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Jobcentres (Highlands)

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2009

Mr. Illsley, I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting time for this debate on an issue that is of great importance to my constituents and, I am sure, to other people in the highlands and islands.

I have great pleasure in seeing the Minister in her place. I look forward to her replying to some of the issues that I shall raise. I hope she will not regard what I say as in any way unhelpful, but will view it as potentially a way forward to help meet some of the current problems at a cost that is not disproportionate.

Jobcentre Plus currently has an important role to play in the recession we are in. I express my support and admiration for the many dedicated staff who work in Jobcentre Plus in Inverness, offering a full range of services, including work-focused interviews, back to work support and so on. I acknowledge the commitment of its local management in trying to ensure, as best it can, that Jobcentre Plus plays a role in meeting some of the economic needs of the area.

A major business, a fish processing company called Strathaird, announced that it will be closing its factory in Inverness with the loss of more than 300 jobs. Jobcentre Plus is very much to the fore among local agencies working together to ensure that people who work there have the best possible support to give them the best chance of finding alternative employment.

Clearly, the economic problems facing the country and the highlands are growing, and unemployment is rising rapidly. According to the monthly highlands and islands economic report produced by local economist Tony Mackay, in November unemployment rose by 820 in the highlands and islands, which is more than double the figure for the same month last year. November is a time when seasonal employees tend to become unemployed, but the figures suggest that there is a greater factor, and announcements since then, including that by Strathaird, suggest that there are many more problems to come in the local economy in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and the rest of the highlands compared with what we have seen so far.

There have been substantial problems in the construction sector and many other businesses, not least seasonal businesses, which have seen significant job losses. The broader current economic and financial problems are exacerbated in the highlands because it is a region of particularly low pay. According to Mr. Mackay’s analysis, which is borne out by the official figures, the highlands have one of the lowest average rates of pay of anywhere in Scotland and the United Kingdom. Those economic problems are not being helped by the Scottish Government, whose substantial cuts in funding for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, amounting to almost £100 million over three years at the very time when the country is facing a recession, are grossly economically irresponsible, as is the slowing down of important infrastructure projects, particularly the construction of affordable housing, and transport projects. That will only exacerbate rather than ameliorate the wider economic problems.

The highlands and islands have benefited from European structural funding, and I hope that the Government will take advantage of the exchange rate opportunity. The Minister and I have had various debates about exchange rate issues and the euro over many years before either of us became members of the House. The falling pound provides an opportunity for the value of European structural funding to increase quickly, and bringing forward projects to boost employment—her Department should have a role in that—would be a good use of additional funding that would be free and of great benefit in my area. I want to press the Minister on two key issues: delivery of benefits to people who have recently become unemployed, and changes to ensure that the delivery of back to work support is as effective as it can be, not just in the highlands and islands, but throughout the country.

The telephone network and the increasingly centralised benefit delivery centres throughout the UK seem to me, from local experience, to be struggling to cope with the rapid and substantial increase in benefit claims from people who have lost their jobs. The telephone service nationally is insufficient, and in 2008, Jobcentre Plus call centres dropped more than 2 million calls. In both June and November, more than 300,000 calls were dropped, and in seven of 12 months, more than 10 per cent. of calls were dropped. Evidence, not least anecdotal evidence from constituents, suggests that the Clydebank call centre—despite being hundreds of miles away, it now processes the benefit claims for all my constituents in the highlands—is having significant problems. It has been reported to me—I hope that the Minister will confirm the accuracy of this fact—that the call centre has only 20 lines to deal with all the queries from people in the highlands. I have still not had a response to a named day question that I expected to be answered a couple of weeks ago, asking for the number of calls being dropped, broken down by individual benefit delivery centres, so as to get to the bottom of that point about Clydebank. My constituents’ experience suggests that those problems are real.

The Minister may know that the charity, Blythswood Care, operates a food bank in Inverness, and it is a sad state of affairs when charities must operate food banks to provide food parcels for people in the most severe hardship. The charity recorded and analysed the reasons for every person coming through its doors, and reported that 28 per cent. of those who access that important service do so because they have been left short of money due to delays in processing their benefit claims. Any delay is problematic, but long delays that leave people in particular hardship or for people who have experienced a sudden drop in income due to unemployment are even more severe.

Examples have been brought to my attention of constituents who have been forced to hitch-hike to Inverness to sort out their benefits because they do not have enough money to pay for the travel. Some travel claims are reimbursed—for example, for work-focused interviews—but people who want to make claims or to make their fortnightly trips to check up on available jobs have found the cost of travel difficult to afford without reimbursement. One constituent, Mr. Meredith, who came to see me in early January, had not been paid for a claim for jobseeker’s allowance in mid-November. After my office intervened, it was dealt with, and I am grateful for the speed with which that was done, but the experience is not unique to that one constituent. I should be grateful if the Minister will say what steps she intends to take to ensure that benefit delivery centres in general, but particularly that in Clydebank, have appropriate resources and personnel to deal with what is likely to be a continuing, substantial increase in demand for its services during the coming year. It is important that the Government plan ahead for that, and do not simply respond to demand as it arises. Over the past two or three months, the response has not been good enough, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments.

The second issue that I want to raise is the way in which Jobcentre Plus delivers its vital back to work support. Having visited and, indeed, opened the new Jobcentre Plus building in Inverness, I have seen at first hand the work that Jobcentre Plus staff do with work-focused interviews, and their interventions for lone parents and claimants for incapacity benefit and other benefits. They often link up with locally based organisations in the voluntary and private sectors. There is real effectiveness, and those interventions often make a difference. Sometimes, they do not, and there may be problems with claimants on two generic programmes rather than with individually tailored support. None the less, it is important to ensure that people have access as quickly and as locally as possible to that assistance.

My observation is that our effective local staff in Inverness will, if not now, over the next few months, face severe constraints with resources, both in the number of people dealing with an increasing flow of claimants, and with space. Obviously, the closure of Jobcentres—I shall return to the Jobcentre estate—and the rationalisation of buildings took place during good economic times. I shall propose a way of dealing with that problem in harsher economic times.

The Minister knows that on several occasions I have raised the specific issue of the closure of the Jobcentre in Nairn and the great difficulties that that caused for claimants there. It is interesting that the Inverness Jobcentre Plus had only three more staff—my information is that that was a 5 per cent. increase—in December 2008 compared with September 2007. It now has 61 staff instead of 58, despite unemployment rising by more than 50 per cent. in the constituency.

My figures go back only to September 2007, but that does not suggest a staffing-up to deal with the increase in demand for services at Jobcentre Plus. In the country as a whole, front-line staff numbers have fallen from about 76,000 to a little under 64,000. I know that plans are afoot to increase the number of staff. None the less, the fact that the number of work-focused interview advisers has fallen in the past couple of years means that there has to be a degree of speed in getting the new staff in place to help to deliver those services.

I observe that the problem has not been helped by the closure of Jobcentre Pluses throughout the country. In the past five years, 454 jobcentres—38 per cent. of the total—have closed. In 2008, 54 closed, in 2007 it was 49 and in 2006 it was 157. In Scotland, the number of Jobcentre Pluses has been reduced from 150 to 99 in the past five years. On current unemployment figures—sadly, they are rising so quickly that it is hard to keep track—there is now only one Jobcentre Plus for every 2,580 people on the jobseeker’s allowance register. It is expected that figures out tomorrow will show another rise in unemployment—it will possibly even break the 2 million mark for the first time in many years.

I welcome the Government’s announcement of a suspension of future closures of Jobcentre Plus, but I observe, particularly from my local experience in Nairn, that much of the damage has already been done. Although it is right to close the door on further closures, the Government must look much more directly at ways in which they can provide jobcentre services in communities, towns and villages that have been affected by closures, as well as potentially finding a way effectively and reasonably cheaply to make those services available to people in other communities that have been blighted by unemployment and that may not have had a jobcentre in the past.

I shall propose some ideas on how jobcentre services could be made more accessible throughout the UK. Given the number of closures, there is clearly a shortage of potentially appropriate facilities. It must be the case—perhaps the Minister can update me on this—that the Department will forecast space constraints becoming an issue, in some parts of the country at least, in the not-too-distant future. I know from previously having been Work and Pensions spokesman for my party that there have been very good pilots locating Jobcentre Plus services or advisers either from Jobcentre Plus or from private and voluntary organisations in other institutions—for example, at GP practices. I visited one such initiative in Camden in north London, which had proved very successful in helping people who had been distant from services before to access the services. What I am talking about now is not people who have been distant from the services—not necessarily hard-to-reach people—but simply dealing with the volume of people that sadly we are likely to see.

I hope that the Minister will consider seriously the proposal to allow jobcentre staff—advisers, for example—to deliver services on more of an outreach basis, taking advantage of the many publicly owned buildings and facilities in constituencies such as mine. I am thinking, for example, of public libraries. The Highland council has a network of service points. There are village halls in the highlands; a number of communities have recently benefited from new village halls, which would be very suitable for the task, allowing soundproofing, confidentiality, access to the internet and all the various things that would need to be available to allow the services effectively to be delivered.

When I raised the issue at Work and Pensions questions the other day, the response that I received from the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, although positive, was rather vague, so I would be interested to hear this Minister be more specific, if possible, about proposals that the Government might be bringing forward to make use of other public spaces for the delivery of Jobcentre Plus services.

It is time for Jobcentre Plus to operate on a more dispersed and accessible model, reaching into communities. In my constituency, there is only one jobcentre, in Inverness. The Nairn jobcentre was closed and even though it is not possible to reopen a permanent jobcentre in Nairn, I hope that an outreach model can be developed to allow the services to be accessed once again in Nairn. The same applies for people living in, for example, Dalwhinnie in my constituency, which is nearly 60 miles from Inverness. That is a small community. Other communities such as Newtonmore and Kingussie, which are 40-odd miles away from Inverness, have never had access to jobcentre services locally. If a way could be found to provide such services, that would be very beneficial.

If the Minister is looking for a place to pilot an outreach regime, the highlands of Scotland would be a very good place indeed to start such a pilot. I have already raised the idea informally with representatives on the Highland council and received a very positive reception. In particular, if a link-up could be devised in a way that would also help to increase benefit take-up, that would be beneficial not only to the individuals themselves, but to local authorities. I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that a more dispersed model of jobcentre services—an outreach model—can be developed to help people in the highlands to have greater access to those services.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—I hope that I pronounced the name of his constituency half right, despite my accent—on securing the debate. It is a great pleasure to be able to debate with him. As many hon. Members may know, we worked side by side in a previous incarnation and we once joked about whether an occasion such as this would ever happen. It is nice—for us both, I hope—that it has.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hard work of jobcentre and benefit delivery centre staff not only in his constituency, but throughout the highlands. I know that many of his constituents are being helped and supported by people, who presumably are also or are likely to be his constituents, working in Jobcentre Plus in Inverness, in Fort William, which I believe is also in his constituency, and in Forres, which is just outside it. This is not an easy time for many people up and down the country, and the highlands are no exception. I should like to place on record my understanding of how difficult things must be for his constituents who have recently found themselves, through no fault of their own, out of work. That must have been particularly hard for the communities around the Strathaird fish processing centre. Our thoughts are certainly with them.

The hon. Gentleman has engaged well in these difficult times. Only a few weeks ago, I think, he met the district manager in Inverness to discuss what more can be done, so he is a great example of a constituency MP doing a good job in difficult times. Before I move on to give my main response to the very good points that he raised, I of course want to express my agreement with him on the difficulties posed by some of the attitudes of the devolved Administration. Although we may not agree on everything across the party political divide, we can certainly agree on that. However, we continue to do our best as a delivery Department, despite some of the obstacles put in our way.

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the seasonal nature of some of the work in his constituency; we acknowledge that there are seasonal variations. I am not in any way suggesting that the situation is particularly positive at the moment, but he may want to know that the increases in the number of people in the highlands and islands going on to jobseeker’s allowance are not as large as those in the rest of Scotland, so they are doing something right, although the figures are not going in the right direction. In the period from April to December last year, the increase in new JSA claims for the highlands and islands was 13.8 per cent. compared with 17.7 per cent. for Scotland as a whole. Obviously, those numbers are still far too large.

The other contextual fact that may be useful as we discuss this subject is that the number of people going off JSA is also rising, so the situation is more dynamic than the headline figures suggest. That applies across the whole country. If anyone is listening to or reading the record of the debate, I want to send a clear message that there are opportunities across the country now and that we will support people in trying to take advantage of those opportunities, but they need to keep looking and working with us to do that, rather than giving up hope, because there are opportunities there.

The Government will be judged on how they respond to the current situation up and down the country and in the various nations of the UK. This phenomenon is affecting most of the world. Anyone who listened to Barack Obama a few weeks ago will realise that the problem is not confined to the highlands of Scotland or to the UK. The Government’s response is that we have a choice. We could do what other Administrations have done during previous recessions and take the passive approach of merely being good at processing people on benefit and ensuring that they get their weekly or fortnightly payments. However, we take the opposite approach because we believe that it is the role of the Government to enable and support people and to enter into partnership with them to get the most out of what is not a particularly good situation, which can be seen just by looking at the headlines.

I am proud of the way in which people in our agencies have responded to the present circumstances. Across the country, clearance times for processing new benefit claims have been maintained under the target level, despite a 30 per cent. increase in the weekly uptake. It is not just the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who are working hard in jobcentres, but staff across the country.

We do need extra resources—the hon. Gentleman made that point well. The pre-Budget report announced the investment of an extra £1.3 billion over the next two years in the delivery services of the Department for Work and Pensions in response to the economic downturn and the increase in people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. The Government are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when people who were short-term unemployed became long-term unemployed because they did not get the help to which they were entitled. We are investing a further £500 million to guarantee more support for people who are unemployed for six months by providing incentives for firms to hire, access to help with setting up a business, extra funding for training, and opportunities for work-focused volunteering. Our support will increase the longer the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are out of work rather than decreasing and becoming more passive as people slip away from the labour market.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that we have announced a moratorium on jobcentre closures, including a decision not to close 25 jobcentres as had been planned. It seemed perverse to continue with the rationalisation programme when we realised that we had to ramp up the support we offer. There will be 6,000 more front-line staff in Jobcentre Plus in 2009-10. Recruitment plans are on track to bring staffing numbers up to 69,000 by March this year. That will continue to increase as required. He asked how that work is going. We increased staff by 2,500 between November last year and this January. We are employing more than 1,000 people per month, so vacancies are certainly open at the Department for Work and Pensions. In Scotland, 1,400 posts are available. In the highlands, 18 new staff have been agreed, including five in Inverness and one in nearby Forres. That will be kept under review to ensure that we are providing the service that is required.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that prior to the adverse macro-economic events, the jobcentre offices in Nairn, Thurso and Alness were closed. I have reinvestigated the reasons for those closures and found that they would have been necessary, despite the change in the economic situation. I will go through the detail if he is interested. Some of the offices were unable to cope with the adaptations that were necessary. In some cases, the service being provided was unacceptable because of the constraints of the buildings. We cannot offer services from a building that is not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That was an issue with the Nairn jobcentre, as he knows. The fact that it was a very nice listed building did not help with access problems and limited its flexibility. The question now is what we can do to ensure that his constituents get the service that they need and deserve.

The hon. Gentleman proposed some interesting ideas. The message I want to send is that we are up for innovation. We must continue this dialogue in Parliament and locally. We have increased flexibility by using telephone contacts and e-channels through the internet. If those cannot be accessed in the home, facilities are available in the community in libraries and elsewhere. We understand that different people find different methods easiest to use. For some people the internet is brilliant, but for others it is a nightmare. We must know what is most appropriate for each person, so that we can ensure that they are contacted appropriately.

I am sorry if some people have felt that the costs of complying with the requirements set out in legislation are onerous. I would be interested to hear examples, because we reimburse costs. It would be wrong not to. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will write to me if there are issues that he considers should be looked at. We are always clear that when customers who do not live near an office are required to attend it at our request outside their normal signing cycle—perhaps because there is an anomaly or they are not being as co-operative as we would like—the interview time is arranged to best fit their travel requirements and, as I said, expenses are reimbursed at the normal rates. We try to be flexible and not to disrupt people’s normal lives.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that a community group that operates a food bank has seen unnecessary poverty among his constituents because of delays in the processing of benefits. Obviously, that is not desirable. However, benefit applications must be scrutinised properly to ensure that they are valid. He may know that the Welfare Reform Bill, which has just entered its parliamentary stages in this House, proposes a power to pay benefit up front outside the social fund system when people have no other resources. In some instances, people who apply for income-based benefit will be able to receive it up front, prior to the application being processed in the normal way. His constituents are also eligible for crisis loans from the social fund. Those are usually processed within 24 hours and the national average is less than two days. I advise him to look into that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned GP services. I have seen some great examples of those in my constituency. We are keen to explore ways in which collocation can make life easier for people. The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform was in Glasgow yesterday and spoke at a forum hosted by the Scottish Government on enhancing joint agency responses to redundancies and ensuring that we intervene at an early stage. He visited one of a number of pilots that started across Scotland yesterday which aim to integrate employment and skills services. Jobcentre Plus and Career Scotland staff will work together to ensure that people are not just signing on, but that they have access to the support that they need to enhance their employment prospects. There are preliminary discussions on opening a one-stop shop to build on the work that is being done. We will evaluate that and, if it works, it may have national implications.

A number of other innovative projects are operating in the highlands. It is not in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but perhaps there are some supporters of Ross County near him. There is a great project called “Get a Goal” that uses football to engage people and encourage them to get closer to the labour market. There are other projects further north, such as in Wick.

The message I have for the hon. Gentleman is that if somebody comes to us with an idea, we are up for it. I commend his enthusiasm and initiative in requesting this debate and in suggesting ideas that will be good for his constituents and could have a wider impact throughout the United Kingdom.