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.