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.