Wednesday, 7 March 2018
Topical Issue Debate
Social Welfare Offices
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise the very important issue of 58 social welfare branch managers in the State. I believe they are being treated very badly by the Department. They have not had an increase in remuneration since 2008. In the interim they have had to take on a lot of extra responsibilities, which involved the employment of extra staff, improvements to their offices and so on.
During this same period their income dropped as the number of people on the live register dropped. When they last received an increase in 2008, the Department promised it would provide extra remuneration for the extra responsibilities taken on by the branch managers. That process continued for nearly ten years until last October. Every time they asked the Department when a new contract would be issued or when an increase in remuneration would happen, they were told "Soon". The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has a very peculiar definition of the word "soon". I believe this is a disgraceful way to treat people who have provided diligent service, some of them for many decades, for the Department and for their communities. When the process of increasing the remuneration was eventually looked at last October under the chairmanship of Kevin Duffy, the former chairman of the Labour Court, the remuneration was agreed and other issues were to be resolved in January. In January, however, the branch managers were suddenly told that the Department could no longer negotiate with the representative organisation, the Branch Managers' Association, BMA, for two reasons. The first reason was that advice from the Attorney General indicated there was a potential problem with competition law, which prevented the Department from negotiating directly with the BMA. I do not know what this potential problem involves. The Government, through the relevant Government Minister, negotiates with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, all the time as a representative organisation for doctors. The Government also negotiates with the Irish Postmasters' Union as the representative body of postmasters. In the case of the branch managers, the Department says it is being advised by the Attorney General that potentially a situation may have arisen as a result of interpretation of competition law that would necessitate the Department engaging and negotiating with each of the 58 branch managers individually.
The managers have also been told there is a problem with procurement. The relevant law may involve putting the contracts out to tender. Unofficially and through the grapevine, the branch managers have heard that the Department plans to close 20 of the 58 offices. I hope the Minister will clarify this in her response, one way or the other. There is a problem here in that all of these people have made a significant investment in their properties. The older contracts that precede 2008 were open ended. People understood they would be in their offices for life or up to the age of 65. This has been their investment. They invested to create a livelihood for themselves. If any of the branch managers had envisaged that this situation would arise, they would not have made their premises available to the Department in the first place. Will the Minister ensure that the first part of the agreement, the increased remuneration package, is put in place? Negotiations, or discussions, can then take place around the other matters. There are a number of other matters to be resolved. These people are at break point financially. Their income has been dropping while their expenses have increased dramatically over the past number of years. These managers are not, generally, people who complain. They have been in touch with us because they have no place else to go.
My Department currently has 58 social welfare branch offices at various locations in the State. Each branch office is operated and managed under a contract for services by a branch manager who is required to act as an agent for the Department in the area served by the office. Branch office managers operate on a contract for service and are entirely independent contractors.
The Department wishes to ensure that the services provided by the Department’s Intreo centres and by branch offices are aligned so that all customers nationwide are provided with broadly similar services. On foot of this, officials from my Department have been engaged in ongoing discussions with the Branch Managers' Association, a representative group for individual branch managers, on the Department’s proposals for a new service delivery model and remuneration model. The main elements of the service delivery model relate to accommodation; information provision; payments processing, including full use of all departmental IT systems; and support for activation and control activities.
Most recently, talks with the BMA included facilitated discussions under the chairmanship of Mr. Kevin Duffy, a former chairman of the Labour Court. The facilitation process chaired by Mr. Duffy provides a forum where the concerns of the branch managers and the Department can be discussed. The Department cannot, however, negotiate with the BMA as this could potentially be in breach of competition legislation. The Department, however, can take account of the views presented by the BMA. This is why the Department has instigated the facilitation process.
The remuneration proposals take into account recommendations from Mr. Duffy to both parties in December 2017. These recommendations were accepted by the Department and by the BMA representatives. Under the proposals, the amounts on offer to individual branch managers would be fixed for a period of three years commencing on 1 January 2018. This represents a positive shift from the traditional payment method, where payment was based on claim load, to a model based on delivery of an agreed service level. This is particularly significant in an environment where, thankfully, the live register is expected to continue to decline. The amounts available under the new remuneration model represent an annualised increase of approximately 28% when compared to the payments made in 2017. I can tell the Deputy categorically that we have not been wanting in providing a very fair remuneration package to our branch managers who are providing a valuable service, as the Deputy has said, to people nationwide.
My officials consider that the enhanced services envisaged for branch offices can be achieved under the current contract arrangements with branch managers and that there is no requirement to conclude new contracts. If the Department is to change the terms of the contracts then because of their value, the new contracts will be subject to an open competition in line with current procurement law.
The Department must ensure, however, that it moves forward in a legally compliant manner. Therefore, the Department is examining each contract in conjunction with the Chief State Solicitor's office to confirm we can provide the enhanced remuneration package without breaching current procurement law. Once this process has been completed, the Department will write to each branch manager individually confirming, where possible, the individual amount payable to that person. Where a branch manager confirms his or her acceptance of the proposal and commits to supporting the required changes, payment of the new pay model will be put in place with the effective date, as I said, of 1 January 2018. While the BMA withdrew from discussions with my officials on 19 February, I have invited it and its members to contact Mr. Duffy and ask him to reconvene the facilitation process to discuss the proposed service delivery model. If the BMA is willing to enter discussions on this basis, the Department will attend for the purposes of listening to and taking account of any and all views the BMA wishes to present to us.
I note the Minister congratulates herself on the increase, which is 28%. This is a significant increase but is not much good if one does not receive it. That is the problem. No one has been paid it yet. The branch managers are still working on the old system, in respect of which income has been depleted considerably because of the fall in the numbers on the live register. They are operating in a context in which their expenses have increased considerably. The problem is that if this matter drags on too long before the new package, the new remuneration levels, can come into place, some of them will financially go to the wall. That is the reality of the matter. They can barely survive as it is. The Minister may shake her head-----
-----but I know of individual cases in which people are literally struggling from day to day.
The Minister says she has invited the branch managers to re-enter discussions with Mr. Duffy and the facilitation process. I welcome all dialogue and discussions but I want an assurance from the Minister that the facilitation process will not be like what it has been up to now, whereby the people in question are in one room, Mr. Duffy speaks to them, he goes in and talks to the Civil Service and he comes back and says to the branch managers, "These guys are not for budging." That is what the facilitation process consisted of. That is why we are here. That is why the problem remains unresolved. What we want is a proper facilitation process.
Is it the Department's intention to close a number of these branches? The Minister need not be specific on the actual figure. This would happen not because of anything being done wrong; it would happen, presumably, as part of a rationalisation process. The people in question would have done nothing wrong. If the branch is closed in these circumstances, if the service is discontinued from a branch, will the local branch officer, the person who owns the building, be compensated for the loss of his or her livelihood?
There are a number of things I must say in response because I am not sure who is giving the Deputy the information he is getting but it is not accurate. First, regarding the negotiations, or the process that was established to negotiate and listen to and hear the representations made on behalf of individual branch managers by the Branch Managers' Association, the facilitator was chosen by the branch managers and we agreed that whatever the outcome of that facilitative process we would accept it. An entire agreement was reached both before Christmas and when one or two issues were raised with us after Christmas. It was only on 19 February that the branch managers' representative body decided to pull out of the agreement because of new items that were brought to the table that had simply never been part of the negotiated process during the previous months. However, that door is always open. Mr. Kevin Duffy has done a fantastic job. He certainly did not run from one room to the next.
He was the person the branch managers chose and he acted admirably to come to an agreement on which we all agreed until it was not agreed on 19 February. However, if anyone wants to open the door and start that process again, we will be there in a flash. Let that be put on the record first.
Second, again, I have no idea where the rumours and innuendo about branch closures are coming from. All I can tell the Deputy is that the Department's footprint of branch managers' offices are based on citizens' needs and the only reasons they would ever change is either on the basis of the provision of enhanced services to citizens or in a case in which there were no more citizens to whom to provide services. In Baltinglass, for argument's sake, one of our branch managers is retiring and we are going to open a local office ourselves in that office. Deputy O'Dea wants a guarantee from me that the Department will never close a branch office.
It is my time to respond, if the Deputy would like to let me do so. The aim of the Department is to provide the same level of service through our branch managers as one receives through our Intreo offices. This is why we started the negotiations a number of years ago, first recognising that the remuneration of these branch officers was decreasing because the workload was reducing, but also recognising the inherent value we see in them and the improvements to the services that can be delivered by those branch mangers. This is why we entered into negotiations. We hit a particular wall. We got a mediator on behalf of the branch mangers and he is the person whom they requested. The branch managers are the people who pulled out.
I also reiterate that the remuneration package that had been previously agreed will be paid from 1 January. The very first person who comes and signs a new contract or agrees to the conditions that were laid down will see his or her payments backdated to 1 January.