A number of questions have been raised about the proposed closure of Cookstown’s dole offices at a public meeting on the issue.
Residents, unions, government staff, council representatives and politicians from a spectrum of political parties attended the event at the Royal Hotel on Thursday evening.
And they raised a number of points about the Department for Communities’ (DfC) plan, which was first revealed by the Mail in August.
Speaking after the meeting, a worker from Cookstown’s Social Security Office told the Mail many of those who attended think the proposal an “absolute disgrace”.
He said internal meetings had suggested DfC was basing its decision on the state of his office on old reports, and that no one from the DfC had approached McAleer and Rush, who rent out the JobCentre, about better rental terms.
“I think it’s a done deal,” he said. “They are saying it’s about value for money, but it’s not about that. Our government should be trying to protect the most vulnerable. We should be trying to provide as good a service as possible for them.”
He also questioned DfC plans to deal with Cookstown clients - including pensioners - by phone, saying staff in his office could not reach their ESA colleagues by phone on two days last week.
DfC, however said, there was no interruption to the 9-5 phone service.
The staff member said he also has serious concerns about how those in need of crisis loans would sign for the money, as is required.
The department said they will have to travel to either Dungannon or Magherafelt.
“Cookstown JobCentre would require significant capital investment to provide the accommodation and infrastructure needed to deliver future services, including Universal Credit,” a DfC spokesperson said.
“As a result the department has not spoken with McAleer and Rush. The Universal Credit project considered the feasibility of delivering future services from Cookstown Social Security Office in March 2014.
“Customers will sign for Social Fund Crisis Loans and the new Discretionary Support loans in their nearest local office - Dungannon or Magherafelt Jobs & Benefits office.”
Asked whether they would abandon plans if the public strongly opposed them, they added: “The responses to the consultation exercise will help inform the department’s decision on the closure of the Cookstown offices.”
And on the issue of existing phone services, which the staff member has said are not managed in a way that allows staff to solve callers’ problems, they added: “ESA staff aim to answer calls within 1 min 30 seconds. Currently, waiting times are longer.”