Dáil Éireann - Volume 654 - 14 May, 2008

Priority Questions. - Community Welfare Service.

Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the direct consultation she has had with the community welfare service in respect of the transfer of its functions to her Department; the work undertaken between herself and the Health Service Executive to define the role of the community welfare officer; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18885/08]

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: In February 2006, as part of its reform of the health sector, the Government decided that the administration of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, SWA scheme, as well as certain other functions, would transfer to the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

Provision has been made in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2008 for the transfer of the administration of SWA to the Department to take place. This provision is subject to a commencement order. Officials from the Department, the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive have met the superintendent community welfare officers as a group on three occasions to provide information and to discuss issues related to this transfer.

[350] In addition, officials are engaged on an ongoing basis in discussions with unions representing the community welfare service staff with regard to the transfer proposals. These discussions are being facilitated by an independent chairperson. While progress has been made in these discussions in some areas, a number of issues remain to be resolved. The intention is to reach a collective agreement with the unions that will address the concerns of all the staff involved. Discussions are also taking place with the Civil Service unions representing staff in the Department with regard to the transfer proposals.

During the course of the discussions, the unions have sought assurances about the future role of community welfare officers and the discretionary element of the SWA scheme. Assurances have been given that when the service transfers to the Department, the existing flexibilities will be retained and the community welfare officers will continue to make discretionary payments under the SWA scheme. They will remain community based and will continue to provide key information, advice, advocacy and referral links between agencies.

The integration of the community welfare service with the Department will allow for development of the role of community welfare officers. There is already a significant level of liaison between them and locally based staff in the Department. Under an integrated management structure, existing areas of duplication of work can be reduced, which will, ultimately, will lead to an improved and more efficient service for the public.

The Department is moving to provide a more dynamic response to the needs of the unemployed, lone parents and persons with disabilities. This involves a more direct engagement with these groups and the introduction of a case management and activation approach. Community welfare officers have experience and expertise with regard to dealing with people who are disadvantaged. They are well placed to become involved in the development of the case management and activation approach. There will be ongoing consultation with staff on these developments.

In the meantime, the Department’s priority is to maintain a high standard of service to the public during the implementation of the transfer of functions from the HSE.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: When this change was first mooted and discussed in the Dáil, Fine Gael expressed reservations about it. However, the decision was taken to go ahead with it. What prompted the change of heart with regard to the proportion of community welfare officers to be transferred? Initially, all of the officers were to be transferred, but now it appears 80% of them will be transferred to the Minister’s Department and 20% will remain with the Health Service Executive. What difference will there be between the functions of the 80% and those of the 20%?

Where will the Department’s community welfare officers, who are currently based in health centres around the country, be based? When will the groups concerned receive the promised document from the Department outlining their terms and conditions and, more importantly, their role? I make this inquiry not just on their behalf, but on behalf of the public, who are the ultimate consumers.

The Minister mentioned in her response that the CWOs will retain their current flexibility and discretion and outlined in her response to Deputy Broughan earlier that people, rather than approaching the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, should be able to go to community welfare officers. However, there is genuine concern that they will no longer have the same discretion they have had to date.

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: In response to the first question, in addition to dealing with the administration of social welfare schemes, community welfare officers are also engaged in health [351] and personal social services work, which includes means assessment for medical cards and nursing home subventions. These latter functions will remain with the HSE when the community welfare service transfers. It was on the basis of the work needing to be done in that regard that the division of staff resources between the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the HSE was agreed. That was agreed in consultation between the two Departments and under examination by an independent consultant as to the staff breakdown.

With regard to where the community welfare officers will be based, I think that is part of the ongoing discussions and negotiations. However, if there is an answer, I will ensure the information is forwarded to the Deputy. On flexibility and discretion, community welfare officers will continue to have flexibility. It is important they are able to respond to local needs. This is part of ensuring we have an improved service delivery, because the change is all about providing a better service. It is particularly important to have an integrated service so all the income needs can be met by the one organisation, rather than as currently where community welfare officers are paid by funds provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs to the HSE and dispense moneys provided by the Department, yet work under the ambit of the HSE.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: In doing that they are to some extent providing a one-stop-shop because the 80% of people have to go to the community welfare officer and for their health needs they have to go to the very small number of people who will provide that part of the function. That will cause a difficulty. The Minister said the location is part of the discussion——

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: I do not know. If there is an answer I will get it for Deputy Enright.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: I appreciate that but I ask the Minister to take on board the extra cost that could be involved in this. It is not just part of a discussion from the CWO’s perspective but from that of the Minister’s Department if it has to provide facilities around the country for almost 700 CWOs. Has the Minister budgeted for that? Who will make the ultimate call on the discretionary payment? Under the new system will there be a person who will be considered to be at a higher level in the Department of Social and Family Affairs who will check on these types of payments? I fear that would increase rigidity in the system and make it almost like the full application process for social and family affairs payments.

  Deputy Mary Hanafin: The Deputy will be aware that these discussions are sensitive and the National Implementation Body arranged the establishment of the group of SIPTU, IMPACT, the HSE and the Departments of Health and Children and Social and Family Affairs, which had intensive discussions, culminating last month. It is anticipated that the group will reconvene very shortly. It is waiting for the management to summarise its proposals on this and I would welcome any collective agreement that could be reached on it. All the issues raised here today are part of that.