We are rolling out the new Intreo offices, which are integrated, around the country. We have a constraint. The OPW is our agent in getting new or refurbished premises. Understandably this takes some time. I had the pleasure, however, of being in the Killarney office recently with Senator Moloney, which is a new Intreo office and it really has transformed and improved the quality of service. Similarly, in the north west the Taoiseach and I opened the Sligo office which has made a significant difference to the experience of people going in for a range of social welfare measures. We hope to have all the offices rolled out and completed by the end of next year, along with the roll-out of the public services card, the facility to take people's photographs and to take electronic signatures. In some offices which are not fully physically converted we are able to do the personal services card and electronic signing. There are more than 250,000 such cards operational and it is the subject of a section in this Bill that we will roll this out to other social welfare recipients. At the moment it is for jobseekers and people who are new to the system and we will extend it to existing customers. That is a very positive move.
When I came into the Department in 2009 the previous Government had changed the duration of illness benefit from indefinite to two years. I said at the time it was an appropriate reform because at any one time, 16% of our working age population is on some kind of illness-related social welfare payment. Given the level of health and nutrition in the country that is quite an extraordinary figure. Once that two-year limit was brought in from 2011 there was a significant number of people coming out of illness benefit entitlement resulting in a very big spike in appeals for other entitlements such as disability and invalidity. We have done a complete reform of carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance, family income supplement and I have advised Members in the past of the changes that are ongoing where we have totally renewed the IT platforms. The consequence has been - and much of this has happened in the north midlands and north-west region - that in the Longford office, where many of these claims were processed, there has been a huge reduction in the backlogs and we no longer have any backlog in family income supplements. We have additional improvements to the structures. I wish to assure Senators that part of the spike was due to more people being unemployed and the other part due to the changes in conditions that were being brought in.
There are very significant improvements, for example, the time taken has come down from 52.5 weeks, almost a year, to 36.5 weeks which is just over half a year. Senator Cullinane needs to be cautious about what he wishes for in asking for a time limit of 21 days on appeals because that would mean a very strong tightening up of our whole system for application, appeals and review. In many other countries an applicant for an appeal has one shot. If one prepares one's appeal inadequately, rather like buying an airline ticket, the application fails if one misses a box. We certainly can require and develop both the forms and the quality of the information that people must provide before an appeal is accepted as complete. In the Irish system we allow scope for reviews. As Senator Moloney has said people could perhaps stay their hand on the appeal and opt instead for a review, particularly in the many cases where people have not submitted adequate medical evidence.
I understand the Senators' point about these cases. One of the problems is that our medical assessors make the judgment on medical grounds and we appointed two additional assessors in March, another one currently and we are hoping to take on another medical assessor by September and to organise another recruitment panel. We have also taken on 15 extra appeals officers who have had to be trained up. If people do not present a full statement, backed by medical evidence of their claim, they have a very reduced chance of success. Some people who put in an appeal might be better off discussing the additional evidence they need to support that appeal and getting that medical evidence. We have completely revised the timelines, the information and the application for instance, in respect of the domiciliary care allowance to assist parents who are applying. Now if the case were coming up for review they would get three months' notification.
People have two further months to gather together the appropriate medical evidence regarding their children. The measure has worked well for many people. We have also had extensive consultation with parents' representatives on the quality of application forms. There is no limit on improving many of the forms. They are public administrative forms for the spending of public money and, therefore, must contain a lot of administrative detail. I am a strong supporter of the campaign for plain English or Irish. I want to ensure that one does not need letters after one's name in order to fill in these forms. Work on the forms is ongoing.
The new Intreo service is being rolled out. I hope that we will develop more specific services for areas such as rent supplement and appeals because many of the latter relate to disability.
We rely on the co-operation and support of the Office of Public Works for the physical regeneration of a building. I wish to inform Senator Moloney that we opened an office in Dundalk over four months ago. Recently I visited the office and vouch that there has been a tremendous improvement. It offers more privacy, dignity and a nicer atmosphere for the staff of the Department and clients or customers. The common reception desks are a feature of the new Intreo offices; Senator Zappone has visited the Tallaght office. A person can approach these desks, state what he or she needs, receive the required form and then a dedicated interview slot, within a relatively short period. The adoption of the Intreo system has almost done away with the need for people to go on supplementary welfare allowances. The number of people availing of the allowance has fallen very dramatically. The new scheme allows for very early decision-making, particularly in the case of jobseekers.
I do not propose to accept the amendment. As I said, the current system allows people to apply, receive extra information and conduct reviews rather than just one chance and one is out. There is a lot to be said for the current system. I am cautious about what the 21-day deadline might mean in practice.