Written Answers. - Pension Provisions.

Liz McManus

Question:

129 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the plans he has to repay lost pension arrears in view of the clear responsibilities of the State in this matter. [20485/00]

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

753 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if his attention has been brought to the contents of the June 1999 report of the Ombudsman entitled Lost Pension Arrears; the steps that he has taken to ensure that pension arrears due to people who did not claim them within the specified time set out by his Department will be paid in full; the steps taken to notify potential beneficiaries of their entitlements; the measures which he is contemplating in order to ensure the full restitution to such pen sioners of monies due to them following either contributions or entitlements enacted by successive governments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19738/00]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 129 and 753 together.

In recent years, the Ombudsman published two reports concerning the loss of pension arrears where pension claims were not made on time. The first report, published in March 1997, contained a number of general recommendations which were aimed at significantly improving the position of late pension claimants.

Arising from the recommendations made in that report, a number of changes were implemented which improved the position of pensioners who made late claims, including automatic back-dating up to 12 months of late pension claims and, where the claim was more than 12 months late, extension of the backdating period on a proportional basis. I also made provision for further payment up to the level of full retrospection where: the delay was due to incorrect information given by the Department, or where illness or aforce majeure prevented a person from claiming earlier, or where the person is suffering current financial hardship. These provisions applied to any contributory pension claims made on or after 1 January 1997.

For contributory pension claims made prior to 1 January 1997, arrears of up to six months pension are payable. I also provided in 1998 for payment of further arrears in these cases on a sliding scale.

To date, arrears totalling £9.4 million have been paid in 5,700 such cases. In notifying pensioners of payment of arrears, they are advised of the provisions under which full arrears of pension may be paid.

The Ombudsman's second report, published in June 1999, did not carry recommendations for further changes in the provisions affecting contributory pension applicants. The Ombudsman's report included the following comment:

The issue dealt with in this report represents an historical problem which, in the light of developments in 1997 and 1998, has now been significantly ameliorated.

The Ombudsman intends this report to mark the end of his Office's involvement with the general issue of lost arrears of contributory pension.

In relation to identifying cases where arrears of pension may be due, my Department has identified from its records people who were eligible for arrears payments under the changed provisions.

My Department has paid the appropriate arrears and, as necessary, advised people of the provisions under which full arrears could be paid. The Department is also conscious of the need to ensure that potential pension claimants are fully aware of their entitlements and of the importance of claiming them within the specified time. Information regarding such entitlements is available from any of my Department's local offices throughout the country as well as from the nationwide network of Citizen Information Centres and other outlets. All of the guidelines used by my Department's staff in processing claims are published on our Website www.dscfa.ie. Furthermore, in the ongoing development of my Department's computer systems, the feasibility of providing further provisions to notify potential claimants of their possible contributory entitlements in advance is being examined.
Earlier this year, I brought forward regulations which broadened the scope of the late claims provisions introduced in 1998 to most other social welfare schemes. I also introduced regulations to place on a statutory footing a scheme of compensation for delays by the Department in determining social welfare entitlements. Under these arrangements compensation is paid where a social welfare payment is not made within 12 months due to delay on the part of the Department in processing the claim.
I believe that the changes outlined above represent a comprehensive, equitable and flexible response to the issues which have arisen concerning delays in claiming social welfare entitlements on time.