Thursday, 30 May 2019

Questions (9)

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

9. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection further to Parliamentary Question No. 481 of 14 May 2019, the reason the average number of weeks taken to award payments (details supplied) are between nine and 13; the measures she is taking to reduce the waiting times for the award of these payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22787/19]

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Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Employment)

It is welcome that many welfare payments and supports are awarded in a week or two, but the Minister told me a couple of weeks ago, I think, about the waiting times for some important pensions and allowances. The average waiting time for a non-contributory State pension, for example, is still ten weeks; for carer's allowance, 13 weeks, or three months; for carer's benefit, 12 weeks; for disability allowance, 13 weeks; and for domiciliary care allowance, nine weeks. What efforts is the Minister making to reduce these waiting times for the processing of applications? This is without even going into appeals, which are a whole other ball game.

The Department is genuinely committed to ensuring that claims for its schemes are processed as quickly as possible.

In April 2019 new claims for non-contributory State pension, carer's allowance, carer's benefit and domiciliary care allowance schemes were processed within their respective target timeframes. Depending on the scheme, targets for awarding claims are set between ten and 12 weeks. Disability allowance claims took an average of 13 weeks to award, which is a week outside of our targeted timeframe.

There is more complexity attached to the processing of applications for the means-tested schemes. Schemes relying on medical evidence also require greater time to process than some of our other claims. In disability allowance claims, for example, in addition to providing evidence of habitual residence in the State and of the income and assets the applicants may hold, they must provide details of their medical conditions and the extent to which they restrict them from taking up employment. The information provided is then assessed by a qualified medical assessor, and this takes some time. In many cases, where a medical assessor deems that the person is not restricted in his or her capacity to take up work, the person concerned then submits additional information in the hope of supporting his or her claim. The time taken to receive and then assess this additional information is also reflected in our processing times. Likewise, for carer's allowance, details of the income and assets of the claimant, together with medical certification identifying the care needs of the person being cared for on a full-time basis, also need to be provided and assessed.

I reassure the Deputy that claim processing is kept under - I will not say "daily" - weekly review because not only is the matter raised here all the time by all parties and none, but it is also something to which we strive. No one wants to set out to frustrate people who are only coming to us because they have genuine needs or are at low periods in their lives or to make the process more difficult than it is. The reflections on how we are approaching our new carer's payment application - we have done extensive work with the Carers Association and other carers' representative bodies to try to make that application process simpler for those who apply - is only one of the small ways in which we are trying to improve the way we do things.

We have all been on the doorsteps, around DART stations and so on in recent weeks. We hear many horror stories in particular about waiting times for carer's allowance and even at times for carer's benefit, which Deputy Penrose and I worked on in earlier Dáileanna to get it introduced. I think the Minister told us there is a very high number of applications for carer's allowance. I think there were something like 15,500 applications and nearly 18,000 for disability allowance between January and September last year. Is the number of applications more or less consistent in demographic terms or is the Department tending to get more and more applications for the key allowances I mentioned? The Minister made the point to a number of us in response to an earlier question that about 85% of claims, I think, are awarded and appeals are made by just 1% of those refused. At the same time, though, some of the waiting times for oral appeal hearings are incredible. In the case of carer's allowance, one must wait 28.4 weeks for an oral hearing and 24.3 weeks for a summary decision. The position is very similar in the case of carer's benefit and disability allowance, at 17.1 weeks and 23 weeks, respectively. It was our ambition in previous eras to have an independent statutory process for appeals. The Minister has again told us that one can appeal to the High Court and so on-----

The Deputy will have a further minute.

-----but, generally speaking, that does not happen.

I will give the Deputy some new statistics since the last time he asked a question about this matter. There are currently 81,652 people in receipt of carer's allowance providing care to 89,679 recipients with 49,704 qualified children. There are some 2,770 people in receipt of carer's benefit giving care to 3,185 people. The average processing time for carer's benefit is 11 weeks. The average processing time for carer's allowance was 17.3 weeks and as of the end of April this year it is down to 12 weeks. I will give the Deputy all these statistics instead of just standing here and reading them out to him. I know how frustrating this is but it is equally frustrating to us. We will potentially have staff freed up from illness benefit, for example, arising from the extra staff we allocated to that section. When we have staff freed up from certain schemes, we put them in the areas that are most in need. I hope people can see that the numbers are coming down. The waiting times for domiciliary care allowance, DCA, applications have reduced drastically. The waiting times for carer's allowance and carer's benefit are reducing. Even 12 weeks is probably sometimes a little long, but we set the targets for a reason: we want to achieve them. I hope the Deputy can see that the numbers are coming down.

Staffing levels for hard-pressed staff in social protection offices are critical.

That is a very important aspect of this matter. Earlier this year, I asked the Minister about vacancies in social welfare offices in Kilbarrack and Coolock in the constituency of Dublin Bay North. She informed me that the Department was actively working to fill one executive officer post in Kilbarrack and one clerical officer post in Coolock. She stated that she anticipated those posts being filled quite soon afterwards. Were they filled? Is the Minister happy with the level of support for her Department vis-à-vis the national budget? We will be getting the stability programme update,, SPU, from the Minister for Finance very shortly. It will indicate the level of additional resources that will be needed by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

I also asked the Minister about the number of complaints against the Department. I asked all of the Departments to provide data for complaints from the public. In 2016, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection received 1,100 complaints, while it received 1,000 complaints in 2017. However, in 2018 the number of complaints rose to 1,800. While I acknowledge that the Department processes a vast volume of claims, that is the largest number of complaints against any Department.

I do not know the answer to the question on the two vacant posts. I will revert to the Deputy on it later today. With my tongue in my cheek, I assure him that the Department of Finance does not know what my expected want is for next year but it will know fairly soon. I will do my very best to ensure we get what we want.

Is the Minister going to introduce any new support?

Will she seek additional resources?

I have ambitions to do certain things. I hope we will be able to work together to get the support to be able to do them. Again, this is not about my ambitions but about the need to reflect on the two or three areas or groups of people who are most marginalised. I would like to make sure that we set in train a process in the next few years to improve their lot significantly.

The issue of complaints is an odd one. The Deputy knows how disruptive the changes to the illness benefit scheme that were introduced last year were and I have no doubt that is the reason for the increase in the number of complaints. I do not know that for sure but I suspect that is why we saw a significant increase in complaints last year. We have 6,500 people working in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. They are an incredible bunch. I have never met people with more empathy and understanding of people's plights when they are down on their luck. While people are entitled-----

Maybe we need a few more of them.

Yes, and any assistance in that regard would be gratefully received.

Question No. 10 replied to with Written Answers.