Wednesday, 20 September 2017
Social Welfare Benefits Reviews
40. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the extent to which she monitors the number of applications for disability allowance, invalidity pension, carer's allowance or other similar payments with a view to ensuring the elimination of hardship; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39648/17]
The purpose of this question is to identify areas in which the Minister might be able to intervene and streamline the procedures in cases where decisions are taken to reduce, curtail or cease payments of one kind or another which subsequently go to an appeal which could take up to six months.
I do not want to flog a dead horse. We are all aware the primary purpose of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection system is to provide income supports to individuals and families when their circumstances, through loss of income or hardship, require it.
My Department provides a broad range of income support payments for such circumstances including illness or disability and to support the valuable service provided by care givers.
These payments account for a significant proportion of the Department's budget with expenditure on illness, disability and carers' payments amounting to just under €4 billion this year, which is nearly one fifth of the Department's overall spend. In this way, income support payments such as disability allowance, invalidity pension and carer's allowance are designed to play an important role in addressing social exclusion and minimising the possibility of hardship for recipients. The application and decision procedures reflect this overall objective.
Evidence from national income surveys such as the CSO's Survey on Income and Living Conditions, SILC, shows that social transfers do play a very significant role in reducing poverty and hardship by cutting the risk of poverty for people with disabilities in half. These results demonstrate effective social protection spending and Ireland continues to be among the best performing EU countries in reducing poverty and inequality through social transfers.
Nonetheless, I can assure the Deputy that a reduction in measured poverty rates for people with a disability is a key priority of the Government. We will continue to keep the range of supports under review as well as implement the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. I think the Deputy will be aware that we launched the Ability programme on Monday, a new structure is being rolled out in all of our EmployAbility services and the Make Work Pay strategy is implemented. We need to ensure better outcomes and incomes for people with disabilities with regard to employment and State support services.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Could particular attention be drawn to the appeals sector and the length of time it takes to reach a decision? While in most cases, a payment is in place while the decision is pending, it does not happen in all cases and there are situations where people suffer a great deal of hardship and mental pressure during that period. I wish to ascertain the extent to which the waiting time for appeals can be shortened.
I have only become aware from the past couple of months that the targets we set down in the Department for all of the services regarding the payments we facilitate are fairly ambitious. An appeal should take no longer than 12 weeks although clearly that is not always the reality. I am not apportioning blame to either the Department or to people but there is a sense, which I have experienced, that some people are holding back information for when the Department says "No" so that we can pull something out to give them something else. If people give all the information at the outset then hopefully they will never get to an appeal because if they are entitled to something, they should get it. If they give all of the information required for a successful outcome, they will get a successful outcome. I can say genuinely that some people expect to be refused so they hold something back for the appeal and when the appeal comes, they give the Department further information. If I can do nothing else, it is to reiterate to people applying for any social welfare payment that it is their money and that they are entitled to it. If they have made contributions, they will get the benefit and if they have not, they will get an allowance that will be mean-tested but it is taxpayers' money and it is a social contract that is designed to ensure that people are uplifted at a time when they need it most - be it through a disability or the loss of a job. People should give all of the information at the start of the application and it will be much easier.
I fully agree with the Minister's response generally but what I am trying to point is that there are specific instances where the general rule does not seem to apply and that may be for a variety of reasons. I do not mind what they are, I am merely interested in how they can be dealt with and whether it might be possible to carry out an internal review within the system to identify the cause or causes and thereby eliminate the potential for hardship, which in some cases, can have tragic consequences for families.
I take the Deputy's point on board. I do not need to conduct a review because we carry out one on a monthly basis. Every month, at a management meeting, we ask what the turnaround times for payments and appeals are. There are difficulties. The Deputy is probably aware that domiciliary care allowance applications have increased quite dramatically over the past couple of months so, therefore, the 12-week target is not being met but we have redrafted new staff, are training them, have put them in the Longford office and are hoping to bring it back from 16 weeks at the moment to 12. Where peaks and troughs exist, we look at them. There is constant monitoring regarding the appeals office but the turnaround time would be much faster if people were more willing to give all of the information in the first instance.
I take on board what the Deputy is saying and we will certainly look at it. If there are individual cases of hardship, as described by the Deputy, and I know we could all come up with them, they need to be brought to the attention of either the local Intreo office or higher up to the local principal officer to make sure people are looked after from a community welfare perspective.