Dáil Éireann - Volume 678 - 12 March, 2009

Adjournment Debate. - Social Welfare Services.

  Deputy Ulick Burke: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter and for allowing me to discuss it with the Minister of State. I call on the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Hanafin, to alleviate the serious difficulties within the Department which delay the provision of services to applicants who have lost their jobs in the Gort area. The mission statement of the Department of Social and Family Affairs states,“Our mission is to promote a caring society through ensuring access to income support and other services, enabling active participation, promoting social inclusion and supporting families”.

The difficulty is that the Department has failed miserably to provide and deliver on its mission statement in Gort. As of 5 March, the average waiting time in Gort for the processing of various social welfare applications is ten and a half weeks. I was approached for support by a carer in desperation who applied to the Department in September 2008. Last week, I asked [74] the Department when it was likely the person, who has cared for an elderly person since last September, will receive the carer’s allowance. I was told the file is with the inspector.

Everybody realises that all people delivering services at the coalface are overwhelmed with volumes of applications. Many areas throughout the country received additional permanent or temporary staff to alleviate the backlog in these instances. In the case of Gort, this has not happened and is not likely to happen unless the Minister intervenes.

It is unfair that any person would have to wait since September 2008 until now to be told the file is still with the inspector. It is outrageous and it shows a lack of care that the Department or Minister will not intervene in this instance. As we speak, more than 1,200 people are on the live register in Gort. The conditions under which officials of the Department of Social and Family Affairs must work are poor. We have no back up services where this happens, particularly with regard to applications for means tested allowances such as carer’s allowance and non-contributory old age pensions. These people receive the blunt end of the wedge. It is an uncaring society that allows this to happen and to continue.

We have an urgent need for follow-up support. The social welfare office in Gort is not accessible to the public. It is closed because the inspector cannot deal with the volume of applications and provide a service. The telephone there cannot even be answered. While this is so we will have an increasing backlog and difficulties for many people which is unfair to them. It is putting pressure on the supplementary welfare system, where other agencies must intervene and provide assistance to those people.

5 o’clock

I know that the situation is similar across the country, but it is worse in Gort than anywhere else. If anybody has had to wait since September 2008 until now only to be told that the inspector has the file but has not dealt with it, then how can we say that we are caring for elderly people? If not for the goodwill of the carer who has worked in the intervening period without having received the carer’s allowance, that person would have had to be hospitalised at a greater cost. There is a need for the Minister to provide additional backup services on a temporary or permanent basis to alleviate the problems and to provide access for the applicants to receive their entitlements.

  Deputy Seán Haughey: I am taking this matter on the Adjournment on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

There has been a very significant increase in the number of people applying for a jobseeker’s payment during the past year. From February 2008 to February 2009, the live register increased by about 165,000 people, or over 87%. Staff in social welfare local offices are working extremely hard and productivity increased by 74% between the last quarter of 2007 and the final quarter of 2008. The Department delivers a front line service through a network of 62 local offices and 62 branch offices, and the service in Gort is delivered from a branch office. Branch offices are operated by private individuals on a contract for service basis. Under the terms of their contract, branch managers are required to ensure that staffing levels are adequate to allow for the efficient performance of the work of the office.

The main services provided from Gort branch office include jobseeker’s payment, one parent family payment and an information service. All decisions on branch office claims are made in the parent local office, which in the case of Gort is the Ennis local office. There was a staffing issue in Gort recently which impacted on the processing times for jobseeker allowance claims. The issue is now resolved and additional inspector resources have been assigned to the area to deal with any backlog in means claim processing.

[75] Following a number of staffing reviews, the Department has assigned extra staff to local offices to deal with the increase in the live register. More than 240 extra posts have been allocated to local offices in recent months, including an additional four staff assigned to the Ennis local office. A range of process improvement initiatives is also being introduced. The current average processing times in the Gort office are 2.6 weeks for jobseeker’s benefit claims and 10.6 weeks for jobseeker’s allowance claims. This compares with the February national average of three weeks for jobseeker’s benefit and six weeks for jobseeker’s allowance claims. The additional resources assigned to the Ennis office and the inspectorate area dealing with Gort will reduce the processing times over the coming months.

It is fully appreciated that people need to get access to financial and other supports as quickly as possible. While every effort is made to ensure that applications are processed as quickly as possible, anyone under financial pressure awaiting a decision on his or her claim for a jobseeker’s payment can apply for the supplementary welfare allowance, which is subject to a means test and other qualifying conditions.

  Deputy Ulick Burke: The issue is not resolved.