Backbench Business

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:39 pm on 16th March 2017.

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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.