The Chairperson welcomed to the meeting Mr. C. Boyle and Mr. P. Rooney representing the Department for Communities.
Mr. Boyle advised that the the Department’s Work and Health Group was responsible for delivering services to working age customers, both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain, on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions and comprises, Social Security Policy, Legislation and Decision Making Services, Universal Credit Operations, Universal Credit Programme, Working Age Services and Work and Wellbeing. He stated that the Group also had the lead role in delivering social security and employment programmes in Northern Ireland.
He summarised the Service Delivery Network and the Group’s key priorities during an economic downturn as follows:
· To protect the core business to ensure that it could continue to pay its customers the right money, at the right time, every time;
· To target support effectively, ensuring that the Jobs and Benefit offices had the capacity to maintain job search and maximize the number who could still take up work in a recession;
· Support for the long-term unemployed and those on inactivity benefits would be prioritised, including those Universal Credit customers with a health condition/disability; and
· Maintain services to employers – key to this would be the Redundancy Service provided to companies which faced closure or found they needed to reduce their workforce. The Department would continue to meet the needs of employers, providing a vacancy taking and advertising service and ensuring vacancies and opportunities were shared with customers to help them move into work. This included delivery of regional and local Job Fairs and tailored recruitment exercises for employers.
He provided an overview of the work of the Rapid Response Service and explained the work of the redundancy clinics and front office staff. He stated that there was a proven response time for dealing with redundancies of 1-2 days which included the mobilisation of all staff and delivery partners.
Mr. Rooney advised that future challenges for implementing the Rapid Response Service included: Multiple large scale employment failures; High number of SME failures; Sectoral failure; Insufficient staff; Lack of employability programmes; and Funding.
He confirmed that they could mitigate such challenges by the following actions:
· Proven staff complementing model to deal with fluctuating workloads;
· Operational delivery levers, such as extended opening hours, reprioritisation of service delivery, including client interventions and redeployment of staff from non-priority areas;
· Immediate recruitment of circa 100 staff to Universal Credit and Discretionary Support;
· Ability, due to its size and scale, to quickly mobilise with Councils, Colleges and other Partner providers at sub regional level; and
· Procure work ready employment services.
During discussion, the Representatives confirmed that the contingency responses had been planned for the worst case scenario of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. He advised that 100 new staff had already been trained for the implementation of the Department’s contingency plans. He pointed out that there was uncertainty in relation to the effect Brexit would have on the economy of Northern Ireland, where future job opportunities might emerge and the potential for sectors to grow.
In relation for further funding, such as Cold Weather Payments and the expansion of existing programmes, Mr Rooney advised that the Department was in discussion with the Treasury to develop employment programmes and that a Bid had been submitted by the Department of Finance. He advised that any changes to the regulations of schemes such as the Cold Weather Payments Scheme would be difficult and the Department would have to discuss any further assistance required with the Treasury.
He reported that, in terms of the requirement for the Universal Credit Advance before claimants could access the Universal Credit Contingency Fund, the Westminster Committee had recommended that this requirement should be removed by the 1st January, 2020.
He highlighted that Redundancy Services were open to all Businesses in need, regardless of their size and explained the importance of job fairs and the different approaches to assist the unemployed back into work.
The Chairperson thanked the representatives for attending and they retired from the meeting.