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 There is already a backlog of sanctions, which in some cases is leading to money being withdrawn from claimants months after non-compliance, even though claimants may in the meantime have done what they were asked to do.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
“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.