Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In 2006, management at the Social Security Agency (SSA) initiated a strategic business review to assess its operational structures in order to ensure that the service could continue in light of funding cuts outlined in the comprehensive spending review. The Social Security Agency management also cited staffing problems and raised part-time working, term-time working and sick absences as issues that needed to be addressed. I suggest that that is contestable.
The review had various phases, but it concluded with one preferred option — a centralisation of back-office processing on 16 sites in the North, each of which would deal with one benefit only. In many cases, that would mean staff moving from their current place of work. It has been calculated that 850 Social Security Agency staff will be forced to redeploy and that 200 jobs will be lost. That is in addition to the 674 posts that were already lost as a result of 2004’s ‘Fit for Purpose’ review.
The Minister for Social Development approved the public consultation that was launched on 27 November, and I understand that that consultation closes later this week. It is for that reason that I tabled this Adjournment topic with the Business Office on 6 January. The title of the debate is, “The Retention of Jobs and Benefits Office Posts and Services in Omagh”. I record my appreciation of the Minister’s attendance. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully and remedy the situation by taking the appropriate and necessary action as soon as possible.
I pay tribute to the highly professional staff in the local jobs and benefits office in Omagh who do a first-class job. People in Omagh felt so strongly about the proposals that they lobbied their local government representatives and district councillors to hold a special council meeting to address the issue. Chairman of Omagh District Council, Councillor Martin McColgan, convened a special meeting to discuss the matter.
How will the proposals impact on the public? We know that face-to-face contact on a walk-in basis will no longer be available and that interviews — which could take weeks to arrange — will be available by appointment only. We know that the proposals are contrary to the findings of a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey that was commissioned by the agency management, which found that the majority of customers who were surveyed stated that their problems could be resolved by direct face-to-face contact only.
Anne Marie Fitzgerald, who is a councillor on Omagh District Council, recently recounted, at a council meeting, her experience of making representations on behalf of a young male constituent who had literacy difficulties. Members should remember that one in four adults in our society has problems with literacy. She did her best to secure face-to-face contact on a walk-in basis with the staff at the jobs and benefits office in Omagh in order to assist a constituent who would not have survived the telephony system. That story made an impression on me; if that service had been unavailable, somebody would have been lost in the system.
Many people from ethnic minorities do not use English as their first language and require more assistance. Therefore, many people would be lost if the new arrangements were to pertain. Public services would be greatly reduced, and the most vulnerable members of society will be the losers. Furthermore, the strategic business review will be used as a platform to realise further future staffing efficiencies. That is the true aim of the proposals — not delivering better services to customers.
Moreover, the new telephone systems are untried and untested here. That may lead to more unnecessary frustration for the public at a time when they need a vital service. Unemployment figures are currently soaring, and the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance, income support and incapacity benefit has risen steadily in recent months. Current forecasts indicate that the situation will continue for the foreseeable future. During this time of economic uncertainty and hardship, people do not need such upheaval in the jobs and benefits offices. Although I appreciate that resources and staffing levels have been increased to cope with the rise in demand, such upheaval is unnecessary.
The use of customer access phones has proven unworkable in Britain and many Jobcentre Plus offices have removed them altogether. The removal of 850 staff from front line local offices to centralised sites will take jobs away from towns that are already socially and economically deprived. That goes in the opposite direction to George Bain’s report, which identified Omagh as an important location for the retention and expansion of public-sector jobs.
I understand that the specific proposals for Omagh will retain the social fund administration function but jettison the income support function to Derry and jobseeker’s allowance to Enniskillen, with a net loss of 19 posts — from 80 to 61 — in Omagh. Many staff co-signed a letter to the Minister on 16 December stating their concerns. Many contributors were women who reported facing lengthy travel on poor roads to reach work. They said that the arrangements do not contribute to a good work/life balance and outlined that the necessary childcare arrangements are not in place.
The review is just so ill-conceived that I must take this opportunity to call on the Minister for Social Development to shelve completely the strategic business review of jobs in benefits offices. I call formally on the Minister to do exactly that, to do it immediately, and without delay.
It has been said to me that, at best, the review is ill-conceived — particularly at this time it is having a hugely disruptive effect on the whole benefits system — and at worst it is unwise and irresponsible. I understand that Pat Doherty MP has also written to the Minister, and he has met with her to raise questions about equality impact assessments and how the absence of those impacts on workers in places such as Omagh and Strabane. People who work in jobs and benefits offices have emphasised to me the impact that it will have on their work-life balance, involving extra travelling time, and so on.
More than anything else, the issue is about the quality of service to the customer. The priority should be to retain and secure a quality, accessible benefits service for people, and to secure current satisfactory working arrangements for the valuable public-sector workers who carry out those administrative functions. The review is really about staff efficiencies; it is not about improving accessibility for applicants, or delivering a better service for customers. I am aware that there is considerable opposition to the strategic business review of the jobs and benefits office inside the Minister’s own party. I noted in the Order Paper and the other documents that are provided by the Business Office that her party colleague MLAs in other constituencies have also been trying to raise this issue.
I call on the Minister for Social Development not to delay, not to pursue this foolish path, and to set aside immediately the strategic business review, which is not about caring for customers, but is really about management and staff efficiencies.
I support the Adjournment topic. Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that you have said that we have five minutes to speak, but if I run over that time, I trust that you will give me a little leeway, as this is a very important issue for Omagh, and I would like the time to put forward the case. I thank the Business Office for ensuring that this important matter was brought to the Floor of the House, and also thank the Minister for being present for the debate. I hope that she will give due consideration to the concerns raised during the course of the debate and act upon them appropriately.
The strategic business review was initiated by the Social Security Agency in 2006, followed by the launch of a public consultation on 27 November 2008, which is due to close on Thursday 29 Jan 2009. That consultation includes proposals that, if carried through to fruition, will have devastating consequences for staff, for jobs, and most of all for the services continually provided in the Omagh jobs and benefits office to the most vulnerable in the community.
Although I am aware that the issue affects every constituency, I want to focus specifically on Omagh this evening. I will deal with three individual points — the staff, the jobs and the services. First, let us examine how the staff will be affected. The Omagh jobs and benefits office currently deals with the social fund, income support and jobseeker’s allowance, and over the past 20 years has provided such an excellent level of service that the chief executive of the SSA has provided reports to the Minister, not only of targets being met, but of the excellent progress that has been made by the staff.
I commend those staff who, through their continual commitment, often while working with staff shortages, still deliver a first-class service for the community that should make any Department proud. However, the current proposals, which seek to relocate income support to the Foyle office in Londonderry, and jobseeker’s allowance to the Enniskillen office, will mean that some staff will have a daily round trip in excess of 100 miles and others will have a daily round trip of 70 miles.
The knock-on consequences for staff who have commitments — such as taking their children to school or nursery — will effectively render it impossible for them to continue in their jobs if they are forced to relocate to Londonderry or Enniskillen.
Long travelling distances will also result in longer working days that will, in turn, affect the health of the staff. Their performance in work is likely to suffer because they will be stressed and tired as a direct result of the added travel and longer days away from home. I ask the Minister whether it makes sense for people to travel from Omagh to Londonderry while other people pass them as they travel from Londonderry to Omagh to work in offices. I cannot see the sense or the logic behind that.
In one of the local papers, the Minister said that the relocation of jobs would be within reasonable travelling distances. It takes one hour to travel from Omagh to Londonderry on a good day when there is not much traffic, and it can take one and a half hours when there is a lot of traffic or bad weather. Is that reasonable travelling time? Perhaps the Minister should come to West Tyrone and make those journeys. She may then begin to understand what the staff would face if the proposals become reality.
Let us examine the job situation. Under the Minister’s proposals, those jobs are to be centralised. That is in complete contradiction to the Bain Report, which encouraged decentralisation. Where do the Minister’s proposals fit into the Bain recommendations? I remind her that the regional development strategy identified Omagh as a main hub. It is the key town in the west, with a population of some 50,000 within a wider travel-to-work catchment of some 300,000 people.
A key feature of Omagh’s economy has been the strength of its service sector, with 78% employment and over 50% of its workforce employed in the public sector. It also has significant development potential for office accommodation, which could be easily adapted for the decentralisation of central and Government jobs.
I was delighted to hear the announcement from TEREX Finlay this morning regarding the future of the Omagh plant. In the midst of today’s uncertain economic climate, that company has taken steps to consolidate the position of its equipment with no planned redundancies. It has identified Omagh as a centre of excellence, and it has done what it could to make sure that it could remain there. However, rather than consolidating its position in Omagh, the Department for Social Development plans to wreak havoc in a service that delivers for the people, with the potential of job losses from the Omagh office, while completely ignoring the Bain Review, the regional development strategy and Workplace 2010.
Let us examine the service that is provided. What impact will the Minister’s proposals have on the people who use the jobs and benefits office in Omagh? The impact on the public will be a severe reduction in the current service provision, as face-to-face contact will no longer be available on a walk-in basis. It will be by appointment only, which may not be available for weeks. Although there is much talk of a telephone system, the majority of people who require that service are elderly or are disabled in some way, which renders any telephone system inadequate to deal with the difficulties that they face on a daily basis. From talking to constituents who require face-to-face meetings with staff to resolve their difficulties, I know that no telephone system — irrespective of how good it may be — could compensate for such meetings.
Should the Minister refuse to listen and set aside her current proposals, she will do a great injustice to the most vulnerable people in the West Tyrone community who will, without doubt, suffer the consequences as a result.
The consultation document is crystal clear. The review is not, as claimed, about delivering better services to customers; it is about staff efficiencies, which will be achieved through the centralisation of back-room staff, and that will deliver a severe blow to service-delivery standards. Therefore, I urge the Minister to review her decision and to ensure that vital public services, and adequate staffing levels, are retained in Omagh, so that a strong network can be provided to meet the needs of communities not only in Omagh but throughout Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for your leeway.
Although I will put forward my case, I do not expect to require the extra leeway.
Job redevelopment — as I describe the process — is ongoing throughout the Province, so we are now thankful for public-sector jobs. In an economic downturn, particularly with respect to the construction industry and other sectors that are affecting employment levels in the west of the Province, public-sector jobs are vital. Omagh has one of the highest proportions of public-sector jobs outside the greater Belfast area.
A sea change appears to be taking place in Departments and agencies, which are moving away from affording customers — the public — front line, face-to-face access. The further that process continues, the more difficult it will be for people to access the services that they require. I am hugely concerned about the increasing reliance on telephones, email and, to some extent, the Post Office to access services. Those methods of communication do not have the same impact as face-to-face contact. Moreover, it is difficult for the most vulnerable people in society — the elderly, the disabled and people looking for work, who make so much use of public-sector services — to access services or get the information that they need.
Today, the Social Security Service issued a statement referring to that situation:
“Under the strategic business review, telephone arrangements to meet customers’ needs will be enhanced and modernised to the latest industry standards.”
It should have used the word “tele-phoney”, because, having attempted to access Government agencies and Departments, I know that it can be an absolute nightmare — press 1 for this, 2 for that, and 28 for something else. One must spend half an hour on the phone before reaching the person whom you want to talk to. Indeed, the new planning regime has adopted that system. However, out of respect for the flexibility that Mr Deputy Speaker has shown Members, I will not digress from the subject any further.
Customers in Omagh, like those in other parts of the Province, require face-to-face access. Therefore, I ask the Minister to review the provision of services. I want jobs to be decentralised to Omagh, Coleraine, Enniskillen and elsewhere, and that can be achieved by maintaining front-line services in the Social Security Agency and in other bodies, such as the Housing Executive.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This serious issue also affects Strabane, where I come from, so, although the Adjournment debate concerns services in Omagh, I support the motion. Given the hour, and the fact that it has been a long day, I appreciate the Minister’s presence in the House.
I want to highlight the situation in Strabane. The general view is that the economic downturn has created a context in Strabane, where there is already a very low base.
I know that you have allowed some leeway, Mr Deputy Speaker, with regard to comments about other areas, and I will get on to the general topic. However, I want to put on record the situation in Strabane. It was raised yesterday by the MP for the area, Pat Doherty, and Councillor Michaela Boyle and Colman McCrossan, who deal with such issues in the constituency office daily.
Some 43 jobs in Strabane will be reduced to 10, and I want to put on record my concern about that. The Minister has a listening ear, and I want her to remember that statistic when we talk generally about the issue in Omagh, West Tyrone and elsewhere.
Mr Elliott mentioned the new “tele-phoney” system — that was very apt. I do not know how it is going to work. Automated call distribution — will this work? The experience of ringing a call centre is exactly as Mr Elliott described — press 1, and so on. There are some tunes that I know by heart, from ringing particular organisations.
I do not want that to happen in this instance, particularly as it will involve the most vulnerable in society, as has been said. It is those people who need to have face-to-face contact. One Member mentioned the importance of face-to-face contact; I think that it is a necessity. This morning, I spoke to my party colleague Mickey Brady about the issue. We were not talking about Strabane or Omagh specifically, but he said that there was no way that employment and support allowances could be resolved satisfactorily across phone lines. Applicants cannot be told how to fill in the forms over the phone. He has experience of this, and I would like the Minister to respond to that concern.
I was surprised to read that feedback from the Social Security Agency front line staff showed that most enquiries could be dealt with by phone. I am challenging that; that is not what we hear in our constituency offices — that most of the enquiries from the most vulnerable people in society, such as the elderly, the poor and people on low incomes, who need face-to-face contact, can be dealt with by phone. I was very surprised by that. I hope that I have quoted it correctly; I think that it came from a fit-for-purpose survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Social Security Agency front line staff said that most of the enquiries that they receive could be dealt with on the phone. That is not the information that we hear in our constituency offices.
The Minister has been in Strabane, in my constituency, a number of times. I hope that she thinks of West Tyrone, and of Strabane in particular. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I welcome today’s Adjournment debate. I thank the Member who proposed it and those who have participated. Although the subject of the debate is Omagh, where, I think, Mr McElduff’s concerns are exaggerated, it allows me to put the Social Security Agency’s strategic business review proposals into some perspective.
The publication of the proposals has generated a great deal of interest, but I am concerned about the amount of misinformation that has been circulated. Some people who are opposed to any change in the structures of the Social Security Agency have made claims about the proposals which range from wild speculation to simple untruths.
It is regrettable that much of the misinformation has come from the party that introduced the Adjournment debate, and I shall return to that point.
My aim is to ensure that the consultation is informed by balanced and measured discussions. Let me make it clear: no decisions have been taken, or will be taken, until we have had time to give full consideration to the responses to the consultation exercise. Incidentally, the consultation is still open, and Mr McElduff referred to the fact that it will remain open until Thursday 29 January. I appeal to everyone with views on the strategic business review — including Members of the House — to participate in the consultation. I repeat: no decisions have been taken.
Not only have no decisions been taken, but many of the claims that have been made about the proposals are entirely spurious. Under the agency’s proposals, as they stand, there will be no office closures, no staff redundancies and no reduction in customer services. Customers who are entitled to benefits will continue to be serviced by their local office, and a walk-in, face-to-face service will continue to be available. Anyone who says otherwise, such as Martina Anderson MLA who stated that in one of today’s newspapers, is plainly wrong. However, plainly wrong is a regular experience for that Member.
The draft proposals do involve a significant amount of staff movement. I am concerned about that, and I have heard the views of Members here today. Of course, I do not wish to pre-empt anything that might flow from the consultation. Nevertheless, I have been aware for some time, not least from representations made by my party colleagues and fellow MLAs from across the Chamber, that important issues are involved. The Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Tommy Gallagher told me this evening that he has constituents in Enniskillen who work in Omagh.
At the SDLP annual conference last weekend, I stated:
“I do not find acceptable a situation where hundreds of people will have to travel long distances to a new place of employment, particularly staff in part-time jobs or those on relatively low pay, or who have childcare responsibilities, and I am also aware that now is not a good time for major upheaval.”
Nevertheless, the Social Security Agency cannot stand still. The current social security structures in Northern Ireland are over 40 years old. They are based on a service model that sees customers having to travel to offices, regardless of circumstances. Many of the people it serves have told the agency that if it were to introduce a free quality telephone service that would allow them to do business from the comfort and privacy of their own homes, that would be welcomed — and I take on board what Mrs McGill said.
At the same time, there is the desire for the existing face-to-face service to continue to be available locally. I want to emphasise the point that the package of modernisation proposals have been designed to complement — not replace — the existing quality front line service to customers. No existing front line services will be taken away as a consequence of these proposals, nor will anyone be forced to use the telephone, wait for a lengthy appointment, or deal with a call centre. They will be serviced by agency staff experienced in social security benefits, with the resources to resolve their enquiry. The real challenge is for the agency to deliver further improvements to the customer experience.
Members also spoke today about the potential loss of service caused by change. I want to emphasise that there will be no loss of service.
I will turn now to the issue of jobs. No member of staff will be made redundant. Indeed, just yesterday, I announced the recruitment of an additional 150 staff for the Social Security Agency, and more will follow if they are required.
Mrs McGill raised the issue of the employment and support allowance. I was concerned, because I knew that claimants could not get through on the telephone. As a result, we have appointed additional staff to deal with the high volume of telephone calls, and a large number of claims have already been completed through the telephone system. As of today, I have instructed officials to ensure that there is an MLA and MP hotline, as there is for other benefits, to ensure that public representatives have direct access to senior officials to resolve issues on employment and support allowance on behalf of their constituents.
We are still in the midst of a consultation — there are only proposals on the table, and no decisions have been made. I am keen that there will be no diminution of service to our constituents, who are the people who urgently require the services provided by the Social Security Agency.
I must address a point that was made by one of Martina Anderson’s colleagues. In the latest weekly sideswipe at my Department, he said of the review:
“It would create further levels of unemployment reducing staff levels, with up to 490 job losses.”
That is totally wrong, but it is not surprising — Sinn Féin really must move on from that type of thing.
I am all too aware of the economic downturn and the need to ensure sufficient staffing to address increased unemployment registers. However, contrary to speculation, additional resources that were secured to address the current economic position do not remove my desire to improve the service. Central to the issue that we are discussing is the customer — the ordinary person in the street or the townland who requires our services and who should receive benefits if they are entitled to them.
I remind Members that the proposals are simply that — proposals. They are out for public consultation. I will listen carefully to all the views expressed and will not make any decisions until the consultation is complete. Mr McElduff mentioned the need for an equality impact assessment: that will be carried out. I gave Mr Doherty and his colleagues that assurance when I met them yesterday. I have also outlined areas where I have concerns.
There are shrill voices that make lots of noise but are devoid of any appreciation of the facts. Those people call on me to suspend the public consultation, but they will have to wait. The public shall have their say, because that is their right. My Department and I will then do what is best for the people who use the agency, for the agency itself and for those who work in it.
Members raised many issues, most of which I addressed in my speech. If I have not answered any of those issues fully, I will write to the relevant Members.
Adjourned at 7.19 pm.