The Social Security Agency has hit out at Councillor Peter Weir after the North Down MLA claimed that Bangor would be left without a main social security office under new plans by the Department of Social Development (DSD).
The agency said it had brought forward proposals, under its Strategic Business Case regarding the future of Social Security offices in Northern Ireland, to centralise processing at 18 social security offices across the province because it is “no longer viable for it to continue to have processing work spread thinly across small teams in 35 offices”.
Mr Weir said it was “clear” that the intention is to “develop a two tier system, with 18 handling both frontline and backroom functions, in effect becoming the main offices, while the remainder will only retain a skeleton staff to deal with a small range of functions with the public”.
Mr Weir said the population base had not been considered and as such North Down would be “one of only two constituencies that would be left without a main office, with obvious implications for both staff and public”.
“Although we are the largest town in Northern Ireland, the remaining Bangor office would be left with a staff of just nine, a cut of 26, whereas south Down, the Minister’s (Margaret Ritchie) own constituency, would be left with four offices and 63 staff,” Mr Weir said.
“It is hard not to conclude that this is the wrongly executed plan being brought in at the wrong time. I urge the minister and the department to think again.”
However, a spokesman for the Social Security Agency said it “totally refutes the suggestion that it has discriminated against North Down or anywhere else”.
“The agency is not structured on a district council or constituency basis, but on a basis of six geographic areas. Bangor office is part of its East Down District which also includes offices in Newtownards, Downpatrick, Holywood Road, Knockbreda, Newcastle, Kilkeel, and Ballynahinch,” the spokesman said.
“Following a lengthy examination, the agency has brought forward proposals to centralise processing at 18 strategic locations in Northern Ireland. It has done so because it is no longer viable for it to continue to have processing work spread thinly across small teams in 35 offices.
“The processing locations have been selected following a detailed analysis of staff availability, office capacity and skills requirements. In East Down District it is proposed to centralise processing in Newtownards, Holywood Road and Downpatrick. These locations align with the district council structures which will exist post-2011 following implementation of the Review of Public Administration.
“Analysis of the roads infrastructure and travel to work journeys indicates that the proposed processing centres in Newtownards and Holywood Road are both within easy reach for back office staff in Bangor.”
The spokesman said the proposals were subject to the ongoing public consultation exercise and no final decisions on any of the proposed changes, including the number and location of benefit processing centres, will be made until consultation has been completed in April 2009.