Other Questions

Social Welfare Appeals

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

50 Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Social Protection his plans to recruit and divert more appeals officers to the Social Welfare Appeals Office to deal with the backlog of social welfare appeals [40035/10]

There has been a significant increase in the number of appeals received by the social welfare appeals office in recent years, largely as a result of increased unemployment during the economic downturn. The number of appeals received by the office in 2009 increased by 46% compared to 2008, which, in turn, was 27% greater than the numbers received in 2007. In response, my Department assigned three additional permanent appeals officers in January 2009.

The Department has also pursued other options to deal with the increasing inflow of appeals including operational and process changes. These have included additional staff who have been assigned to the administration area of the office; more emphasis is now being placed on dealing with appeals on a summary basis so as to increase productivity; a project to improve the business processes in the office was undertaken which has resulted in a number of improvements being implemented; and significant enhancements have been made to the office's IT and phone systems.

The social welfare appeals system is quasi-judicial in nature and the determinations made by appeals officers are governed by relevant social welfare legislation and by case law. It takes considerable time for newly appointed officers to become fully proficient in the full range of the Department's schemes and legislation. Accordingly, as an exceptional measure, it was decided to re-employ, on a temporary contract basis, a number of retired officers. Eight retired appeals officers, working on a part-time basis, have been employed in my Department since June 2010. It was expected that the provision of experienced staff resources would yield an immediate dividend in terms of making inroads into the number of appeals on hand. This has proven to be the case with 3,000 cases having being finalised by them in the period June to the end of September. It is expected that a further 3,000 cases will be finalised before the end of the year. It is intended that the retired officers will be retained until the end of 2011 if the number of appeals on hands warrants this.

The Department is reviewing the situation on an ongoing basis and will seek to ensure that adequate resources are provided to the appeals office, having regard to the current moratorium on recruitment and promotions.

Does the Minister agree the appeals system is a shambles? Every Member is only too well aware of the difficulties. For example, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle recently drew attention to this problem. The typical waiting time for an appeal is in excess of nine months. Oral hearings that were first requested in August 2009 have not yet been heard. That is how bad it is. The Minister referred to the additional staff he has provided. Does he accept the information I received in reply to a recent parliamentary question, which stated the capacity of the appeals office is to handle 29,000 appeals in the current year? However, there is demand for 50,000 appeals. How does he intend to bridge that gap? Not only are the delays costing the State and claimants money, waiting times will worsen unless the Department meets demand. What action does the Minister intend to take?

I have outlined considerable actions that have been taken and the results can be seen. Up to the end of September 2009, 12,873 appeals were heard while the figure up to the end of September 2010 increased to 20,171. The challenge we face is that up to 2007 the average number of appeals per annum was 15,000 but that has jumped——

The Minister is not meeting current demand.

——and it is expected that upwards of 33,000 appeals will be received this year. The number of appeals, therefore, has more than doubled. We are taking many steps to streamline the process and to make sure, for example, where further information is provided that the case does not go through the appeals process and is referred back to the Department where the decision can be revised. These steps are having the desired effect.

Furthermore, as I pointed out in my answer, some of the steps we took did not happen until mid-year, such as bringing back retired appeals officers, so I hope we can build up to a situation where we at least meet the increased demand. Our next challenge is to get ahead of ourselves and reduce the existing lists. I see this happening in a multifaceted way; we must look at why so many people make appeals in the first place.

The Minister is not accepting the facts of the situation and the maths involved. He already said the capacity of the appeals office is 29,000 but the demand is for 50,000 appeals in a year.

According to replies to parliamentary questions, it is. The Minister is not doing enough and the waiting times will get longer.

The other point I ask him to accept is that given 40% of those appeals fail, and that many of those whose appeals do not succeed are entitled to supplementary welfare allowance, every month there is a delay in hearing appeals that costs the taxpayer €600,000. What is the Minister doing to put in place a modern public service in the appeals office that will deal with appeals in a timely fashion and why is he not attaching more urgency to this given the huge costs involved to the taxpayer, costs that could be avoided?

I attach a huge degree of urgency to this. The Deputy is wrong on a number of points, she is adding the number of appeals that will come in this year and the full backlog but there will always be some appeals on hand and because it takes time to deal with appeals, they will never reach zero. The Deputy has added the number of appeals on hand and the expected number.

That is the demand this year and the Minister is not meeting it.

There will always be carry over of appeals into the following year, which the Deputy totally ignores in her mathematics. It takes time to deal with appeals because this is a quasi-judicial situation. I outlined the time taken in the answer to the priority question; it is needed because when an appeal is made, it is examined, if there is new information it is sent back for an opportunity for the deciding officer to change the decision, then it comes back and an appeals officer looks at it. In some cases, the appeal then goes to an oral hearing. There will never be a situation where zero time is taken for an appeal, there will always be appeals under way, that has always been the way. The Deputy's mathematics ignore that.

Is nine months acceptable?

The other thing wrong with the Deputy's mathematics is that supplementary welfare is paid but if the appeal is awarded, the money paid in supplementary welfare is taken into account.

What if it is not awarded?

In many cases supplementary welfare is not paid. Supplementary welfare is only paid where the community welfare officer, having done his own means test, believes there is a prima facie case for the payment of supplementary welfare.

This costs €600,000 a month.

Therefore, the figure the Deputy gave for the cost of supplementary welfare is wrong.

Would the Minister not admit there has been a dramatic increase in the number of appeals because of a dramatic increase in the number of refusals for various payments? Will he confirm the number of cases on appeal is the highest ever and that a scoping section in the Department provides at least a year in advance to deal with the level of queries under a particular category and that it is being done now to provide for next year?

The first thing I paid attention to when I entered the Department was the length of the appeals process. As a constituency politician, I am more than aware of the problem. In fairness to the appeals office, which is independent, it has taken a huge number of steps to deal with the large increase in the number of applications.

It is obvious that many decisions are now being revised before they go through a full appeal because the applicants are giving information on appeal that they are not giving in the initial application. It is interesting to look at the statistics I gave this afternoon that show we must look at ways to encourage people to give the information at the first stage that obviates the necessity for an appeal because many successful appeals are based on further information being provide the second time around. I should look at Deputy Durkan's point, that there should be a way to engineer a situation where people do not feel the need to appeal.

Social Welfare Benefits

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

51 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Social Protection if he has considered easing the qualification requirements for back to education allowance having regard to the rising needs in the present economic situation and the necessity to ensure availability of an up skilled labour force in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39972/10]

The back to education allowance scheme is a second chance education opportunities scheme designed to remove the barriers to participation in second and third level education by enabling eligible people on social welfare to continue to receive a payment while pursuing an approved full-time education course that leads to a higher qualification than that already held.

With effect from 19 July 2010, changes have been made to the qualifying conditions of the back to education scheme to reflect the present economic situation. The period for which a person is required to be on a qualifying social welfare payment before accessing BTEA was reduced from 12 months to nine months. A two year qualifying period continues to apply to participants coming from illness benefit. People who are awarded statutory redundancy may access the scheme immediately, provided an entitlement to a relevant social welfare payment is established prior to commencing an approved course of study.

In addition, a person can avail of BTEA to resume studies in a second or subsequent year of a third level course whereas, prior to July, a person could only apply for BTEA if he was commencing year one of a course. This also applies to people who are granted an exemption from a period of the third level course. A person who completed an earlier year or years of his third level course on a part-time basis but is now getting a jobseeker's payment may apply for BTEA to continue the course on a full-time basis.

These enhancements build on other improvements made to the scheme in recent years in response to the changing economic climate. From September 2007, the qualifying period for illness benefit was reduced from three years to two years; from September 2008, the cost of education allowance, which is an additional annual payment made to cover the cost of books and materials, was increased from €400 to €500; and from September 2009, the six month waiting period for those pursuing second level courses was reduced to three months.

A jobseeker who wishes to participate in a part-time course may do so under the Department's part-time education option. Participants may continue to receive their existing social welfare entitlements provided they continue to satisfy all the existing terms and conditions of their jobseeker scheme including availability for work.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The number of participants on the back to education scheme in the 2009-10 academic year was 20,808, which represented a 79% increase on the previous year. The number of participants in the 2008-09 academic year also represented an increase of 31% on the previous academic year. As of 22 October, approximately 21,500 participants were approved for the back to education allowance. Due to the nature of the scheme a significant number of applications are processed in October and indications are that BTEA numbers will increase noticeably again for this academic year.

The Government has devoted significant resources to the back to education allowance. The challenges presented by the changed economic circumstances are being addressed at a cross departmental and agency level. Specifically, joint approaches have been adopted by the Departments of Social Protection, Enterprise, Trade and Innovation and Education and Skills to the development of a range of activation programmes which support the unemployed in getting work, work experience or the education and skills that will support them in the search for employment.

The national employment action plan is the main measure that addresses progression of those on the live register. Under the NEAP, the Department refers persons to FÁS at three months. The process provides a stimulus to job search and affords an opportunity to explore, under professional guidance, the full range of employment and training services offered by FÁS. A total of 157,000 training and work experience places will be provided by FÁS in 2010, compared to 66,000 places in 2008 and 130,000 places in 2009.

Full-time opportunities are being provided for more than 40,000 learners, including the unemployed, under the Youthreach, Senior Traveller Training Centre, vocational training opportunity scheme and post-leaving certificate, PLC, programmes. VTOS, Youthreach and STTC participants receive a training allowance in lieu of their social welfare payments and are eligible for a range of additional meal, travel and long-term unemployment bonus allowances. They are also eligible to access child care supports. Unemployed PLC participants may avail of the BTEA. Part-time opportunities, targeted at the low-skilled, the disadvantaged and the hard to reach, including the unemployed, are available through the back to education initiative, adult literacy and community education schemes and together will cater for an estimated 125,000 learners in 2010.

Other activation measures include the work placement and the short time work training programmes, sponsored by the Department of Education and Skills. Also included is a range of third level labour market activation initiatives for jobseekers, which in 2009 supported more than 3,000 unemployed people to embark on a range of newly developed transition and accelerated programmes in institutes of technology, as well as part-time undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in institutes of yechnology and universities that support the goals of the smart economy. In addition, the labour market activation fund is supporting almost 60 innovative projects and 12,000 participants in 2010.

Given the qualification requirements now in place, and having regard to his references to 2007, 2008 and 2009, and the fact that this is 2010 and the economic situation is more serious than was the case one, two or three years ago, will the Minister look at the obstacles that exist to ensure the greatest possible number of young people who are anxious about going back to education, to provide for themselves now and in future, be dealt with as a matter of urgency?

Since 22 October, 21,500 participants were approved for the back to education scheme. This compares with 20,808 in 2009-10, which was a 79% increase on the previous year. The scheme has been broadened and increased dramatically. We must be careful in drawing up terms for this scheme not to create dead weight. It is clear we should focus much of the effort on second level qualifications because those who are further down the education chain find it more difficult to get a job. Those who experience the greatest difficulty getting employment are those with the least employment opportunities. The case has been made to extend the scheme to cover masters' degrees and second primary degrees but that would involve a major commitment to expenditure and we must compare that with the chances people who already have a degree have to get a job.

I am bringing to the Minister's attention the case of a young man who was on jobseeker's benefit and who had to transfer to jobseeker's allowance. His allowance was not through by the time he started back in education. He is now getting neither allowance, which is serious. He has been dealing with his social welfare office but, as of yet, has not received an answer.

I am not sure the Minister can deal with specific cases.

If the Deputy passes me on the details of this case, I will have it investigated.

Will the Minister accept this scheme is in need of urgent reform? The Department's view is that everything is okay as long as it is treading water. The fact is there is a huge demand for places on this scheme. What on earth is the reason for not allowing people to participate in third level courses after being unemployed for three months? There seems to be a mindset in the Department that people will give up their jobs if it is made too easy for them to do so. The nature of unemployment has completely changed. What is the sense in making people wait longer than three months before allowing them to participate on a course through this scheme? Should we not encourage people to go back to education and enhance their educational qualifications so that they will be ready to avail of employment opportunities when the economic recovery eventually comes? What is the Minister's defence for not allowing this to happen?

It comes down to using the limited resources available. A large number of people who lose a job regain other employment in the first six months. This figure then tails off——

That was the way it used to be.

It still is the case. After the first six months, the figure tends to tail off.

A person getting access to a third level course through the back to education scheme will be paid the equivalent of the jobseeker's allowance, a minimum of €10,000 a year, for the foreseeable future. That is an expensive commitment to make, so the best use of resources and money must be ensured. Until recently, allocating the allowance was focused on those finding it difficult to get employment. That same argument applies to allowing people to do second degrees, as I pointed out earlier to Deputy Durkan. It is important for the scheme's focus to be retained at second level education participation because the evidence shows people with degrees have a much better chance of getting jobs than those who do not complete second level education.

That is the very point we are making.

I support Deputy Shortall's request for a review of this scheme. I had the case of a young girl on jobseeker's allowance who fell four weeks short of the time criteria for qualifying for the back to education scheme. She was accepted, however, into the first year of a nursing course but was denied the back to education allowance. She appealed the decision and continued to participate in the course. Now, the Department has even withdrawn her jobseeker's allowance. There is neither rhyme, reason nor consistency in the Department's actions. Will the Minister review the scheme urgently?

I cannot comment on the individual case in question. No matter where one draws the line when it comes to the cut-off criteria for allowances, there will be always someone on the wrong side of it. I accept it is difficult for the individuals affected but it is inherent in the whole social welfare system.

Regarding the wider question of whether it should be easier to get on to the scheme, it is important to bear in mind the overall cost and using the moneys for the best.

The Minister's Department is making it difficult to get on the scheme.

That is not the case.

The Minister without interruption.

No, that is a fundamental mistake made when assessing this scheme. For example, making a commitment to 100 people to do a five-year degree course would amount to €50,000 per person for the course's duration, €5 million in total. This must be compared to their chances——

It should be compared to what is best for the economy.

——which are very high, of getting jobs in the intervening period. As there is a finite amount of moneys available, it is important such a long-term burden is not placed on the State, particularly when it could mean others would be deprived of other welfare payments.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.