I am calling on Minister Burton to urgently take further steps to tackle the gross backlog of Back to Education Clothing and Footwear Allowance applications.
It is understood that over 66,000 applications have been received by the Department of Social Protection since the beginning of July, completely overwhelming the resources and systems in place. The backlog in processing these applications could mean that many families will not receive their payments until long after the school year has started. The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, has put additional staff in place but this step is grossly insufficient.
To put this into perspective the Department has stated that 45,000 applications still have to be processed. This means thousands of parents will not have the monies that they are entitled to, to purchase uniforms and shoes for their children who are returning to school. Earlier this week the Department sent a memo to the Citizens Information Service which confirmed that at the beginning of this week the Department was only processing applications from the 12th of July. Based on this processing rate it could take months to clear the backlog.
This money is not needed at Halloween or Christmas, it is needed now. Countless families are struggling to meet the costs of sending their children to school. Books, transport, uniforms all add up. The Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance is designed to ease the burden on struggling families but because of these delays it is failing in this objective. In fact the delays in processing this payment cause extra worry for parents who now cannot buy the complete uniform or all the books their children needs, or who are forced to divert vital money from household expenses to pay for the more pressing costs. Lower income families who do not receive this payment in time for the school year are likely to fall into arrears on other bills.
Whilst I appreciate that Minister Burton has taken some action on this issue, this is little comfort for the families who will not receive their payments for another seven weeks, if not longer. Many of these families are quite literally desperate. The children’s charity Barnardo’s has raised concerns that this may lead to parents holding their children back from commencing school until they can buy their complete uniform and their books which would obviously have a detrimental effect on the child’s progress.
I am therefore urgently appealing to Minister Burton to do all in her power to ensure that the remaining applications are processed as speedily as possible, with children returning school at present the urgency of this situation cannot be understated. This scheme was previously administered by the HSE but was this year taken over by the Department in the hopes of increasing efficiency, if this issue is not addressed this arrangement will have to be revised.