Dáil Éireann - Volume 483 - 26 November, 1997

Priority Questions. - Social Welfare Benefits.

18. Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the amount spent annually for the years 1995 and 1996 and estimated for 1997 by each of the health boards on supplementary welfare and rent allowances; and the number of supplementary welfare allowance control staff in each health board involved in fraud prevention and detection. [19815/97]

Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): The total expenditure figures in respect of supplementary welfare allowance are in a tabular statement which I propose [868] to circulate in the Official Report. A breakdown of payments for each of the health boards in respect of each year is not available as the scheme is not yet fully computerised. Computerisation of the SWA scheme commenced in May 1996 and is meant to be completed in all health board areas by mid-1998.

The approach to controls does not involve specialised staff. Instead, all community welfare officers and superintendent community welfare officers are involved in the control of SWA payments on a daily basis, making control work an integral part of service delivery. Control starts when a member of the public makes a claim and is maintained during the life of the claim through reviews, re-certification of entitlement, random checks and cross checking of claims to ensure the client continues to be entitled to the payment. The computerisation of the SWA scheme has enhanced control procedures. Community welfare officers now have access to my Department's main payments database. Computerisation has improved administration, reduced the potential for fraud or abuse and provides greater control of payments through, for example, automated reviews.

In addition, targeted control work is carried out periodically in each board. This includes reviewing rent supplements to ensure the recipient still resides at the address and that there are no changes which would affect entitlement.

Year

Rent Allowance Expenditure

Other SWA Expenditure*

Total SWA Expenditure

£m

£m

£m

1995

55.5

78.7

134.2

1996

64.1

90.1

154.2

1997**

71.9

100.8

172.7

*Includes administration expenses and other costs

**Estimated.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Is it correct that supplementary welfare has increased from £100 million plus in l994 to an estimated £200 million in l998?

Mr. D. Ahern: No. I will circulate the figures for 1995 which indicate total expenditure on supplementary welfare allowance of £134 million in l995 and an estimated £172 million in l997.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I wanted to broaden the question. My understanding is that it was over £100 million in l994 and, according to the Estimates, it will be over £200 million in l998. I am concerned to ensure that the money in question will reach those who really need it. That is why I am interested in control measures. Is the Minister aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out in his report on means testing that the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs means test for new claims was more rigorous than the equivalent test by the health board? Does that not contradict the Minister's complacency in regard to control measures in relation to supplementary welfare allowances?

Mr. D. Ahern: I do not accept that I am complacent. I have inherited an extremely complicated scheme. Some time ago the Department, with the health boards, set up a process to initiate an integrated computerisation scheme. I formally launched the first such scheme in the North-Eastern Health Board area a number of weeks ago. The health boards are now privy to all the database of my Department. Everybody involved in disbursing taxpayers' money has an obligation to ensure that it goes to the people who most deserve it. That applies not only to the staff in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs but to staff in the health boards.

[869] Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Despite what the Minister says, there is considerable need for control measures in relation to supplementary welfare allowance — there will be a total budget of £200 million for this in l998, much of which will be spent in the Eastern Health Board area. An internal audit report in relation to area 3 of the Eastern Health Board dated 8 August this year, apparently not brought to the Minister's attention, highlights a number of control weaknesses which require immediate attention and which corroborate the case I make for adequate control measures in the health board areas. This applies to the Eastern Health Board area in particular where a large amount of money is spent — £40,000 a week is spent in area 3 specifically on rent supplements.

Mr. D. Ahern: My Department is always keen to address any anomalies, particularly when they are drawn to its attention by the Comptroller and Auditor General. There is constant communication between my Department and the health boards, particularly the Eastern Health Board, in relation to that issue.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: There has been a slight misunderstanding.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I am calling Question No. 19 in the name of Deputy Bell. I told the Deputy that the last question would be the final supplementary. We are on priority questions and, to give the Deputies a chance to have their priority questions submitted I want to move on to the next question. There are two more questions in the Deputy's name, and I am anxious to reach them.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I did not refer to the Comptroller and Auditor General's survey but to an internal audit survey of the health boards.

Proinsias De Rossa: Are we out of priority question time?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: No. Priority questions commenced at 3.28 p.m.