As announced in the Budget, Jobcentre Plus will be recruiting up to 10,000 more staff this year, on top of the 6,000 new staff already announced in, and recruited since, the pre-Budget report. Jobcentre Plus is coping well with the increased work load, paying benefits promptly and seeing people quickly to discuss help in finding them work. Every working day, its advisers see 50,000 people to support them in looking for work.
Extra help to support hard-pressed staff is welcome, but may I ask the Minister to examine the staffing of phone lines? Many constituents have complained to me in recent months that they have tried for days to get through on phone lines without success and have ended up frustrated at Jobcentre Plus when they have subsequently been told that they cannot have an appointment there and then because they have to call a phone line in order to get one.
I have had some concerns relating to anecdotal stories such as the ones that my hon. Friend rightly raises with me. I am advised that about 95 per cent. of such calls are answered in our contact centres that deal with them, and that is a good figure by any commercial comparison. However, I am keen to look at this area in more detail to see whether or not we can improve the systems to ensure that people who are claiming can obtain a referral and get an appointment as quickly as possible with Jobcentre Plus.
Perhaps I can help the Minister with his puzzlement as to why these people cannot get through. Since 2002, 520 jobcentres have been closed by this Government—one a week has closed in the past 12 months while the number of unemployed has been rising. Why is that?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the jobcentre closures have been suspended in response to what is going on in the jobs market as a result of the global recession. He will also know that those closures were part of efficiency changes designed to make public money go further. If he is saying that jobcentres should be reopened or should remain open, he would need to find the money for that. Given that his party opposed the £5 billion extra that we are spending to get people back into work, his claims ring hollow.