Closure looms for three benefits offices

Closure has been proposed for benefits offices in Cookstown, Ballynahinch and Newcastle
Closure has been proposed for benefits offices in Cookstown, Ballynahinch and Newcastle

Proposals to close social security offices in Cookstown, Ballynahinch and Newcastle have been branded “devastating” by public sector workers’ union NIPSA.

The Department of Communities has launched consultations to close benefits offices in each of the three Northern Ireland towns.

Alison Millar, NIPSA General Secretary, said: “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.

“NIPSA will be resisting any attempt to close these offices and will be immediately mounting a campaign to defend the jobs of our members in these offices and the vital public services delivered to these communities.”

Meanwhile, Cookstown UUP councillor Trevor Wilson described the prospect of the closure of the town’s Social Security Office as “dreadful”.

Councillor Wilson said: “This is simply dreadful news for Cookstown. Mid Ulster has suffered greatly from the recent recession and the prospect of losing another 34 jobs, in addition to a vital community facility such as the local Social Security Office, does not bear thinking about.

“I will be asking for a suspension of standing orders at our council meeting on Thursday night to discuss this matter and I sincerely hope that all parties can support it.”

A statement published on the department of communities’ website, alongside the relevant consultations for all three proposed closures, states: “In preparation for the welfare changes, including the delivery of Universal Credit during 2017, the Department for Communities has assessed each of our local offices to determine whether they are ‘fit for purpose’, providing suitable modern accommodation from which to deliver the new services.

“This assessment has included consideration of the feasibility and cost of modernising offices and the scope of the building to support the necessary IT infrastructure to deliver the new telephony and digital based services.

“We have also considered the number of claimants using individual offices and what options are available by which those claimants can continue to access the necessary services.

“The outcome of this assessment has confirmed that the (Cookstown / Ballynahinch / Newcastle) Social Security Office and the (Cookstown / Ballynahinch / Newcastle) JobCentre do not provide the necessary accommodation from which to deliver future services, requiring significant investment or alternative premises to enable the Department to provide the office environment required to deliver future services.”