Citizens Information Service

I thank the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, for coming to the House to deal with this urgent matter. In the run-up to Christmas and since then a number of people have raised with me the sad case of young widows and widowers whose partners die at a young age not knowing to whom they should or can turn to at that time. The Minister will be aware of just how tender and sore people are at such time and the situation that arises when they receive correspondence for their partners who are sadly deceased. It is vital a one-stop-shop structure is established to which people who are bereaved can go to obtain advice on bereavement grants, lone parent and child allowances and a myriad of other issues.

The Minister will be aware that queries to his Department are dealt with in Sligo and others are dealt with in Longford. People are often directed from one office to another and are hurt to learn that some offices may not be aware that his or her partner has passed away. I am seeking the establishment of a small office that could deal directly with these matters. This would show compassion, which is very important. Some of the people who contacted me said they believed there is a lack of compassion in the system.

It is important such an office is established. A number of county councillors have told me that cases often fall between the cracks of Departments owing to the structures in place. It is important we show we care about people during the critical time of their losing a loved one. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I appreciate the trauma suffered by people who lose a loved one and the Department tries to deal with them as humanely as possible. That said, I must stress that a payment cannot be made to anyone who has not applied for the relevant payment.

The Department operates a network of 130 local and branch offices throughout the country. Each local office includes officers dedicated to providing information and they are available to explain supports and services to people, including the schemes and services available from the Department for widows and widowers. This locally based service is supported by a central information unit which operates a lo-call information line, 1890 662244, which customers may call for information and guidance on their entitlements.

The Department produces a comprehensive range of information leaflets and booklets, including a booklet on bereavement, and these are available in social welfare offices, citizens' information centres and post offices. Leaflets can also be requested through the Department's websitewww.welfare.ie, which contains full information on all schemes and services, including bereavement and widow’s or widower’s pensions. Payments and supports for widows and widowers are provided by the Department’s office in Sligo which will gladly advise and provide information on an individual’s claim. I have heard some complaints about telephone answering at the Sligo office and I will try to have the matter addressed.

The Citizens Information Board, which comes under the aegis of the Department, is the national information agency with responsibility for supporting the provision of independent information and advice on the broad range of social services, including social welfare services. Information is provided through citizen information centres and other offices throughout the country and through the citizens' information phone service which operates from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Friday. The website,www.citizensinformation.ie, has a section on bereavement.

Technology will only pick up on people in receipt of a payment. Senator Carroll may have been contacted by people whose loved ones died but who were not in receipt of payment because they were working. That is where the difficulty may have arisen. The General Register Office, which registers births, deaths and marriages, comes under the aegis of my Department. We are integrating into the Department's system information received by it on registrations of death. Information is automatically updated. For example, in respect of State pension transition or contributory customers, a surviving qualified adult will automatically receive the six weeks after death payment of the married rate along with the bereavement grant. This system is automatically triggered on registration of the death of a person. The case will also be reviewed to examine the possible pension entitlements of the surviving spouse or civil partner or, as in many cases, a widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's contributory pension will automatically be awarded from week seven. We have devised a system whereby the minute we are notified of the death by the General Register Office, everything moves forward because we have the relevant PPS number, but this only applies where there is an underlying payment in the first place.

When the qualified adult of a contributory pensioner dies, the pensioner receives the payment for six weeks after death and the bereavement grant automatically. It, therefore, works in reverse. On the death of a State pension transition or contributory recipient receiving a payment at a single rate but whose spouse is in receipt of another social welfare payment, the six weeks after death payment and the bereavement grant are also paid automatically. The Department is in ongoing contact with the Irish Association of Funeral Directors and also deals with individual funeral directors to ensure the details of the provisions of the bereavement grant are made as widely known as possible.

We are doing our best to deal with this issue. I am always open to new ideas, but the one-stop-shop the Senator seeks is provided by the Citizens Information Board. Its staff can examine the issue laterally. They should be able to take all of the consequences that might arise into account. This is the first place to refer people because it operates local offices. There are sophisticated triggering mechanisms in place for those in receipt of a payment, which means payments issue automatically. This is good news for people.