Committees – in the House of Commons at 8:53 pm on 5th February 2018.
I am pleased to have one hour and 23 minutes for this debate, having arrived in the House earlier today to be told by the Whips Office that I would do well to have the debate today, as opposed to early tomorrow morning. I take that as an early Valentine’s gift from the Government, and perhaps they will go further by addressing the series of asks that I and other hon. Members have for them.
The Minister will have briefed himself on the folly of the jobcentre closure programme, particularly in the city of Glasgow, where the Government wished to reduce the provision of jobcentres across the city from 16 to eight. Although I am immensely grateful, immensely proud and pleased that the one jobcentre the Government removed from the programme is the Castlemilk jobcentre in my constituency, for which I pay tribute to the trade unions, local campaigners and anybody who signed a petition on the various campaign days we had to save the two jobcentres in my constituency—I pay tribute to everybody who took part in that campaign—the Government, however, continued with the closure of Langside jobcentre, to which I will return later in my remarks.
I will remind the House how this all began. It began with a story in the Daily Record, which is how Members of Parliament representing Glasgow constituencies found out that the Government wished to slash the city’s jobcentre provision in half. That was followed the next day with a letter from the then Minister—now the Education Secretary—to Members of Parliament representing constituencies in which jobcentres were set to be closed.
It is worth remembering that, where Ministers were keen to send jobcentre users to alternative jobcentres, they relied on Google Maps to tell them which bus services people could use to move around the city to get to those jobcentres, despite the fact that Google Maps tells people to use bus routes that no longer exist and have not done for some time. Even after that was pointed out to senior managers at the Department for Work and Pensions and even after it was raised by myself and a number of colleagues in this Chamber, in Westminster Hall and in written questions—even after all that—still no effective transport study was carried out. I believe that it was my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss who said that if a school or a nursery were to close, the local authority would be duty-bound to carry out some form of transport analysis to determine how people would use the service they then had to use instead of the original service they relied on. Government by Google cannot be the way this is done.
We pressed Ministers on several occasions to contact directly every person who would be affected by the closures, but they did not do so. Of course, Ministers know all the people who would be affected, because, as you will know in your role as a constituency Member of Parliament, Mr Deputy Speaker, when someone goes to the jobcentre to sign up for whatever support they are seeking, they do not get to leave that jobcentre until they have given the Government every single detail of their life. So I cannot understand why the Government did not take it upon themselves to contact people directly, instead relying on a couple of posters thrown up in the jobcentre, which many people would pass by.
My hon. Friend will have had the same experiences I have had. Many people I contacted to let them know that this was happening did not know and had not been told about it. Unless they were going into the jobcentre regularly, they just would not find out, so they would go along when they needed the service only to find that it had gone.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. As hon. Members can imagine, this was a big election issue in the city of Glasgow in June last year. During the campaign in my constituency, I told people that I was campaigning to save the jobcentre, and I met folk who used the jobcentre and it was the first time they found out about its potential closure; there can be no excuse for that, because there was no reason the Government could not have let those people know—they had every detail necessary.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue before the House. A positive campaign to retain the Ballynahinch social security office in my constituency was successful due to extensive lobbying, cross-party and cross-community support and the realisation that rural communities need a local office to make attendance possible and to encourage people to seek work. May I encourage him to continue to campaign, as there are clearly occasions when right wins and wrong decisions are defeated?
It would not be an Adjournment debate without an intervention from the hon. Gentleman, so this one now almost feels complete. I commend him for the work he has done to save a jobcentre in his constituency—of course I understand that the powers over that are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I welcome his words of encouragement for myself and other colleagues to continue our campaign, but gently point out to him that he has more sway over Ministers here than we do, so any effort he can swing in behind us on this issue will be most welcome.
I wish to discuss another hugely important issue in this whole topic: equality impact assessments. Undoubtedly, Ministers will have carried out such assessments, as they have come to the Chamber and said repeatedly that they abide by all the requirements that they must follow under the Equality Act 2010, and they could come to that conclusion only having carried out an equality impact assessment, so where are they? Why have we never seen them? Why have the trade unions and Members of Parliament never seen them? They are not anywhere in the public domain. When the Minister responds, will he tell us why they have not been published and whether they will be published? If he does not intend to publish them for wider public viewing, will he at least endeavour to share that information with MPs?
We are seeing a scythe tearing through the poorest communities in Glasgow, with the closure of Maryhill and Possilpark, Easterhouse, Parkhead and Bridgeton jobcentres. The idea that a quarter of a million people will be reliant on Springburn and Shettleston to sustain these critical services is absolutely appalling. The equality impact assessments have been identified through freedom of information requests, which have shown that the closure of these jobcentres would disproportionately affect people from ethnic minorities, women and people on low incomes. That is clear already. What is the Minister doing to mitigate that effect? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that that justification is presented tonight?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Indeed, the issues he raises were the very motivations for our demanding that equality impact assessments be carried out before a decision was taken. It was obvious, though, that a decision was taken before the sham consultation that the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to hold.
I have asked Ministers about the impact of the closures on disabled people, minority ethnic communities and women. For example, in a recent written question, I asked the Government how many disabled people used Langside jobcentre, which they closed two weeks ago. They told me that they do not hold those figures. If that is true for one jobcentre in my constituency, what is the answer for all the jobcentres across Glasgow? What is the answer for all the jobcentres that they are closing throughout the United Kingdom? This is a ham-fisted decision that has been handled in a ham-fisted way. The Government have relied on Google and do not know how the closures will affect huge numbers of people because they do not hold the data. I suspect that they do hold the data. I have to be honest: when I read that answer, I did not quite believe it. We would like to see the data and I can see no reason why the Government cannot give us the answers.
The other issue is that the Government have not actually thought through what they want jobcentres to do. I would have loved to have had a debate, when the Government announced the closures in December 2016, about how jobcentres can properly serve the people who use them and the communities in which they are based. The problem is that we were not offered that debate. We were offered a straight up choice: closure or non-closure. Rather than have a discussion about how jobcentres can, for example, better work with citizens advice bureaux and other employment agencies, perhaps under the auspices of local or devolved Government, all we were offered was a straight up closure programme. The Government did not even want to consult the very people who would be affected.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for the tenancy that he and my other colleagues from Glasgow have shown in their campaign against the closures. Does he share my concern that, in such debates or when we talk about social security issues at Question Time, Ministers increasingly turn around and direct claimants to seek advice from jobcentres—the very same jobcentres that the Government are closing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Consistency never was the Conservative party’s strongest suit, but there is a glaring hypocrisy in the fact that the Government are signposting people to jobcentres as they slash services up and down the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman has just spoken about consistency. Does he agree that, when the Government announced these closures, they said that the changes would offer a more efficient service and deliver good value for the taxpayer? If we are being consistent, does he agree that that is the exact same argument that the SNP Scottish Government and the Scottish Police Authority are using for their plans to close 58 police stations across Scotland?
Funnily enough, no, I do not. On consistency—I am not sure whether there are any jobcentres closing in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I know that none is closing in the Minister’s constituency—where the closures are going to happen, we need evidence of whether they will truly deliver better value for money and a better service, both of which we would all be in favour of. We need to see the evidence that will lead us to that conclusion, including the quality impact assessments and the number of disabled people using each and every service. This service is not comparable with police stations, which are not there to serve the public in the same way. I am happy to have a debate any time on police stations in Scotland, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that you would not want me to deviate too far from the jobcentre closure title that we see on the annunciator.
Let me draw my remarks to a close. The Government managed an incredible achievement when they announced the closure plans. They managed to unite—not just in Glasgow, but right across Scotland—the Scottish National party, the Scottish Labour party, the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Church in Scotland, all the trade unions and people of other parties and of no party against this very plan. We could see that it was ill-thought out, that decisions had been taken not because of the evidence that was before the Government but in spite of the evidence, and they went to great pains not to share much of that or include people in the decisions that were being made about them. I do not know how well versed the Minister is in Scottish politics, but to cause that level of unity is some feat.
When the Minister gets to his feet, I want him to tell us a bit more about the thinking behind this plan. I want to hear about the evidence and the equality impact assessments. I want to hear how the Government intend to review each closure over the next 12 months, as they start to happen right now, to make sure that people are well served and, as Douglas Ross points out, that value for money is served. There must be value for money not just for the taxpayer, but for the people using the service. In some cases, people are doing round trips of up to eight miles just to get to their local jobcentre. What about value for money for them and the impact that it has on them? When they go to claim their benefits, more and more of that money is used just to get to the jobcentre, when they used to be able to use a local service.
Will the Minister guarantee that when people are late for appointments, as a result of the closures, they will not be sanctioned? I am sure that he agrees that that would be completely wrong, though, like other Members, I have my doubts about that. I want to hear what the Minister intends to do to measure the impact particularly on disabled people as the closure programme gets into full swing. I want to hear about the options for reviewing the system should it be found that the evidence tells us that, in fact, the decision that has been taken has proven to be the wrong one. I understand that this comes on the back of the whole Telereal Trillium contract and the option to get out after 20 years and all the rest of it, but this has to be about more than spreadsheets and contracts. There are some desperately vulnerable people who rely on these services, some desperately vulnerable people who are let down by these decisions and some desperately vulnerable people who need to be better served by this Government.
I commend my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald for having the foresight not only to secure an Adjournment debate, but to secure an Adjournment debate that allows us to detain the Minister for a certain amount of time and to rake him over the coals about this deeply flawed decision. If the Minister thinks that he is getting out of here before 10 o’clock tonight, he has another thing coming.
I commend the Minister for his promotion to this post. He will be aware that I, my colleagues on the SNP Benches, Mr Sweeney and other cross-party politicians from the city of Glasgow have written to him commending him and congratulating him on his new post, and inviting him to Glasgow. Now, I have not checked my mailbag this evening to see whether we have yet had a response to that letter. I am sure that his response will be there when I toddle over to the mail room tonight; he will be telling me that he is coming to visit the city of Glasgow in the next couple of weeks.
The main issue I want to address is the disproportionate impact of jobcentre closures on the east end of Glasgow. My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss has, in her time in this Parliament, very passionately outlined the case for retaining Bridgeton jobcentre, the doors of which closed on Friday last week. My own constituency of Glasgow East will see the closure of Easterhouse and Parkhead jobcentres over the next two weeks, with everybody being relocated to Shettleston. I will come back to that point in a moment.
Since being elected to this House in June last year, I have been clear that Ministers sit in their ivory towers in Whitehall, making decisions by spreadsheet and Google Maps. They decide what they are going to do in communities in Glasgow and in Scotland without having the foggiest idea about those communities. A visit to the Easterhouse Housing and Regeneration Alliance in December reaffirmed that for me. The Minister will have heard me mention the alliance in questions this afternoon. It is a coalition of independent housing associations that has been operating for as long as I have been alive. These associations know their tenants and their local communities. Every single director, staff member and board member of the alliance was absolutely clear that these closures will be deeply damaging for some of the most vulnerable people in the city of Glasgow.
If the Minister will not listen to the Easterhouse Housing and Regeneration Alliance, he could listen to the citizens advice bureaux in our city. There are fantastic citizens advice bureaux: in Easterhouse, led by Joan McClure; in Bridgeton, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central, led by Frank Mosson; and in Parkhead. I am sure that it is only a coincidence that the only jobcentre that the Government plan to keep open in the east end of Glasgow is not located next to a citizens advice bureau. When people are sanctioned or treated unfairly at the jobcentre in the east end of Glasgow, they can currently go to their citizens advice bureau to receive support. It is deeply damaging that we are going to remove that support.
After I was elected and met Damian Hinds, who is now the Education Secretary, I was struck that there is this idea that this campaign is party political or that it is a campaign against the Tories. If the Minister wants to believe that, that is absolutely fine. He can take it from me that, as an SNP politician, I do not have a huge amount of love for the Tories. But if he will not listen to me, will he at least listen to the three Tory councillors in the east end of Glasgow—Councillors Thomas Kerr, Phillip Charles and Robert Connelly, who is the councillor for Calton—who have all added their voice to the campaign to save our local jobcentres? If the Minister leaves this debate tonight thinking that this is some sort of Labour and SNP campaign against the Tories, he is deeply mistaken. This is a campaign to protect our jobcentres and some of the most vulnerable people in our city.
I want our jobcentres to be kept open for three reasons: digital exclusion, transport and the deep-rooted issues of the gangland culture and territorialism that, sadly, still exist in our communities. On a cross-party basis, we politicians all have to solve that. Fantastic research has been undertaken by the likes of Citizens Advice and the Church of Scotland about the real problems associated with the total exclusion of people. Something like half of my constituents have never touched a computer. Some people are able to use the internet on their smartphones, but that is not the way to do a 90-minute universal credit application. If the Minister wants to come to Glasgow and find a library that is willing to allow people to sit for 90 minutes to complete a universal credit application, he will be quite shocked to find that that is not actually the case.
I thank my constituency neighbour for giving way. The Public and Commercial Services Union has done an assessment of the rationalisation of jobcentres. Its survey data shows that libraries in Glasgow are so in demand that they place time limits on the use of computers, thus excluding people from being able to do these onerous applications using their facilities. This just places another barrier before people who are already IT illiterate or who do not have the capacity to do this.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very powerful intervention. That is reaffirmed by the fact that I do a surgery in Baillieston library and Parkhead library, and as soon as I arrive at 10 o’clock there is already a queue of people waiting to use the computers. What the Government will do by removing the computer access at jobcentres will be deeply damaging.
The Minister will be aware, no doubt, of his predecessor answering a slew of written questions from me about the number of wi-fi connections and computer log-ons at Easterhouse jobcentre—the very jobcentre he wants to close.
My researcher counted my hon. Friend’s written questions and there were over 100. He mentions the invitation to the Minister to come to Glasgow. So far, no Minister has bothered to come to any of the jobcentres they want to close or to meet any of the people affected. Could I add to what my hon. Friend has said and implore the Minister to find time in his diary soon to come to Glasgow for such a meeting?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who refers to the number of written questions that I have tabled. I am rivalled only by Jim Shannon in my love for written questions.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the fact that Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions have not bothered to visit the city of Glasgow. In fact, one of the other written questions that I asked of the UK Government was, when was the last time that a Minister visited the city of Glasgow. I was rather shocked when in response to one of those written questions I was informed that a Minister had indeed visited a jobcentre—in Midlothian. I do not know what the geographical knowledge of Her Majesty’s Government is like, but can I impart a bit of wisdom to them? Midlothian is not exactly Easterhouse. It is not Castlemilk; it is not even Moray. If the Minister is serious about being someone who is focused on the entire United Kingdom, then he ought to come to visit the city.
If the Minister does come to Glasgow, I would like to invite him to walk from one jobcentre that is closed to the next and see what these people are facing. It will take him over an hour. It takes half an hour on the bus, on average, to get to the jobcentres that are closing down. He will be more than welcome to come to Glasgow and do the walk.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Even as an Albion Rovers fan, he is very quick off the mark, because he has worked out my very next point, which is on transport. He shares a constituency boundary with me. One part of that boundary is around Gartloch and Gartcosh. I do not know whether the Minister would be able to point to where Gartloch is on a map, but the reality is that, if someone has to walk from Gartloch to Shettleston on a cold January or February day, it is going to take them a rather long time.
The third issue that I want to touch on is the gangland culture and territorialism that exists in Glasgow. I am glad to say that, since the time I was growing up—nothing to do with me, I must add—a lot of that has been tackled, and we do not have quite the same problems that we did. I give the Minister the example the community of Wellhouse, which is separated from Easthall by a road. They are two communities in the Greater Easterhouse Partnership area. They are very, very small communities but they have their own community centre and housing association. That is because at one point young guys could not walk across that road without the fear of getting involved in all sorts of incidents.
If the Minister will not listen to me on the concerns about territorialism and the gangland culture, then he should listen to Commander Stevie Haslett, who heads up Glasgow East police. I was quite surprised to find out that the Department had not bothered to consult him about this either. The Minister will be aware, of course, because I am sure that he has done his homework, that Shettleston jobcentre was piloted as being one of the under-25 jobcentres that everybody in the whole of the east end of Glasgow would come to. This was a number of years ago. There was all sorts of trouble because people from different communities were coming together and clashing. That put the security staff and the jobcentre staff at immense risk as well.
My final point is about the jobcentre that the Government want to merge absolutely everything into—Shettleston, which would be some sort of UK super-jobcentre following the merger of Bridgeton, Easterhouse and Parkhead. I was quite surprised when I found out only a couple of weeks ago about the number of car parking spaces at Shettleston jobcentre. This is particularly about the issue of all the new staff who will be transitioned to that jobcentre. I say to the Minister that, if I find out in the next couple of weeks that Shettleston Road has been turned into a car park, I am going to be very unhappy.
The Evening Times, a local newspaper in Glasgow, has been resolutely united in campaigning to save our jobcentres. If the Minister will not listen to me as an SNP politician, and if he will not even listen to the Tory councillors in Glasgow, he should listen to the newspaper that is for Glasgow.
I do not want to detain the House too long, but I want to pick up on a couple of points.
My local jobcentre in Bridgeton closed on Friday. That jobcentre was well used and, as my hon. Friend David Linden pointed out, it was round the corner from the Bridgeton citizens advice bureau. I spoke to the manager of Bridgeton citizens advice bureau, Frank Mosson, a week last Friday, after my surgery had finished. It was after 2 o’clock on Friday afternoon, and that was the first opportunity he had that day, since arriving at about half-past 8 in the morning, to go and get some lunch, but the soup had finished in the shop and there was nothing left for lunch. He had been sitting there all day working through case after case—complex cases—caused by the UK Government.
People rely on the citizens advice bureau in Bridgeton and other ones around the city to get the advice that they very much need and depend on. The jobcentre is being moved away from that local hub and the local support network. The credit union, the library and the housing association are nearby. All those things are right where people need them, but it is being moved out of the community and people are being sent nearly 3 miles away, on two bus journeys, or a 50-minute walk on a good day, if they are healthy and it is not tipping down outside.
The hon. Lady is making a valid and salient point. When we fought the case for the Ballynahinch social security office, one factor we used was that people in Ballynahinch would have to travel out of the area, so people on benefits who already had minimal money coming into the house would have to find anything from £5 to £10 just to go and sign on. That is wrong.
Absolutely. We are fighting the fight in Glasgow about bus fare rises in the city as well, which is making it more challenging for people to get about.
While spending time outside the front of the Bridgeton jobcentre, I spoke to a woman who was on her way in. She was in bits. She was crying and upset. She had come from her house, which was just along the street, and she was in fear of what she would find when she went into the jobcentre, because they were hassling her and sending her letters. She had already been through a lot. She had lost her daughter. She is a WASPI woman, so she should not even have had to look for work in the first place, but this Government are sending this poor woman who had worked her whole life out to work. She was in bits, so we comforted her as best we could. She went through that experience and was understandably even more upset by the time she left. It would have been very hard for her not only to leave the house and go to the jobcentre that was just around the corner, but to get herself up, get on the bus and find her way all the way up to Shettleston and then make the journey back again. That is a challenging journey.
It is also a challenging journey for people who have caring responsibilities, for people who have kids to drop off at nursery and pick up from nursery, or drop off at school and pick up from school, and for people who are tending to elderly relatives who are poorly, which is a very common occurrence for my constituents. The burden of that falls upon women, which has not been picked up in the Government’s lack of an equality impact assessment.
All those things mount up on the pressures of life that my constituents are feeling every single day. This Government are not trying to get them into work. This Government are making it harder for them to even get out of the house in the morning. They are making it really challenging for people to cope. I am fearful that people will just fall out of the system; they will think it is too hard, fall back on their friends and fall into debt, drink, drugs, gambling and all the other social ills that we need to see removed from our people in Glasgow, so that they can progress in their lives. This Government are making it harder for them to cope.
The impact on jobcentre staff has not been mentioned. One of the first things I heard as a candidate in Glasgow was a story from a trade union rep about a jobcentre employee who had been attacked by someone with a clawhammer. That is awful. No one should face that at work, and I condemn the situation that led someone to do that, but that is the situation, and those staff need to be protected. When I walked into that jobcentre, the first person who came to see me was the security guard and the second person was the manager, saying “What are you doing here?” There is a security guard on that door for a very good reason, which sadly is to protect the staff.
The Government are talking about outreach, flexible working and going out into communities, but they have not said what the impact will be on staff, how staff will be protected out and about in the community and how individual constituents who are also in very distressing situations will be protected, with their dignity intact, if they are told they are being sanctioned in the corner of the local community centre. How do we ensure that staff and our constituents are protected in those situations?
One of the elements we have forgotten about is the staff. In Coatbridge, 300 jobs were moved. It was speeded up and the jobs were moved more quickly. We intervened and asked why those people were being moved out. Jobcentre staff have a 1% pay rise. For some of these staff, it will cost up to £1,800 extra a year in travel costs, so they are being asked to take a pay cut to follow their job. I hope the Minister keeps that in mind.
The hon. Gentleman is definitely right. He has previously spoken very movingly about the effect on local economies of having jobcentres as anchor tenants in such areas—in shopping centres and on high streets in local communities—and this is about the impact on the local shops, such as the butchers’ and everything else. There is an impact that the Government are obviously not taking into account.
I want to finish with a plea to the Minister. I know that it will be difficult for my constituents to make that journey. It will be hard for them to get there, find their way and do so on time. Buses are not very regular, and we cannot rely on them turning up precisely when we need them. On Google Maps, the timetable may say x—if people turn up at exactly that time, they can get here and there—but we know that that is just not how it works.
My hon. Friend reminds me of a particular case of a constituent in Carmyle. She recently told me that, for her to get to Shettleston jobcentre from the village of Carmyle, which is fairly isolated from the rest of my constituency, she will be required to leave three hours early. How difficult would that be if her appointment was at 9 o’clock in the morning?
Absolutely. The limitations of public transport make it difficult for people to get where they need to be at a specific time. In the early stages of this change, I want a guarantee from the Minister that not one single one—not one—of my constituents who arrives late, due to the decision of this Government to close their jobcentre, will be sanctioned. I will be keeping a very close eye on this Government and on this Minister to make sure that none of my constituents ends up being sanctioned because of the decisions his Government have made.
I am grateful to you for your indulgence, Mr Speaker. I do not now have the opportunity to welcome Mr Deputy Speaker back to the Chair, but this would have been my first opportunity to do so.
Douglas Ross raised the issue of the funding for Police Scotland. I tried to say to him from a sedentary position that he is very welcome to support our call for the £150 million of VAT that the Scottish police are owed. This also gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to his predecessor, Angus Robertson, who announced at the weekend that he is standing down as deputy leader of the SNP. He has gone before his time, but we will no doubt see him again in some shape or form.
Maryhill jobcentre in my constituency has already been closed and, just as we predicted, the impacts are already being felt. We have already heard about a number of constituency cases from various Members. At my surgery on Friday, I spoke to the family of a constituent who is being made to claim employment and support allowance. There is some doubt about whether he is receiving what he should, and I hope that the Minister or one of his counterparts will at some point reply to my letter of
As we have heard in other speeches, it is important to say that the closure of an individual jobcentre cannot be seen in isolation from the broader range of reforms and indeed—this is what an awful lot of these Conservatives are like—from the broader erosion of the role of the state. The closures compound the impact of the pernicious welfare cuts and the new regime that has been imposed so cackhandedly—we hear universal credit and other issues raised in this Chamber day in, day out—and the situation is also compounded by issues such as bank closures. The Royal Bank of Scotland, of which we are a considerable shareholder, is disappearing from high streets.
We are always told that a post office or citizens advice bureau can stand in for these services, but they are undergoing their own reform processes. We are slowly seeing an erosion of the presence of the state on the high street and in the hearts of communities. That might suit the Conservative Government, but it does not suit SNP Members. It certainly does not suit our constituents, especially the poorest and most vulnerable who rely on these services. We are told that it is great that all these different services are somehow taking over yet, as my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) mentioned, all these buildings are owned by Telereal Trillium. Well, that is great, because have we not seen what a great success Carillion, Capita and all the rest of these outsourcing companies have turned out to be?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the buildings. Does he not think it ironic that the UK Government have told us that the entire process is about saving money when only last week we approved spending billions on this royal palace we sit in?
Precisely; I think that point speaks for itself. Many of us have been for meetings with the Minister or his predecessors in Caxton House, which is owned and operated by Telereal Trillium. Why does the DWP not want to dispose of that asset, turn it into flats that could make a profit for the taxpayer, and ship all its staff and ministerial offices out to Canary Wharf, which would be considerably cheaper?
That question is legitimate, because there has been no guarantee that these closures are the end. If the Minister answers one question from me at the Dispatch Box, it should be this: what guarantee can he give that this is in fact the end, or will other jobcentres in Glasgow be under threat in a future round? Ministers have repeatedly said, “Well, Glasgow has more jobcentres per head of population,” but has anyone stopped to ask why that might be? Is it a legacy of the impact on the economy of the decades of misrule by the Conservatives that has required people to go to jobcentres? Is it to do with the geography and the nature of the city, which are some of the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East touched on? We are still seeking a whole range of reassurances from the Minister. What it boils down to is looking at the welfare system and the entire reform regime, and starting again from scratch.
I congratulate Stewart Malcolm McDonald on securing the debate. This is a critical issue for all Members who represent the city of Glasgow and the Greater Glasgow region, and all areas of Scotland that are affected by the jobcentre closure programme.
I represent the constituency of Glasgow North East. It is adjacent to the constituencies of the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Glasgow East (David Linden), but we are all affected by this jobcentre rationalisation—the closures. Although the jobcentres are not physically located in my constituency, their catchment areas massively overlap it. In the last month, I have already seen the closure of the Maryhill and Possilpark jobcentre, which is to be merged into Springburn. The next tranche of closures will see Parkhead, Bridgeton and Easterhouse jobcentres merged into Shettleston.
That will be a major issue in my constituency, because unemployment there is twice the national average. The argument has been, “Well, there’s over-representation of jobcentres’ footprints in Glasgow,” but that is because historically there has been a higher than average unemployment rate in Glasgow. We also have to look at the historical development of that unemployment rate, which is particularly intractable. It is not the sort of transient unemployment rate that we see with economic cycles; it is a structural rate of unemployment, particularly among those with long-term addiction or IT literacy issues, or people affected by massive exclusion from society. This is just another measure that will push these people to the margins of society.
I have heard the Minister’s DWP colleagues saying that the Department’s objective is to minimise harm and improve general happiness in society. How will this programme deliver that outcome? On any rational assessment, it will serve only to visit further despair, dissatisfaction and problems on the lives of people who are already blighted by a number of structural problems.
Hon. Members have raised this in the House before, but the issue is clear. The geography of Glasgow, particularly in the east and north-east of the city, is very fragmented. Historically, the built environment has been particularly fragmented. Believe it or not, but 80% of the built environment from prior to the second world war was demolished. We have been subject to huge dislocation, with the development of motorways and the fragmentation of the area, so there is no major town centre that people can visit to access jobcentres. I encourage the Minister to observe the nature of Glasgow’s public transport system, as its privatisation and fragmentation makes things even more complex and difficult.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech in support of the very good speeches that have been made. We have heard about the fear that many people will deny themselves the support to which they are entitled because of the closures. There is evidence from the DWP’s own figures on employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance that people have fallen off the system but have not yet found work. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that that may well end up happening in Glasgow?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point—I absolutely agree. Plenty of people come to my constituency office with their concerns, but the thing that worries me, as a new Member of Parliament, is the people who do not turn up. What about the people who are not aware of the opportunity they have because of the service provided by a Member of Parliament, never mind a jobcentre? What keeps me awake at night is thinking about the people sitting in a flat somewhere in Possilpark, Milton or Springburn who are sick to the back teeth and worried out of their wits about what they are going to do—how they are going to heat their house or how they are going to feed their family. They are not necessarily made aware of the opportunity that an MP can provide them with.
On the point about geography, travel and all the rest, jobcentres have closed and there has been a high number of sanctions, but there has been no leeway and no reprieve, and nobody has looked at these cases again. As we heard earlier, people are learning how to dodge the gangland and how to get to the jobcentre—how to walk there and what the shortcuts are. They can walk over an hour to get there; they are getting sanctioned, but they are still learning the new geography.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important contribution, which leads back to the point I was making about the geographical issues that people face, particularly in the north and east of Glasgow. There are structural issues. The hon. Member for Glasgow East made the point that gangland issues are a deterrent for people who want to move around. There are structural issues with public transport, and there is also the general fragmentation of the built environment in that part of the city. None of that has been taken into consideration in the assessment process, and I urge the Minister to apply a reasonable approach to that issue when considering the mitigation of these jobcentre closures.
I do not want to dwell too much on the geography aspect, because in a constituency such as Moray, 8 miles would be an incredibly short distance for some of my constituents to travel to go to get to a jobcentre. I would have liked to have intervened a little earlier when the hon. Gentleman was talking about the problems that will be caused. I visited my local jobcentre in Elgin just a couple of weeks ago, and the staff there go above and beyond to try to accommodate every single person who comes through the door. So, yes, there are issues with getting to and from the proposed jobcentres, given the closures, but I think that all Members can agree that once they get there, people across Glasgow, Scotland and the UK get a great service from jobcentre staff.
I speak for many members of DWP staff in these jobcentres—including members of my own family—and members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents them, and those workers are viscerally against this rationalisation programme. Although they do their best to help people, they are stuck in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Rigid decision-making processes mean that they have to deliver services that they would rather not deliver, but they are forced by policy to do so on pain of disciplinary action. Not only that, but the capacity to help people is severely limited by the huge demand for services in the ever-more depleted number of jobcentres. Staff are physically unable to provide the level of service and interface that they might otherwise offer, such as close coaching in making a universal credit application online. Those things are simply not available.
The alternative is to access Citizens Advice. We have heard about the closure of citizens advice bureaux, and about the dislocation between Citizens Advice and jobcentres. That will only add to the complexity that people face. The Minister has not taken that major issue into consideration.
I think that we are all here in a spirit of making constructive efforts to mitigate the problems faced by our constituents, and I would hope that the Minister approaches the debate in the same spirit. To give a good example of that, I was looking, as a new Member of Parliament, at where to locate my constituency office. I have picked a location on Saracen Street in Possilpark, which is right next to Maryhill Road, where the jobcentre has recently closed, and near to where the citizens advice bureau has recently closed on Saracen Street. I am occupying a building that is only one fifth occupied, but it is currently paid for by Glasgow City Council, Jobs & Business Glasgow and Skills Development Scotland. Why on earth has the Minister not engaged with those agencies to say, “Look, we have a cost-neutral option for providing a jobcentre service in that building”? That could actually be done with the same overhead as would be involved in rationalising provision into a smaller footprint. That is a ready-made opportunity I have observed in the last few months as a Member of Parliament, having looked at these things on the ground.
Why does the Minister not engage with that opportunity, or look at opportunities with housing associations, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East mentioned, or other agencies in Glasgow that could offer the possibility of providing the same service footprint within buildings that are already paid for by the public sector? That would be a cost-neutral option. There are options out there to mitigate this. I urge the Minister to take a fresh approach and look at these ideal opportunities to maintain the footprint of the service across Glasgow. It is out there for the taking, so I urge the Minister to do it.
There is a major issue in Glasgow North East and across the adjacent Glasgow constituencies. We have a structural unemployment issue. Universal credit will hit my constituency later this year, and I can see the demand for jobcentres only increasing. The IT exclusion faced by my constituents is disproportionately higher than in other parts of the UK, with Citizens Advice estimating that 39% of people have never accessed a computer or do not have access to a computer. Library services are increasingly constrained, as is the ability to offer such services to constituents, and the footprint of jobcentres is reducing.
We can see the clear outcome of that situation: pushing people who are already marginalised—the people we need to coach into becoming participants in our society and back into being productive members of it—further to the margins of society. That is simply unacceptable. We are all here in the spirit of trying to engage our citizens, and to make them productive and feel that they are engaged and involved in our society. I am sure that we all agree on that at least, but by penalising them and pushing them further away, how on earth are we going to mitigate the problem?
I urge the Minister to approach this debate in the spirit in which we have engaged with it. We have offered meaningful and proactive options to mitigate the jobcentre rationalisation in Glasgow and the Greater Glasgow region. I hope that he will engage with those points and that we can reach to a successful outcome that will at least make the lives of my constituents, and those of other Members who have contributed to the debate, better in the long run.
I congratulate Stewart Malcolm McDonald on securing this important debate, and I thank all Members for the kindness that they have shown by inviting me to their constituencies. I have never felt quite so loved by Opposition Members as I have this evening.
That is what worries me.
Employment in the United Kingdom is at a record level. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the claimant count has dropped by 50% since 2010. That drop has been replicated across Glasgow city, where there has been a fall of 11,000 in the number of claimants since 2010 to just 13,500 today. In Scotland as a whole, unemployment has fallen by 107,000 since 2010, and I know that all hon. Members will welcome those figures.
The Minister appears to be saying that a reason for closing these jobcentres is that unemployment is down, and therefore the usage of jobcentres may be down. However, the increased conditionality that is attached to universal credit will increase the need for services and the requirement for people to visit jobcentres. Will he not reflect on that and understand why my colleagues are so keen for the centres to be kept open?
Because of the timing of the debate, I have plenty of time to respond to a whole range of issues that have been raised, and I will try to do so throughout my speech.
As I was saying, as the unemployment rate has fallen, the use of jobcentres has also dropped. Right now, across the whole country, there is a 30% under-utilisation of the Jobcentre Plus estate. It is therefore absolutely right that we reconfigure the estate after a 20-year period and make jobcentres fit for the 21st century as not just places where people go to “sign on”, but places they regard as somewhere that will genuinely help them on the road to employment.
Hon. Members have made this point, but let me repeat it. In March 2018, the contract covering the majority of the DWP’s current estate of more than 900 sites comes to an end. This presents a significant opportunity to re-evaluate what we need from our estate. The estate that we required at the start of the contract 20 years ago is different from what we need now. We want an estate that enables us to create more modern, digitally enabled and engaging environments that fit the ethos of universal credit and reflect the falling claimant count.
It is not really modernising it if it is no longer there, so why were we not offered a debate that could have been constructive, reflecting what Mr Sweeney said about co-locating with other services that are provided, instead of a high-handed closure programme on which the public would not even be consulted?
I was coming to co-location. Our proposals seek to reduce the floor space we occupy in Glasgow while retaining sites and locations that are accessible to all residents. Of course, we explored options for co-location in sites that we are retaining, but we were not able to identify suitable locations in Glasgow.
Motion lapsed (
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)
In Glasgow, where this is particularly relevant, we started with 16 jobcentres that, on average, were only 40% utilised—small, half-empty offices that made it challenging to create a welcoming and positive environment. Back in 2010, with nearly 25,000 claimants, this may have been suitable, but it clearly no longer is. This dated estate across the country comes at a significant cost. Our changes will lead to savings to the taxpayer in the order of £135 million a year over the next 10 years. This money can be reinvested in delivering services for claimants, which I am sure hon. Members agree is a good thing.
Colleagues have mentioned the consultation and what methods were used. We did contact claimants, and jobcentre staff did speak to claimants throughout the process, informing them of the change and supporting them through it. Additionally, there was a discussion about what method was used to work out travel priorities. We got input from local DWP colleagues, who know the local transport available, so the idea that we did not speak to anyone on the ground is unfair.
I do not doubt the Minister spoke to DWP people on the ground; I spoke to them—they told me they googled the transport options. That is how they worked this stuff out. On co-location, he did not bother to inform Members of Parliament of the decision; we had to read about it in the press. I understand that there was no dialogue with the city council about co-location at the time either, and the Scottish Government were not even consulted—they, too, had to read about it in the press. I am afraid that that does not stack up.
I think I have made the point about co-location. We are having an estate that is fit for the 21st century. Where a new jobcentre was over 3 miles and 20 minutes away by public transport, online public consultation was held, as hon. Members will know, and we operated on evidence, and we listened and took action as a result. For example, we are introducing a new employability suite at Atlantic Quay and, as hon. Members know, we decided to retain the jobcentre in Castlemilk because of the feedback we received. I hope that hon. Members will therefore feel that we have listened on that point.
As we deliver these changes, this local approach is continuing with stakeholders and through partnership events, and we are working with claimants to find the best solutions for them. So far, we have moved out of 70 sites across the country with success, and these moves are being well received both by claimants and staff, as well as our partners. There was a discussion about how staff and claimants were reacting to the move. The feedback from claimants on the move from Maryhill to Springburn is that the move has been extremely positive, and they welcome access to more facilities. One claimant said:
“I never expected it to be as good as this”.
Furthermore, 23 claimants have transferred to Partick because it is easier for their own journey.
I agree it is vital that staff are looked after, but staff have told us that they are happier being part of a bigger team and office, that it allows them to provide an evolving and improved service based on customer needs, that the teams have come together seamlessly and that the team culture, which is incredibly important in any organisation, is developing to maximise benefits to claimants. The idea that this is having a detrimental effect on claimants and staff does not hold true.
I think that this is sarcasm; we call it Glasgow banter. The Minister says the staff are happy, but that is not the feedback that we are getting. I am also concerned about disabled people who have had to travel for an extra half hour to the locations that the Minister is talking about. It costs £4.50 to use the local bus service, and many of those same people are going to food banks.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that there is sarcasm in what I am saying. That is certainly not my intent, and I do not think it is the intent of the DWP staff who have sent us feedback. I can give the hon. Gentleman a list of the things that staff and claimants have said about the moves involving Broxburn and Anniesland. Perhaps things are not quite as some Members feel that they are.
No. I want to continue.
Claimants moving to Springburn have reported how much better the facilities are, and how welcoming the environment is. Claimants have also said that they have appreciated the individual tailored support. For instance, during the recently completed move of Anniesland to Drumchapel, some claimants who preferred to move to Partick instead were easily accommodated. The impact on staff is also being well managed. The vast majority of staff affected are moving to other locations. A very small number will leave the department, but the vast majority have accepted voluntary redundancy.
I do not want to test the Minister’s patience, but when I saw that red folder with all the little tabs on it, I rather hoped that he would not just read from a civil service briefing. Members representing constituencies across the city of Glasgow have come here tonight and made very sincere speeches about some of the profound difficulties that are being experienced. The Minister is now the best part of 10 minutes into his speech, and he has not touched on the territorialism, the transport or the digital exclusion. May I ask him, in the time that remains, to address the points that we have raised? It is all well and good for him to reel off place names like Atlantic Quay, but I do not think he would know where Atlantic Quay was in relation to Gartloch. The best thing he could do is agree right now to come to the city of Glasgow and listen and respond to local people—not DWP bigwigs, but local people in citizens advice bureaux and police stations, and those who will be affected.
I do not think that the people who are working incredibly hard in these jobcentres would appreciate being referred to as bigwigs. Since becoming the Minister in this particular role, I have been to a number of jobcentres, not in Scotland but in England, and I can tell the House that those people are extremely motivated to help the people whom they are serving and helping to get into work. I agree with my hon. Friend Douglas Ross that we should pay tribute to them rather than suggesting that they are either joking with us or doing something worse.
Let me make clear that in the Glasgow Jobcentre Plus network, no redundancies are expected. The overall rationalisation of the estate is definitely not a staff reduction exercise. Indeed, the number of jobcentre staff will be higher at the end of this process than at the start, with an additional 5,000 work coaches across the country. After the rationalisations there will still be 10 jobcentres in Glasgow, which—as we heard earlier—is more per head of population than in nearly all other cities in the UK. Those 10 jobcentres will be welcoming, positive places, offering training sessions, with employers helping people to get back into work. They will create a sense of partnership between work coaches, claimants and other organisations. For staff, they will offer greater progression and development opportunities. They will enable staff to do the job that they cherish, which is helping people to move into independence and lifelong careers.
A number of other points were raised, and, as I have enough time, I will address them. As part of the consultation, some of which was online, we talked to members of staff and trade unions. A point was raised about equality impacts, and I know the hon. Member for Glasgow South raised this with the former Secretary of State during the July debate. The then Secretary of State said about the equality impact assessment that the Government had fulfilled our statutory duties, as we always do. Throughout the redesign of our estate, the Department has been mindful of its duties under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 and the impact of its plans on its colleagues and customers. Equality analysis carried out in respect of individual sites has not been published; that is not the policy, but the DWP will respond to freedom of information requests for equality analysis reports in the normal course of business.
A point was made about travel costs. The reimbursement of travel costs is available to claimants when they are required to attend the jobcentre for appointments other than mandatory fortnightly signing appointments. Additionally, jobseekers who have been claiming universal credit or jobseeker’s allowance for more than 13 weeks can apply for a Jobcentre Plus travel discount card.
David Linden raised a point about having written to me; I have indeed written back to him and I hope he will receive that letter very shortly. A number of colleagues have invited me to visit their constituencies. I committed in DWP orals earlier today to come to Scotland, and said I would have a discussion with the hon. Gentleman about potentially coming to his constituency, but as part of my job I go around the country—across England, Scotland and elsewhere—to make sure I am hearing at first hand the experiences of people working in these centres, the claimants and also employers in those areas.
There was a discussion about sanctions, and I want to make it clear that a decision maker takes all the claimant’s individual circumstances into account before making a decision, and there has to be very good evidence. Claimants have the opportunity to come back and set out their case. This discretion is available and I hope it will be used by decision makers in the case of sanctions.
Does the Minister have any statistics on users of these jobcentres who have been sanctioned as a result of the amalgamation?
I have no figures in front of me now, but I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman if these figures are available within the system.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East mentioned gangs. That is an important point. As part of our consultation, we engaged with Community Safety Glasgow and the Glasgow City Council strategic community partnership group, and they were not aware of any gang-related issues pertaining to potential jobcentre closures.
As someone involved in the local community, I would have thought that if we want to ask people on the frontline about crime, we might ask the police. Did the Minister speak to local police officers?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have moved to this post in the last few weeks, but I understand that a dialogue takes place with Police Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of people who cannot access online services and find it hard to get to a jobcentre. Face-to-face support with work coaches is available at jobcentres and continues to be a core part of the service we deliver. People can also interact face to face, by email or telephone or by post.
I have a point of correction to make. Patrick Grady suggested that Caxton House was owned by Telereal Trillium. It is not; there is an underlying lease.
We have had a wide-ranging debate and I have listened to colleagues, and I completely understand that they put forward the view of their constituents and the people they know locally. I have set out what we have heard through our dialogue with people working in jobcentres and with claimants who have transferred to other jobcentres. I will come to Scotland and I will meet and talk to a range of individuals there.
We have had a long debate, and I should like to conclude by saying that this is obviously a major change for the Department, as well as for our claimants and staff. However, retaining our current estate would miss the opportunity to improve value for taxpayers’ money and to create an estate that will meet the needs of DWP claimants now and in the future. These changes are the result of careful analysis and planning. I appreciate hon. Members’ concerns about the closures, but the rationale for these changes and the benefits that they will deliver for claimants and our staff are clear.
Question put and agreed to.