A third backbench debate has been secured by Chris Stephens MP, chair of the PCS Parliamentary group and MP for Glasgow South West. MPs in Glasgow reacted angrily against government plans to close half the Jobcentres in Glasgow and were thoroughly briefed by the PCS DWP Group Executive Committee (GEC) and by officers from the branches involved.
Across the UK, branches and the GEC are engaged in work with MPs to keep the political pressure on the government over the office closures that do not help claimants or staff, but will in fact harm the services DWP delivers and will potentially result in job losses for an estimated 750 DWP staff, according to the Minister.
Hansard’s record of the backbench debate on Thursday 16th March show that the many points being made by PCS – including against sanctions, against additional travel, against the loss of experienced staff, against the local economic impact of closures are all receiving close attention from MPs. And the government continues to have no answer.
Copied below are some excerpts from the debate. Barrow, Coatbridge, Alexandria, Cambuslang, Castlemilk, Langside and other sites all receive specific attention from MPs, and this is all good news. The PCS Left Unity-led GEC will continue to utilise every means at the disposal of the union to push the government back, in their narrow, austerity-driven office closures programme.
“The House is rightly exercised—as are many hon. Members—by the haphazard nature of the closures and the lack of evidence or rationale to support them, other than that they will save money in the short term. The lack of an adequate equality impact assessment is particularly damning. The closures have been presented by the Government as a straightforward process of rationalising the estate—that is, as sensible, considered and thought through in great detail. I would suggest otherwise, however. Far from this being a planned process to make the most of the expiry of contracts to improve services and locate them where they are needed most, it is a cost-cutting, penny-pinching cuts programme being done with poor to non-existent consideration of local conditions.” Chris Stephens, SNP, MP for Glasgow South West.
“For the record, we should remember that at least 30,000 people have lost their jobs in the civil service, and this is part of that. He spoke about the increasing workload. Citizens advice bureaus have reported that their workloads have gone up by 88%, in particular because of personal independence payment claims. Tile Hill jobcentre in my constituency is being closed, so people will have to walk miles or get buses. Importantly, a lot of them suffer from disabilities, so they will be at a disadvantage.” Jim Cunningham, Labour, MP for Coventry South
“Finally, I want to highlight the link between the push to digital services and office closures, when it becomes much more difficult to find a person to talk to in a public office. I have spoken recently about the unfair telephone tax, where the most vulnerable are hit with call charges for contacting the DWP and other government services. The DWP is a long way from being digital by default. A vicious circle is emerging, whereby access to advice and support is being blocked to those who need it most. Every Member here can testify that our offices are now providing more and more of that support through our constituency casework. Widespread jobcentre closures will only increase the workload on other staff in the DWP, giving them less time to spend on individuals.” Chris Stephens
“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.” Heidi Alexander, Labour, MP for Lewisham East.
“One of the puzzling things about the closure programme is that the Government also want to increase the workload of jobcentres and want some people to go more frequently. They also want to introduce conditionality for people who are in work. It is difficult to see how those additional tasks can be managed at the same time as shutting down so many jobcentres.” Stephen Timms, Labour, MP for East Ham
“I fully appreciate the need for any Government to spend public funds wisely, but the decision to slash the number of jobcentres will most definitely have a negative impact on my constituents. The most obvious consideration is the additional travel costs that service users will face in getting to their appointments. This will barely register as small change for a UK Government Minister or indeed an MP, but it is an unwanted additional expense for someone already struggling on a low income. Constituents will also be burdened with increased travel times, which in turn puts them at an increased risk of being sanctioned under the DWP’s draconian and uncompromising rules. Again, the Minister may say, “It’s only three miles’ difference. What’s the big deal?” (…)
“A report from the Disability Benefits Consortium found that 93% of respondents to a survey of service users thought that the process for applying for PIP was stressful: 80% experienced difficulties in completing the claim form, while 82% felt that the application process had a negative impact on their health. Will Minister explain how closing one of my constituency’s two jobcentres will improve that experience for service users?” Ronnie Cowan, SNP, MP for Inverclyde
“At least one thing can be said of the Department: it is consistent in its handling of the matter. Right from the start, it has been a shambles. As we have heard, after the news broke in the press that half Glasgow’s jobcentres were to be axed, it took seven hours for the Department to write to the affected MPs and inform us. It did not see fit to inform us or even consult us; nor did it bother to speak with the devolved Administration in Scotland. (…)
“I wonder whether the Minister knows, for instance, of the issues affecting Cambuslang in my constituency, where the Main Street jobcentre is due to close next year. Is the Department aware that Royal Bank of Scotland closed its doors there just months ago, that local traders have subsequently suffered a reported 30% drop in footfall, or that the two remaining banks, TSB and Clydesdale, have announced that they too are to close in the coming months? Has it considered at all the cumulative impact that those closures will have along with the closure of a major resource such as the jobcentre? I am guessing the answer to all of those questions is no. Perhaps if Ministers had bothered to consult me, they would be better informed. The Department will have seriously to make up for its former ignorance by consulting service users, local stakeholders—such as the local Church of Scotland minister Neil Glover, who has spoken out against the jobcentre closure and described it as a moral issue— and elected representatives, and by working with the Scottish Government. Scottish Employability and Training Minister Jamie Hepburn has written to and met Ministers from the Department, not only to express grave concerns but to seek clarity on the issue. He has requested that UK Ministers meet benefit recipients and others from the communities that will be affected by the proposals.” Margaret Ferrier, SNP, MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton
“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.” Louise Haigh, Labour, MP for Sheffield Heeley
“Coatbridge is a local DWP back office that employs about 250 people and is facing closure as a result of these cuts. I have been in contact with union representatives about the closure since the announcement was made and I recently attended the annual general meeting of the local branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union to discuss the impact of the closure on its members and on the local community. I was particularly concerned to be informed by the union that the DWP’s announcement was made without any consultation with the workers or the union at all. The DWP did not inform me of the lack of consultation when I was contacted about the closure. Although the DWP has stated that the closure will not involve any job losses, it has indicated that the jobs in question will be moved to alternate locations in central Glasgow or Motherwell, both of which are approximately half an hour’s drive away—and that is if we assume no traffic delays.
“Coatbridge is a community filled with young families. Many people base decisions about who they work for on the location of their potential workplace: they choose to work in locations that allow them to drop their children at school in the morning or be near an elderly or poorly relative. There is also the issue of additional travel costs for the predominantly local staff to and from Glasgow and Motherwell—again, colleagues have covered that well, so I will not repeat the points they made. For many workers affected by the cut, the loss of that essential proximity to home, the additional travel and the associated costs may mean that they need to seek alternative employment. I can hardly see how a Government can describe themselves as pro-family when they put so many in such a precarious position.
“The union members I spoke to were concerned about the dilution and inevitable reduction in the quality of services provided to service users that the cuts will cause, as was well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan). The closure will affect not only current employees and their families but local businesses”. Philip Boswell, SNP, MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill
“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. (…)
“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.” John Woodcock, Labour, MP for Barrow and Furness
“I also thank the PCS Scotland union for the excellent job that it has done assisting Members of Parliament throughout the country, and particularly in Glasgow, where we heard the rather unwelcome news just before Christmas that the Government intend to reduce the jobcentre estate by half, from 16 jobcentres to eight, two of which—the Castlemilk and Langside jobcentres—are in my constituency. (…)
I would ask the Minister why, despite several genuine and friendly invitations, he has not taken any time at all to visit any of the jobcentres in Glasgow that he wishes 207WH Jobcentre Plus Office Closures Jobcentre Plus Office Closures 16 MARCH 2017 208WH to close. I do not know what he thinks will happen to him if he comes, but I can assure him that either I or one of my hon. Friends from the city of Glasgow will look after him. He will be okay. Even at this late stage, I implore him to visit a jobcentre in Glasgow to hear what the staff and the users have to say.” Stewart Malcolm McDonald, SNP, MP for Glasgow South.
“[T]here are special circumstances that set the Alexandria jobcentre apart. The catchment area shares similar characteristics with others earmarked for closure. There are high levels of deprivation and unemployment, which, as in other urban areas, must be taken into consideration. The Alexandria jobcentre differs, in that it serves a population that is not only urban but suburban, in the true sense, and a rural community, which results in a set of unique challenges for those living in those communities, especially given that the area includes the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park boundary.
“An argument put forward by the DWP to support its proposal is that it is now easier to access jobcentre services, whether over the phone, online or in person. Let me take those in order. For citizens living in rural areas, the practical challenges are many. People whose line connections depend on weather conditions, which in my constituency are temperamental at best, do not have easy access to services by phone, as the Department argues. Given BT Openreach’s dubious record in elements of the rural sections of my constituency, there are difficulties in online connectivity.” Martin Docherty-Hughes, SNP, MP for West Dunbartonshire
“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.”
“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.” Margaret Greenwood, Labour, MP for Wirral West
Damian Hinds, as Minister for Employment, has a lengthy response which is included in the document linked to above.