Thursday, 27 October 2011
That is a first for me also. It is nice to see the Minister going off script. This is what Senator Crown referred to when he spoke of leadership as opposed to management.
My query relates to the processing time of redundancy payments and the steps the Department will take to ensure it is shortened. There has been a transfer of responsibility to the Department of Social Protection. The call centre is being staffed by the people processing the claims. We tried to make a number of calls to it every day for a week but only received an answer once. This has nothing to do with the staff but is because they do not have time to answer the telephone and process the claims. We have been told they are now dealing with the claims that arrived in April, which means they will be dealing with the October claims next year. This is obviously causing severe hardship.
The Minister is familiar with the cystic fibrosis issue in the unit in Cork because he met Build4Life and realises the provision of €300,000 would allow the €2.3 million project to go ahead. The return to the taxpayer would be €450,000. These are my figures and I would appreciate the Minister's views thereon.
With regard to mental health, 1,200 nurses are due to retire in February, thereby causing a problem. The Minister is aware of this. What does he hope to do about it? Capital funding for mental health services is due to come from the sale of old institutions. We are all aware that there is no market any more and that there is no provision in this regard. Will the Minister clarify how the investment will be funded? How will A Vision for Change be funded? There are many recommendations therein.
On a lighter note, I invite the Minister down to Kenmare to open the hospital, before 2012 or in 2012 or 2013, or whenever his schedule allows. He will be informing his constituency colleagues. We would all like to welcome him down to An Neidín for the opening of the hospital, the campaign for which started in 1974. I welcome the Minister to the House.
The Senator should forgive me if I address the question put rather than the numerous ones he just raised. Senator Sheahan and Deputy Griffin have been extending invitations to me regularly to open the hospital. I will be very happy to do so at the appropriate time.
The issue the Senator raised is very serious, particularly at a time of economic crisis in which many have been made redundant. We take it very seriously. Six months is a frightening length of time to wait when one's financial circumstances are in doubt and one's world is upside down on having lost one's job. I thank the Senator for affording to me the opportunity to provide clarification on the processing of redundancy payments and the steps I am taking to improve the service being provided. On 1 January 2011, responsibility for administering the redundancy payments scheme was transferred to the Department of Social Protection from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. The purpose of the scheme is to compensate workers under the Redundancy Payments Act for the loss of their jobs through redundancy.
Compensation is based on the worker's length of reckonable service and reckonable weekly remuneration, subject to a ceiling of €600 per week. All payments are made from the social insurance fund.
There are two types of redundancy payment made from the social insurance fund, namely, rebates to those employers who have made statutory redundancy payments to eligible employees and statutory lump sums to employees whose employers are insolvent or in receivership or both or are in liquidation. It goes without saying the economic downturn has placed increasing demands on this service, as well as on many others within the remit of the Minister and mine, as the requirement for medical cards increases. In 2009 redundancy claims reached a peak of 77,000 from the previous norm of approximately 25,000 per year. In 2010 the levels remained high at 58,731 and this year it is likely there will still be in excess of 50,000 claims. In general, claims dating from April are being processed; therefore, the waiting time is approximately six months. The high level of claims has resulted in increased processing times, something the Minister is trying to address in a number of ways that I will now outline.
On 3 October a new redundancy payments processing system went live. This system is fully integrated with the Department's service delivery modernisation programme and the focus of the initiative is to streamline the redundancy claim process, thereby improving claim processing times. Part of the new system facilitates the scanning of both manual and online claims, which will be beneficial to the reduction of processing times. Online redundancy claims are also facilitated by this system. Substantial and frequent updates are provided on the Department's website to inform the public of system changes and advise them of processing times. In recent weeks customers have been gaining familiarity with a new web form design for submitting redundancy claims.
The Minister is planning to introduce an interactive voice response telephone answering system to stream telephone queries to dedicated teams. The staffing resources have been restructured in accordance with the modernisation programme. A specific team has been tasked with dealing with the backlog element of redundancy claims. The Department has also allocated some temporary additional staff to this area and the Minister intends to add more in the coming weeks, approximately five staff in total, equivalent to more than 25% of the staff currently assigned to processing payments, to tackle the processing of claims. Many other elements of change are being incorporated into this area of operation to maximise process improvements and improve customer service.
The Minister and I are acutely aware of the financial hardship faced by many households and it is my expectation the steps outlined will result in improved processing times which will alleviate many of the difficulties being faced by customers.
Will the Minister go back to his Cabinet colleague and ask for an increased allocation? The allocation of an additional five staff members to deal with the 50,000 claims in 2011 will not decrease the rate by a significant amount. There are staff members within the system who could be reallocated and I ask that more be done.
I agree that, on the face of it, five sounds like a very small number. However, as it constitutes an increase of 25%, I ask the Senator to await developments in the next couple of weeks to ascertain how this affects the service. If it does not have the desired result, I certainly will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, who is particularly concerned about this issue. As the period coming up to Christmas will be a difficult one, the Government certainly does not wish to leave people feeling uncertain regarding their redundancy payments any longer than is necessary.