Thursday, 29 September 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Community Welfare Services
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.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. She is at a conference in Cavan today for rural development Ministers from the OECD. I thank Deputy Stanley for raising the issue. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme is the safety net within the overall social welfare system that provides assistance to eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient. The community welfare service, CWS, remains a flexible service which meets the varied needs of vulnerable people and the Minister wants to be absolutely clear that it continues to provide local access to local community welfare officers, CWOs, in local areas across the country and there are no plans to change the service. Her Department has maintained staffing levels in the CWS nationwide in recent years, during times when demand decreased. This is reflective of the commitment to continue to support delivery of locally based services to customers.
CWOs can facilitate urgent and in-person meetings in 51 Intreo centres across business hours five days a week. In addition to meeting citizens in the Intreo offices, branch offices and Department of Social Protection offices, CWOs can facilitate an appointment within a short time of a person requiring a meeting at a mutually agreed location including the person's home. The Department of Social Protection has introduced innovations this year which have increased efficiency in processing applications for the supplementary welfare allowance payments. One of these is the establishment of a back-office team to undertake preparatory work on applications. That includes registration of claims and the gathering of supporting documentation that is necessary to assess and finalise a claim. Providing this clerical assistance has been found to be very effective in releasing the CWOs from administrative tasks and allows them to focus on delivery. It allows for increased capacity of CWOs to meet people locally or to travel with them as customers as required, and also for more timely processing of claims.
The Minister firmly believes that a modern community welfare service should be easily accessible to all customers. For this reason customers no longer have to meet in person with a CWO to make a claim. This significant change ensures enhanced access to the welfare system. It means, for instance, that those who require community welfare assistance in a more remote rural area no longer need to wait for an outreach service to be available. The application form is available to download for those who can access it online. It can also be requested by phone through the dedicated CWS free-phone line, and also by email. The Minister cannot emphasise enough that while changes to modernise and improve the service for customers are a feature of welfare services, the delivery of a locally based service will remain a cornerstone of her commitment in the Department. I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Unfortunately the reality in County Laois does not correspond with what he has outlined. Councillors from the Government parties raised this matter at the monthly meeting of Laois County Council last Monday and are very exercised about it. It is a real problem. I understand the Minister cannot be here and appreciate that the Minister of State is standing in for her. I ask the Minister of State to get the Minister to investigate this and examine what the situation is on the ground. What she sent me in this letter of 8 September and what the Minister of State has outlined is just not the case. The Minister of State has outlined that it is a safety net. It is a safety net and the last hope for a lot of people. The Minister of State mentioned that people are doing back-office work and preparatory work. Sometimes the people who are going in need help filling out forms, be it the community welfare, the supplementary allowance form, the additional needs form or the urgent needs payment form. They need help with those. The CWO going around and having the local network of five or six clinics in a county provided that help for them. The further we take things away, the more complicated they get.
The other thing that is missing is that there was a local appeals system. There was a superintendent in each county or one for every two counties. If a case failed, there was an opportunity for the person to appeal to that superintendent. Now it goes to D'Olier Street and by the time it comes out of D'Olier Street, God help anybody who would be waiting on it. The Minister of State knows from his own office that it can take six or nine months or longer to get stuff back from D'Olier Street. If there was a justifiable, genuine case there, the appeal could be made to the local superintendent who would review the case again and maybe there was additional information required. We cannot pull away all of that. People talking to a phone, getting through to a chasing line telling them to press this button, press that button, or trying to download forms on a computer when they do not have a computer just does not work. This is causing real hardship. People who are in this situation are already in hardship. I do not want to see them put in further hardship. I am appealing to the Government and the Minister of State to review this and try and get the network back in place in County Laois.
I omitted to say in my earlier remarks, although Deputy Stanley is probably aware of this anyway, that in the Laois-Offaly constituency there are no CWO vacancies and there is a full complement in Laois of six and in Offaly of five. In respect of the changes that have been made around modernisation, it has been in response to a lot of calls from Oireachtas Members and public representatives, including a colleague of Deputy Stanley's, Deputy Kerrane, who on a number of occasions in this House has called for community welfare services to be made available online-----
-----for customers who do not want to meet face to face. If I could finish, it is very clear in the earlier response I made that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is committed to a blended format, making sure that it is accessible. It goes without saying that of all Ministers in the Government who are rooted in rural areas, everybody on both sides of the House would fully appreciate the commitment she has to the maintenance of rural services.