Violent assaults on welfare staff increasing, says union

Almost 400 cases were recorded and reported by staff members working in the department over the past three years

Social welfare office near Aungier street, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Social welfare office near Aungier street, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

Violent assaults on public servants working for the Department of Social Protection are on the increase, according to the Civil and Public Services Union (CPSU).

Death threats, knife attacks, physical assaults, verbal abuse, and attacks on security staff and members of the public are just some of the dangers social protection staff, as well as benefit claimants, are facing in welfare offices.

Almost 400 cases were recorded and reported by staff members working in the department over the past three years, with some staff physically assaulted and others falling victim to campaigns of threatening behaviour.

In one incident last year, staff in Limerick reported that a member of the public had threatened to bomb the office.

The previous year, in August 2015, members of staff were verbally assaulted by a man who threatened to return with a “Uzi” style machine gun and shoot those working in the office.

There were 168 serious incidents at offices in 2016, with 119 reported in 2015 and 137 in 2014. Incidents included clients producing knives at hatches, throwing chairs at glass screens, and spitting at staff. Welfare inspectors visiting dole claimants’ homes and on inspection trips have also been attacked. In many cases gardaí were called in or received reports of incidents logged by staff.

The CPSU believe that the number of violent threats and assaults on their members has increased in recent times.

“We have had recent serious incidents in Waterford, Carlow, Castlebar and Carraigaline Co Cork. The union would be more prepared if the Department had not removed the glass screen protection for our members and [we have]made representations to that effect.

“We are concerned that it would only take one serious incident before somebody is seriously injured or worse, and members have continued to express their concern in that regard. Obviously only a very small percentage of Social Protection users have been violent but we would expect that the Government exercise their responsibility as employers to reduce and eliminate this serious risk to our members,” said CPSU spokesman Des Fagan.

“If a private sector company was faced with this level of threat or history of incidents, immediate action would be taken to avoid any consequent compensation claims in the court.

“However the attitude of Government seems to be that if a case occurs that has to be settled in a court case the State can meet the costs. This is entirely unacceptable to our members who would rather have day-to-day protection than the false comfort of having to make a claim for injuries,” he added.

According to the Department of Social Protection, “standard procedure” involves staff members being supported by their supervisor/manager who (where warranted) will write out to the customer informing them that their behaviour is unacceptable, sometimes imposing certain conditions as a result of the incident.

However, Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Social Protection, Willie O’Dea, told the Irish Times that he intends to raise the issue with Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty this week.

“It’s a very regrettable trend. I would like to see the gardaí being very active in the process and making sure arrests are made.

“These people carrying out the attacks need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law; this has to be done to set an example to others.”

Mr O’Dea added that he feels it’s time the Government examine the layout of social protection offices around the country in terms of increasing security.

“We need to ensure protection for staff working in these offices to make sure people don’t get close enough to carry out assaults.

“I think in some very extreme cases, welfare payments should be suspended where it’s clear the offender is not afraid of a prison sentence. Obviously, those people have families and I wouldn’t want them to suffer but overall there needs to be a stern message sent.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Protection told the Irish Times that there are currently no plans to introduce penalties on customers who assault staff.

“Assaults made on staff members are treated as a criminal matter. The following procedure must be followed in the case of staff assaults:

“If a staff member is assaulted in the course of their official duties they must report the incident to the relevant line manager at the earliest opportunity. The Manager must then report the incident to the local gardaí and facilitate the provision of any statements or details that may be required.

“The matter must also be reported to Health and Safety Unit through local management. In addition, the results of the Garda investigation and any resultant court action should likewise be reported without delay,” said the spokeswoman.