Interview - the Attacks on Welfare Continue

Date:

We spoke with Vincent O’Malley, a community sector employee who advises and advocates for social welfare applicants and recipients, about the effect the recession is having on the operation of the social welfare system.



WS: What changes have you noticed in how the Department of Social Protection is functioning?

As has been well publicised, there have been long delays in processing welfare payments and there have been both cuts in the rates of welfare payments and changes in the qualifying criteria for payments. These delays have eased somewhat but there has been a large increase in the number of disallowed claims. This has moved the bottleneck elsewhere, namely the social welfare appeals office. So there are now huge delays in processing and hearing appeals, up to fifteen months in some cases. Also, away from the spotlight, the Department of Social Protection (DSP) has been taking a  number of other measures to cut welfare.

WS: How has this affected welfare applicants?

There has been a huge increase in the number of social welfare claims being refused on the grounds that the applicant does not satisfy the Habitual Residency Condition (HRC), which basically means that the applicant has to prove that their “centre of interest” is Ireland. This is a somewhat nebulous concept and the guidelines that the DSP use are open to interpretation. However the HRC has been in place since May 2004 and has been implemented more or less consistently and generally quite fairly.

Towards the end of last year, management conducted what they somewhat euphemistically called “training” on the HRC in social welfare local offices throughout the country. From speaking to staff in social welfare offices, I am aware that this “training” essentially consisted of edicts from on high to increase the number of refusals on HRC grounds.

So, I have a variety of cases of clients who have been refused welfare payments on HRC grounds, amongst them people who have been living in Ireland for up to ten years, who have substantial work records in Ireland, who have extensive family connections in Ireland, who have children who are Irish citizens and have no intention of living anywhere else but Ireland. The HRC condition also affects returning Irish emigrants, with, for example, over 200 people who have returned to care for a sick relative being refused carers’ allowance, as has also been covered in the mainstream media.

The HRC condition is now being implemented unfairly and incorrectly, mostly as a result of a change of policy in the Department. However, I have had the odd DSP employee advise me that the decision has been made on the grounds that, as far as they are concerned, “these people are not welcome here.”

WS: What about in other areas of welfare supports?

There have been other cuts by stealth, such as in the case of rent supplement payments for separated people. In the past, community welfare officers, who administer these payments, would have generally approved a rent supplement payment to a separated person with shared custody of a child for accommodation suitable for that individual to have their child stay overnight. However, in general, they are now insisting that a legal separation agreement is in place before approving such payments, forcing couples, who may have made amicable, voluntary arrangements, to go through the family court system. In one of my cases, the judge refused to issue a court order for a family who had a voluntary arrangement in place, presumably on the somewhat legitimate grounds of wasting the courts’ time, which left them in a catch 22 situation.

WS: What about those who have appealed the decision to disallow their welfare claim?

The problems in the appeals office are compounded by the fact that, whether intentionally or due to the large volume of work facing staff in the DSP, a large part of the delay is due to the files not being passed on to the appeals office, which is required before an appeals officer can deal with the case.

Furthermore, in the past, those who have appealed a decision have almost always been granted an oral hearing if requested. Statistically, there is a much better chance of winning your appeal in this case as you and an advocate get an opportunity to present your case and sometimes question the officer who made the decision. However, appeals officers have now been instructed to make a decision on written submissions only wherever possible. People with literacy problems and some other disabilities find it much harder to make cogent arguments in writing. Also, the opportunity to rebut the submission of the social welfare officer who made the decision is generally lost. While we don’t have statistics to hand as yet, it is my guess that there will be a large increase in the number of appeals lost as a result.

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