Dáil Éireann - Volume 426 - 16 February, 1993

Written Answers. - Supplementary Welfare Allowance Scheme.

20. Ms O'Donnell asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will report on the progress made on reviewing the operation of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme; and if he intends to bring forward proposals in this regard.

Minister for Social Welfare (Dr. Woods): The supplementary welfare allowance scheme was introduced in 1977 and since then has operated as the safety net for the social welfare system. When the scheme was originally introduced it was welcomed as a major advance which replaced the discretionary home assistance scheme with a statutory minimum entitlement based on need and a standardised means-test.

My Department is undertaking a comprehensive [59] review of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme in the light of changes that have taken place in social welfare provision and the demand for social welfare services since the introduction of the scheme. The aim of the review is to build on the strengths of the scheme, which include the provision of an immediate, flexible, personal and local response to need, and to address the weaknesses, which include perceptions of secrecy surrounding the scheme and lack of consistency in its operation.

In this regard, an advisory group under the chairmanship of my Department has been established with representatives from all health boards. The purpose of the group is to provide a formal structure for regular discussions between the Department and the health boards on the operation of the scheme. It aims to review all aspects of the operation of the scheme within health boards with a view to achieving consistency in the operation of the scheme. This group is developing, inter alia, comprehensive guidelines on all discretionary aspects of the scheme including supplements and exceptional needs payments.

In view of the increasing role of supplementary welfare allowance in support for housing costs, a review of the guidelines on rent and mortgage supplementation is a priority for the advisory group. These guidelines are also being discussed with the Department of the Environment. I intend to publish guidelines on rent and mortgage supplementation later this year.

The availability of good quality management information is a basic requirement for the efficient administration of any of my Department's schemes. The information available in relation to the supplementary welfare allowance scheme fell far short of the minimum required for this purpose. To meet this need the advisory group has developed a statistical system which will allow boards to provide detailed statistical and expenditure analysis in respect of the various elements of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. The system was introduced [60] in a number of health boards in January of this year and will be extended nation-wide in the coming months.

Improving the quality and delivery of service to the customer is a fundamental aim of my Department. In this regard it is my Department's policy to minimise customer inconvenience when seeking departmental services by introducing measures which reduce recourse to supplementary welfare allowance as an interim payment. These measures include interviewing customers at local offices when they are making claims and using existing information on household income to speed up decision making. In recent months recourse to supplementary welfare allowance, on an interim basis, has been reduced significantly in the Eastern Health Board area following the introduction of such measures.

I recognise that the community welfare service needs the assistance of a modern computer system to provide the standard of service that customers now require. My Department is designing a new computerised system which will integrate all short term payments including supplementary welfare allowance. These developments in computerisation will enable community welfare officers to make a speedier and more accurate response to customer needs.