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I appreciate the opportunity to bring this Adjournment debate forward on what is an extremely important issue for my constituents and me. It first came to my attention when some of the staff who work in the offices were notified by a leaked document that there was a proposed closure of these offices. We then received emails from the Department.
Even the way in which it initially came out was totally wrong for the staff and everybody involved. I welcome some of those people; they are in the Gallery today. There are representatives of the staff here. I thank those who came up here today to outline the issues. They were out at the front of Parliament Buildings earlier; I think that they met quite a few MLAs to highlight the issues. The fact that they made the effort to come up here and took the time out of work to do that shows their concern.
There are a number of issues that I will address with regard to the proposed closures. I am glad to see that the Minister is here to listen to us. I know that he has met Mid Ulster District Council and a number of MLAs already on the issue. The first concerns the failures in the consultation document. It fails to recognise the working poor and the low-wage employment common across the area. There is a wild underestimation of journey times and costs, which have a serious negative impact on claimants. The premises analysis uses wholly unrealistic estimated capital costs and, therefore, is not reflective of cost-effectiveness. The cost-effectiveness measures use only jobseekers' allowance (JSA) claimants; they ignore the much greater number of other clients, who would better reflect the office usage. Equality screening was totally inadequate; it failed to note the differential impacts on women, older people, carers, people with disabilities and migrant communities. The rural proofing was completed only on 4 November, which was eight weeks into the consultation. I do not know how the Minister thought that that would instil any confidence in the largely rural constituency of Mid Ulster.
Due to the nature of the constituency, access is hindered by poor public transport. Almost 16% of households have no access to personal transport. Let us face it: the reality is that they are most likely to be the people who need access to social security offices. I would be interested to know whether any future-proofing has been done on the proposed closures, given that the regional development strategy 2035 defines Cookstown as a main hub with a growing population and a higher proportion of nought-to-15-year-olds than the rest of the North.
The Minister talks about the use of telephony and broadband. As a representative of the area, I assure you that the biggest issue that I am challenged about — it is raised with me regularly — is poor broadband and mobile phone infrastructure in the constituency. Whilst I will continue to lobby to have those issues addressed, I do not believe that, in the current circumstances and where we are likely to sit over the next number of years, that is a valid proposal.
I am aware that the unions have raised consistently with the Minister their concerns around the lack of engagement with them in relation to the proposed closures in advance of any proposals. Sinn Féin opposes strongly the Tory cuts and welfare reform. Unfortunately, we are dealing with a Tory Government who, quite frankly, are not concerned about their own constituents, never mind the people over here. We have seen the result of how they have decided to implement welfare reform. Minister, you have an opportunity to do things differently and ensure that our most vulnerable citizens, particularly those with mental ill health and disabilities, have access to front-line services. I assure you that many people will not be able to access the service if the office in Cookstown is closed. People with mental health problems often have difficulty asking for help. What will we do when those people start falling through the cracks? Are they just going to be collateral damage?
My background is in working in the Sinn Féin advice centre in Coalisland and dealing with welfare and all those issues with very vulnerable people in our society. They are the people who do not ask for help and do not know where to go for help. I would be very concerned for those people in a situation where there is no front-line service. They will fall through the cracks. It is already happening. I have met Citizens Advice on numerous occasions about the difficulties that it was having with people. There have been occasions when staff have had to go out to people's homes — I have been in this situation — and deal with people at the very brink, who will possibly go that step further and take their own life. We know that some people across the water have already taken their own life. I am quite sure that it has happened and will continue to happen here. We need to protect those people. Cost-effectiveness has to be looked at in the round. What cost are we prepared to pay? Will that cost be to our health service? This is one Executive, and we need to look after every part of it. That is something that needs to be taken into consideration.
I am also concerned about what will happen if people are unable to attend appointments through no fault of their own but because of the poor transport infrastructure and have sanctions placed on them as a result that could mean families being left without money for food or household necessities. I know that all of that needs to be addressed and is not necessarily your responsibility, but the fact is that it is what it is, and we have to live in the circumstances that we live in. You might say that there are appeals processes and measures to negate, but we have seen with previous measures that have been taken that that does not always work. People will, as I have already said, fall through the cracks, and I have dealt with numerous such cases. Most often, it tends to be those with mental ill health or people with mild to medium learning difficulties who fall into that situation.
The Minister may talk about the ring-fenced money for advice services. However, that money is for the entire North, not just for Cookstown or even Mid Ulster. Let us face it: by the time it goes around, there will not be much left to negate any impact of office closures in Cookstown, Ballynahinch or Newcastle. The reality is that, with the changes to welfare, there will be a greater need than ever to protect our vulnerable constituents. The first step is to retain our front-line services across the North. I am not asking to protect just those three offices: we need all the offices that we have across the North.
Vulnerable service users will be affected, but does the Member agree that rural dwellers will be among the most vulnerable, as they will have difficulty accessing services, should the offices be closed?
Absolutely, and I will address that. You are 100% right. I raised that as the Chair of the AERA Committee. I asked for the Minister to be written to and, in turn, for her to have a conversation with her Executive and party colleague, because I felt that that was something that had been absolutely ignored. For that reason, I was extremely concerned.
The staff in the offices are predominantly at a lower grade, female and with caring responsibilities. As such, they will be severely negatively impacted on by any closure, resulting in them having to travel further to work and at a greater cost. Again, I do not see any evidence that the Department has given this any great degree of consideration.
There has been much work carried out, as I have already outlined, by Mid Ulster District Council to try to work with the Department to find solutions to ensure that the service can be retained in Cookstown. This is a very positive move: local government is wanting to work with central government to deliver for communities. That is community planning in practice, but it will work only if the Minister approaches it with an open mind and sees the need to protect these front-line services and, as has just been outlined, our rural dwellers. One of the main concerns raised by the council and by numerous people in public meetings was the fact that Mid Ulster is a largely rural constituency yet the figures that were used were those within a mile of Cookstown town centre. Ardboe, Moortown, Killen, Aughamullan and all these other places are nowhere near Cookstown centre.
I ask the Minister to rural-proof any planned closures honestly and genuinely. When you look at it, you will see that they cannot be rural-proofed. If you close the offices, people in my constituency will not be able to access the service. Unless you have other proposals that we have not yet seen, there is nothing that will address that. I am seriously concerned about the impact that this will have. As I have already outlined, we are not just talking about people on jobseeker's allowance. Those are the figures that were used in the consultation for how many people use the service. We are talking about people on tax credits. We are moving to universal credit, and apparently that is the reason that we are looking at changing these services. Universal credit will mean that more people will need to visit the office, not fewer. That is why we need to retain an office in Cookstown and not just in Cookstown — Ballynahinch and Newcastle fall into the same category. They have all the same challenges, in that they are rural areas and have vulnerable constituents.
I ask the Minister to listen to what is being said. I know that you have already met numerous MLAs, that you met the council, and that a lot of these issues have already been outlined. You have met NIPSA and have heard their arguments, and their arguments are well thought through; they have all the statistics to show the negative impact that this has already had across the water. I do not want to see our people suffering the same fate. It was said outside the Building today that it will be a sad indictment on us as a government if we have a food bank in a town and no social security office.
I thank the Member for bringing the debate to the House. Following representation by staff and constituents in August about the possible closure of Cookstown and Magherafelt social security offices and jobcentres, I met the Minister for Communities on 6 September to discuss the long-term future of services being provided across Mid Ulster. At that meeting, the Minister reassured me that the long-term future of Magherafelt jobs and benefits office would be secure and that it would have an important role in the new universal credit service. While I welcomed this news, I was very mindful of the role of Cookstown social security office and jobcentre. The Minister assured me that a review, which closes today, would be carried out by his Department and that no member of staff would be made redundant and that those staff who would have to move would be offered suitable posts in other parts of the Department. Since that meeting, I have visited the Cookstown offices and met and listened again to the concerns of staff regarding possible closure.
Cookstown, as we all know, and as the last Member said, serves a large rural area. People will be forced to travel to Dungannon and Magherafelt with their concerns about their benefits. There will be no facility for face-to-face interviews for vulnerable groups in this area; there will be no one to help with form-filling advice and answers to queries, especially with ongoing changes from welfare reform. Many clients or customers from Cookstown and the surrounding area do not have access to the Internet or, indeed, good Internet coverage. Cookstown social security office may be only 11 miles from Cookstown and 10 from Magherafelt, but recent census figures show that just over 15% of households in Cookstown have no transport. That means that many of those accessing the services of this office — indeed, need them — will need to depend on public transport. Unfortunately, being a rural constituency, public transport can be sparse and result in two or three bus journeys either way.
Centralising services will dramatically reduce the number of staff working locally, who, in future, will only be capable of providing advice to claimants on a limited number of payments. There has been widespread concern about the Social Security Agency proposals to move staff out of local offices. It is important that local offices are retained to protect jobs, meet the needs of customers and ensure that the economy does not suffer another blow as a result of public-sector jobs being transferred out of the town. We are living in tough times when local businesses are struggling for custom, and the proposal to move staff from local offices will, without a doubt, have a major negative impact on local trade.
While I recognise the need to ensure an effective, responsive and resilient customer service to meet the needs of claimants following the introduction of universal credit, I ask the Minister to consider that the current social security office provides a vital service for around 38,000 people in the whole Cookstown catchment area. It is not just jobseeker's allowance claimants who use the office in Cookstown; many access the service seeking advice and support on pension credit and employment support.
Although it is proposed that some services will be available digitally, as we have previously discussed, unfortunately, the broadband network in Mid Ulster is somewhat weak. There is a fear that people will receive higher sanctions on their benefits due to the difficulties that they will face trying to participate in face-to-face meetings with advisers. Staff are concerned that there may be an increased workload with the introduction of universal credit and that a reduction in local services will have a negative effect on the whole community of Cookstown. There is increasing concern that, if they have to move to alternative offices, they will incur additional travel and childminding costs, meaning that their work-life balance will be greatly affected and may result in them having no option but to seek alternative employment.
I welcome the fact that the Minister is in the Chamber today and place on record that he had an open-door policy to meet public representatives, including MLAs and Mid Ulster councillors, to listen to the concerns of the staff. It would be a great comfort to local people if the Minister would look at innovative ways to maintain local access in the Cookstown area to the services provided.
I thank the Member for bringing this important Adjournment debate forward. I welcome the opportunity to participate and I am pleased that the Minister is present to respond to the debate. I am also grateful to him for meeting me a few weeks ago on the matter and I look forward to further engagement.
I am sure that, by now, the Minister appreciates the strength of feeling about these proposals in Cookstown and the surrounding areas. He can rest assured that we will continue to lobby him on this particular issue. The proposed closure of the social security office and the job centre in Cookstown has raised many concerns for claimants and employees. At the outset, it is clear that the implementation of the proposals will have a detrimental effect on service users and staff. It will mean that constituents will have to travel much further on a regular basis to access social security services.
When I asked the Minister, in a recent Question Time, to assure me that claimants from Cookstown and the surrounding rural area will not be out of pocket by travelling to Magherafelt or somewhere else to sign on, he was, unfortunately, unable to give me a satisfactory answer. Indeed, he admitted that changes such as those proposed here can create turbulence and cause a lot of discomfort for some individuals who have to go through them, and that must give great cause for concern.
I and other Members were contacted by a number of members of staff from the offices in Cookstown, as well as trade union representatives, expressing legitimate concerns about the potential reduction in services resulting from the closure of these offices and the subsequent redundancies or redeployment of staff away from their local area. It is crucial that the difficulties and stress that the closures will cause are not brushed under the carpet and that the voices of employees and service users are listened to and fully considered throughout the consultation process.
We all know that the roll-out of welfare reform, which as Members will remember was rushed through by the DUP and Sinn Féin without the chance for proper scrutiny, will bring significant change in how benefits are delivered. A part of that process is a move towards claimants using telephony and digital services. However, many service users, such as the elderly, the disabled, those without transport to Magherafelt or Dungannon and those not able to access the Internet, will continue to require face-to-face services and will appreciate being able to discuss their needs in person or with an adviser.
In that regard, and notwithstanding reduced budgets, I urge the Minister to consider proposals for the continuation of face-to-face advice for claimants in Cookstown. Proposals have been put forward to allow this, and I acknowledge and commend the work of Mid Ulster District Council to that end. Suggestions have been made for the social security office and the jobcentre to merge in one building or for a skeleton service to be run from the council offices. These scaled-down options would make financial savings on the one hand while meeting the needs of the most vulnerable service users on the other, and they should be given careful and serious consideration.
I was very disappointed to learn that these proposals had not been rural proofed before they were brought forward and that a report was belatedly commissioned to be conducted by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The impact on rural areas in Mid Ulster from these closures should have been assessed long before the proposal was even brought forward.
If the Minister decides to push ahead with closing the facilities, it is imperative that he considers accommodating adjustments such as the proposals for a scaled-down service in the town, IT training for service users and for employees to be relocated to the nearest social security offices.
I am also concerned about the way in which the plans were communicated to staff. As the proposer mentioned, MLAs were informed that the information was leaked through —
I thank the Member for bringing the Adjournment debate today. While I do not particularly welcome the occasion of it being before us, inevitably it is here — the proposal that we have to close the social security office and the jobs and benefits office.
I have represented the area since 1993 as a councillor and, latterly, as an MLA in the last number of years. I have had dealings with staff in the local offices and know that local accessibility has proven itself and meant a lot to so many people who find themselves in really difficult circumstances. Two cases come to mind. The first is when a family would have been made homeless but for an officer's intervention and diligence, dedication to the task and commitment to serving the community. In another case, a young single parent would have had no money to heat her house in the middle of a harsh winter. I remember vividly the two members of staff who dealt with those cases and went beyond the call of duty in their dedication. Access to that service was crucial and pivotal in helping those people in their difficult circumstances.
Cookstown social security office, as was mentioned, covers an area with a population of 38,000, including a large migrant community. At the time of the 2011 census, 3·4% of the population did not have English as their first language. Public transport provision is poor, and around 16% of households do not have access to personal transport, despite the largely rural location. There are pockets of significant deprivation, with 27% of the population considered to be income-deprived, while over 3,000 are rated as employment-deprived. Additionally, 21% of people have had long-term health problems or disability. That gives Members some idea of the background to the issue and why the proposed closure of Cookstown social security office and jobs and benefits office and the removal of those services from a local office is a matter of concern to me and others.
I move on to rural proofing, which was mentioned. No rural proofing was done on this. Five phone calls were made, and that qualifies as rural proofing in a big, scattered area that is densely populated, with the associated plethora of problems among the population. As for the relevance by way of nods to the Rural Needs Act — I really do not know. Apparently, the rural-proofing document, such as it is, has been kept under review during the consultation period. I really think that that needs to be looked at.
We have talked about people who are vulnerable and people who have difficulties, disabilities etc. I have looked at the equality impact screening, and it is based on this: "No figures or evidence are available to indicate this, so it must not exist". There is no evidence because the Department does not have any evidence. I have put down Assembly questions about that on issues such as gender, disability and nationality, given the migrant population that I referred to, but it does not have any stats on the usage of those offices so it cannot come to a conclusion about whether an equality impact assessment is viable or not. It does not have the evidence, so the screening is immaterial. This will cause hardship for many unemployed and low-waged residents.
I thank my colleague Linda Dillon for securing the Adjournment debate. It affords us the opportunity to speak about the proposal that is out to consultation, which includes the closure of Cookstown social security office and jobcentre. As many of the issues have been discussed, I will be brief here tonight. I thank and welcome the staff, the unions and the representatives of Mid Ulster District Council who are present in the Public Gallery for the debate and those who were part of the delegation that we met earlier. I commend them for their commitment and efforts to retain this valuable front-line service.
Sinn Féin, as you heard, has conducted a number of meetings with the Minister for Communities, NIPSA and staff members about the issue, given the impact not only on Magherafelt, Cookstown and Dungannon but right across the North. We are all aware that we are entering a period of significant change in the welfare system, and the reorganisation that runs alongside that has created a lot of uncertainty and concern for all social security staff. It is most keenly felt in areas facing potential closure. We are also familiar with the response coming from the Department regarding efficiencies and the building restrictions associated with Cookstown. While we acknowledge those points, they need to be balanced with the negative impact such a move would have for staff and claimants. In particular, the Minister needs to take account of the rural nature of the constituency.
The closure of the local offices will not only remove an essential service from the town but will reduce the already limited number of public-sector jobs in the mid-Ulster area. For many years, people from Mid Ulster have had to travel considerable distances to take up posts in the public sector and absorb the associated travel costs and impact on family life. Transfers have been long-awaited and hard-fought for, so it is disappointing to see that rural areas are to be at the forefront of the Minister's proposals. Despite the Department's indications that the proposals would have no differential impact on any section 75 categories, it is a fact that just over 88% of the staff who will be affected are women.
The closure will also create challenges for claimants. People already suffering financially will be forced to travel further to seek welfare advice, and those without personal transport will struggle to adhere to appointment times. I have no doubt that the move towards a telephone and digital service will not be without its problems, particularly given the limited access to broadband and the patchy mobile signal that is experienced in many areas of Mid Ulster. I suggest that the requirement for face-to-face contact is set to increase rather than decrease as the changes come into effect. I call on the Minister to ensure that that need is met.
I conclude by urging the Minister to listen to the concerns raised about the proposal and seek an alternative solution that would see the retention of the jobs and benefits service. I would also say to the Minister that this is not just a lobby from individuals; it is coming from Mid Ulster District Council, which I imagine is one of the biggest types of lobbyist the Minister will ever face.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I concur with the frustration of all those who use the Cookstown social security office and the staff who will most likely have to travel to other offices to seek work. We have a similar issue in Newcastle and Ballynahinch, where there is a recommendation to close the social security offices and jobs and benefits offices.
This is much bigger than a cost-cutting exercise; it will have a knock-on effect on the economies of Cookstown, Ballynahinch and Newcastle. Most importantly, the process of encouraging claimants to go online will give no reason for older or younger people to leave their home. That can often lead to those who look forward to a reason to go into their town or village to have a face-to-face conversation, shop or socialise becoming less able, housebound or even depressed. With many of our rural areas having residents unable to receive broadband, those people must make their way to a social security office and will have no other means to do that but by hiring a taxi to go a greater distance. That will, in turn, take a fair chunk out of their payments.
It is disappointing that, at the end of the consultation period, the Minister has said, even today, that he is minded to close the three offices. I urge him to give this essential service, which is dear to many, a fair hearing and to listen to the concerns.
Gabhaim buíochas le Linda Dillon. I thank Linda Dillon for bringing the matter to the Assembly. It is good to see colleagues from Mid Ulster and South Down here doing a joint lobby to fight for essential services. It is also good to see representatives from every party, and I hope the Minister notes there is cross-party support, including his party. I have no doubt that Jim Wells would be here, only for his personal circumstances, to defend Newcastle and Ballynahinch.
I join the representatives who have spoken about the difficulties that closures will create for people in rural areas, the adverse impact they will have on women and the fact that the bus and transport system is not the best.
It could end up costing a week's worth of fuel if claimants have to pay for travel out of their own pockets. The cost of public transport from one town to another will eat up a significant amount of a person's benefit. Access to crisis loans will be even harder for those in need, due to the distance and cost involved. People will have to travel to Kilkeel or Downpatrick to address any concerns that they have about any of their benefits.
The other factor that needs to be taken into account — I am lobbied about it all the time — is the poor broadband coverage and speed in South Down. This also comes into play. Online solutions will not work for many people. Indeed, I put two questions for written answer to the Minister — AQW 6294/16-21 and AQW 6293/16-21 — and I have to say that I was very disappointed with the incomplete response. Some questions that I asked were not even responded to; they were glossed over. I ask the Minister to have another look at the questions and ask his officials to give a more complete response on this occasion.
The staff in the offices earmarked for closure are also very concerned, and I note that they have joined us at Stormont today. They will also be forced to travel further distances. We had assurances that none of these offices were going to be closed, and now we are a wet week into the new mandate, and we have leaked memos about potential closures. I know —
I wholeheartedly support the calls today to stop any potential closure of jobs and benefits offices across the North from going ahead. Given that many hundreds of people will still be required to present themselves to an office, I am deeply concerned that moving the services from the Cookstown office will have an unfair impact on those who live in rural areas, similar to the impact of closures in Ballynahinch, which is near to my constituency, and Newcastle, which is in my constituency.
Many people who live in places such as Lissan, Ardboe and Kildress and other rural areas will now face lengthy journeys, often involving multiple changes, to get to their new offices, and will spend considerable time travelling there and back — time that they could spend applying for jobs. It astounds me that moving to an IT-based system can be suggested as a positive solution to proposed closures when an equality impact assessment is yet to be carried out. It is clear that proper thought has not gone into this so-called solution. Of course, we have to consider the massive cost of the service, which will be passed on to the claimant. It assumes that the benefit recipients can afford to buy computers and pay for broadband. Can the Minister confirm that the cost of broadband and purchasing computers will be reflected in an increase to the amount of money that benefit recipients will get?
Rural disparity is surfacing again, with broadband provision in rural areas being significantly weaker than in cities. I question whether we have evidence to prove that weaker broadband will be able to facilitate a new IT-based system. The use of IT systems in an independent manner assumes that everyone has capable literacy standards. As this is not the case, those who are unable to use services will have to travel to centres to get assistance. I believe that this is an outright act of discrimination against those who have lower literacy capacity.
It is unquestionable that the proposed closure of the Cookstown jobcentre and social security office will have a disproportionate impact on women. Some 88·5% of staff in the Cookstown offices are women. It is clear that consideration is not being given to the locality of workplace for existing staff and the fact that many have chosen to work in their local jobs and benefits office as it is conveniently located to ensure that they can remain as carers for elderly family members or for children.
Mr Speaker, you will notice that I have a lot of concerns about the proposed changes and that the word that keeps cropping up is "equality". I am deeply concerned that a full and robust equality impact assessment has not been undertaken and urge that it be completed. If we do not assess, we are left to guess, and that is not the basis for any decisions. I call on the Minister and the Executive to reverse the decision.
Maybe on one discordant note, it is a pity that the previous Member's party did not take its place in the Executive and accept responsibility.
I will now move to a more unanimous and harmonious mode. I commend Linda Dillon for proposing this debate. Living in mid-Tyrone, as I do, I am very familiar with the Cookstown situation and with the rural communities that Linda outlined and which are severely disadvantaged by having poor broadband access. I also commend the MP for Mid Ulster, Francie Molloy, for his proactive role in this campaign and for being in attendance this evening. I ask that the Minister makes this decision his own because, when I met the Minister some months ago in relation to issues relevant to this matter pertaining to the Omagh area, I got the impression that he, being new in office, may not have had time to make this his own decision. It was a developing and evolving situation that he may have inherited, and I would like the Minister to put his own stamp on the decision.
The reasons of rurality, rural proofing and broadband have been outlined. I want to put on record that there is a proposal to relocate a number of Social Security Agency posts away from Omagh, and this is wholly unnecessary because, in the Omagh office, there has been significant investment in telephony systems, and it has a very valuable workforce. I understand that the Minister is going to meet Fermanagh and Omagh District Council in early December to discuss this. There is no proposal to close the Omagh Social Security Office but there is one to relocate a number of posts, and I am saying about it and the Cookstown office that we should be moving in the direction of decentralisation, not centralisation. That should be a key feature of our Programme for Government when it is concluded.
In solidarity with the people in the Cookstown district and in Newcastle and elsewhere, I just wanted to make my position known and to call for the retention of a number posts in Omagh. The current plan is that they shall be relocated. When you meet those staff, you see that they are not at an age when travelling to their work will come easy to them. I ask for a little bit of compassion and for the Minister to make this his own decision —
I thank Linda Dillon for bringing this important issue to the House. I might be an interloper from Strangford, given that this is an issue affecting Cookstown, but, as the proposer said in her opening comments, whilst this is focused on Cookstown, there are two other offices involved: Ballynahinch, in my constituency, and Newcastle. The three of them have been grouped together and looked at as a package. Similar issues have been consulted on, and they face the same problems.
Members have talked about the two major issues, the primary one being the impact on claimants. Travel time is the key issue for people in rural areas. Members talked travelling the 10 or 11 miles from Cookstown to Magherafelt or Dungannon, and, in my constituency, with the example of Ballynahinch, we are talking about people travelling to Newtownbreda or Lisburn. By the time that people, first, incur the costs of getting there and, secondly, travel to and fro, with a public transport timetable that does not facilitate transport particularly well, the reality is that people who are going to claim JSA are probably technically not available for work that day because of the time and effort that they have of getting to and from the place of signing on. I think that the Minister should take that on board. That is before you consider the more vulnerable, such as those who have young children, those who are disabled and service users who are older. Those people will find this a much more difficult proposition.
The other impact, of course, is on the towns themselves. The consultation certainly focuses on that, but it talks about the lack of footfall if staff go.
In Ballynahinch, for example, there are 13 or 14 staff but 13,000 or 14,000 service users. I appreciate that that may be only a secondary issue from the Minister's perspective, but, if you take the offices out of these towns, it will have a massive impact on trading conditions. That needs to be taken on board.
The key issues in the consultation were value for money and the need for investment. From a value-for-money perspective, the focus in Ballynahinch in my constituency was on running costs for staff, when, in reality, they should look at the running costs for the service users, which is a much better comparison. On the issue of investment, the comparison in the consultation for Ballynahinch was for a £2·2 million new build, when, in reality, a £700,000 refurbishment of the existing building would have sufficed. There was more —
I thank the Member for bringing the topic to the House today. We are talking, of course, about the closure of the Cookstown centre, but we cannot forget Ballynahinch and Newcastle, which, as has been mentioned, will be affected by the proposals.
People have a right to access these centres for advice and support; indeed, one of the roles of the Department for Communities is to get people back to work. I ask how that can be done when people are having their local jobcentre closed in their face. That is not to mention the effect that the closures will have on staff.
People whom I talk to are being told that the centres are not fit for purpose, but we know the story all too well here. Centres and facilities are run down and starved of investment, and then we are told that they cannot operate, are not fit for purpose and have to close. We have seen it before, and no doubt we will see it again. It is also worth saying that this is a Department that is wasting £25 million paying private companies to implement a Steps 2 Success programme that is not very successful and is absolutely failing to find people permanent jobs. That is public money thrown down the drain. I pay tribute to NIPSA and everyone else involved in the campaign to save the centres. During the consultation period, there were public meetings in local areas. There were thousands of objection letters and thousands of petitions. If the consultation is to mean anything, those concerns have to be listened to. I hope that the Minister hears those voices today. He really, really should.
The closures present particular problems for people, including, as has been mentioned, those in rural areas. We live in an era in which most things are put online, but not everyone has access to the Internet or the skills to get online, along with the difficulties with broadband in rural areas that have been mentioned. If the centres are closed, people will be told to go online. What advice will the Minister give those people? Where will he tell them to go? In reality, closing the centres will send people to other towns to go to other jobcentres and social security centres. That is based on the assumption that people have access to a car or are able to drive. That is not always the case, especially for people who are unemployed and in receipt of benefits. Some people will not have access to a car or be able to afford £6 or £7 out of their £70 a week to pay for buses. The closures will further cut access for people living in rural areas, especially vulnerable people, and deny them information about the benefits that they are entitled to.
Welfare reform has been mentioned. It is already coming in, with 21,000 sanctions already this year. I do not say it lightly, but the reality with welfare reform is that we will see cases like that of Daniel Blake across the region unless people get organised and fight back against it.
I thank Ms Dillon for tabling the Adjournment topic and for allowing Members an opportunity to speak on something that I know they feel passionately about. That has been reflected in the way in which they have wanted to engage with me on the issue. Hopefully they have found me willing to engage with them on it. Throughout the consultation process, the requests have been coming in. From around the Chamber, I have met Mr Buchanan, Mrs Overend, Colin McGrath, Michelle O'Neill and Chris Hazzard. I have also met Jim Shannon and Councillor Billy Walker. I have met the delegation from Mid Ulster District Council, and I am meeting Francie Molloy next week.
I do not think that I have failed to meet any elected representative who has asked for a meeting with me to put the case. I have met Barry McElduff and Tom Buchanan when it was the only issue raised. Hopefully, that reassures Mr McElduff. I appreciate that he thinks that I am a new Minister. Let me assure the House that I will take the decision. This is not something where officials came to me and I signed a blank cheque to start a consultation process. People who know me know that I take decisions. There will be times when that is in agreement with how my civil servants advise me and others when it is contrary to their advice. However, I expect them at all times to give me impartial professional advice. They do that and will continue to do so. However, the decision on the consultation process that we are now going through will be mine. Consultation on the four offices closes today. The analysis will now take place, and, ultimately, I will take the decision and will have to stand over it.
I welcome that you embrace taking the decision and that you take ownership of it. Will you confirm, for clarity, whether your decision has to be presented to the Executive for completion?
No, it clearly falls entirely within my responsibility; it is for my Department to take the decision. I will have to do that. Mr McKee and Mr McGrath spoke: one indicated that I had already given a view that I wanted this to happen, and Mr McGrath called for the decision to be reversed. Let me be very clear: there has been no decision. There has been a consultation process on proposals, but no decision has been taken on it. It will be for me to decide, once the analysis has been carried out and it comes to me to deal with. Then I will take the decision.
Let me go through in a little more detail the issues that we are looking at. I assure Members that I will consider all the responses received and that we will publish the results of the consultation process. That process has given staff, public representatives and other stakeholders the opportunity to comment on and raise concerns regarding the closure of the offices. Just before I came in to the debate, I was advised that, so far, we are just shy of 400 responses to the consultation proposals. Mr Carroll of People Before Profit talked about thousands of representations; maybe they are coming or due to arrive, and quite a number came in today. At present, however, we sit just shy of 400 responses, although that figure may change. I have responded to a significant number of Assembly questions on the topic, and, as I outlined, I have met a number of MLAs and elected representatives. Apart from meeting them myself, senior officials in the Department directly met councillors and council officials.
In making the proposals, I recognise the importance of local access to services, and, therefore, the proposed closures are premised on the basis that there is a strong network of jobs and benefits offices that will continue to deliver front-line services. In recent years, the Department has made significant investment in modernising and improving access to our services through the jobs and benefits network and through the use of the telephony service. Indeed, 70% of social security benefit services are provided via telephone, and many will move online. I know that access to broadband is an issue that we have touched on, and Members have raised it both in meetings with me and in the debate. I recognise that it is an issue, and my Department is working with officials in the Department of Finance and in the Department for the Economy to deliver proposals to increase the coverage of the broadband network and to put in place local support to help the most vulnerable.
Further investment will be made in jobs and benefits offices to ensure that they are fit for purpose for the changes required for the introduction of universal credit and that they will support the use of digital service in the offices. Some Members have pointed to or certainly implied a view that rural areas are being disadvantaged in respect of how the services will be delivered. Welfare is changing, and therefore how we deliver services has to keep pace with that change so that we can deliver them to the people who require them. The three universal credit centres, for example, will be in Newry, Foyle and Belfast. This is not a Belfast-centric model that I want to develop; I am keen that it is pushed across the Province because it is a service that is required to be delivered across the Province. In respect of discretionary support, the two centres that we will use for that are in Antrim and Dungannon. Those will be two major facilities, so this is not Belfast-centric.
I do not represent Belfast. As Minister, I am responsible for it, of course, but I am keen to make sure that services are delivered across the Province, and we are always looking at how we deliver on that. When you look at your jobs and benefits offices, you see that, as unemployment figures fluctuate, caseloads change in those offices and there is ongoing assessment of staffing requirements in those offices and changes take place as a result. That was the context of what I said to Sandra Overend. There is always change around how services are delivered, and that can create challenges and difficulties for those it impacts on. I recognise that, but we have to deliver the service as well as we can and as efficiently as we can, recognising that, in circumstances where people are vulnerable, we need to put measures in place to support them. I am committed to doing that.
I have asked my officials to look at other measures by which the most vulnerable claimants in isolated rural areas can be accommodated, for example by changing signing times, reviewing the need for postal signing or using the appointment-based service in alternative offices. In my meetings with MLAs and MPs, all argued that they wanted the offices to stay open, including mine. Mr Shannon told me, "I am mounting the barricades against you, Paul", and Keith Buchanan has made it clear he is opposed to what I am doing. I accept that elected representatives will voice the views of those they represent; I would not expect them to do anything less.
Members have also challenged me, including the representation from Mid Ulster District Council, that there needs to be a range of options looked at. Without prejudice to my decisions around this, it is important that we look at a range of options for what could be delivered. That will need to be explored.
Members have raised a range of issues. In respect of section 75 obligations, the Department is cognisant of its equality of opportunity responsibilities and ensures that all new or revised policies are scrutinised in accordance with the responsibilities detailed in the Department's equality scheme. The Department's initial assessment of the proposed office closures is that they do not directly discriminate against any of the section 75 groups and that appropriate measures can be put in place to mitigate any impacts, for example changes to signing times and the use of online or telephony channels. I know Members have raised a number of —