Thursday, 30 April 2009
Social Welfare Benefits.
Question 6: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the process improvement initiatives introduced to reduce the processing times of jobseeker's applications; the location at which these initiatives have been rolled out; if these initiatives have been extended to all social welfare offices; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17074/09]
I accept that becoming unemployed and having to claim jobseeker's payment is extremely difficult for people. I am trying to ensure the process of making a claim is as easy as possible. In 2008, we commenced a review of the processes and procedures for accepting and making decisions on claims. Certain initiatives have been introduced at all local and branch offices. A streamlined process has been introduced for people who had made a claim in the previous two years. The application form has been simplified so that claimants have to provide only details of any circumstances that have changed since the previous claim. A simplified procedure has been introduced to assist those who have to move to jobseeker's allowance when their period of jobseeker's benefit expires. More straightforward procedures for providing evidence of identity and address have been introduced. Application forms for jobseeker's schemes are now available on the Department's website, which contains comprehensive information on claiming jobseeker's payment, including details of the supporting documents that are required. When a person makes a claim for jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance, he or she can download and complete a claim form and bring it to his or her nearest local office. In addition, we have introduced an appointment system for taking claims in offices with high volumes of claims. Under this initiative, when a person first attends at a local office to claim, he or she is given details of the supporting documents required together with an appointment to attend to have his or her claim taken. The appointment system has been introduced in 14 local offices to date, seven of which are in Dublin. It is being extended to three other offices over the coming weeks, two of which are in Dublin. This initiative has been particularly effective in reducing queuing in local offices and it has also helped improve processing times where the customer provides supporting documentation at the point of claim. This initiative will be extended to a number of other offices over the coming months having regard to the volume of new claims at particular offices.
We are reviewing the processes involved in administering claims for those who are working reduced hours, such as part-time, casual and systematic short time. The existing arrangements are very labour intensive and it is envisaged that more streamlined arrangements, which will benefit customers and the Department, will be introduced in the near future.
These improvements are part of a programme of initiatives being developed by the Department to streamline processes and procedures in local and branch offices and it is intended that further improvements will be introduced on an ongoing basis during 2009.
Further improvement needs to be introduced immediately. What has happened so far is not working. I have already cited the example of Boyle. The five towns with the longest waiting periods, Edenderry, Navan and Tuam, at 15 weeks and the other two at 13 weeks, have been at the top of the list for at least the past six months. I know Edenderry particularly well. There has been no dramatic factory closure there since last summer although there have been small and steady closures and rising numbers. Printing out one's form on-line and so on is all very well but the Minister needs a sea change in the operation of this service when unemployment is rising so rapidly. The Minister said in response to an earlier question that supplementary welfare payment is paid for only a week or two. It must be paid out in these instances for much longer. In Boyle, it has obviously been paid out for 19 weeks because otherwise people are living on nothing.
The Minister will probably tell me that the average waiting time is six weeks and only two weeks in Ballymun but that is no comfort to the people in Boyle, Edenderry or Bandon. How will the Minister make changes now, particularly in these areas?
I met a social welfare officer the other day who has been out sick for nearly a fortnight. That person is responsible for means testing and all of those files are building up in her absence. Nobody is dealing with them while she is out sick. She will probably have to go out sick again a few weeks after her return to work to recover from the stress she will face. What kind of system has nobody to fill in the gaps when people get sick or go on maternity leave? We all accept that happens. Private sector employers must accommodate that. The social welfare system must accommodate it too.
In fairness to the staff there has been an 80% increase in productivity because of the increased number of claims. Where the improvements have been introduced they are working very well. I invite the Deputy to see any of the offices where the appointment system is in place.
They came up against IR difficulties in their branch offices, yet now it has been spread and is working successfully. There is a particular difficulty with 14 of the branch offices, including some of those the Deputy mentioned. The local office support units are working specifically with those to try to reduce their claims, with Boyle being a case in point. Deciding officers have moved into some branch offices for a short time to free up the decision-making process and to work with them. The particular issue seems to rest with the branch offices.
There has been a meeting with the branch officers and another is taking place today to address these issues because their claims are then sent to the local office. Different processing arrangements are being put in place to try to improve those particular offices.
I welcome the fact that an appointments system has been put in place in some offices and I am glad that the Minister took on our suggestion. This should have happened earlier. I accept that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people applying and that has put serious pressure on the system but the Minister has failed to gear up the Department to deal adequately with that. While we understand that this is a new situation and there are considerable pressures, that is no excuse for people who depend on the Department in order to survive. A total of 28 social welfare offices have waiting times of more than two months. By any standard, that is completely unacceptable.
Last month during Question Time I asked the Minister about the particular problem affecting the branch offices. The Minister seemed to deny it, telling us it was all in hand and that she was dealing with it. She is not dealing with it. There are serious problems and she has not given us any grounds to expect that the issue will be dealt with soon. To what extent has she attempted to quantify the problem? How many staff does she believe are required now? Are all of the 115 extra staff all in place? How many additional staff does she believe are required to bring the waiting times down to an acceptable limit?
In fact, 230 additional staff have been in place in the past few months doing processing. In addition, 16 more inspectors are doing means testing. There has been a significant increase in the number of staff and there has also been an increase in productivity. New systems have been put in place and the appointments system is just one of them. The Dundalk office spearheaded that system. It ran into some difficulties, overcame them and it is now possible to spread them out. In order to counteract the delays in some of the offices, such as the branch offices, we have set up four central decision units which do nothing else. They do not meet the public but the forms are sent to them. They are in Dublin, Sligo, Finglas and Carrick-on-Shannon. We have started on three new ones in Roscommon, Wexford and Tallaght.
The local office support units are helping the branch offices with claims in hand and in some cases deciding officers are spending a short time with them. When a branch office manager retires, we have considered whether it is appropriate to keep the office going in that manner. Changes have come about following retirements in Carrigaline, Loughrea and Tullamore where we replaced the branch offices with local offices because of the demand. Following a retirement in Tulla in Clare, the office was replaced with another branch. Each one is considered carefully.
While I appreciate that some changes have been made, I do not hear a sense of urgency in the Minister's responses. I accept that there is a problem in the 14 branch offices that we have highlighted here but there is a problem in other areas too. What will the Minister do about the fact that when people are out sick or on maternity leave, the system seems to break down in those offices because there are not enough trained people? Will the Minister give me a commitment today on her aim? When will there be a system in which everybody is operating at best practice and nobody is waiting more than a few weeks for a claim to be processed?
The central units are the way to go because they concentrate on the decision-making. Having the four already and three new ones to come will make serious in-roads into any delays. The level of applications coming in is still extraordinarily high although it seems to have abated somewhat but a significant number come in every week. We have requested an additional 300 staff over and above those we have put in, if the pace of applications continues at its current rate.
The training does take time because the schemes are very complicated. It is not a case of automatically transferring someone to replace a person who is out sick. The person must be trained.