Backbench Business

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:06 pm on 16th March 2017.

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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.