Dáil debates

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Other Questions

Social Welfare Appeals

3:00 pm

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Question 116: To ask the Minister for Social Protection the year on year increase in social welfare appeals from 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and to date in 2012; the average waiting time in each of those years; the number of extra staff that have been transferred into the Social Welfare Appeals office. [28071/12]

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The number of appeals received in the social welfare appeals office from 2008 until the end of March 2012 and the average waiting times in each of these years is set out in the following table. As can be seen from these figures, there has been a very significant increase in the number of social welfare appeals year on year from 2008 to 2011, with the number of appeals received in 2011 being almost double the number received in 2008.

In an effort to reduce the processing times, the Department appointed 12 additional appeals officers between 2010 and 2011. In addition, a further ten appeals officers formerly employed by the community welfare service, CWS, of the Health Services Executive joined the office as part of the integration of the CWS appeals services into the social welfare appeals office. This brought the total number of appeals officers to 39. The office has also improved its business processes and IT support.

As a result of these changes, the number of finalised cases increased from 15,724 in 2008 to 34,027 in 2011. I am sure Deputies will appreciate this represents an enormous increase in the volume of appeals being dealt with. I am advised by the social welfare appeals office that, based on figures for the first quarter of 2012, the average waiting time for appeals dealt with by summary decisions was 22.4 weeks and 40.9 weeks for those requiring an oral hearing. The comparable times for all of 2011 were 25 weeks and 52.5 weeks, respectively.

As a result of these changes, the number of finalised cases increased from 15,724 in 2008 to 34,027 in 2011. I am sure Deputies will appreciate this represents an enormous increase in the volume of appeals being dealt with. I am advised by the social welfare appeals office that, based on figures for the first quarter of 2012, the average waiting time for appeals dealt with by summary decisions was 22.4 weeks and 40.9 weeks for those requiring an oral hearing. The comparable times for all of 2011 were 25 weeks and 52.5 weeks, respectively.

YEARAppeals ReceivedAverage time take to process appeals
By summary decision (weeks)Following Oral Hearing (weeks)
200817,83313.932.9
200925,96318.234.8
201032,43227.445.6
201131,24125.152.5
2012 (to end March9,75822.440.9

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for providing that information. She will appreciate that we are operating under a disadvantage, however. She referred to a schedule that has been circulated. We will probably receive a copy in our e-mails at 6 p.m. It is unfortunate that we do not have the advantage of seeing the figures to which she referred.

I ask for an indication of the number of staff in the appeals office who took up the retirement scheme by the end of February 2012. Did any appeals officer leave during that period and have staff numbers decreased?

The issue with which we are most concerned is that the 40 weeks, or nine or ten months, involved in an appeal for oral hearing must be added on to the six months it takes for a case to be assessed in the first place and the two or three months required to complete a review. The cases then come before the Department's appeals office, where they wait for nearly a year. We are regularly told by the appeals office that it is waiting for the file to be sent from the Department. The Minister spoke about technology. I cannot understand why, once the appeal has been submitted, the file from the local office is not sent to the appeals office within seven days. It regularly happens when a file comes in that one writes to the Department, which chases down the file and assembles it as if it is a great big package which must be delivered. It appears that information technology is not used. It is essential that the process be speeded up.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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If I may restate the numbers, 15,000 appeals were dealt with in 2008 but by last year that figure had increased to 34,000. I accept it is difficult for the people who are applying but the reality is that since the country began to face its economic difficulties and meltdown in 2008, demand for a range of social service and social welfare schemes has exploded. The appeals process, in particular, has been subject to an enormous increase in the number of applications. In order to deal with that increase, new IT procedures and business methods have been introduced and the consequence is a decrease the waiting time for appeals this year. For appeals by summary decision the waiting time has decreased to 22.4 weeks compared to 25 weeks last year and for oral hearing it has decreased to 40.9 weeks compared to 52.5 weeks last year. That may not be the improvement the Deputy would like to see but it represents a considerable improvement in the context of ever expanding demand in terms of applications for social welfare entitlements and consequent appeals.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I acknowledge the numbers of appeals that are being processed annually but given the number of appeals lodged, the problem has not yet been addressed. There are obscene delays in some payments for people who are in very stressful situations. Delays in applications for payments such as the carer's allowance, domiciliary care payments and disability allowance are only adding to the stress.

The Minister mentioned new technologies. Can the social welfare appeals office be given access to the files via intranet or e-mail rather than requiring that the physical file be sent from Longford, Sligo or wherever to Dublin? That might allow for speedier turnaround times.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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We are doing what the Deputy suggests by significantly expanding the use of technology in social welfare appeals. Longer serving Deputies will recall that the processing time for pensions had risen enormously a couple of years ago simply due to demographic change and the increase in the numbers applying for benefits. New business processes were introduced and the system is now working very well. We are now in the process of introducing similar systems to a range of payments which involve exacting conditions, including the carer's allowance, invalidity payments and disability allowances. The application of new business methods and new technologies have meant additional delays in the short term in the case of certain payments but as we bring all of this area into the new system, applications will be dealt with more speedily and we will be in a position to address the backlog.

At that stage I would like to be in a position to set up a telephone helpline for Deputies because one of the problems is the enormous volume of social welfare questions submitted by Deputies, as is their right and entitlement. These questions require the allocation of a considerable amount of senior resources. Deputies may recall that last year I asked the staff of my Department to run a number of seminars for new Deputies and their staff to facilitate them in dealing with constituents' inquiries. We are spending a vast amount of departmental time in dealing with a huge number of queries and I would like to introduce a telephone helpline by the end of this year or next year.