Dept of Social Protection called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: I turn to a broad issue within the Department which is the turnaround time from application to payment. I know from my own office that it is taking a great deal of time.
The one we point to most is the invalidity payment. These are people who have made contributions and worked and we estimate that in some cases it takes approximately 18 months from the time an application is made to payment. It is too long.
Obviously, there are a range of waiting times for the different payments that the Department has figures on. It knows the averages. It is not getting much better in our opinion from our anecdotal experience in the office with regard to the people we deal with when it comes to applications, assessments and the wait to final payment. It is something I have raised before but we have not seen any improvement.
Ms Niamh O'Donoghue [Secretary General, Dept of Social Protection]: I am sorry to hear that. It does not accord with what the data are telling us in the Department. I would be very happy to explore the particular issues with the Deputy or to give him more detailed information on this rather than to take too much time on it.
I accept entirely that the figures here are average processing times, but on invalidity pension the average processing time currently is 10.7 weeks.
We should bear in mind that invalidity, in common with a number of other schemes where there is a medical component, has an additional processing time. As the Deputy has correctly stated, invalidity is an insurance-based scheme and is based on a person having a contribution history but who also must meet the medical criteria.
Currently, 10.7 weeks is the average from application to what we call a "clean award". What I mean by that is the first decision to award. There is no doubt in relation to quite a number of medical schemes that initial decisions might be negative and reviews or appeals might then be looked at through which in most instances additional information is provided which, in turn, often allows for a positive decision to be reached.
There are many instances of that. The experience of the Deputy seems to out-lie what the national figures are telling us and I would be very happy to look at it for him.
John Deasy: It is fair enough that those are the Department's data. I am just saying it is not our experience. I will collate the instances I have and give them to the Secretary General. I understand what she is saying, which is that outside of the appeals process, it is two and a half months, whereas my estimate is a great deal longer.
Niamh O'Donoghue: There are a number of things we have done. In the last two and a half years, we have placed a huge focus on dealing with backlogs, which were very significant in a number of different scheme areas, including carer's allowance, disability allowance, invalidity pension and FIS.
We put a great deal of effort into trying to improve those processing times and made huge inroads. Very significant inroads were made such that the level of service has improved dramatically from what I will be the first to admit was an unacceptable level.
If the Deputy's experience or the experience of the people he is hearing about constitute significant outliers to the figures I have mentioned, it means there is some issue at play. It may be in relation to the information being provided, but I would be very happy to have a look at it and come back to the Deputy.
John Deasy: As far as the different payments and schemes are concerned, where are the largest backlogs and the worst delays from the time someone makes an application to payment?
Niamh O'Donoghue: I can let the Deputy know that in one moment. In terms of average times, the latest processing figures we have indicate that some of the most significant areas are widow's contributory pension and child benefit where the child benefit is being claimed under EU regulations.
John Deasy: How long is it for widows?
Niamh O'Donoghue: That is showing at 28 weeks currently. There can be issues in regard to that, ranging from people not completing forms correctly, not responding to requests for further information, not providing all the detail we ask for and, particularly in the context of the illness payment, not giving us sufficient medical information that allows for a decision.
John Deasy: A person has to wait six or seven months for widow's contributory-----
Niamh O'Donoghue: Yes, but as I said, that is an outlier. It can be as much to do with the circumstances of the particular scheme.
John Deasy: Fair enough. Every application has its own peculiarities in many respects. Looking for financial or medical records can get very complicated. Has the Department had any success in improving the wait times when it comes to widows? Is it getting worse or better?
Niamh O'Donoghue: That is one that is currently flagging as a problem area, so we will be looking at that. In all the other scheme areas where we have problems we have made significant improvements. That has been the trend over the past number of years.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy: Can I make a comment on that, and it might be something the committee could look at? There is a notification for people. It is a widow's contributory pension, so it occurs after an event when somebody becomes a widow.
Niamh O'Donoghue: Yes.
Seamus McCarthy [Comptroller and Auditor General]: There is not any conversion from other schemes, or does that arise in many of those cases?
Niamh O'Donoghue: It can arise. Obviously, if the person who died was a recipient of a primary social welfare payment, once we are aware that the person has died we would then initiate contact with the spouse for application, but I can have a look at that specifically and furnish information showing the reason for that.
It is flagging as a problem at the moment. It would not previously have flagged as a problem so there is obviously a particular difficulty at the moment for us there.