Benefits office faces uncertain future

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Fears are growing that a review of welfare services in the north could force the closure of a Derry benefits office used by thousands of people.

The Community Benefit Office in Shantallow is one of three such services operating in the north, and provides community based help and advice to claimants.

But earlier this week - in response to an Assembly question by Derry SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood - the north’s Minister for Social Development Nelson McCausland said a review of such community services was currently underway - adding to concerns that the Derry office could close.

“The outcome of the review is expected to be known shortly which will then be communicated to relevant stakeholders and staff,” the Minister said.

But local politicians say it is vital the service is safeguarded from closure.

Mr Eastwood said at present there is already “considerable apprehension” surrounding welfare reform.

“The Benefits Office in Shantallow offers an invaluable point of access to the thousands of people in the area who receive welfare payments. It is very much a local service used by local people.

“It makes little or no sense that with the prospect of huge changes to the welfare system, the Minister is considering removing a key community asset which would help and advise local people on how these changes might affect them.

“The uncertainty which hangs over the future of the Shantallow Office is also proving a great worry and concern for the staff.”

The MLA said the welfare review must not be “simply a convenient cover for what may be in essence a money saving exercise”.

Sinn Fein councillor Tony Hassan said that an average month sees around 1100 people use the community service.

He said it is “a community service that the community can not do without”.

“I would call on the Department not to close this office. This service lies in a catchment area of some 40,000 people ,many of whom rely on benefits. To take this away would be disastrous for the local community.”

Cllr Hassan said his party colleague Maeve McLaughlin MLA would again be raising concerns in the Assembly next week.