Politicians have reacted angrily to speculation that a commmunity benefits office serving a population of 30,000 in Shantallow has been earmarked for closure in the coming weeks.
It’s thought the office - which provides a face to face service for local people seeking advice on benefit issues - is one of a number of centres under review as part of ongoing welfare reforms.
The moves have been slammed by representatives locally who say the service is vital for the thousands of people living in one of Derry’s most deprived areas.
Sinn Fein Councillor Elisha McCallion has criticised the Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland on the lack of clarity surrounding the future of the office.
She said: “We have been trying to get an answer on what the future holds for this service for a number of weeks. On the 29th January Foyle MLA Maeve McLaughlin put in a written question to the Minister to confirm if there were plans to close the Shantallow Community Benefits Office and if so what criteria was being used to make this decision. This office serves a population of over 30,000 in an area where there is a high rate of deprivation. On an average month upwards of 1000 people use this office, so there is clearly a need for its services to help people through the minefield of the benefits system.
“There is anger in the local community and from groups that would deal with benefits on daily basis on hearing this news. It’s imperative that this office is kept open,” Colr. McCallion said.
SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood said the decision to close the office would remove the local experience for people seeking help.
He said: “Not only does it diminish from the services in the Shantallow area, its closure would also seem to fly against the face of reason given the huge changes that are either currently under way or imminent within the benefits system. More than ever, people who are experiencing real anxiety about cuts in their weekly benefit package, require assistance on how these changes will effect them’.”
The Foyle MLA said consideration should also be given to the staff at the office who are facing an uncertain future over their jobs.
“An uncertainty also now hangs over the future of the staff who have served in the Office. They have worked hard in the Greater Shantallow area, they know the area and they show daily care for the many people in the area who seek their help. The Minister’s statement does not deal with their future, if and where they will be relocated’.
“In the coming weeks I will be querying all these issues through the Assembly,” he added.
The Department for Social Development remained tightlipped about the potential closure. A spokesperson told the Sunday Journal:
“In line with the Social Security Agency’s commitment to deliver a modernised welfare system to customers across Northern Ireland, a review of Community Benefits Offices is currently underway.
These offices currently provide a limited range of services and often require claimants to subsequently attend one of the 35 regional Jobs and Benefits Offices/Social Security Offices. The outcome of the review is expected shortly and the details will be communicated to staff and stakeholders. It would be inappropriate to make any comment through the media in advance of that.”