Commencement Matters

Bank Charges

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Simon Harris.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming.

I have proposed this matter because of the concerns brought to my attention. At this time of year, after Christmas, people examine their finances and the charges and fees they pay. I conducted some research and there is a wide variance in the charges of the main banks. There is nothing wrong with this. The banks provide products and services and seek to attract customers based on their model of service provision. However, there is something wrong when people are not notified adequately of the charges being foisted on them and there is no justification for some of the charges. This has been a subject of discussion in the Lower House. Questions were asked about it recently and I do not know whether it was the Minister of State or the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, who answered them.

The Minister of State will be aware that the issue is governed by section 149 of the Consumer Credit Act 1995 which requires that “Each credit institution shall, within three months, notify the director of all charges imposed by it in relation to the provision of any service to a customer or to a group of customers”. When the process has occurred, under subsection (5)(a), the director may require a credit institution “to refrain from imposing or changing a charge in relation to the provision of a service to a customer or to a group of customers, without the prior approval of the director”.

Despite the responses given in the Lower House to Deputy Michael McGrath on a specific issue regarding AIB's 25% increase in the cost of iBusiness Banking in 2014, it is clear that there is a provision to prevent such charges, if the director in the Central Bank decides the charges are too high and too much of an imposition on businesses. We are not using the legislation. There was a review and new legislation, the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Act 2013, was passed. However, the Act did not introduce changes to the section I have detailed. In a reply to a parliamentary question in the past couple of days the Minister said, "low customer mobility may mean that banks can increase prices without fearing loss of customers." This seems to be the nub of the issue.

I have a list of the various charges of the main banks. They charge a variety of fees for the provision of a duplicate statement, from zero to €2.50, €3.80 and €3.81, while one bank charges €5 per page. In anyone’s language, this is an inordinate charge. Retail customers cannot view account statements more than three months old. Instead, they must contact the bank and incur charges. While we say we are keeping an eye on this issue and that there is provision to prevent such charges, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Given that whenever one makes a transaction on one's account one pays for it, the reason for maintenance charges on accounts is beyond me.

It is beyond me as to why it is necessary to charge to maintain an account.

Two institutions offer free banking.

I ask the Senator to conclude.

I will finish up now. There is free banking in two institutions - in AIB where the account holder must have a continuous balance of €2,500 or more; and in Permanent TSB where the account holder must lodge at least €1,500 every month.

The Senator is way over time.

Very few people in ordinary jobs can do that. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. He is right in saying it is timely given that at this time of year people tend to review their finances and look at ways of reducing costs and saving money.

I will address the issue of advertising and provision of information first. The Central Bank's consumer protection code of 2012 provides that a regulated entity must provide the consumer, on paper or on another durable medium, with a breakdown of all charges, including third-party charges, which will be passed on to the consumer. In addition, the code states:

A regulated entity must display in its public offices, in a manner that is easily accessible to consumers, a schedule of fees and charges imposed by that regulated entity. If the regulated entity has a website, its schedule of fees and charges must also be made publicly available through placing this schedule on its website.

The section of the code which deals with advertising provides that "A regulated entity must ensure that... key information, in relation to the advertised product or service, is prominent and is not obscured or disguised in any way by the content, design or format of the advertisement". Key information means any information that is likely to influence a consumer's actions with regard to a product or service.

I will now turn to the controls imposed by the Central Bank on bank charges. The Senator raised section 149 of the Consumer Credit Act 1995. That section requires that credit institutions, prescribed credit institutions and bureaux de change must make a submission to the Central Bank if they wish to introduce any new customer charges or increase any existing customer charges in respect of certain services. Section 149 does not cover interest rates; it applies to fees and commissions only.

As part of the conditions under which the Irish banks received state aid, Ireland made various sectoral commitments to the European Commission in order to promote competition in the Irish banking sector. Among these commitments, section 1.1(b) of the approved state aid for Bank of Ireland states: "Legislation will be enacted that will provide that Section 149 of the Consumer Credit Act, 1995 regarding price regulation and fees will not be applied to new entrants in their first 3 years of commencing business in Ireland". This three-year exemption from section 149 has been given effect in the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Act 2013 and applies to new market entrants from 1 August 2013.

Section 149 requires the Central Bank to take account of the following in assessing an application for an increase in fees or for new charges:

(a) the promotion of fair competition between—

(i) credit institutions, and

(ii) credit institutions carrying on a particular type of banking or financial business,

(b) the statement of commercial justification referred to in subsection (3)(b),

(c) a credit institution passing any costs on to its customers or a group of its customers in proposing to impose or change any charge, in relation to the provision of a service to a customer or a group of its customers, and

(d) the effect on customers or a group of customers of any proposal to impose or change any charge in relation to the provision of such service.

The Department of Finance undertook a review of the regulation of bank charges in Ireland which was published early last year and is available on the Department's website at www.finance.gov.ie. The review concluded that it would not be appropriate to repeal section 149 at that point in time. The lack of competition in the banking sector means that the removal of section 149 would give unfettered price-setting power to the incumbent banks.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has a website, consumerhelp.ie, which has a section that compares various financial products including current accounts. It lists the various charges imposed by the various financial institutions for different types of transactions including Internet transactions.

The institutions have varying models for charges and have different regimes and conditions under which they are willing to grant banking free of transaction charges. Individuals' use of their bank account will be specific to each individual and I would strongly encourage people to look at this comparison site with their specific circumstances in mind in order to decide which institution offers the best product for their pattern of account usage.

At EU level, the payment accounts directive introduces rules on the transparency and comparability of fees related to payment accounts, payment account switching and access to payment accounts with basic features. The payment accounts directive was agreed in August 2014 and will be transposed by the Department of Finance.

I hope my putting this information on the record of the House is of use to consumers in the area of bank charges, and in ensuring transparency and fairness.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I remember Senator Quinn once informing us that he had got notification for an annual subscription for a business magazine. He discovered that new customers got it for free, so he terminated his account and his wife became the new customer. It is similar here. A new customer gets it free for three years but an existing customer must pay. Would the Minister of State not agree that is a bit unfair?

With regard to the availability of information online, which I will bring to the attention of the people who told me, some of us still live in traditional ways. People have informed me that when they go into their bank they cannot get to talk to anybody at a counter - there is nobody there to talk to. They are sent to machines that do not answer questions. While younger people like the Minister of State might be very proficient at using Internet banking, older people rely on face-to-face communication, which is fading out very quickly. I thank the Minister of State for his response, which I will study further.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. It is also important to acknowledge that the Government is in the business of getting out of banking ownership. We are in the business of returning banks to the private sector over a sustained period of time and getting back as much money as we possibly can, much of which was pumped into the banks by the last Government and some by this one. We now have a plan to recoup every single cent that the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government has put into AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB.

As we move out of bank ownership and having stakes in banks, it is important to have robust controls in place. That is why the Department carried out a review last year to ensure the charges were monitored and will continue to be. I take the Senator's point that not everybody uses the Internet. That is an ever-more important point as banking technology advances. However, under the 2012 consumer protection code the fee information must be displayed in the bank branch and the Senator should relay that to his constituents.

I take his point on the three years. However, to counter it, I make the point that it was a condition of state aid by the European institutions and also to try to encourage competition. We all appreciate that the more competition in the market, the better ultimately it is for all of us, as consumers. The Senator has raised a very important issue. It needs to be monitored closely and I can assure him that I will do so as will the Department of Finance.

Organised Crime

I welcome the Minister of State. I thank him and his Department for the courtesy extended to me and the way they have dealt with a number of issues I have brought to the attention of the OPW and the Department.

I come from County Limerick and the closest city to me is Limerick city, obviously. It is where I spent my college years and got my education. Limerick city has had trouble with organised crime in the past. A number of ruthless gangs were operating in some of the more socially deprived areas of the city. The crime gang families that operated there were savages. Thankfully the people stood up to them in the face of the murder of Roy Collins and the horrific murder of Shane Geoghegan. At that time the mayor of Limerick, Councillor John Gilligan, a sound man-----

The Senator should refrain from putting people's names on the record of the House.

-----led the citizenry of the city through the streets. It was a hugely poignant moment. Through terrific policing and real community support the city has rooted out those people who have been brought to justice and put behind bars.

However, what is operating north of the Border is shocking. There is a crime gang operating there which is one of the largest in Europe if not in the world. The Criminal Assets Bureau maintains the gang is clearing about €40 million per annum although I accept that estimate is a shot in the dark.

We saw two members of that gang being arrested in Spain over Christmas, with a plethora of bank accounts and a whole heap of property portfolios, and God only knows where the money is going.

Last Friday, the Assistant Garda Commissioner was sitting in the seat where the Minister of State is now and gave a presentation to former Members of the Oireachtas. It was an excellent, very interesting presentation about the causes of crime. We all know some of the causes, people in desperation or poverty, people in socially deprived areas and such like but I am not sure he referred to policing and political vacuums. I believe such a vacuum has existed for a long time now in south Armagh, which is known colloquially as bandit country. How can an area of complete lawlessness be allowed to exist on this island?

I would like the Minister and the Department to outline what measures are being taken by the Irish Government in conjunction with Stormont, Westminster, Interpol and international police bodies to bring these people to account. We hear about Islamic extremism and people being held hostage and ransoms demanded. The people of areas like Cullyhanna and Crossmaglen are being held hostage by these criminals.

I thank Senator Heffernan for raising this Commencement matter. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who sends her apologies that she is not able to be present here today due to other business. The Minister has asked me to thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. The Senator has raised issues concerning cross-Border co-operation between our own Garda Síochána and the PSNI. Trusting it is agreeable to him, I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to revert directly to him on that specific question. More generally I am informed that the level of co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána is at an all-time high. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald to revert to the Senator on the issues of cross-Border co-operation and global co-operation, to which he also referred.

Organised crime activity has serious consequences for the well-being of our communities and, more broadly, for the well-being and proper functioning of society. It affects all sections in society, whether it is the community struggling with the effects of drug misuse and the violence it brings with it, the businesses undermined by the black market economy and the workers who have lost their jobs because legitimate businesses are failing, or the public services that have to be curtailed because taxes and duties are avoided. The Minister has asked me to assure the House of the continued commitment of the Garda Síochána to tackling organised criminality in all of its guises. The Garda Síochána continues to vigorously tackle organised crime through a range of activities designed to disrupt and dismantle the operations of criminal organisations. This involves targeting serious criminals and organised criminal groups on a number of fronts, including through the use of focused intelligence-led operations by specialist units including the organised crime unit, the Garda national drugs unit, the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau. In addition, the Garda Síochána has strong and strategic partnerships in place at national and international level in targeting cross-Border criminality and transnational criminal groupings.

The Minister has asked me to assure the House that this approach is yielding results and that we are continuing to see Garda successes in tackling organised criminal activity both at home and abroad. For example, arising from this work drug seizures valued at approximately €62 million were made by the Garda Síochána during 2014. This does not include the well-publicised joint operation involving the Garda Síochána, the Revenue customs service and the Naval Service, which led to the interception of a yacht off Ireland's south-west coast last September containing cocaine with an estimated street value at the time of over €70 million. This operation reflects the investment made by those agencies in building strong and strategic partnerships at international level, including those formed as part of Ireland's participation in the maritime analysis and operational centre for narcotics based in Lisbon. More recently, as part of an ongoing operation earlier this month in the north Dublin area, drugs were seized with an estimated value of just under €500,000.

Such drug seizures play a critical role in disrupting the ability of organised crime groups to carry out their illegal activities. Of course, these are just some examples of the work of the Garda Síochána in what is an ongoing effort. In addition, the legislation underpinning the work of the Garda Síochána is being kept under review so as to ensure that the necessary investigative tools are at the disposal of the Garda. Most recently, the enactment of the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014, which provides for the establishment and operation of the DNA database, has been a very significant development and considerably enhances the investigative tools being made available to the Garda.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, I assure the House of the continued commitment of the Garda Síochána and this Government to tackling organised crime. Senators can be assured of the full support of the Government in this regard.

While I welcome the Minister's response, having the Border still in existence enables these people to keep profiteering. There seems to be such bureaucracy in cross-Border policing, and the criminals are operating because of that. These people claimed they were fighting for a united Ireland at one time. We are coming up to the anniversary of 1916 and we have to have that debate about a united Ireland and where we may see it going. I am proud to represent the tricolour behind the Cathaoirleach.

A question, Senator.

It abhors me to see that the Border, which is being used to divide communities, is also being used by these people - who claim to object to it - to profiteer from crime.

A question, Senator.

The people there feel that they have been abandoned to the wolves. These criminals are running around the Border areas still armed to the teeth. The Government has to be serious about meeting them head on with everything we have got.

I thank the Senator again and reiterate my comment that I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to revert to him on the cross-Border element, which she will be able to discuss with him in more detail than I can. I restate the Government's ongoing and steadfast commitment to tackling organised crime. While the challenges posed by organised crime are clear, we are continuing to see very successful outcomes from the work of the Garda Síochána. In addition, as I have outlined, we are seeing the Garda working closely with Revenue and the customs service in tackling organised criminality in all of its guises. We are seeing significant enforcement success. For example, in 2014 over 53 million cigarettes with a value of over €25 million and over 9,800 kg of tobacco worth over €4 million were seized in tackling the illegal trade in tobacco products. By seizing such products, disrupting the activity of a gang, cutting off a funding stream to it----

The Minister of State should know that one seizure gives an idea of scale-----

Senator, there is no provision for interaction.

The final point I would make on providing the members of the Garda Síochána with the physical infrastructure to go about their jobs is that the Government has recommenced recruitment of members of the Garda in Templemore. This development is welcome on all sides of the House, I am sure. In the most recent budget we made provision for more Garda cars. In the period 2012-15 the Government will have provided €27.5 million for new Garda vehicles. This represents a significant increase from the paltry amount of €4.8 million which was invested in new Garda vehicles in the period 2009-11. We are not just talking the talk. In addition to the legislative reform, we are putting in place the physical infrastructure in terms of gardaí and Garda cars, and are working at a cross-Border level. I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to revert to Senator Heffernan.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, to the House.

Job Losses

As the Minister of State is aware, there was shock, disbelief and disappointment at the news last Thursday afternoon that the Carrickmacross plant of Bose Corporation, one of the world's leading electrical engineering companies that has been based in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan for over 37 years, was to close with the loss of 140 full-time jobs and up to 80 seasonal jobs. The company informed the workforce by video-link in four minutes and 40 seconds that the plant was to cease operations in April this year and that it was transferring operations at the plant - final assembly of selected home theatre systems and radios for the European market - to Malaysia and Mexico. The workforce which has during the years changed its work practices and engaged in lean manufacturing techniques in order to provide for cost-effective production is devastated. This decision not only affects Carrickmacross but also surrounding towns, not only in County Monaghan but also in surrounding counties, including my county of Cavan.

I understand from my meeting with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation yesterday that he has been in contact with senior management of Bose Corporation. Did he ask it to reconsider the decision to close this state-of-the-art plant? Did he ask for an extension of time if the company is determined to go ahead with the closure? I understand Mr. Barry Weaver, director of human resources, is due to visit Ireland on Thursday and Friday of this week, weather permitting. It is vitally important that the Minister seek a meeting with him to outline face-to-face the devastation this decision will cause for 140 full-time and 80 seasonal workers.

Representatives of some State agencies were present at my meeting with the Minister yesterday. It is vitally important that they pursue other job opportunities, not only in Carrickmacross but also the north-east region. There is a window of opportunity, as pointed out by Deputy Brendan Smith at the meeting yesterday, to market the skills base available in the Bose Corporation plant while it is still intact, in other words, before it closes. As the Minister of State is aware, we had a meeting yesterday evening with a delegation from Monaghan County Council which was attended by some of my Oireachtas colleagues, including the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Deputies Brendan Smith and Seán Conlon who are most anxious that the plant be maintained. I know that this is not within the Minister's gift, but we are asking him to try to ensure the Bose Corporation will do its utmost to keep it open and that, if it is to close, it will make proper provision to find alternative employment and offer the education and other supports that are vital for the workers at this time.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. My thoughts are with the workers at Bose and their families as they face into an extremely difficult time following the announcement of the pending closure of the plant in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. The Minister hoped to be present for this debate after attending the meeting yesterday, but the Dáil schedule changed and he had to take a motion. He sends his apologies as he would have liked to be here. I will get him to contact Members if there are questions I cannot answer.

The sudden and unexpected nature of the announcement to transfer production to Malaysia and Mexico was very upsetting for the staff, many of whom have very long service with the company and shown considerable flexibility and adaptability in work practices during the years. Lean management practices, as referred to by the Senator, made the plant cost-effective. In addition, the decision to close so quickly, with final closure announced for April and activity and employment levels winding down before then, is a further blow for the loyal employees.

As soon as the announcement was made, the Minister arranged for his officials to contact SOLAS, the further education and training authority; the Department of Social Protection and the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, to ensure the relevant State bodies could play their part in providing appropriate assistance for the employees. The Senator referred to education, training and promoting their skills. SOLAS, the main authority involved, is trying to organise and co-ordinate this activitiy. I can go through exactly what it can do, but it is so important that it try to keep the guys together as a unit.

The Minister spoke by telephone to a senior executive of Bose Corporation in the United States last Monday night and is arranging a meeting with a senior executive from the United States who is travelling to Ireland later this week. This is probably the same person mentioned by the Senator. I cannot confirm who the Minister is meeting, but it is a senior executive. It will be a face-to-face meeting in which the Minister will put all of the issues we have discussed to the executive. The Minister has ensured an inter-agency group led by Enterprise Ireland has been formed. Its membership includes representatives of all the relevant State players, that is, IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the Department of Social Protection, SOLAS, the education and training board, the local enterprise office and Monaghan County Council. The group is providing for a co-ordinated approach to the needs of the affected staff and some of its members were present at the meeting yesterday attended by the Senator.

The Minister has asked both IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland to redouble their efforts to secure new projects for County Monaghan, explore all opportunities to replace the jobs being lost in Carrickmacross and find a replacement industry for the site. IDA Ireland will work through its overseas network to pursue potential investors. It has been particularly successful in attracting major employers to the north-east region in recent years and will seek to build on this success in highlighting the advantages of County Monaghan. Enterprise Ireland - its companies in the region have been very successful in recent years - will pursue all possibilities among its client companies to seek to identify a potential replacement for the town. I reassure the Senator that everything that can be done will be done in this case. He has touched on what the agencies could do. A major part of their work will be collating the details of staff skills and the capabilities of the facility. They will put in place an activation team from the Department of Social Protection and make a presentation to the affected staff on their entitlements and available job opportunities. The local Department office in Carrickmacross will assist the staff in processing their entitlements to make claiming jobseeker's allowance easier. I hope case workers will be provided to work with affected staff to make sure they are kept job-ready. The key is marketing their skills as a unit because it is an attractive site with attractive people working on it. There are, therefore, a lot of the ingredients needed to persuade another company to locate there. All of these efforts will be made, in addition to working with Bose Corporation management, to see what can be done to extend the period involved because the Senator is right to say the longer we can keep the plant open, the better things will be.

The Minister will be having a meeting with a senior executive from Bose Corporation who is due, weather permitting, to travel here on Thursday. Will the Minister let us know how he gets on at that meeting? It is important that the facts, as I have outlined them, be emphasised in the strongest manner possible.

I am sure there will no difficulty with doing what the Senator suggests. As he knows, the Minister always tries to involve everybody on these occasions, certainly on a cross-party issue. That is why a delegation from the county council, with Oireachtas Members, attended a meeting yesterday. As it is important that we all work together on this issue, I will certainly pass on the Senator's request to the Minister who I am sure will keep the Senator informed about his meeting later this week.

It is important that IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland try to market the plant. Even though the past few years have been tough for the country, there have been many jobs created in the Monaghan area. Enterprise Ireland companies have increased the number of staff employed by them from 3,638 to 4,470. That is not to boast but to indicate that there are opportunities available. The past couple of years have been quite good in the area and the level of unemployment has come down from 17% to 11%, which is still far too high. I have no doubt, however, that we will able to find replacement work for the skilled workers involved. It is that on which we must focus our attention. It is important to know that although this is a tough time, there is still hope. It is an area in which people have been progressive and if we put the agencies together, I hope those affected will only be out of work for a short time.

Social Welfare Benefits

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys. I will keep it short and sweet because the issue I wish to raise speaks for itself.

I tabled this matter because I know of a person who was transferred from illness benefit to invalidity benefit when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, MS. The day she was transferred a social welfare officer visited her at home. She got the letter about the visit a couple of days before and was in a state of distress because she did not know what she had done wrong and why a social welfare officer was visiting her. She had been on and off illness benefit while she waited for the final diagnosis. When her illness was diagnosed she could no longer work. She had never applied for a qualified adult dependant allowance. There was no reason for a social welfare officer to visit her, or for her to have her bank statements ready when the officer called. She was so worked up that her husband took a day off work to be with her when the social welfare officer came.

The social welfare officer did not arrive on the day named in the letter. The client's husband wasted a day’s holiday from work waiting for her. She arrived unannounced the following day saying it was an administrative error and that whoever sent the letter out had got the date wrong. The woman explained that she had not applied for a qualified adult dependant allowance and could not see the reason for the visit. She told the social welfare officer she had just been approved for invalidity benefit. The meeting was short and sweet.

Following that she received a letter from the Department of Social Protection asking her to complete a survey, and asking about her savings, her income and whether she had an income when she applied for the benefit. The Department knew her circumstances because she also received a handwritten note from the social welfare officer saying she knew she had transferred to invalidity pension and asking her to complete the form in order to complete her claim and put it into the archives. The officer knew the client’s personal circumstances, when she wrote that letter, knew she was on benefit and that she had not applied for a qualified adult dependant allowance. Why did she pursue this matter and ask the woman about her savings and so on? Every time I ring the Department of Social Protection about the delay in some application or whatever I am told it is under pressure and there are not enough staff. If that is the case why are staff in the Department doing work that they do not have to do? Why do they not concentrate on the work they should be doing?

I apologise to the client for the administration error that meant the social welfare officer did not arrive on the stated day. It can be frustrating for people in those circumstances, especially when the client’s husband had taken the day off to be there with his wife.

I will explain in detail the background to the survey. The Department of Social Protection processes in excess of 2 million applications each year and makes payments to some 1.4 million people every week. The vast majority of people receive the correct entitlement.

In line with the Department's commitment to excellent customer service and value for money, surveys are carried out on a regular basis across all the Department’s schemes to ensure the right amount of money is being paid to the right person at the right time. This is an important part of the Department's compliance and anti-fraud strategy. The illness benefit survey raised by the Senator was one of these surveys.

The survey commenced in December 2014 with the random selection of 1,000 illness benefit customers. Each case selected is tested to ensure that it meets the conditions of entitlement for that scheme and is in receipt of the correct amounts. The survey involves a social welfare inspector making a home visit, the completion of a questionnaire and a deciding officer reviewing each case based on the findings of the social welfare inspector.

The survey questionnaire is designed to assist the deciding officer in determining if the customer actually received the correct entitlement for the duration of the claim. The illness benefit claim for the person concerned was one of the randomly selected survey cases. The claim papers and questionnaire were forwarded to the social welfare inspector on 8 December 2014 as the person concerned was in receipt of illness benefit at that time.

The social welfare inspector called to the home address on 6 January 2015 and was informed by the customer that she was no longer in receipt of illness benefit and has been awarded an invalidity pension. The social welfare inspector returned the papers to the illness benefit branch without completing the survey. However, as this survey concerned the person's entitlement to illness benefit it was necessary to follow up with a postal questionnaire to the customer.

While illness benefit is not subject to a means test, questions relating to income are asked to ensure the customer is in receipt of the correct entitlement in respect of qualified adult and or qualified child dependants. It is also important to establish if the customer's circumstances have changed since the commencement of the illness benefit claim. As the customer continues to be in receipt of a payment from the Department the survey file will be returned to the social welfare inspector for completion of the questionnaire. I assure the Senator that these surveys are carried out professionally and sensitively and in the best interests of the customer to ensure that the Department is paying the right amount of money to the right person at the right time.

It is a random selection of 1,000 people. A total of 1.4 million payments is made every week. Given that there are 2 million applications a year it is only right and fitting that the Department carry out those surveys to make sure there is equality of delivery. Only by checking on how we treat and deal with customers can we ensure the right money is paid at the right time to these individuals and ensure excellence within the service. When dealing with that number of people the message can sometimes be misconstrued but the intention is to make sure the person gets the right amount of money at the right time.

I thank the Senator. Her expertise in this area is well known around the House and many of us seek advice from her in that area. The service should be provided with respect for the customer. If the client was upset I apologise on the part of the Department. That was not the intention.

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate what he says and agree that the Department has a responsibility to its clients. Is it not doing unnecessary work? This woman felt harassed. There must be something we can do to alleviate that feeling among people. People who claim illness benefit have paid pay related social insurance, PRSI, for their entitlements. This client was intimidated by the visit to the house when she had done nothing wrong. She had not been working so the officer could not have been inspecting that and she had not applied for a means test. What the Minister of State said should have been stated in the letter to explain the visit. I do not want to say the Department is wasting its time because there probably are some people who will benefit from such a visit but it is not explained properly and is intimidating to an ordinary country person drawing her illness benefit and trying to deal with her illness. She was very upset by the whole incident.

Does the Minister of State feel the Department is doing unnecessary work when, as he says, millions of people are applying every week for means-tested payments and the effort should be concentrated on them? In due course, when we reach a stage when all the means-tested applications have been dealt with, the Department might move on to a survey to see if everyone is receiving the right entitlement.

The Senator makes an excellent point but we have to ensure we provide an excellent service. If we do not carry out those random surveys we have no idea whether the 1.4 million people receiving a payment every week are receiving the right payment at the right time. This is part of the testing of procedures.

I will take on board the Senator’s suggestion and will look at the letter sent out to the 1,000 clients. These surveys reveal glitches in the schemes that we can correct automatically. It is part of our customer service programme to highlight areas where the Department is not doing well.

If there is fraud within the system, that will be highlighted. In a number of cases, we were made aware that applicants were not receiving the correct payments because they filled out their applications wrongly in the first instance. The Senator has probably come across a number of people who did not apply for their full entitlements.

In the long term, surveys will improve the service we provide to the customer. Over the last four years numerous improvements have been made to our services, including reducing the length of time involved in processing applications. These surveys assist us in making such improvements. In the context of the 1.4 million people in receipt of benefits, 1,000 is a small sample size. I will investigate whether the wording of the letter to which the Senator referred is correct in terms of avoiding undue upset to applicants or individuals in receipt of payments. I thank her for highlighting the issue.

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