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Community Welfare Services

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 3 February 2022

Thursday, 3 February 2022

Questions (2)

Seán Sherlock

Question:

2. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Social Protection the changes that are foreseen in the delivery of community welfare office services; if it is intended to centralise those services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5712/22]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

I raise this issue because I am extremely concerned that the Department is now pulling back community welfare services where they are delivered in face-to-face settings in the most local of centres, particularly in rural areas. Based on what I have heard so far, my fear is that the Minister is not renewing any leases that her Department may have had with the HSE for the delivery of these services in what were called traditional dispensaries or health centres. What is the Minister’s position on this matter?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The community welfare service of my Department delivers the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is the safety net within the overall social welfare system. The scheme provides assistance to eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their needs and those of their dependants. The Deputy can be assured that I am focused on the delivery of crucial community welfare services to meet the challenges and needs of customers throughout the country. This remains a priority for me and for my Department.

I am fully committed to developing and enhancing access to the community welfare service nationwide and to ensuring the service is responsive to customer needs, particularly in a time of crisis or emergency. There are no plans in place to centralise the community welfare service, and the continued availability of locally-based community welfare officers, CWOs, will remain a key feature of the service. It is important that the community welfare service remains a flexible service to meet the varying needs of vulnerable customers. For this reason, consultations can be arranged by telephone, at our Intreo centres and social welfare branch offices, which are open five days a week or by a direct home visit is possible, depending on the customer's needs and public health restrictions.

Furthermore, customers no longer have to meet in person with a community welfare officer to make a claim.

Access to community welfare services is not limited to a face-to-face meeting with a community welfare officer.

To help our customers and support our community welfare officer, where possible, the preparatory work on customer applications, for example the gathering of supporting documentation that is necessary to assess and finalise a claim, will be carried out by a back office team. However, the assessment and decision on claims and any further customer interactions or engagements with other agencies is then carried out by locally based community welfare officers as has always been the case.

I am trying to listen carefully to the language of the Minister's reply. I am not reassured by it. The premise on which I base my question is the right of the citizen to interact face to face with an officer. I am asking the Minister for clarification because I am hearing that her Department is not renewing leases in respect of certain traditional centres such as health centres where they delivered in-community and in the most rural areas. Is that the case?

All Deputies represent the poorest and the most vulnerable. We accept the fact that the supplementary welfare allowance system is an excellent system because it delivers to the poorest. We know that the Minister's Department gave nearly €43 million in exceptional and urgent needs payments in 2021. My fear now is that for the citizen who does not have access to the nearest town, who traditionally might have had access in the local village where there was a visiting community welfare officer in the local health centre, that system will stop. If that stops it just takes the citizen that bit further away from the service.

The increased back office support in place across the greater Dublin area and in counties Kildare and Wicklow has been found to have improved the service to customers, especially at times of particular pressure such as during periods of staff absence due to the Covid pandemic. It ensures that a swift response is available to customers, resulting in significant decreases in the time waiting for a claim to be paid regardless of the prevailing circumstances in place. It is vital that the community welfare service is easily accessible and responsive to customer needs, and developing and enhancing access to the service remains my priority. If people want to see a community welfare officer in person they can do it but there are quicker ways to access the support if they need it. The system is very straightforward. They can meet the community welfare officer in person, do it by phone, or house visits can be arranged by appointment. I am very supportive of this. It is a vital service. It something that I want to see in place.

Again I ask the Minister if it is her Department's intention not to renew leases with the HSE. It is one Department renewing with a Government agency like the HSE, State to State. Is it factually the case that the Minister is not renewing those leases with the HSE in respect of the delivery of services in certain centres around the country?

Intreo offices are also providing these services. The Deputy is asking specifically about contracts with the HSE. I cannot give him that answer because I do not have it. I am happy that my officials can write to him on it. We have all changed the way we do business since Covid. People have been working remotely. The officials in my Department and particularly community welfare officers have found that some people find it more easy to pick up the phone and make that call. They do not have to make a trip. They can make the phone call and if they are in need the payment should be with them very quickly. For others a home visit is necessary or face-to-face contact. We will continue to provide the service in all of those different ways.

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