Dáil debates

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Social Welfare Appeals

4:50 pm

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for being here. I do not raise this topic in the House with any appetite. I must commend the work many people who work in the Department of Social Protection have done throughout the pandemic, particularly with the pandemic unemployment payment. It has been great to see the massive turnaround time in terms of people getting their entitlements. At the outset, I must put that on the record. There are, however, a number of cases I have come across in recent months in respect of which there have been excessive delays in processing applications for various entitlements, be it for carer’s allowance, disability allowance, pension applications, or whatever the case may be. For people who seek an appeal, there seems to be a very long list.

In preparation for this debate, I looked over figures from previous years and I saw that back in 2011, the average waiting time for an appeal was up to 32 weeks. When the Minister of State responds, I would be interested to hear how that compares with today’s figures in terms of how long people are waiting for their appeals to be heard.

As I said, I do not raise this issue lightly. In the case of people who are appealing a decision on the carer's allowance, for example, and are awaiting an adjudication, they cannot take up other employment in the time being. They are mostly likely caring for someone full-time. In many cases, people are waiting for a period of time, with some waiting up to six months, from what I hear.

I got an email from a Department official this week which stated that one pension appeal being dealt with could take anything up to six months before a final decision is made. That is what triggered the bringing forward of this Topical Issue matter this evening. In the case of people waiting on carer’s allowance, or whatever the case may be, many risk destitution if they have to wait that length of time or risk borrowing money in the meantime. Some might borrow from friends or family, if they have that type of resource, but others, unfortunately, will resort to moneylenders and that is where we face a risk.

I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. If he has breakdown of waiting times for the various entitlements, I would appreciate that. What is the breakdown of waiting times for the number of appeals? What is his opinion on what is an appropriate time to wait to hear an appeal? We can work back from that. If it is a case that we do not have sufficient staff or resources, I would make an appeal to the Minister of State, and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, that it would be appropriate to provide additional staff and resources to bring down those waiting times.

As I said, it is more about information. I commend the Department of Social Protection and its staff on the work they have done throughout the pandemic. If the Minister of State could elaborate on the issue of waiting times, I would appreciate it.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Social Welfare Appeals Office functions independently of the Minister for Social Protection, and of the Department, and is responsible for determining appeals against decisions in relation to social welfare entitlements. The Department of Social Protection processes around 2 million new claims each year. Approximately 85% of these are successful, in that the customer receives the relevant payment. By comparison, a total of 23,664 appeals were made to the Social Welfare Appeals Office in 2020 and 26,790 appeals were finalised. This was a 19% increase on the 2019 figure of 22,572 finalised appeals. Some 7,795 appeals have been made to the Social Welfare Appeals Office up to the end of April 2021 and 7,637 appeals have been finalised.

The time taken to process an appeal reflects all aspects of the appeal process, including the time spent in the Department reviewing the decision in light of the appeal contentions and-or preparing the appeal submission. Some 20% of cases will be revised in favour of the appellant as a result of this review process. In some cases, further investigation may be required at that point and this can add to the time taken to process an appeal. The quasi-judicial nature of the appeals process impacts the processing times which are proportionate to the complexity of many of the issues under appeal and often require a high level of judgement in addition to the need to ensure due process and natural justice. Appeals may be determined summarily or by means of an oral hearing. When an oral hearing is required, the logistics involved in scheduling the hearing and giving the appellant, and any other witnesses, adequate notice adds to the timeframe involved. Other factors which impact on processing times include increased complexity, an increased demand for oral hearings, and the loss of appeals officer experience and corporate knowledge due to the high number of retirements in recent years.

The output target for 2020 to maintain the number of appeals on hand at the end of the year - between 8,500 and 9,500 - was achieved. The number of appeals waiting to be determined at the end of 2020 was 5,662. This represents a significant decrease of 36% in the number of appeals on hand compared to 2019, when more than 8,700 appeals were on hand at the end of that year. The output target for 2021 is to maintain the number of appeals on hand at the end of the year to between 7,500 and 8,500. The number of appeals on hand at the end of April 2021 was 5,820. The average processing time for all appeals finalised during 2020 was 16.5 weeks. This compares with 24.7 weeks in 2019. The overall average processing time for an appeal dealt with by way of a summary decision in 2020 was 15.5 weeks, as opposed to 22.1 weeks in 2019. The average time taken to process an appeal which required an oral hearing in 2020 was 27.1 weeks. It was 26.9 weeks in 2019.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, in-person oral hearings were suspended in March 2020 and, with the exception of a short period in August-September 2020, remain suspended. The Social Welfare Appeals Office has been holding online and phone hearings since October 2020. Supplementary welfare allowance appeals are prioritised at all stages of the appeal process. In 2020, it took an average of 13.4 weeks for appeals to be determined summarily and 29.3 weeks to determine appeals which required an oral hearing.

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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There is quite a bit of information there, so I look forward to going threw it afterwards. I welcome the fact that since 2019, appeal times have decreased from, I think the Minister of State said, roughly 20 weeks down to 16 weeks. That said that, I would appreciate if he could, by way of further communication, write to me with the details of the number of community welfare officers we have per county across the country, and juxtapose that with previous years to see what the staffing arrangement is.

I welcome that many appeals are taking place online. That is to be welcomed in the pandemic. Obviously, the show must go on in getting people whatever entitlements they are due, so that is welcome. I acknowledge the majority of claims are ratified and do not require this process, and that only a small percentage go to appeal. However, for those who apply for these entitlements and must subsequently appeal them, it is often the case that they are the most vulnerable people who require that help. That must be recognised as well.

Regarding the cutting of future waiting times, I hope additional resources and staff can be allocated. If the Minister of state, in further correspondence, can provide detail on any plans for rolling out further staff and resources, I would appreciate that.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I am acutely aware that the time taken in processing appeals is hugely important to the people who submit an appeal, and that it directly impacts on their lives. It is a very important point to note that those who apply for formal payments, like carer’s allowance or jobseeker’s allowance, can apply for a supplementary welfare allowance from the community welfare officer while they are awaiting the payment application to be processed. That is an important point to note.

The drive for efficiency must be balanced with the competing demand to ensure decisions are consistent, of high quality, and made in accordance with the legislative provisions and the general principal of fair procedures and natural justice.

The chief appeals officer has assured me she continues to monitor processing times and ensures every effort is made to reduce the time taken to process an appeal. The chief appeals officer ensures the programme of training for newly appointed appeals officers is completed as early as possible. The appeals process is heavily reliant on paper files and an IT project is under way to modernise the process. While the project will take some time to complete, the new structure should reduce the office's reliance on paper files, radically change the current processes and help to reduce processing times.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and assure him that everything is being done to ensure appeals are processed as quickly as possible. I will respond to him in relation to the question on CWOs.