Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Illness Benefit Payments
44. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of issues which resulted in delayed payments of illness benefit; if compensation will be provided to those that experienced financial losses as a result; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53267/18]
This is a follow-up question from a Topical Issue debate that we had in November about delays and problems for people in receipt of illness benefit in getting paid through the Minister's Department. That is ongoing many months later and we are in the jaws of Christmas. What is happening with this?
The Department transferred administration of the illness benefit scheme to our new core business objects IT platform in August 2018. Although the system worked effectively for over 80% of illness benefit customers, significant difficulties arose following implementation for a large number of recipients. My Department took three main steps to resolve the issues impacting on payments. It deployed additional resources to process work and respond to inquiries. It developed some new system processes that addressed the payment gap issues and to ensure a faster flow-through of payments. It continued to review the design rules in the system to afford greater flexibility in processing of claims and certificates. As a consequence of the steps just described, people who are due a payment and whose certificates and claims are in order are thankfully receiving their full payment entitlements. In excess of 50,000 payments are made every week, which is the same number that we would have had before we made the changes on 6 August.
Telephone helpline and call handling performance has also been addressed and is now back to normal levels. The staff in the illness benefit section are particularly pleased about that. People who are due a payment and whose certificates and claims are in order now receive their payment entitlement promptly. In stating this, it is important, since I am sure Deputies will know of various instances where people are still not receiving payment, to say that there are always cases where people do not receive what they might expect to get in a specific week. That is true today for a variety of reasons but it also existed prior to 6 August when we moved to the new system. We will endeavour to keep those to a minimum but it is inevitable that some errors will be made in illness benefits, given that we have over 9,000 transactions per day. Human beings receive those transactions and work on them every day.
I do not know where the Minister is getting her information from. Maybe her Department is not telling her the full story. I have a litany in my office of people who have had problems and who are constantly getting payments, though they have told the illness benefit section that they are not required since they are back at work. Some people have never been paid for the times they have been off. Some people were off for a couple of weeks in August and still have not been paid for it. Talking to other Deputies, I hear a litany of complaints from them. One person who was off sick for two weeks in August, only just this week, after going in five or six times himself to tell the Department that he is back at work and not entitled to the money, is still being sent money. It cancelled it and then sent him a cheque for €1,600 after him cancelling it again. He had to go to a Deputy to get it cancelled the second time. Other people are getting money on haphazard days of the week. They have no way of planning and cannot do anything about it. They might get €200 this week and €99 next week. There is a litany of such issues and any Deputy in this House will have the same problems. I do not know where the Minister is getting the information from. The Department is obviously telling her the good story, which is fair enough, but there is another side which the Minister needs to look at.
I tell the Deputy again that I can only deal in the facts. I have received a daily report on illness benefit since the proverbial hit the fan during the summer. It was an incredibly stressful time for the thousands affected in exactly the manner the Deputy has just described. I apologise sincerely again to all those recipients who were mucked around on foot of our attempt to change things to make them more efficient. It went on for far too long and the goalposts kept moving. When we fixed a problem, we created another one. I acknowledge and accept completely that it was not handled well. At the time, my office and our social welfare offices were inundated. There was no day on which I did not have a queue of Deputies approaching me with lists of individuals in their constituencies who were receiving services like the one Deputy Pringle has just described. Since we made the changes a number of weeks ago, we have gone back to reflecting on the fact that we received 9,000 applications every day which is why people get paid every day. We do not do a payment run on a Friday and pay 55,000 people. People get paid on the day they present for services. They are paid on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It may be different every week for a person who presents his or her certificate on a different day every week. That is how the system is run. I have not had the lists and queues of people outside my door.
We have a litany of people who are distressed. That is the problem. This is still going on. We do not want to be dealing with this every day in our office when we could be doing much more useful work. This is down to mistakes the Minister's Department made in the changeover in the system. We are only getting a percentage of the people involved. While we do not, admittedly, get the people who are happy, people with problems are still coming to us. As such, it must still be happening. It is not acceptable to say it is the normal percentage of people who will never be happy because we did not have this before the system was changed. If it was normal, it would have been going on all the time. These people need timely, prompt decisions so that they can manage, which they cannot do at the moment. The length of time it is taking to make decisions is causing major harm to people. The Department must recognise that.
I do not mean to split hairs or fight with the Deputy, but anyone who comes to me with an issue and a personal public service number will see that resolved on the same day. I appeal to the Deputy that if there are people living in Donegal who feel they are still experiencing difficulties and he provides me with their personal public service numbers, I will have the matters resolved today. I am not splitting hairs with the Deputy when I say the statistics speak for themselves. We receive 9,000 applications every day and we pay in excess of 50,000 claimants every week. It is nowhere close to where we were when we were in the middle of the wars, trying to make the system more efficient and cocking up in the months of August, September and October. However, the system is working now. Any system receiving a volume of 9,000 applications every day will experience human or IT error. It is nothing close to what it was during the previous period and it is being resolved. If the Deputy wants to provide the personal public service numbers of people in his constituency experiencing difficulties, I will have them resolved today.