Dáil Éireann - Volume 426 - 16 February, 1993

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers (Resumed). - Independent Appeals Systems.

14. Mr. M. McDowell asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will set up a separate independent appeals systems to deal with appeals of supplementary welfare allowance.

Dr. Woods: The supplementary welfare allowance scheme, unlike other social welfare schemes, is administered by the health boards. Under the legislation governing the scheme the determination of entitlement to supplementary welfare allowance is a matter for the chief executive officer of the board. The legislation also provides for an appeals process and an appeals officer has been appointed in every board for this purpose.

I have recognised that there are a number of aspects of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme which require review. In this regard an advisory group under the chairmanship of my Department has been established with representatives from all health boards. The question of standardising practices in relation to appeals has been discussed by the group and the observations of appeals officers in the health boards have been invited.

The object of the review is to improve consistency and to ensure equity for all appellants. Of particular importance will be the provision of improved information to the client on the right to appeal.

I believe that the appeals system can be improved significantly by introducing better quality information for clients, standardising application forms and explaining decisions to clients. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme is designed to offer immediate assistance to people in need and therefore a rapid and localised response to supplementary welfare allowance appeals is required. Given [36] the context in which the scheme operates, the capacity of the scheme to determine appeals speedily and simply could be lost if a more formalised appeals structure were to be established.

Ms O'Donnell: Would the Minister not agree, since this is a scheme of last resort, that it is important that appellants under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme perceive that they have an independent body to hear their appeals? At the moment health officers can hear the appeal from another health board officer.

An Ceann Comhairle: Sorry, Deputy. It is clear to the Chair that the conversation in the corridor is intruding into the business of the Chamber. It must cease.

Ms O'Donnell: There would be greater accountability and perception by appellants of a better service if an independent body heard their appeals.

Dr. Woods: As I explained, it is essentially a health board matter, but we are in discussion with the health board about the operation of the system as a whole including the appeals process. Once those discussions have been completed, we will see what action it is best to take. There is one element which is important to maintain and that is the speed and simplicity of the appeals system. I agree with the Deputy that clear information should be available. We will make sure that the committee realises the importance of this kind of communication. As Deputy O'Donnell may know, a social welfare appeals office was established in the Department of Social Welfare which, in general terms, has been working very well and was well accepted. These are matters currently under consideration and we await the outcome of the discussions.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Would the Minister agree that the supplementary welfare system has proved its great worth in the past number of years because of the very [37] deep recession and the level of poverty and unemployment? Would he not also agree that, while considering the necessity of an independent appeal, it would be very important to retain the essential informality and urgency of the supplementary welfare system? Would the Minister assure the House that in bringing about any desirable independence for the appeals system he will not detract from either the informality or urgency of the system?

Dr. Woods: I agree with the Deputy that both the informality and urgency are particularly important in the case of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. It is a very important scheme. As Deputies who are Members of the House for some years will know, one of the things I did in the past to deal with inconsistencies was to introduce, for instance, a national fuel scheme so that the vast majority of fuel payments are made by the Department of Social Welfare on a standardised basis. Of course, there are still exceptional fuel needs which can arise and they are met, in relatively small numbers, by the boards. The back to school scheme was another attempt to achieve consistency in the boards. The question of allowing discretion and yet ensuring a degree of consistency in treatment in different health board areas, even in different areas within one health board, can be a problem. In relation to appeals, I agree with the Deputy that in this case, they should be as informal and urgent as possible.

Mr. Barrett: Would the Minister agree that to use the word “consistency” and “discretion” are contradictory and that the whole purpose of the supplementary welfare allowance was to give discretion to the community welfare officer in particular to deal with individual cases at the coalface that were not covered under legislation? Would he not agree that by using the word “consistency” he is endeavouring to turn the supplementary welfare allowance into another social welfare scheme? There is clear evidence of this from the fact that community welfare [38] officers were recently given an instruction not to pay any ESB bills despite the fact that in many cases the community welfare officer wanted to use his or her discretion.

Dr. Woods: There are two problems here. We want to give them discretion and discretionary powers but we cannot end up with a situation where just down the road another community welfare officer is making very different decisions in relation to similar cases. That is where the problem arises. All we can do in those circumstances is to ask the people involved to come together to try to bring a reasonable degree of consistency into the approach. Having said that, we are not directly responsible for the administration in any event. We provide the funds — over £100 million in the year just completed — but, as the Deputies know, community welfare officers work to the individual health boards.

Ms O'Donnell: Is the Minister not worried that expenditure on the supplementary welfare allowance scheme has increased from £40 million to £100 million in the last three years and that this scheme is fast becoming a bloated catch-all scheme, taking the people who are falling out of benefit from the mainstream social welfare system?

Dr. Woods: Expenditure in a number of areas has increased. I am not worried. Of course one has always to be concerned that expenditure is expended in accordance with legislation and the wishes of the House. For instance, housing was one of the areas where expenditure increased considerably. The increase in the number of unemployed and lone parents led to a greater demand on the scheme. I would look at that to see if any elements in it could be standardised and applied in a standard way, but after that one is back to the discretionary powers of the community welfare officers. We are reviewing it generally at the moment.

[39] An Ceann Comhairle: Could I have a reply to item No. 15?

Miss Flaherty: May I ask a supplementary question?

An Ceann Comhairle: I was going to call the Deputy's own question.

Miss Flaherty: It has been dealt with.

An Ceann Comhairle: That is fine.

Miss Flaherty: In view of the fact that the Minister's own circulars have interfered recently with the independence of the supplementary welfare scheme, has the Minister found many appeals coming directly to his office or a great increase in appeals as a result of this circular?

Dr. Woods: The appeals go directly to the health boards under the existing system. The circulars are being reviewed and are under further discussion at present.

Miss Flaherty: Is it not the case that many community welfare officers have recommended those they have had to refuse to appeal directly to the Department? Indeed, has there not been a significant increase in appeals landing directly on the Minister's desk as a result of these circulars?

Dr. Woods: No, that is not the route the appeals would take. In relation to ESB bills, for instance, there have been quite a number of questions about them. That situation is being examined. There seems to be a lack of clarification and understanding of the circulars anyway.

Mr. Rabbitte: Will the Minister stop putting them off? That is the issue.