Thursday, 30 April 2009
As part of its reform of the health sector, the Government has decided to transfer responsibility for the General Register Office, for certain disability-related income support schemes and for the administration of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme and associated staff, including community welfare officers, from the Health Service Executive to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Responsibility for the General Register Office transferred to the Department on 1 January last. The transfer of responsibility for the domiciliary care allowance scheme has commenced. New claims are being accepted in the Department. The transfer of all existing cases will be completed by September of this year. Arrangements will then be made for the transfer of the blind welfare allowance scheme.
The transfer of responsibility for the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is the largest part of the transfer programme. A considerable amount of preparatory work has been completed. The necessary legislation has been passed, subject to a commencement order. The number and location of the posts to be transferred has been agreed. Agreement has been reached with the HSE about accommodation, finance and other support arrangements. Detailed discussions have taken place with the relevant trade unions. As it was not possible to reach agreement with the unions that represent community welfare officers about pay, superannuation and other matters, it has been decided that such issues should be referred to the national industrial relations institutions to find a resolution.
Community welfare officers and the local office staff of the Department are under a good deal of pressure as they deal with increased unemployment levels. As they provide a service to the same people, it makes perfect sense for them to operate within a unified management structure. The integration of the community welfare service into the Department of Social and Family Affairs will result in a more co-ordinated approach to the provision of services to the public and will remove duplication of work. The transfer will not lead to any changes in the exercise of discretion by community welfare officers. The flexibility and responsiveness which is inherent in the scheme will remain. I am anxious that every effort is made to complete the arrangements for the transfer as soon as possible. I recognise that the transfer represents a change for the community welfare staff. It also represents a major organisational challenge for the Department. While a number of human resources issues remain to be resolved, I am confident this can be done in the coming months.
Will the Minister clarify her comment that responsibility for all schemes, with the exception of the blind welfare allowance, will be transferred to the Department of Social and Family Affairs by September of this year? Is that subject to agreement at the discussions with the national industrial relations institutions? Will it happen anyway? One cannot hand over all the schemes if those who administer them do not come with the handover. If this plan goes ahead as the Minister has outlined, the Department of Social and Family Affairs will assume responsibility for a system that is creaking at the seams. I think the officials have described it as being past breaking point. I discussed the matter with community welfare officers at yesterday's meeting of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. I suggest that additional staff should be deployed from elsewhere in the Department to administer the community welfare service. Does the Minister envisage that will happen? She will be aware that the number of requests for community welfare services has increased by 85% in recent times. The number of community welfare officers has not changed, however. I accept that all Departments are subject to the embargo on public service recruitment. The queues at social welfare offices are growing, rather than decreasing. The number of people who wish to avail of the community welfare service is also increasing. When these responsibilities are transferred to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, it will have to deal with both problems. Will the Department be able to put in place the necessary staff? If the main social welfare service is failing, at least the back-up community welfare service should be able to give people what they need.
The Department of Social and Family Affairs has assumed responsibility for new applications under the domiciliary care allowance scheme. Responsibility for existing applications will transfer to the Department in September. That is separate from the supplementary welfare scheme.
The transfer of responsibility for the supplementary welfare scheme is conditional on the agreement of staff. Approximately 1,000 officials will transfer to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It is a huge transfer for them. It is a huge logistical operation for the Department. Its total number of staff will increase to approximately 5,300. I do not doubt it will lead to greater integration and better streamlining of the services provided to individuals. That is what it is all about. A number of issues have to be resolved. Agreement has been reached on some issues, but certain terms and conditions continue to present difficulties. Some of the officials in question are public servants, as opposed to civil servants. Issues such as career paths and pay structures also need to be resolved. We have clarified some matters, such as accommodation and discretion. I believe the outstanding issues can be resolved in the next few months. The community welfare officers are seeking clarity. Matters will become clearer when everyone is part of the same system. People seem to be in limbo at present.
I would like to ask a brief supplementary question about an issue I have already raised. I refer to the demands being imposed on the social welfare service and the community welfare service by the lengthening queues. Will more staff be deployed from within the resources of the Department of Social and Family Affairs to deal with such problems? The community welfare service is at breaking point. The Minister's comments about the integration of services have tempted me to ask questions about the issue of independence. I will not go into that now. Community welfare officers make sure that applicants are likely to be eligible for the social welfare benefit for which they have applied, and are waiting for, before they agree to make supplementary payments to such people. When they sanction the making of a payment, it is made within a short space of time. By contrast, people in Boyle, for example, currently have to wait 19 weeks to receive jobseeker's allowance payments. I suggest that the Minister should examine whether the manner in which the community welfare service operates can be applied in her Department. Community welfare officers do not sanction payments if they are not sure that the Department of Social and Family Affairs will make a social welfare payment in the end.
I accept what the Deputy is saying about the situation in Boyle. I will come back to that. The manner in which the HSE is governed by the public sector recruitment embargo has affected community welfare offices that are in need of staff increases. My Department, however, has been able to increase its numbers and has sought a further increase. When it assumes responsibility for the community welfare system, it will have some scope to better support the work of the community welfare offices.