Comptroller's report highlights means test inefficiencies

 

THE State spends some £15 million annually on means testing, and yet more than a third of social welfare applicants in a recent survey had no "means" to test.

Duplication of testing by state agencies is also highlighted in a report published yesterday by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The survey identified 42 means test schemes, 20 of which are administered by the Department of Social Welfare or the health boards. At least 600,000 such examinations are carried out every year.

Three principal "inefficiencies" were identified. In a sample, it found that 40 per cent of applicants already in receipt of welfare payments were re tested to assess their eligibility for other schemes.

Secondly, supplementary welfare allowance recipients have to be examined by the health boards who administer that scheme, and by the Department of Social Welfare for any other social payments.

A sample examination also found that 38 per cent of the applicants had no source of income at the time; suggesting, in many cases, that a full means test may be unnecessary.

The breakdown showed that 61 per cent with "nil" means were seeking the disability allowance 49 per cent were seeking the supplementary welfare allowance 45 per cent, unemployment assistance; 35 per cent, the old age pension; and 17 per cent, a medical card.

Analysing the administrative cost of means testing, the CAG report estimated that the salary and travel bill for the Department of Social Welfare amounted to £4.4 million annually.

The Eastern Health Board, the largest of the boards, spends £3.5 million on administering supplementary welfare allowance; £0.28 million on administering disability allowance; and £0.36 million on administering medical cards.

Dublin Corporation, which is responsible for 33 per cent of all rented dwellings in the State, spends an estimated £300,000 on differential rent assessment.

The report notes that the Government approved in principle the development of an integrated social services systems (ISSS) in 1993 which would use a "common means" database.

However, the CAG also acknowledges "impediments" to greater efficiency, including the recording of most means test data manually, data protection legislation which would preclude sharing of information, and the fact that some awards are discretionary.

Nevertheless, the report recommends several options, including the use of a single testing agency; greater categorisation of claimants on the basis of risk, which would permit interim awards to low risk cases; greater integration of schemes to make them more "client centred"; linking, so that qualification for one scheme might serve as a passport to others; and adopting a common definition of means.

The Department of Social Welfare said it welcomed the report, which contributed to the continuing debate on this issue, which is due to be discussed shortly by the Dail Committee of Public Accounts.