Thursday, 30 May 2019

Questions (19)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

19. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will take the necessary steps to ensure a speedy processing of appeals in respect of various payments administered by her Department with a view to the elimination of hardship; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23015/19]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Employment)

The Social Welfare Appeals Office functions independently of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and of the Department and is responsible for determining appeals against decisions in relation to social welfare entitlements. 

All claim decisions taken by the Department’s Deciding Officers and Designated Persons are appealable to the Chief Appeals Officer.  In any year about 85% of all claims are awarded by the Department and just 1% are appealed.  Nevertheless, the Department is concerned that these cases are dealt with as quickly as possible.  

Accordingly, significant efforts and resources have been devoted to reforming the appeal process in recent years.  As a result, appeal processing times in respect of all schemes improved between 2011 and 2017 from 52.5 weeks for an oral hearing in 2011 to 26.4 weeks in 2017 and from 25.1 weeks for a summary decision in 2011 to 19.8 weeks in 2017.  The corresponding processing times for the year 2018 were 30 weeks for an oral hearing and 24.8 weeks for a summary decision.  The figures for the first four months of 2019 show some improvement with 27.9 weeks taken to process an oral hearing and 23.6 weeks taken to process a summary decision.

The time taken to process an appeal reflects a number of factors including that the appeals process is a quasi-judicial process with Appeals Officers being required to decide all appeals on a ‘de-novo’ basis.  In addition, appeals decisions are themselves subject to review by the High Court and decisions have to be formally written up to quasi-judicial standards.  Other factors that influence appeals processing times include the quality of the initial decision – in this respect the Department has changed the decisions process in respect of medical schemes, in order to provide more information to the claimant.  I am advised by my Department that this will help to reduce the number of appeals over time.

In addition, a number of new Appeals Officers have joined the Appeals Office over the past 12-18 months, to replace staff leaving on retirement.  Additional staff have also been allocated to the office in recent weeks.  Given the complexity of the appeals process it takes some time for new staff to be trained and develop expertise and this has led to somewhat longer processing times during this period.  The Chief Appeals Officer has advised me that appeal processing times continue to be a priority for her Office.

Finally, where a claimant has been refused a social welfare payment, regardless of the scheme involved, and is appealing that decision, if their means are insufficient to meet their needs it is open to them to apply for supplementary welfare allowance in the interim.   

If their application for supplementary welfare allowance is refused, they can also appeal that decision.  The supplementary welfare allowance appeal will be prioritised for attention within the Appeals Office as soon as the appeal file and submission is received from my Department.   

I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.