School grants delay will plunge families into debt
TENS of thousands of families will be plunged into debt because of delays in crucial back-to-school payments.
Health Service Executive (HSE) staff are working around the clock to process 1,000 grant applications a day.
But with the new school term only days away, and many more late applications expected, a massive 33,192 forms lie unopened.
Parents are being forced to take out credit union loans -- and some are even turning to money lenders -- to help meet the costs of new uniforms and school shoes.
The HSE admitted that some families would not receive any money until after schools re-opened.
The Limerick, Clare and north Tipperary region is the worst blackspot, where no decision has been made on almost half of all applications for the grants.
North Tipperary TD Michael Lowry said the wait has placed vulnerable families in an "unfair position".
He added: "My office has been inundated with complaints about the inordinate delay with this scheme."
Many low-income parents depend on the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance to send their children to school.
The rate of the allowance paid for each eligible child is €200 for two- to 11-year-olds, €305 for 12- to 17-year-olds and up to €520 for 18-year-olds.
Staff of the HSE South region were promised 15 extra workers to meet the demands placed on them from June to September with the back-to-school scheme.
But Fine Gael senator John Paul Phelan claims only 11 of these 15 promised staff were appointed in the south-east to date.
"This is not unexpected -- as the HSE South never even advertised for staff to meet the demands in the south-east region," he said. "To try meet the backlog and extra demands, it offered overtime to staff.
"Existing community welfare officers at all levels rolled up their sleeves, but as and from the end of July only 10,000 of the 20,000 applications had been adjudicated upon. That number has since risen closer to 15,000," he added.
Despite these concerns, the HSE said the scheme was "progressing well".
"The necessary urgency required to administer the scheme is happening in each area. The HSE expects that the scheme will be concluded in a timely manner," a statement said.
More than €53m has been paid out so far and the HSE is "confident" that eligible families who applied before mid-July will receive their payments before schools re-open.
"However, there will be some payments still outstanding when the school year resumes. This situation arises every year, with applications for the scheme remaining open until the end of September," it said.
The statement added: "Every effort is being made to expedite payments under the scheme.
"A concerted effort is under way to ensure that as many people as possible will receive payment by the end of August. Teams of dedicated staff are working across the country to administer the scheme."
Parents concerned about their application can contact their local office or the HSE information line on 1850 24 18 50.