Given that Margaret Ferrier may speak for 20 minutes, the Minister may wind up for 10 minutes and there are eight speakers, each speaker will have about eight minutes. If any Member goes over that time, I will have to impose a time limit, which will reduce the time for everyone else, so perhaps Members will bear that in mind as a matter of respect and consideration. If time restrictions are introduced, I will let Members know.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the future of the DWP estate.
It is an honour to serve under your Chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and a pleasure to see so many Members here to discuss this important issue. I am sure there will be plenty of excellent contributions and that the Minister will be given plenty of food for thought.
The Minister will be aware that this is a major issue in the Glasgow area, particularly at the moment owing to the announcement by the Department for Work and Pensions of the closure next year of half the jobcentres in the city, which is a morally outrageous plan. I hope that today’s debate is an opportunity for Members not only to discuss this serious matter, but to engage in a frank discussion about the DWP estate across the UK. I also hope the Department will listen intently to what is said here today.
This debate is not about cost considerations, spreadsheet figures or departmental proposals drawn up by people who are likely never to have visited the centres earmarked for closure. In essence, it is about how changes to the DWP estate will impact on lives, not in some abstract way but in a real sense. What might seem entirely rational and reasonable on a sheet of paper will have a profound impact on people’s lives, including those of my constituents in Cambuslang who use the jobcentre there, which unfortunately is one of the eight set to close.
My immediate concern is Cambuslang and the seven other jobcentres in Glasgow that are set to shut their doors. However, it is clear that the city is being used as a guinea pig for the reduction of DWP offices elsewhere. This matter is not just for me and my hon. Friends who represent Glasgow constituencies to worry about: all Members should be concerned. The closure of half of Glasgow’s jobcentres will be a troubling precursor to a brutal round of cuts in jobcentres across the UK. The Government will implement them without any consideration of the far-reaching and in some cases devastating implications for low-income families. In Glasgow alone, about 68,000 people who are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance and universal credit will be impacted by the closures. The cuts are so harsh and so brutal that they have achieved something that does not happen as often as it should: political consensus and almost cross-party condemnation.
At the weekend, my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald co-ordinated a letter to the Secretary of State for Scotland calling on him to take action on the jobcentre closures. I signed that letter with every other Glasgow MP; Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon; Scottish National party Members of the Scottish Parliament; Scottish Labour Members and Scottish Green party Members, as well as Labour and SNP leaders on Glasgow City Council. Despite voicing concerns on social media when the closures were first announced, Glasgow’s two Tory MSPs decided not to sign the letter.
I congratulate my hon Friend on securing this debate and apologise for not being able to stay owing to commitments in the Procedure Committee. Will she join me in hoping that tomorrow Glasgow’s Conservative MSPs will have an opportunity to put on the record their opposition to the closures, especially that of Maryhill jobcentre, which is not far from their office and is in my constituency, when our colleague Bob Doris MSP leads a debate on the issue in the Scottish Parliament?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We hope that there is consensus across all parties, including the Tory party in Scotland. I congratulate our colleague in the Scottish Parliament on again bringing forward this important debate in the Holyrood Chamber tomorrow. The decision is for Tory MSPs to make, but it is regrettable that they seem to have chosen to adopt an ideological party line rather than to lend their voice and support to the people they were elected to represent.
The Public and Commercial Services Union has also condemned the closure proposals, saying they represent a slash and burn policy by DWP. I want to put on the record my appreciation for the Evening Times, which has diligently reported the jobcentre closure story from the start and deserves recognition for its “Hands off our jobcentres” campaign. The cuts are so worrying that the Church of Scotland has intervened, condemning the effect they will have on people as fundamentally wrong and unjust, while our Catholic Archbishop, Philip Tartaglia, has expressed his concern and called on the Department to reconsider the proposals in a way that respects the dignity of claimants and meets their needs.
The concern of Members, which is demonstrably shared by civic society, is not political bluster or point scoring; it is born of genuine and legitimate concern for some of our most vulnerable constituents. I hope the Minister will listen properly today. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State for Scotland is not here. His absence from today’s debate reflects his handling of the issue so far. I have asked him a series of written questions about when he learned of the proposed cuts to Glasgow’s jobcentres. Yesterday, in response to one of them, he was forced to admit that the DWP did not discuss the specific plans with him in advance of its announcement. This was no doubt an embarrassing confession by the Secretary of State for Scotland, but it raises an important question: why did the DWP keep the Scotland Office in the dark about the plans?
The Scottish Secretary has admitted that he met DWP representatives in July, but they provided only an overview of the Department’s estates process in general without detailing specific plans. The Minister must address this matter in her response today. Why were proposals of such huge significance kept secret from the Scotland Office, and why was a decision made to keep a Cabinet colleague uninformed, particularly given the embarrassment that would cause him when the truth came out? I can empathise with the Scottish Secretary because it seems that none of us was deemed important enough to be consulted or even informed by the DWP prior to the story breaking in the press. Indeed, it took the Department another seven hours thereafter to get round to sending affected MPs correspondence about the plans.
It is completely outrageous that the Scottish Government were not consulted on the proposals. That point specifically raises serious concerns about the UK Government’s commitment to paragraph 58 of the Smith Commission’s report, which recognised that Jobcentre Plus will remain reserved, but called on the UK and Scottish Governments to
“identify ways to further link services through methods such as co-location wherever possible and establish more formal mechanisms to govern the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland.”
The Scottish Minister for Employability and Training has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions asking how the change will reduce access to services and perhaps increase the risk of sanctions that may be applied in relation to the need to attend such facilities.
The Scottish Minister has also asked for urgent advice on the future of Jobcentre Plus facilities across the rest of the country. I want to ask the same question today. Tens of thousands of people in the Glasgow area will, unacceptably, have to travel further and incur additional costs to access their social security entitlement and support. They deserve full and frank answers to these questions.
The PCS has said the closures will have an adverse impact, particularly on women, vulnerable children and people with disabilities, who are already hardest hit by Government cuts. The Government must be mindful that people travelling to jobcentres are seeking work or employment support and are doing so on very low incomes. One in three children in Glasgow last year were living in poverty—that is consistently the highest rate in Scotland according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Making it more difficult for people to reach jobcentres will surely further exacerbate the problem. Indeed, the Tory Government continue to peddle the line that they want to help people into work, but continued cuts to benefits, and now these planned closures, only serve to push people further into hardship.
The Poverty Alliance has raised concerns that this reduction in face-to-face support could put people off claiming support that they need. The current sanctions regime has made accessing social security almost impossible for many people, particularly the young, and this move is likely to put people off claiming the support that they are actually entitled to. The Minister must realise that the jobcentre closures are seen as yet another callous attack on the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. They will create more hoops to jump through and increase the risk of sanctioning as a result.
I appreciate that the Minister’s response will probably seek to justify the rationale behind the closures, and I would therefore be obliged if she could also address my next points. We have been told that fewer jobcentres are needed because more people are in employment. The Fraser of Allander Institute has estimated that a hard Brexit could cost as many as 80,000 Scottish jobs. Following the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday, it now appears that we are facing not only a hard Brexit but, indeed, the hardest Brexit. Given that fact, and the significant potential for economic volatility ahead of us, what sense does it make to close the doors of jobcentres, let alone half of all the Glasgow jobcentres? Surely we should be cautious in our approach. The approach that the DWP is taking is like leaving the house in the morning wearing shorts and a T-shirt when snow is forecast later in the day. There is a shocking lack of foresight here, and I ask that the potential impact of Brexit be given proper consideration as a reason to halt these plans.
The other point that I would like to make regarding the rationale for closing the centres concerns savings. We are told that the financial benefit to the taxpayer is sufficient reason to close these centres. What we have not seen is any proof that other avenues were explored. Closure seems to have been the desired and only option on the table, rather than the one of last resort. Is the Minister able to tell us today what other options were considered for each of the eight centres marked for closure? Were alternative premises sought? Was the option of co-location fully explored for each of them?
The Minister must understand the lack of faith that we have in this process. This is particularly the case because of the shambolic manner in which another Government Department recently handled the closure of offices in Scotland. In total, 137 HMRC offices across the UK are closing, with potentially thousands of job losses in Scotland. The Government say they are prioritising closing the tax gap and getting people back into work, but the closure of HMRC offices and jobcentres could seriously compromise both. The National Audit Office recently released a report on HMRC’s estate changes, showing that up to 38,000 staff will be expected to move large distances as part of a reorganisation, with some having to relocate by up to 174 miles if they want to keep their jobs. Now, although the Government have said that no jobcentre staff are expected to lose their jobs as a result of DWP estate changes, the HMRC changes have set a worrying precedent. We need to be clear about how many staff will be affected, and whether there will be a guarantee of no redundancies—I repeat, no redundancies.
We in the SNP are concerned that this is a slippery slope—a move to downsize with a view to making savings that will ultimately lead to job losses as well as having a negative impact on service delivery. We are calling for progress on plans to close the sites to be halted immediately until a full equality impact assessment is carried out. We remain concerned that the proposed exercise will not consider the vast impact that these closures will have across Glasgow. Only three of the eight proposed closures are going to consultation, while the others will not be consulted on. That is completely inadequate; the consultation must look at the entire package of closures. Will the Minister, in her response, undertake to widen the scope of the consultation to look at the broader picture right across Glasgow? We are disappointed and worried that only carrying out an equality analysis post the consultation period will fail to identify the devastating hardships that these closures could cause our communities in Glasgow. We must have a proper guarantee that the results of any equality analysis will be considered in the eventual decision, and assurance that the Government will amend their plans accordingly. It is vital that a full equality impact assessment is conducted by the DWP urgently; I seek assurance from the Minister today that she will give that very serious consideration.
In summary, I would like the Minister to tell me why the Secretary of State for Scotland was kept in the dark about the planned closures in Glasgow. How might these changes reduce access to services and possibly increase the risk of sanctions, which are applied around the need to attend these facilities? What future changes are being discussed within the DWP for Jobcentre Plus facilities across the rest of the country? I would like the Minister to address the points that I made regarding our uncertain economic future due to Brexit, and the wisdom of closing the centres at this time. Also, what other options were considered for each of the eight centres that are marked for closure? Finally, will the Minister commit to widening the scope of the consultation and carrying out a full equality impact assessment?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Dorries. I pay tribute to Margaret Ferrier for securing this debate on the future of the DWP estate and the opportunities that it presents us across the UK. Although I cannot pretend that I agree with everything she said, it was absolutely clear throughout—it was thoughtful, detailed and she had her residents’ best interests at heart. I hope that she gets suitable responses at the end of the debate from the Minister.
We are in a time of record employment in all areas and we are now very close to full structural employment. The reality is that those still seeking work are often the ones who need the most help. In that context, the announcement of the health and work Green Paper gives us a real opportunity to shape the future of the DWP estate so that it delivers on the core principle of a personalised and tailored approach. That is supported by employers, charities, organisations and Work programme providers. Therefore, this is a timely debate on the thrust of seizing those opportunities across the UK.
As a former Minister, I saw this first hand when I visited the Shaw Trust Hackney community hub. It tries to do things differently. It is a one-stop-shop—a community hub—where jobseekers receive a bespoke service that is tailored to their specific needs to help them to overcome the barriers that are holding them back from finding employment. People can access not only direct support in looking for work, but counselling sessions and support from healthcare professionals. There has been a significant increase in performance, an increase in staff and customer satisfaction levels and better Work programme participant engagement.
The key word in the hon. Gentleman’s speech is “community”. What we are talking about is the heart being ripped out of our communities.
We have to deliver the best opportunities for all people who are looking for work. I am setting out what I believe to be the best way to equip those people who are trying to seize the opportunity of the growing economy. The Shaw Trust has provided me with a number of examples, including that of Kazeem, a 23-year-old, who arrived with very low confidence, experiencing depression and anxiety. With the bespoke support that he was given in that community hub, he was able to secure jobs at both Amazon and his local cinema. It was not just the Work programme providers, but employers such as ITV, Barclays and Michael Page that worked within that hub, which brought together those healthcare professionals and external employers as well as the Work programme providers. They made a huge difference, and there are many other examples.
Could the hon. Gentleman clarify, if he is talking about Kazeem getting a job with Amazon, whether Kazeem is from Glasgow, because Amazon is in Dunfermline, which is an hour away by bus?
This was at the Hackney community hub run by the Shaw Trust, so it would have been at Amazon there. This debate is on the future of the DWP estate, which covers the whole of the UK, but I wish any Kazeem in the hon. Lady’s constituency the best of luck with finding work, whether at Amazon or somewhere else.
Understandably, a lot of people who arrive at a jobcentre lack confidence and are nervous. I have seen that at first hand when I have supported my own constituents. All too often, I am afraid, people are greeted by a security guard, who is probably the last person that somebody wishes to see when they are nervous. Some jobcentres are drab buildings from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s. They do not celebrate success stories. There are no posters or videos that show people who have gone through the same challenges, faced and overcome them, come through at the other end and benefited from work. The staff are too often fixed to the facility. I suspect most other hon. Members who speak in this debate will highlight the challenge of getting to jobcentres; sometimes the solution is taking the jobcentre directly to people.
One of the most important parts of the universal credit roll-out is that, for the first time ever, people entering work will continue to get support. I hope that support will extend to those coming into the workplace. A lot of those people will be entering work on the national living wage, at the beginning of a career path. They will need support in work to secure additional hours and to get promotion when they lack the confidence to push themselves forward. We are all confident here—we all push ourselves forward and we all wish to seek to improve ourselves—but not everybody has that ability. That is an example of why we need to take people out of jobcentres.
When I visited an award-winning job coach, who was doing a great job, I saw another example of why a fixed location should not always be the solution. There was a young lad who was incredibly enthusiastic and desperate to do bar work, which we have a chronic shortage of people for in this country. I used to work in the industry; I remember thinking that, if I still worked in it, I would have snapped him up. His issue was that he was so confident that he would sometimes talk for too long in an interview and talk himself out of a job. Each time, the jobcentre staff would say, “Go off and apply for some more jobs”, but he would come back two weeks later and he had talked himself out of another job. All it needed was a job coach to go with him to an interview to explain to the employer, “When you have had enough of him talking, just say stop”. He would have secured work straight away. Yet the system meant that he kept returning at his inconvenience every two weeks on a continuous loop, when it just needed somebody to go with him to the interview.
Rightly, we have started piloting a small business employment scheme. Too many employers do not want to engage with their local jobcentre—I was the same when I ran a business for 10 years. We need to get jobcentre people going out to small and medium-sized businesses and saying, “What skills gaps do you have? Can we identify them?” The DWP has been running a small business pilot, in which staff go around retail, industrial and business parks and find people. It was so successful that the DWP ran out of people, either at the jobcentre or in the work programmes, to fill all those roles. That is exactly the sort of challenge that we need to take on. Again, it saves time for the claimant. We also need to organise job fairs.
In an ideal world, the jobcentre would be a hub. It would be a co-location, so that we are not sending claimants from building to building. We need health support. My point about being close to full structural employment is that the vast majority of people are now looking for work. More than 50% of people on employment and support allowance have a health condition or a disability; having instant health support on site will make a huge difference.
For some bizarre reason, rather than letting Work programme providers use our space, we send them off to find their own facilities, for which they secure a contract for a number of years. They spend a huge amount of time finding facilities, settling into them and getting to know them before having to renew the contract. It also gives claimants the inconvenience of having to go from the jobcentre to the Work programme provider and to health support, spending all their time travelling rather than looking for work. That is something that we need to address.
A jobcentre should be a hive of activity. It should have job fairs in the evenings and it should get in external employers, charities and mentors. That should all happen in a brightly coloured, constructive hub that supports people.
Absolutely not. Experienced organisations such as the Shaw Trust have dealt with that issue. Their security staff are also meeters and greeters. They have blurred those roles so that, instead of somebody in a uniform who will make people even more nervous, there is somebody who can act as a security person if they need to, which I am afraid they sometimes do, but who also make people welcome when they arrive. That is so important for people who have a number of barriers to overcome.
We need to be mindful of those with disabilities. Representatives of Action on Hearing Loss came to Parliament today to meet a number of MPs; it reminded me that it is often the hidden impairments that people do not take account of. I urge the Minister to consult with disabled people whenever we consider future facilities. We need to ensure not only that staff are trained but that, when we build facilities, we make them fully accessible. We can embrace technology such as the video relay service that DWP has trialled, the pilots for which were so successful that it will continue for evermore. We need to ensure that that technology is used in the rest of Government facilities and by those who provide contracts to them. I know from visiting SSE that the private sector has embraced that. It allows those who rely on British sign language to get instant access to facilities, rather than having to wait for an interpreter. It is an absolute must for all Government facilities to have hearing loops and for staff to be trained to use them. I could say much more on disabilities, but I am conscious of the time.
What I have said applies not just to jobcentres but to assessment centres for benefits such as the personal independence payment, which are often soulless places. There should be videos in the waiting areas to advertise other support offered to people who have a disability or a long-term health condition. The Government often do pilots, but people often do not know about them, so let us advertise them. Mental health is a really good example: there is cross-party support for improving support to people with mental health conditions and considerable additional money is being spent, but, all too often, those who most need that help simply do not know about it.
I know that the Minister is extremely constructive and engages regularly with Work programme providers, charities and people with experience. We have a real opportunity to build on the Green Paper. I look forward to her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thoroughly congratulate Margaret Ferrier on her fantastic speech and on securing the debate.
The Government must feel as if they are in a film. I certainly feel as if I am in “Groundhog Day”, because we keep repeating the same arguments. We will be back again and again until the Minister and the DWP stop, listen and recognise the error of their decision. In the last debate before Christmas, Stewart Malcolm McDonald said, like a modern-day Arnold Schwarzenegger, “We will be back.” Here we are again, and we will not tire of making the same arguments, because we are right and the Government and the DWP are wrong. We know our areas, we know the people and the geography, and we know the challenges they face.
Glasgow East is not a dot on Google Maps; it is multiple communities with amazing characteristics but many unique challenges. The Government’s plans to rip jobcentres from the people who need them most, in some of the most deprived areas of the country, are bereft of logic, bereft of evidence and completely bereft of compassion. If the jobcentre closures go ahead in Glasgow, 50% of our jobcentres will close—half of them! That is in spite of the DWP’s plan to reduce its estate by only 20% across the country. Proportionally, Glasgow is being hit hardest. I am at peril of repeating myself here—groundhog day again—because, like many of my hon. Friends, I raised precisely that point in a previous Westminster Hall debate and in a number of meetings with the Minister before Christmas. No adequate answer has been forthcoming on why Glasgow is being singled out for such swingeing and disproportionate cuts. The only thing close to an answer was the statement that the DWP believes that Glasgow
“is in a unique position within the DWP…Estate”
I cannot but feel that the Government believe that Glasgow is in a unique position to be useful in an ideologically driven cost-cutting exercise—a test subject, so to speak. Well, they have picked the wrong fight with the right people, because, as I am sure they are fast learning, we are not the strong silent types.
For entirely different reasons, I agree that Glasgow is, for want of a better phrase, in a unique position. Almost half of Glasgow’s residents live in areas that are among the 20% most deprived in Scotland. The city has been labelled the jobless capital of Europe. That is not a title that I claim with any satisfaction, but unfortunately it is the reality. Just today, we have all received the most recent figures on unemployment. In my constituency, it is at 4.9%, which is more than double the national average and is the 36th highest of the 650 constituencies in the UK. The so-called “unique” position that Glasgow finds itself in, through no fault of its own, illustrates that the UK Government should be doing more to help my constituents, not less. Instead, if the proposals go ahead, they will affect over 74,000 people across Glasgow and will create more barriers to employment and support for people seeking work, rather than breaking them down.
In the previous debate, I raised the issue of territorialism and the historical gang culture as unique issues in the east end of Glasgow. The Minister and the DWP flippantly dismissed those serious concerns by pointing out that Shettleston served as a youth hub jobcentre for four years. They ignored the extensive preparation and engagement work that was done with the police, stakeholders and the jobcentre. I said that the same work had not been done in this situation, when it is more critical, given the ages of the claimants, the historical nature of gang violence and the levels of unemployment among the mainly men involved.
The hon. Lady is right to point out that Ministers trumpeted the youth hub as a success, but I have had discussions with local organisations on the ground and they pulled away from participation in the hub because they were not prepared to submit to using conditionality and clients making young people travel every day for something they were not obliged to do.
That is a fantastic point, which I no longer need to make. The response from the Government that, in extreme cases, remote sign-ons would work will not satisfy me or the people I represent. Like the hon. Lady, I have gone further and spoken to former senior members of Shettleston jobcentre, who were there at the time. They told me that not only impact assessments, but multiple risk assessments were carried out to prepare for that. That experiment has failed. It is not here now for the reasons that the hon. Lady mentioned, and also because, I am told, the resources at Shettleston were not adequate for the demand, yet Shettleston will now replace three jobcentres. It beggars belief. I will not be papped off or shooed away on this. I want answers and I demand that that is properly considered as part of the consultation.
Another barrier is additional transport and the costs and logistics of it for the people we represent in Glasgow. If the plans go ahead, many of our constituents who are already on meagre incomes will incur additional costs and extra travel with no confirmed support from the DWP. With all due respect, the Government’s response has been woeful thus far and many questions remain unanswered. Does the Minister honestly and wholeheartedly believe that this situation is fair? Given that two thirds of households in deprived areas of Glasgow do not have access to a car, what assessment has she made of the impact this decision will have on jobseekers reliant on public transport?
If the plans go ahead, will the Minister ensure our constituents are reimbursed for extra travel costs? Will she give us a commitment today that no jobseeker will be sanctioned for delays caused by public transport? What assessment has been made of the impact the closures will have on additional travelling for people with caring responsibilities and those with a claimant commitment? What provisions will be made to assist people with mobility problems and people with caring responsibilities? Why did the Government fail to conduct and publish an equality impact assessment before the consultation period began? Such an assessment is surely key to informing those who participate in the consultation. Does the Minister not agree that the closures would undermine the Government’s commitment to halving the disability employment gap by 2020, and what assessment has been made of that?
Another issue that the Government must seriously address, but have thus far failed to, is the increase in demand for the reduced number of jobcentres in Glasgow. The jobcentre in Shettleston currently serves 1,025 people. However, when we add in the caseloads of Parkhead, Bridgeton and Easterhouse, that figure more than triples to 3,210. Shettleston would become one of the largest jobcentres in the entire UK in one of the areas with the highest levels of deprivation and unemployment. As I have said before, it would add insult to injury if the Government forced people in Glasgow to travel further at additional cost only to be inconvenienced in longer queues to receive a poorer service. What assessment has the Minister made of the potential delays for service users? What provisions would be put in place to ensure the quality of service did not deteriorate under the plans for closure?
The harm resulting from the Government’s plans to close the jobcentre in Easterhouse is potentially eye-watering. The communities of Easterhouse are strong and resilient, but that does not mitigate the impact that the closures would have on them. Isolated on the edge of the city, suffering from poor public transport and feeling the effects of high unemployment, Easterhouse cannot afford to lose its jobcentre. The plans destroy any kind of joined-up logic. Moreover, the journey from the jobcentre in Easterhouse to the jobcentre in Shettleston, if one of my constituents takes the 60 or 60A bus, which are the only buses available for that journey, is just over 3 miles. Yet Easterhouse has not been included in the consultation—perhaps Google did not identify it.
Is it the case that nobody has thought to travel north at all to find out the proper distances and how the plans will affect our constituents?
That is an excellent point. I believe the Minister for Employment, who took part in the previous debate, is visiting Scotland. We have invited him to travel to Glasgow, but so far he has not taken us up on that offer. I am happy to ride a bus from some of the areas in my constituency, but will have to take two buses at additional cost to get to the new jobcentre.
I will conclude soon because I am aware I am slightly over time. Easterhouse has not been included in this consultation. Thatappears to contradict the DWP’s own guidelines. It undermines the Department’s consultation and absolutely fails to serve the interests of my constituents. The plans to close half of Glasgow’s jobcentres are cack-handed and are being done in the most cavalier way. The case for closures is cruel and contradictory. The Government cannot spout the rhetoric of,
“all in this together...for hardworking people” and
“not just for the privileged few” if they then pursue such ideologically-driven, ill-thought-out decisions. I implore the Minister and the Government to listen to local people and organisations across Glasgow and to hear the warnings from me and hon. Members. We are consulting our constituents and they will feed into the consultation process. I hope that the Minister will listen to the people who know Glasgow best.
Thank you very much, Ms Dorries. This will test me.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Margaret Ferrier on bringing this subject to this place again. As the MP who represents Glasgow North East, which has the 16th highest unemployment rate in the UK—at 5.9%, it is 2.5 times the UK average—I couldn’t not be here, but I will cut out huge swathes of my speech.
I have used my personal experience in this place on previous occasions. I have spoken about my own experience of being unemployed and how I was treated and how I responded. When I have spoken about it, it has elicited empathy from Members of all parties, with everyone agreeing that I did not deserve to be treated in that way, but I am aware that many here will think that what I speak of is my experience alone and that I am different, but I am not. When I have talked about the pain of being unable to find work and desperately wanting it, people have said to me, “But you are probably the exception to the rule”, but I am not. When I talked about being treated like a child by some—though not all—jobcentre staff and about that having the reverse effect in terms of getting me into employment, I was told that that was a one-off, but it was not. I am no different from any of my constituents. I have family, friends and constituents who all wanted to work, worked hard to find work and needed help, not punishment. I am saying this because I am coming to a suggestion as to we can do with these jobcentres.
The small minority who do not put effort into finding work are those who need the most support. It is more often than not a deep lack of self-confidence that stops them, as has been said previously. We need to support, encourage and empower them, not criticise, ridicule and punish them by cruel sanctions and by making it far harder to get to the jobcentre. Here is my suggestion for using the excess space that we have heard about within the earmarked jobcentres. The DWP work services director for Scotland, Denise Horsfall, said earlier this week:
“In Glasgow the buildings are between 20% and 40% under occupied. When you go in you will see a floor fully occupied but there are floors above which are empty”, so why not use that space to provide room where people can utilise services that will actually assist them to gain employment? I am thinking of the difficulty I once had when I had no printer and I was required to print 20, sometimes more, CVs: a total of 60 pages at a cost of 10p a photocopy every week. That was £6 that I honestly could not afford, so I asked the jobcentre staff if they would print them for me. The answer I got was—I paraphrase, but this is the sense of it: “Don’t be ridiculous. We can’t do that sort of thing here.” I am thinking of the times when I could not afford credit for my phone, but I needed to make phone calls about employment opportunities. I wanted to be proactive. Why not use the space that is said to be leading to jobcentre closures, and provide office equipment and anything that people need for support in their search for work? Why not provide space for people to come together and support each other, build their confidence and get advice when they want and need it? The Minister will say that that happens already, but it honestly does not. There are areas of good practice, and we have heard about some of them today, but on the whole the DWP’s approach is completely wrong.
Many years ago as a young graduate I was offered the opportunity to attend a group that was for some reason called the executive job club. It was not compulsory, so I did not feel like a naughty schoolchild in detention. It was respectful: the group co-ordinators made it clear that they believed everyone would work, given the opportunity, so none of us felt as if we were being judged. Peer support was encouraged, which meant that we spent time with people who were also struggling to find work, and felt useful because we could advise each other. One-to-one coaching, group sessions, pair work and drop-in were available; and it was all voluntary. It was therefore well attended, and the atmosphere was supportive and respectful. The turnover was high, because most of us got jobs. For me it removed a huge blockage. I was there only a few weeks, but it had a big impact on me. It changed the way I viewed myself and my professional skills. It gave me confidence and got me into a well-paid, challenging job, which put me on the path to a fairly successful career. The Government could learn from that and from other groups, including the numerous unemployed workers centres around the country.
I am suggesting that there is something missing in the experience of a person who is unemployed. Without any facetiousness I want to say that I would be happy to meet the Minister to talk some more about what I have outlined. Now that we have the space in the jobcentres in Glasgow, why, instead of closing them down, do we not consider using that space to provide the sort of services I have described? It would require more resources, but if it works it is surely worth it.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend Margaret Ferrier on securing the second but, I am confident, not the last Westminster Hall debate on the jobcentre estate, with a focus on Glasgow.
It was excellent to hear from Justin Tomlinson and from my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin about all the excellent things that there can be in jobcentres to support vulnerable people—particularly, as the hon. Gentleman noted, those with mental health challenges. It is a wonderful idea, which is why we should not close Glasgow jobcentres, or reduce their number from 16 to eight—halving it, when there is supposed to be a 20% reduction elsewhere in the country.
I and my colleagues have submitted a range of written questions to Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, and I want to run through some of the answers. I am sure that if a jobcentre in your constituency was closing, Ms Dorries, you would, as would any Member, look for some basic, elementary information about how the Government had reached the conclusion that it was a good idea. You would want to know how many disabled people used the jobcentre. That was what I asked about both Castlemilk and Langside jobcentres in my constituency, which the Minister wants closed. The answer was that the Department does not have that information and it would be too expensive to find out. I asked how many people from both those jobcentres had successfully found part-time work: the Department does not have that information, and to find out would incur a disproportionate cost. I asked the same question about full-time work and got the exact same answer.
The Government have a plan that is so upside down and ill thought-out that it is starting to make the Trump transition look positively orderly. There is no equality impact assessment, so the Minister cannot tell Members of Parliament at the end of the debate that she is confident her Department will not break her public sector equality obligations under the Equality Act 2010. That is because it has not bothered to work it out. You will not believe it, Ms Dorries, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned, the Department works with travel distances and refers to bus services that Google Maps has told it about. In some cases those bus services and routes no longer exist. The result, I promise, will be that people will be late to the jobcentre and will be sanctioned. That is the decision that the Government have taken.
There are two jobcentres in my constituency that the Government want to close. Castlemilk, a community in my constituency, is geographically the largest in Glasgow, and it used to be bigger than Perth. There are almost 20,000 people in just that area, and the Minister will force them to take an eight-mile round trip. The Langside jobcentre serves the second most densely populated council ward in Scotland. It is across the road from a college. I cannot think of a better place for a jobcentre than the second most densely populated ward, across the road from a college. The Minister needs to think again. The Government picked the fight, and until we get the right answer and the closures are scrapped, we shall keep fighting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank my hon. Friend Margaret Ferrier for securing today’s debate. We have had a number of debates on this issue, as my colleagues have mentioned. During the Westminster Hall debate on
Like my colleagues, I submitted some written questions after that debate, including one about
“how many jobcentre offices in the UK are subject to live planning applications”.
The answer was:
“It is not known precisely how many Jobcentres are subject to planning applications across our entire estate at this time. This is because any party can make a planning application for a change of use for a building without the involvement of either the landlord or current tenants.
DWP will identify this information as part of conveyancing activity on buildings it is planning to retain or acquire.”
So the DWP has no idea which jobcentres or even which buildings will be affected. That has implications for constituencies throughout the UK, as I have said, and it is quite disappointing that other areas are not as well represented in this debate as Scotland. I did a simple check to find out the plans for Anniesland; surely the same could be done with respect to the other jobcentres that are part of the DWP estate.
Increasingly, therefore, it looks as though the planned closure of Anniesland jobcentre is not to provide “value for money” for the taxpayer, as we have been told, but because the DWP does not own any of the properties that it occupies and in fact has no say over what the future use of those properties will be. More worryingly, the DWP does not seek any sort of resolution when its current offices are threatened. It should be trying its utmost—as we Glasgow MPs are, here today—to work with landlords, to ensure that there can be continuity with these offices, but that is just not happening.
The DWP simply expects that claimants will go elsewhere, transferring to another jobcentre. As some of my hon. Friends have already said, a distance of three miles seems reasonable, but of course these jobcentres have much wider catchment areas. We have repeatedly asked for those catchment areas but we have repeatedly not been given that information, so we actually have no idea just how wide-reaching these jobcentres are, and, frankly, that is information we need to know.
My colleagues and I have done what no Government Minister has done—we have visited the jobcentres and spoken to those affected by these proposals. I visited Anniesland jobcentre, just as my colleagues have visited their local jobcentres. I spoke to service users there, and it is clear how important Anniesland jobcentre is and how wide its catchment area is. I spoke to one person who is travelling nearly 10 miles to attend that jobcentre, so it is crucial that the UK Government understand the implications for claimants in the communities that will be affected before any changes are made.
Finally, I will mention the consultation. It has been promoted by us through social media, leafleting and local campaigns, and not by a letter that could have been sent out to claimants at these jobcentres. There are many important questions to be answered and my colleagues and I will continue to ask them.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Madam Chair.
First of all, I congratulate Margaret Ferrier on presenting her case so very well. When I saw the title of this debate, I felt that I had to come along and make a comment, primarily because the future changes to the Department for Work and Pensions estate will affect my constituency. The changes are a devolved matter and I will explain some of the issues for us in relation to it. Perhaps the Minister will find herself with a direct role in this if things do not go according to plan in the elections.
I remember my time as a councillor and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, when the idea of a private finance initiative was first brought to my attention, with regard to building a new hospital at the Ulster Hospital site. It must be the Ulster Scots in me, but I just could not bring myself to see how that could be value for money and I opposed it on that ground, and on the ground that it was putting local people out of work. I have a great problem with PFI. The fact is that we are scrambling to find people now that the contract has finished, and we cannot do anything because we do not own anything. Of course, as you will point out, Madam Chair, PFI is not directly the issue that we are considering today, but it is one that we cannot ignore and I wanted to make a point about it on the record.
I know that, on paper, the people to office ratio may allow for an office to close, but we do not live on paper; we live in the real world, where transport systems, and rural and urban issues, come into play. Let me give a Northern Ireland perspective. I say again that the Minister’s responsibility is clearly to the mainland of the United Kingdom, but if the elections in Northern Ireland in two to six weeks do not deliver the democratic process that we wish to have, direct rule will become a reality. If that is the case, responsibility for this issue will fall upon the Minister’s shoulders.
Ballynahinch social security office is out to consultation, with a view to the closure of the premises. The office is long overdue an upgrade, to both its interior and exterior, but it seems that the Department responsible simply cannot afford it, or at least that is what it is telling us. It is impractical to expect or insist that all claimants who use the Ballynahinch office should instead use the Lisburn office or the Downpatrick office, which on paper are less than 20 miles away. That does not seem far, but in reality it is a journey that many find difficult to make. In addition, both those offices are already oversubscribed and fully utilised.
The public transport links to Downpatrick or Lisburn already have problems, and for many people on benefits making such a journey would be another cost and another outgoing that they do not need. Some of those who attend Ballynahinch have severe mobility and access issues, and it would be harmful to their needs if the Ballynahinch office closed.
Let us look at some of the finer detail of the Ballynahinch SSO. Last year, it had 6,172 referrals for jobseeker’s allowance not including phone call inquiries, which could easily double that number. There were also 7,406 jobcentre referrals, and it is imperative that that figure is highlighted in the consultation process. Very often people say that a jobcentre only provides benefits, but it does more than that: it is training people for jobs, as a number of hon. Members have already said.
All those who have an interest in this service must take the time to do their part, in order to see the retention of this office in Ballynahinch. In the four months prior to the start of the consultation, JSA inquiries were as follows: in May 2016, there were nearly 500; in June 2016, 596; in July 2016, 448; and in August 2016, 550. All those cases were dealt with by the Ballynahinch jobseeker’s allowance staff alone.
The jobcentres in my area also have close contact with three local high schools. The point about schools is an important one; it has already been made by others and I make it in relation to my area. Those schools will be affected by any potential closures of jobcentres.
The new personal independence payment system is coming in. Staff need to be trained to use that system, and the increase in workload is quite phenomenal. I cannot speak for others, but I can speak for my own office and its staff—the number of PIP referrals that the office is getting is incredible. The staff’s workload has probably doubled as a result, and I cannot say any more than that. People applying for PIP need to speak to staff who understand their problems, and who have both compassion and a good knowledge of the system. We also have to address the issue of those people who may not have educational achievements or the ability who come to the office. There is also the issue of the reduction in footfall for local businesses; there is a knock-on effect for them as well.
Natalie McGarry referred to the equality impact assessment and I will, too. Thought must be given to the equality impact assessment, as the rural town of Ballynahinch cannot afford to have the local jobcentre moved. That cannot be considered as “rural proofing”.
On paper, this decision about my jobcentre may be a no-brainer, but in reality we will leave hundreds of people without the support they need to find a job or to access other help, or to get advice about benefits. I am sure that this case is replicated in many ways in other hon. Members’ constituencies, which shows that, while we must cut outgoings, in doing so we cannot and must not cut people off from the help and support they need.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West for raising this issue, and I ask the Minister for a reasoned opinion on what is being proposed for the DWP estate, and to ensure that, when it comes to making these decisions, we are there for the people who need us most.
Thank you, Madam Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I thank my hon. Friend Margaret Ferrier for a barnstorming speech in protection of jobcentres.
Perhaps to continue the theme of the speech by my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald, I have also researched not only my own written questions and the answers that I received but the written questions put by my hon. Friends. The answers we have received put me in mind of the infamous press conference by Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, when he used that memorable term:
“There are things we don’t know”.
That phrase reminds me of the answers that we have received from the Government. When asked about the actual travel time for an individual to get to a jobcentre, they “don’t know”; as for the number of benefit claimants using each jobcentre, they “don’t know”; regarding the catchment area for each jobcentre, they “don’t know”; when asked about the bus routes to jobcentres, they “don’t know”; regarding the planning application that has been made in relation to Anniesland jobcentre, they did not know about it; that the landlord of the property housing Castlemilk jobcentre had offered to reduce the rent on the site, they did not know; and as for the impact of these changes on disabled people and women, they “don’t know”.
All these points are important, because if the Government do not know all those things, why are they so certain that jobcentres should close in Glasgow? And why is it that no other announcements have been made by the Department for Work and Pensions in relation to the closures of jobcentres? Is it because of the public backlash that the DWP has already seen in Glasgow, or is it because the DWP now knows, through the Glasgow experiment, that there is a lack of evidence to close other jobcentres across the UK? Or is it because the information that the DWP does not have for Glasgow is required elsewhere?
Yesterday, we were told in the main Chamber that work is the way out of poverty, but what consolation is that to the people in Glasgow who will find that the very places to find work are no longer there to support them?
If the Government do not have the information that I referred to at the beginning of my remarks, why are they only consulting publicly on three of the eight jobcentres earmarked for closure? If the closure of a package of eight jobcentres is announced, the whole package should be consulted on. What consolation is that consultation for those working in other Government Departments who are being made redundant? Is the Government’s vision to reduce the workforce in other Departments and for that workforce to then find that they cannot find a jobcentre, because they have been closed? That seems to be a perverse vision of ensuring that work is a way out of poverty.
The plan to close 50% of the jobcentres in Glasgow is a moral outrage. Some 68% of the people in Glasgow in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and universal credit will be impacted by the closures. These closures will result in more people having to pay the telephone tax—the premium rate charges to call Departments. There is support among Members on the Government Benches and the SNP Benches for ensuring that the telephone tax is ended.
The cost of the jobcentre closures will be borne by the people the Government should be assisting. I recommend the submission from Parkhead Housing Association, which makes the very point that travel will impose extra costs
“on people living off of the minimum the government states is required for day to day survival.”
It is the people on low incomes who will be affected. It is unacceptable that tens of thousands of people will now travel further and incur additional costs to access social security. These individuals are seeking work or employment support. As the civil service trade union, the PCS, has said, the impact will be
“on women, vulnerable children and people with disabilities already hit hardest by government cuts.”
There must be an equality impact assessment. We must have a guarantee from the Government that the results of any equality analysis will be considered in the eventual decision. The Government have behaved in a disgraceful manner. They did not consult the Scottish Government before the announcement, nor did they consult the local authority. There have been inadequate responses to written questions, with that familiar answer “Information can only be provided at disproportionate cost” often being given. What is disproportionate is to close 50% of the jobcentres in Glasgow when the expectation is that that figure will be 20% elsewhere.
Okay, I will.
As well as impressing the comments of Parkhead Housing Association on the Minister, I want to raise the comments of the Glasgow citizens advice bureau. It said:
“The increased numbers will put pressure on staff who have no leeway if someone is five or ten minutes late. They will be recorded as missing an appointment and sanctions will be applied. Some people have to sign on weekly and in some cases people can be called in daily. Even at once a week the bus fare is almost 10% of a young person’s Jobseeker’s Allowance.”
That is a true cost of closing the jobcentres in Glasgow for those who seek the support of the state.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. This is yet another debate on this important matter. I congratulate Margaret Ferrier on bringing the debate to the House and on the real clarity and focus that she showed in the course of her remarks. I commend everyone who has taken part. We have had particularly interesting contributions. The hon. Lady referred to the comments made by PCS condemning the closures. Chris Stephens talked about the “moral outrage” of the proposals. That view was shared by many people in the Chamber today. Numerous other important contributions have been made.
The debate is on the future of the DWP estate, but the focus has clearly been on Glasgow, which is facing the closure of half of its jobcentres. In today’s debate and in preceding debates, Members have rightly focused on the huge range of issues that impact on claimants, including increased journey times; the complexity of the journeys and the impact that will have, particularly for those with mobility problems, those with young children and older people who might find it more difficult to travel on public transport; the cost of those journeys, which can be considerable for people on benefits; the increased likelihood of claimants being late as a result of public transport failure; and the increased risk of claimants being sanctioned, with the attendant risk that that will push people further into poverty.
From one single error, we can see such a process having devastating effects. That is most clearly exemplified in Ken Loach’s film, “I, Daniel Blake”, which tells one such story with immense power. The film has picked up five BAFTA nominations this year. I feel sure that that is not just because it is such a powerful film, but because the story that it tells is so highly relevant for today. [Interruption.] I am not quite sure what Justin Tomlinson is saying from a sedentary position. It is such a powerful film.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. The comments from the hon. Member for North Swindon were totally relevant, then.
It is immensely important that the DWP estate is managed with due respect for the impact that any changes might have on claimants, their families, their communities and those who work there. For those who work there, the concerns are about job losses, the down- grading of posts and increased case loads. Will the Government comment on how they will manage the estate for the future? What are their plans for future technology, the changing roles of DWP staff and the introduction of in-work conditionality, which will require that those in work demonstrate that they are searching for more work? How will that will impact on the people in Glasgow who are having their jobcentres removed?
The changes are important for the people of Glasgow, but they are also important for the rest of the country, as has been clearly stated. I am short of time.
Thank you. There have been several comments on the level of unemployment in the area. The latest claimant count shows that 5,810 people are registered as unemployed at the eight jobcentres threatened with closure. I would be interested to hear what will happen when those centres close. I understand that the remaining jobcentres in Glasgow will have to deal with twice the volume of claimants as a result. That is especially a concern for the Shettleston jobcentre, which will take on the case load from three of the jobcentres that will close. Can the Minister provide us with a breakdown of the expected increase in case loads for those jobcentres that will remain open? What will be done to help the DWP staff who have to deal with that increased workload?
Does the hon. Lady appreciate that the jobcentres at Easterhouse, Parkhead and Bridgeton all have citizens advice bureaux nearby and other support services wrapped around those jobcentres? The Shettleston jobcentre does not, and that will make it even more difficult for clients to seek help when they need it.
That is an important point. Several Members have spoken about the difficulties people face when they approach a jobcentre. I have spoken to people in my constituency who feel frightened and intimidated about going to the jobcentre, so having that kind of support is invaluable. It is particular invaluable given that for universal credit people are being asked to make and manage claims online. Many find that very challenging.
In that regard, can the Minister update us on the work she has done to identify the number of people who struggle to fill in those online applications and maintain their claims online? I know the 2011 skills for life survey found that 14.5% of people have below entry-level skills for word processing, 30% had below entry-level skills for email, and 38% had below entry-level skills for spreadsheets. I have taught on a programme to get women back to work, and I have worked alongside adult learners who have difficulty reading and writing and even handling things about their name and address. What is the Minister doing to support those people, particularly with the move to the digital environment?
The hon. Lady is making a very interesting point and I wonder if she shares my concern. Many people in my constituency suffer from digital exclusion, which means that they use additional services that are near jobcentres, such as libraries, putting those services under additional pressure. I hold my surgeries in libraries and have heard from library staff how much pressure they are under to assist people with digital and online application systems.
That is a very important point. There are also issues of confidentiality and people being put in a position of presenting deeply personal information in a public environment, which I feel is inappropriate and makes vulnerable people more vulnerable.
There has been plenty of comment on the increase in time it will take people to travel and the cost of that. As we know, the DWP used Google Maps to determine travel times and we have been told that they will be increased by 2 or 3 miles or 15 to 20 minutes of public transport time. Will the Minister specify the mode of transport that they are talking about? Is it buses or trains, which are a lot more expensive, or cars? These things make quite a difference to claimants.
Concerns about the impact that the closures will have on employment support services have already been mentioned. Any reduction in employment support in Glasgow will deepen hardship in many areas of the city. As Natalie McGarry pointed out, some of these areas are the most deprived areas. Will the Government explain how they will maintain levels of employment support for those people?
The DWP’s plans for the estate seem to be based on the expectation that unemployment will remain low. I hope that that is the case and that the roll-out of universal credit, with claims increasingly being made and managed online, will reduce the need for jobcentres in the long run. However, that is a very ambitious approach. I would reflect the comment made earlier about the uncertainty of the future we face. We do not know whether the unemployment level will remain this low. What contingency arrangements have the Government made in the event that we see an increase in unemployment in the Glasgow area?
It is vital that full regard is given to the impact on claimants, jobcentre staff and local communities before the closures take effect. The Government say that they want to halve the disability employment gap—I cannot see how closing jobcentres will help them to do that. Will the Government publish the impact assessment of the proposals on equality issues, with particular reference to the impact on women, children and disabled people? Will they also tell us what the impact will be on jobcentre staff? I would like some detail on that. Our communities need an employment support service and a social security system that we can all be proud of and that people can have confidence in. I believe that the people of Glasgow deserve better than to be treated in this manner.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I add my congratulations to Margaret Ferrier on securing this debate and to all hon. Members who have contributed to it. We have had quite a geographic spread—obviously, the majority of hon. Members who have spoken are from Scotland, but the south-west, the north-west and of course Northern Ireland have been represented. I thank those hon. Members for their comments.
Our network of jobcentres is absolutely at the heart of Department for Work and Pensions services. Across the country, jobcentre staff work hard to help people to access the support and assistance they need to move into employment and into better and more employment—and it is working. The claimant count has dropped from almost 1.5 million in 2010 to around 800,000 now. Unemployment is down by more than 900,000 since 2010, as the economy has grown. We are at near record levels of employment across the country.
As the needs of our claimants have changed, so have our jobcentres, and rightly so. The way that the Department is delivering its services is changing in response to significant societal trends. The Department continues to make the most of the opportunity technology brings and more services are moving online, reflecting that increase in digital capability and accessibility. Eight out of 10 claims for jobseeker’s allowance are made using digital channels and almost 90% of universal credit claims are currently made online.
There are several examples where the Department is working in shared Government facilities or with local authorities and other local partners. Anne McLaughlin and my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson both mentioned co-location and talked about hubs where we can bring services together and make local arrangements that bring—
When I have been visiting jobcentres up and down the country, I do not recognise a toxic brand. In fact, I recognise very hard-working staff who champion the successes that they have had and the jobs that they have helped people into.
If co-location is such a good thing, why was there no consultation with the local authorities and other public bodies in Glasgow before the announcement of the jobcentre closures? Co-location could have been a solution to the issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course the DWP works hard with the Scottish Government and other local authorities to ensure that we investigate opportunities. I am conscious that, in Glasgow, outreach and co-location services are already provided at Anniesland College. I want to see more of that. Outreach provides one of the solutions to helping jobseekers where they are, rather than expecting them to travel to centres. The working environments are good, more of the services that customers use when there is co-location are in one place and it can cost considerably less to run services. We are building on partnerships with local organisations to expand that range. As I mentioned, in Glasgow, we work closely with Anniesland College to offer services, including helping claimants with their job searches and offering benefit advice.
I thank the hon. Lady for pointing that out to me.
A key ambition of the DWP is to enable claimants to access our services in ways that suit them. At the heart of our reforms is a digitally-focused approach, which is more secure, more accessible and more efficient. We need to have a modern welfare system that is fair while providing good value to the taxpayer—a welfare system that ensures we are not under-utilising space in our buildings. That is the best way of making sure that the Department is delivering value for money, both for those using its services and the taxpayer.
We need a modern welfare system that is not only fair but simple to use and takes full advantage of the opportunities modern technology and communication channels afford us. Universal credit is absolutely at the heart of that, allowing claimants to manage their claims online. It is the key that unlocks the flexibility and the modern support that we want for people, not just to help them into jobs but to help them progress in work, too. They can manage claims online and receive the personalised support they need in order to find more work and better paid work.
Since coming into this role, I have seen the positive impact of personalised work coach support for myself. I have been struck by how work coaches are committed to helping the individual claimants they work with to find more hours of work and better paid work. At the heart of that is the principle of ensuring easy online access, which allows households to make claims and report changes securely, without necessarily having to travel to a jobcentre. It is right that the future of the DWP estate reflects not only the fundamental changes in the welfare system but the near record levels of employment across the country.
I may be pre-empting what the Minister is going to say. She has talked about online access several times. I would appreciate it if she could answer my question about the assessment that she has made of the difficulties that people who are not IT-literate have in accessing things online and the kind of support that is provided for them.
I am sorry; I am not going to give way.
After 20 years, the private finance initiative contract that covers many DWP offices is nearing an end—it expires on
There was a question earlier about planning permission. Under a PFI contract, we are not the leaseholder. Planning issues are entirely separate to the contract that we hold on the buildings. In every case, we are seeking to minimise disruption, moving existing jobcentres into nearby sites and co-locating wherever possible. The UK labour market is in the strongest position it has been in for years, but we cannot predict the future. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West was right to mention Brexit. That is one of the reasons that we continue to ensure that we retain sufficient flexibility and spare capacity in the system. Our aim is to reduce floor space, not the workforce, who are so important in supporting claimants back into work. Indeed, there are now 11,000 work coaches across the country, and we are planning to hire 3,000 more staff.
When a jobcentre closes, the Department will consider what outreach services we can expand and what facilities may be suitable to provide those services. Outreach is about ensuring services are flexible and accessible for the people who need them. For claimants who are unable to attend a jobcentre owing to their vulnerability or who have difficulty completing the process required by the Department to claim a particular benefit, we have robust procedures in place. DWP Visiting undertakes home visits or occasionally visits to an alternative agreed address if that is more appropriate. Travel expenses are refundable under certain circumstances, including where claimants are required to attend a jobcentre more frequently than every two weeks. Under some conditions claimants are able to maintain their claim by post, including where they have caring responsibilities for a child and it is not possible to make arrangements for short-term childcare. Carol Monaghan mentioned catchment areas. Claimants can also choose to attend an alternative jobcentre to the one allocated to them if it is more convenient, easier and less costly to travel to.
A number of Members mentioned the equality analysis, which is part of the detailed planning for service reconfiguration. That will include the feedback from the public consultation process, which is still ongoing. We are committed to complying with our public sector equality duty, and we take account of the feedback from our public consultations. The equality analysis will help to establish any impacts that additional travel will have on customers and inform decisions about additional provision, such as outreach services.
I am sorry, I will not.
Equality analysis involves us considering the likely or actual effects of proposals on people with protected characteristics as part of our decision-making processes. Employment is, of course, the joint responsibility of the UK and Scottish Governments. As hon. Members mentioned today, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment is travelling to Scotland, where he is meeting members of the Scottish Government. We welcome the chance to work with them. Indeed, DWP officials have been working closely with them on this process.
We are building contingency into the system, building on lessons learned in 2008. More flexible arrangements and new contracts are being brought forward. Last night, we debated DWP policies in the main Chamber. It was a wide-ranging debate, which included the question of Glasgow jobcentres. My hon. Friend Seema Kennedy stated, and I cannot disagree with her,
“There is too much clinging on to bricks and mortar when the real questions should be what works and what will get more people into work.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 619, c. 888.]
Hon. Members would do well to reflect on that. It is about the service we deliver—[Interruption.]
The claimants must come first in the service we deliver to them. We must also deliver value to taxpayers in Scotland and across the rest of the UK.
The Department’s services always have and always will adapt to social trends, and it is right that we reflect the digital revolution. These proposals are the result of careful analysis and planning. I appreciate the concerns of the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West about the proposed closures, and I thank her again for securing the debate. I think the rationale for the proposals is clear. The overall number of people claiming the main out-of-work benefits has fallen by more than 1.1 million. The changes are about reducing floor space, not the number of dedicated frontline staff helping claimants back into work.
Order. I will address the chuntering from your Back Benchers. Time limits on speeches are limited to Back Benchers, not official spokesmen or Front-Bench representatives.
Thank you, Ms Dorries. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to my debate. However, I did not get any answers to any of the questions I asked, and I am not sure whether any other hon. Member did either.
Talking about not getting answers to questions, I did not get the opportunity to put my question. I was going to ask the Minister whether she would guarantee that the closures in Glasgow are not the opening salvo in a widespread closure of jobcentres across the United Kingdom, including in my constituency. It would have been nice to have had the opportunity to put that question.
I think my hon. Friend has just put that question very succinctly. He has two jobcentres in his area, and there is a rumour that one of them may close. They are not close to one another—they are in Port Glasgow and Greenock—so there will be a lot of travel for claimants.
The Minister made much of co-location, which was not considered before the announcement of the closure of these jobcentres. On the point about digital, Glasgow is one of the highest areas of digital exclusion. I urge everyone to sign the change.org petition to save the eight Glasgow jobcentres. As the shadow Minister said, this debate has focused primarily on the Glasgow jobcentre closures, but next week or next month it could be North Swindon, Cardiff, Sheffield or Belfast—in fact, any town or city up and down the country. This fight is not over. As Natalie McGarry said, we will be back to speak up for all our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the future of the DWP estate.