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.