I propose to take Questions Nos. 12, 47 and 51 together.
The social welfare appeals process has a statutory basis in both primary and secondary legislation. In this context, Appeals Officers are quasi-judicial officers and are required to be, and are, free and unrestricted in discharging their functions.
The appeals system was reformed in 1990 to establish the Social Welfare Appeals Office (SWAO) as a separate executive office with its own premises and staff operating independently of the Department. In the twenty years since that reform there has been no sustained or concerted criticism relating to the independence of the office or the impartiality of its Appeals Officers. The independence of the office is evidenced by the high level of appeals which were allowed in favour of the appellant (50.4%) in 2012. This issue a searchable, anonymised database was the subject of a recent High Court case, Ikraam Jama v Minister for Social Protection, 11 October 2011. The Judge in that case found that there was no duty on the SWAO to maintain a database for public access. In the course of that challenge, comparisons were drawn with the Social Security Commissioners in Northern Ireland, the Refugee Appeals Tribunal and the Equality Tribunal who do publish their decisions. In 2010, the Social Security Commissioners in Northern Ireland finalised 141 decisions, the Refugee Appeals Tribunal finalised 2,783 and the Equality Tribunal finalised 322 whereas the Social Welfare Appeals Office finalised 28,166 decisions in the same period.
Given the volume of social welfare appeals which are decided annually (32,558 appeals were decided in 2012), the provision of such a database would be a vast and resource-intensive undertaking. For example, in creating and maintaining such a database, it would not be enough to remove names and addresses, all personal information would have to be removed so that not even a family member could recognise the case. Equally, examining anonymised cases could also be misleading given the wide range of variables between the circumstances of different individuals and where the slightest variation between circumstances might mean a different conclusion would be arrived at.
However, it is recognised that there is a clear need to strike a balance between achieving effectiveness and efficiency in administering the appeals system and the need to ensure fair and equitable access to customers. In this regard, the number of case studies published on the Social Welfare Appeals Office website was increased by 100 last year and it is proposed to publish a similar number this year.
While civil legal aid is not available to appellants, my Department provides funding to a number of organisations to provide information, advice and advocacy services on a wide range of public and social services, including the Social Welfare Appeals process. These organisations include the Citizens Information Board, the National Advocacy Service, which focuses particularly on people with disabilities, and the INOU which focuses on the unemployed. In addition, funding is also provided to the Northside Community Law Centre to provide information, advice and representation on legal matters.