I thank the Chair for choosing this urgent matter for the Adjournment this evening and I apologise for keeping the House and the Minister. The subject which I raised on the Order of Business this morning warrants consideration now because if the threatened strike takes place there will be very grave hardship for many of the least well off people in the Eastern Health Board area. This problem is part and parcel of the general health cutbacks. I will not go into them now because on Thursday, apart from the Private Members' debate which will go on tonight and tomorrow night, we will have an all-day debate on health cutbacks.
The job involved here is a function performed by the EHB on behalf of the Department of Social Welfare and it does not relate to the Department of Health. However, it has been affected by the general cutbacks. I support the need to prune public expenditure but cutbacks must be well planned and selective. In the EHB area we have a total of 150 community welfare officers who are in the front line in relieving poverty on a day-to-day basis. The poorest sections of our community are those who depend on supplementary welfare as their sole source of income. Some people depend on that allowance for prolonged periods because for one reason or another they are ineligible for social welfare benefits or allowances. Many others have the supplementary welfare allowance as their sole source of income while they are awaiting confirmation of their eligibility for some social welfare benefit.
The supplementary welfare allowance system was designed as an emergency system to deal with isolated cases where there was no source of income. It was never intended to be a widespread service but it is now so widespread that it allows the Department to take many weeks to decide on eligibility in respect of claims made. I am not criticising the Department as I know they deal with hundreds of thousands of cases each week but perhaps there is a tendency to over-rely on the supplementary welfare system because things are less urgent as people will at least be receiving supplementary welfare allowance and are not without any income. All of that has imposed a major burden on the supplementary welfare system and on the community welfare officer and, combined with a growth in unemployment, it has required a major expansion in the supplementary welfare system and a major increase in the number of community welfare officers.
Unemployment is at an extraordinary level and many unemployed people have cause to go to the community welfare officer each week. I understand about 7,000 families in the EHB area are dependent on supplementary welfare allowance. Many thousands more depend on supplementary income to supplement low income from another source. Many thousands more go for help with their ESB bills, their rent arrears or their mortgage repayments. A heavy burden has built up on the shoulders of the community welfare officers under the supplementary welfare system. Not only do they have to deal with vast numbers of people each week but many of the people with whom they deal are deeply frustrated and angry. The community welfare officers are in the front line dealing with traumatic situations and with tense people. They must often deal with abuse. Their job has become very tense.
If anything, the cutbacks imposed in this year's budget will lead to further unemployment. It is estimated that the health cutbacks alone will lead to 4,000 more people being unemployed. That is before we consider education cuts or cuts in other aspects of public expenditure. Unemployment will get worse rather than better so the burden on the community welfare officer will increase. On top of that, we have the Government's Jobsearch programme which is clearly designed to hunt people off the unemployment register. There may be some people on the register who deserve to be removed from it, who are illegally drawing unemployment payments. I have no sympathy for them. I have no doubt that the Jobsearch programme will bring genuine casualties who will have no other source of income. Where will they go but to the community welfare office?
Of the 150 community welfare officers employed by the Eastern Health Board, 50 hold temporary appointments — one third of the entire number. This is becoming an increasingly convenient way of filling necessary posts in certain areas of the public service and, as we have seen in the wider health service, these people can be dismissed without any rights when the pressure comes on. That may not necessarily be a good thing. I understand that the sanctioning of these posts is a matter for the Department of Health, not the Department of Social Welfare. I also understand that 10 permanent posts have been sanctioned, increasing the number of such posts to 110, but that still leaves 40 temporary appointments.
A health centre cannot open a supplementary welfare office if there is no community welfare officer on duty. Community welfare officers are not only entitled to annual leave but need it. A situation has now arisen whereby 15 community welfare officers are being let go by the end of next week. As a result many other officers who have already booked and paid for their annual holidays have been told they cannot go because the health centres would have to close. Of course they have a statutory right to those holidays but if they go, what about the poorest people in our society? Who will be there to deal with emergencies where people have no other source of income? These are the group for whom we must have the deepest consideration, people who have nothing but income from supplementary welfare allowance. Then there are those who are on such low incomes that they are entitled to supplementary income from the community welfare officer. In the third category are people who are threatened with eviction because of rent arrears or whose electricity supply has been disconnected because of failure to pay bills.
What plans has the Minister to prevent the strike taking place? The officers gave two weeks' notice which runs out on Friday of next week, the beginning of the bank holiday weekend. The problem will effectively start on Tuesday week, 2 June. The Minister has time to take action to try to prevent the strike. It takes two to tango and I suggest that the Minister might approach the FWUI who represent the community welfare officers and ask them to postpone the strike for a period of weeks, during which time he might meet them to see if there is any way out of the problem. That would be a useful procedure for the Minister to undertake. If the Minister is not prepared to do so or if this approach does not work, perhaps he would outline for us his contingency plans to ensure that those sections of the community whom I have described will not be left without assistance. What plans has he to deal with those who have no other income or whose income is so low that they need supplementary assistance every week? What are his plans to deal with emergencies like fire or electricity disconnections? Will he approach the ESB and ask them to cease disconnections while the strike is on and to reconnect people whose supply has been disconnected before the strike begins? Will he ask local authorities to discontinue evictions or other measures to deal with rent arrears while the strike lasts? What will he do to make sure that nobody is going hungry for lack of income? That does not in any way exaggerate what we are talking about. If no contingency arrangements are made, at least 7,000 families in the EHB area will literally go hungry because they have no other income. I would ask the Minister to outline his plans to ensure that this does not happen.
Among those who have no other income are people drawing interim supplementary welfare payments pending decisions from the Minister's Department on eligibility for various benefits. I understand that no less than 40 per cent of the work of community welfare officers in Dublin is based on dealing with these interim payments. The Minister and the Department should be trying to cut down the time lag in deciding these cases. I know the Department have to check records and contact labour exchanges and community welfare offices. This often takes time but there must be some way of speeding up the process. If there were a properly developed computer system in the Department there would be terminals in exchanges and in health centres so that payments made by community welfare officers could be recorded. Conversely, officers could tap into the computers to find out what payments had recently been made and to check eligibility that the Minister has only recently taken up office and I am not attempting to blame him for any slowness in the progress of computerisation. However, the effects of the threatened strike would be a lot less dramatic if the computer system were developed and I would be very keen to see a stepping up of the computerisation programme within the Department, especially in the frontline offices which service the public. I would also like the Revenue Commissioners' computers and those in the Department of Social Welfare to be compatible and capable of being interfaced.
In conclusion, I want to express the strong wish that this strike does not take place. I appeal not only to the Minister to take whatever steps he can to prevent the strike taking place but also to the community welfare officers not to push it to the brink. I hope that goodwill will prevail and that some way can be found out of this frightening situation.