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.