Seanad debates

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Adjournment Matters

Departmental Correspondence

6:45 pm

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I have tabled this Adjournment matter as a result of the public highlighting of the fact that relatives of deceased people are receiving correspondence from the Department of Social Protection. I have had several telephone conversations and items of electronic correspondence with the Department since tabling the matter to establish why I did so. The reason is quite simple. I have been contacted by a number of concerned citizens who have received correspondence from the Department of Social Protection about the qualification for entitlements of deceased relatives one or two years after they had passed away. Several days ago on Clare FM, the local radio station, I heard a person whose son, who had Down's syndrome, had passed away 11 years ago. The Department sent correspondence addressed to the deceased person seeking the return of a free travel pass because disability payments had ceased. It upset many people in the constituency and highlighted the fact that computer-generated correspondence is being sent to people who have been deceased for many years.

I seek the introduction of protocols in the Department of Social Protection to ensure no correspondence will issue to somebody who has passed away. I suggest that this can be achieved if those responsible for issuing death certificates collect PPS numbers and are responsible for notifying all relevant Departments, the HSE and the Revenue Commissioners so that deceased persons do not receive any further correspondence from the State. This is a moral responsibility, because it causes significant distress to the families when they receive such correspondence. I picked the Department of Social Protection because hundreds of thousands of people are in receipt of payments from the Department and it was the Department highlighted in the recent Clare FM exposé.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Conway for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and the Minister for Social Protection, who fully acknowledges the impact the receipt of such correspondence can have on the deceased person's relatives, and apologises unreservedly for any distress that this has caused.

These situations, although rare, are deeply regrettable and at all times the Department of Social Protection strives to ensure that this does not happen. However, there is always a risk that, inadvertently, correspondence will issue to a deceased person, given the very large numbers of customers and complex payment systems needed to service their requirements. Where this arises and where it is brought to the Department's attention and there is sufficient detail, the Department will immediately apologise. Indeed, the Minister for Social Protection has also written personally to the deceased person's relatives to explain the circumstances and apologise for any distress which might have been caused.

Given the scale of the Department's operations it is impossible to safeguard fully against this type of occurrence. In 2012 for instance, 2.3 million people benefited from payments from the Department through 70 separate income support schemes. There were 2 million applications for benefits processed, with 87 million payments being made. The Department also undertook 1 million control reviews of entitlement. All of this work involves direct communication with customers. There is a risk that in some instances, the Department is not fully up to date with an individual's status and the customer will be deceased. For example, some of the routine review and control work which is undertaken, particularly on schemes for older people, actually requires that customers are written to in order to ensure that they have all their entitlements. Such exercises are also designed to establish that the customer is still alive and to try to prevent situations of continuing encashment of payments after the customer, who had legitimate entitlement, is deceased.

I understand that the particular project to which the Senator refers was being carried out in preparation for the transition to the new free travel variant of the public services card. It entailed reviewing around 8,500 cases where it appeared from the Department's systems that the free travel entitlement for certain clients had ceased. That is to say, on checking all available Department payment systems, the customer was not on a qualifying scheme and had not an underlying entitlement to free travel. In this specific exercise, it appears that correspondence was sent in error in respect of a very small number of deceased persons.

The Department of Social Protection now relies heavily on the register of deaths in the General Register Office. However, the computerised register of deaths only came into existence in 2003. The data is downloaded every night from the GRO and then runs against their systems. Where the system finds a direct match the payment systems are updated accordingly. Partial matches are referred to the data quality management unit in the Department for further follow up. I know the Senator will appreciate that this follow up work, of its nature, is difficult and can also be very sensitive.

However, it is important to note that in the following circumstances, and while accessing the GRO information, the Department might still not be aware that a customer is deceased if the death occurred prior to computerisation of the register in 2003, or had not been registered, or had occurred abroad, including in Northern Ireland. In addition, the system would not pick up that death had occurred if incorrect information was provided at the time of registration of the death, or if forenames or surnames were different in format to that used by the customer when applying to the Department under a particular scheme.

Finally, the Minister wants me to assure the Senator that the Department does all that is reasonably possible to try to minimise such occurrences and it is regrettable when they do occur. Protocols are continually being reviewed to ensure that such unfortunate instances are minimised. Again, the Minister apologises most sincerely for any distress which such occurrences have caused to the relatives.

6:55 pm

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. I acknowledge that the Minister is sincere in her endeavours in this area. The point of this matter on the Adjournment is that decisive action is required at the time of the issue of a death certificate. There needs to be very strict protocols so that as soon as a death certificate is issued, the Department of Social Protection is informed immediately and all sections are made aware of the deceased person's name, address and PPS, in order that no further correspondence be issued to the person.

I do not think anybody has a problem with correspondence that would issue within a week of somebody passing away, or even a month. However, it is understandable that people would be distressed to receive correspondence 11 years after somebody's death from a Department about an entitlement. I know that the Minister is not directly responsible for this, but there is a moral requirement on everybody, particularly those in Departments who issue correspondence, such as the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Revenue Commissioners, to ensure that we are not writing to people who are deceased. I again thank the Minister of State for his reply and I know he is genuine about this and understands why I tabled this Adjournment matter.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I appreciate everything he said and I will bring his comments directly to the attention of the Minister. I apologise once again on behalf of the Minister and the Department for what happened. We will ensure that every effort will be made so that it never happens again.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 December 2013.