Dáil debates

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Topical Issue Debate

Social Welfare Benefits

3:00 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I take it the Minister is taking the first item on carer's allowance?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I do not seem to have the response yet. Is it possible to proceed? I understood the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Lynch, was to take this matter.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I must call on the Deputies first anyway.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I will take it, because we are returning to the Bill after a short while.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I call on Deputy Donohoe.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, is here now.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. The issue I am raising is the delay in the processing of applications for carer's allowance and carer's benefit. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have made applications, and all they want to know is the status of their applications. This is highly reminiscent, unfortunately, of the difficulties that were encountered in the processing of medical card applications. The two situations have another thing in common. The reason these constituents applied for carer's allowance or benefit in the first place was that there was a change in their circumstances and they needed the money. Applications tend to be made at times of particular vulnerability or stress, and that is only added to by the way in which these applications are currently being handled. I know the Minister of State and her Department are seeking to make progress in this regard but an answer I received in early March to a parliamentary question acknowledged that 53,000 people were in receipt of carers' payments, an increase of 60% over the previous five years. At present, 7,800 people are registered and awaiting decision. In her answer, the Minister of State acknowledged this was unsatisfactory and stated steps had been taken in this regard. I am aware of the details in regard to the large overhaul taking place in the IT systems that administer this area. The Government and the Department of Social Protection are seeking to give this project very high priority so that they can respond promptly to a backlog they acknowledge is unacceptable.

In the few moments I have, I re-emphasise the upset this is causing people and I ask the Minister of State to do all she can to ensure the new processes are put in place in order that we can deal quickly with and answer the people who are making applications. I acknowledge the answer to the parliamentary question I submitted stated that particular resources were to be put in place until June 2012 that would ensure the best possible system. I ask that this process be accelerated. As was the case with the delay in regard to medical cards, undue worry is being caused to people. I am sure that with proper focus this can be handled in a far better way.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic. Most of us look at the cases that come before us in our constituency offices and see trends. There is no doubt that every week we are seeing increasing numbers of people coming in with concerns about carer's allowances. An applicant can expect to wait for eight months, which seems to be the average time before the application is reviewed or a decision is made. If one is refused, as a very large number of people are, with one third of the refused applications being overturned on appeal, it will be 14 months to 18 months from beginning to end when the appeal is included.

One cannot talk about home care packages and people being inappropriately referred to nursing homes if one does not look at the nuts and bolts of what is happening in this area. I had two cases this week which illustrate this point very well. A man came to me who is caring for both his father and his mother. One consultant said of the father: "He is wheelchair-bound, I am booking him for extensive revision surgery. He may well remain permanently in a wheelchair." The second consultant said the father was completely unable to take care of himself for the foreseeable future and were it not for his son looking after him for the previous five months, he would have required institutional care. That man was refused and the case is on appeal. How can anybody refuse such a case where consultants are being second-guessed and that kind of information is on the file? It is mind-boggling.

The second person I met had a sister who is caring for both her mother and her brother, who is in a wheelchair, has an invalidity pension and is visually impaired. Her sister was formerly paid a carer's allowance. Between them they wanted to swap the allowance from one sister to the other, who had stopped working in order to do this. She was refused on the basis that her mother was not incapacitated enough. There was no mention of her brother even though both persons were included on the same application form. I submitted a parliamentary question asking how one can appeal on behalf of one person when there are two people on the same application form.

There is something chaotic going on in the Department, particularly in regard to the carer's allowance. I echo the point made by Deputy Donohoe. It is most reflective of the kind of chaos that happened in regard to medical cards. That situation has improved substantially but this one needs urgent attention because it is chaotic at present.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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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.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for her response. She emphasised the point made by Deputy Murphy, namely, that this is causing great worry and upset for people who are already worried and upset because there has been a change in their circumstances. Otherwise they would not be applying for this allowance. They come into my office and contact me with a regularity and a frequency which indicate we have a severe challenge that must be addressed.

I welcome what the Minister has stated in regard to the steps being taken. Does she agree that the current average waiting time of 28 weeks, even on the current system we are looking to replace, is completely unacceptable? I urge her to do everything possible to accelerate this project. I welcome that additional staff are being brought in to deal with the backlog but we must do all we can to help these people because massive undue stress and worry is being caused.

4:00 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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There are two criteria a person must meet, first, income and, second, medical eligibility.

In some cases it is easy to determine income eligibility but it beggars belief that some of the cases are turned down on medical eligibility and adds to the workload of the Department. The two cases I referred to came in last week. I did not pick them out because they are optimal cases.

There is a review of the fair deal scheme under way at the moment and the Minister for Health referred to inappropriate referrals to nursing homes. We cannot talk about the fair deal scheme if support is not in place. A person may require carer's allowance next Monday because someone has a stroke or an illness, which is not something someone can plan for. In my experience, 28 weeks is short and it is substantially longer than that in a large number of cases. I do not believe the average is 28 weeks but, with two systems, it is not possible to calculate it. It is welcome that people will work on the backlog but this must be regarded as a crisis.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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I agree substantially with what the Deputy said. The figure of 28 weeks is probably a low average but it is not possible to get the true average when there are two systems. Additional staff is being allocated to this work and, along with overtime and the new system them, this will have a significant impact.

Deputy Catherine Murphy has been working in the public interest for long enough to know that, as politicians, we cannot interfere with medical criteria. I understand that some matters defy belief but if we give experts - particularly medical experts - a particular job and set criteria, we must allow them to do their jobs. We cannot interfere in that area and it is only in the processing of claims that we can have an impact.