Health Board Services.

The Minister should be well aware of the difficulties in many areas of the country where we just do not have sufficient community welfare officers. Those officers are under great stress working in difficult situations. I want to speak particularly about the community welfare officers in the Dublin 15 area — Blanchardstown, Castleknock, Clonsilla and Mulhuddart — where there are six officers. These officers are greatly under-resourced as the population of the Dublin 15 area has grown considerably in the past number of years and continues to do so. Yet the number of community welfare officers has not increased. This situation is so bad that St. Vincent de Paul has raised the matter with me and with the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan.

The lack of officers in the area has resulted in the suspension of drop-in hours. Somebody who has a difficulty can no longer drop in to speak with his or her community welfare officer. People now have to leave a message on the answering machine or write to their officer. However, problems arise suddenly for people and cannot be immediately resolved by writing a letter. People want to see their community welfare officer as soon as possible and that has always been the system. Therefore, the suspension of the drop-in hours has caused great concern to many people out there. We need a big increase in the number of community welfare officers in the Dublin 15 area. We also need better working conditions for those officers. They are working out of the Roselawn health centre and another centre in Mountview. These health centres are already overcrowded, with many people coming in to visit the dentist, the doctor and so on. Therefore the provision of new accommodation and an increase in the number of community welfare officers is needed to catch up with the population growth in the area.

As Senator Terry is aware, the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is administered by the community welfare staff of the various health boards on behalf of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We are aware that difficulties have arisen in the service being provided to the public in the Dublin 15 area. The Northern Area Health Board is responsible for the daily administration of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme in the area concerned. The board has advised that unfortunately it is no longer offering a walk-in or face-to-face service to the public in Dublin 15 due to accommodation difficulties in the area.

The locations affected include Blanchardstown, Mulhuddart, Clonee and Hartstown. People requiring access to a community welfare officer in those areas are currently asked to telephone a freephone number to make an appointment or, alternatively, to complete a claim form and either post it or deliver it to the appropriate health centre. The community welfare officers are working overtime to deal with the volume of claims. I take this opportunity to thank the health board staff involved for their commitment in dealing with this difficult situation.

The board has advised that it felt it had no choice but to withdraw the facility of a walk-in service to the public in Dublin 15 due to the numbers of people queuing to see the community welfare officers.

The root cause of the difficulties being experienced is the large increase in the population of the area which in turn has led to an increase in the number of people seeking assistance from the community welfare officers. The health board has not as yet been able to obtain additional office accommodation because there is a shortage of such in the area. However, it is in the process of securing additional office space and is making every effort to expedite this.

In the meantime, I understand that the board will assign two more community welfare officers to the area by the end of this month. This will bring the number of community welfare officers serving the area from six to eight and will alleviate matters somewhat.

I can assure the Senator and the House that every effort is being made to ensure that the disruption of the service to the public is kept to a minimum and that the delay in processing applications is also kept to a minimum. The Department of Social and Family Affairs has been involved in discussions with the board to identify a solution which would assist in dealing with the current difficulties. The Department will continue to monitor developments with a view to ensuring that a full service is restored as quickly as possible.

The Seanad adjourned at 6 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 March 2004.