Agency pledges to modernise after ‘helpline’ failures

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The Social Security Agency (SSA) says it recognises the need to modernise its phone services after the Journal revealed more than 12,000 calls to a crisis loan line went unanswered in Derry.

Earlier this week the ‘Journal’ reported that the SSA answered only one out of every five calls to the the Crisis Loan helpline at the its Foyle office in 2012/13.

A total of 15,187 calls were made and 12,306 of those met with no response.

An SSA spokeswoman said the crisis loans application, part of the Social Fund, is “primarily a face to face service with applications for crisis loans processed in less than 24 hours”.

“While applications can be made over the phone, all claims for crisis loans must be signed for at the local benefits office.

“The Agency recognises that the phone service requires modernisation and a programme of investment is underway to develop a dedicated contact centre that can handle higher call volumes.

“Benefits advisers can also offer additional help and advice to those facing difficulties.

“Between April 12 and March 2013, the Foyle office processed almost 7,000 Crisis Loans applications,” the spokesman said.

SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood had called for an urgent review into the phone service.

“The Social Security Agency boasted in April, after closing the Shantallow Community Benefits Office, that the new improved telephony service would ensure that claimants would receive a service fit for the 21st century.

“This is clearly not the case in Derry,” Mr Eastwood said

Across the north, almost 100,000 calls to the 17 SSA office’s helplines went unanswered in 2012/13.