Other Questions.

Financial Services Regulation.

David Stanton


35 Mr. Stanton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the Financial Regulator’s report (details supplied); his views on the findings; the reason for his delay in introducing new Money Advice and Budgeting Service legislation to combat the growing levels of personal debt here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15574/07]

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, provides assistance to people who are over-indebted and need help and advice in coping with debt problems. There are 53 independent companies nationwide operating the service. The credit union movement has been a key partner in MABS since its inception. Many local voluntary and statutory bodies, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the community welfare service, citizens information centres, centres for the unemployed and local authorities also work closely with the programme.

The issues that give rise to problems of over-indebtedness are highly complex. The cost and availability of credit for people on low incomes and the barriers they face in accessing mainstream and cheap forms of credit add to the difficulties people on low incomes encounter in managing their finances.

I am particularly concerned about the level of interest rates currently being charged by some financial institutions, loan companies and legal moneylenders in cases where people have no alternative source of credit available to them. My concerns in this regard are borne out by the Financial Regulator's report on the licensed moneylending industry, published last week. It shows that moneylenders may be charging interest rates of up to 188%. Most significantly, 71% of people surveyed did not know what interest they were paying on their loans.

I have held discussions with a number of interests, including the Irish League of Credit Unions, the Irish Bankers Federation and the Financial Regulator about these issues. The outcome of these consultations, the latest report of the Financial Regulator, together with the Combat Poverty Agency study, Financial Exclusion in Ireland, and the statistical data now emerging from the new MABSIS information system will make a significant contribution to our knowledge about the problems of debt in Ireland. These provide a solid evidence base on which to develop the strategies that need to be put in place by Government and the providers of payment services such as the banks and credit unions to promote greater financial inclusion in Ireland.

Proposals to establish the MABS on a statutory basis will be considered by the Government in the near future. My intention in this regard is to build on the best features of the MABS model of service to the public, combining a continuation of local voluntary involvement with strong national leadership to ensure a high quality consolidated MABS for the future. Measures to address concerns about excessive loan charges for people on low incomes are important in this context and the MABS could play an important role in this regard. Officials of my Department have been working closely with the Financial Regulator and the Department of Finance on the detailed arrangements that might be put in place to achieve this.

I also want to take account of best practice in corporate governance for a customer focused service that provides value for money for the taxpayers' investment and meets the challenges posed by the rapidly changing face of debt in 21st century Ireland.

I thank the Minister for his response. Is it true that his Department issued a press release on 12 May 2006, the same one on 18 September 2006 and the same again on 23 October 2006 in which the Minister is quoted to the effect that legislation would shortly be introduced to strengthen and streamline the money advice and budgeting service, MABS? That is almost a year ago and we have had at least three identical press releases from the Minister in different parts of the country saying that he is going to do this, and we have the same today. What is the reason for the delay? Why has the legislation not been introduced at this stage? Has the work been completed? Has the Minister brought proposals to Government or what has gone wrong?

As regards the Minister's meetings with the Irish League of Credit Unions, the Irish Bankers Federation and others, what specific actions may we expect eventually from some Department of Government on this issue? Does the Minister agree with the statement in the Financial Regulator's report, for instance, that 30% of borrowing is for clothes and household items, and not as he suggested in response to a previous parliamentary question I tabled, for luxury items? Many people are now being forced to go to licensed and unlicensed moneylenders to borrow money for day-to-day expenses. I asked the Minister before whether research had been done into why this is happening in an economy which the Government claims to be one of the strongest in the world. Given that there is enormous inequality in our society, with many people being forced to go to moneylenders, will the Minister not agree something is radically wrong?

I have held up the legislation because of the complexity of trying to get around this issue. The legislation allows moneylenders to charge up to 188%. The Financial Regulator's report on the licensed moneylending industry, published last week, shows that they charge this amount. The legislation allows them to charge even higher rates in certain circumstances. The report shows that 71% of people did not know what interest they were paying.

I took the time to get it right and the legislation is now completed and will shortly be considered by Government. What took the time were discussions with the Irish League of Credit Unions, the Irish Bankers Federation and the Financial Regulator. It was also necessary to have sight not only of the Financial Regulator's report, but that study in tandem with the Combat Poverty Agency study, Financial Exclusion in Ireland. I wanted to go through all that data to see what type of solution we could come up with. Obviously, it is not possible simply to introduce legislation to fix interest rates. That is a complex and difficult area involving the economy generally across the board, so that is not an easy option.

As I hinted in my reply, the model I looked at seeks to bring the expertise of the MABS organisation to bear on the whole area of licensing of moneylenders. That is the approach I am hoping to adopt in the legislation, giving MABS some input into that process. Owing to the complexity of the issues, however, it has taken longer than I thought. I believe the result is a good one. Whether it is I or someone else who will introduce the legislation, it is now on a very solid footing. It will make a real difference and will give MABS, which has frontline experience of poverty, direct involvement in interest rates on some basis yet to be determined.

On the Deputy's reference to luxury and clothing items, the view I expressed was based on what MABS, the Combat Poverty Agency, the Financial Regulator and the banks tell me, that the nature of credit is changing. There would not have been credit card debt ten or 15 years ago, but it is now a major feature. Some credit card debt is for motor cars and other items regarded in some ways as essential, which ten years ago would not have appeared on any list in the same way as would, say, clothing and food items. All the expertise indicates that the nature of credit is changing as expectations rise. The line between absolute poverty and lifestyle is becoming more blurred every day. That is based on all research. Some goods, which would have been regarded as lifestyle items in the past, are now included as poverty items. Regardless of this, our job is to try to make an impact on the problem. The different welfare and economic policies of the Government have made substantial progress on the poverty area in recent years.

Pension Provisions.

Dan Boyle


36 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when the Government’s Green Paper on the future of pensions here will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15385/07]

As the House is aware, the Government is committed to producing a Green Paper on pensions in accordance with the partnership agreement, Towards 2016. The Green Paper will be published when the Government has completed its considerations in this regard.

The preparation of the Green Paper follows a period of increased activity in the development of pensions policy, which has seen the publication of two major reports by the Pensions Board, National Pensions Review and Special Savings for Retirement. These two reports built on the earlier report of the board on the national pensions policy initiative, published in 1998.

The Green Paper will take account of these reports and examine the situation in a much broader way to deal with issues raised in the partnership talks, such as the operation of the funding standard for defined benefit schemes, together with a comprehensive look at issues surrounding social welfare pensions that arise from time to time in the House and in representations which I receive.

The purpose of the Green Paper is not to recommend any particular course of action but rather to set out clearly the current situation and the implications, from an economic and social perspective, of various courses of action that have been suggested. The Green Paper will set out the key issues and challenges facing the Irish pensions system, including the demographic challenge, issues in relation to the sustainability of the pensions system, pensioner incomes and the contribution various elements of the pension system can make to their adequacy, work flexibility in older age, the roles and relationships of social welfare and private occupational and public service pensions in the future, the role of tax incentives in the current system and their efficiency and effectiveness in supporting Government objectives in the area, the role of annuities and the operation of that market, and the role of regulation, including the charges levied by pension providers

Publication of the Green Paper will be the initial move in a series of measures that will culminate in the Government publishing a framework for long-term pensions policy.

The Minister, in the course of his reply, has managed to tell me the what, how and why, but not the when, which was the whole purpose of the question.

Well spotted.

He seems to have given a more fulsome reply to the question I asked in an earlier response to Deputy Penrose when he appeared to indicate that the Green Paper is completed and is before Government for consideration. Perhaps he will confirm that in a subsequent answer. If that is the case, does the Minister envisage early publication of the Green Paper? Given the Dáil is in its death throes, it may be inadvisable to publish it during a general election campaign. The Green Paper should be considered by the House in a proper and procedural way. What are the Government's plans in this regard?

The Green Paper on pensions is before the Cabinet and consideration is being given to its publication date. We have not yet completed our full consideration of the document but it is a fine work and will add enormously to the debate on pensions. It is a matter of judgment as to whether such a document should be published in the current political climate. I did respond to a request from Deputy Stanton on the publication date for the carers' strategy and subsequently cancelled it at his request. I am not saying I will do likewise with the Green Paper on pensions but I will give some consideration in the days ahead as to whether it might be wiser not to introduce such a document into a political campaign.

I have always maintained the pensions debate is an intergenerational issue that should not be mired in political controversy. I want a mature discussion on pensions so as to ensure people are entitled to a decent income in their older age. I am taking these matters into consideration as to whether the document should be published in the near future or left to another time.

Social Insurance Fund.

Willie Penrose


37 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the surplus in the social insurance fund for each year from 2002; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15185/07]

The social insurance fund derives its income mainly from pay-related social insurance contributions from both employers and employees. It provides insured contributors with both long-term pension benefits and short-term benefits such as unemployment and disability payments.

The cumulative surplus in the social insurance fund since 2002 was €1.273 billion in 2002, €1.529 billion in 2003, €1.906 billion in 2004, €2.4 billion in 2005 and, provisionally, €3.070 billion in 2007. This increasing cumulative surplus in the fund is the continuation of a trend which commenced in 1997 when a surplus arose for the first time since the fund was established in 1953.

In the previous 44 years, there was a shortfall between the amount of income received into the fund and the amount of expenditure paid out of it. This was made up by an Exchequer subvention in each year, as provided for under the Social Welfare Acts.

The Acts also provide for the investment of the amount of the surplus arising in the fund. The investment account of the fund is managed by the National Treasury Management Agency, subject to guidelines issued by the Minister for Finance. The total amount of interest received on investment since the fund came into surplus in 1997 is €329 million.

The proposal to reduce PRSI contributions from 4% to 2% could lead to a shortfall of €645 million. With this shortfall, if the surplus stands at €3 billion, it will only take five years for it to disappear. All parties are committed to increasing the old age pension to €300 per week. Could the situation emerge that the Exchequer will have to pay between €800 million and €1 billion into the social insurance fund? Is the Minister concerned that the surplus will dissipate? Steps were taken to ensure it would not be raided by Governments. Workers rightfully point out they have paid for their pensions and are entitled to them. It behoves us all to ensure the moneys in the social insurance fund are protected and that the current trend of using the surplus is continued, so as to provide further increases and widen the scope of payments.

Does the Minister know the ratio for workers contributing PRSI to pensioners receiving payments? That is an important statistic and one upon which all pension policy must be predicated.

There are 2.8 million contributors to the social insurance fund. Expenditure in 2005 was €5.6 billion, a substantial part of which went to pensioners and the income to the fund was €6.1 billion. Employment is strong and income from employment is growing. The review before the Government examines it from 2006 to 2061, a long-term financial economic strategic review. In the short term, the fund is likely to be very sustainable. However, as demographics change and we head from a 4:1 to a 2:1 worker to pensioner ratio in the next 50 years, the costs of pensions will grow substantially. That is why the Green Paper will assist in the debate on pensions.

For example, there is a commitment to increase the State contributory pension to €300 a week. That will cost approximately €1.5 billion. Proposed increases in other social welfare payments will bring the cost to €2 billion in a full year. The social insurance fund must be maintained in a healthy position. For 40 years it was in deficit but in the past decade it has been in surplus. It is the Government's intention that it will remain so. Any policy decisions which affect the fund's surplus must be made up by the Exchequer. Undeniably, there will be pressures on the fund in the long term.

The Taoiseach has proposed a reduction in PRSI contributions from 4% to 2%. If this leads to a deficit in the social insurance fund, will the Exchequer reimburse it?

The legal requirement is that if the fund is in deficit, it must be reimbursed by the Exchequer. This side of the House has committed to reducing the PRSI contribution from 4% to 2%. If this policy decision affects the fund, it is open to the Government to reimburse the fund directly for the amount involved.

Is the Minister saying that will happen?

That can be considered. It is not intended the fund will go into deficit as a result of this policy.

The Minister implied it might.

When we get the study, which will show us the outlook for the fund in the years ahead, we will have a better view as to the likelihood of it going into deficit. I certainly do not envisage that in the short, or medium, term but it is a possibility in the long term given the demographic pressures on the fund. I wish to reassure the House that any proposals which would affect the fund or put it into deficit must, legally, be made up by the Exchequer for the taxpayer. Taxpayers have paid this PRSI for a long time. PRSI is a tax on work which is why we are determined to try to reduce it and give people more take home pay.

Is there not a contradiction in what the Minister said? He said he is trying to maintain a social insurance fund and yet reduce the inputs to it. It seems utterly nonsensical. The Minister will have an opportunity to try to explain that in the coming weeks. Despite asking for it repeatedly, information on the cumulative deficit in the social insurance fund since its inception to 1997 has never been supplied to this House. It would be very helpful if that information was supplied. How many billions of euro did the State have to put into this fund until it went into surplus in 1997?

Some €5 billion for the 40 or so years.

The cumulative deficit is far less than the surplus in the past ten years. The State has been more than compensated for having to add to this fund. In reality, the fund has been in surplus since its inception because of the surpluses over the past ten years alone. Is that what the Minister is saying?

The fund was in deficit from 1953 to 1996 at which point the cumulative deficit came to €5.4 billion. Over those years that €5.4 billion was made up by the Exchequer.

Will the Minister explain his or his party's policy proposal in regard to reducing the inputs to the fund regardless of employment in the economy and how that is meant to maintain the existing surpluses in this fund?

This is like trying to square a circle. If the Minister is trying to maintain the surplus under which the social insurance fund operates, that is a very laudable objective. However, the proposal is to decrease the amount of money going into the fund by €645 million per year based on current projections. How can one square that circle while, at the same time, the ratio of PRSI payers to pensioners is falling from 4:1 to 2:1? Fewer people will contribute to the fund, although more money will go out because we are committed to giving more money to pensioners and to other payments, and rightly so.

The Minister said that will cost approximately €2 billion. An additional €2 billion will go out while €645 million less will go into the fund. How will we maintain the fund in surplus? Did the 2002 report on the Minister's desk tell us not to decrease PRSI contributions but to increase them?

I agree with the Minister who said PRSI is a tax on work. However, there is no use deceiving workers because we will tax them in order to make up the shortfall in the social insurance fund. We had better tell the truth.

It is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It is worse than robbing Peter; one is robbing Paul as well.

There is a cost. If one proposes to reduce PRSI from 4% to 2%, which is a tax on people who pay their taxes and for which they have been paying through the nose for a long time, it will cost money. That will come from the general pool of taxation. That is from where any deficit in the fund must be made up. The taxpayer will pay for a proposal to reduce PRSI from 4% to 2%. I invite the parties opposite to accept that policy because we are talking about a generation of people paying substantial PRSI who now have the opportunity to see the tax on the work they do reduced and spread more evenly because, obviously, the 2% will apply to people on the higher rate, which has not been mentioned until now. More people will pay. As the economy expands, presumably more will come into the fund. It is time we gave back some of the PRSI to hard pressed wage earners. That is what the Government unapologetically proposes to put before the people in the coming general election.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Liz McManus


38 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when he will complete his consideration of the proposed new package of reforms of State aid for lone parents; when he will bring forward specific proposals; if such proposals will be included in his budget package; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15200/07]

The Government discussion paper, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, put forward proposals for the expanded availability and range of education and training opportunities for lone parents; the extension of the national employment action plan to focus on lone parents; focused provision of child care; improved information services for lone parents; and the introduction of a new social assistance payment for low income families with young children. The paper also proposed the abolition of the cohabitation rule as a condition for receipt of the proposed social assistance payment.

One of the proposals in the report was that the upper income limit for the new social assistance payment should be set at €400 per week. In budget 2006, I increased the upper income limits on the one parent family payment from €293 to €375 per week. In budget 2007, I completed this element of the proposal by increasing the upper income limit for the one parent family payment to €400 per week thus meeting the proposals in the Green Paper.

In addition, the report recommended increasing the qualified child increase for recipients of the one parent family payment. In budget 2007, the three rates of qualified child increase, which had been maintained at the same levels for a number of years, were combined into a single rate of €22 per week in respect of over 340,000 children of welfare families.

The new social assistance payment, under development in my Department, will have the long-term aim of assisting people to achieve financial independence through supporting them to enter employment — the avenue that is widely agreed to offer the best route out of poverty.

Any proposed new payment can only be introduced when the necessary co-ordinated supports and services are put in place by other Departments and agencies. That is why the Government has instructed the senior officials group on social inclusion to draw up an implementation plan to progress the non-income recommendations in tandem with the development of the legislation required in my Department to introduce a new payment scheme. Work on the development of this implementation plan is continuing. Issues, including access to child care support, education, training and activation measures continue to be discussed with the relevant Departments and agencies.

To further develop the process, my Department, with the co-operation of FÁS, the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for children and the Department of Education and Science, are to test the proposals in both an urban and rural setting. These tests will focus on identifying and resolving the practical and administrative issues that may arise in advance of the scheme being introduced. This will allow for operational and logistical co-ordination between the relevant Departments and agencies to be considered and will facilitate the development of the new scheme as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He used to issue a statement on lone parents every month but, in fairness to him, he has followed through on it and we had the Government's discussion paper, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, and the Farmleigh discussions. It is still of concern to many people and to lone parents in particular. The Minister's inspectors are still very vigilant in checking to see who is cohabiting and there seems to be a focus on this issue. The quicker the cohabitation rule is established, the better, so that the neutral family situation as advocated by the Minister can be adopted. The success of this scheme depends on a number of factors, one of which is that there should be a proper forum in which lone parents can meet all the NGOs and groups so that the various issues can be dealt with. Many poverty traps have been created and the advent of a particular policy initiative in one area may well lead to another unanticipated poverty trap being set up in another area. It is time to set up a consultative forum for all the relevant interests. The Farmleigh meeting was a response to the discussion document but interest groups will wish to make submissions.

It is important the integration process is firmly embedded otherwise it will fall flat on its face. It will be necessary for FÁS, the Office of the Minister for Children, the Department of Education and Science and the Minister's Department to work in a properly joined-up way and not just in a haphazard, ad hoc manner, using fire brigade-type action. These bodies must work in a unified and integrated way to ensure that all the steps are taken for child care. We all accept that the route out of poverty is by means of work but it must be quality work. Training and upskilling must be made available by FÁS within family-friendly hours, particularly for lone parents who might be under stress and worried about how to avail of the scheme. There is a significant amount of work to be done in this area. When will the programme be introduced on a pilot basis in urban and rural areas? How will the participants be selected? The quicker this problem is dealt with, the better. The Minister deserves some credit for progressing the discussion to date.

Some good progress was made when the limit was raised to €400 in the budget and this is in line with the document. The tests will be carried out in both an urban and a rural setting and they will be conducted by the Department of Social and Family Affairs with the co-operation of FÁS, the Office of the Minister for Children and the Department of Education and Science. The test will aim to target on a voluntary basis all new recipients of the one-parent family payment and qualified adult in the test area. The test is to focus on identifying and resolving the practical and administrative issues that may arise in advance of the new scheme being introduced. These include customer profiling, case management, IT development, data storage, interdepartmental agency linkages and outcome monitoring. Child care and other similar policy issues must also be taken into account by the group. Although take-up is likely to be low due to the necessary voluntary nature of the test, it will allow for operational and logistical co-ordination to be considered and developed.

The Deputy has expressed to me many times his concern that in any reforms, new poverty traps are not created and the implementation group will consider that carefully. Lone parents are not a homogeneous group; it includes widows and other people. Care must be taken not to create another problem when tackling this problem. The paper has been published and the Government has made it available for discussion. Some of its issues are controversial such as the activation issues which have yet to be decided. A five-year transition period is proposed. We can now move away from the lone parent's allowance to a fairer family-friendly allowance based on children who live in low income families as opposed to the marital or other status of the family.

Are the pilot tests scheduled to take place in the autumn? Will these trials in urban and rural settings take months or weeks? Is it the intention of the Department to withhold publication of the legislation in this area until those tests have been completed? What is the current state of the legislation? We were informed a month ago that it was at an advanced stage, which is some kind of code.

When is it expected the new payments scheme will be operational? Has the working group with representatives from the main agencies been established yet? Which groups will be involved in the working group? Will extra facilitators be employed to deal with demands from lone parents? Does the Minister envisage the legislation will cover all aspects of the proposals, including the removal of the cohabitation rule? Will lone parents be included in the NEAP?

The Government has instructed a senior officials group on social inclusion, which has been established, to draw up an implementation plan. It will consider issues such as child care, education, training and activation measures and will discuss co-operation with various agencies. One of the key points made by the lone parents' groups was that while they were broadly supportive of these changes they wanted the other parallel issues such as child care and education and training to be brought along in tandem. I took their point and that is the reason the senior officials group is beginning this work immediately.

The tests will commence later in the year and I imagine a couple of months should be sufficient time to run those tests. I envisage legislation on this matter will come before the House next year. This will depend on the will of the holder of this office and the Government of the day. I believe these proposals are sufficiently well founded and have a wide degree of public support so that whoever has the honour to hold this post will drive forward with these proposals. Additional facilitators will be provided if they are required and they can be redeployed from other parts of the system rather than recruited directly. We will ensure that the facilitation process is fully supported. The ending of the cohabitation rule is at the heart of the proposals. The legislation is in draft form and all the major proposals in the discussion document have been translated into draft sections of a Bill that is awaiting the Government's decision to introduce it and that will only happen following these tests and following the completion of the work of the senior officials.

Deputy Gormley's Question No. 73 is similar. The Minister proposes to establish pilot projects. Will he acknowledge the lack of ongoing social policy-making within his Department? We are asking him to describe the problems and we are making suggestions as to the solutions and tentatively putting toes in the water as to whether those solutions would work. There should be a better system in place which includes ongoing research because agencies exist that are supposed to engage in such research. Is there information in the system on lone parent families?

One thing I have learned in this Department is that it must have a strong policy content at its core.

One of my first statements to the House was to the effect that I did not want the Department of Social and Family Affairs to merely be an administrative Department responsible for paying out funds and acting as a form of social ATM. I am trying to move it on a daily basis towards a point where policy considerations relating to carers, lone parents, travel, etc., will be at the centre of the decisions we take. We try to pursue a social agenda which helps people build better lives for themselves.

I am of the opinion that the Department must continue to have a strong social policy philosophy and objective at its core. It must not increase allowances willy-nilly simply because that is the way it has always been done. The Department must consider the reasoning behind allowances and how they assist people to move to better places. That is what I have tried to do in respect of pensions, lone parent's allowance, carer's allowance etc. It is important that we continue to operate in this manner.

The Deputy is correct that there are many research facilities available to the Department. Many very fine Government and voluntary organisations provide research on a timely basis. Research-based decisions are critically and continually important for a Department which is as vital to the lives of so many people as is the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

Departmental Surveys.

Richard Bruton


39 Mr. Bruton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the details of any customer service survey which his Department conducted in 2006 or to date in 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15312/07]

My Department is committed to providing a quality customer service to all its customers and to ensuring continuous improvements in the standard of service we provide. As part of this commitment, my Department carries out a variety of customer surveys to establish the level of customer satisfaction and to identify where improvements can be made.

Every five years my Department commissions an external company to carry out a national independent survey of customer service satisfaction. In 2006 the results of the most recent national customer survey, Consulting with our Customers, were published. This survey, which was carried out by Millward Brown, IMS, was designed to obtain feedback from customers about a wide range of service issues, including overall service delivery, claim processing, information delivery, communications, office facilities and payment methods. The survey involved a sample of 1,018 customers, representative of a number of customer groups such as people with disabilities, pensioners, lone parents, people who are unemployed and carers. The results of this survey were very positive and indicated high levels of satisfaction among our customers — with 88% expressing overall satisfaction with the service provided by my Department — were reported.

In addition to the national survey, two customer surveys were carried out during 2006, one in respect of child benefit and the other in relation to the medical review and assessment, MRA, service. The child benefit survey involved a sample of 960 customers and revealed that 87% of customers were either very satisfied or satisfied with the overall service received, 3% were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied and 5% had no comment.

The Department undertook a major review of the MRA services in 2006. As part of this review, a survey of people referred for medical examination was conducted. The survey involved a sample of 660 customers. The questions were designed to elicit information in respect of customer satisfaction with the medical assessment process and our medical assessors. In addition, information was obtained regarding the quality of service provided by the MRA section of my Department. This survey revealed that 83% of customers felt the quality of service provided was good, very good or excellent, with 17% rating it as poor or fair. In addition, 95% rated the overall service provided by medical assessors as good, very good or excellent.

The carrying out of customer surveys is just one of the methods used by my Department to gauge its performance and to identify how a better service can be delivered to our customers. The principal feedback we receive is from our daily contact with customers. A formal comment and complaint system, which allows customers to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with services, provides us with direct information about customer satisfaction levels.

Given the extent of my Department's contact with the public, the scale of its services and the wide range of schemes it operates, the delivery of a good customer service is paramount. I and my Department strive to continue to enhance our services to meet our customers' needs. I acknowledge the role of public representatives in providing us with feedback on the service. Such feedback is extremely important to the Department.

What percentage of the Department's premises are accessible to people with disabilities? It has been suggested that forms used by the Department in respect of carer's allowance and family income supplement, FIS, are a disincentive because they are so long and detailed. Has the Department conducted any customer surveys in respect of this matter? How many local branch officers are there and how many have access to touch screen surveys? The low uptake of FIS and back to school clothing and footwear allowance has been estimated at 35%. Has research been carried out, from a customer satisfaction perspective, as to why that is the case?

The Department is undergoing a modernisation programme and is examining many of the forms it uses. The FIS form has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions, as have forms relating to disability benefits and allowances. Such forms are continually modernised and shortened, where possible. At the same time, however, we must also ensure that they can still be used to elicit proper information.

I do not have any information in my possession as regards access to touch screen surveys but I am sure I can procure it for the Deputy.

The feedback we get from our network of offices, the hourly contact we have with thousands of customers throughout the country and the intense relationship we have with public representatives of all hues keep the Department in touch with the need to improve the forms it uses and the information it provides. The House recently passed the Citizens Information Act, which establishes a new approach to and focus on the provision of information through the Citizens Information Board. In my view, this will all contribute to a better service to the public.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.