I beg to move,
That this House has considered closure of jobcentres in Glasgow.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I wish to take you and other Members back to 8 June 2010—at the time of 7.34 pm, to be precise. That was a big moment in the Minister’s parliamentary career, because it was then that he uttered his first words to the House as a new Member, in a Queen’s Speech debate on the economy and welfare. Tucked away within that speech was a line that I happen to agree with. Talking specifically about welfare, the Minister said then that prevention is “better than cure”. Those are such wise words from six years ago, but what a turnaround in approach we have today now that he is a Minister of the Crown. I accept that the Minister will not share my analysis. I accept that he probably—almost certainly—believes that he is on the same trajectory as he was back in 2010 when he advocated prevention with such eloquence. So I and some of my hon. Friends wish to adumbrate to him this evening the error of his ways.
I wish to start with the sham of a consultation that the Government have been dragged, kicking and screaming, to finally publish on their website. The Minister and his officials know, because we have told them on several occasions, that the basis on which they are proceeding with the consultation is a sham. There are 16 jobcentres in the city of Glasgow; the Minister wishes to close eight. He will consult on only three, because he believes that the rules surrounding this matter—the ministerial criteria—allow him to do so. However, he has been told by myself and several of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies that will be affected that the information the Government have used to calculate the distances between opening and remaining jobcentres—an incredibly important part of the rules governing the ministerial criteria—is flawed, because they have relied on Google Maps. Now that is fine for the average holiday traveller—indeed, I even use it myself—but the idea that a Minister of the Crown or a Government Department, no less, would use something as simple as an iPhone app to determine how they deliver services in Scotland’s largest city is nothing short of a shambles and a slap in the face to Glaswegians. We are clear that the consultation needs to be on the full package of closures—not on three, but on eight—and to give due consideration to the wider impact on the remaining jobcentres and how they will absorb staff members and all the extra people who will require their services.
The other thing that I wish to highlight, before giving several of my colleagues enough time to talk about their constituencies, is the specific impact that the closures will have on my constituency. The Minister wishes to close two of the three jobcentres that serve my constituency, which is the largest in in the city of Glasgow in geographical size and population. Yesterday I spoke with the staff at Castlemilk law centre, around the corner from the Castlemilk jobcentre, which the Minister wishes to close. They told me in no uncertain terms that the closure of Castlemilk jobcentre will inevitably lead to more poverty, more exclusion and more disengagement with the services that are currently available. The law centre does excellent work in ensuring that people are as engaged as possible with jobcentre services if they have physical or mental disabilities or are presented with other challenges. However, with the removal of the centre from Castlemilk, the staff fully expect their workload to increase and for people to disengage. They and I can foresee, in a way that the Minister perhaps cannot at this stage, the disproportionate impact on some incredibly poorly off people and some people who are incredibly challenged with physical and mental disabilities. I return to his words in his maiden speech: prevention is better than cure.
The Minister is aware, because I wrote to him, of a specific proposal by the management of Castlemilk jobcentre whereby they will agree a lower rental rate for the Department, if this is about saving money. They do not want to see the jobcentre go. Will the Minister address that issue for me? Langside jobcentre is right across the road from a college campus, in the second most densely populated council ward in all of Scotland. I cannot think of a better place for a jobcentre to be.
The Minister has not just managed to unite the Glasgow MPs and Members of the Scottish Parliament—including the two from his own party who represent Glasgow— against these plans. He has united the Church of Scotland, the trade unions, the Catholic Church in Scotland and two very large communities in my constituency against them.
I will sum up now, to allow as many of my colleagues as possible to speak. My ask to the Minister is very simple: halt these proposals right now, talk to us in a meaningful fashion about how to deliver a proper welfare service to the people of Glasgow, and engage with people in Glasgow by visiting the city during the consultation period. I know that he is coming to Scotland sometime next month to meet Ministers in the Scottish Government, so I seek an assurance that he will also use that visit to come to Glasgow and speak to some of those affected in some of the poorest communities in Scotland’s largest city.
Order. The debate can run until 5.30 pm. The guideline limits for Front-Bench contributions are five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister, with three minutes for Mr McDonald to sum up at the end. That means that I need to start calling the Front Benchers no later than 5.7 pm.
I see before me some of the most talented and best looking of the SNP’s representation in Parliament. Five of you have indicated to Mr Speaker that you would like to speak. I intend to call you in the order on the list given to me by the Speaker’s Office—I suspect that the order is to do with who got their application in first. Because you are all on the same side, I hope that you will not speak for too long and deny the person at the bottom of the list the opportunity to speak. You have about five or six minutes each, and Natalie McGarry is going to lead off to show us all how it is done.
I commend the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this important debate. It is indicative of the strength of feeling among Glasgow’s MPs that we have almost the entire cohort here, as well as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). We are all here to speak to the Minister about the issue and to raise it in the House. Our constituents are watching, because they are concerned about the impact on their communities.
Almost two weeks ago, I was shocked, like my hon. Friends, to learn through the press of the UK Government’s decision to earmark eight jobcentres across Glasgow for closure. That decision would close half of the city’s jobcentres. Two are in my constituency, while a third will close in the neighbouring constituency of Glasgow Central. That impacts on a fourth, Shettleston—the lone jobcentre in the east end to be free from the threat of closure. The plans lack logic and local knowledge and clearly lack input from local stakeholders. For those reasons and a whole host of others, they are inherently short-sighted.
The jobcentre closures in Glasgow are part of Department for Work and Pensions plans to cut its estate by 20%. However, the plan in Glasgow will see a 50% cut in our jobcentres. That prompts the question: why are the Government disproportionately focusing on Glasgow? The Minister pre-empted that point in his letter to Glasgow MPs by saying that Glasgow
“is in a unique position within the DWP Jobcentre Plus Estate as it has a greater density of small offices compared to other large Scottish towns and cities.”
I think that he meant that Glasgow is in a unique position, from the view of the DWP, in being convenient for an ideologically driven cost-cutting exercise.
In fact, Glasgow is indeed in a “unique position,” for want of a better phrase: almost half of Glasgow’s residents stay in the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland; the city has been labelled the “jobless capital of Europe”—not a claim that I am happy with, but it is unfortunately a reality—and the unemployment claimant counts in areas of the city and my constituency are double the UK national average. The so-called “unique” position that Glasgow finds itself in, through no fault of its own, illustrates that the UK Government should be doing more to help, not less.
Another issue that the DWP must consider seriously is the increase in demand for a reduced number of Jobcentre Plus offices. For example, Shettleston jobcentre—just down the road from my office—currently serves 1,025 welfare recipients. If we added in the areas of Parkhead, Easterhouse and Bridgeton, that figure would more than triple to 3,210, making it one of the biggest jobcentres in the UK, in one of the most deprived areas with some of the highest levels of unemployment. That does not make sense. It would add insult to injury if the Government forced people to travel further, at additional cost, to be inconvenienced in longer queues to receive a poorer service.
What assessment have the Government made of the potential delays for service users? What provisions are in place to ensure that the service provided does not suffer? I fear that if those questions are not answered and the concerns are not adequately addressed, we will be back in this Chamber or elsewhere in the House debating the reforms again. We will say that the Government’s failure to prepare properly and their failure to take heed of our warnings have led to people suffering unnecessarily, with more sanctions and less support.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South made very clear our opposition to the way in which the consultation has taken place. Neither jobcentre in my constituency that is due to close is included in the consultation, but I have grave concerns about those closures, which I spoke to the Minister about in our meeting last week. I raised with him some of the unique challenges in the east end—the hon. Gentleman has also addressed those concerns with him.
Territorialism and the historical gang culture are existing issues in the east end of Glasgow. I believe that the Minister and the DWP flippantly dismissed those serious concerns by pointing out that Shettleston had served as a youth hub jobcentre for four years, ignoring the extensive preparation and engagement work that was done with the police, stakeholders and the jobcentre. The same work has not been done in this situation, when it is more critical given the ages of the claimants, the historical nature of gang violence and the levels of unemployment among the mainly men involved. It is not sufficient to say that in extreme cases, remote sign-ons would work.
Further, I also brought up with the Minister, as did colleagues, the harm and undue impact on communities such as Easterhouse. Indeed, that area caused the former Secretary of State to have an “epiphany”. Easterhouse is isolated on the edge of Glasgow with inadequate public transport and an already failing town centre, and such communities cannot afford the loss of more infrastructure. Unemployment there is high but there are services nearby, including libraries, the citizens advice bureau and other stakeholders. Removing the jobcentre will destroy that joined-up thinking and make it harder for people to access services.
I do not want to take up too much more time, because everybody has the right to speak, but let me be clear: closing half of Glasgow’s jobcentres is a cack-handed plan, and it is being done in the most cavalier way. Ripping jobcentres out of the most deprived areas of the country—ripping them from the heart of communities and away from the people who need them most—is tantamount to social and economic vandalism. Glasgow is not the guinea pig of Westminster or Whitehall, so scrap these punitive plans now, Minister.
I am glad to be able to speak in this debate, Mr Hollobone, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for bringing us all together.
The letter that the Minister sent to MPs said that the plans were
“right for the city, its customers and our people”,
but I see scant evidence from the people I know in Glasgow that the decision would be any of those three things. The decision seems to have been made entirely in isolation by DWP officials, without speaking to anybody else in the city. They have certainly not spoken to stakeholders in Glasgow, Glasgow City Council, which has condemned it, or the Scottish Government, who are not keen on it at all either. They have not spoken to the most important local partner in Bridgeton, Clyde Gateway, which has done a huge amount in the area to reduce the overt claimant count from 39% in 2009 to 28% in 2015. They know that that is due to the huge amount of work it has done in the area to improve the life chances of people in that community, but it has not been consulted. Clyde Gateway is a linchpin for the community in terms of economic regeneration, and it needs to be part of the process.
In Bridgeton, around the corner from the jobcentre, there is a citizens advice bureau, which does a huge amount of work to support constituents. The credit union is across the road. The Olympia is right there, with its newly refurbished library, which has computers and classes that help to support local constituents. The Glasgow Women’s Library, which helps vulnerable women with literacy and to improve their self-esteem, is around the corner.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another vulnerable group that we must take into account is disabled people? It is absolutely disgraceful that people with disability will have much further to travel to find jobs. Has any impact assessment been conducted in that regard? The Government have pledged to halve the disability employment gap; surely these plans undermine that policy.
I absolutely agree: the plans entirely undermine that ambition. Bridgeton CAB has been collecting evidence for the public consultation—my area is one of the few that will be consulted on—and it is very concerned that people accessing disability advisers will have much further to travel and that it will be much harder for them to get there.
To touch on transport, the Minister has stated that it takes 11 minutes by car to get from Bridgeton to Shettleston, but that entirely ignores the fact that nearly two thirds of households in the most deprived communities of Glasgow do not have access to a car, so they will need to get two buses. The Minister reckoned that it would take people 29 minutes to get there, but the two buses do not arrive in a neat 29-minute slot; one arrives much more regularly than the other. People trying to get there who have children to drop off at nursery or to pick up from school will find it more difficult to fit that into their day.
The consultation that Bridgeton CAB has done this morning highlighted that the time, date and frequency of appointments can be changed. The bus that someone got last week that worked out okay may not be the one they get this week, because the appointment time has changed. That adds a great deal of uncertainty and stress to the situation, because people are faced with the prospect of being sanctioned for being late. That is a huge fear for people. My experience in my constituency office—this is also the experience of the citizens advice bureau and other agencies in Glasgow—is that people are afraid to challenge even the first sanction. They do not want to get into conflict with people from the jobcentre, so they are not challenging the sanction. They think that they will be able to ride it out, but then something else happens at another time and they end up losing their benefits for even longer, which has a huge impact on their family income.
The fact that people have very limited means also means that they will be walking from one jobcentre to the other. It could take nearly 50 minutes to go from Bridgeton jobcentre to the Shettleston jobcentre. That has another impact. People are not walking from one jobcentre to another. That brings me on to my next point. We need to see in the consultation the catchment areas for the different jobcentres. People might be walking from Calton to Shettleston, or Dalmarnock to Shettleston. They could be going any distance to get there. We do not know what the distance will be. We do not have a full idea of what the actual impact on our communities will be without that information.
That is in huge contrast to the types of consultations that Glasgow City Council puts out for its schools. If it wants to close a school or move it somewhere else, the council puts out a map showing where each school pupil lives, or where the people travelling to the new school and new catchment area live, which makes the impact of changes on individuals very clear. We have not had that information at all.
The consultation process has a particular weakness. The Minister has told us that posters and leaflets will go out in the jobcentres, but the Department holds all the details of every single claimant. It could do a whole lot more to contact every claimant and ask them what the impact on each individual will be. I urge the Minister to do that and to come to Glasgow when he is in Scotland, so that he can come on the bus with us to see what the journey is actually like.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I have three brief points: on how the closure will affect my constituents in Maryhill; on the Government’s interaction, or lack thereof, with the Scottish Government; and on the bigger questions regarding the Department for Work and Pensions estate and the ongoing review of premises.
The latest figures show that in November 2016 the total number of unemployed claimants in Glasgow North was 1,509. The unemployment rate of 4.1% is the 90th highest of the 650 UK constituencies. As my hon. Friends have said, we do not know exactly how many of those people use the Maryhill jobcentre—at least I have not yet been able to find the numbers—and we do not know exactly where they live, because we have not seen the maps or the catchment areas. Along with my colleague Bob Doris, the MSP for Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn, I had the privilege of speaking to a few of them outside the Maryhill jobcentre yesterday morning, and I later met representatives of one-parent families. I, like other Members, encourage the Minister to come to Glasgow to meet some of those people and to hear about it at first hand. The online petition is important, and it is good to see, but nothing beats hearing people’s experiences first hand.
We heard from someone who travels from Acre, at the far end of my constituency, to the relocated jobcentre in Springburn. That is a journey of an hour, and two buses, each way—a total of four buses and two hours’ travel time—at a cost of £4.30 for an all-day ticket, which represents 46% of the daily allowance from their £72.40 weekly jobseeker’s allowance.
Another concern that users raised with us is the impact that the closures will have on the relationship between claimants and their work coaches. A number of the users to whom we spoke had developed positive and constructive relationships with their advisers, who want to help the claimants get back into work. The claimants were concerned that merged centres would mean a less personal service, the risk of a lack of understanding of individual circumstances and, in turn, increased fear of the risk of sanctions in the event of missing or being late for appointments because of, say, childcare responsibilities. Those are not just theoretical concerns; they are what we heard first hand from service users.
The Government’s consultation says:
“The city of Glasgow is split into 4 geographical areas—north, south, east and west.”
Well, that is true of every point on the planet, with the possible exception of the north and south poles. It gives the lie to the idea that a great deal of thought has gone into these consultations, particularly the consultations with stakeholders. I have asked the Minister and his officials on several occasions about the discussions with the Scottish Government, so it would be helpful if he could confirm or admit that he has not met his Scottish Government counterpart, Jamie Hepburn. Has there been any kind of discussion, beyond a formal exchange of letters, since the announcement of the closures?
In his letter of 7 December, Mr Hepburn told the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the lack of communication has been
“wholly contrary to the spirit of the Smith Agreement, and in particular, paragraph 58, which while recognising Jobcentre Plus would remain reserved, calls for our Governments to ‘identify ways to further link services through methods such as co-location wherever possible and establish more formal mechanisms to govern the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland.’”
It is simply not good enough for the UK Government to keep the Scottish Government out of the loop like that. There is supposed to be a respect agenda between the Governments, as is written into the Edinburgh agreement and the Smith commission. Will the Minister now commit to fully engage with the Scottish Government on these closures and on any other proposals for the DWP estate in Scotland?
There are more questions to be asked about the DWP estate at a different time and in a different situation, but it is interesting that, in the consultation, the DWP admits that it does not own any of the buildings it occupies. Who has the upper hand in the negotiations with the contractors? What happens if the company that owns Caxton House in central London, where the Minister has his office, decides that, actually, it would be much nicer as luxury flats? Where would he go then? Perhaps the DWP can disperse some of its staff from central London to the Maryhill jobcentre.
Finally, it is worth reflecting on another point that was made, without prompting, by one of the people who Bob and I met yesterday. Such decision-making processes increase the distance that people in communities like Glasgow North feel from the Westminster Government. In 2014 we were promised a partnership of equals—a UK that Scotland should lead, not leave. As in so many areas of policy, the UK Government need to live up to that rhetoric. If they do not listen when Scotland speaks, they should not be surprised if people decide that perhaps full control of our jobcentres, and of all the other policies that are currently reserved, would be better coming back to Scotland.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this important debate. The last time the Minister and I met, I had lost my voice due to a bad cold. I am not sure whether he will be happy to know that it has returned.
Before I address the impact on my constituency, I express my dismay at how the closures have been handled. After the news broke in the press, it took the Department seven hours to write to us. We were not the only ones left in the dark, though. The Secretary of State for Scotland refused to give me a proper answer when I asked whether he knew of the plans. Even if he had, it would not have made a difference, as demonstrated by his shocking silence on the matter.
The doors of Cambuslang jobcentre are to shut without consultation. I do not think that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions comprehends what that will mean. The jobcentre is my neighbour—it is less than a minute’s walk from my office. On a daily basis, my team and I see how busy the jobcentre can be and how people rely on its services. People are required to actively look for work each day, with most of it done on computers. Some constituents have trouble with that and rely on assistance from jobcentre staff.
Although parts of Cambuslang are prosperous, some areas suffer from pockets of real deprivation. One such area is Halfway, which I have been proud to call home for almost two decades. There is a fantastic local community, but there are also deep-seated problems related to deprivation and poverty. It takes about 30 minutes for a fit person to walk from Halfway to Cambuslang jobcentre. Once that jobcentre closes, the round trip to Rutherglen jobcentre would involve walking for two and a half hours. Public transport links are good, but traffic is sometimes an issue. I have serious concerns about an increase in sanctions once Cambuslang jobcentre closes, particularly for those in Halfway who will be travelling the furthest.
There is also a lack of resource in the area. If someone does not have access to a computer, they might need to use one in the library to look for work. Like many other libraries, the one in Halfway has restricted opening hours—it is not open at all today, for example. There is also an effect on local government services, such as Routes to Work South, which is based in Cambuslang and happens to be the landlord of my constituency office. Will the jobcentre closure create extra strain for which South Lanarkshire Council will be expected to foot the bill?
Those are just some of the issues that the Department has failed to take into account, and I regret not having more time to go into greater depth. I urge Ministers to think again, to stop the plans and to engage in meaningful dialogue with the relevant Members so that they, the Ministers, can fully understand the impact of these cuts. Glasgow may be the first, but which city, town or community in Scotland or the UK will be targeted next? We shall see.
It is a pleasure to speak here today, although it is not a pleasure to speak on this subject. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this debate.
In my constituency of Glasgow North West, the proposals include the closure of Anniesland jobcentre, which serves not only Anniesland but Temple, Knightswood, Whiteinch, Scotstoun and Yoker. The latest statistics indicate that more than 16% of those of working age in the constituency are in receipt of out-of-work benefits, which is considerably above the Scottish and UK averages. People currently using Herschell Street jobcentre in Anniesland will be transferred to Benalder Street, Partick—the street has recently become famous for its graffiti about the Foreign Secretary.
The consultation says that it will take people 13 minutes to travel between the old and new locations. That figure, as my hon. Friends have said, is lifted directly from Google Maps. However, that does not reflect the day-to-day reality of the time involved in travelling between those two locations. In fact, no impact assessment has been done, so I decided to carry out one myself.
To see how the proposed changes would affect my constituents, I picked a street at random. By no means was it the most remote or furthest away; it was Banner Drive, a typical street in Knightswood. Thinking of a typical constituent, possibly one with childcare responsibilities who had to drop off a child at school or nursery, I looked for the local nursery, which happened to be Rowena nursery, a 20-minute walk from Banner Drive. Getting from Rowena nursery to the new location in Benalder Street will take 30 minutes by bus if the bus comes instantly. If the bus does not come instantly, that figure rises to 40 and possibly even 45 minutes. If we multiply that by two—the person will need to get back in order to pick up their child in time—it starts becoming extremely tight and problematic for someone with childcare responsibilities.
We have all heard of constituents who have been given unsuitable but inflexible reporting times. If someone is given a time that does not work for their personal circumstances—they may also have been kept waiting—they are faced with two choices. Either they go and sign on to avoid sanctions, in which case they might have to take their child out of nursery or even school for the day, or they take their child to school or nursery, potentially losing money for a long time. Unless jobcentre staff have been instructed to take childcare and caring responsibilities into account, it is a serious problem, and I worry that sanctions will increase as a result.
My colleagues and I first found out about the proposed closures when we read about them in the local paper, but it took a further seven hours before the Minister informed us. He told us in subsequent meetings that it was because he had a duty to let staff know first, and none of us would argue with that, but it has come to light that the Government had plans in place well before any announcement to staff. On 12 February 2016, plans were submitted to Glasgow City Council to convert the Anniesland jobcentre into private flats. Those plans were approved on 6 March, nine full months before either we or staff were informed of the proposals. Can he explain why staff and the local community have been deliberately excluded from the process, which has clearly been in motion for a long time?
It is time for the Minister and his Department to come clean about how wide-reaching and advanced the plans are across the UK. I cannot imagine that Glasgow is unique in finding out such things at the eleventh hour. The Government have indicated that they do not plan to consult on the majority of the closures, including Anniesland. That is not good enough. For changes so dramatic, there must be a full public consultation, including an impact assessment. When the Minister comes to Glasgow in January, I hope that he can join me on the bus journey that I took, to see what my constituents will have to do.
It is a privilege, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to represent the Scottish National party and the city of Glasgow on this issue. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who spoke with passion and dedication on behalf of his constituents.
I will address some general issues first. The decision to close offices will result in the poorest communities not being served by a jobcentre, making it even harder for those seeking employment to get support. Last year, one in three children were living in poverty in Glasgow, which has consistently the highest rate in Scotland, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. At 7.7%, Glasgow’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in Scotland, and it suffers high levels of deprivation. By closing offices in its most deprived areas, the Department for Work and Pensions risks reducing access to support for those who need it the most.
The Government cite the fact that claims can be made online, but Citizens Advice Scotland has made it clear that a large proportion of sanctions among its clients arise from problems accessing information technology, often because a claimant does not have the skills or IT access to meet the jobcentre’s requirements. The closures represent 50% of Jobcentre Plus offices in Glasgow, a much larger cut than the anticipated 20% cut to the estate announced in last year’s autumn statement. Tens of thousands of people will now have to travel further and incur additional cost to attend their required appointments.
The Government must be mindful that people travelling to jobcentres to seek work and employment support are doing so on very low incomes. Making them travel further can be financially costly and have health implications for the sick and disabled. Those attending jobcentres will have increased transport costs and travel time, particularly those required to register daily or weekly. Someone who must use a taxi for even three or four miles could have to pay up to £14.70, according to the website taxifarefinder.com. Additional costs will be involved for those unable to access jobcentres: the Department for Work and Pensions continues to use a high-tariff phone service that increases costs for customers, known locally as the telephone tax. Many people in Scotland are still unable to access digital services.
I have a number of questions that I hope the Minister will answer. The first involves the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). We have been advised in previous meetings with officials and the Minister that Telereal Trillium owns all the buildings, but is that the case? As has been pointed out, a planning application—I have it here—was submitted to Glasgow City Council for 21 Herschell Street, which is the Anniesland jobcentre office, by Holmes Miller Ltd. Can he confirm that the land ownership certificate on that planning application says that the building is owned by Mactaggart and Mickel Group Ltd? Such examples show that a genuine public consultation must be undertaken, not one that just pays lip service.
While the Minister considers that, let me remind him of the concerns about the jobcentre closures, expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South, among organisations such as Disability Agenda Scotland and One Parent Families Scotland. Their concern involves the lack of an equality impact assessment. To be told that one will be done at the end of the process is, frankly, not good enough; a proper equality impact assessment should be carried out now, so we can see what the effects will be on women, those with disabilities and those whose primary language is not English.
The assessment requires accurate information, not the information in Google Maps, which is inaccurate—for example, it advertises bus services that no longer operate in the city of Glasgow. What advice has the Minister received on the possible outcome of a judicial review for a claimant who goes to a jobcentre earmarked for a closure that has not been publicly consulted on? Will he agree to put all eight closures out for public consultation? The proposal is city-wide and must be consulted on as such.
The full impact of the closures has not been vetted or tested. We believe that the full impact on claimants will be considerable, and it should not be undertaken for commercial reasons. The jobcentre closures are unnecessary and unwanted, and should be halted. The plans are regressive and morally outrageous. It is clear that the Westminster Government intend to make Glasgow a guinea pig, and to use it as a template for further closures across Scotland and the UK. I ask the Minister to give Glasgow an early Christmas present by halting the plans for jobcentre closures in the great city of Glasgow.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this debate on the disgraceful planned closure of half of the jobcentres in Glasgow, which has drawn contributions from so many Members who represent the people of Glasgow. I commend them on their focus and on getting to grips with the detail of the geography and with what the plans mean for those who will be affected.
On 7 December this year, the Department for Work and Pensions announced its proposal to close eight of the 16 jobcentres that serve the city of Glasgow by no later than March 2018. The proposal is part of the “People and Locations” office closure programme, which the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), announced in the autumn statement in November 2015. We have no doubt that it is the wrong approach. The reduction in employment support in Glasgow will deepen hardship in many areas of the city.
A recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that looked into disconnected communities used Glasgow as an example to demonstrate the increasing scarcity of local employment opportunities, thus reinforcing the importance of local employment support services with contacts and knowledge of a local area. The study’s report noted the challenging combination of people’s reluctance to leave more geographically isolated neighbourhoods around the city and the withdrawal of the vital transport services that help them to get around. Those realities make having an accessible and well distributed employment support network all the more important and offer only evidence against the Government’s failed austerity approach, as does the higher unemployment rate in Glasgow. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, the unemployment rate in Glasgow as a whole was 7.1%—1.9 percentage points higher than the UK rate of 5.2%, and 1.6 percentage points higher than the overall rate in Scotland of 5.5%. The latest claimant count shows 5,810 people registered as unemployed at the jobcentres threatened with closure.
The Government’s plans are shameful—they are nothing more than the continuation of the Tories’ failed austerity agenda. There is no evidence to suggest that they will enhance the support on offer; indeed, they will diminish what is available, while ramping up pressure on employment service staff in other offices and on claimants. The demands on staff have already increased significantly as a result of changes such as weekly signing for new claimants in the first 13 weeks of their claim, changes to single parent conditionality, the roll-out of universal credit and the reduction of more than 6,200 in the overall number of work coaches between 2011-12 and 2015-16—a cut of 35%. The pressures on staff are likely to increase further with the introduction of in-work conditionality under universal credit; the remaining jobcentres in Glasgow will have to deal with twice the volume of claimants. That is a particular concern for the Shettleston jobcentre, which will be taking on the case-load from three of the jobcentres that are closing.
What assessment has the Department made of the impact of the closures on travel times for claimants and associated additional costs? What breakdown can the Department provide us with of the expected increase in case loads for the jobcentres that will remain open? Can the Minister guarantee that the 236 staff who work in the eight jobcentres that are due to close will be offered posts in the remaining jobcentres? What about travel time for claimants? How accessible will the remaining jobcentres be? The DWP does not appear to know, although I understand that, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned, it has been using Google Maps to try to check. The DWP work services director for Scotland apparently told Radio Scotland:
“We’re not clear yet how many of our customers will have extra travel costs. That’s part of the consultation.”
Three of the jobcentres earmarked for closure fall outside the criterion of 15 to 20 minutes’ travel time to the nearest jobcentre, so the DWP has to carry out a public consultation. The consultation document, which was put online only yesterday, gives the shortest journey time by public transport as 30 minutes from Bridgeton to Shettleston and from Maryhill to Springburn, and 45 minutes from Castlemilk to Newlands. A return trip with First Bus in Glasgow costs £3.75, while an all-day ticket costs £4.50. That is a major slice out of the jobseeker’s allowance of £73.10 a week for someone over 25, and an even bigger slice from the £57.90 that a young person aged 18 to 25 receives. First Bus does offer discounted bus fares for claimants, but only after the first 13 weeks for JSA claimants, during which, somewhat ironically, they will be signing on weekly.
When will the Minister publish the impact of these proposals on equality issues? We are particularly concerned about the impact on women, children and disabled people. In 2015 the Government set a target to halve the disability employment gap by 2020; how can that be squared with increasing the distances that disabled people need to travel to get employment support?
It seems that once again the Tories are pushing ahead with their failing austerity agenda, which flies in the face of evidence, thought or reason. Clearly the Government still have no plan. Instead, they are asking the most vulnerable to pay for their economic mismanagement. We stand against these poorly thought out proposals, and we hope that the Government finally see sense and scrap them.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this debate. I also congratulate his colleagues who contributed: the hon. Members for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier)—I am glad that she has her voice back—and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who not only represents his Glasgow constituency but speaks for the Scottish National party from the Front Bench.
The Department for Work and Pensions delivers critical services and support to tens of thousands of customers across Scotland, England, and Wales every day, and our network of jobcentres is at the very heart of that. In all our constituencies, jobcentre staff are hard at work helping people to access the support they need and move into employment. As society has changed, so have our jobcentres. We have moved a long way from the caricature of jobcentres and the welfare system that was presented 20 years ago in films such as “The Full Monty” and “Trainspotting”.
Reforms such as universal credit are revolutionising the relationship between claimants and work coaches, ensuring that the support we offer is more personalised and better suited to claimants’ needs. That includes enabling claimants to access our services in ways that suit them. At the heart of reforms such as universal credit is a digitally focused approach that is more secure, more accessible and more efficient. The claimant count has dropped from almost 1.5 million in 2010 to around 800,000 now.
The background to this set of changes to the DWP jobcentre estate is that after 20 years, the private finance initiative contract that covers many DWP offices is nearing an end: it will expire at the end of March 2018. That provides us with an opportunity to review which offices we will need in the future, saving the taxpayer money while ensuring that our clients are able to access the support they need. When considering that question, our overriding priority has been the future services we will offer our claimants. In every case, we have sought to minimise disruption, moving existing jobcentres into nearby sites and co-locating with other services wherever possible.
The UK labour market is in the strongest position it has been in for years, but we cannot predict the exact path that it will take in the future. I reassure hon. Members that these changes will continue to ensure that we retain sufficient flexibility and spare capacity in the system. Let me be clear: our aim is to reduce floor space, not to reduce the workforce who are so important in supporting claimants back into work. Staff and services in jobcentres that are being closed are being transferred into nearby sites. In answer to the question asked by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), there are no planned job losses among jobcentre staff as a result of these closures.
When a jobcentre closes, the Department will consider what outreach services we can expand and what facilities may be suitable. The Department supports outreach activity at community and partner facilities right across the country, which allows our work coaches and partner organisations to support the shared needs of claimants. By working with a range of partners, including local authorities, we are able to expand the range and offer of our services. In Glasgow we work closely with organisations such as Anniesland College to offer such services, including helping claimants with their job search and offering benefit advice.
The Minister mentioned co-location and working with public sector partners. Now that we know that there was some discussion with Glasgow City Council about the Anniesland site, will he tell us whether there were any discussions with the council about the other seven sites earmarked for closure?
Through the course of this process, there have been many, many discussions about many, many potential options and permutations of site movements, co-locations and different sorts of arrangements. As we enter the consultation period, there is a further opportunity to talk about outreach facilities; no doubt some of those discussions will include consideration of local authority-run premises and so on. The process involves having lots of discussions about lots of potential ways of organising things.
For those claimants who are unable to attend a jobcentre because of their vulnerability, or because of the complexity of the transaction required with the Department, we have in place robust procedures. DWP Visiting undertakes home visits, or occasionally visits at an alternative agreed address, if appropriate. Travel expenses are refundable in certain circumstances, including when claimants are required to attend a jobcentre more frequently than every two weeks.
The hon. Lady asked about that in an earlier intervention, and I was coming on to address it, but as she has asked again I will answer now. Yes of course the consultation will consider the entire client population, including the particular needs and requirements of people with disabilities.
In certain circumstances, claimants are able to maintain their claim by post, including if they live more than an hour from the jobcentre, door to door, by public transport—I should say that right now I am speaking not specifically about Glasgow but about the general arrangements—or if they have caring responsibilities for a child and it is not possible for them to make arrangements for short-term childcare. Claimants can also chose to attend an alternative jobcentre to the one allocated to them if the one they have been allocated is not the easiest or least costly to attend.
Our jobcentres in the quarters of Glasgow have built up over time, primarily within large housing estates. If we look at employment trends, we can see that the claimant count in Glasgow has fallen from 24,200 in 2010 to around 13,500 today. The hon. Member for Glasgow East mentioned unemployment statistics from her constituency; she will know that the claimant count in Glasgow East is down 47% since 2010. As the count has dropped across the city, so has the use of some of the smaller jobcentres. In some cases, the change has been so dramatic that we are now using only 25% of the space we are paying for under the Private Finance Initiative contract that was agreed by the then Government back in 1998.
Our proposals seek to bring the smaller jobcentres together into larger existing sites in the same area, thereby reducing our rents and freeing up funding for our services while still ensuring that our claimants are able to access them. The reduction in sites in Glasgow is in line with our spending review 2015 announcement that we would reduce our overall estate by some 20%. The number of jobcentres proposed for closure reflects the prevalence of smaller jobcentres in Glasgow and the large amount of space we are underusing in the city. It does not reflect a cut in our investment. In fact, between April and September 2016, we recruited 122 additional work coaches in Scotland. That number is set to increase further over the coming months.
When deciding what changes to make, we have carefully considered the impact on our claimants, including travel times, about which several hon. Members asked. We feel that asking someone to attend a new jobcentre which is either less than three miles or less than 20 minutes by public transport away from their existing jobcentre is a reasonable ask. Many claimants already travel much further than that, as do many people in work to get to their place of work. There are three proposed closures in Glasgow that are outside those criteria: in Bridgeton, Castlemilk and Maryhill. In such cases, it is crucial that we fully understand the implications for our claimants before any changes are made, which is why we are holding a public consultation—as we do for all similar cases throughout the country—to seek the views of elected representatives, local authorities and community bodies.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I want to respond to some of the points made by his colleagues. If it turns out that I have done so comfortably within the time remaining, I will of course give way.
Having heard the specific concerns raised by hon. Members present in the meeting we held a few days ago, I have decided to put the specific consultations we are discussing online. They were uploaded to the gov.uk website yesterday and will now run for an extended period, up until the end of January 2017. As I said, I recently had that opportunity to discuss matters with hon. Members directly, and I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. A number of points came up in the debate; I am not sure I will get through them all, but I shall try to get through as many as possible.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North spoke of worries that the changes may affect the positive relationships—I was encouraged that he called them that—between claimants and work coaches. I reassure him that one of the important things we are doing is to change the work-coach model to one where they have a mixed case load and can maintain contact with a client, even if the benefit they are on or their circumstances change. Making those relationships richer and longer lasting is absolutely with the grain of what we are trying to do.
The hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned having heard about this announcement through the press—we had an opportunity to speak about that last Thursday. I am sure that hon. Members understand that we are unable to share details about plans for specific sites until commercial negotiations are complete. To do otherwise would risk our negotiating position with the landlords of the sites we wish to retain. Once we have finalised our proposals, our priority is to speak to staff. As hon. Members appreciate, that can take time, because we also have to get to people who might be absent on the day. In this case, the Daily Record published the story at 9:30 in the morning, while many of our staff were still in the meetings, which had only started at 9.15 am. The Department put out a press release in response to the article—it did not initiate making an announcement before telling hon. Members—and later that day I wrote to all the MPs for affected constituencies.
Several hon. Members asked about engagement with the Scottish Government. The Department has been involved in discussions about the related issues, including co-location, with the Scottish Government, local authorities, Skills Development Scotland and others for some time. Because of the commercial sensitivities that I mentioned, it is not possible to talk about specific site proposals in advance of any announcements.
I regret that I am out of time. The rationale for the proposals is clear: we have seen a sharp fall in claimant counts in the city of Glasgow. There are no planned job losses for the jobcentre network in the city, which is important. We will continue to offer the full complement of support to help claimants back to work, and we have a clear set of outreach and support measures to be consulted on.
I thank you, Mr Hollobone, and I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions to the debate. I wish to say one or two things to close.
The Minister referred to the fact that the claimant count in Glasgow is down and so is use of floor space. In my constituency, the Government want to close Castlemilk jobcentre, but it is in a town that was once larger than the entire city of Perth. That gives an idea of the geographical and population size of the community that that jobcentre serves. The Minister also wants to close the jobcentre in Langside in my constituency, although it serves the second most densely populated local authority ward anywhere in the country of Scotland. That gives an idea of what is meant by the small, out-of-town jobcentres that the Government are seeking to close.
Only this Government could ask people in a consultation about travelling for more than 20 minutes when they themselves deem that to be unreasonable. The Minister said that the Government think 20 minutes is a reasonable ask, so they do not consult on that, but they do consult when travelling for more than 20 minutes is involved, in spite of the fact that they think that is an unreasonable proposal in the first place. The Minister is all over the shop.
We heard about the situation in Anniesland, where the Department must have known as far back as February last year that not only had discussion taken place, but planning permission had been granted. A formal, legal process had been gone through. Staff were not told, and neither were Members. The Minister picked this fight—we will pick it up after the Christmas recess.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered closure of jobcentres in Glasgow.