Adjournment Debate - Social Welfare Payments.

I am sorry I had to bring the Minister back this evening but it is very important that the Department of Social Welfare should work efficiently. That Department have a grave responsibility to ensure that they are working efficiently and that people are paid their benefits when they are due. Inefficiency in that Department hits at the most vulnerable section of our community. The under-privileged feel the pinch when their benefits are not paid on time.

I raised this matter on the Adjournment because I believe the service from that Department has deteriorated dramatically over the last three years, but particularly since the postal strike. During that strike people did not get their payments on time and hardship was caused and I am afraid the slack has not been taken up. During a debate in this House on 6 and 7 May last, when the subject of the payment of social welfare was debated, the Minister gave certain commitments which he has not lived up to. I want to remind him of a few of these commitments tonight.

Social welfare recipients, no matter what benefits they are paid — whether it is unemployment or social welfare benefits, old age pension and so on — are entitled to what they are getting. They do not go cap in hand to anybody and they should not be treated as second-class citizens. They are meant to feel this when their benefits are not paid on time and they have to approach public representatives to get their entitlements for them. This should be avoided at all costs.

I do not accept, nor do I want the Minister to tell me, that there is a very large volume of social welfare recipients and that he will deal with this on a percentage basis. I do not want to hear about percentages because every person who does not receive his benefit is one too many. It should be the aim of the Minister to bring about a situation where benefits will be paid on time.

I want to refer particularly to a few glaring cases where attention is needed. This year we had an unfortunate delay in the issue of old age pension books. Every public representative was inundated with requests to get on to the Department and get the pension books released. These people depend on these payments and they were left stranded.

I also want to refer to the delay in getting decisions for unemployment benefit from the relevant section of the Department. This area needs to be looked at very closely. In my opinion people should get their benefits from the unemployment section in half the time it takes at present. During the week I had a case of a man whose unemployment benefit was stopped. He had worked eleven years and had not received unemployment benefit for many weeks because the Department said he was not looking for work. This is not the best time to be looking for work and I do not think a man should be thrown to the wolves and have his benefits withdrawn because he is not able to get work in the small community where he is looking for work.

I want to refer to the delay in the issue of children's allowances, particularly allowances to people who apply for additional children. My question, No. 23 on to-day's Order Paper referred to one of these cases. A girl applied for a book and went through the normal channels. She went to the post office on numerous occasions but it was not there. She wrote to the Department and went to the social welfare officer on a few occasions. He phoned the Department but still her book was not sent out. She then came to me and I put down a question about it.

These are not isolated cases. I get this type of case every week and if the Minister wants any information on the type or number of cases I get, I can furnish him with written details.

The situation in respect of deserted wife's allowances is also very unsatisfactory. Women are put under great pressure to give details of the efforts made to locate their husbands. This week I had the case of a woman whose husband deserted her in June last. She has been informed by the Department that an allowance will not be paid to her until such time as she furnishes sufficient evidence regarding her husband's desertion. This is a very harsh attitude for the Department to adopt especially towards people who may not have very much education and who are not in a position to correspond with the Department regarding their rights.

The worst complaint I have to make is in the area of disability benefit. The Department are failing to send disability benefit when it is due. This is an unfortunate situation especially when some of the people concerned have worked for up to 20 or 30 years. It leaves them cynical about the whole social welfare system. There are often delays of up to eight weeks between the time of application for benefit and the time of payment. This is not good enough. Hardly a day passes without my office having to contact the Department on behalf of people who have not received benefit despite having furnished their certificates of illness. The Minister should ensure that this situation is rectified. Perhaps if payment were made through the local employment office or from the health board offices, the problem would be resolved. I understand that it would be feasible for both these agencies to be involved in these payments. What is unfortunate about late payments is that some people go back to work before they are fit.

Another aspect of the Department that is very unsatisfactory is the whole problem of delays at the switchboard in answering calls. I raised this matter earlier this year and the Minister assured me then that improvements would be effected but I find usually on phoning the Department that the lines are engaged. If one is lucky enough to be answered after many efforts, one is often left waiting for up to 30 minutes in having a query dealt with. The situation is so bad that people in the unemployment exchanges are not prepared to phone the Department. The same applies to social welfare officers. The number of complaints about the Department, not only in regard to the switchboard situation but to the other areas that I have mentioned indicate the inefficiency of that Department. If it were run efficiently in the first place, there would be no need for all these phone calls. I appeal to the Minister to take the Department in hand, to ascertain the cause of the problems and to have them rectified. We do not like to have to come here and complain in this way about the situation but the people are entitled to their rights. If Members of this House or the officials did not receive their pay cheques at the end of the month there would be a good deal of noise. We must ensure that everybody else is looked after also.

At the outset I wish to refute the allegations of inefficiency in the Department. I am sure the Deputy would not wish me to refer to the number of payments that have to be dealt with each week but in the context of the complaints he has made, it is necessary to give this information in order to put the matter into perspective. The Department are bound under legislation to ensure in the interests of all of us that payments are made rightly. I appreciate the work done by the staff of the Department and to that extent I resent the allegations made against them, allegations that are without foundation.

Of course there will always be problem cases. The Deputy says that the greatest problem relates to the payment of sickness benefit but I would remind him that this is also the biggest headache for the Department's operations because each week a total of 1,300 people either furnish incorrect numbers or forget to furnish any number when making application. About 250 of those would be new claims. I appreciate that there are difficulties but I realise that in any system in which large numbers of people are being dealt with some difficulties will be experienced. However, I know that the staff of the Department work hard. I have put some special effort into that area since taking up office. In addition to the figures I have given, a further 250 applicants in respect of dental and optical benefits furnish incorrect information each week. Therefore, between sickness benefit and dental and optical benefit applications, a total of 1,550 each week are furnished incorrectly.

The Minister should do something about that.

We make every effort to inform people of the correct procedure. We do this by way of advertising and through the social services council. In relation to old age non-contributory pensions, the Deputy is aware that I did something specific in that area which had a fairly substantial effect. The step I took was welcomed greatly in the Department. To give an example of the improvement that occurred, of the 422 cases on hand in June last — that was before the change in respect of deeds of transfer — 295 had been dealt with by October; 41 were still with appeals and 66 with social welfare officers. In addition there has been a 10 per cent drop in the average number of letters received per week since 1 July as a result of the measure taken. The Deputy will know that one of the problems in this area was of a technical nature.

The Deputy mentioned also the question of telephones. There are between 70 and 80 lines into the Department and the pressure is very heavy. We have made arrangements with the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs to improve the situation but the improvements will necessitate a new switchboard and new equipment as well as very much improved telephone facilities.

The lines that are there are not being answered.

The Minister, without interruption.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. In relation to the other measures I would point out that, for instance, in respect of Christmas payments there is a novel measure this year that will be highly efficient in ensuring payment of the Christmas bonus on the due day. There are considerable improvements in organisational methods which I shall not go into in detail at this stage.

The Department have been through a difficult period during the past 18 months particularly because of a changeover to a totally computerised system. That has been effected to a large extent but much remains to be done and when completed will contribute greatly to the sort of situation that the Deputy would like to see, but there will still have to be the implementation of the law and of the decisions of appeals officers. There will still be the problem of people furnishing wrong numbers. The computer will not solve that.

In conclusion I assure the Deputy that I will seek to improve the efficiency of the Department in every way possible but I do not accept the allegations he has made.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 20 November 1980.