Seanad debates

Thursday, 1 April 2010

1:00 am

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney, to the House to deal with this matter.

The people of Balbriggan were informed several years ago that it had become necessary to relocate part of the HSE community welfare service from Balbriggan to offices in Gardiner Street in the city centre of Dublin, due to lack of space. They were informed that this would only be a temporary measure until suitable alternative premises could be procured. Six years later, this temporary arrangement still exists. Up to 250 people per week must travel at their own expense nearly 22 miles each way to have their applications for entitlements processed. The round trip costs a minimum of €8. It is scandalous that this situation has been allowed to develop and that the resolution of the problem continues to be put on the long finger. It is for that reason I raise the issue again. The situation is totally unacceptable.

There are currently five community welfare officers providing a service to the people of Balbriggan, three of whom operate out of the Gardiner Street office. Balbriggan health centre was, and still remains, totally inadequate to provide the range of services essential for the people of Balbriggan, such as public health nursing, dental service, mental health services and community welfare services. The existing single storey building, with a prefab extension to the rear, at Hampton Street, cannot cater for the expansion of the services which has resulted from an increased demand driven by the rapid expansion of housing developments in the Balbriggan area, together with the rapid increase in unemployment in the town.

There were 5,029 people on the live register in Balbriggan at the end of February and due to extreme delays in processing applications, new applicants are forced to seek welfare from the community welfare office while they are waiting to receive their jobseeker's benefit. If they are lucky and live in the south of the town, they can go to the community welfare officer in the local office in Hampton Street, but if they live in the north or west of the town, they must travel into Gardiner Street. Other supplementary payments delivered through the community welfare service include rent supplement, mortgage interest supplement, heating expenses and exceptional needs payments. Applicants for all of these payments must also make their way into Gardiner Street if they live in a certain part of Balbriggan. This problem is well known to the HSE and the Department of Health and Children.

Following previous representations by me on this issue, I was informed by the HSE in May 2008:

A number of possible alternative locations in Balbriggan were examined and one had been deemed suitable to accommodate the community welfare services. This has been put forward to the HSE National Property Committee and a response is pending.

Notwithstanding that reply, the location referred to was never available. Following further representations by me in February 2009, I was informed:

It is anticipated that the Community Welfare Service will be factored into the new employment exchange development in Balbriggan which is due to be operational in six months and the service based in Gardiner Street will move to this facility as soon as it is ready.

There is as yet, more than a year later, no employment exchange development in place and when it is in place, it may not even be adequate in size to provide a full service for social welfare services and will definitely not be adequate to include the community welfare service. Once again, this outlines the lack of commitment by the Department of Health and Children and the HSE to the needs of the people of Balbriggan.

I am demanding that the HSE accepts its responsibility and provides an alternative location in Balbriggan as a matter of urgency. Given the downturn in the property market, there should be no excuse for not sourcing a suitable location. I know that suitable premises are available for lease in Balbriggan today. Action must be taken. The people of Balbriggan deserve better. I hope for positive news from the Minister of State and hope to receive a meaningful response from him, unlike previous responses on this matter.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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): 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.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. As with previous responses on this matter, I note the general comments on the activities of the service. However, the matter at issue is whether a replacement local service will be provided in Balbriggan in the short term for the many people who have to travel to Gardiner Street. The Minister of State's response indicates the HSE and the Department are actively seeking premises in Balbriggan. New accommodation for social services there is scheduled to come on stream this year. It has been agreed that both the HSE and the community welfare service will be accommodated in the new facility. I know the Department is actively seeking and has procured a lease for premises from which to provide its services in Balbriggan. This will not be sufficient in the context of meeting the needs that exist and it will not be possible to provide adequate social welfare services. I have made proposals to those involved, which they are considering. I hope they will arrive at a resolution to this problem.

The Minister of State's reply suggests that the community welfare service may in some way be integrated with the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I know this is not the case. The information available to me suggests that a solo run is being done in this instance. There is no indication that a building out of which both entities might provide services is being sought. As stated earlier, it will not be possible for community welfare officers to provide a full service unless matters are dealt with differently.

I note the Minister of State's reply but the information it contains does not tally with that which is available to me. I wonder whether there might be some way to obtain information on what is really happening in respect of this matter. I do not believe the contents of the Minister of State's script reflect the reality of the position. It is my understanding the position is different to that which he outlined.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is obviously closer to this matter than I am. The script which I was charged to deliver indicates that the aim is to secure a suitable premises. The Senator lives in the area and is aware of the actual position. In such circumstances, I will undertake to arrange a meeting involving the Senator, the Minister and me, which will take place following the Easter recess, in order that this matter might be teased out. The Senator will be in a position at that point to furnish to us the information in his possession. This will assist in ensuring we will be in a position to provide a premises out of which both services might be made available. I will inform the Senator next week as to the time and location of the meeting to which I refer.