Wednesday, 4 December 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Social Welfare Benefits Waiting Times
44. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to ensure timely access to decisions, payments and reviews for all schemes and services as promised in budget 2020; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50378/19]
When a person needs to access the social welfare system it is usually when there is an emergency such as a big drop in income, illness, job loss and so forth. People need prompt access to get an income up and running again. With many schemes it takes three or four months to process applications. I note that under the budget the Minister intends to make improvements on that. Can she outline how she is going to improve it and what she would consider to be an improvement? What are the targets she is aiming to achieve to ensure a prompt turnaround?
I am happy to reaffirm that in budget 2020 my Department has been allocated €21.2 billion, an increase of 3.4% on 2019. This allocation ensures that the Department can continue to protect our customers and make improvements to the schemes and services in the coming year. Among the priorities that I set out in the budget is a continued commitment to provide timely access to decisions, payments and reviews for all schemes and services.
My Department has an ongoing commitment to providing a quality service to all its customers, ensuring that applications are processed and that decisions on entitlement are made as quickly as possible. A recent review of processing performance by the Comptroller and Auditor General found that the Department "exceeded or was close to reaching the target volume of claims to be processed within specified processing standards for most schemes". There were a number of exceptions to this. Although good progress was reported in the time to award applications for schemes with the longest waiting times, it was noted that some schemes, particularly illness and caring related schemes, were not yet meeting their performance targets.
I am pleased to report that since the Comptroller and Auditor General reviewed performance earlier this year, good progress has been made, particularly with the illness related schemes. For example, the time to award a carer's allowance claim is now shorter than at any time over the past ten years. There is still more progress to be made and the Department will continue to examine its procedures and resources to identify opportunities to reduce processing times still further.
I ask all Deputies to help the Department by conveying the message that when people make applications to the Department they should provide complete application forms and all the supporting documentation required, which is set out in the checklist at the back of the application forms. For example, applicants for illness related schemes should provide information on all their medical conditions and on their means. In some cases, people hold back some medical information on the basis that they think they might need it for the appeal. While I recognise that this means people have a mindset that we will say "No" and they will have to appeal, we only say "No" when we do not have the full volume of information that is required. Deputies should encourage people to make a full application at the beginning.
I thank the Minister for outlining that. However, can she say what she considers to be a satisfactory waiting time? What are the targets she is seeking to achieve? It is currently three to four months for an illness or jobseeker's payment to come through in many cases. Even if people go to the community welfare officer for a temporary payment, it will be means tested and is unlikely to be as much as the payment to which they would be entitled. In many cases the payment is a benefit. People have already paid their stamp and it should be a clear-cut process to deal with many of the applications quickly. What does she consider to be a realistic target for the waiting time? Ideally, it should be short. How will she bring about those changes and what will she change? How soon will the changes be implemented? Will people who are applying now and over the coming weeks benefit from them?
I will give a couple of examples.
It worries me that the Deputy has included jobseeker's benefit in the list of long waits because the waiting time should be less than a week. At most, it should be two weeks for jobseeker's allowance if a means test needs to be done. There is no delay in processing jobseeker's benefit claims. If Deputy Moynihan is aware of any delays, I ask him to send the details.
The payments which cause most frustration are illness related and caring schemes. For argument's sake, at the end of October, the Department had met its target of processing 70% of new carer's allowance applications within 12 weeks. We currently have a ten-week processing time. However, carer's allowance is a means-tested payment and once the means test has been done, the medical part must be done. As I stated, if all the medical information is provided at application stage, it should be relatively easy to process the application within ten weeks. We have a 12-week target. I am probably giddy and demanding insofar as I think the 12-week target should be reduced to eight weeks because we are now processing applications in ten weeks. We moved staff into the carer's section relatively recently arising from efficiencies in other areas. This needs to happen continuously using our front office-back office approach. We may need to move staff.
The other information the Deputy seeks is in the report and I will give him a copy.
At the end of the day, more staff means faster results. However, as the staffing allocation for the Department is decreasing, we cannot go out and get more staff. We have to improve practices in the Department and make them more efficient by using technology. In that way, we will use our most valuable resource, our staff, to the best possible end.
Processing illness benefit claims should be fairly clear-cut and straightforward given that people have already paid stamps. There should not be a significant delay in that regard. It should be possible to process all benefits much faster. How soon will applicants see the benefits of the changes the Minister makes? Will a change be made in the next year which will result in faster processing times the following year or the year after that or will applicants who apply for a payment today or next week be able to see the benefits of change before Christmas?
I hope people are already seeing the benefit. For argument's sake, we have a target processing time for carer's allowance of 12 weeks and our current turnaround time is ten weeks. For disability allowance, we have a processing time of 12 weeks and our current turnaround time is ten weeks. We have a processing time of 12 weeks for domiciliary care allowance and our current turnaround time is ten weeks.
Illness benefit applications should be processed in one week. The only reason an application should be delayed is if the Department does not receive a medical certificate from the applicant. The Deputy is correct that an applicant may or may not have paid contributions to avail of the benefit and that is simple to determine. If the medical certificate is not submitted, it may cause a delay but no more than a week. There should be no delay with regard to illness benefit.
All applications for jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance should be turned around in a matter of days or a few weeks. Delays in processing jobseeker's allowance applications may be caused by means tests or the Department not receiving information. Delays in processing applications for long-term payments such as carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and disability allowance are caused by the failure to provide to the medical assessors medical certificates and information that is required in support of applications.