Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Illness Benefit Payments

Willie O'Dea

Question:

70. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to rectify issues relating to the payment of illness benefit; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46897/18]

John Brady

Question:

71. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the position regarding the payment issues experienced by persons in receipt of illness benefit; the actions she has taken to resolve these issues; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47049/18]

Willie Penrose

Question:

74. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of persons who have been impacted on by delays in the payment of illness benefit; her plans to address the matter; the number delayed; and the number of persons who have received supplementary welfare payments as a result of delays. [46896/18]

I raise this issue to seek answers on behalf of those who have been suffering stress, trauma and deprivation as a result of circumstances entirely outside their control but within the control of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 70, 71 and 74 together.

My Department has experienced significant difficulties in processing illness benefit payments in recent times which, regrettably, have impacted on people in a manner that has correctly been described as unacceptable. This is a matter of great concern to me and my Department. I am extremely disappointed and embarrassed by our failure to maintain the usually exceptionally high standard of service provided by the staff of the Department. The root of the difficulty lies in the transfer of the illness benefit scheme to our new core business objectives information technology, IT, platform on 4 August. The transfer had a number of objectives, including moving the illness benefit payments from a very old IT platform which is approaching end of life to a newer platform which already manages most of my Department’s other payment schemes. We wish to realise cost savings by eliminating the need for labour intensive data entry and enabling the re-use of existing data already on the business objectives platform. It was hoped that the transfer would facilitate, in due course, with the co-operation of general practitioners, GPs, the move from submission of paper medical certificates by people to one whereby an ecertificate is transmitted electronically from the GP to my Department and the move away from certification each week by a GP to a system whereby a single certificate is provided to cover the entire illness period. The system change worked effectively for approximately 80% of those who claim illness benefits but a several difficulties arose which affected payments to a significant number of people.

The redesign of the medical certificate enabled the forms to be scanned rather than manually entered into the system. However, approximately 50% of GP practices initially continued to submit old form medical certificates which led to long delays in claim processing on the new system in early August. The delays were overcome by the Department implementing an automatic certification process to ensure that people, including those whose GPs were not submitting the correct certificates, were paid. Although the process ensured that people received their payments, it resulted in approximately 15% of recipients receiving a split payment in the period from September to November. People who received split payments were not underpaid as a consequence of this approach; the total amount paid to them was in accordance with their entitlement. However, they did not expect the payment to be split. During this time, my Department deployed additional staff to process old form certificates received from GP practices. This allowed us to cease the auto-certification process in mid-October and the issue of split payments has since been largely resolved. Approximately 75% of medical certificates now being received are in the correct format and the remaining forms are being processed manually on the day they are received.

The removal of the auto-certification process has belatedly exposed some underlying deficiencies in the design and operation of the new illness benefit system. The main issue identified relates to the transition from a payment-in-arrears approach to a current-week payment approach, that is, from a system whereby people are paid their entitlement the week after the submission of a certificate to one whereby they are paid during the week of certification. This leaves very little tolerance for late receipt of certificates once a claim is in payment, which is causing significant uncertainty for people. The new system has very tightly defined rules which must be satisfied before a claim and a certificate can be accepted and processed. Although these rules are valid in principle, they are leading to payments being delayed for reasons that would not have been applied under the legacy system.My Department has taken three main steps to resolve these issues. We have deployed additional staff to process the tasks and respond to inquiries arising from the tight application of scheme rules by the new system. We have developed some new IT routines or work-arounds that, in effect, build in a seven-day buffer to address the payment gap issue and automate the processing of tasks to ensure a faster flow-through of payments. We are reviewing the design rules in the system, including the payment in the current week rule, and will modify the system to afford greater flexibility in processing of claims and certificates. In addition, my Department continues to engage with the medical profession regarding the implementation of e-certification and single closed certification. We hope that these measures will lead to an improved delivery of services. My Department has allocated additional managers to take responsibility for the programme of work I have set out. The management team includes a full-time assistant secretary and additional staff at principal, assistant principal and higher executive officer level. As a consequence of these measures, people who are due a payment and whose certificates and claims are in order should now receive their payment entitlements. Payment volumes were restored to normal levels last week and are being monitored on a daily basis to ensure that they remain at that level. Any further issues that may arise will be quickly identified and further remedial action may be taken to address them. It is important to note that there are always cases - and there were always such cases under the old system - of people’s payments being legitimately stopped or paused for a variety of reasons. Such issues will remain and are normally dealt with via our helpline number.In addition to the system issues, my Department sincerely acknowledges that it did not communicate effectively with people in advance of the new system coming into effect or in the immediate post-implementation period. Although my Secretary General wrote to all those in receipt of illness benefit some weeks ago to apologise for the difficulties they were experiencing and to advise of the supports available, I accept that communication was too little, too late and of limited comfort to those unduly distressed.Our experience with the illness benefit transfer has been a salutary reminder of the longer-term impact of short-term remedial actions. Such actions, even those taken with the best of intentions, may have unanticipated issues or failures and must be carefully thought through before implementation. In order to ensure that lessons are identified and learned from this experience, I and my Secretary General have commissioned an independent review of the project to be undertaken by a retired Revenue Commissioner. I expect that it will be delivered to me by the end of the year and its findings will inform our approach to future system and process changes. As I have stated, my Department sincerely regrets the distress it has caused to recipients of illness benefits in recent months and we will endeavour to ensure that nothing like this happens in our Department again.

I listened carefully to the Minister's reply and I appreciate it. However, we must bear in mind that much of her reply was couched in the past tense, as if the problem had now resolved itself. I could show the Minister the five messages I received on my mobile phone today in respect of this issue. My office has probably received many more. The problem has not yet been resolved. We must remember that this has been going on for three or four months. It began in August when the new form of medical certificates which require a significant amount of extra information were demanded out of the blue without any notice or consultation.

When that seemed to be about to be resolved, the software problem kicked in. We have to bear in mind that we are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in the country. They are too sick or too disabled to work. In the vast majority of cases, they depend entirely on social welfare from week to week. We have all heard various stories and received emails telling us about instances of hardship caused by this problem in individual cases. On behalf of all those people, I ask the Minister for an assurance that this will not recur. Is there any accountability here? I am not looking for a head or anything like that. Surely somebody in the Department made the decisions that gave rise to all this hardship, anguish and pain. Has anybody spoken to the officials in question to point out the error of their ways?

This has been an unmitigated mess. The sickest and most vulnerable people in the State are looking for their entitlements and benefits. They paid into the Social Insurance Fund in the hope that it would kick in as a safety net when most needed, but it failed them. I have heard the apology to people who have been messed up since August. They have been running from pillar to post in an attempt to get money to which they are entitled. There was a major failure in communications between the Department and the recipients. Some community welfare officers around the State were stepping in to give payments, but others were not. They claimed that people were not entitled to payments because they had received part-payments.

Accountability is the key issue here. I want to ask specifically about the consultants who rolled out this IT system. What accountability is there? The Minister did not act when I first identified and raised these issues in August. She has acknowledged that action was not taken until October, when three different things were implemented. Serious questions need to be answered in that respect. The Minister and the Department have said on a number of occasions that anyone who is entitled to money has received money, but that is clearly not the case. Two weeks ago, the Minister went on radio on a Friday to say that people would be paid, but that has not happened. At this moment in time, has everyone received the money to which they are entitled? In the cases of those who are due money from the Department, have underpayments been made? Can we have a figure? People are fearful about overpayments that took place when they received money they were not due. What measures are being put in place to deal with such serious concerns?

Politicians sometimes exaggerate to make a particular point. I will deliberately refrain from doing so. Instead, I will set out my point by reading from a letter that some of us have received from a person who continues to serve this country in a very important role. He speaks for everyone in the letter, which reads:

I am close to a complete breakdown due to a system which is clearly even more overrun than it was prior to the changes, changes which I am guessing were introduced in an effort to improve an already troubled setup, but which are a disaster. I would like to ask at this point if you may have been aware of these difficulties which many of the population of this country are faced with and, if so, if you might be willing or able to step in to attempt to rectify the endless and needless stresses which this puts on me and on my family and on many many others throughout the country. What will it take in order for our services and systems to stop pushing already struggling and suffering citizens to despair and desperation? Is it going to take an example like this on Joe Duffy to highlight the mess the system is in?

This person has paid his taxes and made his contributions. His case is a genuine one. When he asked for a bit of help from the system, he found he was entitled to nothing. It is an awful story. There is more to it. I cannot believe it.

People were left hanging on phones. How many additional people were asked to deal with this? I want to know whether the officials were in favour of this at all. Was there a big change in the Minister's Department? Was that part of the problem? We are talking about appointments of assistant secretaries general, etc. We left these people high and dry. This is an insurance-based system. People are entitled to their money. The Minister should not tell people to go down to the community welfare office, where means tests are used and people have to sit looking in. It is just not right. I have met people who are destitute. I think it is a disgrace. A system should not be changed like this ever again. Why was it changed at all? We should never change something that is doing all right. This is the first time I have ever got angry with the Minister. I think she is doing a good job but this was an utter failure. It is rare for me to use words like that. This was a shambles of the highest order.

I thank the Deputies. I am not standing here in front of anybody trying to justify any of the actions that happened over recent months. I have said on a number of occasions that this is particularly difficult to accept because an exemplary level of service is offered by people in the Department 99.9% of the time. That is why this debacle is so difficult to try to explain. I assure Deputy O'Dea that I am not talking in the past tense. We have issued over 50,000 payments in recent days. We have issued 29,000 payments this week alone, and it is only Tuesday afternoon. On average, we would have 50,000 people on illness benefit in any given week. That has been the average weekly tranche this year, last year and the year before and it will be the expected number of weekly payments next year.

All arrears have been paid. There may be cases in which arrears are still due. We are using the business-as-usual manual processing for some of the old forms. Anyone who is awaiting arrears from an old payment form will receive those arrears this week. There has been a significant reduction in the number of calls being made to our helpline arising from the changes that have been made in recent weeks. That is how I know that the vast majority of changes have been successful. The number of calls has returned to normal levels. I reiterate that there will always be cases in which people are refused illness payments because they are not entitled to such payments, because the medical certificate was not filled out correctly - the incorrect date may have been used, for example - or because a payment was missed. There will always be a small number of issues with some of the 50,000 payments that are made each week. That was true of the old system and it is true of the new system.

The first change that we made was made in August. It had to be made because just 50% of doctors were using the new form. I acknowledge and accept that this was our fault. There was a lack of communication with doctors. We have learned so much. It is probably the case that we have yet to identify things that we need to learn. I hope that will happen on foot of Revenue's independent audit. The only thing I can genuinely do is apologise sincerely to the people we have distressed over the last couple of months. It was never our intention to distress them. While we were trying to improve the system, we genuinely upset people. This was not our intention. We are going to make sure it does not happen again.

If the Minister assures me that the problem is fizzling out and most people are being accommodated, I will accept that. However, I am continuing to get a number of queries. The Department might be telling the Minister that all arrears are being paid, but that certainly does not tally with the information I am getting from my constituents. I accept that the Minister is not seeking to justify what happened. I accept that she does not stand over it. I would like to return to a question I asked earlier. Will anybody be held accountable, even in the sense of being spoken to or remonstrated with? If consultants were involved in the installation of this software, as has been suggested, what are the prospects that they will be employed by the Government again? Have they been spoken to? What about the officials who signed off on the new medical certificates last August without any notification or any advance notice to anybody?

The Minister has said that everyone has received the payments they are due. I have spoken to numerous people yesterday and today. One woman, who is a new applicant, told me yesterday that she has not received a payment for six weeks. I have spoken to another woman who was out sick and is actually back in work now, but has not yet received a payment. There are substantial issues in this area. Accountability is one such issue. I would love to see the remit or terms of reference that were given to the consultants who were involved in this process, particularly with regard to training. Certainly, the staff in the Department who were expected to administer and deal with this matter did not receive enough training. That is no reflection on the staff, who have been put under massive amounts of pressure because of the roll-out of this system, which seems to have been doomed from day one. The Secretary General told the committee that this IT platform is due to be rolled out for the one-parent family payment and for jobseekers' payments. The independent review will be critical.

I was given a commitment that the terms of reference of that independent review would be circulated. We need to get them but that review should be made public and scrutinised because lessons need to be learned from this. People have been affected unnecessarily and that must never happen again to anyone entitled to funding and a safety net from this State.

I think the Minister would agree that it is not acceptable for somebody to be left holding on for 90 minutes when they make a phone call. That is not good enough. There are staff in the Department who work very hard and I concur with the Minister because I saw them working there. If the Minister does not put enough people on to man or woman the lines – women do an awful lot of this good work – she is in trouble. That is a problem.

Surely the Minister is not intending to roll out this system for any further payments after this fiasco until this report comes clear and we get an opportunity to examine, scrutinise and invigilate it to ensure that the mess that was made of this is sorted out. Deputies Brady and O'Dea are correct, we are paying out many thousands of euro to consultants and everybody else when it might be better to allow the Department's people to work within their own system and make qualifications to ensure that it complies with modern day standards. I would be against any further roll out of this until this problem is sorted out.

I understood the terms of reference for the independent review were given to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. If they were not I will get them for Deputy Brady. There is no problem about sharing them. I am not doing the review to keep it a secret. We can all go back to the committee so that we can all learn effectively together. The most important reason for doing it is to learn why it went wrong and how we did or did not effectively respond to it so that I can ensure it does not happen again. When the report comes back to us I will be quite happy to go back to the committee and talk about it and to glean the Deputy's advice and suggestions.

In response to Deputy Penrose, we are going to move our other schemes from the old system to a new one because the old one is creaking and has been around for probably 40 or 50 years. It is on its last legs and needs to be moved to a new system. I can absolutely and categorically assure him that any plans we have are on hold until we learn from this particular roll out all of the lessons we need to learn to make sure this does not happen again.

In response to Deputy O'Dea, there is nothing wrong with the medical certificate because I know he thinks there is and that it caused the problem.

It was the way the system was changed suddenly and without any consultation.

There is nothing wrong with the new medical certificates.

I did not say there was.

The doctors who use the new medical certificates were among the 80% who were not affected. In effect, had the system gone the way it was supposed to go it would have worked but it gave rise to other anomalies that we did not recognise because of the changes we had to make in the response to people using the old medical systems. That is our fault, nobody else’s fault. The miscommunication is our fault. It is part of the learning process to make sure we improve our communications.

I recognise, as Deputy Brady says, that our staff were put under incredible pressure and that they told us that there were deficits in the training programmes given to them. I think the training was probably as good as it could have been but when people tell me it needed to be better I have to listen to that and take it on board.

In response to Deputy Penrose, approximately 1,000 calls come into the Department every day. That number went up to 12,000 a day. I do not know where I would have got the staff to turn around the kind of service that is given daily but I hear what he is saying.

If Deputy Brady knows a lady who has not received a payment for six weeks this is not why she has not received it. If the Deputy gives me her details and personal public services number, PPSN, I will resolve that issue today.

Social Welfare Benefits

Willie O'Dea

Question:

72. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to establish a separate agency to claim maintenance on behalf of lone parents; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46898/18]

As the Deputy is aware from previous questions on this matter, the Department is working on a review of the maintenance and liable relative procedures, insofar as they relate to the payment schemes operated by my Department. From a broader perspective, the wider issues relating to maintenance, including the establishment of a child maintenance service to assist lone parents, are a matter for my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who has responsibility for the family law Acts, which govern maintenance requirements.

The family law Acts place a legal obligation on parents to maintain their children. In cases where the family unit has broken down, these obligations continue to apply. Relevant maintenance payments can be arranged either directly between the parties themselves, or with the assistance of supports from the Department of Justice and Equality, such as the family mediation service and the Legal Aid Board, or ultimately through the courts.

With regard to the work within the Department, the preliminary stages of the internal review have now concluded. My officials now intend meeting with the Department of Justice and Equality, with a view to ascertaining its views and to considering jointly the next steps in relation to family maintenance arrangements. A meeting has been scheduled for later this month.

Is there not a maintenance recovery unit in the Department which applies only to lone parents whose child is younger than seven years? Why has that not been extended in tandem with the changes in the lone parent allowance regulations? When the child is older than seven years the lone parent gets a different type of payment, jobseeker's transition, as opposed to lone parent allowance but there seems to be no logical reason why that system does not apply equally to somebody who is in the jobseeker's transition on the basis that they are a single parent.

I kind of tend to agree with the Deputy but I am not sure whether we should expand or do away with it. I am not sure it is our job in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to chase errant parents. It is definitely somebody's job but I am totally against penalising women, as they are in the main, for not chasing the errant partner to look after their children. I have several ideas as to what should happen if the world was perfect but some of them fall under my remit and some do not. That is what will be discussed at the meeting later this month. Once that meeting has been held we can maybe have a further conversation about what might be most suitable.

It is not just a question of the Department chasing errant parents but of combatting poverty. The poverty statistics among lone parents, as the Minister is aware, are particularly stark. In many cases somebody is not in a position to go to court because their partner is violent. Even when they do go to court and do not get paid the Department tends to assess them for maintenance which the court has granted but which they are not being paid.

If that has changed the change must have been very recent because as far as I can see it is still the position. If somebody is in that situation they will not want to take the risk of getting an order for maintenance which they feel sure is not going to be paid and having it assessed against any lone parent allowance they will get.

The lone parent allowance will not make anybody rich and in its current form it will not do much to combat the levels of poverty among single parents but if they were able to get maintenance in addition it would certainly combat poverty in an area where it is particularly prevalent.

Whether we expand or downgrade our liable relatives division has no impact on a parent's poverty whatsoever because the payment issued to the parent is done on the basis of that parent's circumstances. If they get maintenance there is a very generous maintenance disregard. If they do not get maintenance it is not included in our assessment. They do not get it and we compensate for the fact that they do not get it. That is as it should be. The Department is here to look after people in vulnerable positions. If they get money towards maintenance they get a generous disregard. If they do not get money it is up to the State to ensure that family has a minimum standard of living.

I need to square the circle of whether it is the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's legal responsibility to chase errant parents or that of some other arm of the State, or maybe a collective authority from the Department of Justice and Equality and our Department. Until I figure that out, I am not going to put any woman, and it is in the main women, in the vulnerable position of having to chase somebody so that she can qualify for a payment from our Department. That is not the way it should be and that is not the way it is now.

JobPath Data

John Brady

Question:

73. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the reason persons are being referred to JobPath for a second time having already completed the scheme in full; the number of persons that have been referred for a second time; the associated costs involved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47050/18]

Why are people being referred to JobPath for a second time having already completed the scheme in full? How many people have been referred? How much did that cost?

JobPath is one of our more successful activation services. It supports the long-term unemployed in securing and sustaining full-time paid employment. Jobseekers are referred to the service by means of a selection process.

A person who has previously completed a year with JobPath is referred back to an Intreo case officer. This is in-house, so to speak. If after six months, he or she has not found sustainable employment or is not engaged in education, training or with any other employment support we offer, he or she may be randomly reselected to go back on JobPath. Jobseekers referred for a second time will start working again with a personal adviser, who will review their development during their previous time with the service. Together they will prepare a new personal progression plan to build on that progress. The actions and tasks agreed will be based on their previous engagement, with particular focus on the identified barriers that prevented them from moving into full-time suitable employment during the first 12-month stint.

Since 2015, more than 193,000 jobseekers have engaged with JobPath. Of these, 15,000 have been referred to the service for a second time.

JobPath providers receive a registration fee each time they register a jobseeker for the service and the balance of their fees are paid subject to their clients achieving sustained full-time employment for a minimum of 13 weeks.

There is no separate costing structure for jobseekers who are referred to the service for a second time. The Department does not release details of fees paid to JobPath providers as these are commercially sensitive. To do so would place the State at a disadvantage both in terms of the contracts currently in place and, in particular, in any procurement that may be undertaken in this area.

Turas Nua and Seetec must be rubbing their hands together and laughing with glee. The Minister implied in her answer that they are getting paid a second time when people sign the personal progression plan. What is the figure for this? How much is being paid out for the 15,000 people referred for a second time?

What is the difference between the training in the first stint, which has not worked in finding jobs for the 15,000 people, and that in the second? I have spoken to many of those referred for a second time and they say they are doing the exact same a second time round, namely learning how to write a curriculum vitae and engaging in other meaningless tasks. There are being put in front of a computer and told to find themselves jobs. The service did not work the first time round and it certainly did not work the second time round. Could I have the figures? The argument about commercial sensitivity does not wash. The service is costing us millions of euro. Issues are clearly arising, and I have raised them with the Minister on many occasions.

The Deputy has an ideological problem with JobPath. To answer his question, it is interesting that the vast majority of representations I receive from Deputies ask me to intervene directly with people on community employment schemes for a number of years and who desperately want to stay on them for a number of years. It is one of our successful activation processes. A large number of members from the Deputy's party have asked me specifically to intervene to allow people to stay for longer periods in community employment and activation processes than would normally be allowed, yet he has a problem with what is probably the most successful activation scheme and process we have ever had.

They are very different. The Minister should not muddy the water between community employment and JobPath.

I am answering the Deputy's question. If he does not like the answer, that is fine. This is the most successful activation programme we have ever run in the history of this State, yet the Deputy has a problem with people getting a second chance to participate in it. He does not have a problem, however, with people getting a second chance on the community employment scheme or Tús, which is incredible.

The service works. The reason we send people back for a second time is that they want to do so. They want to work. Despite the recommendations or protestations of Sinn Féin, the people on the live register want to work and avail of the assistance of any arm of the State to secure a full-time job.

The Minister and I will probably never see eye to eye on the privatisation of the sector. The two companies are rubbing their hands together with glee. The Minister failed to answer the questions I put to her on the training given to a person referred for a second time round. There is no difference whatsoever between the training on the first occasion and the second?

Do the State and Department have a responsibility to continue to feed agreed numbers to the two companies until the contracts with them expire? The State is running out of people to feed this monster that it has created. The Department is obliged under contract to continue to feed the two companies. That is why the 15,000 people have been referred for a second time. I could show the Minister dozens of cases in which people do not want to be in the service for a second time. They feel their time is being wasted by being referred for a second time. The Minister is saying people want to participate but that is not true.

We have conducted an econometric review of the JobPath service in collaboration with the OECD so I can have factual data allowing me to have these kinds of conversations. Every time we have oral questions, Deputy Brady brings anecdotal evidence as to how desperately people are treated on JobPath, yet it is undoubtedly one of the most successful activation programmes we have had in the history of the State. I would love to say we are running out of people to put on JobPath. I am pleased that the number unemployed is under 200,000 but there are still 200,000 people in this country who have no work and who want to work and avail of the assistance of any arm of the State that will train them, give them education and experience and assist them in getting a full-time job. The Deputy is ideologically opposed to JobPath. He would rather see people on the ground living on €198 per week. That is what keeps him happy.

The individuals are in part-time work.

I have no idea why he feels that way. The people we are supporting are getting full-time jobs. I am thankful that the number unemployed is coming down. With some 198,000 people on the live register, we are far from running out of people to send to JobPath.

Question No. 74 answered with Question No. 70.