The number of applications received by the Social Welfare Appeals Office (SWAO) has doubled since 2007; the office received 32,432 claims last year. The office’s recent annual report explains that appeals regarding jobseeker’s claims have continued to increase, and its Director states that “it is significant” that the workload has shifted from claims where means was the issue to claims about other conditionalities “in particular the habitual residence condition” (the HRC). Such claims rose by 73% last year.
This reflects the experience at our legal service, where social protection has surpassed naturalisation as the most common visit reason for the first time this year. Most of the cases with which we assist people arise from the misapplication by Social Welfare and Community Welfare officers of the HRC.
Other human rights organisations have expressed concern about this trend; the Free Legal Aid Centre (FLAC) has published a very useful Guide to the Habitual Residence Condition, and it made a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection in October 2010, in which it expressed its concern regarding the “inconsistencies and unfairness caused by the HRC.”
We very strongly agree with the recommendations made by FLAC, and indeed it would appear to be glaringly obvious that “comprehensive training [should] be made available to all Deciding Officers and Community Welfare Officers.” 42% of the appeals submitted last year were successful. That means that around 13,000 vulnerable people had to fight for their entitlements in 2010. While it will help that new appeals officers have recently been appointed to the SWAO, improved decision-making at the first instance would also appear to be indicated.
We imagine that the SWAO would agree. Its workload has doubled since 2007, and the processing times have consequently lengthened to an average of 28 weeks in 2010. Some aspects of the processing times are outside the control of the SWAO; the report includes reference to delays caused by the Department of Social Protection’s response time in making its submission in each case. Average waiting times disguise the reality for some applicants; only last week we received notification of a successful appeal that we submitted in March 2010 – that’s 16 months ago.
The Department has recently provided revised guidelines to deciding officers. While these are an improvement, we agree with Joe O’Brien, policy officer at Crosscare Migrant Project, who has stated that “guidelines are only part of getting it right. Translating guidelines into proper practice is the big challenge for a department where a lot of change is happening.” (The Irish Times – 4 July 2011, here).
Let’s hope Minister Burton will find the means to do this, where others have failed.
Related Links and Resources
- FLAC Not Fair Enough Report (October 2012)
- Nasc: Non-EU workers kept off of housing list, Irish Examiner, 6 December 2011
- Number of social welfare appeals relating to residence trebles, The Irish Times, 1 August 2011
- Social Welfare Appeals Office Annual Report 2010
- Department of Social Protection Guidelines for Deciding Officers on the determination of Habitual Residence (June 2011)
- Joint Oireachtas Committee Debate on Habitual Residence Condition (October 2010)
- FLAC Guide to the Habitual Residence Condition (downloadable .pdf file)