Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 30 Jun 1999

Vol. 507 No. 3

Adjournment Debate. - Social Welfare Appeals.

I am disappointed the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs will not respond to this matter. It always seems that my colleague from Mayo, the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, replies to the issues I raise. I have time for Deputy Moffatt and I do not want to be dismissive about him, but I would like him to tell the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs that I am disappointed he is not present. I considered whether I would go ahead with this matter, but out of respect of the House I will make my case. The non-attendance of the Minister seems to reflect an attitude in the Department and the message probably being sent out by the Minister is that those who are not able to fight for themselves should be taken on. The Minister and the Government will pay the penalty down the road.

The person in this case had an accident at work eight years ago in which she lost part of three of her fingers. In recent years the Department has been taking her pension from her and then reinstating it. Again her pension has been taken from her. The delay in getting an oral hearing to appeal the decision of the Department is outrageous. Money is taken from her the minute the referee decides she is no longer entitled to a pension and that she is fit to work. The person then has to go begging to the community welfare officer. Compassion is not shown by the Department. People should be paid until the appeal has been processed. This would encourage the Department to be faster in arranging appeals so that people would not have to wait for months.

There would be uproar if money was taken from me or the Minister and if we had to wait six months before we could make an appeal and in the meantime had to go begging to the community welfare officer. It is wrong that we are attacking the weak in society, something which is happening in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.

Another category of people affected by this are those who may not be physically injured but who may be mildly mentally handicapped. I have sent some of these cases to the Ombudsman. These people are not be able to take up employment and yet do not fall into any particular category. The inspectors do now show compassion to such people. The message from the Government, the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, is that these people should get out to work whether or not they are fit to work. If they are not fit for work the attitude seems to be that maybe they will die and go away. This is wrong.

There is a certain category of people who should be protected by the State and I am asking that the delay in making appeals be dealt with immediately so that people are not made wait for months for oral hearings. This is a reasonable request. If they have to wait for months they should be paid in the intervening period.

I would like the Minister of State to tell the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs that I am not satisfied with what is happening in the Department. When the Dáil returns in October – there is doubt as to whether it will come back given the tribunals which are taking place – I will have the Minister in the House to answer issues such as this. I will table many questions about the delays people are experiencing in waiting for oral hearings. The officers in the Department should be called off the weak people in society. I support the Department and the Minister in going after people who are defrauding the State, namely, those who are working and are drawing dole. These are the people who should be dealt with, not the weak, the sick and those who do not fall into any particular category.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Minister, Deputy Ahern, regrets that he cannot be here to reply on this occasion. The person concerned had been in receipt of disability benefit initially, and then invalidity pension from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.

A person who is incapable of work and satisfies relevant contribution conditions will qualify for disability benefit in the first instance. If people have been claiming disability benefit for a minimum period of one year and are considered incapable of work for a further 12 months, application may be made for invalidity pension.

As the Deputy will be aware, the regulations governing payment of disability benefit and invalidity pension require the Department to exercise adequate medical control of customers. This control is exercised through the medical assessors to whom customers in receipt of such payments are referred for examination on a regular basis. All the Department's medical assessors are fully qualified and experienced doctors. Their examinations are carried out in a fair and impartial manner.

Except in cases where a person might be deemed to be permanently incapable of work, claimants are required to attend for medical examinations on a regular basis in order to establish the extent of their incapacity and their continued entitlement to payment. Following such an examination in February 1999, a medical assessor considered that the person concerned was not incapable of work and payment of invalidity pension was disallowed by a deciding officer from 11 March 1999.

She appealed against this decision to the independent social welfare appeals office and in the context of her appeal she was examined by another medical assessor of the Department on 23 April 1999 who also expressed the opinion that she was capable of work.

In the light of this the person was afforded an opportunity at that stage to set out the complete and up-to-date grounds for her appeal and to furnish any further medical evidence she wished to submit in support of her appeal. In accordance with statutory procedures, the comments of the deciding officer who made the decision disallowing pension were also sought.

The current position in regard to her appeal is that the matter has been examined by an appeals officer who considers that an oral hearing of the appeal will be required to give the person concerned the opportunity to present her case.

The appeals process is quasi-judicial and the procedures are designed to ensure that every appeal gets full and satisfactory treatment in an independent and impartial manner in accordance with principles of natural justice.

More than 5,000 oral hearings by appeals officers are heard annually and the Deputy will appreciate that it is not possible to give a precise time for the holding of an oral hearing too far in advance of the hearing. The timing of the hearing will depend on a consideration of the number of cases to be heard, the time when individual cases are received, the proposed location of the oral hearing and the availability of appeals officers. A person will usually be advised approximately two weeks in advance of the proposed date.

I understand from the social welfare appeals office that the oral hearing of this person's case will be arranged for the week commencing 26 July 1999.