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Mowden Hall, Darlington (DfE Jobs)

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for supporting me in preparing for this debate.

Mowden Hall is the workplace of more than 400 civil servants who support the education and well-being of children and families across the country. On 13 November, I received a letter from the Department for Education describing Mowden Hall as being in poor condition and requiring significant investment to remain in use. The letter said that the Department would be selling the site and searching for an alternative in either Darlington or Newcastle, which came as a surprise although not as a bolt from the blue.

Before 2010, the Department had secured funding and planning permission to build new offices in the centre of Darlington. The relocation would have brought jobs into the centre of town, providing public transport access and much-needed trade. The coalition Government cancelled the project almost immediately after taking office, saying that they were committed to remaining at Mowden Hall. All seemed relatively well at the time, but it did not ring true to me, given that the feasibility study for the new building highlighted the poor condition of Mowden Hall. It seemed pretty clear that at some point, the Department would either have to move from Mowden or invest heavily in it.

To be helpful to the Department, I arranged for a discussion between officials and a local developer, John Orchard of Marchday, which owns Lingfield Point in Darlington. The Lingfield Point site was built immediately after the second world war to house a wool factory by Patons and Baldwins, a leading British manufacturer of knitting yarn. At 2 million square feet, the site became the largest wool factory in the world. It is now one of the largest employment bases in the Tees valley, employing more than 2,000 people. The award-winning site is also home to the offices of significant north-eastern organisations including Darlington borough council, the NHS, the Student Loans Company, NFU Mutual and the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes. It is a stone’s throw from the Independent Safeguarding Authority and can truly be described as a public sector employment hub. The business park even runs its own bus service to and from the town centre every half hour, alongside local bus services running to the site every 10 minutes.

In March 2011, discussions with the then permanent secretary and his officials to assess the possibility of a move to Lingfield Point were positive. Shortly afterwards, however, it became clear that any move was on hold and that the Department’s strategy, at least for the time being, was to stay put at the deteriorating Mowden Hall. It is not my intention to argue that the Department should retain Mowden Hall; a move is clearly justified. Nevertheless, the surprising element of the letter I received on 13 November was not that the Department had decided to move from Mowden Hall, but that it was considering moving its 480 staff members to Newcastle instead.

About 60% of the work force at Mowden Hall live in Darlington. The rest commute from neighbouring Teesside, Durham and North Yorkshire. The Minister, being familiar with the geography of the north-east, will know that Newcastle is 40 miles north of Darlington along a busy stretch of motorway. To reach the centre, staff would either have to drive past the Metro centre, which is legendary locally as a congestion hot spot, or travel via the Tyne tunnel, which has lengthy queues at peak travel times. Increased regional congestion and carbon emissions would be the unwelcome consequence of a move away from Darlington. Alternatively, staff could take a packed train, but the journey time—about half an hour, in addition to travel time into and out of Darlington and Newcastle town centres—would add about two hours to their working day. Other travel options from Darlington to, for example, Longbenton in Newcastle and back include two hours and 20 minutes on the train, four hours on the bus or two hours and 20 minutes driving.

Those travel times would make family friendly working impossible. Parents would find it harder to fit their hours around existing child care arrangements, which would increase their costs dramatically. According to Tees Valley Unlimited, our local enterprise partnership, the older, highly experienced work force would be less likely to commute to Longbenton and less likely to find alternative employment locally.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on gaining the debate. My constituency takes in part of the borough of Darlington as well as part of south-east Durham. The issue is important not just for the town of Darlington but for local and surrounding areas. I receive letters and e-mails from people who work at Mowden Hall and places such as Newton Aycliffe. They say that if Mowden Hall is moved to Newcastle, there is no way that they will be able to get there and have a family life. I agree with the point that she is making.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. People who live in outlying areas of Darlington such as Newton Aycliffe would have to get into Darlington to catch the train. An hour and 10 minutes would be an optimistic travel time for someone in that situation.

I understand that the Department will be responsible for the relocation travel expenses of staff commuting to an alternative workplace in Newcastle. What provisions has the Minister made to cover those costs? I hear that the Department may be required to cover staff travel costs for some years. Can she confirm that that is the case?

Staff at Mowden Hall make a substantial contribution to my local economy. The most recent information that I have been able to obtain from Tees Valley Unlimited suggests that nine are senior civil servants, 60 work at senior management grades 6 and 7, 58 work in operational management, 240 are executive grade and 80 work at administrative level. Those are senior posts providing expertise to the education sector across the UK.

Darlington is an attractive area principally because of its low cost base and highly skilled work force. In addition, the town has an excellent quality of life and an easy commute to work. Its main advantage is a stable work force and very low staff turnover, allowing for continuity of the specialist knowledge that makes a difference to children’s education throughout the country. The expertise at Mowden Hall has been built up over decades and includes school formation and investment, improvement and performance, school standards, school resources, early years, extended schools, special needs, safeguarding, international adoption, audit and free schools and academies. I understand that a free school is to be created at the old Mowden Hall, which I support and look forward to.

Mowden Hall has a talented, motivated and dedicated work force with skills that cannot be acquired quickly. A move from Darlington resulting in large-scale staff departures would damage the Department’s ability to continue its business. Schools and children’s services departments across the country rely on those skills. They are not easily, quickly or cheaply replaceable, and they should be highly prized by the Department. It is particularly worrying that the current uncertainty surrounding the future location of the Department’s offices is causing some highly skilled staff members to consider departing from the service sooner than they otherwise would have. I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that staff at Mowden Hall will not be required to make decisions about early exit before gaining certainty about where they will have to work.

I am grateful to the permanent secretary for meeting me and representatives from Darlington, including council leader Bill Dixon and the leader of the Conservative group, Heather Scott. Ministers and officials understand the pitfalls of a move away from Darlington, and I know that they will be mindful of the potentially damaging impact of a move on the Department’s performance. I know from those discussions that business continuity is a key concern of the Department in considering where to move the jobs. Staff turnover at Mowden Hall is low. The site has played a leading role in Government initiatives, such as free schools and academies, and we are keen that that role continues in Darlington.

In addition to the 480 DfE jobs at Mowden Hall, there are a small number of Ministry of Justice and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills staff. Will the Minister say something about the future of those posts? Some 500 staff at Mowden Hall are employed by Capita, servicing a DfE contract. Can the Minister say what discussions she has had with Capita about its future accommodation needs?

My principal arguments for keeping the Department’s jobs in Darlington centre on the unnecessary costs of relocation and the potential loss of skills to the Department. Also of huge concern is the impact on the local economy of the loss of such a large number of highly skilled jobs.

Although it is more of an issue for me, as the local representative, than for the Minister, it is worth outlining that Tees Valley Unlimited’s economic model forecasts that the economic impact for Darlington is direct employees plus indirect employees times the median wage of £19,000 per annum, giving an annual economic impact figure for Darlington of up to £21 million. It is estimated that around 70% of that sum is spent in the local economy.

Darlington’s unemployment rate is historically and currently higher than other potential locations in Newcastle. The decision to leave Mowden Hall is the most important issue facing Darlington today. There is cross-party support to keep the jobs in the town. We are not making party political points about this. We have support from the borough council and the local business community, the Public and Commercial Services Union and all political parties. The foremost regional newspaper in the country, The Northern Echo, with its proud history as a campaigning title, has lent its support to the campaign to keep jobs at Mowden Hall. Its Save Our Jobs petition has already attracted more than 1,000 signatures. There is no doubt that the task of persuading the Department to stay in Darlington is a whole-town effort, undertaken with confidence in what we have to offer and an understanding that these jobs are critical to the future economic success of our area.

The case for remaining in Darlington is persuasive. There are at least two high-quality alternatives in Darlington. This is a critical decision for our town. For business continuity, integration with Capita, retention of skills and the sake of the local economy, I trust that the Department will decide to keep these jobs in Darlington.

I thank the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) for her excellent, insightful contributions to the debate and for tabling it. She made a persuasive case, not just in relation to the specific roles in the Department for Education, but for all employers to locate their operations in Darlington because of the cost-effective nature of the location and the high level of skills in the local work force. I hope that message about the value of Darlington is heard more widely by other potential employers who might think about locating in the north-east.

I note the hon. Lady’s points about the specific skills of Department for Education officials in Darlington. I pay tribute to the staff who work at Mowden Hall in Darlington for the contribution they make to the efforts of the Department. She outlined well how many different areas are supported from the Darlington office, including free schools, academies and early years, which is of particular interest to me.

The Secretary of State said that he wants the Department for Education to be the best Department in Government and to be a place where the best, most talented people want to work. I agree that that is an important objective. Given the general economic climate, we need to ensure that we are getting value for money and that we have a highly motivated and highly skilled work force. That is a key objective for the Department. The DfE review considered how we can achieve that and proposed fundamental changes to our ways of working, designed to make the Department the best it can be. Those changes include greater flexibility in how we structure and manage teams—I use video conferencing a lot to communicate with Department officials located in other parts of the country—and focusing on outputs rather than processing things internally, which is what we want the Department to do and what we are asking schools and children’s services to do.

I am fortunate to work with excellent civil servants on the many areas of policy that I cover. Over the past two years, the Department has achieved a great deal in terms of the reform agenda. We are also working on reforms to early years and right across children’s services and education. We in the Department need to set ourselves similarly high standards to those we ask of schools and children’s services throughout the country.

Many of the changes I have outlined will be welcomed by staff, because everybody, whatever job they do in whatever walk of life, wants to know that they are having a positive impact on the real thing that they do, which in our case is helping children in education and in the adoption process or in care. Staff will welcome the opportunity to spend more time on important front-line work. I recognise that other changes will be difficult, for instance, site closures and headcount reductions, but as a Department we have a duty to look for ways to secure value for money for the taxpayer.

As we outlined in our letter, Mowden Hall is no longer fit for purpose; it is old and would require substantial investment to upgrade. The hon. Lady confirmed that she agrees, so we all agree. I welcome her support for the proposed free school on the Mowden Hall site.

As the permanent secretary outlined, we are committed to a presence in the north-east of England. We announced plans to identify a new site in the area on 13 November. We are searching for a new location and are considering the following criteria. Ideally, the site should be an existing Government property. If that is not possible, it should be new leasehold or should share premises with another Department or a local council. It must be affordable and be well connected with transport, relating to the hon. Lady’s well-made point about how staff are expected to get to and from work and the travel difficulties that people in the Darlington area may face. It must have good quality facilities, and it must be available within reasonable time scales. We will do everything we can to minimise impact on staff and local areas. I took on board the hon. Lady’s points, which I will feed into our process and provide to the permanent secretary, about the impact on local employment and the area’s economy.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s positive, constructive approach in helping to establish a working group to identify potential sites in Darlington. Her positive engagement is welcome. I have spoken to the permanent secretary about this matter and he wants to continue the dialogue to ensure that she and other interested parties are involved in ongoing discussions, so that the decision does not just come out of the air, and people who represent staff and residents in Darlington are involved in the decision-making process and able to add value to it.

The Department expects to develop a shortlist of available property options in the region from January. I hope that the Darlington working group will be able to field a proposal for inclusion among the options to be considered. The hon. Lady made suggestions about two locations, which in her view are high quality and should be considered by the Department. I hope that she has raised those suggestions with the permanent secretary or will do so in a forthcoming meeting with him, to ensure that he is aware of them.

Once a shortlist of options is available, staff will be consulted about the effect of a move on them individually, and support will be put in place to help staff with a move if necessary. I hope that answers the hon. Lady’s question about whether staff are being asked: they will only be asked to consider what they want to do once a decision about a site has been made. If that is wrong, I shall write to her to confirm otherwise, but I believe that to be the case.

On the hon. Lady’s other questions, we will consult on such things as travel costs and how staff travel costs will be paid for, enabling us to determine the Department’s relocation costs and, therefore, to put together an overall budget. At present, we do not know exactly what travel costs will be entailed. We will evaluate the costs of all the different locations, once we are down to our final decisions, so travel costs will come into the final decision about the most appropriate site for relocation.

The hon. Lady also asked about others with a role. I have not had a discussion with Capita—in reply to her specific question—but I can certainly follow things up with the permanent secretary and get her an answer. Nor do I have any information specifically about the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills jobs, as my responsibility is for roles connected with the Department for Education. We are keen to ensure that the Department is using its resources as efficiently as possible, but we are clear about not wanting to lose expertise that has contributed to the Department’s success and that might be located in diverse geographical areas throughout the country, which is why we are anxious to maintain a presence in the north-east.

Once we have gone through the process and know where we are relocating, we will work with unions to develop a support offer for staff. The move will affect staff differently; some might live closer than others to the new site and some might have disabilities or be carers or part-time workers, so we need to take that into account. Our support offer will be responsive to individual circumstances and could, for instance, include elements such as flexible working arrangements. As I have already said, our Department is pretty forward-looking with such arrangements; we are very much focused on what people contribute, because that is a more effective approach to work, rather than encouraging presenteeism. We will continue that approach when we put our new proposals into place.

To conclude, I hope that the hon. Member for Darlington continues her discussions with the permanent secretary and the working group. Her input has already been extremely valuable, and her concerns are being listened to in the Department. To be clear, vital departmental functions and knowledgeable hard-working staff are based in Darlington, and I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her assistance in finding a suitable building to which the Department could relocate.

Sitting suspended.