Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.ߞ [Mr. Ainger.]
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me at such a late hour to start what I expect to be the last debate of this parliamentary term. I wish I had a fiver for every hon. Member who has mentioned to me, either with glee or commiseration, that I had the last debate tonight.I support the concept of Jobcentre Plus, which provides major improvements, combining benefits and job-seeking help from the same office. From what I have seen of the pathfinder offices that I visited during my work on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I have been impressed. Staff appreciate the better working conditions. Clients are treated like human beings in pleasant, business-like surroundings. My main concern is with implementation, both in general and in relation to my constituency. I am concerned that an office closure programme is being driven by the Treasury rather than for the benefit of the service. I understand from the Public and Commercial Services Union that a target of 1,000 jobcentre closures has become "a given from the Treasury, and that for each round of the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus regional managers have been given the number of the offices to be closed as part of their job for the year. I am concerned about the lack of consultation and the breathtaking arrogance of management from the top down, as evidenced in letters that I have received from managers. They seem unable to apologise for errors in implementation that the Minister has apologised for. Nor do they seem to have the basic understanding that consultation means not just delaying a decision, but consulting openly to test, and if necessary to modify, their proposals. In my constituency, at least, that has resulted in a failure to give any proper explanations of the decisions taken.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and for raising this very important topic, which is of concern to his constituents and mine. Does he agree that the lack of consultation has been of particular concern to local people, because it is in exactly that part of both of our constituencies where the need is greatest among the local population?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall deal with the question of consultation in some detail in a minute. He is of course referring to the closure of Burnt Oak jobcentre, which is one—but not the only one—of the closures about which I am concerned.In April 2002, Burnt Oak jobcentre was moved from the North London district, which serves my constituency, to the Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon district. The jobcentre stayed where it was, the boundary being down the middle of the Edgware road. This decision was taken by the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus. No reasons were given for the move, nor was there any consultation about the change in organisation. The jobcentre is on the other side of the road from my constituency, but so is Edgware jobcentre, which was allowed to remain in the North London district. That decision, organisational though it may have been, is the root cause of many of the problems that we have experienced. Clients primarily from my constituency, in the London borough of Barnet, are now being served by a jobcentre situated in the borough of Brent—a factor that Jobcentre Plus conveniently overlooked in deciding to close Burnt Oak jobcentre. On 28 June and 17 September, I was asked to comment on a change in services to the Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon district. As I had not been told that my constituents had been moved out of my constituency for Jobcentre Plus purposes, I assumed that there was nothing to worry about. I knew that our roll-out of Jobcentre Plus was a long way off. The letter of 28 June said, in the context of my constituents not being affected, that the service was
for Barnet, Harrow and Hillingdon constituents. That comment was buried in the letter's small print. On 17 September, I was told that the intention was to"looking at options for alternative ways of delivering services"
which, again, referred to Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon. Nowhere in those letters were we told in plain English that the service for those from north London would be affected; nor did they make it clear that Burnt Oak jobcentre was to close in general terms, or for my constituents in particular. Moreover, at no stage was I told of the date of closure. I first learned that that date was 21 March on 20 March, in the columns of my local newspaper, which informed me that there had been full consultation and that no objections had been raised. In a letter from the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus dated April 2003–no day was given, just the month—I was told of the list of people who had been consulted. The facts should have been checked before that letter was written. I have consulted my parliamentary neighbours, both of whose constituencies are served by Jobcentre Plus, and neither has any recollection of being consulted—perhaps because of the rather elusive way in which the letters were worded. I was told that employers were consulted. Today, I spoke to the management of Brent Cross, the largest employer in my constituency, who did not even know that the jobcentre had closed until I told them. On Friday, I visited the Shaw trust, a very important voluntary sector organisation in my constituency. It is operating a workstep programme in conjunction with Jobcentre Plus, helping a dozen disabled people—most of whom are from west Hendon, in my constituency—at the former council nursery with programmes relating to the growing of plants. I visited it on Friday, and was told that it had an excellent relationship with Jobcentre Plus in Burnt Oak. It was I who pointed out that the jobcentre had been closed, which came as a complete surprise. The users were not directly consulted at all, and it would seem that the North London district, which serves my constituency, was probably not consulted either, to judge by my meeting with representatives on 8 April. I asked various questions about the decision to close Jobcentre Plus, and in true "Fawlty Towers" "Manuel" style, I was told, "I know nothing". However, later in our discussions, they did admit that they knew some six months beforehand that it was to close. North London district has been asked to pick up the pieces. It does not know how many constituents were served by Jobcentre Plus. I have been given various figures, ranging from 255 to 1,775. I have been told that Mill Hill jobcentre a couple of miles away, which is supposed to pick up the trade from Burnt Oak, now has 20 per cent. more business—it is much busier, say the staff—but it never had the passing trade it now has, consisting of jobseekers. There are women returning to work, people changing jobs, students and jobseekers not receiving benefits. I was told that the best estimate so far is an extra 100 clients a week. Where have all the others gone? One can only assume that they are no longer availing themselves of the opportunity provided by Jobcentre Plus. There has been no handover of the "good employers", as they were described to me by Jobcentre Plus. It is trying to contact them. There are 35 major employers, and Jobcentre Plus has no idea how many small and medium-sized employers were served by Burnt Oak jobcentre. We are told that various gimmicky alternatives will be offered, through libraries and so forth—I was told as much in answer to my question to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions today—but I understand that none of those arrangements is in place yet. I am told of the wish to set up a jobshop at Brent Cross. That interests the Brent Cross management, who have heard nothing from Jobcentre Plus about the idea. Indeed, they have had no contact with Jobcentre Plus since before Christmas, when seasonal staff recruitment was being considered. There has clearly been no handover of the service to North London district. Now the same thing is about to happen with Hendon and Edgware jobcentres. I learned that from the trade union, which itself was told only on 4 April. It was given two weeks to comment—until 18 April. I am told that I too am invited to comment, and my comment must be in by 1 May. That gives me two weeks as well, over the recess and the Easter holiday. My constituency contains a large Jewish community, and it will clearly not be possible to consult residents over Passover. I cannot believe that this is a serious attempt to consult anyone. I am told that that the changes will shrink Hendon jobcentre. It will serve only social fund clients. There will be a leaflet and general inquiry point, where national insurance numbers will be issued on behalf of Hendon and Edgware jobcentres. When I asked how customers from Edgware would be able to visit Hendon to get their national insurance numbers, I was told, "The extra time is not a problem. The employers will pay the wages of the people who are having to spend all those hours coming to Hendon and hanging around, because the employers are keen for them to go on working". The cost is being transferred to the employers, with no consultation. Everything else will now be dealt with from Edgware. I am told by the chief executive that there are good bus links, but she has clearly not tried them, and nor have any of the other Jobcentre Plus managers whom I asked. There is no direct bus route from Hendon to Edgware: at least one change is involved. I am told that at Edgware there will be a reception service for quick advice; otherwise, the service will be by appointment only. I am also told that from September 2003 there will be a new client management system so that people can make their claims by telephone, but they will still need an appointment to go and fill in the forms. PCS has several worries. It is concerned about the risk of an incident if a client is not seen on the same day. It fears that the appointments system may overrun, causing staff either to have to work late against their wishes or to be sent away. It says that there is no easy way of separating simple and complex cases. Those concerns can very possibly be overcome, but why introduce such changes now rather than when the alternatives are up and running? Clearly no arrangement has been made for proper timing of the changes. I am told that outreach services are to replace Burnt Oak, but none has been organised yet. I am told that there will be a new call centre for client management, which will probably not be sited in north London—that is typical of the way in which the department is being reorganized—but not until September 2003. The proper replacement for Jobcentre Plus, following the full roll-out, will not be there until 2005–06. Then, hopefully, we shall have a new office to combine the old Hendon office and the Hendon jobcentre in a new office in central Hendon. However, although the local authority and estate agents are involved, so far it has not been possible to find any premises. I very much approve of the idea of setting up an office in central Hendon, but I object to everywhere else being closed down unless and until the alternative location is found. I support the concept of Jobcentre Plus, and I accept—as does the union—the need for reorganisation, but it has to be done properly, with meaningful consultation in which the views of users are taken into account. Users have been woefully ignored in the process so far. It must take into account people who represent organisations in the constituency and employers, who have been ignored throughout. Most importantly, the proper alternatives must be in place before change is implemented, and it must be done not to please the Treasury but to ensure that services are improved and not reduced."replace existing services with more flexible services from alternative locations",
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this debate on an important subject for his constituency. I have listened carefully to the points he and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) made. I understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon to ensure that Jobcentre Plus provides a quality service to his constituents, and I am sure that we are all equally concerned that that should apply throughout the country. As a fellow London MP, I am also aware of some of the more particular circumstances that need to be taken into consideration when making changes to service delivery in the capital.Jobcentre Plus is delivering a radical change in the way in which benefits and employment services are provided to people of working age, and I welcome my hon. Friend's support for that radical change. By 2006, we plan to roll out a network of 1,000 fully integrated Jobcentre Plus offices. Through the development of those new, modern offices, Jobcentre Plus will provide an integrated, work-focused service to all people of working age. The introduction of work-focused interviews extends the opportunity to more people to take advantage of the help, guidance and support that we can provide to help them move into work. The new services we are also introducing for employers are helping them to fill job vacancies quickly and effectively with well prepared and motivated employees. The new Jobcentre Plus services are customer focused. The new offices enable customers to make inquiries about both their benefits and employment opportunities in the same place. Our new telephone contact centres mean that customers can make inquiries about both benefits and jobs without even having to come into one of our offices. The introduction of new technology is also enabling people to find the information they need about jobs and training via the internet and our new jobpoints. Jobpoints are not just being placed in Jobcentre Plus offices, but in other public places such as libraries, supermarkets and even, in one case, a local pub. All those developments are making it easier for our customers to take advantage of the services we provide. That customer focus is also built into the process that Jobcentre Plus uses when converting our current network of offices to the new integrated service. During the national planning for the implementation of Jobcentre Plus, customer representatives and trade unions were consulted. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Work has also written to MPs to ensure that they are aware of the roll-out programme. So far, 230 of the new-style offices have been successfully opened, but the change cannot be delivered nationally overnight. We have set out our plans to convert all parts of the country to the new integrated service by 2006. However, we will not open an office unless we are confident that it provides an environment in which the new Jobcentre Plus process will work and that is safe for our staff and customers. Throughout the transitional period, our old social security offices and jobcentres will work together to ensure that customers will still benefit from the excellent service we aim to offer. At the Jobcentre Plus district level, managers consult the widest possible range of people about the service they are planning to provide. Local advice and welfare groups, local authorities and MPs are essential sources of guidance in that matter. My hon. Friend's constituents in Hendon are served by two Jobcentre Plus districts—Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon district and the North London district. The Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon district converted to the new integrated offices during 2002–03. The district began planning for the roll-out in March 2002 and wrote in June to nearly 200 local stakeholders for their opinions on the proposed roll-out of the new service. I am assured that that included, among others, local employers, social services, local MPs and local organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and Mind. In September 2002, the district wrote again to those stakeholders advising them of the decisions made for the roll-out. The plans for the new integrated service included the closure of Burnt Oak Jobcentre, which was used by some of my hon. Friend's constituents—hence this Adjournment debate. I am told that Burnt Oak previously provided employment advice to about 60 callers each week. Local people actually claimed their benefits and accessed the full range of employment services through one of the other local jobcentres or social security offices. The letter issued by Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon district notifying the local community, including MPs, of roll-out plans included information about the change in services at Burnt Oak. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that the fact that the office was closing could have been explained more clearly. New guidance has recently been issued to all district managers to ensure that roll-out plans are explained more clearly and explicitly in future. I emphasise that customers who previously used Burnt Oak Jobcentre have not been abandoned and will have access to a range of alternative services. They will have access to a full range of jobsearch facilities at Mill Hill jobcentre as well as having access to the contact centre in Harrow and our internet facilities. We also intend to install a jobpoint in Burnt Oak library to help customers to search for jobs. In addition, Jobcentre Plus staff will hold regular surgeries at the local careers service. The majority of Hendon is served by the North London Jobcentre Plus district, containing both jobcentres and social security offices. Most benefit claims are processed at the Edgware social security office. We plan to replace those offices with new integrated Jobcentre Plus offices in 2005–06. Until that time, Jobcentre Plus will continue to provide the same high level of service we expect through its current network. I hear what my hon. Friend says about wishing that expenditure was no constraint and that a Jobcentre Plus office could be available in every community centre. He will, however, have visited a Jobcentre Plus office and will therefore know that they are, quite properly, expensive facilities. We assume that 1,000 offices can be afforded throughout Great Britain if we are to maintain quality. The people of Hendon are being well served by Jobcentre Plus. Since 1997, unemployment has fallen by nearly a third, and long-term unemployment has fallen by more than two thirds. The new deals have also helped more than 1,300 people to move into work in my hon. Friend's constituency. We are building on the services that we offer through the introduction of the Progress2Work programme this year. That will provide more intensive support to help recovering drug misusers to move into work. Nationally, the introduction of Jobcentre Plus is being well received by customers. In surveys we have found that eight out of 10 customers are satisfied with all elements of the new service. Jobcentre Plus performance is also improving as a result of the roll-out. The integrated offices are exceeding their share of national performance and are exceeding their job entry targets by more than 10 per cent. Jobcentre Plus looks after more than 1,500 offices, handling more than 10,000 job vacancies and helping more than 100,000 callers every working day. Jobcentre Plus is a very large organisation providing a vital service to people of working age across the country. However, we must not forget that the service we provide is focused on helping individuals. It is employment policy with a human face, providing them with the support that they need to improve their lives. As we roll out our improved Jobcentre Plus service, we will maintain customer focus to ensure that we provide all our customers with the opportunity to benefit from our services. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, other hon. Members in the House and officials a happy Easter.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Twelve o 'clock.