Dáil debates

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

2:00 pm

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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Question 111: To ask the Minister for Social Protection if she will address the position regarding the processing of carer's allowance applications particularly the delays in deciding on applications, now averaging over 32 weeks, and the rule whereby a new application must be made when a carer cannot continue and a new family member takes on the caring role; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28361/12]

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The Department is committed to delivering the best possible service to its customers. The average time taken to award a carer's allowance application is 28 weeks at present. This is not a satisfactory position.

A major service delivery modernisation project is under way to improve the efficiency of administration of the carer's allowance scheme. This involves the deployment of information technology solutions and associated business process re-organisation. It is anticipated that the new system will introduce significant processing efficiencies and a quicker and more responsive service to the customer. However, full deployment for carer's allowance will be achieved by mid-June, so it will be a number of months before the backlog is reduced to an acceptable level.

In addition to the deployment of new systems, the Department is allocating additional resources in the form of overtime working and temporary staff to help reduce backlogs that have built up. I understand that Deputies are concerned about delays in deciding applications. Indeed, the high volume of queries from Deputies has, to a degree, added to the problems. Before the end of the year I hope to have a dedicated published telephone line for Deputies' inquiries. As Members will be aware, that applies in respect of other areas of social welfare. However, we must get the new system up and running, deal with the backlog and then I hope to be in a position to implement, by the end of the year, a dedicated telephone inquiry line.

Entitlement to carer's allowance is based on the individual satisfying means, residency, full-time care provision and medical suitability criteria. Consequently, one family member having had an entitlement to carer's allowance does not automatically confer an entitlement on another family member. In all such cases an application must be made by the carer in accordance with the requirements of the scheme.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Each application for carer's allowance is considered on its merits in accordance with the relevant legislation. The decision is based upon the information and medical evidence provided by the applicant. The staffing levels and other resources available to the Department are regularly reviewed with a view to ensuring claims are processed as quickly as possible. I acknowledge that the time taken to process carer's allowance claims at present is not satisfactory but I am satisfied that the Department is taking action to resolve the situation.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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The reason I raise this issue, and it is a concern for all Deputies, is the fact that there is an average waiting period of far longer than 28 weeks - it is probably 32 or 34 weeks - for decisions on carer's allowance. Increasingly, my office has found, and I am sure it is the case for other Deputies, that some people have passed away in the course of the application process. That is a very unfair and traumatic situation for families. There was another such occurrence last Friday. It is happening on a regular basis. Can the Minister give a time scale for clearing this huge backlog? With regard to family members, I accept that the new family member or carer will have to be assessed. Currently, however, not only is the new family member being assessed, but also the person being cared for is medically assessed again. In many cases these are people in their late 70s, 80s and 90s. Most, if not all, of these people are certainly not improving in health.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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For the information of the Deputy, the Department of Social Protection has done this successfully in respect of other schemes, such as pensions. Deputies might recall that a couple of years ago quite a delay period built up with pension applications. New processes were put in place and now, provided people apply a little in advance of the birthday when they become eligible for the pension, the system works very well by and large. What we are doing now is screening applications relating to carers when they are received. In the course of being screened they must also be validated. Once the information has been entered into the system, we will have a computerised record of the application instead of having a paper file, which obviously will include information on the person being cared for. However, it will take until the middle of this month before everyone is included after which there will be a time during which we will work on the backlog. I understand this is of great concern to Members' constituents who have made an application.

I also should note the enormous increase in the number of applications and that the Department has taken on temporary staff. Some applications can be quite complicated as there may be issues concerning people's residency or where they are from. There has been a huge increase in the number of applications and the number of those who are in receipt of both the full carer's allowance and the half-rate carer's allowance, which has, as the Deputy will be aware, risen significantly.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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Can the Minister provide a timescale as to when the backlog will be cleared? Is it a case of one, three or six months? Would it not be possible to prioritise some applications? I refer, for instance, to applications in which the person being cared for is terminally ill or is in receipt of palliative care. Could an exceptional process be put in place for such applications because they obviously are the most tight?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The timescale for having the data in place for the new system is the middle of June and this is broadly on time at present. The Deputy should recall the Department also is introducing the system for invalidity pensions and disability allowance. This is quite an ambitious target of schemes that are migrating to the new system and I hope to have made significant progress in respect of carers by mid to late September, once the migration process has been achieved. I also will take into account Deputy Healy's suggestion regarding the prioritisation of some urgent applications in which the timespan may be extremely tight, given the illness or whatever of the person being cared for. Deputy Healy made a fair point.