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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 12 Mar 1992

Vol. 417 No. 3

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Employment Exchanges.

Seán Ryan


10 Mr. Ryan asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he has any plans to make employment exchanges more user-friendly for clients; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I am committed to giving all the clients that my Department deal with a personalised and localised service. In line with this a number of initiatives have already been taken and others are in the process of being developed. They will make extensive use of information technology in order to provide clients with a timely and dignified service.

One of the main targets that has been set for the recently appointed regional managers is the implementation, on a phased basis, of the one-stop-shop concept in all social welfare local offices in their regions. In addition, it is planned to expand the information service at local level to provide a comprehensive service to all social welfare clients, including claimants, employers, employees, community and voluntary bodies.

My Department over the last few years have undertaken a major development programme to improve the standard of accommodation in all local offices. The need for privacy is a major consideration in the design of all new offices and in the refurbishment of existing ones. To date 17 new offices have been built and 11 offices have been refurbished. A further seven new offices are under construction and three are being refurbished.

A further development will result in more modern payment systems for the unemployed and, indeed, for other categories of social welfare recipients. These changes will, over time, have profound effects on the way business is transacted in the local offices.

I thank the Minister for his positive reply. I compliment the private individuals who are providing offices on contract to the Department of Social Welfare. This is at some quite considerable expense to themselves, and my own constituency is no exception. Is it the Department's intention to retain accommodation provided by private operators, because they have expended considerable moneys in the recent past on refurbishing their premises? I would like an assurance that these offices will not be absorbed into the State offices. We are always trying to improve facilities and when the people providing accommodation on contract make the effort to improve the facilities — because it is very traumatic to have to queue in the rain — these facilities should be retained.

Deputy Ferris has put a number of questions and my reply to some of them may not be to his liking. My Department's priority — and this is certainly my priority — is that people should be able to transact their business in private. It is painful enough to be unemployed and signing on without putting additional hardship on them at the employment exchange. It has been the Department's policy for some time to upgrade, where possible, and build new offices. Deputy Ferris asked a question about branch employment offices provided under contract. That is a totally separate question. However, let me say that officials of my Department visit such offices and make recommendations on the standards to be achieved. That will continue to be the position.

There will be branch employment offices for a number of years but, with the streamlining of the Department of Social Welfare, which is my major priority, whether my time be long or short, I would not like to give a commitment as to how things will be at the start of the next decade. I hope to make it simpler and easier for people to draw unemployment assistance or other payments without requiring the signing and counter-signing of documents which, in the light of modern technology, is inefficient at least and degrading at worst.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and offer my sincere sympathy that he has to be in the House today rather than in some other place. Would he agree that the programme he has outlined is the tip of the iceberg in respect of what is required? Will he indicate when the objectives of the total programme will be reached at the present rate of progress? Would he not agree that he will have left office, as perhaps will some of his successors, before the objective is reached?

I thank the Deputy for his kind remarks. Perhaps we will have our minute's silence at 3.30 when the Gold Cup is being run. We have been trying to speed up progress over the past couple of years. It would be my intention during my period of office to initiate a programme to make the system simpler and more user-friendly. People should not have to queue in the rain or traipse around to Garda stations and offices. Perhaps a future social welfare recipient will thank me for something I may do in that regard. When I formulate proposals I will bring them before the House.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): I forgot to congratulate the Minister earlier and I do so most sincerely now. The Minister would have been a loser at Cheltenham today because he jumped only four of the first five. He would have to build up speed rather than stamina.

Let us accelerate matters.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): Is there any possibility of providing cubicles in social welfare offices where people could talk in private rather than make open confession in front of a line of people? Would that be a priority for the Minister?

Yes. There is adequate provision for privacy in all the new offices. It is a priority in the design of all such offices. It is degrading to have to sign on for benefits and to have to speak about one's business in public. The matter is a priority of the Department.

The Minister spoke about making the system user-friendly. What happens on the few occasions when there is a display of bad manners by staff? What redress is available to social welfare recipients in such cases? Is there a unit within the Department to train staff for counter service?

There is an on-going training programme for all staff and there are also refresher courses. The job of staff is to be as friendly and helpful as possible to clients. The staff do the best they can. If the Deputy is aware of any specific incidents he should bring them to my attention. We have a good training programme in place which is designed to make the system user-friendly.

I am conscious that I did not congratulate the Minister but better late than never. Will he reassure me that special inspectors will not be allowed to enter employment exchanges and exploit the so-called user-friendly atmosphere to call people aside and make a show of them in front of other members of the public? They have been known to examine the texture of a person's hands, for example, in an effort to prove whether he has been working. Will the Minister assure the House that he will not use employment exchanges as venues for these special task force inspectors? This is not a suitable location for surveillance activities or the interviewing of people in regard to their entitlements.

This is a widening of the subject matter with the injection of some new matter.

There is a later question about the special investigation unit. If the Deputy knows of some incidents he should bring them to the attention of the Department. They have a difficult job to do and have been very successful in stamping out abuses of the system. The unit have saved the State a large amount of money in the past few years and should be commended on their work.