Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Response to Industrial Action.
Question 58: To ask the Minister for Social Protection the impact current industrial action is having on applications for social welfare support; the number of social welfare claims delayed as a result of this action; his plans to address this backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15643/10]
The overall response to the industrial action is being managed centrally by the Department of Finance with input from all Government Departments, including the Department, and other public service sectors. The industrial action is being closely monitored in the Department on a daily basis and the Department's management is maintaining contacts with the unions concerned to ensure, insofar as possible, that the negative impact on the Department's customers is minimised.
In the main, the industrial action in the Department resulted in telephones not being answered, counter services in public offices not being provided for various periods, certain statistical work returns not being completed, and certain computer systems not being used. A ban on overtime was introduced in the illness benefit area from 22 February 2010 and this ban was extended to other areas of the Department for four weeks from 15 March to 9 April. This and other actions resulted in a delay of one or two days in issuing payment to the customers affected. While the number of illness benefit claims awaiting a decision has stayed broadly the same at about 6,800 over this period, there was an increase in the time taken to process the claims from about six days to an average of eight days during the period of the industrial action.
In some areas, staff not answering phones or attending the public counters worked on processing claims and, as a result, backlogs were reduced and processing times improved as these staff were diverted. Consequently, there is no backlog of claims that can be directly attributed to the industrial action.
Deputies will be aware that there have been significant arrears of jobseekers' claims over the past 18 months or so due to the huge influx of applications for these schemes. However, the number of claims awaiting a decision has been declining every week since the end of January, when they stood at over 62,000 and were reduced to 47,500 at week ending 27 March. The numbers increased to 52,800 after the Easter break. However, this is normal as there is always a significant increase in claims from school-related workers around any school holiday period. This, combined with the impact of the shorter working weeks at this time has resulted in an increase in the number of jobseeker claims awaiting a decision.
Overall, the number of jobseeker claims awaiting a decision expressed as a percentage of the entire claim-load nationally is now at about 10%. This is the level of claims awaiting a decision that applied even when the live register was at its lowest. In some local offices the percentage of claim awaiting a decision is higher, but we are working to bring them in line with the national average as quickly as possible.
The work to rule is ongoing. However, following recent discussions between the unions and the Department of Finance, there has been some relaxation of the industrial action.
For almost two years we have been hearing of problems in some local offices. I and other colleagues have had dealings with the people working in those offices and they want to know when a solution will be found. The problem affects approximately 17 local offices. Delays in these offices are higher than anywhere else. Is there any sign of a resolution to the problem? We have been told several times it is also an industrial relations problem, even before the work to rule or the overtime ban. In the context of the current negotiations, will that issue also be dealt with so that those people who have no choice but to go to their local office for payment will be dealt with in the same manner as those in any other office?
I am glad to hear that some good has come as a result of the current action and that backlogs have been cleared. I had expected to hear the Minister say the backlog was even greater, but welcome the fact that is not the case. Can the Minister learn anything from this in terms of the operation of the offices and the Department, because when those in the offices can concentrate on claims, they get through more work? I do not suggest they should not answer telephones, but could staff be divided so as to work more effectively? Some people could be responsible for taking queries and others could work full-time on applications. That could speed up the process. The staff in the office receive queries from Members of the Houses and the public, but if the backlog was cleared, there would not be as many queries. Many of the queries relate to the delay. Is the Minister aware of anything that should be changed as a result of the situation over the past number of weeks?
Members experience delays across a range of services. These delays cause grief for people and are a huge challenge in any system. In my previous Department, I tried to minimise delays in making decisions across the range of the operation of the Department and discovered, as the Deputy suggested, that the number of queries decreased the more we reduced the list or queue. This led to even more work being done. Queues take up a significant amount of staff time.
There are two elements to running any Department, policy and operation. Day-to-day operation is a matter for the staff of the Department, but the Minister has a responsibility to examine the schemes to see how things can be streamlined and to ensure we do not have inordinate queues at every facet. This applies to jobseeker's allowance and other schemes. I have no doubt but that there will be co-operation in making the changes. Some schemes require more time. For example, because there is no means test for jobseeker's benefit, it is much quicker to obtain it than jobseeker's allowance. We have to deal with the complexities of all of the different types of means tests for the different schemes. I will examine everything, de novo, across the Department to see if we can streamline the processes more to provide better delivery to customers.
I have dealt with the Department of Social and Family Affairs over many years and have always found its staff helpful and co-operative. When customers ring them, they genuinely try to help them and it has generally been a customer-centred Department. We must examine the procedures and see whether it is easy for the staff to deliver a good service or whether there are crinkles in the system we could eliminate.
I agree with the Minister that the staff are helpful. The executive council of the CPSU has rejected the public sector pay deal and prior to Easter, we had a discussion in the House on the Order of Business with regard to contingency plans in the Department. Has the Minister considered contingency plans in the event of action being escalated and social welfare offices across the country being affected? I do not want to see a situation arise where people cannot get their payments or their applications processed because of an escalation in action. We have seen the difficulties that arose in the Passport Office. There were also temporary difficulties when some of the social welfare offices were closed. This is something about which people are concerned and which could get out of control. The previous Minister had not considered contingency plans, but is the current Minister doing so? He needs to have some plan in place rather than having to react on the day if action affects offices. Is he preparing a contingency plan?
Generally, where the industrial action has discommoded people, the unions have taken a responsible attitude and recognised that the people served by my Department are the most vulnerable. We will continue to work to try and minimise the disruption to people, but this is also contingent on getting co-operation from the staff and unions, something which has been given. Low level action has taken place that has disrupted some areas and there was a slight delay in payment, but generally the unions have taken a responsible attitude. I hope they continue to do so. We may have and there are contingency plans, but they can only operate at a certain level. Everybody must try and work together to resolve the issues. As noted, the executive of the union has given its view, but it is up to the members of the union to balance everything and make their views known. The Government feels strongly that what is on offer is the best balance that can be given at this time.