Over 30 staff and untold numbers of jobseekers, those too ill to work and income support recipients could soon be without a social security base in Cookstown.
The Department of Communities has finally unveiled proposals to close all customer facing offices in the town, and yesterday (Tuesday) kicked off a public consultation on the move.
Mid Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone has called on Communities Minister Paul Givan to detail what ‘rural-proofing’ and ‘equality screening’ has been carried out in relation to the plan.
“Again more services are being withdrawn from our rural towns. This is as a direct consequence of welfare reform. We have been told people on benefits in rural areas will do a lot more online - with no or limited access internet coverage, and taking no account of benefits with learning disabilities. Furthermore, there are staff who will have family and caring commitments who will find they have increased travelling times.”
Mid Ulster Council Chair Trevor Wilson said he believes it’s already a done deal and has hit out at the job losses.
“I believe the decision is already made. It’s another terrible blow to Cookstown and as chair of the council I will be asking for a suspension of all standing orders at council to discuss this as a matter of urgency.”
It also remains unclear where people who need to access the hardship fund, sign on for JSA or apply for a fresh out of work claim would go.
And although the Mail was previously told staff would not be made redundant, those working in both offices - many of whom are from Cookstown and its surrounding areas - would have to travel further to work.
Speaking to members of the public as well as staff at one of the Cookstown offices, across the board there was an element of shock at the proposal.
While the union NIPSA said it is both “disgusted and angry”.
Alison Millar, NIPSA General Secretary stated: “It is deplorable that the Department of Communities has delivered this devastating blow to both the staff working in these areas and the rural communities they serve. This proposal to close these offices has been taken without proper consideration and pre-empts decisions about the delivery and locations of the new and much heralded benefit – Universal Credit.”
“There’ll soon be nothing left,” said a lady in Cookstown. She also asked where those who used the Cookstown offices would be expected to go, while a young man we spoke to at the Jobcentre said Magherafelt would be too far for him to travel.
And a man visiting the Social Security Office on behalf of his elderly mother said it would really affect him if he had to travel to Dungannon or Magherafelt.
After speaking to numerous people, staff and customers, it would seem everyone is in the dark as to how the public will be served going forward.
People from Ardboe, Moortown and along the Loughshore already have to travel to Cookstown to use the services.
“It’s a disgrace. Anybody who’s unemployed, how are they going to afford the bus.
“But they were all cut too - there’ll soon be nothing,” said
In response, a spokesperson for DfC said: “In preparation for the future delivery of the Welfare Reform changes and for the introduction of Universal Credit, the Department is holding a public consultation on the potential closure of 4 Social Security Offices and JobCentres within the Department for Communities Working Age Service local office network, including Cookstown Social Security Office and JobCentre.
“The consultation process will include consideration of how future employment and benefit related services will be delivered to claimants who use these offices.
“We would welcome the views of anyone who has an interest in, or who may use these offices identified for possible closure. The consultation documents are available on the consultation area of the DfC website at www.communities-ni.gov.uk/consultations. Alternatively, you may obtain a copy of the consultation documents from Cookstown Social Security Office and JobCentre or by e-mailing ServiceFirstProject@communities-ni.gov.uk or by writing to: Service First Project, Department for Communities, Design Centre, 39 Corporation Street, Belfast, BT1 3BA. The consultation will close on 15 November 2016.”