Tuesday, 24 May 2005
Social Welfare Code.
Question 51: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if he will report on the guidelines issued to social welfare offices regarding the habitual residency condition; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17346/05]
The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes and child benefit with effect from 1 May 2004. A central unit was established to monitor policy in terms of the implementation of the habitual residence condition and to provide advice and support to scheme areas and social welfare local offices. Decisions to the effect that applicants satisfy the habitual residence condition are made in the majority of cases at claim acceptance stage by deciding officers. At present, decisions on complex cases are made in the central unit.
The main policy and administrative developments to date have included the drafting of guidelines overseen by the Department's decisions advisory office and the posting of these guidelines on the Department's website and on the internal computer network for access by staff. Administrative guidelines on the operation of the condition have also been compiled and furnished to staff in social welfare offices and scheme areas. In addition, training has been provided to 1,300 staff. A leaflet providing comprehensive information on the habitual residence condition has also been published.
While the primary function of the staff in the central unit is to make decisions on complex cases, they also provide advice and support on an ongoing basis to colleagues in social welfare offices. The management of the unit maintains contact with their colleagues in social welfare offices to assist them with policy and administrative issues which may arise with regard to the habitual residence condition.
The habitual residence condition is operated in a careful manner to ensure that Ireland's social welfare system is protected while at the same time ensuring that people whose cases are appropriate to the Irish social welfare system have access to the system when they need it. In the period from May 2004 to May 2005, 72% of cases were found to satisfy the habitual residence condition. The operation of the condition is under review within the Department.
Will the Minister tell me how many people were told that their claims did not satisfy the condition over the period 2004 to 2005? Is it true that migrants who have been invited to work here but lose their jobs and fall upon hard times, as has been reported in the media, have no supports? How are these people supposed to eat or find shelter? Has the Minister any knowledge of the extent of this problem?
A total of 13,776 cases were decided between 1 May 2004 and May 2005. Of these, 9,895 or 72% were found to satisfy the habitual residence condition. Of the 13,776 cases which were decided, 3,500 were Irish, 2,244 from the UK, 1,716 from the EU 13, 1,887 from new member states and 4,395 others. Affirmative answers were given in 72% of cases and 28% were refused. Approximately 10% of Irish applicants were refused because the two-year rule is not the only factor involved in the habitual residence conditions. Before qualifying for welfare, five tests are applied to determine whether a central connection with Ireland exists.
I again ask the Minister about those who came here in good faith to work but lost their jobs and are on the side of the street. Without support, how are they expected to eat and find shelter? Is the Minister aware of the extent of this problem? Has he or his Department investigated this issue? The answer to a recent parliamentary question indicates that this issue will not be subject to one of the famous reviews which he continually mentions. Does he plan to review this scheme? How are these people supposed to live, eat and find shelter? How many such individuals exist? Does the Minister have any contact with non-governmental organisations which have informed us that they are snowed under by the growing numbers of stranded migrants seeking help? What are his plans in this area?
I said earlier that five factors are taken into account when deciding whether somebody who arrives here is entitled to welfare: the length and continuity of residence in a particular country, the length and purpose of absence from Ireland, the nature and pattern of the employment, the applicant's main centre of interest and the future intention of the applicant concerned as it appears from all circumstances. Every circumstance, not only the two-year requirement, is taken into account. We have received a number of queries on this matter, some of which were from the European Commission.
I have also received the advice of the Attorney General on this matter. These factors will be taken into account when action is being considered. We must protect Ireland's social welfare structure at the same time as being humane and fair to people who come here.