Adjournment Debate. - Threatened Closure of Social Welfare Offices.

Wednesday, 17 April 1996

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 464 No. 1

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Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  I appreciate being allowed to raise this very important matter. Over the past week newspaper articles have suggested the Minister for Social Welfare is preparing plans to close about 70 social welfare branch offices nationwide. I am seeking clarificiation of this matter tonight because the track record of this Minister in relation to the less well off is not good and his record in relation to branch offices is appalling. For example, in my area he has already closed the social welfare office in Castletownbere. That area is as far as it is possible to be from Dublin and is at the end of an isolated peninsula. It is a tragedy this happened and makes no sense. It is economically stupid because it costs much more to service that office from outside the area. Most of all, it is a slap in the face to those who have to rely on social welfare services.

I am not just referring to payments because people also receive good advice in those offices. They are usually associated with FÁS training as well which enables people to get out of the rut they are in. People receive a service rather than just payments in those offices. Is the Minister serious about closing down these offices which have given sterling [300] service over the years to those who need the services of the Department of Social Welfare? They provide these services economically and sometimes at great inconvenience to themselves by opening at unsocial hours. There is such an office in Kinsale, for example, and another in Clonakilty where I live and——

Mr. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  There is also one in Bantry and in Skibbereen.

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  People call into town on the day the dole office is open and spend some money there. I am glad my colleague from Cork South-West, Deputy Sheehan, mentioned a number of the other areas because there is a threat over another Government office in Deputy Sheehan's village of Goleen which I am trying to secure.

Mr. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  The Deputy need not worry about that.

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  I am glad we will have a garda in the local station there very shortly.

Mr. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  The Deputy should forget about the matter as it has been put in train.

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  It is a good thing somebody is looking after Goleen.

Mrs. Doyle: Information on Avril Doyle  Zoom on Avril Doyle  The Deputy is on dangerous territory. He should stick to his own part if he knows what is good for him.

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  I realise the sailing waters around the Fastnet Rock can be dangerous — some well known personalities encountered rough weather there from time to time but they survived. However, I am particularly concerned about an area which I insist on representing. However I want to speak about the issue which I raised on the Adjournment.

[301] Regrettably, there is a growing trend for people who have to collect their social welfare payments outside their own area to spend money in cities and large supermarkets. In consequence, the small shopkeepers and traders are put under severe economic pressure. This is another downside to the Minister's plan. Will he assure the House that there is no truth in this speculation and that the dole offices in towns throughout the country, especially in west County Cork, will be left open to provide an essential service for social welfare recipients?

Mr. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  Rumours are alive and well.

Minister for Social Welfare (Proinsias De Rossa): Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  The Department of Social Welfare provides its services throughout the country through its headquarter offices and through its network of social welfare local offices and social welfare inspector locations. In addition, 72 branch offices are operated on a contract basis for the Department by branch managers.

The branch offices currently deal with approximately 28 per cent of unemployment payments. Each branch office reports to a designated social welfare local office. The designated local office is responsible for the authorisation of claims presented at branch offices and is also responsible for making any changes in rates of payment in such claims. The majority of branch office claimants are paid through post offices and others are paid in cash at the branch offices. By contrast, however, all local offices and departmental offices' customers are now paid either at their local post office or by cheque or, in a small number of cases, by electronic fund transfer.

Branch managers are remunerated by reference to the number of unemployed claimants dealt with by their office. The direct cost of running the branch offices is in the region of £5 million per annum. Out of this, the branch managers must [302] provide suitable accommodation and staffing for the work of their offices.

Since the end of the 1980s the Department of Social Welfare has been engaged in a programme of fundamental change in the way it delivers its services to the public. This programme has been underpinned by far-reaching agreements with staff unions and associations on establishing a regional management structure, with arrangements for the local delivery of a much broader range of services, more modern systems of payments and better systems of control. The agreements cleared the way for the significant changes required in the social welfare local offices in order to deliver on the major elements of this strategy. This switch from payments in cash to alternative payment methods. mainly through post offices, is a central feature of the new service.

The main fuctions of the branch offices at present are to take claims for unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit, to pay people in receipt of unemployment payments and sign them on a weekly basis. Branch managers are responsible for the safe custody of any public moneys received and paid on behalf of the Department. The changes which are taking place in the way in which the Department delivers its services have implications for the traditional role and type of activity carried out by branch offices. The processes associated with signing clients and calculating and making cash payments to the unemployed will change significantly. The computerisation of the calculation process, the removal of cash payments from the offices and the transfer of these payments to the customer's local post office will further reduce the work of the offices as will the replacement of weekly with monthly signing.

In view of the above, it is now the case that the branch office operation must be reviewed in order to see how best the benefits flowing from the [303] changes in service delivery can be extended to existing social welfare customers and the public generally who are currently catered for by the branch offices or living in their catchment areas. This review has been under way in my Department for several years now and predates my occupation of this office. I might add that, in the normal course, when a branch manager retires or when his or her contract expires, the Department reviews the situation in the relevant area. In doing so, various factors are taken into account and a decision is made on the appropriate level of service, having regard to the other developments that are taking place. On this basis, a number of branch offices have been closed in recent years, including the period when Deputy Woods was Minister.

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  The Minister is part of the Government. He has closed the office at Castletownbere.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  The Minister without interruption.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  I am informing the Deputy——

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  He has also threatened to close offices in Skibbereen, Bantry, Clonakilty and Dunmanway.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  The Minister without interruption.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  Who enacted the policy?

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  Is the Minister going to close them all?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Deputy Walsh, I am on my feet. The duration for matters of this kind is only five minutes. There is no room for interruptions.

[304]Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  This process has been under way for years. On this basis a number of branch offices have been closed in recent years. While I do not know about the concern of my predecessors, my concern is the delivery of an effective, efficient service to those who depend on an income from the Department of Social Welfare, not on the livelihood of publicans or greengrocers, cities, towns or otherwise. My concern is that those who need an unemployment payment or an old age pension receive it when they need it.

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  What about the people of Beara?

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  The Deputy should ask the unemployed people of Beara if they are happy with the service. They are delighted with it because they no longer have to spend their money in the local pub to get their cheque paid.

Mr. Cowen: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  What a patronising view.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  I take this opportunity to state that no decision has yet been taken with regard to the future of the branch offices generally and to assure the Deputy that any decision taken will be fully discussed with the branch managers under the terms of the conciliation and arbitration scheme which cover them.

Mr. J. Walsh: Information on Joe Walsh  Zoom on Joe Walsh  So the Minister will pay them all?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  The Minister without interruption.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  In connection with the recent reports suggesting that branch offices operate from grocery shops, etc., I wish to advise that, for the last 20 years, branch manager contracts have required them to relinquish all other occupations.

[305]Mr. Cowen: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  The Minister mentioned grocers.


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