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Personal Public Service Numbers

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 3 December 2020

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Questions (9, 11)

Claire Kerrane

Question:

9. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to long delays for persons applying for PPS numbers; the number of applications pending a decision; if additional resources have been put in place to assist with the backlog; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39997/20]

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Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

11. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of the waiting lists for PPS numbers; if her attention has been drawn to the negative impact this has had on workers and businesses; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40008/20]

View answer

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Social)

This question asks the Minister whether she is aware of the long delays that people are experiencing when applying for personal public service, PPS, numbers. Can she give us the number of applications that are pending decision at the moment? Will she consider putting in additional resources in order to clear the backlog, or is this something she has already done?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 11 together.

The SAFE registration process, which involves the authentication of a person's identity in a face-to-face interview, is the normal method of processing an application for a personal public service number, PPSN.

At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, my Department temporarily suspended the SAFE registration process. This decision was taken in order to comply with HSE and World Health Organization public health guidelines. Although this suspension was lifted in June when restrictions eased, the throughput in terms of processing applications was lower than normal due to the need to limit footfall into our offices in line with social distancing requirements. In order to deal with these constraints and as an exceptional measure, my Department introduced an email and postal service through which PPSN applications could be made. By its nature this temporary service is not as efficient as the face-to-face process it has replaced. For example, any issues which arise regarding supporting documentation take longer to resolve than would be the case in a face-to-face environment. In addition, delays in issuing PPS numbers arose as staff in my Department were reassigned to deal with a huge increase in claim processing work arising as a consequence of the pandemic. In this context, it was necessary, as I am sure the Deputies will understand, to prioritise getting people into payment above all other activities.

I am very conscious of the impact of the measures we had to take on issuing PPS numbers and my Department has liaised with other public bodies, employers and other agencies to deal with urgent cases as quickly as possible. Since the introduction of this temporary service, my Department has allocated almost 34,000 PPS numbers and is currently dealing with approximately just over 22,000 applications, most of which are now being processed.

In recent weeks, my Department has reassigned resources to deal with these applications. This will result in improved processing times and will substantially further reduce the number of applications on hand over the next few weeks. In addition, as level 5 restrictions are lifted, my Department is now resuming SAFE registrations for PPSN applicants.

As public representatives, we engage with staff of the Department at local level through our constituency offices and many Members of the House will agree when I acknowledge the monumental effort that the staff have put in this year, at a time of national crisis, to ensure that payments were issued to those who needed it. Since March, staff have processed 1.5 million claims, issued 13 million payments to 800,000 people and processed the equivalent of seven years' worth of jobseeker's applications in eight months. On top of that, we issued €130 million in arrears to 286,000 people this year. Next week, we will pay €389 million on the Christmas bonus. I pay tribute to the staff and I know that the Deputies here will agree when I say that the staff of the Department of Social Protection were front-line workers. They provided the absolutely essential supports that people across the country needed. I acknowledge that. It is sometimes easy to forget that the Department and the staff have managed to do that on top of their normal, day-to-day work processing pensions, disability payments and carer's allowance. It is sometimes easy to take for granted that things will run smoothly and payments will be there every week but much work goes on behind the scenes to make that happen. It has been a monumental effort, across the board, by staff in every county to keep the show on the road this year. It is important that we acknowledge the effort, the huge amount of hours, overtime and weekend work they have done to make sure that everybody got their payments as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I thank the Minister. I, too, pay tribute to the staff, not only those who were reassigned to deal with the pandemic unemployment payment but also those who were left behind in smaller numbers than usual to deal with the likes of applications for PPS numbers. I have been inundated by contacts from people for the past number of months. We know that real issues are caused when people are left waiting for PPS numbers. I am currently dealing with someone who is trying to buy a house but has no PPS number and their solicitor has advised that there is a 20-week waiting time for a number. Another person who has moved to my county of Roscommon is looking to set up a business and therefore needs a PPS number for a number of things. He needs it within 30 days to import his car from England. Revenue has told him that he has 30 days to do that but the PPS section has told him he will not have his PPS number within 30 days. That causes real difficulties for people who are trying to do their best in whatever situation they are in.

I asked about the backlog and the Minister said that 22,000 applications are being dealt with at the moment. How many staff are dealing with that backlog?

I thank the Minister and take on board what she said about the PPS numbers. The reason that I submitted this question was that a constituent has had construction staff sitting idle for months now because they could not do the Safe Pass test. Will the Minister liaise directly with SOLAS to ensure that at least those people who are waiting for PPS numbers can do the Safe Pass test? The woman employing the constriction staff has been asking for flexibility to be shown for months to allow her new employees to be able to do the Safe Pass course. Meanwhile, the staff have been unable to work and she has been supporting and accommodating them. I know that the Minister appreciates how difficult things already are for businesses without having to do this.

I completely understand the challenges Covid has presented for the issuing of PPS numbers and I hope to see an improvement in this. If there was some way the Safe Pass course could be freed up, that would be great.

I had a similar question, No. 79, which I would have expected to be grouped. People have been waiting months to get PPS numbers. For example, a lady who is a qualified nurse was waiting from June until October to start work in a nursing home and get up and running. She is an essential worker, as I am sure the Minister agrees. Similarly, a Lisburn man returning from Australia and wanting to get up and running in Cork has been waiting almost six weeks to get his PPS number, facing into Christmas and just wanting to get on with work.

The Minister has outlined some of the measures being put in place. How many people does the Department have on that? How many extra have been put in? Are essential workers being prioritised? If so, how much faster is it for an essential worker? What kind of target does the Minister have in mind to turn around those PPS numbers that are so essential for people who want to get going at their work?

I thank all the Deputies for raising this issue. It is something I am very aware of from my own constituency office. This week, 200 additional people have been moved into the section that works on PPS numbers. Deputies can understand that getting money in people's pockets in terms of the PUP was an absolute priority. Then people were depending on arrears to come. Some people were owed arrears, mainly because insufficient information had come in and we could not process the claims. Then we got the information, processed the claims and they went through 1.6 million applications. This week we have paid out arrears to 286,000 people, totalling €130 million.

That will give some idea of the volume of work that the Department of Social Protection has been dealing with. I accept there have been delays with PPS numbers but Deputies will be glad to hear that more staff are going into it. It is a priority for us to try to process them as quickly as possible. If there are any specific cases the Deputies want to bring to my attention, I will be happy to deal with them. We are doing everything we can and the staff are working as hard as they can to get this dealt with.

I welcome that 200 additional people have been moved into that service to reduce the backlog. As the Minister has acknowledged, there are huge difficulties. While I appreciate that getting money into people's pockets was the priority during Covid, the Minister also acknowledged that there are huge difficulties for people trying to get PPS numbers for various purposes, such as taking up a job or buying a house. I welcome the action the Minister has taken and I hope it will see the average waiting time for people reduce quickly.

I take on board what the Minister says. I look forward to an improvement in it. Perhaps the Minister could liaise on the transfer over of cars. People are trying to get their cars transferred over but cannot do so because they do not have PPS numbers. A bit of common sense and flexibility around it would go a long way. I commend staff who have done Trojan work on this, the PUP and other issues.

A situation is arising for the workers and the Mandate union in Shaws in Castlebar. They think they are not entitled to the PUP because they restarted at work last year. It is a separate but connected question and if the Minister could bring clarity to that, it would be great.

I acknowledge the substantial work staff are doing. The Minister is aware of it as well, as she has pointed out. They are doing it in a very challenging time. I also welcome the 200 extra people assigned to deal with the PPS numbers. That will be helpful. Will the Minister outline what kind of target time she is setting out to achieve? How soon can people reasonably expect that, having made an ordinary application, they will have a PPS number? Will it be a month or six weeks, when it is up and running? Tá sé fíorthábhachtach go mbeadh daoine ábalta uimhreacha PPS a fháil agus tá moill mhór sa chóras. Mar sin, tá sé an-tábhachtach go ndéantar gach iarracht rudaí a bhrú chun cinn. What is the Minister's target time and is she prioritising any essential workers? How much faster is the essential worker getting their PPS number than the ordinary applicant?

I acknowledge the work and the courtesy of the staff in the offices around the country. They are great. A change has been made in PPS numbers. In the past, wives and husbands were linked with the same number. The only difference was that "w" was after the wives' number. That has been changed, thankfully and properly, and everybody has been given their own individual number. However, many women do not know this and I have a case of a woman applying for her driving licence who was told the PPS number she had, with "w" at the end, would not work. She had to get a new PPS number, which is causing further delays. She did not know that. First, will the Minister do something to inform people of this change so they can apply for the new PPS number in time? Second, is there any way they could still use the old PPS number to do things like getting driving licences to alleviate the backlog?

That was a bugbear of mine. My number was changed to the same as my husband's with a "w" on the end of it. That is quite some time ago. I got another PPS number a good number of years ago. I do not know if there are many cases where people have not got the new PPS number. I imagine they are few and far between but I will check it out to make sure people are aware they got one in their own right. I do not know why we ever had to be attached in that manner. They were changed and now, thankfully, they are changed back.

On Deputy Moynihan's question, we have put additional resources in. We will try to deal with the backlogs as quickly as possible. I assure the Deputy that arrangements are in place to expedite urgent cases. We are working through them as quickly as we can. Everything will be done to move them on because I know there are cases where people absolutely need to get PPS numbers as quickly as possible, for example to complete the purchase of a property and the drawdown of a mortgage, as Deputy Kerrane said. These instances are across the board. I confirm to the House we are doing everything we can to move the backlog.

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