Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Topical Issue Debate

Exceptional Needs Payment Applications

4:35 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for allowing me this opportunity and I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to respond. This issue relates to a question tabled on 13 January last and, prior to that, in July of last year as well. It relates to the circumstances of a case in which it was determined that a person in County Kildare did not qualify for an exceptional needs payment following the death of a spouse. The death was preceded by a long family illness, which was obviously a terminal illness. Given that both spouses were in receipt of invalidity or disability payments, they had no other income for a long time. After a protracted illness, of course the family finances were already at a stretch. It was thought that an exceptional needs payment would be appropriate. This is the payment that is now deemed to be available to people who previously would have been able to apply for a funeral or bereavement grant. The application was refused on the basis that the funeral bill had already been paid. Indeed it had, because the person concerned was keen to ensure that she paid the bill. The person made an appeal to other family members, all of whom had their own commitments, in order to discharge the bill. It is expected that the person who paid the bill will have to repay the family members. That is understandable because they gave her help at a critical time. I am asking that this be done and that this case be looked at again in a new light. I know the Department of Social Protection is an excellent Department; I have had experience of it myself. Generally speaking, in 99% of cases, those involved do a thorough investigation and come to a conclusion that is in keeping with the facts. However, I am unsure in this case because not only was the application refused but a subsequent review of the case was undertaken and it was intimated to the applicant that the Department wanted to interview people who had paid or offered a short-term loan facility to pay the bill. I am uncertain about the welfare service. In fact, it was indicated that the Department would seek to ascertain where those involved got their money in the first place and whether they were in receipt of a welfare payment. I was disappointed to learn that because that is not the way the system is supposed to work.

I have no wish to delay the debate this evening. This is an exceptional needs case. I believe that the person is absolutely genuine and has done everything right. The person could easily have not paid the bill and left it sitting there, as many people do, unfortunately. However, she is a very conscientious lady. She paid her bill and would not leave it as a blot on her husband's name by allowing the bill to remain unpaid. Will the Minister of State please examine the matter to see what can be done as a matter of some urgency? This lady is out of pocket to the extent of the amount of money in question since last July.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Dublin South East, Labour)
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Indeed, the Department makes exceptional needs payments in respect of funeral expenses. There is no better Deputy than Deputy Durkan to understand the constraints and the information that it is necessary to provide in this regard.

For some time I have been concerned about the difference in funeral expenses throughout the country. I remember looking at the matter closely. Deputy Durkan's county of Kildare is on the higher band of payments, which averaged €1,853 the last time I looked at the information. There is an opportunity for the next Government to look at the cost of funerals throughout the country.

I believe people are very vulnerable when they lose a loved one. There are inclined to go to the first funeral undertaker or the undertaker who deals with a given town within a given county. The Deputy outlined to me previously how there was only one undertaker who covered a particular part of Kildare, while another undertaker dealt with a different part. There is not always an opportunity, especially when someone has lost a loved one, to go around and ensure that they are getting the right price. It is very difficult if a person has lost a husband or a child to get those costings.

The answer to the specific question was outlined to Deputy Durkan in a reply to a parliamentary question last October. The reply outlined that the person concerned undertook to provide written confirmation of the loan she received to pay the bill. This document remains outstanding to date, but, on receipt of same, a decision on the application can be made.

If additional information or documentation has been obtained, I ask the Deputy to supply it as soon as possible and I will ensure the local officer reassesses the claim.

I again thank the Deputy for raising, through this case, the cost of funerals. Sometimes people, whether they are in receipt of an exceptional needs payment or are paying expenses out of insurance policies or their own resources, can be exploited during what is a very sensitive time.

4:45 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. A lot of documentation has already been submitted, but it was not acknowledged and I do not know where it went. To be fair to the funeral services in Kildare, I understand about six different undertakers are spread between various towns. They interlink and cross over, which means there is competition. They provide services at prices considerably lower than those in adjoining counties, including Dublin. I would like that to be recognised.

The purpose of the welfare services in this situation is not necessarily to determine the costs incurred by the individual but rather his or her circumstances. If the circumstances need any clarification, what he or she received in the previous year should be taken into account. The person concerned was in receipt of a set social welfare payment, information on which is already in the hands of the Department of Social Production, and was in receipt of the payment for the previous two years. There were long-standing nursing requirements in the case of this particular person, who was obviously seriously ill over quite a long time, and there were costs associated with that.

I have dealt with many such cases, but I have never dealt with a more deserving case where an application was point-blank refused. If the Minister of State had dealt with the case, he would have felt equally aggrieved. I would like to see an urgent review carried out to ascertain the extent to which the person's actual means were referred to. Suggesting we go elsewhere to find out where the family got the money to pay the bill they felt was a legitimate cost is side-stepping the issue.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Dublin South East, Labour)
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The Deputy knows the rules and regulations around this. He said a substantial amount of documentation was submitted but he is not quite sure where it is. If the file is with him, he can send it directly to my office and I will ensure a review is carried out. From looking at the information I have, it seems outstanding information was to be provided. If that could be provided, it would certainly help to expedite the case.

I did not mean to reflect on undertakers in Kildare. In his contribution the Deputy said he is aware of undertakers in counties adjoining Kildare which have substantially higher costs. Figures I saw some months ago seem to suggest that is the case throughout the country. Deputy Dowds has on several occasions referred to the cost of funerals and graves in Dublin. At such a time in the life of a wife, husband or family, a person is not inclined to question costs. Rather, he or she is inclined to go to a service with which he or she has a relationship or the undertaker based in the town or locality and pay whatever is asked.

As legislators we have a certain amount of responsibility to protect people when they are at vulnerable stages in their lives and ensure they are not exploited. The next Government should review the issue. I am not suggesting that every undertaker overcharges, but some may be exploiting people during a very sensitive time. Given the difference in the figures throughout the country, there is obviously quite a different spread of funeral costs. If we can protect families in those circumstances, we have an obligation to try to do that. I ask the Deputy to supply me with the file and we will re-examine the case.