Since February 2011 the provision of new rent allowance and mortgage assistance claims for my constituents in Dublin North are being directed to a PO box address in Santry. It has resulted in the removal of yet another localised service from some of the most vulnerable in society. Previously new rent supplement applications were handled by community welfare officers, CWOs. Applicants could meet a CWO in person, discuss their situation and in response, the applicant would get instant advice and help. I find it incredible that this service has been removed from community welfare officers. CWOs provided face-to-face contact for people who need the allowance. They could give advice and counsel but most importantly decisions were made in a short time, usually within one week. With the new system, there are delays of up to five or six weeks whereby people are left in an anxious limbo, waiting on a decision.
As public representatives we all deal with emergency cases where people are in need of a quick decision on their rent supplement. That may be as a result of domestic violence, abuse or health problems. Until February 2011, such emergency cases could be dealt with directly through community welfare officers who could provide advice in a timely manner. Now people are directed to the PO box address and a system which is totally faceless. Although the new system offers a telephone number for queries, the delays for getting calls answered are very long. Many people I have spoken to do not even get an answer when they call the number. In fact, to confirm what I had been told on the ground, a member of my staff made a test call to the number this week to verify the delay and was left listening to a ringing telephone for 35 minutes before he gave up. I suggest that the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, try the number for himself. It is 1800 303413.
The service is not worthy of the Department of Social Protection and it is certainly not good enough for the people of Dublin North. It seems that we have swapped a functioning service for a bad service, with absolutely no explanation on why the change was made. I have been informed by a number of CWOs that the changes were not driven by a lack of capacity to deliver the service locally. I understand there are proposals for existing rent and mortgage claims to be transferred to the new centralised facility in the near future. Before any further claims are transferred to the new facility, I call for a full and detailed explanation on why new applications have been taken away from CWOs. Is it part of an overall strategy and, if so, what is the strategy? Does the Department recognise that the current process is failing people in need of rent supplement?
I know the Minister is committed to reform of the social welfare system in this country. The changes were not introduced under her watch. However, reform is not about removing a functioning system and replacing it with one that is less effective. We must remember that those seeking rent allowance or mortgage assistance are looking for help for that most basic of requirements, namely, shelter. The provision of a roof over one's head is something that some may take for granted but there are people who face such insecurity on a daily basis. That is why we must ensure that the social welfare service meets a number of requirements, not least in the area of efficiency.
The new service is not efficient. Waiting times are excessive. Customer service is virtually non-existent and the delays are having a negative impact on people in need of financial support for housing. I have asked that the decision be reversed with immediate effect. I hope the Minister of State can respond positively to the request, but at a minimum I ask him to address the problems I have described. The response provided to me tonight will be based on a report from the Minister's officials. It will, of necessity, have been prepared in advance and if experience tells me anything, it might suggest that all is well. However, I assure the Minister of State that all is not well.
I accept that we must reform the public service but part of the reform must include a challenge to treat recipients of the service as real people — customers and not mere statistics. The reformed public service to which I look forward must be about efficiency but it must also be about customer service and the need for continual improvement in that regard. The problem I have raised tonight is about none of those and improves nothing. I look forward to the Minister of State's response and in particular to anything he might say specifically on the points I have made tonight.