Applications are processed and entitlements issued as quickly as possible having regard to the eligibility conditions which apply. Various conditions apply to schemes. They may include establishment of the customer's social insurance record, an assessment of means where appropriate or an examination to ensure that medical conditions are fulfilled.
On average it takes between two and three weeks to award claims for disability benefit, the unemployment schemes, child benefit and family income supplement. Claims for old age, widowed and invalidity pensions take between six and eight weeks to process. At present cases where the conditions of entitlement are more complex, such as payments for carers, one parent families and disability allowance cases require between ten and 17 weeks to finalise. Details of the average clearance times for new claims for the month of February 2004, and year to date including February, will be circulated at a later date.
Once a claim is decided payment is normally made within one week. In 2003 the average time to issue pension arrears was 2.4 weeks. From 1 January 2004 to date the average time to issue pension arrears is 1.5 weeks.
The over-riding consideration in processing claims is to ensure that customers receive their correct entitlement. Decisions are not taken until all appropriate information is available. Improving customer service is a priority for my Department. Challenging performance targets have been set for all of the main schemes and are published and reported on.
My Department has also commenced the introduction of new arrangements to improve customer service using the most up to date technology and business models to focus on meeting customer needs. The programme will also facilitate integration of services and greater efficiency that will have beneficial effects on the processing of other claims.
In November 2002 the first phase of this system was implemented for child benefit. It enabled a radical re-organisation of the child benefit application process by dovetailing with the computerised birth registration data flowing from the new civil registration service. As a result of these changes child benefit will be awarded and put into payment automatically for second and subsequent children born to child benefit recipients. Partially completed claim forms will be issued automatically in other cases for signature and for instructions on how payment will be made. The service delivery modernisation programme will be extended to other schemes on a progressive basis.
It will be some years before the benefits of the programme are realised. I want to ensure that service levels are maintained and improved where possible in the meantime. My Department is engaged in an ongoing process to ensure that existing resources are prioritised to the greatest extent possible on front line service delivery areas.