I thank the Chairman and committee members for the opportunity to make this presentation. We are all here today to highlight issues relating to the social protection system. We are all involved in services that provide information and advocacy for people engaged with the system and we are here to ask for the committee's help in pushing for changes to the system, changes we feel would have a positive impact for all users of the system. We acknowledge there has been significant pressure on the Department in the past six or seven years and a high volume of applications and decisions has been processed. Nevertheless, the second Person or Number?2 report outlines significant areas for improvement in the system and we make suggestions as to how this can be achieved.
We believe that if individuals are in a position of needing to approach the social protection system and the State for financial assistance, they should always be shown the utmost dignity and respect and great care should be taken in clarifying and swiftly providing for their rights to financial support. As many members are aware from their constituency work, this does not always happen. While the core focus of the report is migrant experiences, ten of the 12 main findings from the core sample are relevant to all users of the system. I urge members to look at the issues in that light.
I wish to provide some context for the report. In 2011, Crosscare, Doras Luimní in Limerick and Nasc in Cork produced a first report and the Minister for Social Protection - then and now - implemented the main recommendation, the establishment of a migrant consultative forum, whereby representatives from migrant focused NGOs met with Department officials to work through various issues arising in our services. The forum has met six times and improvements have been made to operational guidelines and support documents for Department of Social Protection staff. We hope the work of the forum will continue. Last year, as we approached the three-year mark since we took the first case sample, we felt it was necessary and indeed good practice that we revisit the situation on the ground and, therefore, took another case sample, which forms the core of this report. Also, two new partners joined in the development of this report, FLAC and Dublin city centre citizens information service.
I will now give the committee a flavour of our findings. The findings come from three main sources. First, we have documentary analysis, which may sound a bit dry but provides useful information. Second, we have the 35 case samples and third, the online survey carried out with managers of all the citizens information services nationally. The documentary analysis focused on the annual reports of the social welfare appeals office. There is much information in these reports providing strong indicators as to the quality of decision making in the front line across the Department. First of these is the successful appeals rate. In 2013, an astonishing 55% of appeals were favourable for the applicant. This is a high success rate for people appealing refusal of a payment. An equivalent year in the United Kingdom had a success rate of 38%, which was unusually high there. Questions need to be asked as to why this is the case.
The appeals office report also deals with clarifications sought. The report states that where it appeared to that office that the reason for the adverse decision may not have been fully understood by the appellant, in those circumstances the letter of appeal was referred to the relevant scheme area of the Department, requesting that the decision be clarified for the appellant. This concerns situations where the appeals office decided the decision of the deciding officer was not very clear and bounced the appeal back to the Department. The number of these clarifications has doubled in the three years up to 2013, to approximately 5,000 per year now. This is, at the least, an indicator of questionable practice.
The appeals office report also dealt with supplementary welfare allowance, a key payment for people who are particularly vulnerable. Often, people need this payment to tide them over if they are awaiting processing of a mainstream payment. The appeals office prioritises processing of these payments but, unfortunately, the average time for processing is five months. Considering the importance of this payment, this is not acceptable in the case of people who are at their wits end without any income.
There has been a pattern in the past three reports of the appeals office and clear criticism by the chief appeals officer of the administration of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, by the community welfare service in particular. The chief appeals officer stated that an estimated 5% to 10% of social welfare appeal files were returned to the Department in 2013, as they lacked some or all of the basic documents which would be required to allow an appeal to proceed. These documents were the application form, the formal decision and the submission of the designated person. Obviously, these are basic documents in terms of assessing an appeal. We suggest a question arises in this regard. If this criticism has arisen three years in a row, what is being done in response to it?
The second of the three main findings relates to the 35 case samples, the core of our report. It is important to be aware of how we chose the 35 case samples. These were not cherry picked and we did not pick the best cases. We selected four of the organisations and selected a particular day last year and recorded the next ten cases that presented to our services where there was any question regarding social protection. Basically, this provided a snapshot of a point in time. We gathered 35 valid cases.
While no issue arose with how the Departments dealt with the person in nine of these cases, unfortunately issues arose in the other 26 cases. I will briefly outline the main issues that arose in the sample of 35 cases. In eight cases, officials used inappropriate behaviour or language and two of these cases involved racist comments from officials. Seven cases involved misinformation or omission of key information, while in three crisis cases emergency needs payments were refused. It is important to note that the habitual residence condition does not have to be satisfied in cases of emergency needs payments. In five cases, interpreters were needed but not provided. Statistics obtained by Crosscare from the Department indicate a low level of usage of interpreters.
In four cases, arrears were not paid or were delayed. In a further four cases, repeat requests were made for documents that had already been submitted. In four other cases, payments were stopped without notice and there were four cases of speculative decisions being made on means. There were three cases of non-response from the Department and two cases of documents or applications being refused. To clarify, this refers to circumstances in which a person has made an application, visits a local office and provides additional documentation. In one case, this additional documentation was refused and in a second case the application form was refused at a local office.
There were two cases involving customer complaint fears. While this number is low relative to the sample, the fear of making a complaint is a particular problem which needs to be addressed. We have raised previously with the Department the problem of people being afraid to complain about the level of service provided to them. The reason is that deciding officers have significant power and the level of trust between the customer and Department is inadequate.
There were also three cases of incorrect refusal of habitual residence status. While there has been some improvement in this area compared to the previous sample, it remains an ongoing issue.
The third main component of the findings of the report relates to an online survey we did with the managers of the 42 citizens information offices nationally. Citizens information services are crucial in dealing with many of the shortfalls in the social protection system. An indicator of this is that in the first six months of last year, the 42 offices nationwide dealt with 25,000 queries from migrants on issues related to social protection. The citizens information service has an important role in the broader area.
We were particularly interested in asking citizens information service managers about reports by clients of racism they had experienced at the hands of departmental officials. While slightly less than half of managers reported having no knowledge of such reports, a small number reported significant numbers of clients experiencing racism at the hands of officials. In combination with the racism findings from the sample of 35 cases, the views of CIS managers confirmed to us that there is an issue with racism, at least with some staff in some offices. It is unacceptable that a public servant would behave in a racist manner.
The difficulty is that having an open and honest conversation about racism can be difficult, which is understandable considering the seriousness of the issue. We urge the Minister to recognise that the issue must be named as a problem and addressed. We have made a number of specific recommendations for addressing it.
To sum up the findings of the report, a combination of an analysis of documents, particularly the appeals office reports, the findings from the 35 case sample and the views of citizens information service managers nationally shows significant administrative and customer service deficits in the Department. On a more positive level, there is an openness to positive change in the Department. Last year, Axiom consultants completed a report for the Department aimed at encouraging the development of a coherent and progressive organisational culture in the Department. In consultation with departmental staff, the Axiom report identified the values of public service, customer focus, professionalism, engaged staff and innovation as being required. This was approved by the management of the Department.
The Axiom report recommends holding planned and structured conversations at all staff levels about the important core values of the Department. Crosscare would be very supportive of a process of imbuing these values in the Department. We can also think of many policy and procedural changes and improvements that would make the experience of accessing social protection better for people. All of these relate to the culture of doing things in the Department, which is what must ultimately change. We suggest that the recommendations in the report be used as practical measures to facilitate the type of organisational culture envisaged in the Axiom report.
The Crosscare report makes 19 recommendations, which I do not propose to discuss in detail today. Instead I will focus briefly on two recommendations which would impact on everyone who uses the system. We have worked with the Department in recent years to improve guidance and support documents for front-line staff and decision makers. We are close to the point of identifying how things should be done in the areas of administration and customer service. The problem, however, is with implementation. There is not a sufficiently strong function in the Department to ensure that expected and desired standards of administration and customer service are achieved in reality. In other words, there is a gap between what the Department states it will do and what is done on the ground and at the front line. To this end, we have recommended the establishment of a new performance monitoring, evaluation and implementation unit in the Department. We ask the joint committee to urge the Minister to implement this recommendation. The first step in developing such a unit would be to establish a high-level working group consisting of the Ombudsman, the chief appeals officer, a high-level customer services expert from the private sector and other stakeholders.
The other recommendation we propose to highlight is that the Department focus more on changing interaction between officials and service users. We urge the joint committee to press the Minister on this issue, for example, by introducing name badges for all public front-line staff in the Department. This is a simple idea and while we expect it would meet some resistance, we believe it could significantly improve transparency, accountability and, ultimately, customer service and decision making for all users of the Department's services.
Many of the users of the social protection system whom Crosscare sees are experiencing extreme hardship, stress and vulnerability and are, naturally, in financial hardship. They deserve the best possible service from the State. For this reason, we ask the joint committee to take on board our recommendations for change and ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection to give them serious consideration.