Wednesday, 25 April 2012
Social Welfare Benefits
Kathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
Currently, there are approximately 52,000 recipients of carer's allowance. Of these, approximately 22,000 are in receipt of half-rate carer's allowance in addition to another primary social welfare payment. The rates of payment were maintained for carer's allowance in budget 2012 and no changes were made to the means test for carer's allowance. The current income disregards for eligibility for the allowance, which are the most generous in the social welfare system, are €332.50 per week for a single person and €665 per week for a couple. The increased payment for those caring for more than one person was also retained. In addition, carers continue to get an annual respite care grant of €1,700 in respect of each person for whom they care.
The number of people claiming carer's allowance and carer's benefit has increased from 21,000 to 52,000, or about 250%, over the past ten years and the rate of receipt of new claims continues to remain at high levels. There are currently approximately 7,800 new applications registered and awaiting a decision, with approximately 330 new applications being received each week. This increase in claim-load has imposed significant demands on the Department's processing staff both with regard to processing new claims and paying and maintaining the increased stock of beneficiaries. In order to meet the challenge of increased volumes of new claims for its schemes, the Department has embarked on a major programme of process redesign and modernisation, including the deployment of new computer systems. This new processing system is being introduced for the carer's allowance scheme, with the first tranche of new carer's allowance claims under the new system processed in August 2011.
It is anticipated that the new system will, when fully rolled out, introduce significant processing efficiencies and a quicker and more responsive service to the customer. Accordingly, the project is being given high priority and involves a significant level of time and commitment from the relevant staff in the Department. This has had a short-term negative impact on claim processing times which is expected to continue until the completion of the modernisation project in June of this year, when all existing carer's allowance claims will be transferred onto the new processing system. Accurate processing time figures are not available at present as applications are still being processed on both the old and the new computer systems. The average time to award an application at present is estimated at around 28 weeks. I know it can sometimes be longer.
I acknowledge that this is unsatisfactory but I am satisfied the Department is taking all steps available to it to resolve the issue. In addition to the deployment of new systems which should address service levels in the medium term, the Department is allocating additional resources in the form of overtime working to help reduce backlogs that have built up. In addition, approval has recently been given for the assignment of temporary staff to expedite the reduction of the backlogs. However, it is expected to be a significant number of months before the backlog is reduced to an acceptable level. Although the new systems and processes will facilitate a significant improvement in overall processing times, it should be noted that individual claims may continue to take some time to process. Delays can also arise if those applying for the allowance are not in a position to supply all the necessary information in support of their claim. Sometimes this is not the case.
In the meantime, if a person's means are insufficient to meet his or her needs, the community welfare officer should step into the breach. I am sure all Deputies know this. With regard to carer's benefit, there are currently 488 new applications on hand and the current average processing time is approximately ten weeks.