I thank the Minister for taking this issue. I know she has spoken on the matter a number of times already but this Topical Issue was deferred from a number of weeks ago before the Houses went into recess. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the Minister and I hope some clarification can be offered to those affected by the delays in processing the payment of illness benefit. For over two months now there have been major delays in the processing and payment of illness benefit to people across the country. I have been contacted every day by constituents in Donegal genuinely upset by the disruption to their payment. One can imagine what they were thinking when suddenly no money was coming to their account.
This payment is granted to people unable to work and it is a very important income source for many affected by disabilities of varying degrees. As an income source the money is used to pay typical bills, including rent, mortgages and utilities. One can imagine the chaos that ensued when somebody's main income source suddenly dried up and the person was left to find alternative income. That is exactly what happened. Most people were getting staggered payments of a little here and there but some were not getting any payments whatever with no clarification or warning from the Department. Some constituents who contacted me only found out about this when direct debits and standing orders were not successful and overdraft fees were charged. As a result, people have been forced to take out unnecessary loans or have had their credit rating compromised.
Attempts by people to contact the Department were in vain and many gave up trying, as they preferred to contact my office instead as they panicked about getting their payments restored. Staff in my office were unable to contact the Department and phone calls were continuously left unanswered. For that reason, I asked parliamentary questions of the Minister to see why our calls were not being answered. This is when we discovered the Department was switching to a new system. I have contacted the Department since and the Minister's office has been particularly helpful, allowing us to bypass the lengthy parliamentary questions process for the time being. I thank the Minister and her staff for that. I commend the staff on the support they have offered but we really should not have been in this position to begin with.
I understand the Minister made a commitment that last week would see the end to delays and the resolution of payment issues. However, we are still getting calls from people to say they are still only receiving partial payments. People whose payments were corrected recently have even been delayed again. How can that be possible? The most worrying aspect of this is that the recipients about which we contacted the Department were told they had already been paid when that was not the case. The Department has requested these individuals to provide a copy of their bank statement to prove they have not been paid, which is a completely unfair and unwarranted request. The Department should have to prove it paid the money rather than the other way around, as this is the fault of the Department rather than the recipient.
This matter has not yet been fully resolved and as a result of delays, people are in a compromised financial position. In effect, they are being penalised for something over which they had no control. No initial communication or warning was given to recipients that changes were being made to the system and we still do not understand how it caused such confusion and delays to payments. It is my duty to bring this matter to the Dáil as every week I still get people coming to my constituency offices in Donegal because they are not receiving their entitlement.
I take the opportunity to ask the following crucial questions, which I know are on everybody's minds. What caused this delay? Why was no communication made to recipients prior to changes being made and why was the response to the problems so slow? Why were Department staff not available and phone calls unanswered in the meantime? Most important, will the Department provide a stand-alone compensatory payment to all those affected who have been financially compromised as a direct result of the Department's mistakes?