imagerMost people living in the areas affected by Job Centre & SSA office closures are at least aware that the proposed closures are out to consultation until November 15th. Unfortunately most people are unaware of the potential impact these closures will have on them or family members. There is an assumption that because many people currently don’t use their local office on a regular basis, that it will have little impact on them. With the introduction of Universal Credit there will be a significant increase in need as people on a multitude of benefits from Carers to Working Tax Credits will be affected. The sick & disabled, older citizens and their carers will be affected. The most adversely affected, based on U.K figures are Lone Parents on Working Tax Credits.

The Dept for Communities have primary responsibility for these proposals and have a responsibility to consult key stakeholders and the wider public. They will undoubtedly have sent formal letters to each government department and PROBABLY Government funded bodies and interest groups in the affected areas.

So far I have only seen responses from NIPSA, a Rural Screening from the Dept for Agriculture,Environment & Rural Affairs, an Equality Impact Screening and some positive (but not formal) support from political reps. In addition many members of the public have signed petitions and the only questions raised on the matter were from Patsy McGlone MLA.

This is simply not good enough and we have the right to demand more from Our political representatives on such a serious issue.

I would like to see the list of Ministers, Councils, Government funded bodies and Interest groups that were invited to respond, and I would invite them to publish their responses in order to inform the public of the impact this will have across Government Departments and in their local area.

I find it incredible that the Department for Health,Social Services have not been more vocal on the potential impacts. When you consider the impact on people with physical and mental health issues who will be affected. When people with severe disabilities and their carers will be required to attend Work Focused Interviews. When Lone Parents regardless of their children’s age or medical condition, will be required to attend Work Focused Interviews.Excluding the main urban centres, this area has the highest rate of people with Disability Benefits, Learning Difficulties and receiving Prescription Drugs. Can the Department publish their response?

The Department for Infrastructure may also want to publish their response as the proposed closures will mean the public will have to use Public Transport to access services (Ballynahinch, Newcastle) in either Lisburn, Downpatrick or Knockbredagh. Anyone using the existing offices and from Ballynahinch, Newcastle and the surrounding rural catchment areas will be aware that there is currently a very limited Public Transport service to either of the proposed new offices. They would also be aware of the cost. With that in mind it is not unreasonable to request what the Department have said formally in response to the consultation. In addition, if reliant upon Public Transport, it is all but impossible for anyone from Ballynahinch to use anywhere other than Knockbredagh as it is the only office with a regular bus route. In responding to the consultation will the Minister confirm when the Ballynahinch Bypass is scheduled for completion as when completed the bus frequency to Knockbredagh would be significantly reduced. Can the Minister publish his response?

Department of Education: Young people who are still in full time education & higher education do use the local Job Centre to explore potential employment opportunities and discuss future employment prospects with Job Centre Advisors. There are several Schools and Further Education Colleges in the affected areas and these students, their teachers and careers advisors will be impacted. Will the Minister publish a response?

Department of Agriculture,Environment & Rural Affairs: The Department have claimed to carry out a Rural Proofing Screening. From media accounts this consisted of  a few phone calls. In any event, given the massive adverse impacts expected on rural dwellers, a full Rural Proofing Exercise is required. Accessibility alone is a huge issue that must be addressed. In response to a question from Patsy McGlone MLA the Minister for Communities has already acknowledged adverse impacts. It is essential that the Agriculture Minister  consult with key stakeholders to obtain a formal response. The Mourne, Gullion & Lecale Partnership which is funded by the Rural Development Programme is made up of 13 Social Partners & 12 elected reps from Newry, Mourne & Down Council and are well placed to provide data on potential impacts. The County Down Rural Community Network are also in a position to identify local impacts as they are made up of local community reps who deal with local people on a daily basis. There are many more groups in the affected areas that are Government funded and in a unique position to inform the Department of local impacts. Will the Minister confirm that these groups have been consulted? Will the Minister publish the Departments response? Will the Minister publish the consultation responses of the above named organisations which are accountable to the Minister and more importantly the public?

Department of Finance: the Department own the offices proposed for closure and I would hope have received a business case, including costings, projected savings  and projected financial impact of the roll out of Universal Credit. It is not unreasonable to ask what the Department propose to do with the vacant properties or what concerns they may have on projected impacts. Do the Department accept the figures presented in the consultation are accurate given that they were collated by a now defunct department (DSD), they are outdated, do not reflect the current footfall at these offices or the potential increased footfall when Universal Credit is introduced. Have the Department considered/measured the potential impact of eving the EU, when it is generally accepted that the north will be disproportionately affected. Will the Minister Publish a Formal response to this consultation.

The Minister for Communities proactively seek the formal responses of his Ministerial colleagues? Will the Minister publish the list of stakeholders who have been individually invited to participate/respond to the consultation? Will the Minister put a freeze on staff transfer requests from the offices proposed for closure? Would the Minister agree that with the uncertainty of brexit, now is not the time to propose changes when we have no idea what adverse impacts may arise?