Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Domestic Violence

The pandemic has reinforced the need for progressive change in the area of paid leave for victims and survivors of domestic abuse and domestic violence. I am sure the Minister will be aware that yesterday National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, launched the university's domestic violence leave policy. It is a really good piece of work and I recommend that the Minister take a look at it and engage with some of the people involved. His colleague attended the launch with me yesterday. I thank, in particular, Nata Duvvury, Sinéad Wynne and Daniel O'Hara, who were central to the creation and publication of this policy. I thank also the people within the trade union group in NUIG who worked in partnership with management and ensured that this was brought forward. It is very important we legislate for this. I listened to the Minister's Cabinet colleague talk about how progressive and fantastic it was that NUIG was leading the way, how wonderful it was that it was taking the lead on this and how he would like to see it established in other higher education institutes. It is that kind of commentator-style behaviour on the part of the Government, almost as if this is not within its gift or power to do, that I think people find a little hard to take at times.

As the Minister will be aware, our party leader, Deputy McDonald, and I tabled legislation in the form of an amendment to the Organisation of Working Time Act to provide for ten days' paid statutory leave for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. I do not think there is any disagreement between us about the necessity for legislation. I think we fully agree on that. I think there might be a slight disagreement between us about the timing. I think we should progress this quickly. I do not think there is any need - or any excuse - for further delay in this area. An Teachta McDonald and I brought forward the legislation because we had consulted with stakeholders, campaign groups and victims and survivors. We were in receipt of a huge amount of correspondence in the immediate aftermath of the introduction of that legislation from people who really wanted to see it happen: the trade union movement, employers and victims and survivors, who contacted us individually to say they really wanted to see some progress in this area.

I sometimes doubt that the Government is serious about this. I had that doubt yesterday when I attended virtually the launch at NUIG. Now we see Danske Bank, in conjunction with the Financial Services Union, and NUIG, in consultation with the women's studies centre, the trade union group and HR, moving ahead and the Government not moving at the same pace. That is regrettable. The text of this Topical Issue matter refers to "the need to provide a statutory entitlement" to paid domestic violence leave. We agree on that. We do not need to discuss the need for it; we know there is a need for it. What I want to hear from the Minister is whether he will work with me to progress the legislation I have introduced or indeed whether progress can be made in some other way.

While I am on my feet, there is a Bill before the Seanad that is effectively a carbon copy of the Bill I introduced in that it is an amendment to the Organisation of Working Time Act. It relates to leave for early bereavement in pregnancy. That Bill is being taken by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I wonder, therefore, whether a Bill which is essentially the same has fallen between two stools and whether that is why progress is not happening. Perhaps it would be better if it were moved to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I am not sure. I would welcome the Minister's view on that.

I welcome the opportunity to come before the House to discuss this incredibly important issue. I thank Deputy O'Reilly for raising the matter and I acknowledge her own work on it.

Since its formation, the Government has made clear that tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is a key priority. A range of measures to tackle this has been outlined in the programme for Government. It contains a commitment to investigate the provision of paid leave and social protection provision to victims of domestic violence with a view to establishing a statutory entitlement to paid domestic violence leave. The Government agreed on 8 December 2020 to examine establishing a statutory entitlement to paid domestic violence leave and to provide a report within six months with legislative proposals to follow within a further four months.

My Department is advancing work on this proposal. It is preparing a report and recommendations which I hope to bring to the Government in the coming weeks. This will be followed by legislative proposals. The report will include a comparative examination of domestic violence leave provision internationally to identify best practices. As part of this work also, a targeted consultation process has taken place with relevant stakeholders and social partners to examine how a scheme of paid leave should operate to effectively address the needs of victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Consultations have taken place with the monitoring committee of the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, employers' groups and trade unions, as well as with stakeholders of the national equality strategy committees which fall under my Department’s remit.

I have directly participated in a number of these consultations, engaging with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Financial Services Union. I am aware of the work taking place and the pressure from trade unions for this legislation to be introduced. I also engaged with employers' groups to understand any concerns they might have in order to properly address them. Written submissions were invited from relevant stakeholders and these submissions are currently being examined. They will form part of the report and recommendations I will bring to the Government.

The purpose of this engagement is to develop a scheme for domestic violence leave which will fully address the need for victims of domestic abuse to be able to access the leave they require, while also being mindful of the role that employers will have to play in sensitively managing vulnerable staff members, along with protecting and respecting their privacy.

The economic impact of domestic violence is not always at the forefront of people’s minds when they consider the effect on victims. Experiencing domestic violence can be a contributing factor to women experiencing homelessness and poverty. Lack of economic independence can also be a factor in preventing a victim from leaving an abusive situation. Support for victims who are working, in the form of paid leave, could be crucial to ensuring they retain their employment and have the economic capacity to escape abuse and rebuild their lives.

I am happy to be able to provide to the House this update on the ongoing work to provide for this legislation.

I do not disagree. Support is absolutely essential. I experienced this personally when I was a workplace representative. Very often people in a domestic violence situation find the abuse is not confined to home. In fact, their workplace becomes a site of abuse. The Minister and I know this happens.

While I respect a consultation process is under way, the Minister must also respect that for a long number of years this issue has been on the agenda for Sinn Féin and others. However, there already has been a delay. It was agreed on 8 December, six months ago. That is now delayed and it will be another four months until there is legislation.

It would be useful and good for those who desperately need this legislation to believe that there is a sense of urgency coming from the Government. I genuinely do not feel there is, however. It feels like the Government is going back over old ground. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The proof is in the fact that State and private sector employers, along with workers and their representatives, are already moving ahead of the Government. We know there are international examples. There is no way the Irish Government will lead internationally on this. National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, launched its policy yesterday, meaning such leave is now available to men and women working in the university. Danske Bank did the same, as have Vodafone and other private sector companies. Yesterday, the Minister's colleague indicated he would like to see more HEIs, higher education institutions, do it.

The Minister is consulting about an issue that we all know needs to be addressed. I have produced legislation to deal with it. The simple fact is everybody else is moving ahead. They could be forgiven for thinking there is no sense of urgency coming from the Government in this regard.

I strongly disagree with the Deputy's comments on the priority that my Department has placed on this issue. She named a number of individual employers which are bringing in schemes. I absolutely welcome this and commend their work. However, we are looking at a scheme that will be statutorily applicable across all employers. That is a much bigger order of magnitude. It is important we put in the proper research and engagement with all relevant stakeholders to ensure we get the process right.

We have done this in a tight timeline while my Department is advancing gender equality in the workplace on a range of other fronts as well. We brought in the family leave Bill to increase parental leave. The Gender Pay Gap Information Bill was passed by the House two weeks ago and will be in the Seanad soon. We have committed to engage in research on the issue of leave for miscarriages, as well as the extension of breastfeeding leave. Significant work on a wide number of fronts is being undertaken in my Department in terms of protecting families and, most particularly, protecting women.

The introduction of paid domestic violence leave is a key part of that. We set out a tight time period for it and we are working to achieve the first element in terms of a report and a proposal for the Government. There will then be a four-month timeframe in bringing forward that legislation. I have engaged with the stakeholders. They understand what we are doing and see the Government's commitment to address this issue. I look forward in the near future to steering legislation on domestic violence leave through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Traffic Management

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this matter for Topical Issue debate. I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is here because I know she is more than familiar with what has happened in Galway. Many of her colleagues on the council have spoken out on this matter.

It is an issue I raise reluctantly as it should be managed locally. Unfortunately, the event last Sunday, part of an ongoing number of events known as Salthill Sunday, has caused consternation, upset, distress and serious traffic congestion. I spoke to gardaí in Salthill on this matter who said they are doing everything possible. I realise matters of this nature are for the Garda to deal with to a certain extent. I do not wish to intrude on Garda operational matters. However, it is much bigger than that.

All this week the local radio station has been inundated with contact from people affected by this event which has been going on for a number of weeks. It is an organised event but the Garda has told me it is not a controlled one. Therein lies the problem. Last Sunday, Galway came to a standstill. We have restaurants losing business. A person had to be airlifted to hospital because emergency services could not get through. We have had elderly people missing or being delayed for their appointments for vaccination. These are only some of the affected people. We have noise and air pollution, intimidation and people reporting that their children with disabilities have been seriously affected.

I do not want to go into anecdotes about this. However, I am raising it in the Dáil when I would prefer to be raising the housing or health services problems in Galway. It means I am taking this matter very seriously because the councillors have taken it very seriously. More importantly, the people of Galway are greatly distressed.

Members of An Garda Síochána are of the view that we should perhaps be looking at a venue for these car enthusiasts. Certainly, there is scope for that and it is a positive way of looking at it. In the meantime, however, to allow these organised but not controlled events to go on is simply unacceptable. This is bigger than the Garda and it has to work in collaboration with the management of the city council and the councillors, in the first instance to ensure there are enough community gardaí and community wardens on the ground and then to ensure the safety of the community, which is primarily in the Salthill and Claddagh areas, and also down at the Black Box Theatre, all areas with which the Minister of State is more than familiar. I ask the Minister of State to please not read from a script and tell me that it is an operational matter for the Garda. I am sure she will not do that and that she is as concerned as I am about this.

I am not a great Facebook person but what troubles me is that those who are organising this event are communicating through Facebook. They are telling us that they will persist in doing this until they get what they want. This is not a great way to ensure collaboration with the elected representatives and with the Garda. I seek a pragmatic and practical approach to this but at the top of the list must be the safety and enjoyment of the community areas for everyone and not just for car enthusiasts. I know many people who are not easily intimidated but when they tell me that they could not cycle their bike or turned back and would not walk, then I know there is something radically wrong with these events. I will stop at this point and ask the Minister of State to deal with this issue.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue today. I am glad to speak on a topic of concern for many public representatives, both local and national, and for people from the Galway area, as outlined by the Deputy. I spoke this afternoon to members of An Garda Síochána in Galway about the recent event in Salthill and events that may be planned for this weekend or other future dates. I also have spoken to the Galway city manager about this event. While the Deputy will appreciate that the Garda Commissioner is operationally responsible for all policing matters, I am reassured that a policing plan is in place in anticipation of another Salthill Sunday event, if required.

Local members of the Garda are also monitoring social media and will tailor any operations for this weekend or any other weekends as needed. Extra gardaí will be on duty around the city and in Salthill this weekend and they also will be carrying out spot checks.

Those of us from Galway are aware that these recent gatherings have understandably led to significant local concern. On Sunday last, a large number of vehicles gathered in Salthill village and Galway city as part of a Salthill Sunday event. Gardai from Salthill and Galway, together with resources from the divisional roads policing unit, implemented an operation for the management of the event. The public service vehicle inspector for the Galway division was also on duty. The Garda has informed me that 80 road traffic offences were detected by the roads policing unit and by uniformed members on duty at the event and that these will be actioned accordingly with fixed-charge penalty notices or summonses, as appropriate.

While An Garda Síochána has confirmed that there were no public order incidents of note, it has confirmed that the gathering of a large number of vehicles caused disruption to traffic. I fully appreciate the frustration which local people feel about any anti-social behaviour which there may have been around this event, and the concerns they may have in respect of future events.

I have been reassured today by An Garda Síochána in the Galway division that it will enforce legislation and ensure any breaches of legislation are prosecuted as they arise.

It is also important to note that the Garda is continuing to provide enhanced support to the public health effort to combat Covid-19. In this context, we are continuing to appeal to the public to avoid large gatherings and crowds at this time. Personal responsibility and compliance with the public health measures that remain in place continue to be key in minimising opportunities for the virus to spread.

I fully appreciate and it is important to say that in normal times, car enthusiasts may wish to gather and enjoy the company of like-minded people but I would ask that everyone adhere to the public health regulations and I appeal to the organisers of such events to consider the impact they are having on the local population in Salthill. I also ask people to refrain from meeting in large numbers and to follow the continuing public health advice and the necessary restrictions As our society and economy re-opens, we are also being asked to socialise outdoors and to make the most of our community spaces. With that in mind, all of us have a responsibility to residents in places such as Salthill to be respectful when we gather outdoors. I appreciate how difficult the past 15 months have been for everyone and how many sacrifices people have made to maximise our collective safety against Covid-19. I join all Deputies in welcoming the freedoms that have been restored in recent weeks. However, we are all called upon now to ensure that we can enjoy the outdoors as safely as possible and that we all take responsibility for our own actions.

I am a little disappointed that the Minister of State is reassuring me that there is a policing plan in place and that she is appealing to the public not to gather. This is not about the public gathering but about a relatively small number of people organising an event that is not controlled. It is about the Garda being overwhelmed because when I spoke to some members of the force, they said that they were applying the law as best they could. I empathise with them. This is bigger than the members of the Garda, who are just one aspect of it. We need collaboration with the city council and we need community wardens along with members of the Garda. Before I came in today, I looked out the window and counted 28 gardaí minding us in this august establishment here. I would like to see that presence on the ground in Galway.

The Minister of State is appealing to people who are not listening. I have read their Facebook communications. They are not hearing but are telling us that they are going to keep going until they get what they want. I would call that, at the very least, defiant language. I am all in favour of car enthusiasts when acting in an organised and controlled way. This is not a controlled event but is depriving the majority of people of the enjoyment of public space. This is interfering with people's safety and health where people are turning up. I know that the Minister of State is aware of this but I am asking her to take a hands-on approach in this regard. At the very least, we need a meeting of the Deputies from Galway with the Garda superintendent. We then need an absolute plan for this matter for the next number of Sundays in order that we can reassure the people in Salthill, the Claddagh and the other areas of Galway affected that this will not continue. We cannot have a situation where someone is airlifted because they cannot get through the streets of Galway. At the best of times the traffic congestion is unacceptable because we have utterly failed to deal with traffic congestion but this is an extra element. Once again, I appeal to the Minister of State to take a hands-on approach in this matter in her position as a Minister of State and at the very least to let us sit down together with the superintendent and with the city manager to ensure that this does not continue.

I reiterate that I spoke to the senior members of An Garda Síochána in Galway and they have assured me that there is a dedicated policing plan in place for this weekend and for any future events. They are monitoring social media and will be deploying extra Garda resources in the Salthill area or indeed any area where that deployment is needed. If anyone has concerns, the Garda asks that it be contacted directly and to be alerted to any anti-social behaviour. I have also received the assurance of An Garda Síochána that resourcing is not an issue and the force will be deploying its full resources as needed this weekend or any other weekend on this issue and it is important to make that point. I was categorically assured today by An Garda Síochána on that point.

There is engagement between the city council and the Garda, which was also confirmed to me today. I spoke to the city manager and I know that the local city councillors are directly engaging with An Garda Síochána locally around other solutions. Whatever resources the Garda needs, we have always said that we will support it in that. I will be guided by the local Garda information that I received and its members are saying that it will deploy all its resources, will be carrying out spot checks within the city and on the outskirts as well this weekend and will be monitoring the activities as they arise this weekend or over future weekends. Of course, this will be constantly monitored and we need to ensure that we support the Garda in whatever way possible.

In my communications with the city council, I am happy to assist in any way I can. I have been assured today by An Garda Síochána in Galway that it has the resources, it will deploy them and it will monitor events this weekend and every weekend in Salthill and Galway.

I thank the Minister of State, and Deputy Connolly for raising that issue. I suspect that if the matter does not find a resolution, the Deputy will return to it, although I hope that will not be necessary.

International Relations

Deputy Durkan has tabled the next relevant and important matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to the House.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important issue. Certainly in my lifetime, and I am sure in his too, we have never known of an Irish-owned aircraft and its passengers and crew being hijacked. They were directed to a destination other than that of their choice and were give no opportunity to negotiate that. They were accompanied by a military aircraft and forced to land at a location chosen by the president of a non-EU state.

On its face, this may seem to be just an incident but I believe it was a sinister, terrorist incident. If repeated, which it could be, it will have serious consequences for air traffic, and there are enough difficulties in the airline business with Covid without having another one visit us in this fashion. There is a need for the international community to recognise the seriousness of what this means. If repeated, as is likely, it will create a new terror for people travelling by air. We cannot allow the incident to pass without there being a calling to account of the perpetrators. It does not matter who they are - Heads of State or whoever they may be. The civil and human rights of the passengers and crew on board the aeroplane were at stake and those of others may be put at stake in future.

I raise the issue to let it be known that other European states and democracies throughout the globe need to react to this in a clear fashion. They need to send a message to such perpetrators that this will not go unchallenged, and that it was a criminal act. Because it was a criminal act, it deserves to be referred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. There is only one way to deal with this kind of incident. I commend the crew and passengers of the aircraft on their bravery and on having to put up with this intrusion into their journey.

I thank the Deputy for raising what I agree is a very important issue. Ireland has promptly and publicly condemned the coercive forced landing of a Ryanair aircraft on Sunday last and the subsequent detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. We have raised our concerns over this incident with our EU and international partners, including at a meeting of UN Security Council members. We have also made Ireland’s position clear directly to the Belarusian Embassy in London.

These acts, which endangered the lives of the passengers and crew, showed a flagrant disregard for international law and were a direct threat to EU aviation security. As the aircraft is registered in Poland and was en route to Lithuania, our Polish and Lithuanian colleagues are actively working on investigations into the incident and we fully support them in their efforts. It is essential that the full details of what happened be brought to light and, in support of that goal, Ireland called for a transparent and independent investigation during a special meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization today.

We categorically reject the false narrative of the Belarusian authorities as to the reasons for this incident. At a meeting of EU leaders on Monday evening, the Taoiseach clearly communicated Ireland’s view that a strong EU response was needed, as is now being delivered through the concrete steps the EU leaders have agreed. EU airlines have been asked to avoid Belarusian airspace and work has commenced on banning Belarusian airlines from EU airspace. The EU will bring additional sanctions against those responsible for what has happened and is actively considering what form of additional economic sanctions it will take. The EU continues to consider our broader relations with Belarus, including its involvement in the eastern partnership mechanism.

I am deeply concerned for the welfare of Mr. Protasevich and Ms Sapega and I reiterate the call for their immediate and unconditional release. There are thousands of reports of human rights violations in Belarus, including numerous allegations of torture and physical and sexual abuse in detention. I know that the plight of those unjustly detained in Belarus is a matter of deep concern for all Deputies. Ireland has repeatedly called for the immediate and unconditional release of all those unjustly detained. I assure the House we will continue to do what we can to press the Belarusian authorities to adhere to their international commitments and obligations.

The repression of the Lukashenko regime has increased in recent months, with independent media and human rights work effectively criminalised. The Belarusian authorities cannot be permitted to continue their heinous acts with impunity. Ireland, the EU and our international partners have been working to ensure those who violate human rights will be held accountable for their actions through international investigations.

Following the successful adoption of an EU-led resolution at the Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has begun establishing a team who will investigate human rights violations in Belarus. We strongly support her and the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus in their work and urge the Belarusian authorities to engage with them.

Ireland’s support for the Belarusian people in their long-standing defence of democratic principles and human rights is unequivocal and unwavering. We have stood in solidarity with them since the beginning of this long night of repression and will continue to do so.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply and note the action that has been taken. As well as that, whatever other measures are necessary need to follow, and will follow, according to what he outlined. If they do not, this will be repeated. Taking a passenger aircraft out of the air, by force, was an effective way of dealing with the situation. There have been incidents with passenger aircraft in parts of eastern Europe in the past, and we should not let it go unchallenged or pass without rigorously registering our concerns about it.

There is no doubt that the aircraft was known to be a passenger aircraft. The Ryanair emblem was clearly displayed. It was an aircraft carrying passengers who were going about their business and they had a right to so do. We talk a great deal about civil and human rights, and rightly so, but interfering in that way shows scant regard for international law, and the full rigours of international law need to be brought to bear on the perpetrators. I have every confidence that the Minister of State, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs will utilise and mobilise all forces necessary to ensure the seriousness of the act does not go unchallenged or unnoticed, and that action will be taken to ensure it does not happen again.

I fully agree with what the Deputy said about the seriousness of this act. There is no question but that the international hijacking, effectively, of an aircraft and forcing it to land is totally unacceptable. I reiterate we are working with our international partners in response to this. We are determined to ensure accountability and will continue to support measures that seek to make those responsible, not just for this but for all human rights violations in Belarus, accountable for their actions. The Irish people have long had a care and concern for the people of Belarus that goes back to the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath.

We have supported the Belarusian people and Belarusian civil society in many ways. I take the Deputy's point on board that this is a very serious international incident and we will continue to work to ensure accountability for it.

Social Welfare Appeals

I thank the Minister of State for being here. I do not raise this topic in the House with any appetite. I must commend the work many people who work in the Department of Social Protection have done throughout the pandemic, particularly with the pandemic unemployment payment. It has been great to see the massive turnaround time in terms of people getting their entitlements. At the outset, I must put that on the record. There are, however, a number of cases I have come across in recent months in respect of which there have been excessive delays in processing applications for various entitlements, be it for carer’s allowance, disability allowance, pension applications, or whatever the case may be. For people who seek an appeal, there seems to be a very long list.

In preparation for this debate, I looked over figures from previous years and I saw that back in 2011, the average waiting time for an appeal was up to 32 weeks. When the Minister of State responds, I would be interested to hear how that compares with today’s figures in terms of how long people are waiting for their appeals to be heard.

As I said, I do not raise this issue lightly. In the case of people who are appealing a decision on the carer's allowance, for example, and are awaiting an adjudication, they cannot take up other employment in the time being. They are mostly likely caring for someone full-time. In many cases, people are waiting for a period of time, with some waiting up to six months, from what I hear.

I got an email from a Department official this week which stated that one pension appeal being dealt with could take anything up to six months before a final decision is made. That is what triggered the bringing forward of this Topical Issue matter this evening. In the case of people waiting on carer’s allowance, or whatever the case may be, many risk destitution if they have to wait that length of time or risk borrowing money in the meantime. Some might borrow from friends or family, if they have that type of resource, but others, unfortunately, will resort to moneylenders and that is where we face a risk.

I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. If he has breakdown of waiting times for the various entitlements, I would appreciate that. What is the breakdown of waiting times for the number of appeals? What is his opinion on what is an appropriate time to wait to hear an appeal? We can work back from that. If it is a case that we do not have sufficient staff or resources, I would make an appeal to the Minister of State, and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, that it would be appropriate to provide additional staff and resources to bring down those waiting times.

As I said, it is more about information. I commend the Department of Social Protection and its staff on the work they have done throughout the pandemic. If the Minister of State could elaborate on the issue of waiting times, I would appreciate it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Social Welfare Appeals Office functions independently of the Minister for Social Protection, and of the Department, and is responsible for determining appeals against decisions in relation to social welfare entitlements. The Department of Social Protection processes around 2 million new claims each year. Approximately 85% of these are successful, in that the customer receives the relevant payment. By comparison, a total of 23,664 appeals were made to the Social Welfare Appeals Office in 2020 and 26,790 appeals were finalised. This was a 19% increase on the 2019 figure of 22,572 finalised appeals. Some 7,795 appeals have been made to the Social Welfare Appeals Office up to the end of April 2021 and 7,637 appeals have been finalised.

The time taken to process an appeal reflects all aspects of the appeal process, including the time spent in the Department reviewing the decision in light of the appeal contentions and-or preparing the appeal submission. Some 20% of cases will be revised in favour of the appellant as a result of this review process. In some cases, further investigation may be required at that point and this can add to the time taken to process an appeal. The quasi-judicial nature of the appeals process impacts the processing times which are proportionate to the complexity of many of the issues under appeal and often require a high level of judgement in addition to the need to ensure due process and natural justice. Appeals may be determined summarily or by means of an oral hearing. When an oral hearing is required, the logistics involved in scheduling the hearing and giving the appellant, and any other witnesses, adequate notice adds to the timeframe involved. Other factors which impact on processing times include increased complexity, an increased demand for oral hearings, and the loss of appeals officer experience and corporate knowledge due to the high number of retirements in recent years.

The output target for 2020 to maintain the number of appeals on hand at the end of the year - between 8,500 and 9,500 - was achieved. The number of appeals waiting to be determined at the end of 2020 was 5,662. This represents a significant decrease of 36% in the number of appeals on hand compared to 2019, when more than 8,700 appeals were on hand at the end of that year. The output target for 2021 is to maintain the number of appeals on hand at the end of the year to between 7,500 and 8,500. The number of appeals on hand at the end of April 2021 was 5,820. The average processing time for all appeals finalised during 2020 was 16.5 weeks. This compares with 24.7 weeks in 2019. The overall average processing time for an appeal dealt with by way of a summary decision in 2020 was 15.5 weeks, as opposed to 22.1 weeks in 2019. The average time taken to process an appeal which required an oral hearing in 2020 was 27.1 weeks. It was 26.9 weeks in 2019.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, in-person oral hearings were suspended in March 2020 and, with the exception of a short period in August-September 2020, remain suspended. The Social Welfare Appeals Office has been holding online and phone hearings since October 2020. Supplementary welfare allowance appeals are prioritised at all stages of the appeal process. In 2020, it took an average of 13.4 weeks for appeals to be determined summarily and 29.3 weeks to determine appeals which required an oral hearing.

There is quite a bit of information there, so I look forward to going threw it afterwards. I welcome the fact that since 2019, appeal times have decreased from, I think the Minister of State said, roughly 20 weeks down to 16 weeks. That said that, I would appreciate if he could, by way of further communication, write to me with the details of the number of community welfare officers we have per county across the country, and juxtapose that with previous years to see what the staffing arrangement is.

I welcome that many appeals are taking place online. That is to be welcomed in the pandemic. Obviously, the show must go on in getting people whatever entitlements they are due, so that is welcome. I acknowledge the majority of claims are ratified and do not require this process, and that only a small percentage go to appeal. However, for those who apply for these entitlements and must subsequently appeal them, it is often the case that they are the most vulnerable people who require that help. That must be recognised as well.

Regarding the cutting of future waiting times, I hope additional resources and staff can be allocated. If the Minister of state, in further correspondence, can provide detail on any plans for rolling out further staff and resources, I would appreciate that.

I am acutely aware that the time taken in processing appeals is hugely important to the people who submit an appeal, and that it directly impacts on their lives. It is a very important point to note that those who apply for formal payments, like carer’s allowance or jobseeker’s allowance, can apply for a supplementary welfare allowance from the community welfare officer while they are awaiting the payment application to be processed. That is an important point to note.

The drive for efficiency must be balanced with the competing demand to ensure decisions are consistent, of high quality, and made in accordance with the legislative provisions and the general principal of fair procedures and natural justice.

The chief appeals officer has assured me she continues to monitor processing times and ensures every effort is made to reduce the time taken to process an appeal. The chief appeals officer ensures the programme of training for newly appointed appeals officers is completed as early as possible. The appeals process is heavily reliant on paper files and an IT project is under way to modernise the process. While the project will take some time to complete, the new structure should reduce the office's reliance on paper files, radically change the current processes and help to reduce processing times.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and assure him that everything is being done to ensure appeals are processed as quickly as possible. I will respond to him in relation to the question on CWOs.