Written Answers. - Departmental Correspondence.

Noel Ahern

Question:

768 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the procedure, system and resources used in his Department for replying to correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas; the staff numbers involved; if the numbers have been reduced since freedom of information requests were introduced; if staff were diverted to freedom of information cases; if a tracking or follow up system exists; if there is a rule or guideline for sending replies other than acknowledgements; the standard in this regard; the way in which it is monitored; his views on whether responding to requests from Oireachtas Members is an integral part of the democratic system; and if he has any proposals to improve this service. [20052/00]

My Department is committed to maintaining and improving the service provided to Members of the Oireachtas and see this as an integral part of the Department's customer service programme.

In this regard, my Department, in addition to providing a service through correspondence, has put dedicated telephone lines in place within the main administrative areas to deal with queries from Members of the Oireachtas.

The procedure for dealing with correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas is that all letters are acknowledged by the office to which they are addressed. Replies then issue from these offices or from the line area concerned.

Each office ensures that replies to correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas is correctly handled by adherence to procedures contained in internal instructions which are subject to review and updating from time to time. Computerised systems are used for logging correspondence and for tracking and monitoring replies.

The business of the Department involves high volumes of claims, reviews and payments and there is inevitably a high volume of queries, whether by correspondence or otherwise, to be dealt with on an ongoing basis. Some of these queries can give rise to protracted inquiries. The standard of service is kept under review and a continuing effort is made to improve both the speed and the quality of service provided. Service standards have been set in the main areas of business as a way of monitoring the level of service and identifying the scope for improvement. The standard currently in place for replies to correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas is that 80% should be answered within three weeks. While in the current year it has not been possible to achieve this standard, every effort is being made to significantly improve current performance with a view to meeting the standard and, if possible, exceeding it.
As dealing with correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas is an integral part of the work of staff who have a wide range of other duties, the staff numbers or staff time devoted to this element of the work is not available.
The staff resources in my Department devoted to processing and responding to requests from Members of the Oireachtas have not been reduced nor have they been diverted following the introduction of freedom of information legislation.