Thursday, 1 April 2010
Social Welfare Benefits
John Moloney (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
): I thank Senator Ryan for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position on the operation of community welfare services and related services in Balbriggan.
The community welfare service, currently run by the Health Service Executive, administers the supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, scheme on behalf of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I am informed by the HSE that in 2006, due to a marked increase in claimants of SWA living in Balbriggan, the local health centre in Balbriggan could no longer house this service as it was impinging on the capacity to deliver other services of the HSE. As a result, part of the community welfare service in Balbriggan relocated to Gardiner Street, where capacity existed within the HSE asylum seekers unit. Since then, new SWA claimants living in Balbriggan make application through this centre. I understand that, in the meantime, both the HSE and the Department of Social and Family Affairs have been actively seeking premises in the Balbriggan area. New accommodation for a social services office there is now scheduled to come on stream in 2010. It has been agreed by both agencies that HSE provided community welfare services will also be accommodated in the new facility.
Senator Ryan will be interested to know that in February 2006 the Government decided the community welfare service would transfer to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. There are significant benefits to be achieved in transferring the administration of SWA from the HSE to the Department. The integration of the community welfare service into that Department will mean that all income maintenance schemes will be managed and delivered within one entity. This will provide opportunities in the medium to longer term for enhanced customer service, achievement of efficiencies, co-ordinated control mechanisms and elimination of duplication of effort, with consequential savings to the Exchequer and better outcomes for users of social welfare services. The transfer will alleviate pressure on the HSE and facilitate it in concentrating on its core health and personal social service functions. It will not lead to any changes in the exercise of discretion by community welfare officers when dealing with applications. The flexibility and responsiveness inherent in the scheme will remain.
This flexibility and responsiveness was very much in evidence in the role the community welfare officers played in providing financial assistance to people who were affected by the severe flooding this winter. The transfer is also a good example of the reform and transformation of public services, which are a priority for Government, and which are at the heart of the draft agreement, brokered by the Labour Relations Commission between Government and public service trade unions in Croke Park this week. A considerable amount of preparatory work to allow for the transfer has been completed, but progress has been stalled as the unions had withdrawn from the discussions as part of their campaign against the Government's public service pay policy. The Government's priority now is to push ahead with the reform agenda as quickly as possible and I look forward to the co-operation of the relevant unions in re-entering discussions on the transfer. The priority objective for the management side is to reach a collective agreement with the unions as soon as possible so the transfer can commence this year.