Seanad debates

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Commencement Matters

Social Welfare Benefits

10:50 am

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys. I will keep it short and sweet because the issue I wish to raise speaks for itself.

I tabled this matter because I know of a person who was transferred from illness benefit to invalidity benefit when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, MS. The day she was transferred a social welfare officer visited her at home. She got the letter about the visit a couple of days before and was in a state of distress because she did not know what she had done wrong and why a social welfare officer was visiting her. She had been on and off illness benefit while she waited for the final diagnosis. When her illness was diagnosed she could no longer work. She had never applied for a qualified adult dependant allowance. There was no reason for a social welfare officer to visit her, or for her to have her bank statements ready when the officer called. She was so worked up that her husband took a day off work to be with her when the social welfare officer came.

The social welfare officer did not arrive on the day named in the letter. The client's husband wasted a day’s holiday from work waiting for her. She arrived unannounced the following day saying it was an administrative error and that whoever sent the letter out had got the date wrong. The woman explained that she had not applied for a qualified adult dependant allowance and could not see the reason for the visit. She told the social welfare officer she had just been approved for invalidity benefit. The meeting was short and sweet.

Following that she received a letter from the Department of Social Protection asking her to complete a survey, and asking about her savings, her income and whether she had an income when she applied for the benefit. The Department knew her circumstances because she also received a handwritten note from the social welfare officer saying she knew she had transferred to invalidity pension and asking her to complete the form in order to complete her claim and put it into the archives. The officer knew the client’s personal circumstances, when she wrote that letter, knew she was on benefit and that she had not applied for a qualified adult dependant allowance. Why did she pursue this matter and ask the woman about her savings and so on? Every time I ring the Department of Social Protection about the delay in some application or whatever I am told it is under pressure and there are not enough staff. If that is the case why are staff in the Department doing work that they do not have to do? Why do they not concentrate on the work they should be doing?

11:00 am

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Dublin South East, Labour)
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I apologise to the client for the administration error that meant the social welfare officer did not arrive on the stated day. It can be frustrating for people in those circumstances, especially when the client’s husband had taken the day off to be there with his wife.

I will explain in detail the background to the survey. The Department of Social Protection processes in excess of 2 million applications each year and makes payments to some 1.4 million people every week. The vast majority of people receive the correct entitlement.

In line with the Department's commitment to excellent customer service and value for money, surveys are carried out on a regular basis across all the Department’s schemes to ensure the right amount of money is being paid to the right person at the right time. This is an important part of the Department's compliance and anti-fraud strategy. The illness benefit survey raised by the Senator was one of these surveys.

The survey commenced in December 2014 with the random selection of 1,000 illness benefit customers. Each case selected is tested to ensure that it meets the conditions of entitlement for that scheme and is in receipt of the correct amounts. The survey involves a social welfare inspector making a home visit, the completion of a questionnaire and a deciding officer reviewing each case based on the findings of the social welfare inspector.

The survey questionnaire is designed to assist the deciding officer in determining if the customer actually received the correct entitlement for the duration of the claim. The illness benefit claim for the person concerned was one of the randomly selected survey cases. The claim papers and questionnaire were forwarded to the social welfare inspector on 8 December 2014 as the person concerned was in receipt of illness benefit at that time.

The social welfare inspector called to the home address on 6 January 2015 and was informed by the customer that she was no longer in receipt of illness benefit and has been awarded an invalidity pension. The social welfare inspector returned the papers to the illness benefit branch without completing the survey. However, as this survey concerned the person's entitlement to illness benefit it was necessary to follow up with a postal questionnaire to the customer.

While illness benefit is not subject to a means test, questions relating to income are asked to ensure the customer is in receipt of the correct entitlement in respect of qualified adult and or qualified child dependants. It is also important to establish if the customer's circumstances have changed since the commencement of the illness benefit claim. As the customer continues to be in receipt of a payment from the Department the survey file will be returned to the social welfare inspector for completion of the questionnaire. I assure the Senator that these surveys are carried out professionally and sensitively and in the best interests of the customer to ensure that the Department is paying the right amount of money to the right person at the right time.

It is a random selection of 1,000 people. A total of 1.4 million payments is made every week. Given that there are 2 million applications a week it is only right and fitting that the Department carry out those surveys to make sure there is equality of delivery. Only by checking on how we treat and deal with customers can we ensure the right money is paid at the right time to these individuals and ensure excellence within the service. When dealing with that number of people the message can sometimes be misconstrued but the intention is to make sure the person gets the right amount of money at the right time.

I thank the Senator. Her expertise in this area is well known around the House and many of us seek advice from her in that area. The service should be provided with respect for the customer. If the client was upset I apologise on the part of the Department. That was not the intention.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate what he says and agree that the Department has a responsibility to its clients. Is it not doing unnecessary work? This woman felt harassed. There must be something we can do to alleviate that feeling among people. People who claim illness benefit have paid pay related social insurance, PRSI, for their entitlements. This client was intimidated by the visit to the house when she had done nothing wrong. She had not been working so the officer could not have been inspecting that and she had not applied for a means test. What the Minister of State said should have been stated in the letter to explain the visit. I do not want to say the Department is wasting its time because there probably are some people who will benefit from such a visit but it is not explained properly and is intimidating to an ordinary country person drawing her illness benefit and trying to deal with her illness. She was very upset by the whole incident.

Does the Minister of State feel the Department is doing unnecessary work when, as he says, millions of people are applying every week for means-tested payments and the effort should be concentrated on them? In due course, when we reach a stage when all the means-tested applications have been dealt with, the Department might move on to a survey to see if everyone is receiving the right entitlement.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Dublin South East, Labour)
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The Senator makes an excellent point but we have to ensure we provide an excellent service. If we do not carry out those random surveys we have no idea whether the 1.4 million people receiving a payment every week are receiving the right payment at the right time. This is part of the testing of procedures.

I will take on board the Senator’s suggestion and will look at the letter sent out to the 1,000 clients. These surveys reveal glitches in the schemes that we can correct automatically. It is part of our customer service programme to highlight areas where the Department is not doing well.

If there is fraud within the system, that will be highlighted. In a number of cases, we were made aware that applicants were not receiving the correct payments because they filled out their applications wrongly in the first instance. The Senator has probably come across a number of people who did not apply for their full entitlements.

In the long term, surveys will improve the service we provide to the customer. Over the last four years numerous improvements have been made to our services, including reducing the length of time involved in processing applications. These surveys assist us in making such improvements. In the context of the 1.4 million people in receipt of benefits, 1,000 is a small sample size. I will investigate whether the wording of the letter to which the Senator referred is correct in terms of avoiding undue upset to applicants or individuals in receipt of payments. I thank her for highlighting the issue.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at noon.