Serious concerns about how members of the public are treated in terms of privacy, dignity and confidentiality at the local authority offices at County Hall in Portlaoise are to be addressed.
The issue has arisen after the housing department relocated from the main building at the front to the offices behind.
Instead of having access to the previous consultation rooms to discuss their housing related inquiries, clients are now dealt with at two cubicles.
However, these cubicles are adjacent to the motor tax counter and within earshot of staff and customers attending for motor tax and other purposes.
Housing related inquiries are no longer dealt with through the reception area at the front building but at the Council offices to the rear, which cannot be accessed by members of the public via the main building.
Cllr Caroline Dwane-Stanley was first to raise the issue saying it was unfair and undignified for those engaging with the housing section for everyone to hear their business.
A number of other councillors immediately voiced their support and confirmed that they too shared such concerns.
The CEO John Mullholland and the new Director of Services, in Housing, Mr Joe Delaney agreed that this was unacceptable and assured the elected reps that the issues raised would be addressed and resolved.
“The circumstances you describe are entirely untenable and will not be allowed to continue. We will provide a solution and it will be attended to as we would not stand over any situation which would cause embarrassment or discomfort to anyone and we appreciate the points being made,” outlined Mr Mullholland.
Cllr Dwane had made the case that the new public desks at the relocated housing department were inadequate and inadequate.
“You can hear everybody’s business being discussed willy-nilly, right next to the tax office like confession boxes. You can hear everything, it’s just not acceptable,” asserted Cllr Dwane.
She added that members of the public are entitled to some level of privacy at the housing section and asked if there was a breach of data protection there every day.
Cllr John Joe Fennelly robustly supported her stance. He said anyone taxing their car can hear everything that’s being discussed by those requesting housing assistance or HAPs. He also asked for the new housing department to be cleared signed as people with children were having to come around from the front reception to the second building in the lashing rain.
Cllr James Kelly expressed the view that the staff in the housing section are generally overworked and under resourced regarding the demands being placed on them. He noted that there were about 500 housing units in the Council’s pipeline for provision, which he said was very positive but the rate or progress remained frustratingly slow.
“With about 1,700 on the housing list the problem is that the process is way to slow in what is a crises situation. For 6 houses in Mountrath we have been waiting for 3 years,” outlined Cllr Kelly.
There are approximately 1700 people on the Council housing waiting list and about 800 in receipt of HAPs payment supports.
‘Everyone was going home except them’
For his part, Cllr Aidan Mullins felt that the situation at the housing department constituted a breach of privacy and GDPR regulations. He said it was distressing on clients, unfair to the staff and totally unacceptable.
Regarding the housing programme he said most of the activity was centred around Portlaoise, while Portarlington, the second biggest town in the county, was still waiting on the 22 houses it was promised four years ago. They will not be ready for another 12 months he noted.
He suggested the local authority should embark on a more ambitious house building programme on the public land bank.
Cllr Mullins observed that the management report indicated that there were 27 adults and four children after presenting as homeless in Laois since the start of the year.
“That’s shocking in this day and age. We should be ashamed of ourselves and housing must be one of the top priorities for the new incoming government.”
The Council Chairman Willie Aird agreed that housing was one of the big challenges and responsibilities for the local authority. “It’s our duty, our responsibility, that’s what we’re here for.”
Cllr Aird recalled with some degree of disappointment how he had recently tried to help a young couple looking for accommodation.
“I know there are always issues and background stuff but I’m sorry to say I was unable to help them. There was nothing we could do and that is wrong. I was very sad about it, very upset. As I walked over to my van to go home and the staff were coming out of the building to go home, that couple sat out there on the bench. Everyone else was going home, except them.”