The Retention of Jobs and Benefits Office Posts and Services in Omagh.

Part of Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 7:00 pm on 27th January 2009.

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Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP 7:00 pm, 27th January 2009

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.