A major shake-up of the social security system across Northern Ireland, as the Universal Credit system creeps closer, is causing considerable anxiety for social security and Northern Ireland Housing Executive staff in the Down District area.
A government consultation is proposing to move staff from the Downpatrick, Ballynahinch, Newcastle and Kilkeel offices to Newry, Lurgan and Armagh and staff maintain this will effectively means many of the mainly women affected will not be able to transfer to other workplaces. Administrative and social security officer grade staff are affected.
Chairing an emergency meeting held in St Mary’s High School on Thursday with staff, local political representatives and trade unionsists, Tracey Quail, President of the Downpatrick Chamber of Commerce opened by saying that “only ten front line jobs would be left in Downpatrick and everyone else will be expected to work at other processing centres.
“This decision by the Social Security Agency will affect offices in Newcastle and Ballynahinch as well as Downpatrick. It will ultimately have a detrimental affect on Down District and South Down. You just have to look at the vacant shop fronts in Downpatrick and elsewhere to know that this decision will have direct economic reprecussions.”
Michelle Treacy, Social Security Officer, said, “On behalf of my colleagues, I would say that everyone has an equal right to employment and really it is up to the Civil Service to prove that their matter has been properly equality screened so all staff across Northern Ireland have the same opportunities.
“You just have to look at the profile of this district to see that the staff are mainly Catholic and 98 per cent are women. They mainly have families or caring responsibilities. We understood that by agreement that staff would not be asked to travel more than 15 miles from their place of work. Many have cars that would not be suitable for driving long distances to Newry and Lurgan, and there is no direct bus route to Lurgan.
“Of the 35 offices in Northern Ireland which will retain front line services, only 17 of these will have benefit processing centres, none of which are in the South Down constituency.
“Whilst we are in agreement that an effective and highly accessible service is essential, we do not believe that the Government Building Estate usuage is being fully utilisied. It has been confirmed that the current Downpatrick Social Security Agency office in Mount Crescent will close completely and all staff relocated to one of the new sites in Lurgan, Newry or Armagh.
“A commitment was given that Downpatrick would have a Jobs and Benefits Office (JBO) by December 2012 – joining the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL), who are located in Rathkeltair House, and as few as approximately 10 staff will be ratined to operate front line services only.
‘However, to date there has been no progress on the JBO and this it is unlikely that this will be in place by December 2012. Rathkeltair House, the building by its size, location and age is more than adequate for both a processing site and JBO in the South Down area.
“It is now time to speak out. We are delighted that we have received solid cross-party political support and look forward to working with all of the representatives.
“This is only the latest in a long number of future proposals to remove public sector services and centralise them in other areas out of our community. It is vital that as a community we stand together and oppose this latest decision.”
The Equality Argument Presented at the Meeting by the Staff Affected
There were five key points that the staff affected with changes to their jobs focused on:
- Religious Belief: Downpatrick is the biggest office affected and the main religious belief is Roman Catholic. However, in the other offices of Ballynahinch, Newcastle and Kilkeel, the customers and public perceive the staff to be of the same persausion as themselves.
- Political Opinion: Staff beleve after looking at key changes to the Agency’s network, that it smacks of political sectarianism within Northern Ireland and southern regions. Within South Down, seen as an SDLP stronghold, all processing of benefits have been removed from the South Down area.
- Gender: 95-98% of staff are female within the South Down offices and many have childcare responsibilities and the right to a balanced life/work equation.
- Primary responsiobility for the care of a dependant elederly person /parent. With the severe cuts to “care in teh community” this brings added pressure to staff and families.
- Mobility: it is not reasonable to expect staff to travel round journeys of up to 3-4 hours to work in Newry, Lurgan, or Armagh each day.
What the political representatives said:
Margaret Ritchie MP: “Our people including the elderly are opposed to these changes to jobs and services. We believe in a strong, robust public sector. We can’t have one without the other. The challenge to the Executive is to create a strong public sector. They must believe in the balance of distribution of services.
“Earlier this year, staff received a shock when they were told they may have to travel to Lurgan or Newry to work. These are mainly women with caring and family responsibilities. There seems to be no account taken of equality consideration towards these workers. And there just seems no account taken of the rural peripherality of their positions.
“Staff should not be expected to travel such distances to work. We believe that officials in the Civil Service and the SSA should continue to examine the options. In an April 2009 statement, the Minister said if this matter is not resolved properly, he had the power to intervene if necessary. If the Minister does not intervene then there is an onus on the First and Deputy Minster to act.
“We therefore call on the NI Executive to intervene to ensure the retention of jobs in the public sector in this area and that there is full equality of treatment towards these workers. The services must be retained for the benefit of the wider community. This decision could impact very heavily on our rural community.”
Councillor Mickey Coogan, Chairman of Down District Council: “We are all too familiar with the arguments from a Down District Council perspective. We need now to put forward evidence based arguments to counter this proposal. You just have to look at the loss of the Ballynahinch Library Headquarters, the development issues around the Downshire Estate. We really need to come to a consensual position among the parties to act together… and speak with one voice. This issue is about Down District and the wider area, not just about Downpatrick.”
Chris Hazzard MLA: “It is very encouraging to see such strong support for the staff in the offices affected by this decision. This matter cannot be dealt with by one political party. It requires joined up political action. We all understand that his decision is wrong fundamentally. We cannot have our communities left without adequate services.
“We therefore have to work together and set up a taskforce such as was done with the Narrowwater Bridge issue. It finally produced results. I am prepared to work with everyone to these ends. Sinn Féin is committed to decentralisation. Let’s get this taskforce in place and build Downpatrick as it should be.”
Sean Rogers MLA: “The heart is being ripped out of South Down and we need to stand now shoulder to shoulder. This fight too needs to go to Newry and Mourne Council area too.
“Over the past few of weeks I have met with a number of people including the Minister himself. If Social Security staff from Kilkeel have to travel to Lurgan that could be a two hour journey. This is exceptional that people should be expected to travel this length of time to work. We need to go to Sammy Wilson and ask him where the money is for a processing centre here in Down district.”
Councillor Terry Andrews: “You just have to look at the situation with the staff in Bernagh House in the Downshire Estate being asked to travel to Ballymena after another consultation to realise that there is something basically wrong with jobs disappearing from Downpatrick. Stormont needs to waken up and smell the coffee.”
NIPSA Assistant Secretary Tony McMullan said: ” We represent 47,000 publiic sector workers in Northern Ireland and we are committed to the public sector and the distribution of jobs across Northern Ireland. Jobs should not be removed from local offices. The public in every local area deserves to have local offices.
“We are opposed to processing centres and we believe we should keep work locally focused.”
The Arguments Set out by the Staff
In a document presented to the meeting by staff, the theme of jobs bleeding from Down Distict headed the page. They cited public sector job losses from the Planning Office, Rates Office, NIHE Housing Benefit, and a number of jobs from the Downshire estate.
Michelle Treacey explained: “The figures that we have on our statistics of cases in the Downpatrick SSO plus other offices highlight the need for a full benefit processing centre and not a front line service as proposed which will put immense pressure on the few staff in the front line offices who will remain on site.
Downpatrick Office Statistics.
Income Support (Fresh Claims) – 487
JSA Signers – 1250 and rising
Callers – 22,196
Crisis Loans – appointments and Teleclaims – 13,813
Community CAre Grants – 1683
Sure Start Maternity Grants – 318
Budget Loans – 3531
Funeral Grants – 135
Michelle Treacy added: “As stipulated in the ‘Bain Report’, the infrastructure of the SouthDown area is inadequate to encourage investment to the area that has second class roads.
“Therefore retaining services in this area is vital to the local economy. Closure has already happened to several big stores and local building firms.
“It is not just a matter of the loss of the current Social Security Agency jobs from the area, but the loss of the potential further 100 staff approximately that would have been employed in the area in the previously promised processing centre and the impact that this loss will have on the local economy that is detrimental to the whole South Down area.
“South Down has a public sector led economy and we need local jobs for local people.”
The Decision of the Meeting
It was unanimously agreed by all at the meeting in St Mary’s High School that a cross-party motion be put forward to the next full meeting of Down District Council on Tuesday 28 August agreed by all parties opposing this SSA policy decision and calling for a reversal to set up a full processing centre in Downpatrick. It is expected that the Council meeting will also move that the Council provide the administrative support for this proposal.