Pressure mounts on Minister to retain benefits office

April 22, 2013

It is hoped a petition signed by hundreds of people from the wider Crossmaglen area will help in the battle to keep the Social Security Agency Benefits Office in the town open.

A review by the Department of Social Development last year found the Crossmaglen office was not fit for purpose and recommended its closure this month.  However, following representations from politicians in the area, Minister Nelson McCausland agreed to defer closure until the end of May.  The extra time span is to ensure that the alternative service arrangements, which include a freephone telephony service, are operating effectively, a spokesperson for DSD has said.

These new arrangements are being described as unsuitable and inadequate for the many hundreds of customers who rely on the service the benefits office provides in Crossmaglen.

On Monday last, Sinn Fein MLA Megan Fearon presented the petition to the Minister calling for the decision to be overturned and the service to be retained in Crossmaglen.

“I presented this petition to the Minister to demonstrate the need to retain this vital service in Crossmaglen.  It clearly shows the depth of feeling among local people who value this essential service,” Ms Fearon said.

“Crossmaglen is one of the most deprived rural wards in the North.  This, coupled with the fact that there is also a high level of disability among the population, means that any reduction in services is  very keenly felt.  The Minister may not be aware but the cost of a Crossmaglen to Newry return bus ticket is in excess of £7.00.  This places a severe financial burden on someone who must survive on benefits.  This is  unfair and cruel and I call on the Minister to reverse his decision and retain this office.”

Councillor Terry Hearty claims the freephone telephony service, which has been established as part of alternative arrangements for customers, is not fit for purpose and says he has been inundated with complaints from people attempting to use it.

“I have received numerous complaints from my constituents who have described the telephone service as a disaster.  One individual was holding on the line for 34 minutes while another hung up after 30 minutes talking to what he described as ‘a robot’,” Councillor Hearty claimed.

“These people are entitled to their benefits. They should not be degraded in this manner and forced to fight for what they are entitled to,” he added.

DSD confirmed new arrangements are being put in place: “The Agency has subsequently agreed to defer the closure date of the Crossmaglen office until the end of May in order to ensure that the alternative service arrangements are operating effectively.  These new arrangements, which include a freephone telephony service, mean that customers will be able to conduct their business with the Agency from their own home, free of charge.  Whilst the new telephony service has only been operating in the Newry area from 8 April, it has been available across most of Northern Ireland for some time and feedback from customers has been positive,” a spokesperson said.