Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 June 2006

Adjournment Debate.

Pension Provisions.

8:00 pm

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I will not need the five minutes allowed to me. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for selecting this matter for discussion on the Adjournment, since it is a very important issue for me and many of my constituents.

I would like to know the reason for a 14-week delay in pensions being issued to eligible people. Letters have been coming from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I do not criticise it, since it has been very efficient, especially at dealing with our parliamentary questions and queries, over an extended period. However, I am disturbed by the letters it is sending. The letters explain that there is a temporary delay of 14 weeks in processing pension applications and ask people not to contact the office. The letters also request that people contact their local Health Service Executive office if they are short of money in the meantime. These are people who are retiring after working very hard for a long time and paying their taxes, but find that their pensions are not in place. This is a deplorable state of affairs for people who have given considerable service to the State.

Given our buoyant economy, I cannot understand why staff cannot be assigned to these offices to alleviate the problem. Retirement represents a major change in people's lives and for them to be told that they will be left without a pension for 14 weeks after a long period of working is not good enough. What is the reason for this delay, when will it be resolved and when will normal service resume? This delay affects a considerable number of people. Over a short period, six people contacted my constituency office about this matter. If this resonates in other constituency offices, it must be a very significant issue. I expect a very clear and positive answer from the Minister of State.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am delivering this reply on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. I must deliver a considerable amount of the reply before Deputy Hayes arrives at the reason for the delay. That said, I thank him for raising this matter on the Adjournment because I am aware of these delays.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs is committed to providing a quality service to all its customers. This includes the necessary processing of applications and ensuring that the decisions on entitlements are issued as expeditiously as possible, having regard to the eligibility conditions which apply. The challenging customer service standards are set out in the Department's statement of strategy 2005-07, backed up by its customer service charter. In the case of pension claims, customers are advised to apply for pensions at least three months before reaching pension age to ensure there is no delay in receiving their entitlements.

The Department is developing a new generation of IT systems under its service delivery modernisation, SDM, programme which will allow it to be more responsive to customer needs. The main objectives of the SDM programme are to provide customers with improved service, provide a proactive comprehensive service that takes account of related services needed by the customer, enable speedy implementation of change, ensure effective control of fraud and abuse, maximise benefits of information and communication technology, implement progressive management and work practices and develop better organisational structures and a better work environment where staff will be supported to provide an excellent service.

SDM is a multi-year programme of change which seeks to ensure more efficiency and effectiveness through the use of modern technology and redesign of existing business processes to deliver more flexible and more personalised service delivery. Phase 1 of this programme has already been successfully implemented for child benefit.

The old age contributory and retirement pensions section was hitherto supported by the PENLIVE computer application. This system is now over 20 years old and is being replaced to enable the Department to deliver the enhanced services outlined above. At the end of May 2006, the old age contributory and retirement pension payments were moved to the new IT platform and the administrative sections were reorganised to improve service to customers and achieve the full benefits of the new technology. As could be expected in a change programme of this magnitude, there was a need for intensive training for all staff involved. To date, some 220,000 customer records have been transferred to the new system.

The activity involved in achieving the change has affected the capacity of the area concerned to process claims during the transition phase and, accordingly, a backlog of work has accrued. At present, there are some 12,000 claims awaiting decision compared to a normal level of approximately 4,000 claims on hand at any one time. The situation is being monitored closely and plans are in hand to address these cases, including the deployment of additional resources to process these claims as quickly as possible. The original receipt date will be taken as the date of claim and customers will not lose out as a result of the temporary delay currently being experienced.

Customers are being advised of the reasons for the temporary delay. In the meantime, any documentation, such as birth, marriage or death certificates, submitted in support of claims is being processed and returned as quickly as possible. The staff in the Department make every effort to process claims speedily. However, the over-riding consideration in processing claims is to ensure that customers receive their correct entitlements in a timely fashion.

Looking to the future, the new SDM programme will allow the Department to be more proactive in dealing with customers. It offers the prospect of issuing reminders to people reaching pension age to apply for their pensions in advance so as to avoid delays in payments issuing to them. In respect of the child care supplement, I believe Deputy Hayes's own party focused on the fact that I was able to advise persons of their entitlements in advance using that computer system. This facility will now be extended to pensions once this new programme is introduced.

The Deputy's party was, understandably, not aware of the fact there were substantial savings in the issuing of these reminders to individuals because it discloses to us the non-existence of certain parties at specified addresses. That said, that matter is not on the Adjournment this evening but I could not resist mentioning it when I saw Deputy Stanton sitting opposite me.

The SDM programme will also allow for enhanced procedures for processing claims for related services, such as the free travel allowance and household benefits. This will also simplify the process for customers as it will remove the need to make separate applications for these services and will reduce processing times for claims. This introduction of this new technology will have a very positive impact but, unfortunately, it has caused a slight blip, as outlined by Deputy Hayes, which the Department is working very hard to resolve.

The Department is conscious of the impact of the delays on customers, particularly people claiming pensions, and is taking action to ensure that the difficulties currently being experienced are minimised. It is intended to make progress in addressing the situation over the coming weeks and to return to the normal standard of service to customers as soon as possible.