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.