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It is the normal protocol for those who speak in Westminster Hall to congratulate the Member who secured the debate and to say that it is about a topical, important issue. I can say, with the utmost assurance, that this is indeed an exceptionally topical, very important issue in Northern Ireland; more than 200 jobs are at stake in the Coleraine area, and more than 300 are at stake in Northern Ireland as a whole. The knock-on effect would be on a total number of jobs in excess of 500.
At the outset, I want to apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend Ian Paisley, who has worked closely with me on this campaign, as his constituency adjoins mine. Many of the employees involved come from one or other of our constituencies, as they do from throughout Northern Ireland. I want to give a few indications of the wider context before coming to the nub of the matter, in relation to the Driver and Vehicle Agency and the services offered there.
The Causeway coast area and Northern Ireland as a whole have been severely hit by unemployment in recent years. People will ask: has the whole UK not been hit like that? The answer, of course, is yes, but more significantly so in Northern Ireland. We have been cushioned a little by the dependency on the public sector in Northern Ireland. In that context, last week, no less a person than the Prime Minister was in Northern Ireland to try to encourage inward investment, because he, the Government, the Executive and my friend and colleague Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Enterprise, realise that because of the dependency on the public sector, we need to encourage inward investment from the private sector.
This is not a case of taking jobs from the public sector and trying to transfer them into the private sector; it is a case of supplementing our existing dependency on the public sector through private sector inward investment. Therefore, the Prime Minister came, last week, to try to bring jobs to Northern Ireland, so the last thing we want to see, as a result of the consultation that closed a few weeks ago, is his Government taking jobs from Northern Ireland. Hopefully, that will not be the case. The north coast has a lower-than-average wage structure, compared with Northern Ireland as a whole, which has a lower-than-average wage structure than the United Kingdom. We can see the absolute dependency not only on getting and creating more jobs, but on sustaining the employment that we have.
The context of the proposed relocation goes back some eight years. I first raised the issue in 2005, when the previous Government were looking at possibly amalgamating driver and vehicle licensing services to Swansea. Thankfully, that was overcome; good sense prevailed eight years ago, when people saw the efficiencies that could be achieved and the service that could be maintained to motorists and others in Northern Ireland.
In terms of the numbers, 230 people are involved in Coleraine and more than 100 are involved in the rest of Northern Ireland through the various sub-offices. The employment of 200 more people, on top of that, depends on the DVA in Northern Ireland. Should centralisation go ahead to Swansea, the total wage loss to the Northern Ireland economy would be in excess of £11 million annually. That would lead to a total economic loss of about £20 million to Northern Ireland, which we simply cannot afford.
I raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as did many of my colleagues. She made a straightforward commitment:
“It is important that he”— the Minister—
“takes into account the views of Northern Ireland before he makes his decision.”—[Hansard, 6 March 2013; Vol. 559, c. 944.]
That was an obvious but radical statement. Just two weeks ago, the views of the people of Northern Ireland became absolutely clear, if there was any doubt. A debate was held in the Northern Ireland Assembly. As interested observers of the Assembly will know, there can, just occasionally, be matters of division there on political matters. From time to time, we do not see eye to eye—says he, with a bit of sarcasm in his voice. On this issue, however, there was not only cross-community support, but total and utter unanimity. Not a single voice of dissent came from the Chamber. The voice and views of the people of Northern Ireland were endorsed two weeks ago, on
I turn to the jobs and services that are provided. In the agency, an assessment has been done on the work force’s composition. Some 73% of the work force are female, many of whom are carers and have other dependents. Any decision to centralise the services in Swansea would have massive implications, not only for the employees, which is obvious, but for all their dependents. Some of those females are part-time employees. The prospect of trying to get other employment in a Northern Ireland that is trying to attract inward investment, as I have just alluded to, is going to be remote. It will be difficult to attract other employment opportunities for the predominantly female staff.
I turn now to the services. An analysis has been done of the services offered by the DVA, and current satisfaction rates are very high. I want to draw a comparison between the satisfaction rates for the services offered in Northern Ireland and those for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. I do so with a word of caution, because I fully understand that the sheer scale and complexity of the DVLA in Swansea provides a much more challenging environment in which to achieve targets. That is all the more reason, I would have thought, not to add even more to the burden that the people in Swansea already face.
The facts are as follows. For example, a survey in the past 12 months has shown that 95% of the transactions involving changes of registration are completed at the
DVA in Northern Ireland within five working days, which is an excellent achievement. The same 95% completion rate at the DVLA in Swansea is achieved in 11 working days. Given the sheer complexity and scale in Swansea, completing changes of registration almost exclusively in 11 working days—95% of the time—is a reasonably good performance, but in Northern Ireland we achieve that same in less than half the time. People in Northern Ireland will be saying, “If centralisation goes ahead, are the change of registration processes going to worsen by more than double?”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He might be interested to know that I questioned my officials on the issue he raises, because I was aware of the potential problem. I was assured that the differences in refunds are due to the different ways in which the transaction is measured. The DVA’s target is to process and refund within five days, but that does not take into account any subsequent work that may arise in complex cases. The DVLA’s target is measured from time of receipt until a refund has been issued. The time taken to process the transactions is about the same in both agencies.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the staff side response to the consultation refers to the perception in the DVA, which in many cases is backed up statistically, that the DVLA has vigorously, systematically and aggressively underfunded the IT development system in the DVA. Under those circumstances, does he agree that Northern Ireland has a remarkable work force that should be cherished rather than centralised?
I thank my hon. Friend and commend him for securing this important debate—when some 500 jobs are at stake, it is indeed a very important debate. If the figures he has given about Swansea are correct, surely moving everything from Northern Ireland to be centralised will compound the problem. A longer time scale for the completion of customers’ paperwork will be inevitable.
It appears to me, and I think to most people, that that would be the case.
The 95% target for applications for refunds is achieved in 30 working days in Swansea; again, allowing for the scale of the millions of people who tax their vehicles, achieving that figure is a challenge. The target in the same category in Northern Ireland is achieved in five working days—95% of refunds are cleared within five working days. Whichever way we cut this, it is absolutely clear that in terms of value for money for a service, a significant service is being offered.
Stephen Pound made the point, and the work force have repeatedly told me, that there has been under-investment, in the IT infrastructure in particular, for many years. In that context, the fact that the work force achieve such remarkable results is to be cherished and they should be secured for the future.
Recent analysis of the database of customers that the DVA serves shows that more than 60% of DVA customers are aged 44 and older. As we all know, that age group is less likely to be IT literate or to be online to take advantage of registration via a computer. The vast bulk of potential customers would be disadvantaged if the services were transferred to Swansea and the push for greater online registration continued, as a result of the loss of face-to-face and telephone services and local recognition and knowledge of that demographic in Northern Ireland. The Minister must take account of that.
I want to raise an issue about which there can be no dispute: Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK with a land border with another EU state—the Irish Republic. Traditionally, over many years, evasion rates have been significantly higher in Northern Ireland, but the rate has reduced considerably due to a comprehensive campaign there. Part of the reason is the local work force with local knowledge of vehicles and residences. Evasion rates that had continued to be high in the past have recently been reduced.
What are the chances of evasion in Fermanagh, south Armagh and Tyrone, which have borders with the Irish Republic, being detected by people operating from Swansea? The task will be much more difficult. I contend, with some justification given the previous figures, that evasion rates will rise, rather than fall. We do not want to encourage evasion or allow it to increase, rather than continue the drive to get it down.
An important reference point has emerged in the past four days. From media reports over the weekend, I understand that the DVLA’s independent complaints assessor has a draft report on the past two years, 2011-12 and 2012-13, with the various Departments for accuracy checking. When it is released in two weeks—I was assured yesterday that it will be released by the end of October, and I hope the Minister can confirm that—it will confirm a significant increase in the volume of complaints about the service people get at the DVLA in Swansea. Obviously, it is a draft report and we will wait to see the final outcome, but if complaints are increasing, part of the reason will be the sheer volume and complexity of cases being dealt with at one central agency. If anything can clinch the case for retaining a localised service, it will be in the context of the series of events I have outlined.
Prior to the debate, I asked about the level of complaints. I was told that in the most recent year for which we have statistics, there were 12,500 complaints to the DVLA, which, measured against 170 million transactions, represents 0.01%. The increase in the level of referred complaints is due to a change in how complaints are handled. Previously, the chief executive had to refer complaints for consideration; they now automatically go through, which to some extent explains the increase in complaints that has been registered.
I am glad the Minister has confirmed that there has been an increase. I note that he said “in the most recent year”; my understanding is that the draft report refers to the past two years. Perhaps he has further information about the increase in the previous year, but I do not think he has. I accept the Minister’s comment on the increase and the reason for it. My colleagues and I have raised significant points and there are good reasons for retaining a local service that will take account of the issues.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to do three things. I have invited the Secretary of State, and I invite him, to come to Coleraine in Northern Ireland to see at first hand the level of service and the work that is put in by employees, before coming to the final decision. In connection with that, I want the Minister to take account of the unique circumstances that prevail in Northern Ireland before coming to his decision. I also call on him to retain the excellent services that we have in Northern Ireland and those much needed jobs that go with them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Campbell on securing this debate. It is nice to have a bevy of Northern Ireland MPs here—for once, we are the biggest party in Westminster Hall—to collectively support the need to retain the DVA in Coleraine and to ensure a good level of service provision for our constituents. That is why we are here: to see a continuation of the service that we have. As elected representatives we have an opportunity to respond and turn issues round in a few days or even after a phone call. The contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry and the evidence that we have individually show that such a response will not be possible if the service goes from County hall in Coleraine to Swansea in Wales. The 300 workers will certainly feel the pain.
I also congratulate in his absence my hon. Friend Ian Paisley on his questions to the Transport Minister a few weeks ago. It is unfortunate that he cannot be here today owing to a family bereavement, but we thank him for his significant contribution. I know that he has worked long hard hours alongside my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry.
The detriment of the proposals will not simply be suffered by those who work in the DVA office; they will be suffered by those who use the service. I want to mention the service, the work that people do, and how that affects those outside, because there is a benefit to the whole of the local community. It has been estimated that some £22 million a year would be removed from the Northern Ireland economy if the move went ahead, which is something that could not be absorbed in such a short time. It would be detrimental to the economy of Northern Ireland, not only in East Londonderry but throughout the whole province. It seems that Northern Ireland would lose that personal service and the money that goes into local shops and businesses.
I am unsure about where the benefits will be and where the ripples of change will end up. I know that the local shop owners and businesses, who will no longer have that spending money in their shops, will certainly not feel any benefit from the relocation, and neither will those who work in those businesses, whose jobs or hours will be cut. I am not being melodramatic; I am explaining a sequence of events that has been seen in many areas and which cannot be allowed to take place. I am explaining the effect of relocating the DVA from Coleraine to Swansea.
My colleague is certainly right to highlight the irony of the Prime Minister removing jobs from Northern Ireland while at the same time celebrating the potential for business investment. If we look at those two statements from the Prime Minister and then the reality on the ground, we look with cynicism as we see the practicality of what is proposed. The notion of robbing Peter to pay Paul—robbing one area of jobs to provide in another area—is not an acceptable form of governing, and I trust that all MPs present here and elsewhere will send the message that such a movement of position and jobs is not simply an accounting form of moving numbers from one column to another; it is playing with people’s lives and the effect will reach out far beyond where we are.
Northern Ireland is an intricate part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. As such, it is right and proper that we are used for central government purposes. The DVA centre is fit for purpose and is doing a great job. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry outlined the service and efficiencies that are delivered at Coleraine, and he described the experienced personnel who deliver the service.
Will the relocation lead to efficiency? Indications show that it will not. I know the Minister has already responded to a couple of questions and he has given us his figures. However, the figures mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry showed dissatisfaction with what has been delivered by Swansea. If that is the case, why move the DVA from Coleraine to Swansea? It seems illogical and will certainly not achieve efficiency, so it can only be for other—small p or big p—political decisions. If that is the reason, the Government are doing us an injustice, because we are very much a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and we want to remain so.
I recently read that there has already been clear evidence in Scotland that the ordinary purchase of vehicles and changing of tax discs is being delayed by up to six weeks. In Coleraine, that can be done in five days. It is efficient. The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance has figures that show a customer satisfaction rate of 98%. Where else in the United Kingdom is there a business with a satisfaction rate such as that? We have it in the DVA in Coleraine. Because of that delivery and efficiency, the decision should be looked at again.
Centralisation of work in places such as Scotland has led to numerous complaints and delays in what should be simple services, as well as huge disruptions to the cash flow for car dealerships. The efficiency that the centre in Coleraine displays should make it a flagship centre and not one that is flagged to close. We have something good that is delivering efficiently. Let us ensure that it continues to do so.
I fully support my colleague, and, more importantly, I support the high level of service that is provided at Coleraine. I fully support the inherent right that we have in Northern Ireland to be a cog in the wheel of central government provision. We want to be part of that. We deliver it in every sense of the word through our contribution to the economy. Our contribution is a central part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim has said, the Minister has the same jurisdiction in Coleraine as he has in Swansea. He also has the same duty of care to his workers there, and now is the time for him to set minds at ease and tell us that he is going to do his duty by the workers of Coleraine, recognise their work ethic and keep operations running smoothly in Coleraine. I am happy to support the proposal.
I congratulate Mr Campbell on securing the debate this morning. It is an important subject for all the people in Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr Goodwill—to his new position. I also welcome the shadow Minister, Richard Burden.
Northern Ireland is a public sector-led economy. Last week, we were pleased that the Prime Minister came and led on an international investment conference. Importantly, private sector jobs should supplement jobs in the public sector. We want to see a fair and equal distribution of the private sector jobs that we hope will flow from the Prime Minister’s visit and the visit of international investors last week. In this debate, we are all telling the Minister and his Department, “No decentralisation of services.” There is a dichotomy of policy, in that the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive believe in decentralisation because it can underpin the bedrock of the local economy, but by the same token, taking jobs away means centralisation to us. That issue needs to be explored, answered and corrected.
The current proposal to centralise vehicle registration and licensing services in Swansea will remove 324 full-time equivalent posts from Northern Ireland, which in real terms will have an impact on about 380 employees, and will also have an impact on the services provided.
As a result of an intervention by the then Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment, my party colleague Alex Attwood, with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Hammond, a consultation was agreed and launched by the Department for Transport. The support of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland for retaining those jobs and services remains constant and has been backed by all political parties in Northern Ireland, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Londonderry. A strong case has been made for not only retaining the jobs in the DVA, but expanding services in Northern Ireland by transferring work for UK customers to Northern Ireland.
The impact will be felt in Coleraine, where the headquarters are based, and in areas such as Armagh, Ballymena, Belfast, Enniskillen, Derry, Omagh and Downpatrick. Under the proposal, my constituency of South Down will see the removal of services and jobs at the Downpatrick office, which has traditionally been the County Down facility for people to tax their car for many generations. Downpatrick is the main centre of public administration in South Down, and any reduction in staffing numbers will have an impact on its economy and on future services that might be attracted to the area. At the same time, we are trying to pool resources and administrative services to complement the role it has always had as a centre of public administration.
I appreciate that the constituency of the hon. Member for East Londonderry will be worst hit by the removal of services from Coleraine, but the injustice and disproportionate nature of the proposal will be felt by people whose jobs are affected and by people throughout Northern Ireland who rely on the services delivered by those offices, including those in my constituency.
The Minister will be aware of the representations made by me and my colleagues, including the former Minister of the Environment and the new Minister of the Environment, Mark H. Durkan. In the initial reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon, I was advised that the proposal to withdraw jobs from Northern Ireland was in response to the need to bring vehicle licensing and registration up to date and into line with developments in IT systems in Great Britain, and to provide a much-improved service. However, in his second reply, he outlined that the removal of 380 jobs from Northern Ireland would achieve significant savings for UK taxpayers.
Will the new Minister therefore clarify the reasoning behind the proposal? Is it simply a cost-saving exercise that will obviously have a disproportionate impact on staff in Northern Ireland, as well as on the wider community that relies on the services provided, or is it about developments in IT systems, through which local people will also lose jobs and services? If the Department for Transport is looking at the proposal as a means of cutting costs, it should consider the views of those employed in the service, who are some of the most dedicated people in the public service of Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I pay tribute to Mr Campbell for securing the debate. It is right that all parties are giving support on the issue. Does she agree that if the proposal is about modernising how the service is delivered, such a modernisation could be delivered in Northern Ireland without the need for closing the base there? We can already deliver a high-quality service, and modernisation would simply aid us in doing so, as well as allowing the further transfer of UK services to sites in Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Lady for her useful and beneficial intervention. Obviously, if there is to be modernisation, an idea which none of us rejects or opposes, it could take place in Northern Ireland facilities—the headquarters in Coleraine and the other offices. In fact, we could take services that currently take place in Britain and, I have to say, perhaps do them much better, more efficiently and more diligently.
I want to move on to the views of the staff who responded to the consultation. They say that the existing closure programme has had a serious impact on services offered by the DVLA to the motorist in Great Britain.
It is unclear whether those services can be properly managed, but no doubt they could be if they were brought to Northern Ireland.
Interestingly, a commissioned study by Oxford Economics has estimated that the DVLA proposal for the removal of services from Northern Ireland would have a direct negative impact of £14.5 million in gross value added terms, as well as an impact of £7 million on workplace wages in the Northern Ireland economy, which, given the size of Northern Ireland, is a remarkable statistic. The removal of £22.2 million from the Northern Ireland economy will have an impact on all its sectors, notably wholesale and retail trade, accommodation spaces, food services, entertainment and recreation, plus financial services, property, housing and the supply industries—and all that at a time of economic downturn, although there might be a slight lift that we would all welcome.
The figures I have cited for what would be removed from the Northern Ireland economy do not add up to what the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon stated would be significant savings. Surely, a more acceptable form of improvement would be to upgrade the DVA’s IT systems. We must ask why the IT systems in Northern Ireland have been neglected, and not upgraded as a matter of necessity over the years. We ask that question because that has been replicated in other service areas. Some people say that, over recent years, some areas might have been prepared for privatisation and others for closure. For me, it is simply a case of downgrading a service and undermining the economic stability that exists in Northern Ireland.
I understand that staff working in the DVA feel that the service has been vigorously, systematically and aggressively underfunded for many years by the Department for Transport, despite which the staff have actively sought to provide the Northern Ireland motorist—whether the ordinary person with a car, someone working with agricultural machinery or people in the haulage industry— with an excellent level of service. That under-resourcing has left the staff open to the business criticism and the challenges in the current DVLA proposal for the future of vehicle registration and licensing services in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that, following the consultation that ended on this proposal on
Given the 100% opposition to the move and the strong case that has been made for the retention and the expansion of the services, I urge the Minister and his Department immediately to review the position, retain the jobs and, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry said, visit the office in Coleraine and pay a snapshot visit to the other offices. They should do that in conjunction with the local Minister of the Environment, Mr Durkan, who has a clear picture of what is going on and who has been steadfastly opposed to the closure.
Does the hon. Lady agree that as the efficiency case has been lost, cost is clearly the issue? Is she aware, as many of us are, that overtime payments in
Swansea since this programme started have totalled £1.63 million? Does that not make a complete nonsense of the centralisation case?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was told that the figures for overtime payments in Swansea were nearer to £1.65 million. I am in no doubt that the work that precipitated those overtime payments could clearly be carried out in Northern Ireland where the service to the customer and the dedication of the staff are second to none. I urge the Minister to keep the DVA jobs and services throughout Northern Ireland. If he does that, he and his Department will not be found wanting.
I am happy, Mrs Riordan, to take part in this debate. I recognise that this situation is not unique to Northern Ireland, because, of course, 1,200 jobs across the United Kingdom will be lost in 39 regional offices. However, the difference is that one quarter of those jobs are located in Northern Ireland, and one sixth of them are in one town. Our case is that there will be a disproportionate impact on one area, which has already suffered significantly from job losses.
I want to consider three areas this morning. First, will the new system be better than what we have at present? The Minister will argue that it will make available to people in Northern Ireland services that are currently not available. However, surveys show that not many people are looking for those services. Indeed, many have said that they do not wish to use such services. Some 60% of customers and 90% of dealers say that the services that are being withdrawn are the ones that they wish to use. The proposal, therefore, is not a response to what the public, who are paying for vehicle licensing, say that they want.
The people who will be affected include small dealers. Some 20,000 new registrations every year come through small dealers, who mostly use local DVA offices because they do not necessarily have the computer back-up for online services. Then there are the complex cases. Indeed, the Department’s own estimate is that 2,000 or 3,000 complex cases will have to be dealt with by post, so people will have to deal with Swansea, rather than having face-to-face encounters at local DVA offices. That will inevitably lead to difficulties. The fact that a case is complex suggests that a person needs to talk to someone.
By the Department’s own estimate, some 3,000 people will find that they are less well off. The Minister has cited the matter of refunds and given us some figures, but if wants to ask some questions of his officials, perhaps he should ask not just about refunds but about first registrations, changes to registrations and the average wait at offices. On all those matters, Swansea’s performance is poorer than that of the DVA offices in Northern Ireland. Service will be reduced to a wide range of customers and on a wide range of issues.
On fraud—I can see my colleagues laughing here—we have a rigorous system in place for those in Northern Ireland who do not pay their road tax. Indeed, I have been a victim of it. No allowances are ever accepted. I got caught taking my motorbike to the garage to get it prepared for an MOT. Even though I could prove that, officials said that it was on the road without tax, so I got fined and received a lot of publicity. Because of such rigorous enforcement, we have the lowest rate of evasion of anywhere in the United Kingdom. If that goes up—only seven prosecutors will be left and no arrangements have been made with local agencies—there will be a loss to the Exchequer.
On whether the service will be better, the answer has to be no, it will not. Will it save money? We already know that one reason behind the centralisation is the huge capital costs involved in the new IT system.
My hon. Friend alluded to whether the service will get better. As a number of Members have said, it appears that it will get worse. Does he agree that the service in Northern Ireland will not only suffer? Given the figures on the centralised process in Swansea, which a number of us have outlined, the service in the rest of the United Kingdom will also suffer because of the additional work load that Swansea will have to deal with if centralisation goes ahead.
That is the point that I want to make in relation to cost. Stephen Pound said that as a result of centralisation and the additional work load, even some of the savings that had been anticipated have not been realised because overtime payments have gone up.
Of course, the additional work load that will result from the Northern Ireland move will put further pressure on the system. I suspect that the 400 new jobs that will be created in Swansea will not be sufficient to deal with the work load, so some of the savings anticipated in the proposal will not be realised. We must look at what the customers want and what is feasible for the Treasury. The additional costs must also be considered.
We do not get much cross-departmental thinking, but we are talking about an area with high unemployment. I supported the restructuring of the Northern Ireland economy, and I would love to think that all the people who will be displaced as a result of the DVA decision will easily move into jobs in the private sector, but when there have already been significant job losses in the private sector in towns such as Coleraine, the only place that they will move to is the dole queue. That in itself adds additional costs to the public purse, so I do not believe that there is an economic case for this change either.
I do not want simply to say to the Minister, “Look, we don’t like this, so don’t do it,” but a number of options have been proposed, and the “do nothing” option is one of them. The IT costs, which have already been sunk, will be lost. The Department wishes to give additional services to people in Northern Ireland, even though the majority of them do not want those services. Indeed, I point out to the Minister that even after 10 years in Great Britain 50% of people still do not use online services, so we are not unique in Northern Ireland in that respect. As I say, the “do nothing” option has been proposed. Choosing it would not cost anything, but of course the costs of the IT system have already been sunk.
I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to one suggestion that has been made. Yes, there will be a transition; there is resistance to the changes. There is quite clear evidence that people still want to use the DVA services. If the new system were put in place, those who wish to use the new services and the new methods of delivering them could do so, and those who did not wish to use them—that residual group of people—could still use the full DVA services. That would probably mean that 100 jobs would be lost immediately, but the rest of the jobs would be retained. Three offices would remain, but the rest would have to close. That is the estimate that has been made in Northern Ireland. Over time, that situation might change as people get used to the new services, but at least this option would avoid the big bang of sudden job losses—all the jobs going—and there would be no gap for people who need, or want, to use the face-to-face services.
Choosing that option would also produce considerable savings. The savings on the running costs would be £4.5 million—a 36% reduction in running costs in Northern Ireland and twice the savings that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency anticipate will result from the change to the integrated system. So the Minister could make the case for choosing that option on the basis that savings would still be available.
Choosing that option would also mean that DVA staff in Northern Ireland would be trained on the new system. Bearing in mind what has already been said about the pressures that exist on the Swansea system at present, choosing that option would provide a contingency for DVLA to fall back on—a contingency of trained staff in Northern Ireland, in a place where, as has already been pointed out, productivity is far greater than elsewhere. So choosing that option has a number of benefits. It is one way to retain a significant number of jobs in Northern Ireland and avoid the proposal’s high economic impact on one part of the United Kingdom. The impact would be disproportionate, but I will not go through all the figures that other Members have already mentioned.
There are, of course, other options, including transferring blocks of services, but I do not think that the Minister can simply say, “Look, we have decided that all these services will be withdrawn, and there will be this huge gap left in the job market in Northern Ireland.” To me, saying that would not be good for customers, the Exchequer or the Northern Ireland economy, and it would not make sensible use of the skills that already exist in Northern Ireland and that will be abandoned if this change is made.
It is a pleasure to meet under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Riordan.
I commend Mr Campbell for securing this debate on an issue that obviously affects not only many people in his constituency, but people right across Northern Ireland, including people in the Driver and Vehicle Agency in my own constituency, which is in Foyle street in Derry.
We have heard that this is not only about protecting the significant number of jobs in the DVA in Northern Ireland, but about protecting the existing level and quality of services and, indeed, trying to improve them with future investment. Other hon. Members have quoted the high customer satisfaction indicators in Northern Ireland that are running at between 98% and 100%. Of course, we heard Sammy Wilson describe himself as a victim of the DVA system as it currently operates, but he actually presented himself here in Westminster Hall today as a satisfied victim.
That just shows the degree to which there is customer satisfaction. The fact that he can advertise his own victimhood as a justification for keeping the status quo, and building and improving on it, says an awful lot for the DVA and its staff in Northern Ireland. It also possibly says something for the hon. Member, too, who I never thought would appear as a satisfied victim. There again, my expectations have been confounded.
It is important to recognise that it is not only the defence of the jobs and services that has galvanised people from all parties and, indeed, from beyond party lines in the north of Ireland, but the way in which it took an intervention by the previous Environment Minister in Northern Ireland, Alex Attwood, even to get a consultation exercise provided by the Department for Transport.
Then, of course, there was the whole offensive implication that came in the context of discussing this issue—namely, that removing the jobs from Northern Ireland would be a way to remove any threat or fear of religious or sectarian bias. That was rightly seen as a direct slur, not only on the DVA’s work force, but on the entire public sector work force in Northern Ireland. This idea was, “Well, we’ll protect you from anything that might involve a suggestion of religious bias by removing jobs.” If that is the case, why stop at DVA jobs? Remove more and more public sector jobs if doing so is meant to be a way to try to create a shared future; it will be a shared future of poverty and unemployment, but at least there will be no bias.
Rightly, the previous Minister with responsibility for roads—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Hammond—was forced to apologise, to a degree, for those remarks, but the fact is that they hurt and stung. They also exposed the folly and the contrived and scrambled thinking that has gone into this proposal from the London end.
We are not just concerned about defending the jobs and the service qualities that have been described. As other hon. Members have said, when we look at what has been happening with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Britain, we are also concerned. We have seen that the presumption that providing online services will mean that everyone moves online is not borne out by the experience of the past 10 years. The chair of the Scottish Motor Trade Association described the situation in Scotland as “a shambles”, because of the closure of local offices and the move to centralisation. When we have all this evidence of the experience in other areas, of course we should listen to it.
However, not only the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, but the Department for Transport and the Minister should be listening to that evidence. They should be saying, “Does it really make sense to put all the eggs into the single option of one single, centralised location for the entire UK?” As other hon. Members have said, allowing the DVA to be retained in Northern Ireland—in particular, the significant capacity and resource that exists in Coleraine—would give the DVLA the option and the flexibility of having a centre of excellence that it can rely on alongside Swansea.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the problems with the Scottish motor trade. The DVLA has acknowledged that it had temporary issues when some of the complex work was transferred from the GB local offices to Swansea. The DVLA has worked with the motor industry, and I understand that those issues have been rectified and performance is back up to target now.
I am not sure that I am fully persuaded by the Minister’s points, which, I accept, he has put on record. I think that I and others will test them with other soundings.
I want to make the point that we have had experience in Northern Ireland of other services being centralised. A number of years ago, when tax credits were introduced there was for a brief period a tax credit office in Northern Ireland, which tried to deal with complex cases; not all of them should have been complex, but by the nature of that system they became complex. We ended up with somebody having a bright idea, saying, “Let’s centralise tax credit.” The tax credit office was removed from Northern Ireland, although many cases in Northern Ireland are particularly complicated and people unable to deal with or understand the needs and circumstances of people there, not least the cross-border cases that arise in the context of tax credits.
As other hon. Members have said, significant cross-border issues relate to vehicle licensing, including local traders’ dealings with the DVA, particularly in respect of used cars with a cross-border history. From time to time, there are changes in patterns of vehicle importation across the border from the south and the trade goes the other way, with people in the south buying their cars in the north. It is important that licensing and registration in both Shannon and the DVA in the north can work together, to track, connect and make sense of those things, and work with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana in relation to those matters. All that would be lost and we would end up with a repeat of the serious, chronic problems with border and cross-border issues on the centralisation of tax credits.
The fear is that the logic of centralisation will be not just used in driver and vehicle licensing, but extended to other areas in future. Previously, we heard threatening suggestions from Whitehall Ministers that, if we did not make do with our lot on welfare reform, some of the servicing work—the back office work—done in relation to benefits in GB could be lost. Of course, the same argument could be applied in future to proposed changes in the regime for annually managed expenditure and further changes in relation to welfare reform and, for example, a new standardised computer system for universal credit.
We are not just defending the important jobs that we need to defend in DVA, but trying to hold the line against a relentless effort towards centralisation that goes completely against the grain of the commitments and promises made by the Prime Minister, in recognition of Northern Ireland’s talents and skills, its contribution and its offer.
Here we have talent, dedication and commitment from DVA staff, who, in spite of under-investment in technology by the DVLA, have delivered such a good performance. That commitment should be rewarded not with their jobs being removed to a remote location where the same quality of service will not be matched, but with their jobs being retained and new investment going in, so that they can provide an even better service to people in Northern Ireland and be able to provide that good service to people in Great Britain, as well, when it makes sense for the DVLA to call on their talents to do so.
I count it a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I welcome the Minister to his new post. I have personal respect for him and trust that he will not only enlighten us, but will give us some assistance in this matter, which my hon. Friend Mr Campbell has brought to this Chamber. I congratulate him on securing this debate. This matter goes to heart of his constituency and constituents. Other constituencies in the Province are impacted and affected, as well. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ian Paisley for his efforts in this regard. I am sorry that he cannot be with us because of the death of his brother-in-law. I trust that that family may be comforted at this time.
It must be asked, in respect of changes in service impacting on the community, why are such changes being made? Are they desirable or needed? Of course, the natural answer from those who propose those changes is that this is better for the community. The contention is that there is no service that could not be bettered, and in many ways, yes, that is true. However, is the proposal for the betterment of, and is the demand coming from, the community? Is it better than what is offered?
I have great, grave doubts about the centralisation of services at the DVLA headquarters in Swansea. The consultation suggests that
“The proposals may result in the closure of a network of dedicated offices” in Northern Ireland. We know that that is not so. Why did they not describe it as it is? It will—not “may”—result in the closure. Everyone knows that, so why was it not put in the document in the first place?
The people are offered
“Access to electronic vehicle licensing services, which will allow”
“motorists to license their vehicle or declare it off the road either online or via an automated telephone service, 24 hours a day”.
That means simply that they have the opportunity to go online or wait on the line—on the telephone—for this automated service.
We live in an impersonal age. People find that those making decisions for them are getting ever further away, when they try to contact them. That is not an improvement of service. For example, people are told to go online. That might help some, but the reality in the rest of the United Kingdom is that many who have that opportunity are not taking it. Why is that? Some cannot use online services or find doing so difficult. Instead of being of assistance to and helping them, that is more of a hindrance.
People who cannot go online are promised an automated telephone service. I must be honest and say, as a public representative, that I am sick, sore and tired of automated services. People are told to press this or that button and then move on to the next thing, after which they hope, at the end, to speak to someone. However, they just hear a voice. In this impersonal situation, people are nothing better than a number now. People are being promised exactly that with the services offered. They will be a number, rather than a person. There is no longer a human face to this service, as provided.
The people I represent want to talk to someone. I remember the decision being made to change things for representatives, regarding planning in Northern Ireland. People were told, “You’re not allowed to go out to sites any more. You’re to sit in an office.” Give me 10 minutes on a site any day, rather than sitting for half an hour in an office, because then I look at the reality, not at a piece of paper.
If we are looking for the betterment of a service, it should be judged by those who use the service. People in Northern Ireland, including my constituents, are saying, “We want the service retained in Northern Ireland, because we believe that it is a better service, not simply because we want to hold on to the jobs.”
As Mark Durkan mentioned, the document states:
“Centralisation at the DVLA in Swansea will in fact remove any possibility that Northern Ireland services may be biased to any particular religious group, since these transactions will no longer be serviced by staff based in Northern Ireland, who could themselves hold particular beliefs.”
That is and was a slur. Who decided to put it in the document? Who thought up those words? When faced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim, the Minister said:
“I apologise for any offence that was inadvertently caused and accept that the wording could have been clearer.”—[Hansard, 12 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 1151.]
What did it mean, then, if it did not mean what it said? That needs to be put on the record. The person who put that in the document should be hauled over the coals, for that is an insult to those who have worked hard and served the people—
I only have a few seconds.
There is unanimity among elected representatives in Northern Ireland. We should retain these jobs in Northern Ireland, because that would provide the best possible service to our constituents, whom we represent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I add my congratulations to Mr Campbell on securing this debate.
I welcome the Minister. We are both new to our respective roles and we both have a long-standing interest in road transport—in fact, we were both involved in a Ford eco-driving training session some years ago, which I will swiftly pass over because he did rather better than me. I also welcome my hon. Friend Stephen Pound, who takes a close interest in these issues as shadow Northern Ireland Minister.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry said that people always start Westminster Hall debates by saying that the issue is topical and important, and this one is that. The issue has rightly attracted huge concern from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland. I will raise three major issues on how the process is being undertaken and its potential impact on Northern Ireland.
My first point is about how the reform is being done. I am sure we would all support in principle the modernisation of vehicle registration licensing. As has already been said, there has been significant neglect and under-investment in vehicle licensing services by the DVLA in Northern Ireland, and all drivers deserve the same high level of service. It may make sense to try to centralise databases between GB and Northern Ireland, to streamline the system and so on, but just because systems and databases can be streamlined does not necessarily mean that how the service is delivered to the public has to be centralised, too. That point has been made by a number of hon. Members today.
The experience of DVLA centralisation in other parts of the UK is not encouraging. The Minister said that the initial rise in complaints has not been maintained, but that does not answer the full point. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North said that, since the start of the closure programme, the DVLA has spent in excess of £1.63 million on overtime payments, and my hon. Friend Ms Ritchie corrected him by saying that the figure is worse than that—£1.65 million.
If that amount has been spent so far on overtime payments for the centralisation process, something is going wrong. That is no criticism of the staff at Swansea, who do a professional job, as their colleagues do in other parts of the UK, but there is a real question about whether Swansea is equipped to cope with the increased demand of the centralisation programme. We would all question whether centralisation from Northern Ireland should be added to the demand already being created in Swansea without significant investment.
I have some practical examples. In Scotland, all applications to transfer a personal registration plate from one car to another moved to Swansea, which led to processed applications falling well behind the seven-day target. The Scottish Motor Trade Association, as my hon. Friend Mark Durkan said, reported delays of up to six weeks and described the situation as “a shambles.” That has caused frustration, and it is poor service.
It is not good enough for the Minister simply to say, “Well, we are getting on top of this,” because we need to learn from what has happened. We need to know how the Government have got on top of the situation and whether the centralisation in Northern Ireland will make matters worse; it seems to me that it is likely to. We should not repeat the situation.
My second point is on the centralisation’s social and economic impact. Hon. Members from across the political spectrum have rightly talked about that. Some 324 jobs are going in Northern Ireland, with 250 of those jobs in Coleraine. I know from personal experience in my own constituency that the closure of a major employment site not only causes direct job losses, serious enough though that is, but has an enormous impact on the local economy, too. Many hon. Members have made that point today. The actual job losses due to the overall effect of the centralisation programme in Northern Ireland is estimated to be closer to 500.
My hon. Friends the Members for South Down and for Foyle, and other hon. Members, have talked about the centralisation not only being an issue for Coleraine, although that is the biggest single concentration; there are impacts in Downpatrick, Derry and elsewhere. Bluntly, we are talking about the equivalent of many thousands of jobs going in GB if the same scale of job losses were to happen over here.
The Government have been rather coy about the likely impact of those job losses on the economy, but not everyone else has been. Oxford Economics has undertaken research estimating that £22 million of gross value added a year will be removed from the Northern Ireland economy, which will add to the rising unemployment bill. There will be an estimated increase of some £2.5 million in the annual jobseeker’s allowance bill because of the job losses alone, and there will be a further £3.6 million lost in tax revenue. If all that is added up, along with various other things, we are talking about substantial losses and a substantial hit to the Northern Ireland economy, as hon. Members have already said.
With such questions on what is taking place, people might think that the Government would at least have got their consultation procedure right, that they would have started the consultation in a timely fashion, that they would have done it sensitively and that they would have listened to advice from people on the ground who know what the real situation is. That just has not happened, has it? The Government failed to listen to local people’s concerns.
I pay tribute to the work of those, including the former Northern Ireland Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, who got the Government to consult in the first place. However, as many hon. Members have mentioned, the consultation document contains accusations that are, frankly, offensive—not to one section but to every section of the community in Northern Ireland. That requires a bit more than a public apology. I welcome the public apology from the Minister concerned, but the Government need to think about how they came to issue a consultation document containing that kind of thing in the first place.
I hope the Minister will reflect on what has been said today, and I hope he will reflect on what the Prime Minister said on his recent visit to Northern Ireland. He was over there promoting Northern Ireland, rightly, as a destination for inward investment. He said:
“Put your money in Northern Ireland and be part of this incredible success story because investing in Northern Ireland makes good business sense.”
Well, amen to that. But if that is the message to the private sector, perhaps the Government need to consider their own activities.
Unless and until the Minister can provide clear answers to the important issues raised today on the services that will be at risk, on the scale of job losses involved, on the impact on the benefits bill and on the hit to the UK taxpayer, and until he can quantify exactly what benefits will accrue from the change, perhaps—even though the consultation is formally coming to an end—he should pause, think again and come back with a considered response. The way things look at the moment, although the issue has been bouncing around for years, the consultation has been botched. There are very serious question marks about the centralisation, and the Government need to address them.
I, too, congratulate Mr Campbell on securing this debate on the future of vehicle registration and licensing services in Northern Ireland. I also welcome my opposite number, Richard Burden, to his place. I hope we can work together constructively—at least most of the time.
Let me acknowledge from the outset that I recognise that this is an important and emotive subject for the hon. Member for East Londonderry, his constituents and other hon. Members in Northern Ireland. In that respect, he will be pleased to know he has friends in high places, because the First Minister raised the issue with the Prime Minister on Friday, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland telephoned me on Sunday to discuss it personally; indeed, when I had my briefing session, I invited an official from the Northern Ireland Office, to ensure the voice of Northern Ireland was heard—talk about friends in high places.
Against that backdrop, I must explain that, as the hon. Gentleman will know, vehicle registration and licensing throughout the UK is an excepted matter and the responsibility of the UK Government. In GB, these services are delivered by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, in Swansea. In Northern Ireland, the DVLA has an agreement with the Driver and Vehicle Agency, which is part of the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment, to deliver vehicle registration and licensing services to motorists there. The DVA has traditionally delivered those services through its centre in Coleraine and eight other offices in Northern Ireland.
While I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, the crux of the issue is that the vehicle registration and licensing services available to motorists in Northern Ireland have fallen behind those available in the rest of the UK. For example, motorists in Northern Ireland are unable to tax their cars online and have only limited services available at post offices. As the owner of more than a dozen vehicles, I must say I find the online tax system very simple. I can tax a tractor in 20 seconds; where I have to pay to tax a vehicle, it takes about two minutes. Otherwise, I would have to travel four miles to my nearest post office, which I cannot, of course, do on a Sunday night.
The consultation that has recently ended contains proposals to modernise services in Northern Ireland and to ensure that motorists there are treated the same as those in GB and can enjoy the same services. If the proposals outlined in the consultation were adopted—I must stress that I have not yet decided on the way forward—motorists in Northern Ireland would be able to tax their cars online and via an automated telephone service that would be available 24 hours a day all year round. Many more services would also be available at about 150 post offices throughout Northern Ireland.
Services to businesses in Northern Ireland would also be improved. Companies would have access to the same level of service as those in the rest of the UK, allowing them to streamline their processes so that they did not have to manage the registration and licensing of vehicles differently from companies in GB.
The changes proposed in the consultation would also ensure that motorists in Northern Ireland can never again fall behind those in GB when new services are introduced in the future. When the DVLA introduces more digital and online services in GB, those would become available to Northern Ireland motorists at the same time.
I acknowledge that introducing new services online and through post offices and centralising the delivery of the remaining services delivered by the DVA in Northern Ireland at the DVLA in Swansea would have an impact. Currently, the full-time equivalent of 324 staff work on vehicle registration and licensing services at the DVA in Coleraine. Introducing more online services and making more services available at post offices would mean that those staff were no longer needed for that work. The DVLA forecasts that 75% of the transactions currently undertaken by Northern Ireland motorists would be carried out online or at local post offices.
I stress that, despite many reports and statements to the contrary, there is no intention to remove those jobs from Coleraine to create the same number of new jobs in Swansea. The DVLA estimates that, if the new online and post office services are introduced in Northern Ireland, there would remain about 500,000 transactions where customers needed to deal directly with the DVLA. That sounds significant, but the DVLA in Swansea currently deals with 97 million vehicle transactions a year. The extra 500,000 could be absorbed by the DVLA with no increase in staff numbers and no effect on customer services.
To answer a point made by Sammy Wilson and the shadow Minister, the proportion of tax discs issued online is running at about 60%, and it is increasing. Of course, face-to-face services would also be available in post offices in Northern Ireland.
We must recognise that we are now in a fast-changing, digital world. Customers expect to be able to transact when and where they like—increasingly, from the comfort of their own homes. The way in which services have been delivered in the past, and the higher number of people required to deliver them, is becoming unsustainable. That is particularly true when more convenient and efficient alternatives are available and in use elsewhere in the UK.
Indeed, the DVLA is going through its own transformation process, which has resulted in many more services being made available at local post offices and in other services being centralised at the DVLA’s headquarters, in Swansea. That means that all the DVLA’s local offices in GB will close by the end of the year, with the loss of 1,200 jobs. The proposals for Northern Ireland vehicle registration and licensing services are no different from what is already happening in the rest of the country.
The Minister is talking about the DVLA’s systems, but one important issue raised by Members from Northern Ireland, which I raised as well, was the impact on the Northern Ireland economy. We have heard the Oxford Economics estimate of direct and indirect job losses and of the impact on GVA. Will the Minister confirm those figures? If he is unable to do so today, will he write to hon. Members with the Government’s assessment of the impact on the Northern Ireland economy?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Unemployment in Northern Ireland is lower than the UK average, and it has fallen by 1.2% in the past year. The analysis provided by Oxford Economics does not reflect the full impact the changes to the DVA’s operations will have, because it takes no account of the benefits from the expansion of digital services and the widening of services offered at post offices. Those changes will increase choice and ease of access for customers and reduce the cost of vehicle licensing and registration to businesses, ultimately increasing employment in Northern Ireland.
The Minister alluded to the 1,200 job losses in the rest of the UK. Does he accept that Northern Ireland, which has a much greater dependency on the public sector, has one thirtieth of the population of GB, so 1,200 lost jobs in GB should equate to 40 lost jobs in Northern Ireland? However, rather than losing 40, we will lose 500.
I appreciate that a large number of people in Northern Ireland are employed in the public sector, which means these job changes, should they happen, would have all the more impact—particularly in places such as Coleraine, which is isolated from parts of the country where other public service jobs may be.
There are also economic facts that need to be considered. If introduced, these changes will save taxpayers throughout the UK £12 million a year, while introducing significant new services for motorists in Northern Ireland. I understand that hon. Members from Northern Ireland are concerned about the impact that the loss of more than 300 jobs would have on the economy of not only Coleraine, but Northern Ireland generally.
The Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, which employs the DVA staff, has stated that it will seek to redeploy them and avoid the need for redundancies, where possible. However, I understand that there are some local issues. For example, 73% of the workers are female, so redeployment may not be possible, for family reasons. In the event that a decision is taken to press ahead with the proposals outlined in the consultation, I will make sure that the DVLA works openly with its counterparts in Northern Ireland to develop a transition plan for the affected staff so that the impact can be reduced.
There is some question about how many people in Northern Ireland will want to use online services or will be able to do so, given limits to broadband internet access. The 2013 Ofcom report shows that 80% of Northern Ireland households have internet access, and 93% of addresses are connected to high-speed fibre-optic broadband, owing to investment by the Northern Ireland Assembly. That compares well with the rest of the UK. However, some people will be unwilling or unable to use digital services at this time, and it is, of course, their right to make that choice. That is why many of the services currently available only at the DVA’s centre in Coleraine or at one of the eight other local offices in Northern Ireland will become available at about 150 post offices.
To summarise, while I understand the concerns that the hon. Member for East Londonderry and other hon. Members have expressed, I am keen to stress the positive benefits the changes would bring to Northern Ireland motorists, if adopted. I hope I have done that today. The wider availability of online and face-to-face services can only benefit customers.
The Minister previously responsible for this matter, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond, had agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to discuss this matter. I am pleased to confirm that I am prepared to have that meeting, if not on