Thursday, 19 May 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Citizens Information Services
I am trying to clear up some confusion and doubt about the Wicklow Town Citizens Information Centre, a very much appreciated source of information and assistance to local residents not just in Wicklow town, but in the area around it. The centre operated very successfully up until April 2020. There was an issue around the building that the centre was operating out of, and it was closed down. I understand that there was an assumption or some reassurance given that another premises would be sourced for the service. It is a vital service. As the Minister of State is aware, Wicklow town is a big, thriving town with a big population. These services are very much in demand. I have engaged with the Minister for Social Protection and her Department on the matter. I received a response in March which stated that the Citizens Information Board had informed the Minister that new premises had been located in Wicklow town, that planning for the change of use of those premises had been granted and that the Department of Social Protection and the Citizens Information Board were in discussions in respect of funding required to complete the new premises and reopen the much-needed office. Everybody was quite satisfied and happy with that response.
On 13 May, just two months after I received the first response, the regional manager in Wicklow citizens information service was informed by the Citizens Information Board that the Wicklow Town Citizens Information Centre will not be funded by the Department of Social Protection. It gets more complex. I hope the Minister of State is following this. I then raised the issue with the Minister for Social Protection. I was told that the Citizens Information Board is independent and decides on issues of funding and what services it is going to provide. According to a note from the Citizens Information Board, funding will not be provided by the Department of Social Protection. I want to try to get the bottom of the matter.
There is no doubt that the service is required in Wicklow. Many people are extremely disappointed at the kind of messing around that has gone on. There are information services operating in Arklow and Bray quite successfully. However, the public transport links from Wicklow town to Arklow are not great. There are slightly better transport links to Bray. There are two vital services being provided at either extremity of the county. It is in Wicklow town that we need an information service. I want to know who decides to provide the budget for the information centre. Is it the Citizens Information Board, which, the Minister informs me, is independent or is it the Department of Social Protection, which the Citizens Information Board has informed the information centre is not providing the funding? I want to get to the bottom of it. How is the funding decided? Who carries out the assessment to determine that the information centre is required and should be funded?
I understand that is up to the Citizens Information Board, CIB. I want to know how, in a two-month period, it came to that assessment and decided that it was not going to reopen. Hopefully, the Minister of State is going to tell me that the money is there and that it will reopen.
I thank Deputy Matthews for raising this matter and I also thank him for outlining how important the Citizens Information Board is. I know myself when I was starting out in politics how very useful and necessary its advice was in my own local town. The Citizens Information Board is the statutory body with responsibility for the Citizens Information Service, CIS. The CIB provides funding to eight CIS companies that operate a national network of Citizens Information Centres, CICs.
Each CIS is a limited company overseen by a board of directors and makes decisions independently on the delivery of services in their regions. Decisions regarding the delivery of services in Wicklow town are therefore a matter for the board of the south Leinster CIS. In March 2020, the board of south Leinster CIS made the decision to close the Wicklow CIC office as part of its Covid-19 response. Decisions such as these are entirely a matter for the south Leinster CIS board.
In December 2021, I understand that south Leinster CIS made the decision to discontinue services in their Wicklow town office due to health and safety concerns as outlined by the Deputy. The board had undertaken an internal assessment of the premises and identified that they were unsuitable. I understand that the south Leinster board looked to put alternative arrangements in place. A temporary office location was identified in Wicklow town but the board made the decision not to use this office as it looked to procure a longer-term arrangement. An office space in the centre of Wicklow town was considered. However, the premises required substantial financial investment before it could be utilised. Planning permission for the change of use of these premises was granted to the landlord in late 2021 and consequently the costs had not been factored into CIB's 2022 budget allocation estimates process.
CIB provides funding to the various regional CIS companies and funding may be available for projects that are necessary for the effective delivery of service. Any requests for such funding would be assessed in the context of CIB's annual budget allocation and other competing priorities, and also within the normal efficiency and value-for-money obligations that apply to public funding.
In the interim, I understand that CIB has recently asked the board of south Leinster CIS to consider the use of an outreach office for Wicklow town as soon as possible. The board of south Leinster CIS has therefore been asked to develop a proposal which would identify a possible location for an outreach office in order to provide citizen information services directly in Wicklow town. The Citizens Information Board is continuing to engage with south Leinster CIS with a view to progressing its use to meet local needs.
An outreach office is obviously better than nothing but Wicklow town is the county town with a growing population. It is designated under the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy as a key growth town in planning. That is where we are planning to grow populations in County Wicklow, which is in Bray and in Wicklow town. The removal of this service and the suggestion that the service may look for an office to provide an outreach service is not good enough for the residents in Wicklow town.
The Minister of State's response does not quite get to the question I asked in that he states that funding and service provision is the responsibility of the board, which I accept. We have communication from the board to the centre saying that funding will not be provided by the Department of Social Protection. Ultimately, the funding must come from that Department down to the board and it then decides. Has the funding been withheld by the Department or is the funding there and the south Leinster CIS board has decided to spend it elsewhere? If that is the case, I will be satisfied that the senior Minister has provided the funding and I will go then and chase the board to see why it is not providing that service to Wicklow town, considering that the board was all for it in finding premises and in recognising that that service was required.
We are doing considerable work in Wicklow town. A significant growth in population is being added to the town. We are bringing electrified train services there. It is the county town and it needs this service. If the Minister of State can explain to me the question I have just raised with him, that will be fine and I will take my queries then to the Leinster board of the Citizens Information Service.
Again, I thank the Deputy for raising this quite complex issue. The CIB continues to work closely with the board of south Leinster CIS to support the region and to ensure that the delivery of high quality services to citizens remains a priority.
I can confirm that south Leinster CIS is continuing to provide citizens information services to the citizens of Wicklow through the CIC offices located in Arklow and Bray. However, as the Deputy has rightly pointed out, there are difficulties in respect of transport services. Services have continued to be offered throughout the pandemic and will continue to be available through a combination of offices in Arklow and Bray for drop-in appointments and phone-based services. The latter have been particularly successful in ensuring south Leinster CIS continued to support the people of County Wicklow over what has been a very difficult delivery environment since March 2020.
The CIB will continue discussions with south Leinster CIS regarding the future delivery of services and the development of proposals in identifying possible premises including costings and an outline of potential works that might be needed to make these premises suitable for the delivery of services in Wicklow town. The CIB and the regional CIS companies decide on how their funding budgets are allocated and these decisions are not a matter for the Minister for Social Protection.
However, the Deputy has rightly outlined that Wicklow is the county town and that it is a service that was there. These discussions should continue and I will bring his proposals back to the senior Minister. I understand that she has given an allocation of funding and this is an issue, therefore, that has really to do with the Citizens Information Board. The Deputy has made a very strong case that this service would be located back in Wicklow town and I will bring that case back to the Minister.