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Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection debate -
Thursday, 8 Nov 2018

Delays in Payment of Illness Benefit: Discussion

I welcome Mr. John McKeon, Secretary General of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and his two colleagues, Ms Vaughan and Mr. Flynn. I will invite them to make a presentation to the joint committee. When they have concluded, members will have an opportunity to ask questions.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. If colleagues have mobile phones, they should turn them off because they interfere with the broadcasting and recording of the meeting.

I thank Mr. McKeon for his co-operation and attendance at short notice to discuss an issue that has concerned many colleagues. It was raised this week in the Dáil by Deputy Brady.

Mr. John McKeon

I thank the joint committee for affording me the opportunity to appear before it to update it on the current position in processing illness benefit payments. I am joined by my colleagues, Ms Anne Vaughan, deputy secretary, and Mr. Alan Flynn, principal officer in the IT department.

As I said in my note to the clerk to the committee last week, the Department experienced significant difficulties in processing illness benefit payments in recent times. Regrettably, these difficulties have affected our customers in a manner that has correctly been described by a number of individuals, including Members of the Houses, as unacceptable, which we fully accept. This is a matter of great concern to the Department and we are extremely disappointed and deeply embarrassed by our failure to maintain our usual standard of service. Ours is a Department that prioritises making payments above all else. In this case, however, we failed to live up to our own standards and let the people who depend on us down. Although it may be cold comfort to those affected, we sincerely apologise to all of them.

I would like to outline the background to the payment issues and the steps we have taken to restore service levels and ensure, as best we can, the payment issues encountered will not arise again. It might be useful, however, to start with a brief overview of the illness benefit scheme. The scheme is one under which people who are unable to work owing to illness or injury are entitled to receive a weekly payment from the Social Insurance Fund. The basic rate of payment for a single person is €198 per week. Entitlement to the payment, which may be made for a period of up to two years, is contingent on a person's social insurance record. A person must have a minimum of 104 social insurance contributions paid in order to qualify for up to 12 months of payments. Two hundred and sixty contributions are required for the full two-year entitlement. People who exhaust their entitlement to a payment may continue to claim social insurance credits which are reckonable for pension and other purposes throughout the full-two year period. Means-tested increases are paid for adult dependants and children. The number claiming illness benefit is typically in the order of 50,000 to 55,000, depending on the season. We tend to have more claims in the winter and fewer in the summer. Many recipients are not paid directly but mandate payments to be made to their employer. Expenditure on the scheme is in the order of €600 million per annum.

To go into the difficulties we had, we should refer to a systems change we made in August this year. The root of the payment difficulties lies in a process and system change whereby the Department transferred administration of the illness benefit scheme to what it calls its core business objects IT platform on 4 August 2018. The transfer had a number of objectives. The first was moving the illness benefit payments from an old IT platform that is approaching the end of its life to a newer IT platform that is already managing most of the Department's other payments, including analogous payments such as maternity benefit, paternity benefit and treatment benefit. Approximately 1.3 million of the Department's 1.6 million weekly scheme payments are made on this newer platform.

The second objective was to try to realise cost savings by eliminating the need for labour intensive data entry and enabling the re-use of existing customer data already on the business objects platform, thus freeing up staff for assignment to other growing schemes and services. The third objective was facilitating, in due course, the move from a paper system, under which people received medical certificates from their GP and then posted them to the Department, to one under which an e-certificate was transmitted directly from the GP practice computer system to the Department's payment system. The fourth objective was to facilitate, in due course, the move away from weekly certification whereby GPs typically certified illness claims once per week to a system whereby they provided a single certificate covering the entire period of an illness.

Although the system change has worked effectively for about 80% of illness benefit customers, a number of significant difficulties arose following implementation for a number of customers. They included people who were receiving split or broken payments, rather than a single weekly payment for the week, and-or missing or not receiving payments on schedule. Customers also faced significant delays in contacting the Department's helpline. There were a number of inter-related factors that gave rise to these difficulties. On the split payment issue, one of the key changes in the new system was the redesigning of the medical certificates used by GPs. This redesign enabled the forms to be scanned directly into our system, rather than relying on manual data entry. However, notwithstanding that this change had been agreed to with the Irish Medical Organisation, approximately 50% of GP practices initially continued to submit “old” form medical certificates. This created a problem with our data entry which, in turn, led to long delays in claim processing on the new system in early August. To overcome these delays, the Department is implementing an "automatic certification" process to ensure individuals, including those whose GPs were not submitting the correct certificates, are still paid. While this process did ensure customers received their payments, it resulted in approximately 15% of them receiving a split payment in the period from September to November. It is important to note that those who received split payments were not underpaid as a consequence of this approach; the total amount paid, comprising up to three payments in some cases, was in accordance with their entitlements.

During this time and in addition to implementing a temporary process of auto-certification, the Department deployed additional staff to process old form certificates received from GP practices. We worked with the main representative body for GPs to encourage greater use of the new system. This meant that in mid-October we were in a position to cease the auto-certification process and the issue of split payments has since been largely resolved. At this point, approximately 75% of medical certificates being received are in the correct format. This means that we can process the balance of forms, amounting to 25%, on the day they are received.

I wish to refer to missed and late payments. While resolving the split payment issue, the removal of the auto-certification process belatedly exposed some underlying deficiencies in the design and operation of the new illness benefit system. It is not unusual that issues with the operation of a new system will be identified in the weeks immediately following go-live implementation. They would then normally be resolved before too many were affected. However, in this case, because we implemented an auto-certification process, it camouflaged the underlying system issues for a period. By the time the process was ceased in mid-October, over a month of transactions had already been impacted on. As a consequence, in each subsequent week up to last week, payments to approximately 10% of illness benefit recipients had been delayed by a week or more and, in some cases, significantly more.

The main underlying issue identified that had been camouflaged by the auto-certification process under the new system was related to the transition from a payment in arrears approach to a current week payment approach, in other words, from a system under which people were paid their entitlement the week after a period of certification to one under which they were paid during the week of certification. Although this change speeds up initial payment, it leaves very little tolerance for the late receipt of certificates once a claim is in payment.

That is because if a certificate is not received early in the week to which it refers, payment will not reach the customer until the following week at the earliest. Under the payment-in-arrears method, there was, in effect, a seven-day buffer to receive certificates and still get them into payment on a one-payment-a-week schedule. Although a customer will receive the same total payment amount over the course of an illness under both systems of operation, the propensity of the current-week system to create payment gaps is causing significant uncertainty for and distress to customers.

An issue which became apparent once we removed the auto-certification process is that the new system has very tightly defined rules which must be satisfied before a certificate can be accepted and processed for payment. Although the rules are valid in principle, they are leading to payments being delayed for reasons that would not have been applied under the legacy system. For example, if there is a gap of a week or more on the dates between two certificates, the new system will not consider the second certificate as part of a continuing claim and will require a new claim to be submitted. This leads to payments being stopped and referred for examination by an officer of the Department. Those are the two main underlying system issues which in some respects had been hidden by the auto-certification process.

The Department is taking three main steps to resolve these issues. We deployed and are continuing to deploy additional staff to process the tasks and respond to customer inquiries arising from the tight application of scheme rules by the new system. As new staff being deployed to support illness benefit processing need to be trained on the scheme and the IT system, these measures will take some time to deliver full benefit but we are beginning to see the benefit of the additional deployment. We have developed some new IT routines or workarounds that, in effect, build the seven-day buffer present in the former system into the new system and automate the processing of tasks generated by the application of the rules in order to ensure a faster flow-through to payment. 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 the processing of claims and certificates.

In addition, the Department continues to engage with the medical profession regarding the implementation of e-certification and single or closed certification. When agreed, these measures will, in time, lead to better customer service. The Department has also allocated additional managers to take responsibility for the programme of work I have set out, including a full-time assistant secretary and additional staff at principal, assistant principal and higher executive officer level.

As a consequence of these measures, customers who are due a payment and whose certificates and claims are in order should now receive their payment entitlement. Payment volumes were restored to normal levels last week and will be monitored on a daily basis to ensure that they remain at that level. Any further issues will be quickly identified and any further remedial action that may be required will be taken.

It is important to note there are always cases, and were always cases under the old system, of customer payments legitimately being stopped or paused. This may occur if medical certificates are incorrectly completed, the certifying GP is not registered on our system, there is an inconsistency between an illness benefit claim and another social welfare claim or routine errors were made in the processing of the certificates. Such issues will always remain and are normally dealt with via our helpline number. Unfortunately, customers are facing difficulties contacting the Department due to the large volume of calls received in recent weeks, as Deputies will be aware. We expect that the measures set out above will reduce the volume of calls and increase our call-handling capacity in the coming weeks. The impact of the measures this week is apparent. We are not quite back to normal in terms of the volume of calls or speed of response but we are far closer to it than we were a week ago.

In addition to the system issues, the Department acknowledges that it did not communicate effectively with customers in advance of the new system coming into operation, act quickly enough to advise and reassure them as to the nature of the split payment issue or respond in a timely and effective manner to the incidents of missed and delayed payments. Although I wrote to all of our illness benefit customers some weeks ago to apologise for the difficulties they were encountering and advise them of other supports available, I accept that communication was too little, too late and of limited comfort to those affected.

Although the Department has previously successfully transferred most of its other schemes and payments onto the business objects platform and the development and testing process for this system followed previous practice, our experience with the illness benefit transfer has been a salutary reminder that the longer-term impact of short-term remedial actions taken with the best intentions when unanticipated issues arise or failures occur must be carefully thought through before implementation. In order to ensure that this and any other lessons from this experience are identified and learned, I have commissioned an independent review of this project to be undertaken by a retired Revenue Commissioner and delivered directly to me and the Minister. It is expected that it will be delivered by the end of the year and its findings will inform our approach to future system and process changes.

As I stated, the Department sincerely regrets and is deeply embarrassed by the difficulties recently encountered by illness benefit customers. We have let some of our customers down and for this we are very sorry.

In mitigation, if there is any, I point to the fact that the Department has a strong record of ensuring customers get paid. This is the first incident of its kind in a long programme of transferring more than 1.6 million weekly payments from old legacy systems to our newer business object system. Throughout this experience we continued to successfully deliver over 99% of these payments on time. We also deployed the community welfare service to help assist customers who faced difficulties arising from the payment issues. Many customers were supported with interim payments through the service. However, I do not wish to in any way diminish or understate the extent of the illness benefit issues. I would like to again apologise to customers, Oireachtas Members and our staff who have been under significant pressure throughout this issue for the difficulties experienced. We have done better in the past and we can do better again. We are determined to do so.

My colleagues and I will be pleased to answer any questions that members may have.

I thank Mr. McKeon for his opening statement. Before I open the discussion to members, I have one general question. Mr. McKeon set out in some detail the technical issues relating to IT and the change of system. One of the real issues for members and the public was the lack of information and access. The public could not get through to the Department by phone and neither could we. At what stage did Mr. McKeon realise there were significant difficulties in that regard? He stated that the Department deployed additional staff to process old-form certificates received from GPs. Why was no additional support provided for the helpline? It is clear that the Department knew there was a problem but the communication issue was not addressed. People were frustrated not to be able to find out if there was a problem with their particular payment. When people first came to me with such issues, I thought they were individual problems rather than a systemic issue.

Mr. John McKeon

As I stated, three separate issues arose together, the first of which related to the continued submission of old-form certificates. Our immediate response to that was to put in the auto-certification process. Although that generated several calls in August, when we implemented the auto-certification process the call volume dropped relatively quickly thereafter from September to mid-October. When we then removed the auto-certification process it revealed the underlying system issues of which we had not been aware. At that stage, call volumes went through the roof and our staff were unable to respond to the calls. We had a choice to make. We could have taken staff out of processing activities and put them on answering calls but that would have further delayed payments. We decided to put extra staff on the phones in mid-October but such staff are only of use in that regard if they can answer queries. They needed training on the IT system and the scheme and it has taken some time to do that. It is not much use for the staff answering phones to only be able to tell callers they are unable to help them. There was a lead-in time of approximately two weeks to get staff allocated and appropriately trained. We fully accept that communications on the issue has been one of the key failures we need to address.

I am glad the officials are here to be made aware of the outrage experienced by thousands of our citizens since August who are entitled to this money. I have consistently raised this issue in the Dáil and at committee. I have sent numerous emails and other correspondence to the Minister, all of which are unanswered. If my queries are going unanswered, I can only imagine the experience of the many thousands of people who have been directly impacted on. This has been an unmitigated disaster in so many areas that it is difficult to know where to begin. The Department has not covered itself in glory.

I hear what the officials are saying. They are right to apologise, but I know many people who are directly impacted on and will find it very hard to take that apology. This has forced some of the sickest people in the State into so many precarious situations, including debt and the jeopardising of their tenancies with landlords, as well as in many other areas. It is hard to know where to begin. In August there was an attempt by the Department to lay the blame on some general practitioners. That is where it all starts. There was no consultation with any general practitioner in the roll-out of the new certification process and that is where the problem arose. Have the concerns of general practitioners been addressed? I called on the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to engage with general practitioners on whom she had turned her back. She had failed to answer correspondence or engage with them. Has she now engaged with them?

The officials say the issues were masked until October. I find that hard to believe. There were people contacting my office from the outset and I can only imagine that they were contacting the offices of all other Members of the Oireachtas. Some were actually being overpaid and wondering if they were going to be chased up, targeted as welfare cheats or named and shamed. They were put in serious situations. As I said, many others were not receiving any payment. Then there was a line from the Department that there were issues and that people should go to their local community welfare officer, CWO, who would ensure that where there was a shortfall, they would receive some money. However, in many cases, community welfare officers were saying that because people were receiving a par payment, they were not entitled to a penny. I have been contacted by many people. One very ill woman had to travel many miles from Blessington all the way to Tallaght, where the local community welfare officer is located, only to be told that she would not receive a penny as she was receiving a par payment. She had to struggle on.

I passed on the information to the Department that community welfare officers were responding in this way because there is that discretion from officer to officer. Was a directive issued at any stage to all community welfare officers to ensure that if somebody presented who was entitled to illness benefit but not receiving a full payment, that he or she should receive the full entitlement from the community welfare officer? There are issues in that regard. The other day when I questioned the Minister, she said everyone was receiving a payment. Last Friday she issued a statement in which she said everyone would receive his or her full payment on Friday or over the weekend at the latest. It was only through the intervention of RTÉ and the Joe Duffy show that she was forced to take action. On Monday many callers to the "Liveline" programme were saying it was not true and that they still had not received a payment. Many people were contradicting what the Minister had said the previous Friday. Is everyone who is entitled to a payment now receiving it in full?

On the issue of underpayments, the Minister says they will be sorted out in the coming period. When exactly will the payments be made?

I refer to non-existent communications. I will defend all of the staff in the Department in the illness benefit section because it put them in an absolutely horrible postion. I am sure many of them received abuse from people who were angry and had been put in precarious situations through this unmitigated disaster. The officials say it was only in mid or late October when staff were being trained on the system. That is absolute madness. The system was introduced in August. Was it trialled before it went live? That would have been the logical thing to do. I would appreciate it if the officials answer these questions. It has been an unmitigated disaster and an apology is the very least they could provide.

I will come to Mr. McKeon, but there are a number of other questioners and I will take all of them together.

This is one of the biggest operations in transferring from an old to a new system. The first question I wanted to ask has been asked by Deputy Brady. Was the new system trialled? For how long was it trialled and with whom was it trialled? After saying the Department had reached agreement with general practitioners on it, it does not seem like it did, or general practitioners did not know that they were changing to an e-certification process. I am not saying this just with hindsight. I have worked with An Post and know that things can go disastrously wrong when there are new systems, but they have to be trialled. It would have been practical to first find a cohort of general practitioners to introduce the system, after reaching agreement with the representative group, to see how it would go, move them to e-certificates to see if there were potential problems with the system such as the making of split payments. Issues could have been highlighted at that stage, but it seems as if a whole new system was introduced without looking at the possibility of problems arising from it.

I know that the officials have apologised profusely and take this on board; I am sure people will listen to it. However, at the end of the day, I am dealing with people who are borrowing money from their family to try to keep going and it is only because their family have the money to give them; otherwise, they would be absolutely lost. They are living in digs and rented accommodation. We have left vulnerable persons even more vulnerable. That has to be taken on board. I am very angry about it and know others are too. That is the key point.

The communications section seemed to be very slow in realising what was going on from August until mid-September. Then staff had to be trained because the Department could not have just had staff answering telephones without having the information; that would have made the position even worse. It seems that once the new system was introduced, there was no questioning or discussion or team evaluation to make sure that if something did happen, there would be staff available. It was a huge change in the system, yet 50% of general practitioners were not even linked with it, did not know or had not been informed about it. I know that the Department has set up something with the Revenue Commissioners to look at what happened in implementation. I am still receiving emails from people who did not receive payments on 3, 10, 17, 24 or 31 October or 7 November. They received a CWO payment of €196 in that period. CWOs should be instructed that if anybody has not received a payment after a week, they should be paid immediately, regardless of whether they have received a par payment. We should be getting the message out that people should go to their Intreo office to receive payment from the CWO. That instruction should be given to every CWO in the system.

I have also had to make representations on behalf of people who received overpayments. Obviously, they have not cashed the cheques but they are concerned that if an error is discovered they could be viewed as people who are fiddling the system. The system is still not working for people. We must immediately put in place a mechanism to ensure that if this happens again, people are at a minimum paid what they would be paid on production of a medical certificate.

Did the illness benefit section seek weekly certificates before this? I understand the witnesses cannot comment on individual cases but I am dealing with a case on behalf of a person who is in receipt of illness benefit and retired in October. This person is required to attend a doctor every week for a medical certificate, which costs €15, to be provided to the Intreo office. On Monday, I spoke to an official who advised me that there has been a change such that certification of an illness by a GP for up to six months will now be accepted by the illness benefit section. Will the witnesses point to where this is written so that people can bring it to the attention of their general practitioners?

The Department has let people down. The people it deals with are not customers. Rather, they are people who are reliant on our social welfare system when they get ill and cannot work.

I thank Mr. McKeon for his opening statement. While the apology is welcome, I would like to know if an apology has been communicated, by phone or in writing, to every recipient of illness benefit? Have these people received an explanation for the systems failure? I would like to hear from Mr. McKeon what information and instructions were given to the local Intreo offices and community welfare officers in regard to this systems failure? As in the case of other Deputies, constituents have come to my office saying they could not get information from the Intreo offices as they did not appear to have been instructed on what to tell people about what was going on. As stated, this systems failure left very vulnerable people without a safety net. If I was not paid for a week, I would be able to manage as I have a safety net in place. Most people who have jobs would likewise have safety nets, but people who are dependent on social protection payments do not have them. They live from day to day, week to week and so on. This systems failure should have been brought to the attention of the community welfare officers immediately it happened and they should have been told to prioritise payments for the individuals affected. What instructions were given to the local Intreo offices and community welfare officers?

Will Mr. McKeon ensure that all illness benefit recipients receive a communication from the Department to include an apology, an explanation of what happened and instructions on what to do should it happen again? If this system has failed, it could fail again. I understand that just as it was not possible to guarantee that the new system, when implemented, would not fail, Mr. McKeon cannot guarantee there will be no further systems failures. Apologising to the committee is not good enough. The apology needs to be communicated to the people affected.

I thank the witnesses for being here and for the clarity they have brought to the issue. I also welcome the apology. The systems breakdown badly affected vulnerable people who are reliant on this particular payment. As stated earlier by the Chairman, the lack of communication on the issue and the inability of people to get information from officials added to the distress. If problems have been identified and fixed, why are some people still not receiving their payments? What is the position with outstanding payments? Does the Department have plans to move other payments onto this platform or a similar platform?

Mr. McKeon has indicated that a retired Revenue Commissioner is doing a review and that is important. When a Department is dealing with as many transactions as the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, there is always the potential for something to go wrong. The critical issue is how problems are dealt with. In this instance, the lack of communication was the problem. People were scared because they did not know what was happening. We could not get answers and people could not get answers. We cannot be critical of changing to a new IT system and a glitch occurring, because that can happen. Our concern is how the systems failure was dealt with because for a number of months there was no clarity around what was happening, and telephone calls to find out what was happening were not being answered. I hope that the review, apart from identifying risks and potential risks, will focus on the immediate steps to be taken in terms of communication with the public when something goes wrong. While this particular problem dates back to August, it was a long time before the scale of it became apparent. I hope that the review addresses that specifically.

Will Mr. McKeon clarify where we are today in terms of overpayments, underpayments and so on? As stated by members, there are people who have received payments who are not sure if it is their money. By and large, people are conscientious. They do not want to spend money that is not theirs. They worry about that. Will Mr. McKeon tell the committee where we are at in terms of the legacy issues?

Mr. John McKeon

A lot of questions have been asked, which I will try to answer. If I skip or miss one, the Chairman might indicate that to me.

Mr. John McKeon

On the consultation with general practitioners, we have been in discussions with GPs and the Irish Medical Organisation on this changeover since 2016. As members will be aware, the Irish Medical Organisation is the only recognised body representing GPs that is affiliated with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU and that has a negotiating licence. It has been public policy dating back to the 1970s that we should deal only with people who have formal recognition, but we did have some contact with the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP. We did have some contact with it, but obviously communications and contacts on this were with the primary body, the Irish Medical Organisation. We had agreed with the IMO to implement the change in August. The organisation wrote to its members on 10 July advising them that the change was happening and encouraging them to co-operate in this regard. That said, the other organisation did not agree with this approach and publicly stated that doctors should not co-operate with it, and this caused confusion among GPs. We have had a number of meetings with the IMO over recent months and currently 75% of certificates are in the new form.

We should, perhaps, have done more to engage with the NAGP but we were in a somewhat difficult situation in that it is not recognised, it does not have a negotiating licence, it is not affiliated with ICTU, and we would also have been the meat in the sandwich between two rival organisations. Therefore, we followed the line of all public sector organisations and we dealt only with the appropriate representative body. This did cause us difficulties.

The other issue that arose was with regard to the overpayments. This dates back to the decision we took to auto-certify people because many of the old form certificates could not be processed efficiently under the new system.

We ask all people in receipt of this benefit to submit a final certificate to us. We processed all final certificates. We did not know whether the balance that we had not processed involved cases in which the person was no longer ill or whether he or she was caught up in this issue of GPs submitting old forms. The decision we took was to pay people where a final certificate was not submitted, knowing that in some cases this would generate an overpayment. We will not go chasing those people in any insensitive way. We have a project set up and we propose to recover those overpayments next year in a managed and sensitive way.

If there are examples of the community welfare service not operating in the way it should, I ask Deputies to send them to me. We issued a direction very early on that the community welfare service should support people with illness benefit. Some of the examples that have come to me - and I am not by any means saying this is the case generally - have been of people who presented to a community welfare officer, who told them they had received their payments. The claimant might not have perceived it that way but it could be seen that they had received payment and then there was no gap. In other cases there have been gaps and perhaps the community welfare service has not responded as appropriate. All through this period, however, the community welfare service has been supporting approximately 3,000 people a week with illness benefit interim payments, which is proportionate to the number of people affected. I ask the Deputies to send any examples directly to my office and we will investigate and deal with them. With some of these issues, it is only when one works through an individual example that one can see a flaw or gap of which we may not have been aware. If there is an issue we are not picking up, we will rectify it immediately, as I said in my opening statement. The directive has been given, though.

Two issues arise regarding arrears payments. One is what we call overlaps and the other is arrears. I will deal with the issue of overlaps first. It arises where someone gets a supplementary welfare allowance, a community welfare services officer payment, in lieu of his or her illness benefit payment. When we bring the illness benefit payment up to date, as we have now done, it will offset the amount due on illness benefit against the amount paid, so the customer will get a reduced payment. This has been the source of some confusion because people think they are owed five weeks' illness benefit but only get this amount and we must explain to them that they also got this other amount during that five-week period so we have netted it off. That is the issue of overlapping payments. As for arrears, where people were not paid at all, the arrears payments in most cases have issued and we are running a routine this week to pick up any subsequent arrears that have not been paid. They should be paid very shortly.

A question was raised about people still not in payment. We are satisfied that payment levels are back to normal. As I said in my opening statement, there will always be cases in which people are not in payment for one reason or another. I have gone through a number of the examples myself because I get many calls and queries directly into my office as well. In most cases - I will not say in every case - there are genuine problems. The people involved would not have got paid under the old system and there are problems that need to be sorted. I will give the committee an example I received this week. It concerned a person who thought they had been certified for a month but the doctor, instead of writing "26 September to 3 November", had written "26 September to 3 September". They had written the wrong date on the system. We did not know that the person was expecting a payment for a month but we could only operate on the basis of the certificate. We fixed it, but these are the issues which normally come to us via our phone line and which would normally be dealt with and fixed over the phone. People were caught up, however, and, as the Deputy said, unable to get through to the phone to sort out these issues. For information, we process 9,000 certificates a day, so even if we were to achieve 99% perfection, which would be extremely high in this type of operation - most analogous operations would aim for 95% - there would be a few hundred a day that for one reason or another would not flow perfectly. This has always been the case. Even in the best of days under the old system, we always used to receive 2,000 calls a day from people and, as I said, they would be sorted out. The issue this time is that we have received many more calls and, going back to the issue of operation, people are now missing payments for potentially legitimate reasons when one looks at the circumstances. It is a question of our being able sort them out quickly. We do not believe the current payment issues concern the system change; they concern the fallout from it in terms of getting back on top of all the phone calls and all the routine issues. Again, I encourage Deputies who may have individual examples to send them to me because I am very concerned that if there are any underlying systematic issues which we have not picked up at this stage, I identify and fix them. We have spent days and nights and weekends at this, however, so we are pretty confident we are back to normal operations, other than the clean-up. There are people caught up in the clean-up.

I fully accept what everyone has said about the communication on this. It has been poor. Most people on illness payment are on it for a short period, so we would have been writing out to all of them in advance, knowing that 70% of them would not be illness benefit customers by the time they received the letter. I fully accept that this was a bad call, however. We should have written out to customers regardless when the split payment issue occurred because of the autocertification and explained to them that while they may have got a payment of €165 and a payment of €33, if one adds them together, they make €198. We should also have explained that they are paid up to a certain date and that this problem will continue and, therefore, we should have asked them to try to get their certificates in as early as possible in the week because we are now on a current-week basis. Many people on continuous payment knew that payment was in arrears and that they had a seven-day buffer to get their certificates in. This disappeared for them and we should have communicated that. I fully accept that.

We tested this system in exactly the same way as we have tested all our other systems: in a way that works successfully for us in every other system change we have made. As I said, we have moved 1.3 million payments - pensions, child benefit, maternity and paternity benefits and treatment benefit - onto this system and have not had this incident before. We followed exactly the same testing routine. When trialling it, we also ran existing certificates that were in payment through the system to see whether it paid them, and it did. We launched an early implementation of it in respect of the partial capacity benefit programme, which is an analogous programme. This worked well. I could go into the reasons I think this training did not work but, if I may ask the indulgence of the committee, I point out that we have commissioned the independent review. I do not want to be seen to prejudice what the person carrying out the review will find. If I say what I think, I might be seen to be leading him. I think there were issues with the testing, from which I think we will learn, but I do not want to say something and then we see the independent review was not as independent as it should have been.

We could and should have done better on staff training. Our staff have made this point very strongly to us. Again, the training delivered to staff was the same as the training delivered in respect of every other scheme. It may have been Deputy Joan Collins but someone asked whether we planned for things going wrong. I suppose that in reality we did not. We planned for things to go right. Normally, for the people involved, if a systems change is carried out and the implementation works well and staff then have sufficient training, they then develop confidence in the system and its real-life application. However, when staff are suddenly hit with large numbers of calls, one cannot, having gone live, get confidence in the system. One of the learnings from this is to plan for failure rather than success. If there were ever an example of learning more from one's mistakes than one's successes, this is it. Our successes on the other schemes may have led to a level of complacency that there would not be a failure, and I put my hands up on that.

A point was raised about doctors charging people for certificates. We pay the doctors, so it is very clear that they should not be charging people for certificates. Doctors who are doing so are pulling a fast one. I do not believe the practice is widespread.

I was asked whether we wrote to everyone to apologise. I think I did so about two and a half or three weeks ago.

I explained what had happened as best I could in a letter, albeit one could obviously not send a letter of the length of my opening statement. I pointed to the availability of the community welfare service. I will not say I am happy to do so again in that one is never happy in this situation. However, if people feel it would be appropriate to draft another letter, I am absolutely prepared to do so.

I was asked about plans for other payments. The members can be assured that we will be taking these steps very seriously. At this point, the main payments which are not on the system are jobseekers' payments and lone-parent payments. We will be approaching these very carefully. As I said, there are 55,000 people on the illness benefit scheme whereas those other two schemes have many more participants. If there is a silver lining in this, it is that at least we learned our lessons in some respects. I am not trying to mitigate the impact but if we had affected lone parents or jobseekers, the numbers - and this is purely about the numbers rather than individual circumstances - would have been of a whole different order of magnitude. We will definitely take on board the lessons from this to ensure those implementations go properly.

I thank Mr. McKeon. I am conscious of the time. If anyone has a short comment, I will take it.

The independent review will be critical. Mr. McKeon used the word "complacent" and referred to all of these other things, but the important thing is to ensure lessons are learned. I would be interested, therefore, to hear the terms of reference for the independent review.

Mr. John McKeon

I am happy to share them with the committee.

It is important to ensure the review does not look only at the systems failure. There is also a critical analysis to carry out on how the Department responded to it. As such, I ask that the terms of reference be provided and whether the review will be made public. It will be critical for the committee to see it. As Mr. McKeon stated, jobseekers and lone parents will be put on the same system and it would be very useful for us to look at that. I imagine highly-paid consultants were engaged in the roll-out of this. I would be interested to hear at what stage those highly paid consultants identified problems with the system they were tasked with rolling out. I ask Mr. McKeon to touch on that. How many people are still in arrears? Mr. McKeon says some have been sorted out at this stage and is hopeful the others will be sorted over the rest of this week. How many people were in arrears and what percentage of them have yet to receive their backdated payments? Can we get a categorical assurance that everyone will be paid by the end of business tomorrow?

I am curious about a small but perhaps significant point. It has to do with how the Department deals with GPs through the IMO and not through the other organisation, which is not recognised for the purpose. While I get that, would it not be prudent in a situation like this to deal directly with every GP? The Department must have them on a database somewhere given that every certificate includes the GP's name and clinic address. In this case, would it not be a form of insurance for the Department to know it had covered everybody and everything and to be able to say all GPs were informed rather than to worry about one organisation not being able to deal with the other? There might also be GPs who are not members of either.

When does the Department anticipate it will have a report back from the independent review?

Mr. John McKeon

We will certainly send on the terms of reference of the independent review. They cover the matters Deputy Brady spoke about and the communications issue which the Chairman raised. We will be happy to circulate them. I am just waiting for the Commissioner to come back and sign off on them. As soon as he does, I will send them on. I do not see a difficulty but he is travelling this week, albeit I do not know if that is out of the country. In any event, I will be talking to him next week and as soon as the terms of reference are signed off, we will send them to the committee. We will not have a difficulty with them being published in due course. As to the timing, we hope to have the report by the end of the year. While that is our intention, the most important thing is to get it done properly. This has been a big project which was two years in the making and there is a huge amount of paperwork on programme report systems, design and testing. We will have to interview and talk to everyone involved. I will take the Commissioner's opinion on how much time he needs to do it properly rather than to rush to an outcome. The important thing here is the learnings. We hope it will be done by the end of the year, however.

I was asked about the consultants. The system was designed and built by a specialist firm of consultants which was procured by open tender. That is certainly one of the issues we will be looking at as part of the review. I am the Accounting Officer of the Department and I am accountable for operations. I must account for this. I am not looking to transfer responsibility in any way. However, I am certainly very keen to determine what could and should have been done better in that space. That will form part of it.

I was asked about arrears. We are running a routine this week to try to pick up those who have not received arrears payments. However, I cannot give the Deputy the absolute and categoric assurance he sought as one never knows until it is done. However, we are hopeful that this week or next week, which is the wording I used earlier, they will get their arrears. We are still working on that. If there are cases about which members know, they can give them to me. The sooner they do so, the better it will be. It may be that there are issues which are systemic, albeit we believe we have identified and sorted them all out. However, if there are issues of which we are not aware, I ask members to get them to us as soon as possible as that will improve the prospect of resolution.

I thank Mr. McKeon, Ms Vaughan and Mr. Flynn for their attendance today and also for their frank, honest and direct replies to the questions asked. I acknowledge that Mr. McKeon indicated that if there were specific unresolved cases of which members were aware, they should be directed to the Department.

Mr. John McKeon

They can be directed to my office.

That was an important thing. It is also worth acknowledging that the officials understand the depth of feeling among members on foot of the distress this caused to people. Mr. McKeon acknowledged clearly that when the problem occurred, communications and a lack of contingency planning presented difficulties. I hope those things are built in as future programmes are rolled out. Questions of "what if" should be addressed. There should be communications and contingency planning and that will hopefully be reflected in the review. It is fair to acknowledge that the witnesses are in a public forum today and that the Department's apology is a public one. As Mr. McKeon says, the Department has written to those affected. While it is a number which fluctuates as people are in and out of the system, the apology here today should be recognised as a public one and I acknowledge that.

Mr. McKeon did not comment on my question on GPs and communications. I will accept a reply in writing as I know we are in a hurry.

Mr. John McKeon

I am sorry. I can absolutely do that. I just missed it on the notes.

I understand. If the Department writes to me, that will be fine.

Mr. John McKeon

We wrote to all GPs. I can provide the Deputy with the details.

I thank the witnesses for their attendance. We will suspend for a few minutes to allow the witnesses to withdraw and the next set of witnesses to come in.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.25 a.m.