Magherafelt benefits workers have accused Stormont of ‘scaring’ them in to applying for jobs in Belfast with a ‘leaked document’ outlining plans to relocate services.
In an anonymous letter to the Mail, the civil servants hit out at the circulation of a document - of which we have a copy - that they said was “accidentally” posted on their intranet on August 2.
The Department for Communities (DfC) ‘Social Welfare Network’ plan indicates that Cookstown is to lose its walk-in benefits office, while Jobseeker’s Allowance offices in Dungannon and Magherafelt will close, alongside several others in Northern Ireland.
The documents also show that the ‘final model location’ for this service is to be centralised at Holywood Road in Belfast by March 2018 with 112 “WTE positions” based there.
The move, DfC suggests in the accompanying text, “will provide the optimum model for JSA processing and supports the introduction of Universal Credit”.
Dungannon will even lose more jobs to the capital when those civil servants working on Income Support see their positions moved to a central office in Anderstown, also by March 2018.
While it will retain some positions as the hub for Finance Support, both Cookstown and Magherafelt do not feature at all in the final model - which predicts the closure of almost 20 offices across the whole of Northern Ireland.
Mid Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone told the Mail he has serious concerns about the impact of the plans on both those who claim benefits and those who work in the offices that service them.
“What we are seeing now is the effect of Welfare Reform, which really was railroaded in by the DUP and Sinn Fein,” he said. “It’s not just affecting those on benefits, it’s now affecting staff. But we will continue to resist it tooth and nail.”
But Sinn Fein Mid Ulster MLA Linda Dillon has laid the blame firmly at the feet of DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan, adding that she will be working will her colleague, Minister Michelle O’Neill, to protect Mid Ulster benefit jobs and the “public interface”.
“These changes were not part of any agreement relating to welfare reform,” she said.
“Myself and my colleagues in Mid Ulster will and continue to engage with staff and unions to see how we can support them to protect jobs and service in the local offices. The people in Mid Ulster deserve to have access to the staff at jobs and benefit offices and we will continue to fight for this as opposed to seeking political point scoring opportunities.”
UUP MLA Sandra Overend has also voiced her concern at the move, calling on the minister to provide clarity for staff and protect rural jobs.
She told the Mail: “If these proposals are to be followed through, they will have serious implications on local constituents causing disruption and limiting access to services to many who reply on them. It could mean that constituents will have to travel much further on a regular basis.
“Protecting services and jobs in rural areas must be a priority for the Northern Ireland Executive, and I will continue to press the minister to safeguard the services and jobs which are so important to Cookstown, Magherafelt and the surrounding areas.”
But the department has defended plans to centralise their services, saying some the changes have come about as a result of a drop in the number claiming JSA - but it is unclear if this is because they were moved onto other benefits.
A spokesperson for the department said: “Fresh claims for JSA and Income Support will cease in September 2017 when Universal Credit is introduced in Northern Ireland.
“This will have an immediate impact on the number of staff who are currently employed in processing JSA and Fresh Claims. “The department can confirm that there are no plans to close the Jobs & Benefit offices network and no plans for any redundancies in local offices, where there is a need to reduce staffing numbers; staff will be offered suitable posts in another part of the department.”
But staff in Magherafelt are angry with this proposal.
“What this means to us in Magherafelt, is no jobs in the rural network, no security... now work life balance as travelling time will mean longer days, more travel and more expense.
“Most rural offices have older staff who have already travelled to Belfast and other locations in their earlier careers and it is totally unacceptable to expect staff to return to longer working days when they have already done their stint in Belfast.”