsible for some 12,000 people who are so far removed from the labour force that they are there to monitor, mentor and coach these people back into full employment in either the real or the supported economies. That is not underestimated by me or by the Department. The value of the contribution that each of those supervisors give the State cannot be overestimated. I do not underestimate or undervalue it. That is why I engaged in face to face round table talks for the first time with union representatives of CE supervisors and the CE supervisors. That Labour Court recommendation is not a ruling. Since that recommendation in 2008 not one Minister has dealt with it until I guaranteed that I would take this on and find a solution. That is what I will do. That is the only commitment I can make to the Deputies as I have made to them, that I will not let them down.

Questions came from Deputies Heydon, Smyth, O’Loughlin, Penrose, Browne and Brady, represented by Deputies Quinlivan and O’Dea. I thank the contributors and the Minister.

Social Welfare Fraud

John Curran

Question:

42. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the investigations and reviews undertaken by the scope section of her Department either solely or in cooperation with the Revenue Commissioners to address the issue of bogus self-employment to date in 2019; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50283/19]

Can the Minister set out the reviews and investigations undertaken by the scope section in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection either alone or with the Revenue Commissioners on bogus self-employment, and their outcomes? How many cases were determined to be bogus self-employment?

I hope I am on the record stating my determination to tackle false self-employment. We have reallocated some significant resources, particularly this year in the Department to do so.

Since I became Minister, the Department's social welfare inspectors have been instructed to redouble their efforts with a nationwide campaign of employer inspections. That happens through our scope section which is long established and spread all around the country where we have our inspectors. As the Deputy is aware they do other inspections apart from bogus self-employment and because of that I decided earlier this year to establish a dedicated new unit of inspectors with a specific focus on tackling false self-employment. I have increased the number of deciding officers in that scope section.

Although they are new and separate, they still operate under the umbrella of the scope section. I have increased the number of deciding officers in anticipation of an increase in referrals to the scope section as a result of the increased and targeted inspections. I have also instructed my officials to develop legislation in the form of a new criminal offence to prohibit and penalise the willful misclassification of a person as being self-employed when he or she is an employee; new anti-victimisation measures, with recourse to the WRC for fearful workers who wish to seek a determination on their employment status from the scope section but have told me privately that they are afraid to do so, which cannot be countenanced; and a new guidance document on employment status that is to be put on a statutory footing so that everybody will be clear about their obligations and rights with regard to employment.

The employment status investigation unit, ESIU, comprises the new team of social welfare inspectors. I have specifically tasked the unit with detecting, targeting and reducing false self-employment. The ESIU has a current caseload that potentially affects over 500 workers across a range of sectors, including the tourism, fitness, dental, and retail sectors. Two employer cases have been decided since the introduction of the changes I have just outlined. It is not just two because we are now entering organisations and assessing an entire body of employees. One person was confirmed as being properly self-employed but the case covered a potential 156 workers. We have determined that all of these 156 workers are classified correctly and no further action is needed. The other case covered 19 workers found initially to have been inaccurately categorised as being self-employed. An appeal has been lodged in that case. If we win the appeal, we will assess arrears and seek compliance in that case.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The ESIU has initiated a programme of solo inspections in the construction industry and English language training sectors. It is also planning to carry out joint inspection projects with the joint investigation unit, that is, the special investigation unit, Revenue and the WRC, focused on the construction industry early in the new year.

The ESIU is also working with our business analytics unit using predictive analytics to assist with the targeting of companies where false self-employment is likely to occur. This work is in its initial phase and it is intended to develop it over time.

More generally, the scope section receives requests for decisions on employment status from a variety of sources. These include requests from employers, employees, social welfare Inspectors, social welfare scheme areas and Revenue. Two such requests have been received so far this year from Revenue.

Regarding inspections and reviews, there are approximately 350 social welfare inspectors appointed nationwide who carry out work across PRSI and social welfare schemes, including the special investigation unit and the ESIU. I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I was trying to make notes as the Minister was giving her reply. I will get the information from the full transcript of her reply. I acknowledge that she stated last summer that she was establishing the new unit. She might indicate how many people are actually working in the new unit. Is she saying that only two of the 500 investigations uncovered possible bogus self-employment and that one of these was not a case of bogus self-employment? Is that what she is trying to tell us in terms of the numbers? Is this new unit working independently in the Department or is it working as the scope section traditionally worked, for example, on joint investigations with Revenue?

We have a target of 12 but have not yet reached that full quota because it is a specialised unit. We have invited people from around the country who were inspectors to join it before, possibly, we hand pick people. We are approximately three quarters of the way there. The training for the people who have already joined the unit has been finalised so the actual targeted examination of classifications started in earnest a number of months ago. That is alongside the re-evaluation of the legislation I have spoken about.

There are a number of outstanding and pending cases so it would not be fair to say that in the context of the 500 cases at which we have looked, the overwhelming response would be that people were not misclassified. This is much more nuanced and, probably, widespread at a much lower level than we anticipated. There is a general view among people that certain industries are very non-compliant in this area. The one we probably all go to has been the subject of a review and a very targeted joint inspection by the Department and Revenue and has been found to be, in the main, compliant. We are now concentrating on other areas that might not have popped into people's heads in the first instance such as the fitness, IT, graphics and pharmaceutical industries, the healthcare sector, broadcasting and media. There a number of significant pending investigations.

I thank the Minister for her reply. This has been an issue for some time. Officials from the Department appeared before the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection in connection with it. I acknowledge that there has been a welcome move on the issue because there had been a reluctance to deal with it and a feeling that it was being exaggerated and overstated. The Department was not dealing with it as proactively as it is now. This is a positive move. We need to see the roll-out take place. It needs to be accelerated because as the Department pursues other things like auto-enrolment in pension schemes, people who are bogusly self-employed will lose out more in the future than they do now. I wish the Minister well. This is really important.

The Minister made reference to proposed legislation to protect people who may come forward but who are currently afraid to do so. This is extremely important because the anecdotal evidence we receive is that people are not prepared to put their heads above the parapet because they are afraid of victimisation in terms of the precarious nature of their jobs and fear their jobs may disappear.

I thank the Deputy for the compliment. I agree with him so I thank him. I know that this is a new unit that has only been established for a couple of months but it might be helpful if at the end of every year, we issue a report on the investigations. We might not name the employers but we could set out whether investigations have been positive or negative so that we can get a feel regarding where we are hitting targets.

Anti-victimisation legislation is really important. A very young man told me that he had been working in a particular industry and was not self-employed but was forced to become self-employed along with hundreds of other people in his organisation. The problem is that it is not unique to this young man's company. It is unique to his industry. Had he rocked the boat and been let go, which is apparently what happened to previous employees in that place of work, he would have been blacklisted and would have been unable to go to similar companies. In his mind, his skill set only equipped him to work in that industry. This is not on and we must stamp it out. Apart from the obvious loss of revenue to the State, and we quibble in here year in and year out about what we could do with more money if we had it, employment rights are being trampled and we cannot stand over that. I will not stand over it.

Rural Social Scheme Eligibility

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

43. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the reason her Department put a cap of six years on participation on the rural social scheme and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50170/19]

No doubt the Minister recognises the exceptional contribution to society made by the workers in the rural social scheme. It is important to remember that this is not an activation scheme. It is a supplemental income scheme for small low-income farmers and fishermen in return for work done. Could she outline the reasons the Department has put a cap of six years in the length of participation in this scheme? Previously, as long as someone was eligible under the income threshold, he or she could stay on the scheme indefinitely because he or she would need the supplemental income indefinitely and society needed the work indefinitely.

The rural social scheme, RSS, is an income support initiative to provide part-time employment opportunities in the community and voluntary organisations for farmers or fishermen in receipt of certain social welfare payments who are underemployed in their primary occupation. Communities benefit enormously from the skills and talents of local farmers and fishermen and the participants have the opportunity to improve existing skills, or develop new skills, while performing this valuable work in their communities.

Unfortunately, as the Deputy knows, the scheme has its limitations. Apart from the fact that it has played an important role in sustaining rural communities, participants have the opportunity to improve themselves and make themselves ready for other employment opportunities. In tandem, communities benefit from their skills and talents. Many projects up and down the country have been carried out by RSS participants, including a beautiful church in Roscommon that has been rebuilt and is looking fabulous.

I secured extra resources to add extra places to the RSS in 2017 and 2018. The problem is that if we leave people on it indefinitely, it locks other people out and does not allow them to participate in the scheme. Participants who commenced on the scheme prior to 1 February 2017 can remain on it. As a result, anybody who would have engaged with the scheme when the Deputy introduced it will be allowed to remain on it indefinitely. In order not to lock people out, however - because the Deputy is aware that it is probably one of the highest-rated schemes in terms of participation and because we have a cap on places - we introduced a six-year participation limit that lets people come in, stay on the scheme, reskill and redevelop and make themselves available for other employment opportunities in the community.

Can the Minister outline the number of places available on the scheme at present, the number of participants on the scheme and the number of people on waiting lists to go on the scheme? A finite number of people are receiving farm assist or fish assist, so it appears that this is a false reason. To make the places available on demand would require a very small increase.

I might not be able to answer all the Deputy's questions but as of 29 November there were 3,231 participants and 138 supervisors in the RSS. The funding allocated to the scheme for this year is €53.11 million. The Deputy is correct that it was established as an income support scheme, but the way the scheme has developed with the involvement of training and the fact that people can reskill and enhance the talents they bring with them to the scheme affords them the opportunity to look for new work opportunities in their communities. If we were to continue in the way it was originally established, an RSS participant could spend his working life on the scheme. That would result in very limited turnover of places and no opportunity for new entrants. I do not believe that is what was envisaged, and it certainly is not envisaged for the future. It might not be a pure activation scheme like some of our other schemes. The aim of the people on the scheme is not to get a job at the end of it, but it is a scheme to help them to skill up and retrain while they are offering their valuable services in the community so they can have a broader approach to looking for work thereafter.

We will take one final question from Deputy Ó Cuív.

The Minister mentioned skilling up. These are active farmers and highly skilled people. One thing that amazed me when I went to live and work permanently in rural Ireland was the skill level of local farmers in many facets of work. For some of them, for all sorts of family reasons, the combination of farming and the scheme keeps them fully occupied. The scheme provides vital services at a small cost to the State. The State would have to pay far more to provide them otherwise. They are not available to take full-time positions. It is patronising to speak continually as if these people were under-skilled in some way. If people wish to progress into full-time jobs, they will do so. If they can get them and are free to take them, they will take them. The Minister said there are 3,231 participants. What is the total number of places available on the scheme at present? Second, at the micro level there are some areas of the country that have places available on the scheme but due to the six-year rule, when it takes effect, they will be unable to fill the places.

When I made the increase in the 2018 budget, it capped the number of places at 3,350. As I said, the current number of participants is 3,231. This is one of our most successful schemes. Far from being patronising, with respect, I am trying to tell the Deputy that some of these people are the highest skilled workers in our community. However, they are only farming or fishing part-time, so it is open to them to have another part-time job outside the State providing an income support for them. In no way was it ever intended to have people dependent on welfare for the rest of their lives. I doubt that this was ever envisaged and it is certainly not envisaged in the scheme now. That is why the cap of six years was imposed. It is to allow people to dip in and dip out at different times of their lives when they cannot avail of other job opportunities in the State. Far from being patronising, this is a very valuable scheme. I realise the Deputy established it and give him credit for doing so. It is one of our better schemes. However, the Department absolutely does not create welfare dependency. That defeats every purpose it has.

I have a second supplementary question.

No, tá an t-am imithe. Leanfaidh muid ar aghaidh le ceist Uimh. 44.

I did not get a second supplementary question.

I do not think so.

You did. I am not that slow.

The Acting Chairman should check the record. I did not get a second supplementary question.

Social Welfare Benefits Waiting Times

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

44. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to ensure timely access to decisions, payments and reviews for all schemes and services as promised in budget 2020; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50378/19]

When a person needs to access the social welfare system it is usually when there is an emergency such as a big drop in income, illness, job loss and so forth. People need prompt access to get an income up and running again. With many schemes it takes three or four months to process applications. I note that under the budget the Minister intends to make improvements on that. Can she outline how she is going to improve it and what she would consider to be an improvement? What are the targets she is aiming to achieve to ensure a prompt turnaround?

I am happy to reaffirm that in budget 2020 my Department has been allocated €21.2 billion, an increase of 3.4% on 2019.  This allocation ensures that the Department can continue to protect our customers and make improvements to the schemes and services in the coming year.  Among the priorities that I set out in the budget is a continued commitment to provide timely access to decisions, payments and reviews for all schemes and services.

My Department has an ongoing commitment to providing a quality service to all its customers, ensuring that applications are processed and that decisions on entitlement are made as quickly as possible. A recent review of processing performance by the Comptroller and Auditor General found that the Department "exceeded or was close to reaching the target volume of claims to be processed within specified processing standards for most schemes".  There were a number of exceptions to this. Although good progress was reported in the time to award applications for schemes with the longest waiting times, it was noted that some schemes, particularly illness and caring related schemes, were not yet meeting their performance targets.

I am pleased to report that since the Comptroller and Auditor General reviewed performance earlier this year, good progress has been made, particularly with the illness related schemes.  For example, the time to award a carer's allowance claim is now shorter than at any time over the past ten years.  There is still more progress to be made and the Department will continue to examine its procedures and resources to identify opportunities to reduce processing times still further.

I ask all Deputies to help the Department by conveying the message that when people make applications to the Department they should provide complete application forms and all the supporting documentation required, which is set out in the checklist at the back of the application forms. For example, applicants for illness related schemes should provide information on all their medical conditions and on their means. In some cases, people hold back some medical information on the basis that they think they might need it for the appeal. While I recognise that this means people have a mindset that we will say "No" and they will have to appeal, we only say "No" when we do not have the full volume of information that is required. Deputies should encourage people to make a full application at the beginning.

I thank the Minister for outlining that. However, can she say what she considers to be a satisfactory waiting time? What are the targets she is seeking to achieve? It is currently three to four months for an illness or jobseeker's payment to come through in many cases. Even if people go to the community welfare officer for a temporary payment, it will be means tested and is unlikely to be as much as the payment to which they would be entitled. In many cases the payment is a benefit. People have already paid their stamp and it should be a clear-cut process to deal with many of the applications quickly. What does she consider to be a realistic target for the waiting time? Ideally, it should be short. How will she bring about those changes and what will she change? How soon will the changes be implemented? Will people who are applying now and over the coming weeks benefit from them?

I will give a couple of examples.

It worries me that the Deputy has included jobseeker's benefit in the list of long waits because the waiting time should be less than a week. At most, it should be two weeks for jobseeker's allowance if a means test needs to be done. There is no delay in processing jobseeker's benefit claims. If Deputy Moynihan is aware of any delays, I ask him to send the details.

The payments which cause most frustration are illness related and caring schemes. For argument's sake, at the end of October, the Department had met its target of processing 70% of new carer's allowance applications within 12 weeks. We currently have a ten-week processing time. However, carer's allowance is a means-tested payment and once the means test has been done, the medical part must be done. As I stated, if all the medical information is provided at application stage, it should be relatively easy to process the application within ten weeks. We have a 12-week target. I am probably giddy and demanding insofar as I think the 12-week target should be reduced to eight weeks because we are now processing applications in ten weeks. We moved staff into the carer's section relatively recently arising from efficiencies in other areas. This needs to happen continuously using our front office-back office approach. We may need to move staff.

The other information the Deputy seeks is in the report and I will give him a copy.

At the end of the day, more staff means faster results. However, as the staffing allocation for the Department is decreasing, we cannot go out and get more staff. We have to improve practices in the Department and make them more efficient by using technology. In that way, we will use our most valuable resource, our staff, to the best possible end.

Processing illness benefit claims should be fairly clear-cut and straightforward given that people have already paid stamps. There should not be a significant delay in that regard. It should be possible to process all benefits much faster. How soon will applicants see the benefits of the changes the Minister makes? Will a change be made in the next year which will result in faster processing times the following year or the year after that or will applicants who apply for a payment today or next week be able to see the benefits of change before Christmas?

I hope people are already seeing the benefit. For argument's sake, we have a target processing time for carer's allowance of 12 weeks and our current turnaround time is ten weeks. For disability allowance, we have a processing time of 12 weeks and our current turnaround time is ten weeks. We have a processing time of 12 weeks for domiciliary care allowance and our current turnaround time is ten weeks.

Illness benefit applications should be processed in one week. The only reason an application should be delayed is if the Department does not receive a medical certificate from the applicant. The Deputy is correct that an applicant may or may not have paid contributions to avail of the benefit and that is simple to determine. If the medical certificate is not submitted, it may cause a delay but no more than a week. There should be no delay with regard to illness benefit.

All applications for jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance should be turned around in a matter of days or a few weeks. Delays in processing jobseeker's allowance applications may be caused by means tests or the Department not receiving information. Delays in processing applications for long-term payments such as carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and disability allowance are caused by the failure to provide to the medical assessors medical certificates and information that is required in support of applications.

Question No. 45 answered with Question No. 41.

Disability Allowance Applications Waiting Times

Joan Collins

Question:

46. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the steps being taken to reduce the waiting times to process disability allowance applications in view of the fact that it appears the waiting times have gone up recently; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50356/19]

This question follows on from the previous question. Staff in my constituency office have asked me to raise this issue with the Minister because they have noticed recently, particularly with respect to carer's allowance and disability allowance, that waiting times for processing applications have increased. From the date that all the requested information is provided, it can take anything from three to four months to process an application. The Minister stated that the average waiting time for processing an application for carer's allowance is three months. My staff who had noticed a decrease in the waiting times have recently noticed that they have increased again. Is there a reason for that? People need four or five weeks to submit information, after which they must wait between 12 and 14 weeks for the application to go through.

Individual cases will obviously vary based on the information that individuals provide. All I can do, when I report the numbers, is report the average time.

It bothers me to learn from Deputy Collins that average waiting times appear to be increasing because the statistics indicate that the additional resources we have put into the carer's section are yielding results. Not long ago, I was in this Chamber apologising because at one point carer's allowance applicants were waiting 17 weeks on average. That meant the best outcome for an applicant was to wait for 17 weeks. God love those who could have been waiting much longer. The average waiting time for processing disability allowance applications is ten weeks. For carer's allowance, the average is ten weeks. For domiciliary care allowance, it is between ten and 12 weeks. The reason for the decrease is that, arising from efficiencies in other sections, we added extra staff with expertise to the division.

That is the plan. Without being smart, we knew that the carer's application form was a bit cumbersome. We spent a year working with Family Carers Ireland to do exactly what we did with the domiciliary care allowance application a number of years ago working with DCA Warriors. People tend to engage better and provide more information when the application process is made more streamlined. While this process and the additional staff we have provided significantly improved turnaround times, we still experience cases of applicants holding back information they think they will need for an appeal. The result is that the ten or 12 week process starts all over again because the application must go to the bottom of the new deciding officer's list. That is frustrating for me. Instead of having applications that have been rejected because they are not complete going to appeal and the process starting all over again, I have considered having a review process somewhere in the middle. However, that would create another pile. Without wishing to sound snarky, everybody should give us all of the information they can in the first instance. We do not have a policy of refusing applications in the first instance and dealing only with applicants who come back a second time. We are here to support people in their times of need and to ensure they have an income when they are doing things that stop them from otherwise having an income. In those cases, the answer is "Yes" but we can only say "Yes" to an applicant when he or she gives us all the information that is needed.

I take on board what the Minister says. Previously, when the waiting time was 17 weeks and possibly more, changes were made and the Minister provided additional resources. However, my staff are saying there seems to be a drop-off and are asking the reason for that. We are having no problem with illness benefit applications. They seem to be going through and the same applies to jobseeker's benefit applications. The difficulty was specifically with disability allowance and carer's allowance. We can send the details to the Minister.

I would appreciate that.

Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme

John Brady

Question:

47. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the date for the publication of the new social inclusion strategy; if she has received the document; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50252/19]

Perhaps Deputy Quinlivan will forgo introducing Deputy Brady's question.

I will be brief. Deputy O'Dea made a comment about Sinn Féin MPs taking their salaries. As the Deputy would know, if he knew anything about the North, that is simply not the case. Maybe if his party had not abstained from the North for 100 years, he would be well aware of that.

I ask Deputy Quinlivan to address the question or I will dispense with it altogether.

I did not get a chance to raise this matter because the Deputy left the Chamber. The question relates to another overdue report which is nowhere to be seen despite the crisis we face in tackling poverty. Will the Minister give a specific date for publishing the new social inclusion strategy? I am happy for the Minister to send on that report.

I thank the Deputy for allowing me to put this on the record of the House. Our roadmap for social inclusion is far more than just another report. The use of that term says a lot about the Deputy's opinion. I intend to bring the social inclusion strategy to Cabinet for review at the earliest opportunity. I received a draft of our new social inclusion strategy only last week. It will have a whole-of-Government approach which recognises the shared responsibility across Government to achieve improved outcomes for the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society who I am happy to represent and do my best to look after. The roadmap will state a clear ambition to achieve the long-held, but as yet unrealised, target of reducing consistent poverty to 2% or less. It also aspires to make Ireland one of the most socially inclusive states in the EU. It sets a number of specific targets to be achieved across various sectors of government and identifies commitments to be delivered by each Department with timelines for delivery.

The roadmap will reflect the most recent poverty data from the 2018 survey on income and living conditions, SILC, published by the CSO last week.

That data shows that the consistent poverty rate decreased to 5.6% in 2018, down from 6.7% in 2017. The percentage of the population experiencing deprivation also decreased significantly, falling to 15.1% from 18.8% in 2017. The percentage at risk of poverty rate decreased to 14% from 15.7% in 2017.

It is nice to know that the decisions we make in this House that impact some of the-----

In fairness to every Deputy and the Minister, could we have a little bit of silence please?

I was going to finish by saying that it is nice to know that the decisions we make collectively in this House to spend taxpayers' money on helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society are working.

I will allow a brief supplementary question.

The word "another" is, as the Minister knows, about the delay rather than the report. I am disappointed that she used the word as an attack. She told us the report would be published shortly. A report on the reduced number of jobseeker's payments has not been released. Perhaps she has a different definition of what "shortly" means. She might enlighten us about that.

In September she told us that the report had been finalised, yet we still have not seen it. We have a major crisis with poverty in this State, whether it is child or in work poverty, and it is not being tackled. More than 100,000 people at work in the State live in poverty. Work should be a route out of poverty for people in Ireland but it is not. Millions of euro are being spent on the working family payment to supplement poor wages rather than paying workers properly in the first place. A living wage would address some of that.

Some 1,185 people in the Minister's Department do not earn a living wage. We have failed to meet our targets when it comes to reducing child poverty. The Government's target of lifting 95,000 children out of poverty by 2020 will not be met and it seems as if there will not be a plan in place.

The Deputy obviously did not pay any attention to the CSO SILC reports released last week, perhaps because he does not like the direction that things are taking. He would be much happier if we had people who were genuinely living in persistent poverty, similar to what is happening in Northern Ireland. The SILC numbers show a reduction to 5.6% last week.

I restate my thanks to the Members of this House, in particular Fianna Fáil Members who have supported the Government's budgets for the past number of years. The direct, targeted impacts we have collectively introduced to help lone parents and children have resulted in the SILC figure of 5.6%. With respect, what we are doing is working. We have the lowest rate of unemployment across the EU at 4.8%.