Thursday, 29 September 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Community Welfare Services
Brian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source
I welcome the opportunity to raise with the Minister of State the need for local face-to-face community welfare officers. It is an important service and sometimes it is vulnerable people who need it most. They may have no transport, may have run out of money or may not be in receipt of any payment from anyone anywhere. They may be out of work or perhaps out of work due to ill health and not had their claims processed yet. The service is therefore the last hope for people in dire straits through no fault of their own. There was a strong network going back over the years in every county and in key local towns.
There might be between six and ten of them in a county, depending on the size of it. It is for people who do not have a computer and may not have a phone or phone credit. It is important that the walk-in service is there. Sometimes I come across people who are accessing that service who have a learning disability or intellectual disability and may not be au faitwith laptops. They may not have a laptop and may not even have a phone. There is more demand now than ever for this service. The additional needs payment is welcome for people who are in energy poverty or energy hardship, to meet once-off demands with the current energy crisis and so on. There is a growing demand for that service. It was never needed more than it is at the moment. It is the last hope for those who are in a bad situation or who are in dire straits.
I raised this with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on 8 September and she sent me back a reply stating that continued in-person customer engagement remains a pivotal feature within the community welfare service. She outlines that this is still available at two locations in Laois. I would contradict that. This is not the fault of the local community welfare officers. She also says there is a free-phone helpline in Dublin and that people can send an email. She says there is no longer a requirement for a person to meet a community welfare officer to make a claim. There is. That is what I contend. The Minister goes on to say that it is important to note that the assessment and decision on claims and any further customer interaction is carried out locally, based on community welfare officers, as it always has been. Her letter states that the delivery of a locally based community welfare service remains the cornerstone of the service.
I would question that seriously, given the way it has been centralised. This service has been overly centralised over the last couple of years. Gone is that network of face-to-face walk-in services where the community welfare officer came to a particular health centre, Government office or wherever for two hours, typically, on some morning during the week. The one community welfare officer would cover a whole county doing it. They would not even need to spend all their time at it, just a couple of hours in each town. Now people are being told to email Dublin or contact the national helpline. Telling people that is absolutely daft. People are being told to download forms on a computer. We are talking to people in a lot of cases who do not have a computer and are not computer-literate. This service has really deteriorated. The assurances given by the Minister here and what she said in the letter do not reflect the reality on the ground. That network of community welfare officers is no longer in place. I ask the Minister to address this.