Wednesday, 28 April 2010
Social Welfare Offices.
Similar to the previous matter of the travesty at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, this issue also has cross-party support, based on the representations that have been made in this House and in the Seanad. I ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to facilitate the approximately 5,700 claimants in Balbriggan and north Fingal by opening a new full-service office in Balbriggan. Claimants, rather than travelling a considerable distance on a regular basis to Dublin in order to sign on the live register, should be able to avail of local arrangements whereby postal dockets are issued or a temporary facility established in the town. I welcome the senior Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, to the House to respond to this matter.
As the Minister knows, there are certain ad hoc arrangements in place under which some people do not have to travel to North Cumberland Street to sign on, while others are required to travel. It is bad enough that people are forced to travel for what is essentially a local service, in a very uncharacteristic way. However, the population of Balbriggan, which has grown by around 51% from 2002 to 2006, certainly warrants the range of services that such a large population would normally have, certainly in Dublin city. This office would need to deal not only with the 20,000 or so people in the town of Balbriggan but also with those in the wider area, including Skerries, Rush, Lusk, Garristown, Naul, Oldtown, Ballyboughal and the whole rural hinterland of north Fingal. We are talking about a population of 50,000 to 60,000 who do not have a full service.
In addition, across the county border in County Meath but not far from Balbriggan, there is the Mosney centre where many refugees stay. Many of their children are attending school and are tied in to the local community. There is already a lack of facilities, as the Minister knows, and this is compounded by inequality of access to the services that do exist. Residents in the north west of the town - which is actually further from Dublin city - must travel to access social welfare services in the city of Dublin, while those in the older part of Balbriggan can access local services in Hampton Street. Perviously, social welfare services were provided at the office in Railway Street. It was a very small facility, even for the numbers availing of it back then, and there were long queues that wound their way out onto the street and around the corner. This was demeaning for those who used the facility.
I ask the Minister to explain the priority that is being given to ensuring that this matter is sorted out. There are better facilities in Ballymun and other city areas which serve fewer people than live in Balbriggan and the north Fingal area. The city centre areas also have better facilities than those in Swords. An office and one-stop-shop is to open in Foster Way in 2012, but this must be also dealt with more urgently. Taylor's hardware store is vacant on Main Street, as are other buildings. Between the OPW and the Department, there must be action. It is ironic to see signs for Balbriggan and Swords in the office in North Cumberland Street. They do not, of course, mention that one must travel for more than 20 miles to see those signs if one is from those areas. I ask the Minister to deal with this matter with great urgency. There is already a lack of facilities in the area, as he should be aware, and a social welfare office is urgently needed.
Gabhaim leithscéal i dtosach, ach shíl mé go raibh seo le bheith sa triú áit tráthnóna agus bhí mé ag faire thuas i m'oifig. Ar aon chaoi, tuigim an tábhacht a bhaineann le seo. The previous office in Balbriggan was a branch office which was operated on an agency basis on behalf of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The branch manager retired on 28 November 2008. As a result services from the office ceased operation from that date. It had been the Department's intention to continue the lease of the premises and to operate a limited service on a temporary basis pending the acquisition of permanent premises but this was not possible.
Since Monday 1 December 2008, the Department's local office at Coolock has been dealing with all customers from the Balbriggan catchment area. Monthly signing on requirements have been temporarily suspended for Balbriggan claimants since December 2008.
The Office of Public Works has recently acquired temporary premises in Balbriggan. The new office will be a social welfare local office operated by the Department and staffed by civil servants.
The address of the new office is 18 Mill Street, Balbriggan. Staff and a local office manager are in the process of transferring to the new office.
Work started on alterations to the premises on 6 April 2010 and a ten week period has been allowed for structural work and fitting out. It is expected that the new premises will open at the beginning of July 2010. I may visit it because I have a family connection with that part of the world. Eighteen staff are in the process of being assigned to the new office and staffing will be kept under review.
The new office in Balbriggan will provide a full service. New claims for jobseeker's benefit, jobseeker's allowance and one-parent family payments will be taken and decided. However, the temporary premises is not adequate to provide for signing and options for this function are being investigated by the Department at present.
In preparation for the move to Balbriggan, staff assigned to the new office have moved to the North Cumberland Street local office because there is more room there for staff and claims, as well as better facilities for staff training. New claims for jobseekers payments and the review and maintenance of claims for Balbriggan will continue be processed in Coolock for the immediate future. Once the new premises is available for occupation it will start providing services to Balbriggan customers.