Backbench Business

– in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West 3:00 pm, 16th March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Jobcentre Plus office closures.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, for which there is cross-party support. With the exception of an urgent question, this is the first time that the House has managed to debate this issue since the announcement of UK-wide office closures. This is an opportunity for hon. Members to represent their constituents and to discuss the effects that the office closures will have on their constituencies. As has been indicated, there is widespread disquiet about the impact that the jobcentre closures will have. I will keep my opening remarks brief to allow hon. Members with closures in their constituencies the opportunity to inform us all of the local impacts on their constituents and communities.

The House is rightly exercised—as are many hon. Members—by the haphazard nature of the closures and the lack of evidence or rationale to support them, other than that they will save money in the short term. The lack of an adequate equality impact assessment is particularly damning. The closures have been presented by the Government as a straightforward process of rationalising the estate—that is, as sensible, considered and thought through in great detail. I would suggest otherwise, however. Far from this being a planned process to make the most of the expiry of contracts to improve services and locate them where they are needed most, it is a cost-cutting, penny-pinching cuts programme being done with poor to non-existent consideration of local conditions.

Instead of consulting appropriately with local partners and seeking to co-locate with other services to improve the effectiveness of Jobcentre Plus services, the Government have embarked upon a Google Maps, back-of-an-envelope exercise, based on achieving a targeted percentage of closures—10% overall, but 50% in Glasgow, as I am sure we will hear. Instead of enabling jobseekers to easily access other services—such as support with housing, childcare, debt management and health conditions—to help them to overcome their barriers to work, the Government have started with the basic premise of how many offices they can close and then worked backwards.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. For the record, we should remember that at least 30,000 people have lost their jobs in the civil service, and this is part of that. He spoke about the increasing workload. Citizens advice bureaus have reported that their workloads have gone up by 88%, in particular because of personal independence payment claims. Tile Hill jobcentre in my constituency is being closed, so people will have to walk miles or get buses. Importantly, a lot of them suffer from disabilities, so they will be at a disadvantage.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there have been 30,000 job losses in the civil service. As I will point out, there will be more in relation to this particular exercise, as the Government admitted in written answers to me. He is also correct about the lack of an equality impact assessment, which I will also mention.

This is a deeply flawed process, tainted by the lack of consultation with local community planning partners. In Glasgow, the Department for Work and Pensions is meant to be a key player in the process, but the closures were announced without consultation, and that is about as far from a “One Glasgow” approach as we can get. Nor to the closures do anything to support a locally agreed priority of youth employment.

Instead of respecting the terms of the Smith agreement, the UK Government announced the closures without any advance consultation with the communities that will be affected and in so doing bypassed the Scottish Government. Paragraph 58 of the Smith Commission report states:

“As the single face-to-face channel for citizens to access all benefits delivered by DWP, Jobcentre Plus will remain reserved. However, the UK and Scottish Government will 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.”

Ministers have had to publicly admit, including in a written answer to me, that they expect at least 750 DWP staff to lose their jobs and they have refused to rule out compulsory redundancies. Jobs will disappear through this process, not only directly but indirectly. That will be less visible in cities, where jobs in call centres, delivery companies and coffee shops have replaced the thousands of admin and clerical posts that have been cut year on year for longer than I can remember. Every public sector office closure leads to money being taken out of the local economy and reduces the opportunities for young people to build a career, instead of just holding down a job. The impact on smaller cities and towns should not be underestimated. For some communities it is the equivalent of a Ravenscraig or a Linwood. Local traders are affected, small businesses fold, young people move away if they can and the local economy declines.

Finally, I want to highlight the link between the push to digital services and office closures, when it becomes much more difficult to find a person to talk to in a public office. I have spoken recently about the unfair telephone tax, where the most vulnerable are hit with call charges for contacting the DWP and other government services. The DWP is a long way from being digital by default. A vicious circle is emerging, whereby access to advice and support is being blocked to those who need it most. Every Member here can testify that our offices are now providing more and more of that support through our constituency casework. Widespread jobcentre closures will only increase the workload on other staff in the DWP, giving them less time to spend on individuals.

I will now leave it to other hon. Members to voice their concerns and no doubt vent their frustrations about this botched and flawed process.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 3:06 pm, 16th March 2017

It is a pleasure to follow Chris Stephens. I congratulate him on securing the debate and, like him, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us this opportunity today.

Lewisham jobcentre, which is based in my constituency, is one of the jobcentres earmarked for closure. In my borough the unemployment rate is higher than average. We have 3,100 people in receipt of either jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit, who have a reason to visit the jobcentre once a fortnight. Another 15,000 people in the borough of Lewisham receive employment and support allowance or income support. Although they visit the jobcentre less frequently, it is estimated that between 100 and 200 of them use the jobcentre in Rushey Green every week.

At the moment the jobcentre is located in the heart of the borough of Lewisham, on a busy street between Lewisham and Catford. It is easily accessible on a number of different bus routes and from five different overground railway stations. The Department for Work and Pensions proposes to close that much needed, busy jobcentre in my constituency and relocate it to another office that it has in Forest Hill. That office is small, and although there is a proposal to expand into some of the space available in that building, my fear is that we will squeeze staff from the main jobcentre in Lewisham into unsuitable, smaller premises in Forest Hill that are less accessible.

I know that the DWP is exploring taking up some space in a council-owned building called Eros House. I ask the Minister to do everything he can to ensure that the local presence of the DWP is able to pursue that option. It is no good sending people down to Bromley from Lewisham or trying to run those services from a constrained site in Forest Hill. It is vital that we can have that easily accessible location at Eros House in Catford.

Let me take a minute to reflect on how we got here. The lease arrangements for the DWP have been in place for 30 years and they are coming to an end. For the last six months an agent has been looking to secure space in a central Lewisham location, but has been unable to find any. I do not know whether the process should have started sooner, so that consideration could have been given to the new developments in the borough of Lewisham to ensure that appropriate space could be found. We find ourselves in this situation partly because of the Government’s changes to permitted development rights and the planning system in the last few years. The owner of the building that the jobcentre is currently located in has decided to convert that office building to residential under permitted development rights, and there is a real problem sourcing office space in central locations, particularly in London.

I am concerned about the impact on people who rely on the jobcentre to access the help, advice and support that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West talked about. As politicians, we spend a lot of time talking about how much money is paid to individuals in benefit and less time on exactly what support is provided to help people back into work. It goes without saying that people need to be able to get to that help and support easily. I know that the consultation process and equality impact assessment might not kick in for some jobcentres in London because of the issue of being within 20 minutes to the next jobcentre, but anyone who has sat on a bus on the south circular in south London trying to get from one place to the next will realise that 20 minutes in theory is not always 20 minutes in practice.

I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman said about the move to digital services. Some of the people in my constituency who use the jobcentre frequently will want to see somebody face to face. At my own advice surgeries every fortnight I see between 25 and 40 people, which is testament to the fact that people want to speak to somebody directly.

We need to provide tailored support to individuals trying to get back into work. I was interested to read an article in the Evening Standard on 31 January by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the disability unemployment rate in London, in which he wrote:

“The gap between the number of disabled people in work compared with the employment rate of non-disabled people in London is around 28 percentage points—a figure that is frankly unacceptable in 2017.”

I agree with the Secretary of State about that, but it is a bit rich for him then to say:

“We’re building a locally-based system that works with businesses in the area and can offer people intense support”.

I think that is a bit rich, because in London the DWP is proposing to close one in three jobcentres: 22 of the capital’s 73 existing jobcentres. Of the 22 that are closing, 15 are located in boroughs with a higher than average claimant count, and, as we know, London has a higher than average claimant count than the country as a whole.

I am also concerned that the rate of unemployment among young people, the disabled and those from black and minority ethnic communities is higher in London than the national average. In fact, Office for National Statistics data from last September showed that BME unemployment in London stood at 9%. Ministers should review the criteria they use to determine the closures.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham

I am listening with great interest to the case that my hon. Friend is making. One of the puzzling things about the closure programme is that the Government also want to increase the workload of jobcentres and want some people to go more frequently. They also want to introduce conditionality for people who are in work. It is difficult to see how those additional tasks can be managed at the same time as shutting down so many jobcentres.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, who has huge expertise and experience in this area. Ministers need to review the criteria that they use to determine which closures are subject to full public consultation processes. We have not yet seen an equality impact assessment of the closures, which is absolutely critical in a London context, for the reasons that I have set out.

I urge the Minister to have an eye to the future as opposed to the past. The Government might pat themselves on the back over employment rates—we could have a discussion another time about the nature of the employment that has been created in recent years—but they need to think about what might happen over the next couple of years. I detect some complacency among Ministers about Brexit and its economic consequences. In my constituency, we are heavily dependent on jobs in the financial services industry and in professional services that support industry such as cleaning, security and employment agencies. Some of my low-paid constituents work in retail and hospitality.

I am concerned about the prospects for employment should we see the movement of financial services from London to other cities in Europe. If we are likely to see an increasing caseload in jobcentres, allied to the issues that my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms has set out about how individuals’ interaction with jobcentres is changing, then the Government’s proposal is short-sighted and could have serious long-term consequences for people’s ability to get back into employment. I ask the Minister to review the closures across London and to look in detail at what provision can be made in central Lewisham for my own jobcentre.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Scottish National Party, Inverclyde 3:16 pm, 16th March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate, not least because it is the only time that anyone from Inverclyde will be afforded the opportunity to have a say on the proposed closure of the Port Glasgow jobcentre.

As the Minister will already be aware, the decision to close one of my constituency’s two jobcentres was not put out to consultation because the distance between the Greenock and Port Glasgow jobcentres is less than three miles. By my reckoning it is 2.6 miles between the two buildings as the crow flies, and 2.84 miles if one measures the actual route that one would need to take along the road network. For the sake of an additional 250 metres it is hard to understand why the UK Government would not consult on this decision so that service users could outline how the changes affect them.

Or maybe the UK Government simply do not care what service users think, otherwise the obvious course of action would have been to undertake a consultation on all closures. By setting up the consultation criteria in the way that they have, the UK Government have manufactured the result they wanted: namely, only 30 job- centres out of the 183 affected by the changes will be subject to consultation. We all know that the reality of this situation is that the closure decision has absolutely nothing to do with providing a Government service. Rather, it is part of the UK Government’s goal of selling £4.5 billion-worth of Government land and property by 2020-21.

Over the course of the previous Parliament, the DWP estate shrunk by 17%, with the Government intent on reducing the size by a further 20%. I fully appreciate the need for any Government to spend public funds wisely, but the decision to slash the number of jobcentres will most definitely have a negative impact on my constituents. The most obvious consideration is the additional travel costs that service users will face in getting to their appointments. This will barely register as small change for a UK Government Minister or indeed an MP, but it is an unwanted additional expense for someone already struggling on a low income.

Constituents will also be burdened with increased travel times, which in turn puts them at an increased risk of being sanctioned under the DWP’s draconian and uncompromising rules. Again, the Minister may say, “It’s only three miles’ difference. What’s the big deal?”

One issue that may have been identified had a local consultation taken place is that the only main road between Greenock and Port Glasgow is liable to flooding at certain times of the year. It may block traffic once or twice a year, but one missed appointment is all it takes to be sanctioned. I want to say that I support the staff of the Port Glasgow jobcentre, who are fulfilling their support roles as best they can with the guidance handed to them from ministerial level. I am aware that they have their own reservations about the closure and how it will affect their clients. In the words of Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union:

“Jobcentres provide a lifeline for unemployed people and forcing them to travel further is not only unfair, it undermines support to get them back to work.”

A report from the Disability Benefits Consortium found that 93% of respondents to a survey of service users thought that the process for applying for PIP was stressful: 80% experienced difficulties in completing the claim form, while 82% felt that the application process had a negative impact on their health. Will Minister explain how closing one of my constituency’s two jobcentres will improve that experience for service users?

We can highlight the lack of consultation and the specific practical issues surrounding this closure. My fear, however, is that the issue highlights, once again, a more general problem—the UK Government’s complete lack of compassion or genuine concern for vulnerable people. Instead they pursue spreadsheet politics where the only thing that matters is the bottom line.

I hope that the debate will not conclude with a meaningless regurgitation of the Government’s policy. At the very least the Minister should have the intellectual honesty to come to the Chamber and admit that the experience of service users is not a consideration in the closure decision. My constituents deserve that. I support the calls for closures to be suspended until a wider consultation is conducted, so that we can properly assess the impact of the decision on all our constituents.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office) 3:21 pm, 16th March 2017

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend Chris Stephens for securing today’s important debate through the Backbench Business Committee; I also thank all those who supported the application, and the Members who are participating today.

We are back again: this is the third full debate on the issue in which I have participated. I am rather disappointed that many of the questions and points raised in the first two are yet to be addressed by the Department for Work and Pensions. Parliamentary questions tabled by me and my colleagues have received poor quality answers. At least one thing can be said of the Department: it is consistent in its handling of the matter. Right from the start, it has been a shambles. As we have heard, after the news broke in the press that half Glasgow’s jobcentres were to be axed, it took seven hours for the Department to write to the affected MPs and inform us. It did not see fit to inform us or even consult us; nor did it bother to speak with the devolved Administration in Scotland.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West said, paragraph 58 of the Smith commission report states that

“the UK and Scottish Government will 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 report emphasised that the Scottish Government would have greater responsibility, jointly with the UK Government, in relation to Jobcentre Plus. Yet that did not happen. Not only were the Scottish Government kept in the dark; I have discovered through written parliamentary questions that the Secretary of State for Scotland was not even informed of the specific plans for the jobcentre closures in Glasgow before the information was made public. Why were neither the devolved Administration at Holyrood nor the Scotland Office made aware of DWP plans? Was it arrogance or ignorance that led the DWP to act in such a cavalier fashion, with such disregard for those alongside whom it is supposed to be working constructively? I will be kind and say it was ignorance of the needs of the people of Scotland.

The Department will have to listen to the views of those who rely on the services, and meet the needs of the people of Scotland. It needs to understand that the impact of the closures is part of an intricate local picture. I wonder whether the Minister knows, for instance, of the issues affecting Cambuslang in my constituency, where the Main Street jobcentre is due to close next year. Is the Department aware that Royal Bank of Scotland closed its doors there just months ago, that local traders have subsequently suffered a reported 30% drop in footfall, or that the two remaining banks, TSB and Clydesdale, have announced that they too are to close in the coming months? Has it considered at all the cumulative impact that those closures will have along with the closure of a major resource such as the jobcentre? I am guessing the answer to all of those questions is no. Perhaps if Ministers had bothered to consult me, they would be better informed.

The Department will have seriously to make up for its former ignorance by consulting service users, local stakeholders—such as the local Church of Scotland minister Neil Glover, who has spoken out against the jobcentre closure and described it as a moral issue— and elected representatives, and by working with the Scottish Government. Scottish Employability and Training Minister Jamie Hepburn has written to and met Ministers from the Department, not only to express grave concerns but to seek clarity on the issue. He has requested that UK Ministers meet benefit recipients and others from the communities that will be affected by the proposals.

It is vital that the UK Government should consult properly and consider all options, including co-location opportunities. The Scottish Government are proactively exploring opportunities to co-locate jobcentre services with local partners to ease the impact on individuals and communities. The Department should do likewise, and ensure that the Scottish Government are fully engaged with the process.

As I have said, this is the third debate on the subject. It is frustrating that we have to bring up the same issues again. I ask the Minister today to take seriously the points that have been raised—I shall go further, and ask for a guarantee that the jobcentre in Cambuslang will not close its doors. If he decides that it should, at the very least we need a presence in Cambuslang to ensure that claimants will not have to travel further, with increased travel costs, all the way to Rutherglen. My constituents deserve better than the approach taken by the UK Government so far.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy) 3:27 pm, 16th March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I, too, offer thanks and congratulations to Chris Stephens.

When I first saw the announcement about the closure of the Eastern Avenue jobcentre in my constituency I was relatively agnostic about it. Given that there were to be no compulsory redundancies and it is a relatively short distance into town, I did not think it would be that much of a problem. If the Government could make a case that centres needed to be closed and services improved in certain areas, I was prepared to listen to it. However, having read the further announcement, followed the plan’s progress and, as Margaret Ferrier said, participated in several debates, I have been horrified that no justification has been given for the decisions at all. None of the work—the assessments or gathering and publication of evidence—that one would expect ahead of a decision of the kind has been done; no such work informed the pitiful consultation process that has taken place so far.

It is claimed on the Government website that the decisions are due to the claimant count reducing and the number of digital interactions increasing, and the fact that 20% of the DWP estate is underutilised. To take those one by one, it may be the case that the claimant count is falling, but I do not think that anyone could tell jobcentre staff anywhere in the UK that their workload has reduced in the past seven years and is likely to continue to reduce—not least because of the roll-out of universal credit, which is incredibly complex. As has been mentioned, universal credit will require more interactions than in the past, including face-to-face interactions. For the first time, working people will have to attend interviews at jobcentres; and from April lone parents will be obliged to see work coaches once their child reaches three years old, rather than five, which is the current threshold. It is highly unlikely that interactions and workload will fall in the coming years.

As to digital interactions, the ward in which Eastern Avenue jobcentre is to close is one of the most deprived in the country; 74% of people there are in the 10% most deprived in the country. Many of them do not use the internet at all, let alone have the capacity to apply online—there are very high levels of digital exclusion. Ironically, the council is currently doing some work on digital inclusion, commissioned by the DWP, around Eastern Avenue jobcentre; that work will have to be halted. Again, there does not seem to have been any recognition or cognisance of the impact that the cuts will have on that work.

Whether or not the estate is underutilised at Eastern Avenue—or indeed at Cavendish Court, where the Government are expecting claimants to move to—is open to question. I have been to both jobcentres and there certainly does not seem to be any underutilised space—Cavendish Court in particular is bursting at the seams—but we do not know, because the Government have not published any of the evidence and do not seem to have done any of the work behind it. I met the manager for my region, North, East Yorkshire and the Humber, after the Minister advised me that that was the best way to proceed. It was not her fault, but I am afraid the manager had absolutely nothing to add to what the Government had already published.

As other Members have said, there has clearly been no equality impact assessment. Nor has there been any assessment of how many employment and support allowance or income support claimants are currently using Eastern Avenue and will therefore now have to go to the city centre. The Government do not know how many claimants the closure is going to affect, which is basic information that we would expect to inform the consultation process. There was no information on how much the Government would save by closing Eastern Avenue. That is important, because the regional manager admitted that money would have to be spent on the city centre jobcentre to increase its capacity and accommodate all the extra claimants, so we do not know whether the closure will actually save the taxpayer a single penny.

No plans have been put in place and no work has been done on whether claimants who currently come under Woodhouse jobcentre, but are looked after by Eastern Avenue if they need group sessions or screened appointments, can be accommodated by Cavendish Court, or whether more money will have to spent to develop the space at Woodhouse to conduct those sessions. Eastern Avenue currently conducts 17 screened appointments a week. That is a considerable amount of time to dedicate to claimants, and we have absolutely no idea whether Cavendish Court can accommodate them.

There was a paltry four-week consultation, although we were lucky to get even that in Sheffield; as we have heard today, many jobcentres throughout the country did not. The Government have treated Parliament and, worse, the public with disdain by refusing to justify their decision and publish the evidential basis behind it. How can Ministers possibly ask us to support the decision if the information is not available? Now that the consultation has closed, before the Government publish their final decision I ask the Minister to publish the DWP’s people and estates programme and any of the other impact assessments that were presumably conducted internally. I really hope that the Government have not taken the approach, which they seem to have taken in the past, of just pointing to jobcentres on Google Maps and deciding, seemingly haphazardly and arbitrarily, which centres to close.

I particularly want to press the Minister on why the Government have rowed back on their original commitment not to close jobcentres in particularly deprived areas. Finally, I urge him not to rely solely on Google Maps for travel times, as he recently admitted to doing in answer to a written question from me. [Interruption.] He is looking confused, but he confirmed to me that his Department used Google Maps for travel times.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

Yes. The Department’s introduction to the announcement confidently asserted that the travel time between Eastern Avenue and the city centre would be 24 minutes. That analysis was based on Google Maps. A claimant who currently goes to Eastern Avenue did a travel journal for me of his journeys from Eastern Avenue to Cavendish Court on eight separate occasions, and not one of them took 24 minutes. The average journey time between the two jobcentres is 44 minutes.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

The hon. Lady is giving some fascinating facts. Does she know that the exercise with Google Maps in Glasgow used information based on bus services that are no longer operational?

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

That is another interesting point that shows the problems with using Google Maps without consulting the local authority or the local passenger transport executive, as any rational person would expect the Government to do. On average, the journey between Eastern Avenue and the city centre takes 44 minutes. The maximum time it took Antony was 63 minutes.

There is clear consensus today that the evidence base and the impact assessments need to be published before the final decision is made. I would really like the Minister to reflect today on the long-term impact of removing a respected community service from incredibly deprived areas—Arbourthorne and Manor Top are some of the most deprived in the country—that have relied on them for so long.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

The three Front-Bench speakers need about eight minutes each, and I want to leave two minutes for the mover of the motion to wind up.

Photo of Phil Boswell Phil Boswell Scottish National Party, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 3:35 pm, 16th March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend Chris Stephens for securing the debate, and all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed.

It is vital that we stand up for workers’ rights in these times of austerity. It is critical that the Government engage with unions in a meaningful way and include them in the determination and resolution of any appropriate issue such as office closures. My hon. Friends have covered the lack of interface with the Scottish Government; their points were well made and I will not repeat them. My constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is affected by the cuts to jobcentre locations, as are the constituencies of many other Members present. I commend them for their attendance; appropriately, given the debate’s cross-party nature, we have adopted a collective response.

Coatbridge is a local DWP back office that employs about 250 people and is facing closure as a result of these cuts. I have been in contact with union representatives about the closure since the announcement was made and I recently attended the annual general meeting of the local branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union to discuss the impact of the closure on its members and on the local community. I was particularly concerned to be informed by the union that the DWP’s announcement was made without any consultation with the workers or the union at all. The DWP did not inform me of the lack of consultation when I was contacted about the closure. Although the DWP has stated that the closure will not involve any job losses, it has indicated that the jobs in question will be moved to alternate locations in central Glasgow or Motherwell, both of which are approximately half an hour’s drive away—and that is if we assume no traffic delays.

Coatbridge is a community filled with young families. Many people base decisions about who they work for on the location of their potential workplace: they choose to work in locations that allow them to drop their children at school in the morning or be near an elderly or poorly relative. There is also the issue of additional travel costs for the predominantly local staff to and from Glasgow and Motherwell—again, colleagues have covered that well, so I will not repeat the points they made. For many workers affected by the cut, the loss of that essential proximity to home, the additional travel and the associated costs may mean that they need to seek alternative employment. I can hardly see how a Government can describe themselves as pro-family when they put so many in such a precarious position.

The union members I spoke to were concerned about the dilution and inevitable reduction in the quality of services provided to service users that the cuts will cause, as was well articulated by my hon. Friend Ronnie Cowan. The closure will affect not only current employees and their families but local businesses, as my hon. Friend Margaret Ferrier articulated well. The DWP facility that faces closure is just off the main street in Coatbridge and, like many town centres throughout the country, it suffers from massive reductions in footfall, and subsequently business, for high street retailers and service providers. It seemed as if things could not get any worse for our main street retailers, but the facility’s relocation out of Coatbridge town centre will be yet another blow for the businesses in and around it and for the other businesses, such as childcare businesses, restaurants and takeaways, that support the local workforce in my constituency and the surrounding constituencies.

Unfortunately, the announced closure is only one of a decades-long series of ideologically driven cuts to services in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill from a London-centric UK Government. It gives the lie to the claim we hear from London about caring conservatism. Nothing could be further from the truth. I urge the Minister to focus on the decentralisation of services if he and his Government are truly serious about a more inclusive Britain for all. Like my colleagues, I ask the Minister to reconsider, to halt the closures and to review them after proper assessments and a proper consultation process have been carried out.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour/Co-operative, Barrow and Furness 3:39 pm, 16th March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate Chris Stephens and thank him for securing this debate. I want to speak against the impending closure of Phoenix House in Barrow, which is not a jobcentre but a back-office benefits processing centre. As I will outline, the 80 people in that centre perform an important service to people throughout the United Kingdom. As I said to the Minister, who was good enough to make himself available in the days immediately after the shock announcement, closing the centre could have damaging consequences for the people whom we as a country, the state and his Department are supposed to be serving.

In contrast with some of the tone of the debate so far, I am not questioning the Minister’s integrity. Everything that I saw of him in the time before he became a Minister suggests that he is genuinely committed to the field, in which he spent a considerable amount of time before being promoted to a ministerial role. However, he is presiding over a process that is simply not acceptable, for many reasons that have been outlined in this debate. This is an important opportunity for him to listen and make amends.

I imagine that the Minister will recall our brief meeting. Having worked as an adviser in the Department where he now serves, I have some experience of how it can sometimes drive forward with a programme while treating ministerial direction—which, frankly, it sometimes seems to take as advice—as wholly unwelcome, although I do not expect him to confirm that in his remarks. I have spoken with his Department. Mentioning the conduct of civil servants is not something I do lightly, but I was genuinely taken aback when I went to see the Minister and the civil servant who was there to support him did not even know what benefit was processed in Barrow. That is lacking in and of itself when we are talking about 80 people in my constituency who are losing their jobs. As the Minister for Employment, he will have some understanding that when skilled office jobs are eliminated in a geographically remote constituency such as Barrow, they have little prospect of being replaced by something else, and people cannot realistically travel to another place two or more hours away. I expected that civil servant to know what those people did, at least.

Due to the nature of the benefit, closing Phoenix House and taking the facilities somewhere else in the country, inevitably employing new people, will do damage to the service provided. The centre processes industrial injuries disablement benefit. The team say proudly that they have more than 100 years’ experience between them of processing that benefit. Due to that build-up of expertise, the Barrow team has taken part in a process that has reduced the processing time for that benefit from 175 days to 33 days. That is an achievement and welcome in itself, but we must also take into account who receives the benefit. It goes to people who have developed terrible conditions. Many of them, such as those suffering from the likes of asbestosis, are terminally ill due to negligence in past decades. That is why they have been given compensation in the form of the benefit. The whole point of focusing on driving down the time that it takes for them to get it is that it makes the difference between them receiving it while they are still alive and receiving it after they have died.

When I made the case to the Minister, he told me that he and the Government were not in the business of reversing that progress and going back to the days when, unfortunately, many people died before they were given the benefit, which is itself inadequate compensation for having their lives taken away but is nevertheless important both financially and as recognition that they were wronged in their employment. I put it to him again that reversing progress is exactly what will happen if that function is taken away from Phoenix House and put elsewhere in the country.

The Minister will know by now, I hope, that it takes 12 to 18 months to train people in even a basic level of competence, and the people at Phoenix House have much more than that due to the experience that they have built up. I am coming to the end of my time; I am pleased that we are giving him ample time to address all the diverse issues. I hope that he can address the plight of the staff members at Phoenix House, who are campaigning hard. They have set up a petition, and I supported their march in Barrow on Saturday. They are fighting for their jobs, but they are also fighting for the service that they give to the rest of the nation, and I hope that he takes it seriously in his response.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Scottish National Party, Glasgow South 3:47 pm, 16th March 2017

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I congratulate and thank my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend Chris Stephens for securing this debate. After many—possibly more than 100—written questions, urgent questions, debates in Westminster Hall and points of order that are not really points of order, I salute his indefatigability in pursuing this issue.

I also thank the PCS Scotland union for the excellent job that it has done assisting Members of Parliament throughout the country, and particularly in Glasgow, where we heard the rather unwelcome news just before Christmas that the Government intend to reduce the jobcentre estate by half, from 16 jobcentres to eight, two of which—the Castlemilk and Langside jobcentres—are in my constituency.

I hate to say it, but having spoken in the two previous debates, met the Minister along with colleagues and taken part in the urgent questions, there is not much new for me to say. However, as you will know, Mr Walker, the Speaker reminds us that repetition is not a vice in this House, so I will repeat some of it. The Castlemilk jobcentre serves a community that was once more populous than the city of Perth and has some of the most deprived neighbourhoods anywhere in the United Kingdom. It sits in the Braes shopping centre in the centre of Castlemilk, and it is, I think, the only serious anchor tenant there. If the jobcentre goes, it will create big problems.

However, that should not be the only reason for it to stay. The other reason is that closure will have an impact on those who use the jobcentre. I hate to say it, but to return to the point made earlier by Louise Haigh, this plan has been designed by Google Maps. Like John Woodcock, I do not want to mention civil servants on the public record, but when we met senior civil servants from the Department for Work and Pensions in Glasgow before Christmas, I jokingly asked if they had worked it out using Google Maps, expecting the answer to be, “Don’t be so ridiculous, Mr McDonald; we would never do such a thing.” However, the response I got was, “Yes, we’ve used Google Maps,” which has bus services that no longer exist and does not take into account travel times as far as traffic goes.

Langside jobcentre serves the second most densely populated council ward anywhere in Scotland, and it serves a population of people who live in private lets and who often have quite precarious working conditions, in temporary jobs, on zero-hours contracts and with relatively low pay, and whose employment is in many cases anything but secure.

I would ask the Minister why, despite several genuine and friendly invitations, he has not taken any time at all to visit any of the jobcentres in Glasgow that he wishes to close. I do not know what he thinks will happen to him if he comes, but I can assure him that either I or one of my hon. Friends from the city of Glasgow will look after him. He will be okay. Even at this late stage, I implore him to visit a jobcentre in Glasgow to hear what the staff and the users have to say.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham

Will any of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents face what a number of my constituents in East Ham in London will face once our local jobcentre closes, which is a doubling of their public transport fares in order to get to the replacement jobcentre?

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Scottish National Party, Glasgow South

Absolutely. With the Castlemilk jobcentre, all the people who use it will effectively have to use what the Department calls the Newlands jobcentre—it is called that, but it is actually in Pollokshaws, which is even further away than Newlands. All the people from Castlemilk who have to use that jobcentre will have an 8-mile round trip to get there and back. At the minute, no matter where someone is in Castlemilk, they can walk to the jobcentre in, at the most, maybe seven minutes, and that is for a perfectly able-bodied person.

I do not see the need to put those kinds of barriers in people’s way for trying to access a service that has been in their community for a long, long time. The Department seems to think that people can get from Castlemilk to the jobcentre in Pollokshaws in under 30 minutes—I think that is what it has said. I say, “Well, good luck with that,” because, having gone around the constituency countless times over the years I have lived in Glasgow, which is my entire adult life, I certainly have never been able to make that journey in just over 20 minutes.

However, I will come to my final point, which is on the consultation. We had to drag the Government to publish their consultation on the Glasgow jobcentres online; they had no intention of doing that. [Interruption.] The Minister can shake his head or gesticulate in any way he wants, but they had no intention of putting that on the Department for Work and Pensions website. It was welcome that they did, and it was also welcome that they extended the consultation for around two weeks. I am not sure what the Minister is so flabbergasted by, but I look forward to hearing about it none the less.

It was quite remiss of the Government not to take the time to write to every single person who would have been affected by these closures. When someone goes to the jobcentre to register, there is not a bit of information that the staff do not get from them, so the Government could have made it easy for those for whom this closure would be a big issue to take part in the consultation. Rather than just having fliers and putting up a couple of posters in jobcentres, the Government could have sent a consultation response form directly to their houses, or by email, rather than relying on Members of Parliament or members of the public—I had several people willing to do this, even though they were not exactly happy about it—standing outside jobcentres and informing people that they were going to close, which was the first time they had heard about it. In my view, it was quite wrong of Ministers not to inform MPs about this matter and for us to have to read about it in the press, but that is nothing in comparison with members of the public who use the jobcentres finding out from a stranger in the street campaigning outside a jobcentre.

The Government have handled the consultation poorly; however, I would like to hear what the responses to the consultation contain. I would also like to hear how many responses there have been and to know when the announcement on closures will be made. My understanding is that we can expect an announcement towards the end of March—that is, around about the time that article 50 is in full-blown scale, so it will perhaps be a good time to bury bad news.

Nevertheless, I ask the Minister this quite sincerely: can he commit to making an oral statement on the Floor of the House and to not sneaking this news out in a written statement, a press release, or in some fashion that avoids proper parliamentary scrutiny? If he gives me nothing else today—U-turns are quite fashionable this week, but I am not sure he will do another—I ask him to commit at the very least to making a full oral statement on the Floor of the House, so that Members can scrutinise the decision further.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

I am going to call the Minister no later than 4.18 pm. If the Opposition Front Benchers want me to call him earlier than that—he has got lots of notes—that is entirely up to them.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 3:55 pm, 16th March 2017

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Stephens on securing this critical debate.

As the Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire, I would like to put on the record the fact that the Alexandria jobcentre in the Vale of Leven in my constituency has been proposed for closure. Colleagues from all parties have made strong cases for the reversal of the UK Government’s proposals to close a number of jobcentres in their respective constituencies. I hope the Minister will take their points on board. I feel for the Minister, because I am led to believe that there will be a closure in his own constituency, which must be going down like a lead balloon.

Although I agree with the arguments put forward by colleagues, there are special circumstances that set the Alexandria jobcentre apart. The catchment area shares similar characteristics with others earmarked for closure. There are high levels of deprivation and unemployment, which, as in other urban areas, must be taken into consideration. The Alexandria jobcentre differs, in that it serves a population that is not only urban but suburban, in the true sense, and a rural community, which results in a set of unique challenges for those living in those communities, especially given that the area includes the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park boundary.

An argument put forward by the DWP to support its proposal is that it is now easier to access jobcentre services, whether over the phone, online or in person. Let me take those in order. For citizens living in rural areas, the practical challenges are many. People whose line connections depend on weather conditions, which in my constituency are temperamental at best, do not have easy access to services by phone, as the Department argues. Given BT Openreach’s dubious record in elements of the rural sections of my constituency, there are difficulties in online connectivity.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although the Department publicly suggests that 0845 numbers are no longer in operation, claimants can phone an 0845 number, which costs 55p a minute?

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

It is an outrage. My hon. Friend highlights something that makes a mockery of the suggestion that this will save money.

Those who do not have an internet connection because their area has not yet had substantial investment in broadband connectivity—in my area we need investment in the copper wiring, never mind new fibre—cannot access the services online as easily as the Department presumes. Many urban, suburban and rural citizens simply cannot afford to sign up to an internet provider. That also holds true in relation to phone and mobile operators.

Reducing the number of jobcentres and moving those services to a central location—in my constituency, down to Dumbarton—will make it more difficult for citizens to access those so-called local services in person. It will result in longer journeys at a greater cost to those who are already struggling to pay the bills, and it may exacerbate health conditions. In certain parts of my consistency in the winter, it is not an easy journey, especially for people coming from the national park end. To suggest that those individuals can claim back any cost incurred through the longer journey misses the bigger point. They are already struggling financially, and the lack of awareness from the Government and specifically the Department is quite unnerving.

To ensure the best service for citizens, all interested parties must be involved. I welcome West Dunbartonshire Council’s proactive cross-party approach to tackling these issues in the best way for our constituents. I urge the Minister in the strongest possible terms to engage constructively with the local authority to retain those local services. In the light of that, I ask him to draw its attention to the policy, because there are different policy frameworks across the UK. For Scotland, I urge the Department to read the report by the Christie commission on the future delivery of public services, which shows how that delivery might be achieved with community planning partners. The clue is in the name: it is about partners and partnership.

Unfortunately, my hon. Friend Mhairi Black cannot be here today for personal reasons, and she asked me to raise a few points on her behalf. The Department announced that it was relocating 300 jobs out of her constituency into the city of Glasgow, with no consideration of the impact on the local economy. In addition, no consideration has been given to how existing staff will be affected and how the travel time will impact on their lives. That could be a major factor that may force some existing staff to consider taking redundancy, as any move may be impractical. Why is the DWP abandoning a purpose-built office to take on a new lease?

To sum up, I hope that the Minister and his civil servants will take on board the valid concerns expressed by all Members and be proactive in responding, in particular by recognising the opportunities for co-location and partnership working for local services in local communities. I am sure I speak on behalf of all Members in praising the staff and those from the PCS union. I have been meeting them to ensure that this is kept to the fore as a major issue for us to debate.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 4:01 pm, 16th March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate Chris Stephens on securing this debate. He spoke passionately about the haphazard nature of the closures, and described it as a Google Maps exercise done on the back of an envelope. He also spoke about the loss of jobs and the impact on the local economy. It has been a very important debate, even though we have already had several debates on this issue.

We have had some excellent contributions, particularly from my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander, who made a measured speech about the impact on her constituents and the Government’s complacency on the economic consequences of Brexit for the financial sector, on which many of her constituents rely. Ronnie Cowan spoke about practical problems, such as flood risk and the impact that might have on people being sanctioned. Margaret Ferrier talked about the cumulative impact in her constituency of other closures, such as those of local banks.

My hon. Friend Louise Haigh represents one of the most deprived areas of the country. She asked the Minister why we should be asked to support the measure, given that we have not been given the evidence base or any impact assessment. My hon. Friend John Woodcock made some very good points about the remote geographical location of his constituency and the loss of expertise for Jobcentre Plus. My right hon. Friend Stephen Timms spoke about the doubling of public transport fares for people in his constituency. There were also contributions by my hon. Friend Mr Cunningham and Philip Boswell.

Many questions still need to be answered. The Government appear to believe that the current levels of employment and the introduction of universal credit mean that more than one in 10 Jobcentre Plus offices can be closed, regardless of the impact on the local community. According to House of Commons Library analysis, 33% of jobcentres in London, 18% of jobcentres in Scotland and 16% of jobcentres in the north-west will be lost at a time when communities are already under real pressure due to seven years of Tory austerity.

Jobcentre Plus faces considerable challenges in the immediate future. From this April, it will play a much greater role in directly providing employment support when new referrals to the Work programme cease. From the end of this year, the Work programme and Work Choice will be replaced by the Work and Health programme. Most people claiming JSA are currently asked to take part in the Work programme, while Work Choice provides specialist employment support for disabled people.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office)

Does the shadow Minister agree that it is about not only the expertise of jobcentre staff in carrying out their role, but the rapport built up between them and the clients? That is even more important when dealing with those with mental health issues, where continuity is crucial.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I thank the hon. Lady for that; she makes a good point.

Eligibility for the Work and Health programme will be much more restricted than the programmes it replaces. It will be open to certain disabled people and to people who have been unemployed for two years or more. In light of that, the Employment Related Services Association estimates that as many as 45,000 fewer disabled people will have access to specialist employment support in every remaining year of this Parliament. Employment support for almost everyone else will be provided by Jobcentre Plus, including many disabled people with specialist needs.

How does the programme of jobcentre closures square with the Government’s aim of meeting their manifesto commitment of halving the disability employment gap? The longer and more complicated journeys to jobcentres as a result of the closures will particularly affect disabled people and people with caring responsibilities. Why has the DWP not yet published an equality impact assessment to analyse the effect of the closures on claimants and the local community?

More difficult journeys also increase the risk of claimants being sanctioned by staff for being late for or missing appointments. Will DWP issue guidance that, when considering sanctions, jobcentres should take account of increased journey times due to closures? There is already a backlog of sanctions, which in some cases is leading to money being withdrawn from claimants months after non-compliance, even though claimants may in the meantime have done what they were asked to do.

The roll-out of universal credit is continuing and will also present additional challenges for Jobcentre Plus. Jobcentres are having to do a huge range of things: provide careers advice to schools; deliver the new youth obligation under universal credit, which involves much more intensive support for 18 to 21-year-olds for the first six months of their claim; assess the viability of businesses for self-employed people claiming universal credit; and extend services to the partners of jobseekers, because universal credit applies to a household, so for the first time a spouse or partner of a claimant can be asked to attend a jobcentre to discuss work, even if they themselves have not made a claim or are in work. In future, jobcentres will also have to operate in-work conditionality under universal credit. In other words, people on low incomes who are working will be required to increase their earnings or risk being sanctioned—another first.

There is growing evidence that the supposed six-week wait for payment at the start of a universal credit claim is much longer in some areas, leading to people being in arrears with their rent and building up debts. Will the Minister assure us that the DWP has fully taken into account the need to tackle existing delays in processing claims in its plans for closures? Furthermore, universal credit is being rolled out at a rate of five jobcentres per month, rising to 30 jobcentres per month from July and 50 jobcentres after September, but by the end of last year the Department was ready to announce a dramatic programme of closures at the very time it was going to speed up the roll-out of universal credit.

Universal credit is, of course, designed for claims to be made and managed online. The Minister, in his statement of 26 January, highlighted that

“99.6% of applicants for Universal Credit full service submitted their claim online.”

As has been said by many Members, however, not everyone is confident of using IT, and many people rely on access to a computer in local libraries to do so—and libraries, too, are under threat from the cuts to local authority funding, with which we are all so familiar.

Just because a claim is made online does not mean that it can then be completely managed online. When there is a problem, a claimant may have little choice but to ring the DWP helpline or to go to a jobcentre to resolve it. We know from parliamentary questions last year that many claimants are spending long periods on the phone to DWP’s universal credit helpline.

The DWP is not alone in closing offices. HMRC is also planning to close all its 170 offices nationwide by 2020, replacing them with only 13 regional centres. Employment support works best when people have a good relationship with their adviser or work coach and it is tailored to a claimant’s specific needs. I am concerned that the system is already buckling under increasing pressure and that, in closing so many jobcentres at the same time as speeding up the roll-out of universal credit, the Government are simply asking the impossible of work coaches, who are at the heart of our system of employment support.

It is vital that we have a reliable social security system that is there for any one of us should we fall on hard times. Those closures look set to erode the infrastructure in place to deliver that system without the Government’s even having made an equality impact assessment. I urge the Government to think again.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

Before I call the Minister, I remind him that we would like Mr Stephens to have two minutes at the end. Would the Minister mind sitting down by 4.28 pm?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 4:08 pm, 16th March 2017

As always, it is a great pleasure to see you chairing the debate, Mr Walker. I congratulate Chris Stephens on securing it and giving us the chance to debate these matters again. I think at one point he suggested that this was the first chance that we had had to debate—

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

For clarity, this is the first time we have had a chance to debate the issue since the UK-wide announcement, not just the Glasgow announcement.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I am pleased with that clarification, although we had the urgent question on 30 January, after the UK-wide announcement on 26 January, and the Westminster Hall debate in this Chamber on 20 December, as well as a number of oral and written questions—the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, suggested more than 100. I have not been counting, but I confirm that it is a substantial number. Of course, we have had the opportunity to meet one to one and with groups as well. I am grateful for this further opportunity to debate these important matters.

On 31 March next year, the DWP’s 20-year private finance initiative contract, which covers the majority of the Department’s property portfolio of more than 900 sites, will expire. The Department for Work and Pensions currently occupies about 1.5 million square metres of office space, and these days at least 20% of it is under-occupied. The falling claimant count and the increased use of our online services in recent years means that 20% of the taxpayers’ money that the Department is spending on rent is going towards space that is not being used. By paying only for the space we do need and the services required to operate from that, we anticipate saving about £180 million a year for the next 10 years.

The expiry of that contract at the end of March 2018 presents both a unique opportunity and a specific requirement to review the estate. In response to changing demands facing the Department, we have redesigned the estate in a way that delivers better value for the taxpayer. I need to be clear that this is not about reducing services; it is about taking the opportunity to stop spending taxpayers’ money on unused space so that we can target money effectively on supporting those in need. We have carefully considered the challenges that we anticipate the Department is likely to face in the future, but the jobs landscape and the way people work has changed significantly in the past 20 years.

As has been mentioned, some 90% of universal credit claims are made online and with more of our services moving online, in common with other organisations, we want to continue making the most of the opportunities that new technologies present to help best meet our claimants’ needs.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

On the roll-out of universal credit, in Sheffield it has been rolled out only to lone individuals with no children. As it expands to cover other types of benefits, the rate will decrease dramatically and, as has been mentioned, the number of interactions is only going in one direction. It is therefore misleading to use that statistic.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I am certainly not trying to mislead and I do not think I am misleading. I reassure the hon. Lady that the Department for Work and Pensions, in common with others, does staff and resource planning that takes into account all the different demands that will be made on our services, and that includes the fact that, as a number of Members have mentioned, in universal credit there is the opportunity to work more closely with people, with the workload that that will involve, to encourage more people into work. Of course, that is all part of the plans and not something additional that has not been considered.

The hon. Lady mentioned work with, for example, lone mums on income support. There is also work with partners, as Margaret Greenwood mentioned, and then work with people in work, the self-employed and so on. I should add that some of those offers are in development, and we will adjust and evolve the operation of the offer to optimise it as time goes on. However, of course the assumptions on the amount of workload involved are reflected in the plans.

It is right that we reflect not only the impact of the digital revolution in meeting our claimants’ needs but the realities of a more flexible labour market and significant falls in unemployment since 2010. The employment rate is at a new record high: there are more people in work than ever before. We had the statistics on the unemployment rate come out just yesterday: they have hit a 12-year low. In fact, the last time the unemployment rate was lower than what was announced yesterday was in the mid-1970s. Of course, we always have to consider that things in the world will change. That is also considered in the planning assumptions made by the Department.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

In terms of employment rates, does the Minister not concede that one result of that is that those who are not in work at the moment have specific circumstances and challenges to overcome? On that basis, that should result in more face-to-face, rather than online, contact.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman makes a characteristically important and insightful point. Of course, what he says is true. There is a distinction to be made between different claimants and clients in different circumstances, in receipt of different types or benefits—for example, people who are on employment and support allowance are not required to attend jobcentres fortnightly or weekly in the same way as people who are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance.

We want to maximise the opportunities available to all those groups of people, of course. Some of that is about stuff that happens in jobcentres; some of it is not. There are some things that could be done more effectively not in jobcentres than in them, particularly with some people who are further away from the jobs market, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

The claimant count in my constituency went up by 50 in the last month. Although that may be a monthly blip, I am concerned about the overall strength of the London economy moving forward. The Minister talked about the space being under-occupied by a fifth, yet in London he is proposing to close a third of jobcentres. Will he explain that for me?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I can. I was going to come on to Lewisham and some of the points that the hon. Lady raised on London, but I will address it now. Overall, the estate is 20% under-utilised, but that does not mean to say that in every individual jobcentre there is exactly 20% of unused space. In terms of the utilisation rates, there is a wide range in individual jobcentres and between cities, when we take the total estate in that city into account. There is no complacency at all about the strength of the labour market in London, Sheffield or Glasgow, or in any other place. In all of the locations that we operate from throughout the United Kingdom, jobcentre staff are focused night and day on helping people to get into work.

In the case of Lewisham, the landlord did not want to re-lease and we believe that 2.1 miles to the Forest Hill location is a reasonable distance to ask people to travel additionally. As the hon. Lady will realise, the London property market is an expensive place to have real estate and there are particular challenges with finding premises in London. We think that the estate we have across London is reasonable in terms of asking people to get around.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

The DWP is exploring the possibility of taking on space in Eros House, which is an accessible, central location. If that costs a little bit more, would the Minister commit to exploring that option, given the additional benefits it can bring?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Lady will understand that I am not going to stand up in Westminster Hall—nor should I—and talk about detailed proposals and plans for sites that she or others may put forward, but we are always open to talking about the range of opportunities. I am happy to follow up with her on the specific points she raises.

In every case where change is proposed, we have sought to minimise disruption and listen carefully to those who might be affected, but as a result of modernisation, the Department’s services are demanding fewer people to deliver. It is only right that we consider our options going forward. Delivering a modern and dynamic service to claimants requires modern and dynamic working environments, and that is what we are striving towards as part of our vision for DWP in 2020. Our aim is to maintain and improve the services offered across the country.

We recognise, of course, how important the DWP’s staff are to achieving that aim. They are our most valuable resource. It is as a result of their immense effort that the Department is able to provide such a high level of service to our customers. My colleagues and I have been clear that the proposals for the DWP’s redesigned estate do not mean a reduction in the number of frontline staff. In fact, we are recruiting and we expect to have more work coaches in every nation and region of the United Kingdom at the end of this process in March 2018 than we do today.

For staff across the DWP network who may be affected by the estate changes, we are currently working through options with each individual, identifying relocation opportunities in the event of closure, but most of all we are listening carefully to understand fully the impact on staff.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I am happy to give way, but I was coming to the hon Gentleman’s point.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour/Co-operative, Barrow and Furness

If the Minister is going to answer this, great, but does he recognise the particular issue of the unfeasibility of Barrow staff relocating, and has he had a chance to examine the proposal that I made when we met to find a cheaper lease on a smaller property in Barrow than Phoenix House?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I recognise, of course, the difficult position that staff in Barrow are in and I join the hon. Gentleman in the tribute that he paid to the immensely valuable work that they do. I fully recognise, as he does, the accumulated experience that that group of dedicated staff has. One-to-one conversations will be going on in Barrow and, indeed, in all other locations where there are affected staff. There will be some limited opportunities for staff in Barrow jobcentre, but I am not suggesting that that covers everybody.

The industrial injuries work rightly raised by the hon. Gentleman is moving to Barnsley, which is an existing centre with experience and expertise. Overall for that work, reducing volume demand is projected over the next five years, and we do not expect an impact on service to the customer.

The Department has already made a commitment to support anyone who chooses to relocate in the event of a site closure. That would include the payment of additional travel expenses for up to three years. However, the fact remains that the Department has significantly more capacity across its network than is needed to serve the needs of our customers, even allowing, of course, for a sensible margin. It is imperative that we strive towards more modern and dynamic delivery methods.

Although there is no statutory requirement for consultation on the estate changes to jobcentres, we are conducting consultation on all proposed closures of jobcentres that fall outside what are known as the ministerial criteria. It is not unreasonable to expect claimants to travel to an office that is within 3 miles, or 20 minutes by public transport, of their existing jobcentre. Where a proposed move is outside those criteria, we have chosen to consult publicly both stakeholders and claimants to ensure that the full implications of the closure are considered before we make a final decision. To enhance the profile of such consultations, we have written to local stakeholders and have distributed leaflets and put up posters at affected sites. We have undertaken public consultation where we think the proposals may have a significant effect on claimants. The objective is to ensure that the effects of our proposals are fully considered before any final decisions are made, and I welcome the engagement and responses that we have had from local stakeholders.

We have had a total of 290 responses from across the three sites in Glasgow. Those include responses from claimants, Members of Parliament, including some present here, interested third-party organisations and the wider public. Alongside taking into account the views of a range of stakeholders via consultation, I have met a number of fellow Members of Parliament to discuss how proposed changes to the estate will impact at local level. I will be considering the feedback to all the public consultations and I reiterate to hon. Members that these are genuinely proposals at this stage. When we make final decisions on the design of our estate, we will do so with all the feedback that we have had in mind. That may include considering additional options for outreach or indeed something wider—nothing is off the table at this stage.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

To allow two minutes for the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, I had better not.

When a jobcentre closes, the Department has a comprehensive set of outreach and support measures in place to support claimants in accessing the services they need. We embrace closer working with local organisations and support outreach activity at community and partner facilities, including local authorities across the country. That allows work coaches and partner organisations to support the shared needs of claimants. By working with a range of partners, including local authorities, we are able to expand the range and offer of our services.

We respond to personal circumstances. For claimants who are unable to attend a jobcentre due to their vulnerability or the complexity of the transaction required with the Department, we have robust procedures in place, including home visits and maintaining a claim by post. Travel expenses are refundable under certain circumstances, including where claimants are required to attend a jobcentre more frequently than fortnightly. Claimants can also choose to attend an alternative jobcentre to the one allocated to them if the jobcentre they have been allocated is not the closest or least costly for them.

I touched briefly on Lewisham. On Sheffield, there has been a consultation. The proposal is that Sheffield would better utilise space at Cavendish Court, which is currently only 45% utilised. Eastern Avenue is 74% utilised, but the move would not work in reverse because of the different configurations and sizes of the buildings, and Cavendish Court and Bailey Court are respectively 4.4 miles and 4.7 miles away.

The Scottish National party spokesman, Martin Docherty-Hughes, spoke about partnership and outreach. I entirely agree about the need for partnership and for continuing to enhance it; the West Dunbartonshire employability hub is a particularly good example of that. As I mentioned, we are always keen to do more and to discover such opportunities, and that includes close working with Skills Development Scotland and others.

The proposed changes are the result of careful analysis and planning. While I appreciate hon. Members’ concerns about the proposed closures, and again thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West for securing this debate, the rationale for the proposals is clear. We are working towards a more modern, dynamic estate. This will ensure that we continue to have sufficient flexible capacity to deliver the best services we can to our customers. It is important to stress again that all the specific changes to the estate that have been raised in this debate are still only a set of proposals, and we are continuing the consultation process with our staff to assess how each might be affected. I want to reiterate that in the event that co-location or closures are required, we expect that to have no impact on the excellent services we continue to provide to customers across the country.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West 4:28 pm, 16th March 2017

May I first apologise to you Mr Walker? So keen was I to raise this issue that I forgot to refer the House to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as chair of the PCS parliamentary group. I apologise for that.

A number of issues have not yet been answered. There is the question of the review criteria. I am clear, as are many hon. Members, that all 78 sites that were earmarked for closure should have been subjected to a full public consultation. The reason why is that the equality impact issue is still outstanding; there is no equality impact assessment for disabled people or the black and minority ethnic community, among others. The economic impact will certainly be hard on many areas; John Woodcock identified that, and made an excellent point on industrial injury benefit. There is also the workforce impact; we have a written answer that says that the DWP expects 750 staff posts to go. If it is hiring staff and letting 750 posts go, I suspect that there will be an employment tribunal at some stage.

We need to make sure that this is done with the correct information, and not wrong and inaccurate information. I ask the Minister to listen to the point made by my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald about parliamentary scrutiny going forward, and to make sure that we deal with this issue on the Floor of the House. Certainly, if the Minister makes announcements, we expect that to be on the Floor of the House and not sneaked through in a written statement on a Thursday or Friday, or before a recess.

I thank you, Mr Walker, and thank all hon. Members for taking part in this important debate.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

Thank you, colleagues. I hope you all have a productive Friday and weekend.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered Jobcentre Plus office closures.

Sitting adjourned.