As an organisation the Department for Communities remains committed to being a regional organisation which delivers services to working age claimants from a network of modern, ‘fit for purpose’ local offices located across Northern Ireland.
The Department is taking forward a significant programme of change including the implementation of changes to the welfare system as a result of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 and the subsequent publication of the Evason Report which will have significant impact on the way that the Department for Communities delivers its service to claimants. This change programme is being delivered against a background of continued pressure on public finances and reducing Departmental budgets. The Department therefore needs to ensure that service provision is efficient, maximising the delivery of value for money.
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 Social Security Office and the Cookstown 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.
The accommodation issues and limited ability to reconfigure the buildings to deliver the quality level of service to claimants has been recognised for some time and while a variety of options, including the procurement of a site for a new build, have been explored no viable alternative has been identified.
Given the absence of a financially viable option for these offices the current financial pressures facing the Department and the proximity of alternative Jobs & Benefits offices from which to deliver the full range of services to claimants, it is proposed to close the Cookstown Social Security Office and the Cookstown JobCentre.
Whilst the proposal for office closures contained in this document will have an impact for users of the services, the priority for the Department has been to ensure that we can mitigate these impacts by providing a quality, enhanced service through alternative service delivery channels such as the increased use of technology and alternative offices.
In making these proposals the Department confirms its commitment to continue to progress a programme of modernisation and continuous improvement aimed at enhancing accessibility to services and the quality of local offices.
An initial pre-consultation equality screening exercise indicates that the proposals would not have a differential impact on any of the nine Section 75 categories. However we do acknowledge that the proposed office closures will impact on existing users of these offices and will therefore keep the need for an equality impact assessment under review during the consultation process.
Your views on the consultation are welcome and will provide the opportunity to inform our decisions on the proposals for delivery of services within the Cookstown area.