Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Social Welfare Appeals Waiting Times
43. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the action she plans to take to deal with backlogs in applications for social welfare schemes, including carer's allowance, and appeals to decisions taken by her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53444/18]
I ask the Minister to outline to the House the action being taken by her Department to deal with backlogs of applications and appeals for social protection schemes, including carer's allowance and domiciliary care allowance. I have information on backlogs in the Department that was given to another Deputy in June of this year and my question follows on from that.
I thank Deputy Bríd Smith for her question. My Department is committed to providing a quality service to those who submit applications for different schemes. This includes ensuring that applications are processed and that decisions on entitlement are made as quickly as possible. Where any scheme experiences delays, all possible steps are taken to improve processing times. This is not a static or once-a-year process. We continuously assess all schemes throughout the year and, where necessary and possible, we assign additional resources to areas experiencing delays. We continuously review our business processes to ensure the efficient processing of applications.
In the case of carer’s allowance, additional staff were reassigned to that area in October and November and claim processing times are improving. This is against a background of 3,500 new applications having been received in October and November. The goalposts are consistently moving but we are constantly monitoring the situation. Processing times now stand at 16 weeks, which is an improvement on the 17 week processing times we had in October. This improvement is a direct result of us putting more men and women into that particular section. However, Deputy Bríd Smith is right about delays. We have a target of a 12 week turnaround and we are a long way from reaching it.
A number of new appeals officers have joined the appeals office in the past 18 months to replace experienced staff who have retired. Given the complexity of the appeals process, it takes some time for new staff to be trained up, to develop expertise in how the process works and to deal with the files as quickly as we would expect. The fact that they were in training for the last year and developing that expertise led to an extension of the average processing time for appeals.
The desire to process appeals quickly has to be balanced with the competing demand to ensure that decisions are consistent, of the highest quality and made in accordance with the legislative provisions and the general principles of fair procedures and natural justice. The chief appeals officer has advised me that appeal processing times continue to be a priority for her office and that she expects them to improve as recently appointed staff develop the necessary experience and expertise to determine appeal decisions to the standard required.
Deputies across this House will tell the Minister of numerous constituents who have been waiting for months for a decision on an appeal.
Other Deputies and I can tell the Minister of numerous clients who wait for months for decisions on appeals. The high level of initial refusals that are then forced to go into appeal is interesting. It is also interesting that the Department never informed people in writing that they can have a review of their case. It informed them that they have 21 days to appeal and there is a high level of appeals because there is a huge number of initial refusals. The initial wait to have the application either accepted or refused is well out of kilter with the desired target. It could be up to 16 or 17 weeks and there is the same wait again on appeal. People wait for months for their carers to be approved. It is ironic that this is for a cohort of people who are saving the State billions of euro by doing that care work at home. We discussed this already. Another cohort of people in the appeals process are those I referred to earlier. The number penalised on JobPath in 2016 was 63 and it soared in 2018 to 5,681. They are penalised and then they appeal. It is not the other way around. There is a problem with backlogs of appeal.
I will. I do not know where Deputy Smith is getting her figures from. Only 1% of our applications are appealed. By any standard, that is not a huge amount. The Deputy claims that huge amounts of people are refused carers. The only people who are refused carers are those who do not reach the qualifications on the carer's application form. We do not willy-nilly say we will refuse people today and have a target of ten people to refuse next week. The only people who are refused carer's allowance are those who do not produce enough evidence to show that they reach the qualifying targets. Anybody and everybody can have their application reviewed or appealed if it is refused, and can have their appeal reviewed or their appeal appealed. The process is exhaustive. Contrary to some of the commentary here, we ensure we do everything to recognise the value of care. We go over and above to make sure that we help people who have not quite reached the qualifications. We are here to help to make sure that people get what they are entitled to get. It is not a lottery of trying to refuse people so that we reach certain numbers. Everybody who applies for any scheme gets what they are entitled to. If they have not provided full information to us, then we go out of our way with reviews, appeals and appeals of appeals to give them every opportunity-----
-----but the Deputy raised JobPath. The only people who are charged a penalty relating to JobPath are those who do not show up and engage with the programme that they have signed up for. In exactly the same way, anybody who engages with the live register through our Intreo offices who does not show up and present himself or herself as being available for work does not qualify for this scheme. One has to be on the live register-----
The Minister's angry tone at my questions indicates a certain defensiveness. My point about the jobseekers is the rate at which penalties are soaring, from 63 on JobPath in 2015 to 5,681 in 2018. I get my figures from the Minister's Department. The figure for 2017 for the number of disallowed carer's applications is 8,599. On appeal, 1,270 were allowed. That is quite high. It means that many people are initially refused and then forced to wait months for the appeal to come through. There are people sitting at home today who are still waiting for an answer. They are hurtling towards Christmas, suffering from financial hardship because of that. What action does the Minister plan to take to deal with the backlog of appeals and applications in the system? The answers the Minister gave in June to another Deputy were about trying to get more staff in, new targets that she was setting to be achieved and a redesigned application form. We are now in December and the Minister has failed to achieve those targets.
It is all about perspective. Somebody has only failed when he or she has stopped or given up. The Department will never stop or give up looking after the people who are most in need. To put it in context, there are currently 78,681 people who applied for carer's benefit last year. Fewer than 1,000 were refused on appeal. That is a tiny number by anybody's standards. There is a marked difference between the answer to the Deputy and the one in June, though I do not know who I gave that answer to in June. The question asked in June is the same question that the Deputy is asking me now except that we have recruited the extra staff that I said we would recruit in June. We have the new carer's application form that I said we were designing in co-operation with the Care Alliance and Family Carers Ireland that is ready to go live, with our general practitioners and medical assessment, for applicants for and recipients of carer's allowance from next year. All of the advances we said we would do have been done and the carer's application time is coming down. It was 18 weeks at the beginning of this year. It went to 17 weeks in the middle of the year and is thankfully now 16 weeks. I am sorry if the Deputy does not like my tone but it is nowhere close to the 12 weeks-----