Written answers

Thursday, 22 September 2022

Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection

Social Welfare Benefits

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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275. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the backlog in assessing applications for exceptional needs' payments (details supplied); the length of time that it is taking to assess applications and to reply to persons who apply for the payment; the steps that are being taken to deal with the increase in the number of those applying; if the exceptional needs' payment can be applied for again in the future in cases in which families experience further difficulty in paying future energy bills given spiralling costs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46402/22]

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The Supplementary Welfare Allowance (SWA) scheme is the safety net within the overall social welfare system in that it provides assistance to eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their needs and those of their dependents.

Under the SWA scheme, the Department can make Additional Needs Payments to help meet expenses that a person cannot pay from their weekly income. Additional Needs Payment is an overarching term used to refer to Exceptional and Urgent Needs Payments, and certain supplements to assist with ongoing or recurring costs that cannot be met from the person’s own resources and are deemed to be necessary. Decisions on Exceptional Needs Payments and SWA supplements are made at the discretion of the Community Welfare Officers (CWO) administering the scheme taking into account the requirements of the legislation and all the relevant circumstances of the case. The CWO’s discretionary powers are a major strength of the SWA scheme as it confers upon these officers the capacity to provide an immediate flexible response to identified needs.

The Additional Needs Payment is not a new scheme, and it comes within the remit of the general SWA scheme operational guidelines. An information note in relation to Additional Needs Payments issued to all staff in the Department in June this year and this set out the role of CWOs in assisting customers with cost-of-living expenses. This note, which has been augmented with a virtual training webinar and a number of training bulletins, directs CWOs to use their discretionary powers in considering applications for Additional Needs Payments and it places significant emphasis on assisting customers with cost-of-living expenses. While there are household income guidelines, it has been emphasised to the CWS team in the Department that these are guidelines only and the customers need for assistance arising from difficulties in meeting increased costs for food, fuel, electricity, and heating is the primary consideration.

These Additional Needs Payments are demand-led and are funded accordingly. This support is available to anybody on a low income who is experiencing financial hardship regardless of the number of hours they work per week or if they have applied for an Additional Needs Payment previously. Anyone who needs support should contact the Department either through their local Intreo Centre or Branch Office or by phoning 0818 60 70 80. Further details on the Additional Needs Payment are available online at: www.gov.ie/en/service/4eb45-additional-needs-payment/

The Community Welfare Service (CWS) is committed 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. Based on the available data, it is estimated that 59% of applications for Additional Needs Payments are finalised within 0-4 weeks and 90% are finalised within 0-8 weeks. Where an application is not finalised within this timeframe, this is generally due to additional information or documentation being requested from the customer to support their application. Where it is evident that a customer is experiencing particular hardship and their application is complete and accompanied by the required documentation, their application is prioritised.

My Department has introduced innovations this year to increase efficiency in processing applications for SWA payments. One of these is the establishment of a back-office team to undertake the preparatory work on applications - for example, the gathering of supporting documentation that is necessary to assess and finalise a claim. This method of processing applications supports a number of CWS areas across the country and it has been found to be very effective in releasing Community Welfare Officers (CWOs) from the requirement to undertake administrative tasks and to focus on delivery of services. It allows for increased capacity for CWOs to meet with customers as required and to process claims. This model will be extended to cover all CWS areas across the country in the coming months.

The delivery of crucial Community Welfare Services to meet the challenges and the needs of vulnerable customers across the country remains a priority for my Department. The continued availability of locally based CWO is a cornerstone of the service. CWOs can facilitate emergency and in-person meetings in 51 Intreo Centres across business hours, five days per week. Some CWOs are based in Social Welfare Branch Offices and provide appointments at those offices. In addition to meeting citizens in Intreo Centres, Branch Offices and DSP offices, CWOs can facilitate an appointment within a short time of a person requiring such a meeting, at a mutually agreed location, including at the person's home.

It is vital that the CWS is an easily accessible, flexible, and responsive service to meet the varied needs of vulnerable people, particularly in a time of crisis or emergency. While changes to modernise and improve the service for customers are a feature of the service, continued in-person customer engagement remains a pivotal feature within the community welfare service.

I trust this clarifies the matter.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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276. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will clarify a matter in relation to the fuel allowance (details supplied). [46406/22]

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The Fuel Allowance is a payment of €33 per week for 28 weeks (a total of €924 each year) from late September to April, which is supporting over 370,000 households in 2022, at an estimated cost of €366 million. The purpose of this payment is to assist these households with their energy costs. The allowance represents a contribution towards the energy costs of a household.

The criteria for Fuel Allowance are framed in order to direct limited resources in as targeted a manner as possible. This ensures that the Fuel Allowance payment goes to those who are more vulnerable to fuel poverty including those reliant on social protection payments for longer periods and who are unlikely to have additional resources of their own.

Disablement Benefit is a benefit under the Occupational Injuries Scheme. It can be paid to a recipient who suffers a loss of physical or mental faculty because of an accident at work, an accident travelling directly to or from work, or a prescribed disease contracted at work. The contribution requirements for the scheme are minimal when compared to other Departmental benefit schemes.

People in receipt of Disablement Benefit (without another social welfare payment) can work full or part time and continue to receive the Benefit Payment – in other words, they are not prevented from generating additional income.

Disablement Benefit is paid at the same time as most social welfare payments including Jobseeker’s Benefit, Jobseeker’s Allowance, Disability Allowance, Invalidity Pension, State Pension and One-Parent Family Payment. It is not considered as means for most social welfare means-assessed schemes except for Fuel Allowance, Supplementary Welfare Allowance or Working Family Payment.

Incapacity Supplement is a qualifying payment for Fuel Allowance. Incapacity Supplement was introduced as a qualifying payment for Fuel Allowance in recognition of the fact that Incapacity Supplement is an increase payable in addition to Disablement Benefit where a person is considered to be permanently incapable of work as a result of an occupational accident or disease and does not qualify for another Social Welfare benefit such as Illness Benefit.

Therefore, while Disablement Benefit on its own is a disqualifying payment for Fuel Allowance because a person may continue to work or take up work, or may receive another social welfare payment in parallel, qualification for Incapacity Supplement in addition to Disablement Benefit qualifies that recipient for Fuel Allowance (subject to satisfying all other qualifying criteria).

I have asked officials in my Department to prepare a report reviewing the treatment of Disablement Benefit under the Fuel Allowance scheme. This report is now finalised and the report's contents and recommendations will be considered in the context of the forthcoming budget.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.


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