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Jobcentre Plus

Volume 489: debated on Monday 16 March 2009

1. What assessment he has made of how Jobcentre Plus in Devon and Cornwall is responding to the increase in demand for its services arising from the recession. (263313)

Jobcentre Plus in Devon and Cornwall continues to perform well despite rising work loads. New jobseeker’s allowance claims are being cleared within target. Jobcentre Plus is increasing staffing and ensuring it has the office and infrastructure capacity it needs to respond to the current economic situation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, which certainly chimes with what district manager, Phil Weeks, told me when I met him recently. However, given the pressure and the great need among our constituents for the service, is my right hon. Friend absolutely confident that there are sufficient resources for us to be on the front foot not only now, but during the forthcoming, important months?

Yes, I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are recruiting 6,000 extra people for Jobcentre Plus, 4,000 of whom have already been recruited. Thanks to that and the work that Jobcentre Plus staff are doing, we are processing claims in 10 days, compared with 13 days two years ago, and performance is up, even though more work is going through. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in thanking Jobcentre Plus staff for all the work that they are doing.

Given that, within Devon and Cornwall, unemployment has risen faster in my constituency than anywhere else, I have visited staff at my local Jobcentre Plus, who are doing a fantastic job. However, is there any possibility of reopening Jobcentre Plus in Paignton? Frankly, the Torquay centre is becoming overwhelmed with the ever-rising number of people out of work.

If there are specific issues in Torquay, I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me about them. Overall, however, we believe that the system is performing well—phone calls are being answered in a minute, and we are processing people’s claims faster than we were when unemployment was low. The key is for us to make sure that the system is flexible enough to respond to the high level of claims. We must also bring in extra help. We are, for example, bringing in extra training at six months so that people do not go from being short-term unemployed to long-term unemployed if they can get back into work with that extra help. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has congratulated Jobcentre Plus staff and I shall pass his words on to the chief executive.

Order. The right hon. Gentleman’s constituency is a bit far north of Devon and Cornwall, but we will hear what he has to say.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems facing Jobcentre Plus in the south-west, as elsewhere, is the lack of jobs to offer claimants who want to work? Is he not disturbed, as I am, that up to last month the Government allowed in 150,000 skilled workers on their work permit scheme without those jobs having been tested and advertised first in the Jobcentre Plus network in the south-west and elsewhere? Will my right hon. Friend contact the Home Office and the Treasury this day to get that rule changed so that no one from the rest of the world is allowed to work in this country on a skilled-work permit until the jobs have been advertised in Jobcentre Plus?

We have already said that that is exactly what we are going to do; jobs at tier 2 will be advertised in Jobcentre Plus. However, it is important that we recognise two things. It is now harder for people to find work and there are fewer vacancies, so we need to provide people with more help. However, we should also say that we should not give up on the notion of people finding work; more than 200,000 people left JSA last month. We need to recognise that times are tougher and to make sure that we do not give up on people, but help them get work—by providing them with more help, rather than cutting it.

I add my thanks to the hard-working staff at Plymouth Jobcentre Plus, many of whom are my constituents; they are coping well with the current crisis.

With the benefit of hindsight and given that unemployment in Plymouth has risen by 53 per cent. in the past 12 months, was it not a crass error of judgment to close Plympton jobcentre? That has simply added more pressure to staff in the centre of the city.

Not at all. We wanted to modernise the service and we would have done that whatever the level of unemployment. We merged Benefits Agency and Employment Service offices so that when people sign on, they have to look for work as well. That process was recommended and praised by not just the National Audit Office, but the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who commended the modernisation as a model big public sector project of its kind. The modernisation has been done precisely to improve the service for people, and it has improved.

In Plymouth, we are processing claims in 10 days, which is a significant improvement on two years ago. We are able to do that because of the modernisation programme, which has made the system more efficient and released resources so that there can be more front line advisers and we can give better help to people. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman’s party supported efficiency, but obviously it does not.

Many of my constituents claim child benefit through their local Jobcentre Plus office, but they report delays of three to four months in processing claims, which has a knock-on effect on many other benefits. What can the Secretary of State say to assure those people that there will be joined-up thinking across Departments and local authorities to ensure that people get the support, whichever Department it comes from, exactly when they need it?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. She may know that we have been conducting a pilot with the Local Government Association and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to look at how we can provide a single place for claiming benefits from HMRC, housing benefit and benefits from us. That has been so successful that we are now rolling it out around the country. She makes exactly the right point: people should have a convenient service whereby they can go into Jobcentre Plus and claim all those benefits in one place.