Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Nolan nonsense

This morning as I was travelling up to Stormont I listened to the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster.  The first item was a caller who said that she was unable to live on the benefits she received and had just £5 to keep her going until Thursday.  She said that doors were being closed in her face and there was no one to help her.  She went on to say that she was forced to sit at home with no heat and kept warm by wearing a coat and wrapping up in blankets.
I don't know her name but the caller said she is 33 years old and lives alone.  She referred to her local benefit office as Andersonstown and so presumably lives in West Belfast.  Stephen Nolan asked her about work and she explained that she had never worked and had no skills to get a job.
She also spoke about her experience of the benefit office at Andersonstown, in particular phoning about a crisis loan.  That really took my attention, especially as she had said that there was no one to help her.  Two points in particular stood out.
(1) She said that when she rang the Social Security Agency, the automated system said no appointments were available.
In fact the automated message does not comment on the availability of appointments and advises customers that, if they wish, they can leave their name and number for a call back.  Crisis loans are delivered on a face-to-face basis at local benefit offices through pre-arranged appointments, normally on the same day.  Customers can call about crisis loans on 0800 0288822.  Therefore the experience she described was simply impossible.
(2) She alleged that there was 'a big sign up' in the branch saying there were no appointments available.  In fact today was a fairly average day and when my officials checked on the availability of appointments at Andersonstown they found that there were 33 remaining appointments available for today.  Therefore once again the situation described by the caller was contrary to the facts.
That is one of the problems with the Nolan Show.  It is very easy for someone to ring in and describe a situation which may appear, on the surface, very distressing but which is totally at odds with the facts.
In this case after the interview the Nolan Show rang DSD for a comment and officials checked out the facts but by that stage the programme was over.  They have submitted a statement to the Nolan Show and that may be broadcast tomorrow but many people who heard the story this morning will not hear the explanation.
Any humanly devised system has its flaws and shortcomings and the Social Security Agency is no exception but the allegations made by this anonymous caller on the Nolan Show this morning were completely unfounded. 
For those not familiar with crisis loans, they can be awarded to assist a customer to meet expenses in an emergency situation, provided that the provision of such assistance is the only means by which serious damage or serious risk to the heath or safety of the person, or a member of the family, may be prevented.

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