I thank Deputies Dara Calleary, Seán Kyne and Thomas Pringle for raising this issue.
The Department is examining the operation of all its services, including the community welfare service, in the context of the Pathways to Work commitments and the development of Intreo services nationally. The Pathways to Work programme represents a significant reform in the social welfare system and highlights the need for the Department to focus its resources on the provision of opportunities, supports and assistance for unemployed persons.
The Department is intensifying its level of engagement with the unemployed, particularly those who are long-term unemployed. I think all the Deputies here would share that concern. The new Intreo service offers practical, tailored employment services and supports for jobseekers, a model which is currently being rolled out across the country. It is expected that 300 staff will be redeployed to activation work from within the Department's existing resources by the end of the year. The first 160 staff members are in the process of being redeployed. These include staff from the community welfare service.
Overall, this will result in a rebalancing of resources across the Department's range of activities, including the relocation of some staff to main centres, primarily Intreo offices. Intreo centres will provide a full range of services, including the community welfare service, and these will, in general, be available in one location. As a consequence, it has been necessary to restructure the operation of community welfare services, including those in County Galway, where changes came into effect this week, and elsewhere in Galway and Mayo. In preparation for these changes, the Department contacted all affected customers directly, advising them of the changes in the services. In addition, arrangements were put in place to provide dedicated phone services allowing, in most cases, for customer queries to be processed without the need for attendance at a clinic. I stress that the basis of the service should be a modern telephone service, so that customers do not have to travel to and queue up in a community welfare office other than in exceptional circumstances. However, if a person is unable to travel to a clinic - for example, due to illness - alternative arrangements are in place, including visits to the client's home should that be necessary.
It is important to note that under the new arrangements, the frequency of available clinics is being increased to five days a week in the case of Galway and to three days a week in the case of Clifden. In addition, the number of staff available to these clinics is being increased, providing improved access to services. It is planned to roll out similar changes in Mayo in the coming months. It should be noted that although more than 100 clinics closed in 2012, the service to customers was, I would argue - Deputies can check with their colleagues - not only maintained but expanded and enhanced, allowing vital social welfare staff to help the unemployed get back to work. This is a win-win situation, I hope, for everybody, not only the customers who need help - they are the most important - but also the unemployed, to whom I have given a commitment on behalf of taxpayers in Ireland to help them get back to work and become financially independent.
The Department is conscious of its obligations to those who are Irish speakers. We are committed to providing services through Irish to customers. There are a number of staff in the offices covering the Connemara Gaeltacht who provide a service through Irish, and this will continue to be the case. The Department is also committed to the continued development and training of staff to facilitate the provision of services through Irish. The Deputies will be aware that a range of forms, leaflets and other documents are available, in both Irish and English, on the Department's website. The staffing needs for all areas within the Department are continuously reviewed to ensure that the best use is made of all existing resources with a view to providing an efficient service to those who rely on the schemes operated by the Department.
Much of the old work and a significant part of the work of community welfare officers, as the Deputies will be aware, was to do with supplementary welfare. Where we introduced the Intreo office system, the need for supplementary welfare payments in many cases was reduced to a fraction of what it used to be, because we can sort out matters such as jobseeker's claims within a week. As the Deputies will be aware, such matters were a significant part of the work of the clinics.