Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Topical Issue Debate
Social Welfare Offices
I raise this important issue about the retention of Department of Social Protection jobs in Ballybay, County Monaghan. Ballybay is a small town, with a population of 1,500 people, and the loss of 30 jobs there would be devastating. It would be the equivalent of losing 300 jobs in a town with a population of of 15,000 people. This must be taken seriously by the Department of Social Protection and all efforts made to retain the jobs in Ballybay. That is imperative. I am very concerned about the way the Department has handled the issue, the answers emanating from it on how it has conducted a review of the offices in Ballybay and the answer given by the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to a parliamentary question submitted by my colleague in Cavan-Monaghan, Deputy Brendan Smith.
I am annoyed that five property owners who have offered premises in Ballybay, which would mean the retention of the jobs in the town, have not been given adequate responses from the Department of Social Protection. I spoke to one of them this morning. He submitted his request in time, but he has not been contacted by either the OPW or the Department about his offer to provide adequate space for the Department. He also met the Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy Simon Harris, before Christmas. He has made it clear that he is prepared to foot any cost to ensure the jobs are retained in the local area, but he has not been afforded the opportunity to provide a quote. The other property owners are in the same position.
This issue must be taken very seriously by the Department of Social Protection. The answer to the parliamentary question suggested the decision had already been made by ot. It was believed locally that this was a done deal and that the decision had been made long before the property owners were consulted. Can this issue be revisited? It is of great concern to me, people in my constituency and those working in the Department of Social Protection in Ballybay that adequate consideration is not being given to these alternative proposals. There is adequate space in Ballybay to retain the jobs in the town. At the last meeting it was made clear that if there were new jobs to come in terms of a public service card, it could be done either in Ballybay or elsewhere. There is no need for the jobs currently located in Ballybay to be moved elsewhere.
It is welcome that we have a new Minister of State with special responsibility for rural economic development, but I am concerned that the Department of Social Protection is not taking the issue of rural development seriously. I have no issue with jobs being moved to another rural town, but why should a small rural town, in which these jobs have been located for over 30 years, be treated in this way when there are people who are prepared to put their money on the line to retain the jobs in the area? It is a retrograde step. It looks very bad from the Government's perspective and from that of the Department that adequate consideration is not being given to the various offers made.
I also spoke to the county council which had offered the Department Monaghan Town Council offices for issuing the public service card. The council has not been consulted adequately either. Its offer also seems to have been ignored.
It is welcome that the 30 jobs are located in Ballybay and it is important that they be retained there. It is also welcome that the Department of Social Protection has stated it wants to create more jobs, but they can be adequately sourced, resourced and facilitated in Ballybay which is in the centre of the county and within easy reach of all parts of the county. In a previous response from a departmental official I was told there was no adequate public transport service available. That is a failure of the Government which needs to provide a proper public transport system throughout rural Ireland. It is a lame excuse. This issue must be revisited.
The Minister of State is present. He has said he is looking at the issue and I look forward to hearing his formal reply. This issue will not go away. It is believed locally that adequate consideration has not been given to the offers made.
I acknowledge the Deputy's concerns. He has worked extremely hard on this issue.
The 29 staff in two adjoining buildings on the main street of Ballybay, County Monaghan were redeployed from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the Department of Social Protection in July 2012. They are engaged in the processing of public service cards.
The card is intended to enable individuals to gain access to public services more efficiently and with a minimum of duplication of effort, while preserving their privacy to the maximum extent possible. It has been designed to replace other cards in the public sector such as the free travel pass and the social services card and to make it easy for providers of public services to verify the identity of customers. The project is a key initiative in the public service reform plan, with the aim being to expand the use of the card to cover a greater range of services. Card registration is being expanded to encompass all departmental scheme customers and, over time, the adult population of Ireland.
The card operations in Ballybay have been expanded to include eight additional temporary staff. The two current buildings are in separate ownership and, unfortunately, poor condition and not considered appropriate for the existing business processes or future operational requirements. In this context, the Office of Public Works, OPW, has been working to identify alternative locations to which the functions could be relocated. The OPW has investigated all of the options in Ballybay and inspected a number of properties with a view to adapting buildings to meet the Department of Social Protection's requirements. I have been informed that a significant investment would be required to bring the proposed properties up to modern standards. In addition, other technical surveys and reports, planning permissions, fire certification and physical works would take approximately one year to complete. Unfortunately, this timeframe does not meet the Department's business requirements. It was decided that the properties on offer in Ballybay could not meet these requirements in terms of cost and time. In this context, a decision has been made to move the current facilities to Monaghan town where the preferred location is suitable for the services currently located in Ballybay. The location can also facilitate the Department's requirement to establish a public office for the purposes of issuing public service cards to County Monaghan residents. Monaghan is the only county that does not have a customer-facing public service card office.
As far as I am aware, the situation for all Departments is the same, in that we inform the OPW of our requirements and it sources properties. I stated this at my meetings with local Deputies and councillors. The OPW was given specifications, but I will not interfere in the sourcing. Information was sent to me on suitable buildings, including by the Deputy, and it was passed on to the OPW for investigation. The OPW reported and perhaps the Deputy might raise the issue with it. My role is not to lobby for any particular office in Ballybay. It would be preferable to keep the services there, but that is what was included in the report that was returned to us.
The Minister of State may not be aware of something. I was informed this morning by county council officials and the property owners that they had not had proper engagement with the OPW on a number of the proposals. Two of the owners have committed to spending whatever money is required to ensure jobs are retained in Ballybay. They are honourable people and want it to be made clear to the public in the area and the Department that they, rather than the Department, would incur the costs necessary to bring the buildings up to modern standards. They should be offered the opportunity to do this. Before Christmas they asked for the Department's requirements in order that they might carry out the works. The works could have been started three or four months ago had the Department engaged with the property owners. It is important for the people of County Monaghan - my constituents - that the jobs be retained in the area. Ballybay is the centre point of Monaghan and the public offices there are easily accessible from all areas of the county. Thirty jobs in a small town like Ballybay are vital to the enhancement of rural Ireland. What is the point of public investment if it does not enhance the regional spread of development? The private sector will always veer towards larger population centres, but the public service should target areas where the private sector cannot provide investment. This is balanced regional development and where the Department should be focusing its attention. The idea that it would somehow not be advantageous to have a public office in Ballybay is false.
The Minister of State should return to the senior Minister and re-engage on the issue, as the way this issue has been handled is unacceptable. It needs to be dealt with properly and there needs to be honest engagement with the local community and all five property owners so as to ensure they are given an adequate opportunity to put their proposals to the Department. A value for money audit would be advantageous from the Department's perspective. The owners are prepared to incur the costs. That is their point. The argument that it would cost the Department money is untrue. It would simply rent the building from an owner.
There is far more to this issue than the building that is currently occupied which we all accept is unsuitable, particularly for the expanded service. There is also the question of planning permission and fire certificates. I met the local public representatives and agreed to make a request to the OPW to hold off on signing any lease for premises in Monaghan town. This allowed representatives and officials to propose alternatives in Ballybay.
I do not have the answers to many of the Deputy's questions, as they are within the remit of the OPW which we commissioned to source the premises for us. On foot of my meeting with several Deputies from the locality, I requested the OPW not to sign any lease. That did not happen and there was a further investigation. If the Deputy has an issue with the level of engagement between the OPW and local businesses, he must raise the matter with the OPW.