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In the debate on social security offices on 9 March 2009, when the Social Security Agency’s strategic business review proposals were out for public consultation, I undertook to return to the House quickly on the matter. I want Members to see that I have listened to their concerns and actively sought to address them. I also said on several occasions that I had serious concerns of my own. I am pleased to say that I am now in a position to outline the actions that I am minded to take in order to address the key concerns that were raised during the public consultation’s first phase.
First, however, I wish to reiterate what I said previously about the strategic business review proposals. Despite being relatively modest in ambition in comparison with what has already been done in Great Britain, the review has been the subject of much misinformed commentary over the past few months. Whatever else Members may have heard, the review’s proposals are designed to modernise and safeguard service delivery in order to benefit customers in the local office network. That is the straightforward and simple objective. It is about improving the service for people who rely on the Social Security Agency for support, not about cutting jobs. Indeed, only recently, I set about recruiting 150 additional staff, and if we need more, we shall recruit more.
Let me restate the facts: there will be no loss of front line services for any local office or town; no offices will close; and no staff will lose their jobs. I have said, however, that the agency cannot stand still. Change is essential in order to ensure the viability of the local office network in providing a quality service.
I will now deal with the concerns that have been raised, the first of which involves staff. Despite the fact that the proposals are focused on the service provided to customers and the fact that reasonable travel provisions are already enshrined in many staff members’ employment contracts, Members highlighted to me a range of potential impacts on staff who will have to travel to new work locations. Members will recall that I made it clear that I would not accept solutions that would result in large numbers of staff — some on low pay, some with caring responsibilities — having to move lengthy distances to a new place of work. That remains the case.
I am aware that the prospect of relocation is a cause of great concern for some staff. Therefore, in the next phase of consultation, I will propose a range of measures that will go a long way to addressing staff concerns. In addition to those that are already proposed, there will be two new processing centres in Lurgan and Ballymena. That measure should deal with any staff concerns in those areas. I am still evaluating the best arrangements for the centres in Strabane and Kilkeel. Substantial retraining of staff will take place, thus enabling many employees to remain in their current location and handle other work. That will mean that many staff, previously earmarked to move to a new location under the original Social Security Agency proposals, will no longer have to move.
For those who will still be expected to move, the Social Security Agency will link smaller offices with specific processing centres in order to limit travelling distances.
That clustering is aimed at ensuring, where possible, that staff who need to move have a choice of processing locations. It will depend on, for example, their home address and which office they are nearest to.
In the minority of cases in which staff will be required to change location, I have issued a directive that travel distance will be minimised. That will apply in all but the most exceptional cases. Therefore, fears about people being required to travel long distances to their work — for example, from Enniskillen to Derry — no longer have any foundation whatsoever.
In addition, I propose to put a mechanism in place whereby the personal circumstances of all individual staff can be considered before any final decisions are taken on work locations. My officials will engage with NIPSA on the arrangements to be adopted, and there will be time for everyone concerned to find the best solutions at local level.
All in all, those are important measures that address the concerns of staff, and I hope that Members will support them. The net result is that the vast majority of staff will now remain in their current town of employment, whereas under the original proposals, the majority of local office staff would have been required to change location.
I now address the specific concerns that Members raised with respect to the impact of the change on customers — let us not forget about the people who the agency and its staff are actually there to serve. Most of the concerns about customers related to the introduction of enhanced telephony arrangements for calls to the local office network.
I am pleased to inform the House that the first phase of consultation has identified only limited section 75 impacts, and those will be addressed thoroughly through the revised proposals. As I have always said, the new telephone and appointments arrangements will be in addition to the face-to-face options that exist today. Customers who need or prefer, for whatever reason, not to use the telephone will still be able to call into their local office as they have always done. The choice is theirs. However, overall customer accessibility will be improved greatly by enhanced telephony and appointments services.
I assure Members that customers who call into any local office will not then be directed to a telephone. However, the agency’s local office network already receives two million calls every year from customers, so people will no doubt welcome an improvement in that service. Some Members have argued that the changes are untried and untested; however, they already operate successfully in other parts of the agency. Members who have called on me to abandon the entire strategic business review would, it seems, have me throw out the baby with the bath water.
Many Members also raised concerns with me that the proposals were not aligned to the Bain Review or would have an adverse impact on local councils. They are wrong. The Bain Review endorses an approach to public-sector jobs that favours dispersal to a number of key hub locations to ensure critical mass of staff. I have also looked at the new council structures that are set out under the review of public administration (RPA), which sees the current 26-district-council model replaced by an 11-council model. The changes that I outlined today ensure that the strategic business review proposals are future-proofed in every way. Each of the nominated first-tier locations will have a processing centre, and so will every one of the 11 RPA council areas.
I am not aware of any other public-sector organisation that has demonstrated such a strong fit with the Executive’s strategic decisions, and I look forward to seeing others follow that lead.
The next concern is around the timing of any changes — an important consideration in the context of the economic downturn. I am only too aware of the changed economic circumstances that now prevail. I recognise the need to ensure that the Social Security Agency continues to provide a good service to an ever-growing number of customers in these difficult times.
I have previously said that I would not accept disproportionate organisational disruption at this time, and that remains the case. Therefore, I intend to proceed gradually; before committing to changes across the North, I need to be satisfied that those changes will deliver the service improvement that we all want to see.
First, I intend to pilot the proposed changes in the agency’s north district, to come into effect in April 2010, coinciding with the completion of the major new jobs and benefits office that is due to open in Ballymena. That will allow all of the proposed changes to be carefully tested and evaluated in a controlled manner, with any lessons learned being applied to any further rollout. That means that informed decisions can be made on the detail of the proposed changes to other districts. I recognise that this is a complex issue, and it is important to get it right.
The strategic business review will end after the consultation in respect of the equality impact assessment and my revised proposals. Change will be taken forward as part of a new initiative called customer first, which, as its name suggests, will place the customer at the heart of our work to improve the delivery of benefits at a local level.
Although much of the consultation debate to date has focused on the concerns of staff — concerns that I have now clearly addressed — I will ensure that the new initiative puts the needs of the customer to the fore. I hope that the proposals that I have outlined will gain the support of the majority of Members in the House.
As Minister, I have listened carefully to the public consultation and to the points that have been raised in the House, and I will continue to listen. My officials are currently finalising the details around the actions that I have set out, and will shortly publish that detail in the equality impact assessment document for further consultation. I have directed my officials to make arrangements to brief members of the Social Development Committee on the detail of my proposals, and to commence further consultation with agency staff and their trade union representatives.
The measures that I have outlined positively address the main concerns raised in public consultation. They represent very substantial change from the original Social Security Agency proposals, while ensuring that we can still maintain and improve the quality of service provided by the agency.
I ask those who have insisted that I abandon the strategic business review in its entirety to think again. We are a Government, and it is our job to do what is best for our people while remaining sensitive to the impacts of our decisions. If devolution is to make a difference, we must not keep avoiding difficult or challenging decisions. We must not buckle or panic just because we may be subjected to vigorous lobbying by vested interests. We must listen, but we must also act.
At a time when much of the private sector, and indeed the voluntary and community sectors, is hanging on, trying to survive, we have a duty to make sure that the public sector continues to improve its performance. That is what I am advancing today, and I commend the proposals to the House.
The Social Development Committee considered the strategic business review of the Social Security Agency in November 2008 and again in January 2009.
In order to inform its understanding, the Committee heard evidence from NIPSA, and it visited a jobs and benefits office and the Belfast benefit delivery centre. As the House is aware, the Committee has voiced considerable concerns about the strategic business review and the impact that it will have on customers and staff. The Committee will, therefore, consider the Minister’s revised — and, I think, welcome — proposals on limiting relocation distances for staff, the addition of new processing centres, and extended pilot schemes that are based around the Ballymena jobs and benefits office.
Is the Minister in a position to be able to indicate to the House what impact her revised proposals will have on the relocation of back-office staff? What percentage of such staff will be subject to relocation, and can she give some details about limits on relocation distances?
I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development for his comments and question.
At all times during this process, I was very concerned about the distances that staff would have to travel, and I articulated those concerns on the Floor of this House and in other places.
Each member of staff in job processing who has to be relocated will have their case evaluated and assessed fully by senior Social Security Agency staff, and their particular concerns will be taken on board. Within their cluster of Social Security Agency or jobs and benefits offices, they will be able to select or elect the office nearest to them in which they wish to work.
Another important consideration is that, as well as announcing two further processing centres, I indicated that there will be substantial staff retraining, enabling many to stay in their current locations and to be able to handle other work. That will mean that many staff who were designated previously for a new location under the Social Security Agency proposals will no longer have to move. That will be a substantial increase on the previous number, as I advised the Member earlier this morning.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister has touched on this particular point in her answers to Mr Simpson. She talked about substantial staff retraining, which will enable many to stay in their current location and to be able to handle other work. Can the Minister give some indication as to what that other work might be? For example, Newry has been designated to deal with income support, so I am just wondering what that other work is.
In addition, could the Minister confirm that the pilot scheme in the south district that was supposed to start in October 2009 has been put back until 2010? It appears that the north district — and Ballymena in particular — will be the location for the pilot scheme. Go raibh maith agat.
The pilot scheme will be run in the north region, and its time limit has not yet been determined. However, its outworkings will be used to determine future arrangements. It is also worth pointing out that about 80% of staff will not be moving at all and that the vast majority of the other 20% will be moving fewer than 15 additional miles in any one direction.
I thank the Minister for her statement, and I welcome her commitment to keep the situation under review. However, given rising levels of unemployment, will the Minister commit to securing more front line services to benefits agencies across Northern Ireland? Has the Minister deployed the 150 additional staff to the areas of greatest need? There have been many job losses in Mid Ulster.
I thank Mr Armstrong for his question. As I have stated on various occasions in the House, we set about recruiting 150 additional staff in response to the economic downturn. An assessment was carried out of where the need lay for additional staff, taking into account the greatest levels of signing on and of benefit uptake, as one equates with the other. As I pointed out earlier, if we need more staff as a result of greater job losses in the wider private sector, we will recruit more staff.
I thank the Minister for her statement. She said that she listened to many people, but, obviously, she did not listen to everyone. I am not a member of the Committee for Social Development, but, as I understand it, the Committee asked the Minister to hold fire with the business review, pending the outcome of the economic downturn that we are experiencing, which is resulting in so many more unfortunate people having to sign on. The Minister has not listened to the Committee, nor has she listened to other people who spoke about holding fire. That said, I welcome her statement that there will be no forced travel for the majority of staff —
I am doing my best. It is important that there is no forced use of the telephone, because, as I said, many more people are now going into benefits offices. It is easy for the Minister to say it in the House, but will she give an assurance that people will have access to face-to-face discussions when they go into benefits offices? Some people will be going to benefits offices for the first time who do not want to be there, but they have to be there and they need to be able to talk to people face to face to get through the process.
I think that Members sometimes do not listen to what we say in the House. For the benefit of Mr McCarthy and other Members, I will say again that there will be a full opportunity for front line services and for potential claimants and existing claimants to have face-to-face contact with an employee of the Social Security Agency.
Telephony and appointments services are additional, but I remind Members that the appointments system is very beneficial. I do not want claimants who have difficulties having to go into a social security office or a jobs and benefits office and join a long queue. It does not happen in doctors’ surgeries, in solicitors’ offices, or in other places where people procure professional services. It may happen in other offices, but it will not happen in the Social Security Agency. Both types of services will be available to potential claimants. We all know that they suffer from a great deal of stress, they are in receipt of low incomes, and they need to provide for their loved ones, their children and their families. I have a great deal of concern for those people.
I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome her announcement about trying to look after staff who do not want to move from their existing positions. Will she outline what will happen if an individual’s personal circumstances prevent them from moving from their job location?
More importantly, I see that the Department will be carrying out a pilot scheme in the agency’s north district. For how long will that pilot scheme take place, and can it be over a protracted period, allowing all of the issues to be ironed out before Province-wide implementation takes place?
I thank Mr Craig for his question, and I will answer the second part first. The pilot scheme will be operational from April 2010 in the north district, and no time limit has been set for how long it will run.
As regards Mr Craig’s original question: in my statement, and in my answer to Mr Simpson, I have said that I fully understand and acknowledge staff concerns on travel and the personal circumstances that many staff — particularly women — are faced with in relation to being in receipt of low income and having caring responsibilities. Each member of staff will have an opportunity to meet with a senior member of staff and have their particular circumstances fully evaluated and assessed. Furthermore, if staff are in a cluster arrangement, they will be able to elect, or select, the location nearest to them where they can work. Moreover, the Department is providing training and retraining for staff in certain benefit disciplines, which will ensure that many who were supposed to have had to travel — or leave their original locations — will now remain there, as retraining will be provided on the spot.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also thank the Minister for her statement. In her statement, the Minister said:
“we must not buckle or panic just because we may be subjected to vigorous lobbying by vested interests.”
Does the Minister agree that those vested interests include staff, who are concerned about whether they will have a job at the end of the process, and the trade unions, who seriously dispute her Department’s assertion that job losses will not be a part of the process? Will the Minister tell the House whether any jobs will go as part of the strategic business review? Her Department is proactively recruiting in respect of hundreds of outstanding vacancies across the agency. Will the Minister tell the House whether those vacancies will disappear as a result of this process?
I reiterate for the benefit of Mr McCann and Members that there will be no job losses and no office closures. The Department will continue to provide the services it has provided up to now. That is because our primary, and most important, concern is the delivery of services to our current and future customers.
I hope that I have more luck than the previous Member. I thank the Minister for her statement today. As the Minister knows from discussions we have had and debates in the House, a decision to close any social security office in the Province would be regarded very dimly in any constituency in which it occurs. Indeed, in my own constituency it would be viewed as being against the spirit of the Bain Report, if not against the letter of the law. Furthermore, it would be viewed as gross bad faith, not only by local employees, but by the Minister’s constituency party there, and I am sure she would accept that.
Will the Minister put some flesh on the bones of her statement in which she has indicated that two new processing centres will be opened — one in Lurgan, and one in Ballymena in my own constituency? Will the Minister indicate how many new jobs will actually be located in my constituency and how many of them will be on a part-time and full-time basis?
As the Minister already indicated in other answers, the creation of part-time jobs is very beneficial for women employees, in particular, in the Civil Service. The creation of full-time jobs would help to address the imbalance in that workforce where, believe it or not, the most discriminated section in the community as regards Civil Service jobs at that level are Protestant male workers. How does the Minister intend to address that imbalance with this employment opportunity?
I thank Mr Paisley Jnr for his statement.
The Department assessed and evaluated responses to the consultation process, which informed the possible outcome of the equality impact assessment. As a result of the economic downturn, we decided to recruit 150 additional Social Security Agency staff across the Northern Ireland network to reflect the areas of most acute need. If more staff are required, they will be recruited in offices in which there is a particular need, because the most important priority is to ensure, and maintain, the delivery of a first-class service to those most in need.
If the Member permits, I will write to him in respect of the actual numbers.
The Minister is aware from the consultation of concern about the relocation of jobs from offices in Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey. She mentioned clustering — will the Minister outline in more detail how that will affect existing employees in Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey who, potentially, face moving? Will those jobs move gradually, or ultimately migrate, to Ballymena?
I am also interested in the answer to the previous question because in my East Antrim constituency, which has some of the lowest levels of Civil Service employment, there is great concern that jobs are migrating to Belfast or Ballymena.
Mr Beggs referred to Newtownabbey, which is not part of the north region. No decisions will be taken in respect of Newtownabbey until we determine the outcome of the pilot exercise in the north area.
I was not aware that Larne and Carrickfergus were part of the Member’s question. However, if they were, Larne and Carrickfergus are also part of the greater Belfast area, and they will be considered further down the line. No decision will be taken about them until the outcome of the pilot is known, the assessment is determined and the benefits, if any, are evaluated.
I thank the Minister for her statement, which represents good news for staff and customers. In fact, it is like a belated Easter egg for all of us in the Chamber.
Oh, right. However, I was surprised by Mr McCann’s reaction. He reminded me of a spoilt child who received his Easter egg, but did not like the colour of its wrapping paper.
In any event, this is the difference between direct rule and devolution. Remember that this strategic business plan was conceived under direct rule, is being delivered in devolution and has been changed substantially, which is to be welcomed. Will the Minister reassure the House and the public — amid wild speculation and rumours of up to 500 job losses — that jobs will not be lost but increased?
I agree with Mr Maginness. [Interruption.] I have to say that I did not get an Easter egg, but that is neither here nor there. [Laughter.]
There was indeed talk of job losses, much of which was ill-informed. Some of it was ill-intentioned and scaremongering. No loss of employment will result from the strategic business review. No jobs will be lost, and no offices will close. The review was never about job reductions: it was always about service improvement. The strategic business review affects only the local office network, which makes up about one quarter of the SSA workforce. It is all about improving services for the people who use them. Therefore, we are not planning any redundancies or job losses as a result of the strategic business review. However, the agency will, of course, have to meet overall efficiency targets that are set by the Executive.
There have been some very interesting questions today. As part of my response to the economic downturn and reflecting its pernicious impact, I decided that the proposals — it must be remembered that they are still proposals — will be piloted in the north district, which, by and large, covers the northern part of Northern Ireland.
No date has been given for the length of time that that pilot scheme will run, so it could take some considerable time. However, we want to assess the benefits of that pilot scheme to evaluate whether it should be rolled out across the rest of Northern Ireland. I cannot guarantee that the proposals will be implemented in time for the rest of the review of public administration, but I can tell the Member that there will be a processing centre in every one of the new council areas and probably more than one in some.
I welcome the statement from the Minister, particularly the key “customer first” theme. That important theme ran through representations that I received from staff representatives in my Foyle constituency, particularly in relation to the Foyle office and services in the west and the south-west. I am sure that the Minister’s reassuring and constructive statement will be well received there.
Will the Minister reiterate that members of staff will not be expected to drive long distances between Omagh, Enniskillen and Derry, as that would have a detrimental impact on caring duties, the environment and congestion? Will she assure us that the location of centralised services will be taken into account in relation to future trends in benefit entitlements, so that staff in one location will not be made redundant while the number of staff in another location is being significantly increased?
I thank Mr Ramsey for his question. He asked about travel arrangements. On several occasions, I expressed my particular concern that staff should not be required to travel long distances to a new place of work. I know that Pat Ramsey was very concerned about that matter, particularly as it may affect people in Derry and in the west. His concerns are well understood, and I am pleased to tell him that I listened to the very strong case that he made. I assure him that no member of staff will be required to travel distances such as the distance from Enniskillen to Derry, Derry to Omagh, or vice versa. I think that Members will realise that I have listened to all concerns and have addressed them with a measure of generosity.
Mr Pat Ramsey also raised the issue of redundancies and staff losses. There will not be any redundancies or staff losses. I also assure the House that those who need face-to-face service at a local social security office will continue to receive it in the future.
Many of the jobs are in and many more will be amalgamated into benefits offices, so I will continue to work in close partnership with the Minister for Employment and Learning to deliver the best possible service and outcomes for customers, who include some of the most disadvantaged and deprived people in Northern Ireland.
The public consultation exercise was useful, because it reflected and confirmed my concerns about aspects of the original proposals, particularly on staff relocation and upheaval. Furthermore, it has allowed me to focus on those matters and to devise appropriate solutions.
Mrs Bradley will be aware that some Members wanted me to abandon the entire public consultation exercise, even when we were halfway through it. Those Members may not have wanted me to take on board what the public were saying. I hope that they now realise that it was absolutely right to allow the people to have their say, because what they said has been clearly reflected in the revised proposals.
We are hearing about improvements to services and about a strategic vision for the implementation of the Bain Report’s recommendations for the location of public-sector jobs. Moreover, the Minister is sensitive to the genuine concerns that staff expressed. I welcome Ballymena’s designation as a processing centre, and I encourage everyone in the northern district to co-operate in the pilot scheme. What effect does the Minister envisage this series of proposals having on morale in the service?
I hope that the proposals will significantly enhance staff morale. I make no secret of the fact that I have met many members of staff throughout the Social Security Agency network. I listened to their concerns, and, in order to reflect the needs of staff members, particularly those who were concerned about having to travel long distances, the impact of the economic downturn, the need for retraining and the heavy workloads with which they must deal as a consequence of that training, I have substantially changed the proposals that were originally prescribed under the strategic business review. I hope that my proposals will go a considerable way to enhancing staff morale and that all members of staff will support and endorse them.
The bottom line is that devolution is making a difference, and I gave an undertaking to listen to staff and customer concerns. Remember that there are two players about whom we must be concerned in this relationship: we must ensure that members of staff enjoy the best possible circumstances in which to work and that existing, and potential, customers have easy access to the best possible service, given that they are especially beleaguered at this time.
I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly the news that a new processing centre will be based in Lurgan. Will the Minister be reviewing telephone call-handling arrangements, because sometimes it takes a long time for customers to get through? If there is to be increased telephone usage, customers’ waiting times must be minimised by ensuring that enough members of staff are on hand to deal with the call-handling element of the business.
I take on board Mrs Kelly’s comments. It is hoped that we will have sufficient staff to deal with all areas of the business, particularly those in which customers are feeling the greatest pinch. That is important.
The telephony service and the appointment system are additional provisions to the existing front line service, which will continue. Much misinformation has been flapping around about the telephony service, and, considering some of the quarters from which that misinformation is coming, it is, perhaps, ill-intentioned. However, the enhanced telephony service and appointment system will be additional to the existing options. Therefore, I assure my colleague Mrs Kelly that it will still be possible for people to go into a social security office without an appointment and be seen by a member of staff. She can take comfort and confidence from the fact that staff who are dealing with the employment support allowance are receiving many telephone calls — more calls, in fact, than was projected and anticipated. As a consequence of that, I was able to recruit more staff and invest more staff resources in that area to deal with that heavy and enhanced workload. Everything will be addressed in the most appropriate and sensitive manner.