Protection for welfare staff upgraded, claims Joan Burton

Joan Burton

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton says her department is making every effort to protect welfare staff following recent attacks and abuse in dole centres.

Ms Burton also revealed special arrangements had been made for the processing of welfare for feuding families in some areas to prevent the breakout of violence or fighting in welfare centres.

She made her comments following the publication of incidents in the Irish Examiner, which included death threats to staff as well as assaults on clients at some welfare centres.

Nearly 200 serious incidents were logged by staff last year and the year before, including knife attacks, bullets sent in the post, a sexual assault, as well as armed gardaí being called to one centre.

Ms Burton said the department had increased security and surveillance in some offices.

“As we convert each office, where it is appropriate, we are installing things like panic buttons,” she said.

There were also special interview rooms for clients with more “privacy and personal dignity,” which staff were now using.

“What we’ve done with those offices is we’ve designed them in a way where if there is any threat to an individual, they’re in a position to either leave the office or get other staff to assist them.

“I think it is very important to stress that social welfare staff around the country have been on the front line of dealing with all the different people who unfortunately lost their employment. It is inevitable that some people [clients] may find the experience fraught at times and difficult.

“We also have some people going into offices where there may be a history of feuds between different families and different people, in particular parts of the country. In those cases we may make separate arrangements for signing on,” Ms Burton said.

The courts and gardaí had been involved in a number of incidents, she added: “Where an episode occurs that is of a criminal nature, we refer that to the gardaí. Making an attack on a social welfare officer, if that’s a criminal attack we would expect that to be dealt with by the gardaí and the people involved brought before the courts. That has happened on a number of occasions.”

She said welfare officers had been doing a good job and that more CCTV had been installed in offices.

Earlier, a trade union representing welfare staff said it must be a priority that employees felt safe at work. CPSU deputy general secretary Derek Mullen told Radio Kerry: “People can be very scared. We had a case where somebody was told ‘listen we’ll see you outside and we know where you live’.”


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