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A public consultation on the proposed closure of the social security offices and jobcentres in Cookstown, Ballynahinch and Newcastle was launched on 20 September and will complete on 15 November. The consultation is an opportunity for claimants, staff, public representatives and other stakeholders to comment on and raise concerns regarding the proposed closures of the offices. Decisions will not be made until I have had an opportunity to consider fully all responses to the consultation.
What makes sense is my Department reviewing the services that it provides in the light of the changes that are coming about through the introduction of universal credit. Welfare is changing, and the services that my Department provides need to recognise that environment and deliver services efficiently in a space where the budgets that my Department has to deal with are constrained. We are looking at the responses, and I will consider them in due course.
Today I was opening a new facility for young people who come out of care in my constituency whom Fold and MACS NI have been dealing with. It will help people who have been homeless. I then went to meet people from the faith community at a conference at the Ramada Hotel and arrived in Parliament Buildings five minutes ago to deal with Question Time. If the individuals are still in the Great Hall when the debate commences, I will be more than happy to meet them.
There should not be any negative customer service impacts on claimants. Claimants affected by any proposed closures will continue to be able to access face-to-face services from alternative offices within a reasonable travelling distance. There will be a greater choice of access channels for customers, with discretionary support offering a telephony delivery model and universal credit offering an online model.
The consultation process is being carried out by the Department. I approved its commencement. Obviously, there will have been engagement between my departmental officials and those on the trade union side, but this is a consultation process, and no decisions have been taken. The consultation process closes today, and we will have an Adjournment debate later this afternoon that the Member herself has brought to the House. I will be able to elaborate on the process that is being followed and what the next steps may be.
What rural-proofing criteria will the Minister use when making the decision to close — if he is going to close — any of the social security offices, given the fact that, if the Ballynahinch office in my constituency closes, face-to-face meetings in other areas will not be possible, because transport is so limited?
There was rural proofing through engagement with the Department of Agriculture. That document was published on 4 November. Those are issues that need to be taken into account whenever we are dealing with this.
The service is changing, and the need for people to come in and sign on is changing. I am concerned with delivering a service that best meets the needs of the individuals who have to use it but also one that my Department is responsible for within the budgetary constraints that exist.