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 Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin 7:00 pm, 27th January 2009

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.