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DWP Offices (Fylde)

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 27 November 2013

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to see so many colleagues from the Fylde coast here, particularly the shadow Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), who has moved back one row following the previous debate. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who would have been here were it not for personal circumstances, would wish me to place on record his support for the points I intend to make today.

At a time of rapid changes in welfare provision, it can be forgotten that we need a large, active, professional and highly qualified staff to deliver those changes. The staff of the Department for Work and Pensions at the numerous sites across the Fylde coast perform with great professionalism, delivering consistently high levels of service against a challenging backdrop.

That backdrop is doubly uncertain because we know the rigours under which the Department is working. Its core budget is to be reduced by 26% by 2014-15, and corporate overheads are to be reduced by 40% by the same date. Clearly, that has resulted in some difficult decisions for Ministers and those who manage the service. As a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) in June 2011 demonstrated, the headcount at the three main sites on the Fylde has declined from 5,116 in 2002 to 4,600 in 2011.

That, of course, raises many questions in the minds of those who work for the DWP on the Fylde about what the future might hold. It is unsurprising—indeed, it is natural—that they wish to see more job opportunities come to the Fylde. I do not think the Minister will be surprised to hear that: it is natural to want more work to come to the Fylde.

In defence of the Minister, the last time I asked how many compulsory redundancies we had seen on the Fylde specifically, the answer was three. The headcount has reduced due to managed programmes of people leaving the service. We have been fortunate on some levels that the cuts on the Fylde coast have not been worse. We must recognise that there will be ongoing challenges. We cannot assume that because we have escaped lightly so far, we will continue to escape lightly in future. For example, we will shortly face the closure of the Marton Mere site, which will mean 300 jobs have to move elsewhere.

The purpose of today’s debate is not to rehearse statistics about job losses or even to demand extra work for Fylde, but to look specifically at how decisions are being taken about which sites are to remain open, which are to close and, most importantly, where to move the staff to from the three main sites. I may end up being arcane in a moment—those who do not live on the Fylde might think, “What is he talking about?”—but although the three sites are only seven or eight miles apart, getting from Norcross to Peel Park is a significant logistical challenge. It is not something that many people who live on the Fylde would voluntarily choose to do, but the decisions being made are forcing many people to make difficult decisions about whether they can continue to work at the DWP, given the caring responsibilities they have in their families.

In 2006, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North secured an Adjournment debate on the identical issue of how decisions were being made about the Fylde. He was successful, in that he got the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), to visit the Fylde coast to look at what was occurring there. We were fortunate in that she agreed to appoint a “cluster lead” for the Fylde, who would have an overall perspective on what was happening on the Fylde coast. Each of the main sites would also have a site lead, who would feed into that pyramid process. The key point I want to communicate to the Minister today is that that model added value to decision making.

Let me also remind the Minister that we are looking at the future of the sites. The future can be a difficult concept in government—we do not know what next week will bring, let alone what will happen in 2018. Many at Warbreck house see 2018, when the transfer from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment will be completed, as something of a crunch point for the future of the DWP on the Fylde. Any comments the Minister can make about the future of Warbreck house in particular will be gratefully received.

Since 2006, we have seen natural wastage, as we would in any organisation. Cluster leads have retired or moved to other jobs, and the architecture has broken down. The decision-making process that made for better decisions has broken down. I shall take one, admittedly convoluted example, which might demonstrate my point. The decision was taken to wind down the most northerly site, Norcross, in September 2012. The last date of occupation was to be 31 August 2013, but on 18 December 2012, it was announced that some 220 staff would remain on the Norcross site at Tomlinson house, while the remaining staff would still transfer to Warbreck and Peel Park. Peel Park is the most southerly of the locations and Warbreck is squarely in the middle. Coping with the changes caused problems for our constituents. We were grateful that jobs were maintained on the Fylde, but the consequences of doing so were difficult.

More recently, the DWP announced that the landlord at Marton Mere wanted the DWP to leave the site, which meant that 265 people had to be rehoused, but there was great confusion. Marton Mere is nearest to Peel Park, at the southern end of the Fylde. There was uncertainty over whether the staff would move to Warbreck or Peel Park. No one could decide; there was oscillation between the two. In the end, the decision was made to switch from Peel Park to Warbreck, specifically because Peel Park had to accommodate those moving from Norcross. The most northerly staff had to go to the most southerly site. A cluster lead might have said, “Hang on a minute. Can’t we put the people nearest to Norcross into the spaces at Warbreck and accommodate the people from Marton Mere at Peel Park?” It might not have been possible, but at least a cluster lead and a system of site leads would have allowed such a debate to occur.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, for giving way. I want to reinforce the point he is making. Does he agree that the complexities and difficulties in the area are exacerbated by the fact that public transport access to Peel Park is still problematic?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Maintaining public transport links to ensure that staff can get to the new locations has been an ongoing battle. I was grateful to one of the Minister’s predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling)—now Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice—who was vociferous in saying that no change could occur at Norcross without sufficient public transport links. I agree that maintaining such links is a vital battle that we must hold.

The local branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union has informed me that, because we do not have cluster leads, there have been 35 local piecemeal meetings with different business units, here, there and everywhere, discussing all the different manoeuvres. A more streamlined system might have brought about not only a better decision, but a smoother decision that was less disruptive for those in the system.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, particularly given that today is Lancashire day. I agree with him about the context. I want to underline the fact that MPs in all parties have a good relationship with the PCS union. We have always had a practical and constructive relationship. There is a problem with the suggested moves. We are not talking about the most highly paid jobs in the DWP. Suggesting that people move around and deal with the transport connections on extremely low salaries is perhaps a major factor in causing a great deal of unease, particularly among those from Fleetwood employed at the sites.

I agree entirely. If I was minded to be cheeky today, which I rarely am, I would suggest that many of those making such high-level human resources decisions find it very easy to get to the locations on the Fylde, because they come straight down the M55 from outside the Fylde. They have incredible access, whereas those who live on the Fylde and have to move around it struggle the most.

I urge the Minister to look again at reappointing a cluster lead to ensure that any future changes are managed with a strategic perspective to avoid such piecemeal, unco-ordinated and occasionally contradictory decisions about where people are located on the Fylde. I do not mean to be critical at all; I just observe that the best use of the DWP estate must come from looking across the Fylde as a whole, from a Fylde perspective, not just from looking at the distances on a map between one location and another. A cluster lead could also lead the debate more effectively about how we best use Fylde recourses post-2018. Great concerns remain about what will happen to the staff in 2018.

Will the Minister look at whether the Ministry of Defence’s Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, which is based at the Norcross site, can be brought into the cluster discussion? The Norcross site encompasses both the MOD and the DWP, which are the two main Departments that employ civil servants on the Fylde, so if we are discussing the fate of civil servants on the Fylde, it seems eminently sensible for both Departments to be part of that discussion. I recently heard rumours—they are no more than rumours—that 50 people are being relocated to the SPVA from Liverpool to replace 50 casual staff taken on in the Blackpool area. Clearly discussions are still ongoing about what the SPVA does—I know that that does not fall under the Minister’s remit—but all that demonstrates once again that discussions are ongoing that have real consequences, but are not coherent.

We can all recognise that the DWP faces immense financial challenges. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) mentioned, there is a strong cross-party, non-partisan relationship with the PCS on the Fylde coast. We always seek to do our best on behalf of those we represent. That is because they are doing a superb job, often on low wages and in difficult circumstances. Warbreck house does not have the most heart-warming of HR departments, to put it mildly. I have heard some appalling horror stories at times, but I want the civil servants on the Fylde to have a strong and vibrant future. A key part of achieving that will be to have a strategic cluster lead to enable the Minister to be confident that decisions take into account the reality of what is occurring on the Fylde, not just what a civil servant in Sheffield has spotted on Google Maps that morning.

It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship with a new portfolio; I am in my third position in the past 18 months. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I understand he was first reserve or last reserve—whatever reserve it was—and it is right and proper that he was ready to represent his constituents. Given that this is a half-hour debate, he has done well to get colleagues from across the House to talk about this constituency issue.

As I am relatively new to my portfolio, a lot of what I say will have been written for me by my civil servants. I will challenge that as we go forward; if some of the things I say do not match my colleagues’ local knowledge, they should let me know. I intend to visit this wonderful part of England in the near future to look at the points that have been raised and carefully consider what we can do. I cannot draw a line in the sand on the Norcross site because demolition is taking place as we speak. I hope I can, however, alleviate some of my colleagues’ concerns about what is going on with other parts of the site.

I have a piece of paper in front of me from the MOD on the part of the site that is not within my portfolio. It has shared services from the DWP and the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, an executive agency of the MOD. That piece of paper says that that part of the site is not part of the redevelopment plans and is there to stay. It is a completely different set of buildings and their quality is completely different from the pre-war prefabs, which would have cost us a lot of money to refurbish and would not have given us any degree of longevity. I hope I can alleviate any concerns on the shared services.

The other thing I want to address is the concept that a civil servant is a civil servant. They are not completely interoperable. They are a bit like us, in many ways; there are many different sorts of MPs and we all do things in a slightly different way. Inside the civil service, people have specific jobs to do. It is not the case that because closer desks are available, those civil servants could have automatically gone to them. I know that it is logical that if there are closer desks, they should move to them, but it does not always work that way.

Given the skills that we need from civil servants in the Fylde, we could not just have moved them to the closer premises, not least because I have a responsibility to the taxpayer to ensure that we get best value. If we look at how the Government estate, for want of a better word, has been managed and operated around the UK over the years, we see that there has been, to say the least, a lack of joined-up government, no matter who has been in power. That is because the estate is complicated.

Demolition is taking place on the Warbreck site. We are not the owners of the site, but we have a contractual agreement on the site. We have a financial interest in what is developed on the site, once it is levelled and redeveloped. After costs, we will get an income into the Department from it.

As soon as I said it, I knew I had said the wrong one. It is the Norcross site; Warbreck is a completely different kettle of fish and we are using it to its fullest capacity.

Coming back to Norcross, which is what I was supposed to have been talking about, demolition has started and it would be expensive for us to row back from that. It would have cost in excess of £30 million to do it up to a standard that would have given us any longevity. It would have cost us £100,000, should we have had a problem.

The costs are immaterial—we are where we are. There would have been legal costs and a new negotiation, because we are not the freeholders but the tenants. An income to the Department is built into the redevelopment, although we do not yet know what the exact amount will be, because we do not know how the market will perform. There is an exciting future for the Norcross site and things will move forward. [Interruption.] This is where the note comes through saying, “Minister, you might have said the wrong thing.” The cost of redevelopment would have been £20 million, not £30 million as I said, so I apologise and put that on record.

The important point made by my hon. Friend was that we must work much harder on the concept that someone sitting in Sheffield, London or Timbuktu can look at Google Maps and think, “That’s a great idea. We’ll do it that way.” Anyone who knows my previous roles—I know that my hon. Friend was on the Select Committee on Transport—will know that when I made the decision on the future of the coastguards, I specifically did not do things in that way. I looked at the needs, where it could be done and the economic effects on that part of the community. I assure him that that is exactly what I will do as we move forward.

The debate on this topic back in 2006 or 2007, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace),was the right debate. He managed to secure a commitment from the Minister to visit. Ministers get huge demands on their time for visits around the country, but it is important that they are seen not to be London-centric—that they actually go out and understand what is going on in the community and see the effects of decisions.

I also want to praise the civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions. The welfare reforms have been a massive transformation. There has been a lot of uncertainty, which I fully understand, as we have moved from the disability living allowance to personal independence payments, but the civil servants have done a brilliant job and the enthusiasm I have found in offices around the United Kingdom has been overwhelming. They have asked for a chance to get on with it, because they now know where they are and how to move forward.

I have two things to say on that point of reform. I want to put in a bid for the Fylde to be seriously considered as a location for a universal credit hub as it is rolled out across the country. As the Minister rightly said, we have excellent civil servants, who could operate it brilliantly. It is therefore even more important that we do not have just a civil servant, but a senior-grade civil servant like a camp commandant, who can provide answers. Much of the work force feel disjointed from the management in Sheffield and London, because they cannot get the answers locally as the senior grades that they should have are not there.

That is an enormously important point. Both my hon. Friend and I come from the military, so I understand exactly the concept of ownership—the feeling that someone is part of a bigger picture. We will certainly look at the issue that he raises, as services come on stream. There is a huge amount of work still to be done, particularly in my portfolio—this issue is not all mine, even though the Department estates we are talking about are very much mine; the DLA to PIP transfer is also mine.

In conclusion, I have huge admiration for the staff involved; I will personally come to the area and thank them. In the meantime, I would be grateful if colleagues thanked their constituents on my behalf. I come with an open mind as to where we can go forward, but I cannot rewrite the books. We are where we are, and we need to move forward with this particular development.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.