Senators mentioned a number of issues on Wednesday last to which I would like to respond. Reference was made to the signing arrangements for people of no fixed abode who are mainly from the travelling community. In my speech circulated last week I explained the conditions attached to signing on. I also indicated that the computerisation of local offices will allow alternative paying methods and new signing arrangements.
Senators Ryan and O'Toole specifically mentioned the signing arrangements for members of the travelling community. The current arrangements for this group are not onerous. They constitute a reasonably effective way of ensuring that claimants regularly declare their availability for work when collecting their weekly cash payments.
In 1981, following a review, by one of my predecessors, it became apparent that there was need for special signing arrangements for all claimants of no fixed abode. This review was necessary to avoid the possibility of such claimants signing on and receiving payments under different names at two or more local offices in the one week. There were indications that this kind of abuse of the system was a significant and growing problem. In these circumstances, it was decided to introduce special arrangements for those concerned. I should add, also, that the exact same arrangement is operated by the authorities in Northern Ireland who have experienced similar problems especially in border areas.
There is no question of discrimination in having all people of no fixed abode sign at the one time. The fact of having no fixed abode gave rise to special problems of control which needed to be addressed. My Department would be failing in their responsibilities if they did not ensure that appropriate measures were in operation to meet this special situation. In this connection I would like to point out that settled members of the travelling community are subject to the signing arrangements which apply to settled claimants generally.
Early this year following a meeting between officials of my Department and the Monitoring Committee for Travelling People, a review of the arrangements was carried out at two Dublin exchanges. The purpose was to identify settled travellers with permanent addresses with a view to integrating them into the normal signing arrangements. Following the examination of approximately 500 applications at the two exchanges, 67 people were identified as being settled travellers. They were notified of their new signing arrangements which came into operation on 3 April 1990. In some cases the change also involved a change in the office at which they were required to attend.
Senators will be interested to hear that some of the travellers deemed as settled did not wish to change their signing arrangements as they regarded the Thursday morning gathering as something of a social occasion. Others did not want to change as they had arrangements made for the payment of bills, such as rent, to coincide with their unemployment payment day.
In my speech last week I made reference to the delivery of the social welfare service. I would now like to outline in some detail what is proposed in this whole area. Early in the New Year I will be launching eight regional centres throughout the country. This will be a major reorganisation in the way these services are administered. The new regional centres will be Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Dundalk, Sligo, Galway, Longford and Dublin. This forms part of my wider plans to bring the services closer to the people who need them. I am committed to providing a more local, personal and relevant service to social welfare recipients and claimants. Each region will be broken down into Social Welfare Local Office (SWLO) areas. Each SWLO will be responsible for managing all aspects of the delivery of social welfare services including the management of all local offices, branch employment offices and outdoor staff in the SWLO area.
With these measures I am focusing responsibility for services at the point where they are provided. It is my intention that the SWLO will become the operating core of the Department. It will be responsible for receiving claims, issuing decisions, authorising payments and providing information services. It will also be responsible for the control of claims.
I do not think Senators, or indeed Deputies in the other House, realise fully the significance of the changes which are taking place at present. I would like to emphasise them. These are dramatic and almost revoluntionary changes in the way in which all the social services will be delivered in future and they will have a huge impact on the way in which we can provide service locally.
The SWLOs will operate according to the one-stop-shop concept. All the Department's services will eventually be delivered through these offices. Each SWLO will be divided into four main functional areas.
A new claims processing area will be responsible for taking all claims for social welfare payments, establishing eligibility and entitlements and advising clients of other services to which they may be entitled.
A payments processing and claim maintenance area will be responsible for changes to peoples claims, ensuring clients receive their due payments and organising replacement payments as appropriate.
A review and control area will be responsible for the review of entitlements and control of scheme payments and the administration of the PRSI system including the control of employers.
An information section will be responsible for general information on social welfare services, including talks to local voluntary and interest groups. The information section will also be responsible for feedback into the system on how clients perceive the service and how it might be improved.
To support the localisation of functions, I am strengthening the regional management structure in the Department by the establishment of the regional centres. The regional centres will be involved in monitoring regional performance, planning the devolution of additional functions to the local offices and introducing more streamlined work methods.
Each regional manager will be responsible for ensuring the consistent implementation of policy and dealing with any problems arising in his or her area. Regional centres will support the local offices through organisation, personnel and training functions; monitor performance through its mainstream management functions; control the organisation through its internal audit function; control the quality of delivery by reference to agreed standards and support service development, policy and procedural changes through its planning and research functions.
The management of the regional structure will be based on the achievement of set targets. Accordingly, procedures for measuring achievement are being established so that a uniform method of measurement will exist across the whole structure. Targets will, for example, include claim turnaround times, provision of comprehensive information services, provision of local services and quality of service.
Voluntary organisations play an important part in the welfare of the less well off in the community. As part of the regionalisation programme I intend that there will be a greater degree of contact with these organisations at both regional and local level. This will enable them to keep up to date on developments in social welfare and contribute to further developments. Regional managers will be responsible for the establishment and maintenance of these links.
The introduction of regionalisation will involve significant change in the manner in which the Department are organised. It is important, therefore, that this huge change in the Department's structure should be introduced in a planned way and with the full co-operation of staff.
The regional structure will provide the platform on which we can build a fully localised and client-oriented service. It will be the bedrock for the service of the future. It is important, therefore, that we get it right. That is why we are putting such effort into our plans. We will maintain the present service at its high level while we make progress on the new regional and local structures.
Enhanced computer communications between my Department and FÁS will ensure that the best possible mix of training and employment scheme opportunities is made available to the long term unemployed.
In providing new employment exchanges, we ensure that FÁS placement officers are accommodated at our offices. I intend to strengthen the liaison arrangements between local offices of my Department and those of FÁS to ensure that clients have every assistance in obtaining jobs or training.
The Government have over the years made a significant investment in information technology and telecommunications systems. We are now in a position to reap the additional benefits of this investment. These information systems are creating the environment in which the objectives of localised, client-oriented services can be achieved. Information technology is also providing us with the opportunity to introduce a greater choice of payment methods.
Social welfare payments are currently paid either through the post offices, the banks or the Department's own offices. A major development in this area in recent times has been the introduction of per-sonalised payable orders for pension and other allowances. This system provides a more secure and reliable method of payment and introduces a significant degree of control into the payment system.
I want to provide social welfare claimants with a choice of different payment methods. The post office network of offices forms an integral part of the administration of the social welfare system and over 70 per cent of our expenditure is distributed through this network. That is 70 per cent of £2.9 billion. We are working with An Post to upgrade and automate their counter services. This will ensure that the most modern and sophisticated payment options will be available to social welfare clients.
With the introduction of this new technology into the post offices, it will be possible for our clients to use electronic fund transfers which are already widely available. Clients' money will be paid directly into an account which can be drawn down as required. The use of automatic teller machines (ATMs) will also be an option. It opens up many other possibilities which have been mentioned by Senators from time to time but these cannot even be attempted until those systems are in place.
A number of initiatives have recently been introduced to simplify means-testing. For example, in some instances claims are being decided on the basis of claim data supported by documentary evidence or data already on file in the Department. Home visits have been eliminated for many people claiming unemployment assistance. Instead, their claims are dealt with by way of desk-interviews. With the introduction of regionalisation and localisation, the process of simplifying means-testing will continue. I also envisage that with the continued development of the one-stop-shop concept, our clients will have an integrated local service to speed up claim processing, give them access to up-to-date information on their entitlements and provide a better service all round.
In the few minutes available to me last week I spoke about the improvement in public finances secured under this Government and how that, in turn, has ensured that we were in a position to protect the less well off members of our society. Social welfare increases, in real terms, over the past three years have more than kept pace with inflation and, in so far as the lowest rates of payments are concerned such as unemployment assistance, have outstripped anything that was achieved before. The Government have been particularly conscious of the need to ensure that those dependent on social welfare benefit from the improvement in the economy as a whole.
Despite the financial constraints, the Government continues their policy of sustained improvements in the social welfare area. Over the past three years we have: more than maintained all payments against inflation; given special increases to those on the lowest payments; introduced many improvements in existing schemes; introduced a number of major new schemes and services including the Carers Allowance and the Lone Parents Allowance not to mention the free travel for companions with the handicapped; improved in many respects the effectiveness of the delivery of our services. The new Social Welfare Appeals Office is a major development in social welfare. This new office, with its own Director and Chief Appeals Officer, will ensure that social welfare clients have an appeals system which is clearly seen to be independent, modern, efficient, fair and easily accessible.
Considerable improvements have been made in the basic rates of payment: for example, special increases for those on the lowest levels of payment, the abolition of the rural rate of unemployment assistance, the streamlining of adult dependant and child dependant rates— the child dependant rates are now down to six, they were 36 just two years ago. These have all resulted in substantial improvements. In addition, 16 categories of social welfare recipients, including the long term unemployed, received special increases of up to 11 per cent in the 1990 budget. The basic rate of unemployment assitance, long term, has been increased from £36.70 in July 1986 to £52 in July 1990, an increase of 42 per cent in nominal terms and almost 26 per cent in real terms. A family with three children has come from a rate of £89.45 up to £116, an increase of £26.55 in money terms, representing an increase of almost 30 per cent in nominal terms and 15 per cent in real terms.
Developments in the social welfare system in recent years have taken place broadly within the framework outlined by the Commission on Social Welfare. Substantial progress has been made under each of the main headings identified by the commission namely: (1) improvement in basic payments; (2) improved child income support; (3) broadening the insurance base, and (4) improvement in the delivery of service. The Commission on Social Welfare recommended a priority rate of £45 in 1985 terms which, in current terms, would be equivalent to £53. This rate has been achieved in the case of pension rates. The long term unemployed rate of £52 means that the priority rate for this group has almost been achieved.
I have introduced a considerable degree of flexibility into the unemployment system over the past number of years. I might add that the total cost of the improvements over the past three years, which is the period of The Programme for National Recovery, was £500 million. That is the actual extra cost of improvements given over the last three years. That point is often missed by people when they look at the increases in individual terms; a very substantial additional amount of money has been provided.
My objective in introducing the various initiatives to allow part-time working, voluntary working in the community and the pursuance of educational courses, is to give unemployed people the opportunity with a view to gaining a foothold in the jobs market again. There is now a range of facilities available to unemployed people whereby they can avail of second chance education and equip themselves with new qualifications. Indeed, in second chance education there are no 68 long term unemployed people who have taken up the pilot scheme and who are at third level in second chance education.
The current signing arrangements for unemployed people are governed by statutory regulations which provide that claimants for unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance must sign the unemployed register to indicate that they are available for and genuinely seeking work. Traditionally, the frequency with which claimants were required to sign the register depended on the distance they lived from the nearest signing centre. Those within two miles were required to sign daily, those over two and less than four miles were required to sign twice a week and once a week for those over four and less than six miles. Those over six miles were not required to attend at a local office but instead at their local Garda station.
The Commission on Social Welfare considered that, as a test of availability, the current signing arrangements were not very meaningful, that is, the signing arrangements in the year 1986. People quote the commission as if the figures they were talking about were current 1990 figures; the figures were based on studies done in 1986. While they accepted that the signing arrangements offer an opportunity of interviewing claimants regarding efforts to obtain employment, they questioned whether they are the most useful mechanism for doing so. They concluded that it should not be necessary to have all claimants sign so frequently. In late 1988 the position was standardised and improved, when I made once a week signing the norm for counter claimants.
Earlier this year I decided to offer those on long term unemployment assistance and over 60 years of age the option of transferring to a pre-retirement allowance scheme. Under the terms of this scheme claimants are paid by pension order books which they cash at the local post office and are only required to make a declaration regarding unemployment once a year. To date, approximately 6,500 claimants including smallholders have availed of this option.
The commission also recognised, however, that one of the most important aspects of the current signing arrangements is that they facilitate weekly cash payments. Until different methods of payment could be introduced, it would not be possible to introduce the kind of signing arrangements they envisaged.
There is a need for modification in the current signing arrangements. However, payment to people who attend at the local office is in the vast majority of cases made there and then in cash. As long as this system continues to operate, attendance at the local office on a weekly basis is necessary to enable weekly payments to be made. The introduction of alternative paying methods requires the computerisation of local office procedures. This process is proceeding but in view of the number of offices involved it will take some years to complete.
It is a statutory condition for the receipt of unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance that a person must be available for and genuinely seeking but unable to find, suitable employment, having regard to age, sex, physique, education, normal occupation, place of residence and family circumstances. These conditions are a common feature of unemployment schemes worldwide. The legislation provides also that the onus is on the individual claimant's to prove they are available for work. It does not, however, state what form such proof should take. It is, accordingly, a question for the deciding officers and appeals officers to decide whether any claimant has shown that he or she fulfils the condition having regard to the available evidence when making a claim.
All claimants are normally asked when making a claim for unemployment benefit or assistance to complete a questionnaire regarding their efforts to obtain employment. Claimants may also be asked subsequently at any stage of their claim about this matter. In most cases the replies given by claimants to this questionnaire will, when taken in conjunction with other evidence available regarding the claimant's employment history, be sufficient to satisfy the deciding officer that the person concerned is available for and genuinely seeking work. If, however, there is any element of doubt about the position, the deciding officer may seek further relevant information on such matters as the extent to which the claimant has made efforts to obtain employment since becoming unemployed; the type of work the claimant is seeking and the reasons for any restrictions which the claimant may be placing on the type of work he or she is available to do; whether there are domestic or other commitments or circumstances which limit the claimant's ability to accept full-time employment which would normally be regarded as suitable; whether the claimant has a history of leaving employments frequently, without good cause.
It is on the basis of the replies given to questions such as these that the deciding officer determines whether the person is or is not available for and genuinely seeking work. Each case has to be considered on its own merits and it is a matter for the deciding officer to decide the exact evidence required in any case having regard to the individual circumstances of the claimant.
At the new claim stage detailed information is requested from the claimant on a questionnaire to be completed in respect of the claimant. For example, the claimant is asked what type of work he or she is seeking and the hours of employment being sought. The claimant is also asked what specific efforts have been made to obtain employment and to furnish any documentary evidence he or she may have. Claimants are also asked have they registered for employment with FÁS. Details of ages of any children in the household are also required as well as particulars about who will care for the children in the event of the claimant finding employment.
Claims are reviewed subsequently on a regular basis to ensure that the claimant continues to satisfy the conditions for entitlement to payment. The review consists of an updating of the previous examination, including details of recent efforts by the claimant to obtain employment. This may be done orally at the counter in the exchange or through the use of a written request to be handed or posted to the claimant. In carrying out these reviews claimants may be asked to furnish any documentary evidence they may have about their efforts to obtain work.
As regards child care responsibilities, many married men and married women with young children are able to make child-minding arrangements which allow both spouses to take up employment. But there are other cases where one or other spouse is not available for employment because he or she has decided to remain at home to look after children or else is not in a position to make adequate child care arrangements in the event of being offered a job. It is by no means uncommon for a parent to give up employment for the purpose of minding a child.
It will often be readily apparent from the particular circumstances of a claimant with young children that child care arrangements do not constitute a problem in relation to availability for work. An example would be where such a claimant had previously been in employment and made child care arrangements. However, where, for example, a claimant with children gives up employment, or following the birth of a child fails to resume employment even though there was a right to return to the job under employment protection legislation, the matter would have to be discussed further with the claimant. Similarly, where claimants had previously withdrawn from the labour market for a number of years to look after children or other dependants, inquiries would have to be made of the claimant as the deciding officer would have to satisfy herself that suitable arrangements can be made for the care of the children.
I am fully aware that this can be a difficult and sensitive area. It was for this reason that I arranged for the reissue of guidelines to the staff at all of the local offices of my Department spelling out that the utmost care must be taken to ensure that any questions asked are relevant and that the purpose of the questions should be explained so that the claimants will understand why they are necessary. The guidelines also stress that claimants, both male and female, are subject to the same line of inquiry. For instance, a male claimant with young children would have to be queried about child care arrangements where his wife was working in exactly the same way as would be the case if it were she who was claiming instead. These guidelines were designed to ensure that, in questioning claimants, there is no discrimination on grounds of sex, family or marital status.
The vast majority of decisions are made by local deciding officers. In most cases the decision would be to accept that the claimant is available for and genuinely seeking work. It is in only a very small proportion of cases that the question of disallowance under this heading would arise. Where it does all the evidence including the claimant's side of the story is available to the deciding officer for decision.
Any person who is dissatisfied with the decision of a deciding officer has the right of appeal to the new social welfare appeals office.
The social employment scheme (SES) is administered by the Department of Labour. It is aimed at providing part-time employment to assist unemployed people, particularly the long term unemployed, to re-enter the labour market. Allowances under the scheme are payable at at standard rate of £69 for a single person and £98.50 for a person with an adult dependant. The Government introduced improvements in the scheme in 1989 when a child dependant allowance of £10 weekly became payable. As a result of these changes all SES participants now receive a payment which is in excess of the entitlements under the unemployment assistance scheme. The £11 per child applies and the basic rates are higher than the rates for long term unemployment assistance. For example, an SES participant with an adult dependant and three child dependants now receives a total allowance of £131.50 per week, as against an entitlement under long term unemployment assistance of £116.00 per week. Even a single person receives £17 a week more on the SES, that is, £69 as against £52. Of course, it is considerably more than the short term rate. In addition, SES participants are free to engage in other work or activities during their week off. Such earnings have no effect on their payments from the SES.
The purpose of the family income supplement scheme (FIS) on the other hand, is to maintain an incentive for full-time workers with families, who are in low paid employment, to remain at work. Its purpose is essentially different from the SES and to extend entitlement to FIS to persons on the SES would involve fundamental changes in the FIS scheme.
The clear intention at all times was that the increased payments to SES participants compensated for the loss of added benefits, such as the Christmas bonus. For example, during December a single person on the SES will earn £276, plus earnings from other work, if any. This compares with an entitlement of £208 on long term unemployment assistance which attracts a Christmas bonus of £36.40. The Government have used the funds available for the social employment scheme to provide opportunities for the long term unemployed on the basis of normal weekly payments. This year over 11,000 people will participate in the scheme. I would refer Senators to the very comprehensive statement on this subject by my colleague, the Minister for Labour, in the adjournment debate on 1 November 1990 in the other House.
Persons participating in the SES do not qualify for basic SWA because their income exceeds the SWA rate. However, they could qualify for exceptional needs payments or urgent need payments if a health board consider such payments appropriate in particular circumstances. In general, SES participants qualified for the new £5.3 million back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance which I introduced in July of this year and which was paid out at the end of August. Payment of a rent/mortgage supplement could also be made depending on the individual's income level.
On 29 May last, the EC Social Affairs Council, at the initiative of my colleague, the Minister for Labour, Deputy Ahern, adopted a resolution on action to assist the long term unemployed. The resolution identifies a need to take a more integrated approach to unemployment blackspots in order to tackle the problems of high unemployment, inadequate or non-existent social, recreational and educational facilities and other social problems. The resolution also recognises that employers have an important part to play in tackling long term unemployment.
Despite the continuing need to control expenditure, we have made sure that special consideration is given to the most vulnerable sections of our society. We have not only maintained the system but have also improved it significantly. I see my Department as not just being in the business of providing money but also being involved in the welfare of people in the broadest sense.
Voluntary organisations have a major role in this regard. Many such organisations are working on a daily basis with social welfare clients and are aware of their needs and their difficulties. In recent years I was glad to be able to provide assistance to many such organisations. In particular, I have received a great deal of assistance from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in meeting the needs of the poor. The society have now over 10,000 voluntary workers in the field. The society have been to the fore in tackling the problems associated with moneylenders, in providing job opportunities through a major innovative community-based scheme, in organising a programme of home management and personal development courses, designed to help people acquire the basic skill of budgeting and self-development. In April 1988 I made a special grant to the society to fund the setting up of these courses on a nationwide basis. I am pleased to be able to make a further grant of £100,000 to the society, which I am announcing today, to expand and develop these innovative and worthwhile home management and personal development courses. The funds for these come from savings which I have at the end of the year.
I am confident that, with the agreement of the social partners on a new Programme for Economic and Social Development, we will be in a position to lay the foundations for further major improvements in social welfare in the years ahead.
We have announced just today the details of the Estimates for next year and Senators will be aware that those Estimates embody total expenditure on social welfare of £2.9 billion, which is £100 million above the outturn for this current year and it is a net increase in the net Estimate of £78 million, leaving a net Estimate of £1,554 million, which will cover all the current schemes that we have and we will continue them into next year at the increased rates. We now have quite a number of new schemes. These include the scheme for the handicapped, the scheme for the free companion pass for the handicapped — £6,500 of these passes have been issued in approximately the last six weeks — the new lone parent's scheme and the carer's allowance, for which over 3,500 claims have already come in. Full funding for these schemes is provided into next year, together with a back-to-school payment again for next year, which is funded in today's Estimates. Further developments will fall to be considered within the context of the forthcoming budget.
With all these improvements which have, in many respects, been made possible through the Programme for National Recovery, we look forward to underpinning more major improvements in social welfare by continued co-operation between the national partners in a further programme for economic and social development. I, therefore, urge Senators to support the amendment to this motion.