NIPSA reps from DfC TUS met with Deirdre Hargey, Minister for Communities yesterday and I wanted to give a short report on the meeting.
Firstly, we were limited to just 30 minutes with the Minister due to other commitments but she has agreed to get another date agreed shortly to allow for a more detailed discussion. Given this, TUS agreed that we could cover a number of issues under two main headings – The impact of Covid on DfC and the 2021/22 DfC Draft Budget.
TUS quickly referenced the work over the last few months with DfC and the efforts to allocate staff with ICT devices to facilitate home-working but that more can and must be done. We referenced our recent member survey, which I will write to members separately on, that provides clear evidence that more can be done to have more staff working from home and to react quicker when clusters of positive Covid cases are reported in one building. TUS was clear in saying that where there was evidence of a number of cases being reported, that building must close to allow for a circuit breaker and reduce the risk of internal transmission. TUS also argued that the use of Key Worker status for all staff meant that managers did not have to consider what work was critical and necessary and were asking staff to attend the office for no good business reason. We accepted that some of these may be operational matters but a directive from the Minister to review key worker status and to ask managers to prioritise what areas of the business were critical and necessary would allow numbers of staff in offices to reduce. She agreed to consider this.
While TUS could raise many concerns regarding the draft budget and impact on DfC as set out in the EQIA, we would focus on the stress and anxiety of existing staff if additional resources were not put in place to deal with increased workloads and work demands on members. Given the rate of recruitment of new staff within DWP in GB, it was likely that benefit changes to the benefit process to cope with Covid would be removed and this would present even more difficulties for DfC. The Minister confirmed that the draft 2021/22 budget was very challenging for DfC but that she and her officials were engaged in seeking to get as much additional funding as possible for the department. She stated that her focus was on getting new recruits into benefit delivery to support essential benefit delivery and labour market intervention programmes. However it was accept that this money was not yet available and as such, TUS asked that senior managers must ensure that additional work pressures are not placed onto the shoulders of workers with full caseloads as this would be unacceptable and see sick absence rates increase. Minister agreed that proper resources were needed to complete increased work and she was working to get more resources in place to support staff. TUS also suggested that the Minister may wish to write directly to all DfC staff and staff of Dept’s ALBs regarding the draft Budget which she agreed to do.
The Minister has agreed to respond on the points raised and will arrange a further meeting shortly to allow more time to discuss these and other matters. I will keep members updated on any further contact.