Jobcentre Debate

Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on Jobcentre closures in Glasgow.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this important debate, and I thank all Members for the kindness that they have shown by inviting me to their constituencies. I have never felt quite so loved by Opposition Members as I have this evening.

Wait till you come.

That is what worries me.

Employment in the United Kingdom is at a record level. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the claimant count has dropped by 50% since 2010. That drop has been replicated across Glasgow city, where there has been a fall of 11,000 in the number of claimants since 2010 to just 13,500 today. In Scotland as a whole, unemployment has fallen by 107,000 since 2010, and I know that all hon. Members will welcome those figures.

The Minister appears to be saying that a reason for closing these jobcentres is that unemployment is down, and therefore the usage of jobcentres may be down. However, the increased conditionality that is attached to universal credit will increase the need for services and the requirement for people to visit jobcentres. Will he not reflect on that and understand why my colleagues are so keen for the centres to be kept open?

Because of the timing of the debate, I have plenty of time to respond to a whole range of issues that have been raised, and I will try to do so throughout my speech.

As I was saying, as the unemployment rate has fallen, the use of jobcentres has also dropped. Right now, across the whole country, there is a 30% under-utilisation of the Jobcentre Plus estate. It is therefore absolutely right that we reconfigure the estate after a 20-year period and make jobcentres fit for the 21st century as not just places where people go to “sign on”, but places they regard as somewhere that will genuinely help them on the road to employment.

Hon. Members have made this point, but let me repeat it. In March 2018, the contract covering the majority of the DWP’s current estate of more than 900 sites comes to an end. This presents a significant opportunity to re-evaluate what we need from our estate. The estate that we required at the start of the contract 20 years ago is different from what we need now. We want an estate that enables us to create more modern, digitally enabled and engaging environments that fit the ethos of universal credit and reflect the falling claimant count.

It is not really modernising it if it is no longer there, so why were we not offered a debate that could have been constructive, reflecting what the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) said about co-locating with other services that are provided, instead of a high-handed closure programme on which the public would not even be consulted?

I was coming to co-location. Our proposals seek to reduce the floor space we occupy in Glasgow while retaining sites and locations that are accessible to all residents. Of course, we explored options for co-location in sites that we are retaining, but we were not able to identify suitable locations in Glasgow.

In Glasgow, where this is particularly relevant, we started with 16 jobcentres that, on average, were only 40% utilised—small, half-empty offices that made it challenging to create a welcoming and positive environment. Back in 2010, with nearly 25,000 claimants, this may have been suitable, but it clearly no longer is. This dated estate across the country comes at a significant cost. Our changes will lead to savings to the taxpayer in the order of £135 million a year over the next 10 years. This money can be reinvested in delivering services for claimants, which I am sure hon. Members agree is a good thing.

Colleagues have mentioned the consultation and what methods were used. We did contact claimants, and jobcentre staff did speak to claimants throughout the process, informing them of the change and supporting them through it. Additionally, there was a discussion about what method was used to work out travel priorities. We got input from local DWP colleagues, who know the local transport available, so the idea that we did not speak to anyone on the ground is unfair.

I do not doubt the Minister spoke to DWP people on the ground; I spoke to them—they told me they googled the transport options. That is how they worked this stuff out. On co-location, he did not bother to inform Members of Parliament of the decision; we had to read about it in the press. I understand that there was no dialogue with the city council about co-location at the time either, and the Scottish Government were not even consulted—they, too, had to read about it in the press. I am afraid that that does not stack up.

I think I have made the point about co-location. We are having an estate that is fit for the 21st century. Where a new jobcentre was over 3 miles and 20 minutes away by public transport, online public consultation was held, as hon. Members will know, and we operated on evidence, and we listened and took action as a result. For example, we are introducing a new employability suite at Atlantic Quay and, as hon. Members know, we decided to retain the jobcentre in Castlemilk because of the feedback we received. I hope that hon. Members will therefore feel that we have listened on that point.

As we deliver these changes, this local approach is continuing with stakeholders and through partnership events, and we are working with claimants to find the best solutions for them. So far, we have moved out of 70 sites across the country with success, and these moves are being well received both by claimants and staff, as well as our partners. There was a discussion about how staff and claimants were reacting to the move. The feedback from claimants on the move from Maryhill to Springburn is that the move has been extremely positive, and they welcome access to more facilities. One claimant said:

“I never expected it to be as good as this”.

Furthermore, 23 claimants have transferred to Partick because it is easier for their own journey.

I agree it is vital that staff are looked after, but staff have told us that they are happier being part of a bigger team and office, that it allows them to provide an evolving and improved service based on customer needs, that the teams have come together seamlessly and that the team culture, which is incredibly important in any organisation, is developing to maximise benefits to claimants. The idea that this is having a detrimental effect on claimants and staff does not hold true.

I think that this is sarcasm; we call it Glasgow banter. The Minister says the staff are happy, but that is not the feedback that we are getting. I am also concerned about disabled people who have had to travel for an extra half hour to the locations that the Minister is talking about. It costs £4.50 to use the local bus service, and many of those same people are going to food banks.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that there is sarcasm in what I am saying. That is certainly not my intent, and I do not think it is the intent of the DWP staff who have sent us feedback. I can give the hon. Gentleman a list of the things that staff and claimants have said about the moves involving Broxburn and Anniesland. Perhaps things are not quite as some Members feel that they are.

Will the Minister give way?

No. I want to continue.

Claimants moving to Springburn have reported how much better the facilities are, and how welcoming the environment is. Claimants have also said that they have appreciated the individual tailored support. For instance, during the recently completed move of Anniesland to Drumchapel, some claimants who preferred to move to Partick instead were easily accommodated. The impact on staff is also being well managed. The vast majority of staff affected are moving to other locations. A very small number will leave the department, but the vast majority have accepted voluntary redundancy.

I do not want to test the Minister’s patience, but when I saw that red folder with all the little tabs on it, I rather hoped that he would not just read from a civil service briefing. Members representing constituencies across the city of Glasgow have come here tonight and made very sincere speeches about some of the profound difficulties that are being experienced. The Minister is now the best part of 10 minutes into his speech, and he has not touched on the territorialism, the transport or the digital exclusion. May I ask him, in the time that remains, to address the points that we have raised? It is all well and good for him to reel off place names like Atlantic Quay, but I do not think he would know where Atlantic Quay was in relation to Gartloch. The best thing he could do is agree right now to come to the city of Glasgow and listen and respond to local people—not DWP bigwigs, but local people in citizens advice bureaux and police stations, and those who will be affected.

I do not think that the people who are working incredibly hard in these jobcentres would appreciate being referred to as bigwigs. Since becoming the Minister in this particular role, I have been to a number of jobcentres, not in Scotland but in England, and I can tell the House that those people are extremely motivated to help the people whom they are serving and helping to get into work. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) that we should pay tribute to them rather than suggesting that they are either joking with us or doing something worse.

Let me make clear that in the Glasgow Jobcentre Plus network, no redundancies are expected. The overall rationalisation of the estate is definitely not a staff reduction exercise. Indeed, the number of jobcentre staff will be higher at the end of this process than at the start, with an additional 5,000 work coaches across the country. After the rationalisations there will still be 10 jobcentres in Glasgow, which—as we heard earlier—is more per head of population than in nearly all other cities in the UK. Those 10 jobcentres will be welcoming, positive places, offering training sessions, with employers helping people to get back into work. They will create a sense of partnership between work coaches, claimants and other organisations. For staff, they will offer greater progression and development opportunities. They will enable staff to do the job that they cherish, which is helping people to move into independence and lifelong careers.

A number of other points were raised, and, as I have enough time, I will address them. As part of the consultation, some of which was online, we talked to members of staff and trade unions. A point was raised about equality impacts, and I know the hon. Member for Glasgow South raised this with the former Secretary of State during the July debate. The then Secretary of State said about the equality impact assessment that the Government had fulfilled our statutory duties, as we always do. Throughout the redesign of our estate, the Department has been mindful of its duties under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 and the impact of its plans on its colleagues and customers. Equality analysis carried out in respect of individual sites has not been published; that is not the policy, but the DWP will respond to freedom of information requests for equality analysis reports in the normal course of business.

A point was made about travel costs. The reimbursement of travel costs is available to claimants when they are required to attend the jobcentre for appointments other than mandatory fortnightly signing appointments. Additionally, jobseekers who have been claiming universal credit or jobseeker’s allowance for more than 13 weeks can apply for a Jobcentre Plus travel discount card.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) raised a point about having written to me; I have indeed written back to him and I hope he will receive that letter very shortly. A number of colleagues have invited me to visit their constituencies. I committed in DWP orals earlier today to come to Scotland, and said I would have a discussion with the hon. Gentleman about potentially coming to his constituency, but as part of my job I go around the country—across England, Scotland and elsewhere—to make sure I am hearing at first hand the experiences of people working in these centres, the claimants and also employers in those areas.

There was a discussion about sanctions, and I want to make it clear that a decision maker takes all the claimant’s individual circumstances into account before making a decision, and there has to be very good evidence. Claimants have the opportunity to come back and set out their case. This discretion is available and I hope it will be used by decision makers in the case of sanctions.

Does the Minister have any statistics on users of these jobcentres who have been sanctioned as a result of the amalgamation?

I have no figures in front of me now, but I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman if these figures are available within the system.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East mentioned gangs. That is an important point. As part of our consultation, we engaged with Community Safety Glasgow and the Glasgow City Council strategic community partnership group, and they were not aware of any gang-related issues pertaining to potential jobcentre closures.

As someone involved in the local community, I would have thought that if we want to ask people on the frontline about crime, we might ask the police. Did the Minister speak to local police officers?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have moved to this post in the last few weeks, but I understand that a dialogue takes place with Police Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of people who cannot access online services and find it hard to get to a jobcentre. Face-to-face support with work coaches is available at jobcentres and continues to be a core part of the service we deliver. People can also interact face to face, by email or telephone or by post.

I have a point of correction to make. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) suggested that Caxton House was owned by Telereal Trillium. It is not; there is an underlying lease.

We have had a wide-ranging debate and I have listened to colleagues, and I completely understand that they put forward the view of their constituents and the people they know locally. I have set out what we have heard through our dialogue with people working in jobcentres and with claimants who have transferred to other jobcentres. I will come to Scotland and I will meet and talk to a range of individuals there.

We have had a long debate, and I should like to conclude by saying that this is obviously a major change for the Department, as well as for our claimants and staff. However, retaining our current estate would miss the opportunity to improve value for taxpayers’ money and to create an estate that will meet the needs of DWP claimants now and in the future. These changes are the result of careful analysis and planning. I appreciate hon. Members’ concerns about the closures, but the rationale for these changes and the benefits that they will deliver for claimants and our staff are clear.

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