I propose to take Questions Nos. 69, 87, 99, 101 and 115 together.
My Department issues payments each week to approximately 1.1 million customers in respect of 49 separate schemes. This requires implementing a complex set of procedures to ensure payments are produced accurately and on time. At Christmas time the process is more complex as additional procedures are required to pay double payments around that period. Arrangements are put in place to make payments in advance to ensure that customers are not inconvenienced by the closure of banks over the holiday period.
Approximately 667,000 customers are in receipt of long-term benefit on schemes such as old age, lone parent and invalidity pension. Some 168,000 of these customers receive their payment entitlements by way of electronic fund transfer, EFT. This facility allows customers to receive their payment into their bank account. The EFT facility is available to customers living in Ireland or abroad. Customers living here receive their payments on a weekly basis, while those living abroad receive their payments on a four-weekly basis.
During the Christmas period in 2004 my Department put arrangements in place to make a payment covering two weeks of entitlement to our weekly paid customers. This was to ensure that such customers were not adversely affected by the limited bank opening hours over the holiday period. Payments for 15, 16 and 17 December, inclusive, included the Christmas payments for 22, 23 and 24 December, respectively.
On Thursday, 23 December 2004 an error occurred during the production of payments for 47,977 of my Department's weekly paid customers. An incorrect set of instructions was entered in the computer programme resulting in the issuing of a payment for two weeks to the customers in question instead of the single weekly payment intended. Unfortunately, when the error was discovered the payments had already been credited to the customers' bank accounts. The customers concerned received payment of their entitlement one week early and due to the holidays it was not possible to contact them immediately to advise them of the position. As soon as possible after Christmas, my Department wrote to all the affected customers to explain the position and apologise for the inconvenience caused.
My Department has established additional interim control measures to prevent recurrence of such errors. A more comprehensive review of all payment generating procedures for customers is nearing completion and will lead to improvements in these procedures. My Department regrets any inconvenience caused to customers and is satisfied that implementation of the review recommendations will prevent a recurrence.