Thursday 20 July 2017
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Jobcentres and the DWP Estate
I beg to move,
That this House has considered job centres and the Department for Work and Pensions estate.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. This is a very serious issue, and I will be unashamedly referring to the effects that the jobcentre closures will have on claimants in every single constituency in the city of Glasgow, but before I do, I will make some general remarks.
The closures are, of course, part of a wider Government strategy to review their property estate, but it is my contention that very little strategic thinking is being done centrally. Government Departments’ offices are closing in towns and cities, with potential job losses, alongside the closure of jobcentres in the same towns and cities across the United Kingdom. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us if one Department is considering office closures across all Government Departments, and whether there is a strategic overview.
I hope the Minister will finally admit not only that the starting point of this process was the 2015 spending review, which identified a 20% cut in the Department for Work and Pensions estate, but that that target also decided the endgame, as everything since has been an exercise in delivering those savings no matter what. It has been a question of identifying an outcome and working back from that, with a fig leaf of consultation and a token change not by closing six jobcentres across the UK, but by pushing ahead with halving the number of jobcentres in Glasgow, with the solitary exception of Castlemilk jobcentre. As we all know, Castlemilk is noted for its excellent transport links—not! Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), I acknowledge the reprieve but condemn the closure of Langside, which is a resource close to a major further education college. Talk about an opportunity lost for positive outcomes.
The suggestion that the closures will usher in an improved service, with fewer public access points combined with swingeing back-office cuts, is an insult to our intelligence. Ministers have had to admit that they expect at least 750 DWP staff to lose their jobs and have refused to rule out compulsory redundancies, although I invite the Minister to do so today. The knock-on effect on vulnerable users and the wider community through the cumulative effect of closures hitting local economies and businesses is hard to quantify, but one thing we can be sure of is that the Government have made no assessment of the impact of these cuts.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am so sorry to hear of the impact that these closures will have in his constituency. In my constituency, the jobcentre in Broxburn is going to close. The constituency has already faced significant economic challenges, with the closure of Hall’s, and people now have to travel more than six miles to the jobcentre. Does he agree that a global view of communities that have had such losses is vital in this process?
I do agree. The Government really have to publish a map of office closures in every single UK Government Department. Not only has my hon. Friend’s constituency seen the closure of Hall’s, but Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs wants to close its office in Livingston, while jobcentres are being closed in the very same constituency. That really does not add up.
This is a calculated, savings-driven, back-of-an-envelope, callous exercise in studied avoidance of the real issues at stake. The scale of job losses is severe because it is cumulative, coming as it does after years of erosion of DWP staff numbers. I note the careful use of semantics when any Minister replies to questions; they talk about no loss of frontline staff. However, the cuts programme includes large-scale back-office closures, with no clear commitment to no job losses, and as those of us with trade union experience know fine well, big budget savings are made on salaries rather than bricks and mortar, and not renewing a lease does not realise the savings that not paying wages and underwriting pensions does.
Before the Minister repeats the mantra that we have heard and memorised about Glasgow having the most jobcentres per head of population, may I strongly suggest there is a reason for that? It is not a numbers game. It is because historically and currently, Glasgow has the highest levels of deprivation in the country. The highest proportion of indices of multiple deprivation data zones in Scotland are in the city. We are talking about intergenerational poverty, rooted in the Scottish Office plan to encourage skilled workers to leave the city in the 1960s, followed by the systematic and planned destruction of the industrial base of Scotland in the 1980s. That was combined with the explicitly political reorganisation of local government in 1996, which abolished Strathclyde region, so that the ability to fund social work and education services by a broader tax base was destroyed. We remember how the Tories have dealt with Glasgow over the years, and we now see once again how they wilfully fail to recognise the scale of deprivation and poverty that people in our communities struggle with daily.
Carntyne West and Haghill data zone, ranked No. 2 in the list of the most deprived areas in Scotland, is currently within walking distance—if you are healthy—of Parkhead jobcentre. North Barlanark and Easterhouse South, ranked No. 3, is just about within walking distance of Easterhouse jobcentre. Both are marked for closure. If we take the time to look at the location of the most deprived communities in Glasgow, which has the highest percentage of deprivation in Scotland, and then overlay the map of closures, a bleak picture emerges. The people who are the furthest from being job-ready and require intensive support are now being pushed even further to the margins. The notion that they can and will use online services instead can only come from those who have no grasp of the realities of lives where women struggle to afford sanitary products, never mind broadband and tablets. Is this digital by default, or exclusion by design?
The Scottish index of multiple deprivation indicators identifies the 10 most employment-deprived zones in Scotland. With Possilpark ranked fourth and Wyndford ranked eighth, the closure of Maryhill jobcentre will do little to alter those statistics. Possilpark tops the list of zones with the poorest health indicators, and with the recent publicity surrounding a claimant who was forced to get out of her wheelchair and crawl up the steps of the building where her assessment was taking place, we can only wonder what levels of indignity will follow from these closures.
To know Glasgow’s geography and transport links is to understand the problems people will experience in the communities with the highest levels of deprivation and the poorest transport links. Glasgow is like a wheel, with the circular subway and linear spokes of bus routes radiating from the city centre, but not across communities. The east, north and north-east of the city, where the majority of closures are planned, are not well served by public transport. The 2014 report commissioned by Glasgow City Council on in-work poverty, “Hard Work, Hard Times”, identified transport as a major barrier to finding and sustaining work. In the consultation response on some of Glasgow’s jobcentres, a staggering 92% of respondents expressed concerns about the increase in travel time to attend the new jobcentres, and 79% expressed concern about the potential increase in travel costs.
It is clear that the industrial level of denial about the impact of these closures is accompanied by an expectation that other agencies will pick up the pieces and that, as per usual, local councils and third sector bodies such as citizens advice bureaux will carry the burden of mitigating these cuts. At Scottish questions yesterday, in answer to pointed questions about jobcentre closures, there was a glancing reference to “new outreach facilities”—provided and funded by whom, exactly?
Not only in Glasgow, but across Scotland and the UK, the way this cuts exercise has been conducted is riding roughshod over any partnership approach. Local community planning partnerships heard about the closures via the media, when many have been trying to address employment issues as a key outcome in their plans. Jobcentre Plus has been described as a claimant employment service rather than a public service, as those not claiming benefits do not receive support, and that is writ large in the way DWP and HMRC closures have been announced—I am not going to say “planned”, because that would imply a holistic approach with a strategic overview of the estate, rather than an incoherent, budget-driven approach.
People are rightly concerned and angry about the closures, and with the roll-out of the fiasco that is universal credit, we can only conclude that unacceptable burdens are about to fall on the people who are most vulnerable, furthest from the job market and least digitally connected, and that despite the best efforts of local councils, the third sector and local elected Members and their staff, real suffering will follow as people are sanctioned for not attending a jobcentre miles away because a costly, complicated journey has replaced the access to support that they once had.
I look forward to other hon. Members explaining how the closures will affect their constituents and, of course, to the Minister’s reply.
It is an important statement that I want to make on the DWP estate, because although we have always spoken about jobcentre closures in Glasgow and the surrounding areas, when I recently took up the role of MP for my area, I suddenly found out that 250 jobs had been earmarked to go from the DWP estate. Those jobs are concentrated in the Coatbridge area. They are also flexible jobs that enable working people to have a family life and save childcare money and other costs. With those 250 jobs, there are no compulsory redundancies; there are no redundancies, but the Government want to move them off the estate. They are splitting the workforce into three parts, with two parts going to Motherwell and one part to Glasgow, but people are being given only three years’ bus fare money when it should be five years’ bus fare money.
Leaving all that aside, the biggest problem I have is that the Government are taking away 250 local government jobs that help our community. They mean that £4,000 a week on average is spent in the community. If you need the receipts, Mr Evans, I have them, because I asked the staff to do this exercise for me. As I said, on average £4,000 is spent in our community, so not only will 250 jobs be taken out of Coatbridge; there will also be an impact on our high street, which is already run-down. Small businesses will be affected, and there will be additional job losses.
In conclusion, I would like to know why the jobs are leaving Coatbridge. There is no need for compulsory redundancies and no need for the jobs to move. All we will be left with is another empty building and more empty shops.
God must be smiling on us given that you, Mr Evans, are in the Chair for another debate on Glasgow jobcentres. Just before the House rose at Christmas time, I think we had the last Westminster Hall debate then as well. I can see a pattern forming, but I am sure you are not at the centre of it.
I want to pick up on what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, and I congratulate him most sincerely on securing the debate. I will begin with the Castlemilk jobcentre, which the Minister wished to close. I am very thankful that he has now removed that jobcentre from his list of closures. When anyone picks a fight with Castlemilk, Castlemilk fights back, and it has a tendency to win. Let that be a lesson to the Government for future battles. That did not happen by accident; it happened because a community was united in fighting off a vicious attack on it. People came together from every part of the G45 postcode to fight the cut, and in the end they won.
I pay particular tribute to one constituent. Many people were involved, but they will forgive me for singling out one—my constituent Jean Devlin, who was like a terrier. When I was down here in Westminster, picking fights on their behalf, she was running off photocopies of petitions and standing outside the jobcentre, catching every passing person and every person going in and out, along with various other people, so I pay tribute to the role that she has played in the campaign.
However, I am left with some regret, because the Minister still wishes to close the Langside jobcentre. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West mentioned, it is not just near a college, but across the road from it. You could probably throw a golf ball and hit the college if you were to stand at the door—not that I would ever suggest that you would do such a thing, Mr Evans. The jobcentre serves the second most densely populated council ward in Scotland. There is a clear need for a jobcentre in a place such as Langside.
The third jobcentre, which was supposed to absorb all the closures, is the Newlands jobcentre. I still do not understand why it is called the Newlands jobcentre—it is actually in Pollokshaws, which is further away again. That jobcentre was supposed to absorb all the cuts that the Government were going to make elsewhere. I will have a particular focus on how they plan for that to happen.
I wish to press the Minister on one thing. I will be charitable—he knows I am a charitable man—and say that perhaps he could not answer the question that I asked him yesterday because of time constraints. I suspect that that will not be an issue this afternoon. He intends to close a multitude of jobcentres across the city of Glasgow. That slack has to be picked up by somebody, because anybody who has been to Glasgow knows that it will be very difficult for the remaining jobcentres to pick up the slack. I think I am still right in saying that to this day, no Minister has even bothered to visit one jobcentre in Glasgow that the Government wish to close. If the remaining jobcentres cannot pick up the slack, who will?
I have had discussions with Susan Aitken, who is the new Scottish National party leader of Glasgow City Council and a councillor for Langside, the ward that hosts the jobcentre that the Minister still wishes to close. The council is extremely concerned. I do not say that to be party political: councillors across the chamber in Glasgow are concerned that the work will be left to the Prince’s Trust, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, Jobs & Business Glasgow and various other council and third sector organisations. Where will the money come from? I want to know about the discussions that the Minister has had, or will be having between now and when the House comes back after the summer recess, with the leader of Glasgow City Council, Jobs & Business Glasgow, SAMH and the Prince’s Trust in Glasgow, to find out what support he can give them in transition and in money, because supporting people, particularly vulnerable people, into work costs money, and it is money that should be well spent.
This is a very important debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a substantial proportion of the people who work in these centres have alternative working patterns to facilitate childcare and other things? In this cry for objective evidence for the closures, I wonder whether the Minister can disclose whether that was addressed. I am talking about how the individual members of staff with alternative working patterns will be affected by the closures.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, which has been adumbrated by other colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West and the former Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Margaret Ferrier, who was also like a terrier in this campaign. We rightly pay tribute to the work that she did to save jobcentres in her constituency.
This has been the most cack-handed project I have seen since I became a Member of the House. Given all that has happened, and given all that you and I have observed, Mr Evans, that is quite a statement to make. The information was leaked to the press. Members of Parliament were finding out through social media. We had to drag the Government kicking and screaming to have a consultation. They say that they have met their legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010, but they have still never bothered to publish an equality impact assessment, and I plead with the Minister to do so.
On the lack of an equality impact assessment, more than a quarter of the jobcentres that are set to close are in London, and we know that a significant number of black and Asian and disabled people will potentially be disproportionately impacted by the choice to close jobcentres, so can the Minister please confirm when a full equality impact assessment will be carried out? Is the lack of one due to the fact that, as we know, the closures will have a disproportionate impact on those protected groups?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. While the scale in London will obviously be bigger, we face the exact same issues in Glasgow in terms of who will be disproportionately affected by the cuts. I plead with the Minister to publish the equality impact assessment, because I would hate to see the Government taken to court over it, and frankly that is where things are headed.
The Minister can pull this back. He needs to engage constructively with Glasgow City Council—I am sure colleagues will ask for similar engagement in their local authority areas. He needs to start showing people that there is a proper plan to mitigate the impact of the closures, particularly on ethnic minority people, as the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) said, on people for whom English is not their first language and on those who have childcare and other caring responsibilities, as the new hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) said. I give the Minister the opportunity to show us that he is up for serious dialogue, because since December last year it has certainly not looked like it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this debate.
In Inverclyde, we currently have two jobcentres: one in Greenock and another in Port Glasgow. Following the UK Government’s consultation, it was determined that the Port Glasgow jobcentre would close, while the Greenock office would be moved to an as yet undetermined location. I believe that this decision is short-sighted and sympathise with the views of staff at the Port Glasgow jobcentre, who have expressed understandable concerns regarding the impact of this change on their clients.
The Minister should know that Inverclyde has some of the worst levels of social deprivation in the UK. Some 26% of children in Inverclyde grow up in poverty; one in 10 live in severe poverty; youth unemployment is more than double the UK rate; and the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance or required to find work on universal credit is double the rate in the UK as a whole.
It might be thought that such a set of circumstances would prompt the Government to grant additional support to the area. Instead, the UK Government’s response has been to cut benefits and halve the number of jobcentres in my constituency. A report issued by the Scottish Government found that Inverclyde will experience one of the most significant falls in welfare spending of any Scottish local authority relative to the size of its working-age population. By 2021, this will amount to an overall cut of £15 million—the equivalent of £298 per working-age adult.
Given the challenges that Inverclyde faces, I think it would be appropriate for the Minister to visit my constituency. That is why I wrote to him on 14 June and extended an invitation to meet not only me, but the jobcentre management to discuss the impact of the proposed closure on my constituents. And yes, I am still waiting for a reply. A ministerial visit would also be an opportunity for the UK Government to provide some much-needed assurances regarding the long-term future of the Greenock office and the vital service that it offers. I can see the Minister looking quizzically at me. Is he questioning what I am saying?
Okay. Is the proposed closure of the Port Glasgow jobcentre about providing a better service for users? No, of course it is not. In the words of the Public and Commercial Services Union, the UK Government are “abandoning the unemployed” at a time when many people on lower incomes are facing uncertain futures with respect to their employment.
On the issue of uncertain futures, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the closure of jobcentres such as mine in Dalkeith will affect women affected by the Pensions Act 2011, dealing the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—a double blow, which is unacceptable? Does he join me in wondering where those women will go to find the apprenticeships that Government Members suggest that they find?
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. It is the classic double whammy that people are put into an impossible situation by the Government and then look for support from them and find that it has been taken away. As we all know, the apprenticeship scheme is just an aberration at the moment.
Unfortunately, all levels of poverty are rising. In-work poverty is on the rise, yet the Minister continues to argue that jobcentre mergers are needed to ensure that the welfare state
“works for those who need it and those who pay for it.”
That kind of irresponsible language detracts from the reality that those who need the service and those who pay for it are in fact the same people. Ultimately, the whole of society benefits if poverty and inequality are reduced. Jobcentres are supposed to be part of the solution.
Aside from the £1 billion deal with the Democratic Unionist party, the UK Government have made the case over the past seven years that drastic public spending cuts are a financial necessity. The plan to close jobcentres across the UK is part of a wider plan to sell £4.5 billion-worth of Government land and property by 2021. While it is easy to cut services and demonstrate savings made in the short term, it is not so easy to quantify and predict the long-term impact of those changes.
On the matter of property and quantifying decisions, does my hon. Friend agree that the decision to close an HMRC office in my Livingston constituency and an area of West Lothian that is significantly cheaper, and to move it to Edinburgh city centre in a record long-term contract of 20 to 25 years, is just sheer stupidity on the Government’s part and clearly a waste of public money?
I absolutely agree, and could not have put it better myself.
The UK Government have simply not made a convincing case that the proposed closures will benefit clients or society as a whole. Jobcentre staff have contacted me to say that the impact of the closures on disabled people has not been properly assessed. The Scottish Government have indicated that the closures are likely to push many vulnerable people into crisis. Will the Minister meet me in Inverclyde and show that the UK Government are actually listening to those concerns? We are about to set off into recess. I assure the Minister that I will clear my diary and cancel my holidays, and will be there whatever day he wishes to come and visit Inverclyde.
I am going to call Mr Sweeney next, but it is good to see so many new Members here. We will go on until 3 pm, so if you wish to contribute to the debate, please stand in your place and that will indicate to me that you wish to contribute.
Thank you, Mr Evans, for calling me to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this debate on such an important matter affecting the city of Glasgow and all across the United Kingdom.
It is clear that the situation in Glasgow is stark and acute. While the UK unemployment rate is 4.8%, in Glasgow it is 8.5%, essentially twice the UK rate. Justification for the closure and rationalisation of jobcentres is based on the idea that jobcentre provision in Glasgow is higher than the average across the UK, but it is clear that that is necessary to deal with the long-term, intractable problem of structural unemployment in Glasgow. I am utterly incredulous that the Government feel that they are justified in cutting the estate in this manner or that it will in any way benefit or enhance the service provision. How on earth will this help to deal with the long-term problem of structural unemployment?
While we have seen the welcome reduction of unemployment rates in Glasgow, it has left a hard kernel of people who are particularly challenged in getting back into the jobs market. They need much more intensive and tailored support to meet their specialist needs. It is absurd to suggest that we provide that by continuing to frustrate them by rationalising the jobcentre estate. Some of the areas that the hon. Gentleman referred to, including ones in my constituency such as Possilpark and Carntyne West and Haghill, have the highest Scottish index of multiple deprivation child poverty rates—up to 50% in some cases. Families are already challenged by severe problems in their lives, and to further frustrate their ability to care for themselves in this way is utterly appalling in a modern society.
We have seen the justification that some of the jobcentres in Glasgow are unfit for purpose and unable to accommodate additional supplementary uses. PCS has surveyed and assessed that, and it was found to be untrue. The Maryhill jobcentre is well integrated. It has several rooms that are under-utilised, but it has a number of well integrated services with Glasgow Life, Momentum, Shaw Trust, Homestart and Wyndford hub, including Possilpoint in my constituency, where the service provision transfers across the borders.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, for giving way and apologise, Mr Evans, for being late: I was detained in the Chamber. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s tribute to the fantastic work of Maryhill Jobcentre and the disappointment that it is to close. Does he share my concern that this might not be the end? Will he join me in asking the Minister to guarantee that Springburn jobcentre in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, to which Maryhill users are being redirected, will not be under threat, and that there will now be a clear process of transition, advice and support for users who have to make the switch from one jobcentre to another?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that pertinent point about the potential transfer of services from Maryhill to Springburn jobcentre in my constituency. When I reflected on the history of my constituency in my maiden speech last week, I noted with some dismay that it went from having the largest locomotive works in Europe to now having the largest jobcentre in Europe. Although that is perhaps not an asset to be particularly proud of, it is entirely necessary, because my constituency faces some of the highest structural employment rates in this country. He deals with similar issues in parts of his constituency.
Although we have heard the justification for moving to a so-called super-jobcentre in Springburn, we have also heard the announcement that critical back-office staff in Springburn will be cut; I understand that some 200 redundancies are being consulted on. Although the Department has assured us that there will be no compulsory redundancies, I cannot see how practical that is, given that the consultation includes cuts to 280 frontline and desk-based staff in jobcentres in Glasgow.
Although the idea of centralising facilities may seem superficially attractive on a map, anyone with a cursory knowledge of Glasgow’s geography and how dysfunctional its public transport system is will be well aware that travelling from Maryhill to Springburn is an utterly arduous journey even for people of fit body like me. I have made the journey to Maryhill regularly because my Army Reserve barracks is there, and I have found that on average it takes 90 minutes to two hours to complete the journey.
When Members representing Glasgow constituencies during the last Parliament visited senior DWP officials at the jobcentre in Laurieston, I jokingly asked, “Did you use Google Maps to work this out?”, to which they said, “Yes.” Does the hon. Gentleman share my dismay that they based their decision on Google Maps?
I think it is highly likely that they did. It would be utterly bizarre for anyone with any knowledge of Glasgow geography to conclude that it is a practical proposition for people who live in Maryhill catchment to attend services in Springburn. The bus system in Glasgow radiates from the centre; capacity to move across the north of the city is highly limited. The nature of the public transport system in Glasgow is another issue.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not only did the DWP use Google Maps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) said, but the information on Google Maps was outdated, and some bus services that it advertised no longer operate in our city?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. In recent months, First Glasgow, the predominant bus operator in Glasgow, has cut a number of vital routes that might otherwise have facilitated those journeys. My mum lives in Springburn and works in Clarkston, and she often tells me of the arduous journeys that she makes across the city using First buses. Buses are regularly cancelled arbitrarily, or drivers change. There is no reliability or resilience in the public transport system; using it as a justification for rationalising the estate across Glasgow is highly risky.
Perhaps the DWP’s genuine motive is cost-driven. It is not about facilitating improved access; it is a cost-driven exercise to reduce Department overheads and, in the process, to frustrate those trying to access services, in order to reduce claimant rates and benefits being paid to citizens in Glasgow, increasing their concomitant despair, dismay and psychological ill-health. The proposals are utterly unsound, and I urge the Minister to reconsider on a practical basis.
I offer a solution: collocation, which has been advocated by a number of agencies, including the union PCS and Citizens Advice. For example, as a new Member, I have been looking for somewhere to establish a constituency office, which is more easily said than done, particularly in Glasgow North East, where the number of retail units is not huge. I looked at one location in Saracen Street in the heart of Possilpark, one of the areas of highest social deprivation in the United Kingdom, never mind Glasgow or Scotland. I did so for a particular reason: I wanted to make a statement that I was there to serve the community of highest need in my constituency.
I noted that in that street alone, there is a closed-down citizens advice bureau, as well as a unit owned by North Glasgow Housing Association and leased to Jobs & Business Glasgow, which in turn sublets it to Skills Development Scotland. Full rent is paid on the unit, but it is occupied only two days a week; it is being under-utilised. It is there for the taking. Why on earth could the DWP not engage with the agencies to use that opportunity for collocation at minimal cost, sustaining the same footprint at a fraction of the price? If it is true that the idea is to re-deploy instead of reducing the number of jobs, surely that would be an essentially cost-neutral exercise that would maintain the footprint while ensuring provision for the people who need it most and dealing with the intractable problem of unemployment in our city.
Yes, I absolutely agree. Surely the presumption should be in favour of maintaining the footprint at all costs. Any reduction in the estate should be considered only as a final measure once all other possible mitigation options have been exhausted. It is clear to me after even cursory engagement with trying to set up a constituency office that there is ample opportunity out there to utilise alternative measures to maintain the footprint by co-operating with other agencies occupying the same space. That would be a great and worthwhile measure to explore as a first instance. I urge the Minister to engage with all Glasgow Members and city councillors to broker such negotiations as a matter of urgency. Opportunities in Glasgow are ample, and we should consider them in Glasgow and across the United Kingdom to maintain the footprint and operate with efficiency by having an integrated approach to collocation. I am absolutely in favour of that.
The justification for reducing face-to-face engagement is an increasing shift to using IT services. We know that that is a myth. Anyone who has watched the film “I, Daniel Blake” will be aware that among the people who have to deal with and engage with such services, it is not the case. The DWP has failed to understand the fundamental reality of unemployment: there is a cyclical component and a structural component. Obviously, as the economy has recovered, the cyclical component has decreased, but the structural component has remained, particularly in Glasgow. The underlying rate of unemployment is still high: indeed, twice the national average. Those people are generally unable to access IT facilities easily, nor are they necessarily IT-literate. That is why we need to maintain face-to-face services. PCS consultation and research backs that up, determining that the most effective measure for returning people to the jobs market was a face-to-face account management offer through DWP jobcentres. We must maintain that level of service. An online system is not a substitute.
These are the people whom we need to support the most. They may be using library IT facilities, which are so oversubscribed in Glasgow that time limits on users have been introduced. People who are already unsure and unconfident about using IT facilities are now time-limited—much as you might want to time-limit me, Mr Evans—in utilising them. Imagine the stress associated with not only filling out a complex and convoluted form but doing so under the pressure of a ticking clock. That is clearly not a good situation. It would be much preferable if those facilities were available through a face-to- face consultation.
To draw my points together, it is clear that the consultation is a sham, driven by the preconceived outcome of reducing the estate. It is not about consultation on mitigation in any meaningful way, as the collocation option has clearly not been explored in any depth. I urge the Minister to consider that as a proactive and collaborative measure that could serve the interests of driving a more efficient use of public resources while maintaining a critical level of service provision to the communities that need it most.
The justification based on geographic proximity is utterly untrue. Not only do the new locations lie outside the 2.5-mile radius that was supposed to be used; the walking and travel times are much longer and more arduous than a cursory look at Google Maps might suggest.
Glasgow’s situation is unique. It has a long-term structural unemployment problem, particularly in Glasgow North East and in the constituencies of other Glasgow Members present today. We need much more focused and intensive support, so it is critical to maintain the current footprint of jobcentres in Glasgow. It might be justifiable to argue that we have a greater density of them than other cities, but that is for a very good reason indeed: Glasgow has historically had a problem with unemployment, so it is critical we maintain our jobcentres.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I hope the Minister will take our points on board and offer a meaningful and practical solution, so that we can maintain a great public service in Glasgow and ensure that we share the same objective of reducing and minimising unemployment in Glasgow. Let us do something productive to achieve that.
Thank you, Mr Evans; I am grateful to have caught your eye, having come in slightly late. I will make just a couple of brief comments.
One of the consequences of the general election result in Scotland is that we can now demonstrate cross-party consensus in our concerns. [Interruption.] A certain degree of cross-party consensus, at least. I pay tribute to my new neighbour, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), and welcome him to his place.
The impact of these jobcentre closures will be felt very strongly across the communities of Glasgow and in the other parts of Scotland and the United Kingdom that are affected. The Minister cannot say that he has not been warned, because we have repeatedly brought our concerns to Westminster Hall and to the main Chamber. The responses to the consultation reflected the disproportionate impact that the closures will have on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. They include people who really depend on the services that jobcentres provide to get the skills and training to bring them back into the labour market: people with disabilities, people from socially deprived backgrounds, and single parents—particularly single mothers, who we heard a lot from in the process we went through in Maryhill.
What we need from the Minister now is some kind of certainty about the next steps. When will a timetable be announced? What transitional arrangements will be in place for the service users who will have to start making these journeys? Will they get a guarantee that if they miss appointments or arrive late because of the public transport issues that Glasgow Members have highlighted, they will not be subject to sanctions? That is the kind of certainty that the Minister urgently needs to provide, along with a timetable for when all this will happen.
Another key issue that has come up in the process and that has to be taken into account in the next steps is dialogue with the Scottish Government. We have repeatedly heard from Ministers in the Scottish Government that—much like Members of this House—they have been informed of decisions at the last minute, or even after those decisions have been announced to the public. They have not had any opportunity for discussions about collocation or pulling services together. I hope that as the estate contraction process takes place, the Minister will ensure full engagement with the Scottish Government and with the relevant local authorities.
There are broader questions about the process of downsizing the estate. When the consultation began, I heard quite a lot from Ministers that this was about providing the best possible service to users. When the results of the consultation and the final decision were announced, they said, “Well, actually, this was a financial decision about effective use of the estate, under-utilised buildings and so on. It was the consequence of a contract that was entered into under the new Labour Government—a public-private partnership, essentially.” What further efforts have this Government undertaken to review the contract with Trillium? What discussions have they had about the next time there has to be an estate review? I have asked written questions about that.
What about other aspects of the DWP estate—not least the prime property at Caxton House in central London, to which we were all invited for a meeting before the general election? First, did Ministers consider whether it was necessary to retain it? Secondly, what if Trillium decided that it wanted to keep its hands on it and booted everybody out? Were contingency plans made for that? Why not disperse some of the DWP staff further across the United Kingdom?
It is incredibly disappointing that we have to keep coming back here with these questions, but I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this important debate before the summer recess. I also congratulate the other Members who have participated, and I thank you again, Mr Evans, for allowing me to contribute at short notice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I feel enticed to say a few words, because other hon. Members have painted a rather gloomy picture of certain elements of Glasgow. I am an Ayrshire chappie and I do not know Glasgow that well. In Ayrshire, there are some disappointing aspects of the modernisation of the DWP estate and some things that I am not entirely happy with. However, some elements of the rather gloomy and dull picture that has been painted lie with the nationalist Scottish Government and with the poverty and inequalities that they should be addressing. [Interruption.] I am sure they do lie there—I am sure they are devolved issues, as SNP Members would be quick to tell us.
There is pain along with the change. Any change brings pain, but this is a modernisation of the estate.
The hon. Gentleman talks about modernisation—I cannot believe what I am hearing. This is a closure. We were never asked about modernisation, collocation or anything else—that has all come from us. The Government are proposing closures, nothing else.
I beg to differ. We see the same thing in different ways. It is modernisation. Things change; we cannot stand still. There will be pain—there is always pain when there is change. I am absolutely certain of that, and I concede to some of the concerns the hon. Gentleman raised, but I am sure that the Minister will bring something forward.
There have been changes in the way people do business. Footfall has probably reduced to some extent because of online facilities, modernisation and the way we conduct business through social media and the internet. Things change, and they do not always bring pleasure. I am sure there will be pain. There is pain in Ayrshire—we are losing an office there—so I am not immune to it either.
As for transport, I sat on the Strathclyde partnership for transport for many years. The transport system in Glasgow is quite good, including the underground with its inner and outer circle, and the buses. I concede to the expertise of Glasgow Members—they live there and I do not—but I have always found the transport system there to be very good.
Coatbridge is outside Glasgow—it is rural. People depend on these jobs in rural communities in Coatbridge, just as they do in Ayrshire. The hon. Gentleman talks about travelling into Glasgow, but the people of Coatbridge do not want to travel anywhere. We want local government jobs for local people so that we can look after our families and local communities. That is the essential point, which is the same in Coatbridge as in Ayrshire.
I must announce to Members gathered here today that my mother-in-law comes from the Whifflet in Coatbridge, so I know it rather well. Links into the city centre were never particularly difficult—and it was a great place to have a pint of beer, I might add.
My point about modernisation was to do with the estate, and I said that there would be pain. To me, the estate means the physical structure of the buildings—the floors, the roof, the ceilings and so on. I did concede that there would be pain, and I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but we cannot stand still. No one can, no matter what sphere of business they are in or what service they provide.
Yes, there will be pain. I do not gloat or take any pleasure in the idea of somebody having to catch two buses and then get the train or the underground. There are challenges. If people are not at work, I am sure they will have considerable time to make the journey to the jobcentre and back, but there may be people who are incapacitated who find difficulties. I accept that that is an extreme challenge.
Of course not—I am being honest. I am in favour of modernisation, not standing still, and I am in favour of being progressive. There is a very good phrase used in the Scottish Parliament: “This is a progressive issue.” We are progressing with the DWP estate. I believe that that is happening throughout the United Kingdom—it is not confined to Glasgow—but there will be pain.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. It is also a pleasure to see my old friend from the Strathclyde fire board, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). I can confirm that he is a bit of a wind-up merchant, but his comments failed to address the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) started with. The issue is the structural poverty and historic unemployment and deprivation that Glasgow and the west of Scotland still see as a result of the Tory legacy from the ’80s and beyond. This Tory Government seem set on compounding that poverty and misery and making it worse. They are not looking at the communities that the cuts affect; they are looking only at lines on a map or on Google Maps. They are not looking at the Scottish index of multiple deprivation, as my hon. Friend mentioned. If that index was placed over the map, they would see that the cuts are falling on the poorest communities and those who need support the most. They deserve support the most, because they are the furthest away from the labour market.
I do not know whether the Minister has since taken it down, but when he had us over to his office after the cuts were announced, he had an enormous poster on his wall, right behind where he sat. It was a kind of heat map of the joblessness figures for the whole country, and Glasgow was a great big red beacon on that map. That is exactly where the cuts are falling and where support is needed the most.
My hon. Friends have mentioned the issues with the digital divide. They talked about how difficult it is for people, such as the character in “I, Daniel Blake”, who are pencil by default rather than digital by default. That is true of people in the east end of Glasgow and many of the poorer communities in Scotland. Citizens Advice Scotland did a report a few years ago called “Offline and left behind”, which pointed out that the majority of CAB clients it sees would struggle to apply for benefits and jobs online. That will continue to be the case, because many of them are older workers and further away from the job market. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) mentioned the 1950s women affected by the state pension changes. The Government have made great play of trumpeting that there will be support for those women. Where will that support be if the infrastructure they rely on is taken away from their communities?
I have mentioned before in the Chamber that I met a women in my constituency outside Bridgeton jobcentre, which is due to close. She was in bits. She was a WASPI woman who was being forced back to work. She was continually receiving letters calling her into Bridgeton jobcentre. Because it was just down the street from her house, she was able to get her baffies on to get there, but she was scared going in. She was terrified. She was crying going in and coming back out. These are the kind of women who need to be able to access support nearby. Getting up, getting fully dressed, getting on a bus and travelling to the other end of the city would be too much for her. She would fall out of the system and get no support at all. That is not acceptable, and it is not the kind of society we want.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) asked, who will pick up the slack? Who will take up the burden when the jobcentre has gone away? It will be services such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health and the Glasgow Association for Mental Health, which provide so much support to people with mental health issues that are preventing them from taking a job, caused by trauma they have experienced or issues they have had in their lives. Those issues are multiple and complex, and we ignore them at our peril.
The Government are content to let the voluntary sector, food banks and charities pick up where the state has left off and rolled back. The Tory Government are obsessed with dismantling the social security infrastructure of our nation. The things that were put in place to help and support people when they need it most are all being unravelled. That speaks to the issue with the HMRC offices and the DWP back offices. In a lot of cases, they were placed so as to facilitate economic growth in areas that had issues. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) illustrated that perfectly by talking about the impact on the wider community of the 250 jobs and £4,000 a week. I would not be surprised if the figure were higher. It is a small sample—a snapshot in time—of the people who go there to work and use the local sandwich shop or the local paper shop. They will buy things in the high street on their way to and from the office. That is true of every single jobcentre that the Government propose to close. Closures will have an impact on the local economy. Empty buildings will be sitting in communities going unused and becoming derelict.
The hon. Lady will know that many communities in Glasgow have seen regeneration of their high streets. In particular, there are many great regeneration initiatives in Glasgow that aim to find new and innovative uses for high streets. Surely a progressive measure would be for the DWP to work in partnership with regeneration agencies in Glasgow to look at options such as collocation that would drive vibrancy back into high streets, drive economic activity, drive better job opportunities into communities and create a virtuous cycle of economic growth in Glasgow and around the UK. That is surely what the DWP should be looking at, rather than having a silo mentality of cutting overheads at the expense of everything else. It should be looking at how it can crowd in growth and opportunities through other more entrepreneurial activity, such as collocation.
I absolutely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Clyde Gateway, which works in my constituency and across the boundary into Lanarkshire, is a prime example of that. It was not consulted. It has been the driver for economic regeneration in the east end of Glasgow. It has got people into work. It has looked at the people who are furthest away from the job market and got them into apprenticeships and real paying jobs against all the odds of ill health and deprivation, but it was not consulted or involved in the process. It was not asked about collocation. It would bite the Government’s hand off if they wanted to move HMRC offices from the city centre out to the east end of Glasgow, because it knows the impact that would have on positive regeneration. It would bring in jobs and benefit to the wider economy. It knows that, and it has tried to attract organisations such as Police Scotland, which has come into the area. The area is starting to come up, because it is getting those extra, good-value jobs, and people are moving into the area to build their lives rather than just coming in and out for work. That is hugely important.
The Government would save money with collocation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) pointed out, it is much cheaper to have offices in Livingston than in the centre of Edinburgh and much cheaper to have jobs in Dalmarnock or Shawfield than in the city centre of Glasgow. The Government are wedded to the idea of shiny big offices in the city centre. If it is not important where the jobs are done, why should they be done in the most expensive office space that can be found? Why can they not be in local communities, giving benefit to the wider area? As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South said, that is part of the Government’s cack-handed approach to the issue.
The Government have not looked at the data. We have all asked written parliamentary questions, and they cannot show us the data that evidences the decisions. It is not there. They do not know how many claimants of particular types go and use the jobcentres in question. With the transition to universal credit, it is likely that those jobcentres might be needed more rather than less, because people will need to go in and out about the work-related aspects of universal credit, when they are asked to do more work or earn more. The Government do not seem to be thinking about that at all.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, we do not know any detail on outreach. I ask the Government to be careful about how it is done, because there is a huge stigma for some people in accessing jobcentre services. If they are going in and out of the building they can just about cope, but if the services start to be in the community centre, their pals might know they are going in. An officer might sanction someone right there in the middle of the canteen. Such things are really upsetting, and the Government need to think about how they are done, not only for the safety, data protection and dignity of the people using that service, but for the safety of staff. The number of attacks on jobcentre staff has gone up as people get increasingly upset and frustrated with the process. The Government have a duty to those staff to ensure that they are safe, wherever the service is.
There is a security guard on the front door of each jobcentre in Glasgow. If I walk in, someone will come up and challenge me and say, “Who are you? Why are you here?” Within seconds of me walking in the door in Bridgeton, they were saying that. There is a reason for that, and the Government need to think about the safety of staff when they proceed. They need to be careful to do it in a sensitive and effective way. I suppose the Government would know that if they had visited any of the jobcentres in Glasgow or the wider area. I imagine a Government entourage would roll into the building and the jobcentre staff would know they were coming, unlike when I just pitch up on the doorstep, but the Government should consider trying that. They should take up the offer of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) to visit the jobcentres in Inverclyde, or any jobcentre at all. They could understand the geography and see what it is like for clients to go from one place to another on two buses. Rather than just sitting in an office using Google Maps, they should do the journey themselves.
We have invited the Minister before to come on journeys with us around Glasgow. As part of its campaign, the Evening Times in Glasgow did case studies and went out on journeys to and from all the different jobcentres. It has done great campaigning work on the issue, and it knows the city well—certainly a good deal better than Ministers.
There are a couple of relevant points about the need to have a security guard on the door, which reflects a number of problems with the current provision. There is the protection and morale of staff, but there is also the morale and self-esteem of the people who use the service. It is a measure of how the service conducts itself and how the interface with the service feels. People who already have anxiety issues, low self-esteem and problems with engaging are being introduced to this kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, where they feel intimidated and are effectively being negatively influenced to dissociate themselves from using the service.
I agree that it seems to be part of a wider plan to stop people using the services in the first place and to get people away from going there and seeking support.
I cannot speak for the rest of the country, but I will speak for Glasgow. What is good about jobcentres in Glasgow is that Bridgeton, Parkhead and Easterhouse all have citizens advice bureaux round the corner, very close to people. If someone finds themselves sanctioned or is stressed or worried, or needs extra support, that support is literally around the corner. They can cross the road to get there, and that help and support will be there. I know from speaking to staff at citizens advice centres in Glasgow that that happens regularly; they are there to provide that service. At Shettleston, which will replace Bridgeton, Parkhead and Easterhouse, there is no citizens advice bureau across the road. I wonder why that is.
In Possil, as was mentioned, there are other services as well. In Langside, there is a college across the road, which is exactly where we would want something that can encourage people to up their qualifications and seek new opportunities.
There are opportunities for collocation that we know the Government have not even explored or looked at. I understand that they offered something to the Scottish Government with no options. Rather than engaging properly and thoroughly, they said, “This is what we are thinking of doing—and we are doing it.” As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West said, they did that rather than looking at the whole estate and what is the best type of service for people—what works and actually improves things. In all the discussion, there has been nothing about which jobcentres are effective and which are not. Where do things work well for people and where do they not, and how can we improve that? It is just all about cuts, not about people.
I visited the Ayr jobcentre a couple of weeks ago, as I did the one in Cumnock. Cumnock is a deprived area and there are challenges there. On my modernisation theme, I recall a visit as far back as 2005 and 2006, when I retired from the fire service and went to the jobcentre in Ayr. It was a very uninviting, dark and intimidating place. The staff were behind screens for their protection. It was not very welcoming.
I say the word “modernisation” again, because when I went to the Ayr jobcentre just a couple of weeks ago, it was a very warm and welcoming place. The staff’s morale was high and they were enthused to tell me of the good work they were doing. Somebody will keep me right, but I thought the term was “job coaches” for those employed to encourage people into work. They were proud of the work that they had done through the modernisation of the premises. I found the staff’s morale high, though they are better judges of that. In some cases, modernisation works. I found it warm and welcoming there, whereas more than a decade ago it was a terrible place to visit.
Modernisation is fine, but that is very different from shutting it, which is what is happening in this situation. These jobcentres are not being modernised—they are being removed and closed; they are gone. Modernisation is not what this debate is about.
I appreciate that time is tight and I have gone on for a wee while now. My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North and for Glasgow South and the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) powerfully raised the need for an equality impact assessment. The Government said that they would provide an equality impact assessment of each jobcentre after the event, not before deciding on the closures. We have not seen those as yet.
Order. Just before this intervention, I would give a gentle reminder that we are now under some time limits, in order to give equal time to the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, and Members will also want to hear what the Minister has to say. Are you taking an intervention now?
The hon. Gentleman will find that Ministers will never say whether they have watched it. They probably ought to. I would be happy to put on a movie night if that would help.
We need to see the data and to know what happens next. We need to know what happens in the transition period and what the alternative services are, and whether there are going to be outreach services. What I really want more than anything else is for the people in our constituencies in Glasgow and right across the country, wherever they are, to have a no-sanction guarantee, at the very least for an interim period until the new arrangement settles in. If one person gets sanctioned because their bus does not turn up, that is an absolute scandal that falls on this Government. I will raise any constituency case I get of that kind with the Minister on the Floor of the House; he will know all about it.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing what is and remains a really important debate—although we have had it several times already. He spoke powerfully of the intergenerational poverty and deprivation in his constituency. That was a theme picked up by the hon. Members for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), who spoke of the impact of the closures on some of the poorest in the UK.
There was also a strong contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who talked about the impact that the 250 job losses will have on the local economy in his constituency. Members also spoke of the disproportionate impacts on certain groups in society—most notably my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), on black and Asian people, and my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), on WASPI women.
From the Government Benches, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) said that there will be pain and that for some people there will be extreme challenges. I ask the Minister to reflect on that.
As we know, the Government have recently confirmed plans to close around one in 10 jobcentres in the UK by March 2018. Public consultations were held on just 30 of the 78 jobcentre closures proposed in January, and only 16 have been reprieved, with three additional closures now confirmed. We understand that 590 jobcentres will be retained, 109 will be closed, and 50 collocations will go ahead. The future of eight sites is still to be negotiated. Yet the Department for Work and Pensions has yet to provide details of when each office closure is to take place, even though some could be as early as this summer. Will the Minister tell us when the first centres are scheduled to close, and which ones they are? People have a right to know. Will he publish the current closure dates planned for each office, so that people can have as much information as possible to make provision as they need to for the change in circumstances?
Jobcentres provide really important services in our communities, offering services that are designed to support people should they be unfortunate enough to lose their jobs or become ill or disabled, as well as for those who have been disabled throughout their lives. It is often said that how a society treats its most vulnerable is a mark of its civilisation. Our social security system is precious and should be there for people in their time of need. However, it appears that the Government are eroding our social security system and failing to pay heed to the needs of individuals and communities, at a time when we face the uncertainties of Brexit, increased job insecurity with 1 million people on zero-hours contracts, a crisis in low pay and the Government’s introduction of in-work conditionality—sanctions for working people, as it is also known.
It is increasingly clear that the impact of the closures on claimants will be considerable and the effect will be most acutely felt by the most vulnerable in our society, such as the chronically sick, the disabled and those with caring responsibilities, along with those with poor or no IT skills. Where, then, are the equality impact assessments for the closures? We have asked for them, but they are still yet to be seen. The Government are disregarding the needs of communities at the very time when the world of work is changing rapidly. The Government are yet to publish the equality analysis for the closures. Can the Minister give an exact date for when the full equality analysis will be published?
The Secretary of State said it is reasonable to ask claimants to travel further to another jobcentre as that is what people in work have to do every day, but he does not take into account the fact that those people have wages to pay their travel fares. People claiming social security are more likely to have a health problem or disability. They are more likely to struggle to travel longer distances, and as a result are at greater risk of being sanctioned for being late. People with children may also find it difficult to travel longer distances. What assessment has the Department made of the impact of the closures on claimants’ travel times, and of the associated costs? Can the Government specify whether the travel time includes those who cannot afford public transport and have to walk?
On the issue of the closures, it would be helpful if the Minister could talk about travel times and set out what mechanisms will be in place to support those with mobility issues or other disabilities, who will have to travel further. What adjustments will be made for those protected groups?
My hon. Friend makes a really good point, and it is important that the Minister responds to it.
What guidance does the Department intend to give staff on sanctioning people who miss an appointment because they have to travel further? We need to be clear about what sanctioning can mean to people. A first sanction means no benefits for four weeks. A second sanction means no benefits for three months. A third sanction means no benefits for up to three years. The system risks forcing people into destitution, crime or suicide, so this is a really important issue.
Let us consider the roll-out of the full service of universal credit. The DWP is reducing its estate at the same time as it is speeding up roll-out of the full service of UC. Over the past two years, the full service of universal credit has been rolled out to five new areas each month. This month, it has been extended to 30, and there are plans for it to be accelerated in October to 55 new areas per month. If the DWP feels able to announce such far-reaching plans to close jobcentres, it must surely have a clear idea of what the impact will be on work coaches, who are at the centre of its plans for employment support, but the Minister’s answer to a written question I submitted asking for the DWP’s assessment of the optimal number of universal credit claimants in a work coach’s caseload was vague to say the least. Will the Minister give us a clearer response today? What is his Department’s assessment of the optimal number of universal credit claimants a work coach can deal with, for both the live service and the full service? Or is his Department forging ahead with plans to close jobcentres without a clear idea of the number of staff needed?
The closure of jobcentres and the migration to online applications will make it harder for many people to claim social security. Many people do not have access to computers or mobiles, are unable to carry out transactions, or are not able to use the internet at all. A 2015 study by Citizens Advice Scotland found that 59% of respondents were unable to make an application for benefits online without help, and 30% of respondents were not able to apply for a benefit online at all. In Glasgow’s most deprived areas, almost half of respondents had never used the internet. More than half of clients did not have a computer or a device they could use to access the internet, and more than 40% of survey respondents could not use a computer at all. The Minister’s response, when questioned on claimants’ access to IT, has been to say that jobcentres provide access to PCs. If jobcentres are closing in large numbers, surely there will be less access to PCs for those who need to use them.
It is becoming clearer that the full digital service roll-out is experiencing major problems. Claimants are forced to spend increasingly long periods on the phone to try to resolve issues relating to their claims. A recent Citizens Advice report suggests that sometimes the only way to resolve a problem is to go to a jobcentre directly. The report calls for a comprehensive support package to be put in place, offering face-to-face help with all aspects of making and managing a universal credit claim. Will the DWP listen to Citizens Advice’s call for such a package? What is the DWP’s assessment of the effectiveness with which the full digital service is being rolled out? The process is called “test and learn”. Can the Minister please tell us what has been learned so far?
Let me turn to back-of-house offices. Front-facing jobcentres are not the only service the DWP is cutting. All but two back-of-house offices face closure, and staff are to be concentrated in a small number of hubs. That will have serious implications for staff, who will be forced to travel further or move. For some people, that will be practically impossible. Can the Minister tell us how many people will be made redundant, first, from the planned jobcentre closures, and secondly, from the closure of back-of-house offices?
Let me turn to the health and safety impact. The transfer of staff and claimants from jobcentres that are closing also raises health and safety issues. The closures will put more pressure on overstretched staff. The Minister said that work coaches are the central customer-facing role, but Jobcentre Plus staff dealing with phone inquiries about claims are also frontline staff. It can be extremely stressful to answer calls from people who are frustrated about a problem with their claim or delays in processing it. The Public and Commercial Services Union reports that staff are already being taken away from processing claims to answer phone lines, which leads to a vicious cycle: claimants are more likely to phone to ask what is happening to their claim because it has not been processed due to the delays. Apparently, among staff, it is known as the “cycle of hell”—a circle of inefficiency and stress, which they are struggling to get out of. Will the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure the health and wellbeing of staff in DWP offices?
The Secretary of State said on 6 July that the DWP is actively recruiting. That is welcome, but I would be grateful if the Minister could share with us the DWP’s current assessment of Jobcentre Plus’s performance on staff retention. Will the DWP publish statistics on the turnover of Jobcentre Plus and back-of-house office staff?
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
In the debate on 6 July, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) rightly raised the issue of the safety of young people who travel from different parts of south London, in the context of increasing youth violence. PCS raised similar concerns with me in relation to other major cities. Problems are likely to arise when services are merged in one office in an area with a gang culture. That serious issue is likely to affect staff and claimants, so it is important that the DWP listens to and acts upon the concerns of staff in such cases. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will do that? What support is DWP offering staff to ensure they maintain their emotional and physical wellbeing at work?
It is important that there is sufficient room space available in the remaining jobcentres so claimants who have to disclose personal information can do so in privacy. Has the DWP carried out a health and safety assessment of the impact of the planned closures? If not, why not? If it has, will it publish it?
My concern is that acceleration of the roll-out of the full digital services of universal credit, together with the programme of the rapid closure of jobcentres, will put intolerable pressure on staff and create chaos for claimants—especially the most vulnerable. The Government’s answer to any criticism of cuts to social security is that work is the best route out of poverty. Why, then, are they closing jobcentres on such a scale, when they offer services that are specifically designed to help people find employment?
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. He and others will be aware that this subject has already been debated extensively in Parliament. There has been an Opposition day debate, a Westminster Hall debate, an Adjournment debate and a Back-Bench business debate. There was another Westminster Hall debate yesterday, specifically on south Wales. The issue has been raised at DWP questions and Scotland Office questions. There have been two urgent questions and a substantial body of written questions.
Today’s debate has been wide-ranging. We heard a full exposition from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and a very interesting speech from the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood). In the time left, I will do my best to cover as many of the points that have been raised as possible.
The Government are committed to maintaining our record of protecting the most vulnerable while supporting everyone to fulfil their potential and play their full part in society. That includes reforming the welfare system by making work pay, supporting those unable to work and examining our assets to ensure that we are deploying resources effectively. On 31 March 2018, the DWP’s 20-year private finance initiative contract with Telereal Trillium, which covers the majority of the DWP’s current property portfolio of some 900 sites, comes to an end. That date provides an opportunity—indeed, an imperative —to review which office locations we need and how our estate is to be managed in the future. We have sought to do that in a way that delivers better value for the taxpayer and makes best use of the space available, while continuing to deliver vital support to claimants and pursuing our reform agenda.
I am sorry, I will not. The hon. Lady will have to forgive me, but I want to answer as many questions as possible.
To give some context, the DWP occupies about 1.5 million square metres of office space, but the way it operates is significantly different from 20 years ago, meaning that at least 20% of that space is under-occupied. The falling claimant count and the increased use of online services in recent years mean that 20% of the money the Department spends on rent goes towards space we are not using. By paying only for the space we need and the services required to operate from it, we anticipate saving £140 million per year over the next 10 years. To be clear, this is not about reducing services—the hon. Member for Wirral West alluded to that—but about taking the opportunity to stop spending taxpayers’ money on empty space and instead spend more to support those in need.
The labour market is in its strongest position for some years: the employment rate is 74.8%, the joint highest figure on record, and since 2010 unemployment has reduced by 913,000 and the overall number of people claiming the main out-of-work benefits has fallen by more than 1.1 million. In Glasgow over the past four years, the claimant count has come down from 27,890 to 16,800. The DWP estate is bigger than it needs to be, is not flexible enough to deal with the needs of the Department’s customers now and in the future and, in some instances, is of poor quality, preventing improvements such as digital innovation and more interactive ways of working with customers.
The Department is not transforming its estate in isolation. In June 2013, the Government published their first overall estate strategy, which was expanded in October 2014. The strategy aims to ensure that all Departments are working towards an effective and efficient Government estate that provides value for money to the taxpayer, delivers better, more integrated public services and acts as an enabler of growth. In January this year, we announced proposals to rationalise the DWP estate. The proposals encompassed most of our Jobcentre Plus offices, processing centres and head office buildings. Our announcements on 5 July finalised those plans for the majority of sites.
In our processing centres, the changes move towards creating larger, modern, digitally enabled centres, with teams working on several areas coming together to deliver a joined-up, efficient service to our customers. The focus is on creating an estate with a much improved working environment, with more opportunities for our staff to develop, learn new skills and progress.
Significant investment starting in 2018 will include the opening of a new processing centre in Glasgow, which will allow us to bring together colleagues from smaller, older sites across the area into a new property fitted out to create an efficient, effective working environment that allows the DWP to align more closely with other Departments working in the area. With the existing large processing site in Northgate, that will result in a DWP presence of more than 2,000 staff in Glasgow. In total in Scotland, we will keep a substantial processing presence, with large sites in locations such as Falkirk and Kilmarnock expanding to bring further jobs into those areas.
That investment will continue with a new purpose-built site in the Treforest area to the north of Cardiff in south Wales, which will bring together colleagues from smaller, older sites across the region into a new building and provide about 1,600 jobs in one of the most deprived areas in the UK. We are also working on similar large processing sites in Bristol, Birmingham and Hastings. Together with the changes to how we work in some of our remaining properties, that will create a processing estate that will be able to support the Department well into the future, while remaining flexible enough to deal with changing needs over the coming years.
The changes in the jobcentre network focus on three things: first, moving some jobcentres to shared Government premises to allow for better, more efficient use of space and a more co-ordinated service; secondly, moving some jobcentres to new buildings because the quality of the existing property is not up to scratch or is unable to meet the needs of our customers now and in the future; and thirdly, merging smaller and underused jobcentres to create larger operations that offer a better, more joined-up service to our customers. The changes include around 40 new opportunities to collocate jobcentre services into local authority or community premises, which will result in about 80 collocations in total.
In Scotland, we have 95 jobcentres, which is more jobcentres per head of population than in England. The changes will result in 11 jobcentres merging into nearby offices, three jobcentres moving into shared offices with local authorities and councils, and one jobcentre moving into an improved building in the same town. The resulting 85 jobcentres across the country still leaves Scotland with significantly more offices per head of population than England.
In Glasgow, we have 17 jobcentres, which the hon. Member for Glasgow South West acknowledged in his opening speech was more per head of population than in any other major city in Great Britain. Even with the reduction to 11 jobcentres, Glasgow will continue to have more per head of population than other cities. We consulted on three moves in Glasgow—Maryhill, Castlemilk and Bridgeton—and held a further consultation on Broxburn. The changes will enable the Department to offer a more efficient service while delivering value for the taxpayer.
The changes have been developed working closely with local leaders, using their local knowledge of the area, travel network, customers and community needs. Distance and journey times were calculated using a variety of methods to ensure accuracy in our planning, including online tools and timetables, as well as information collected on local public transport routes. Most importantly, that was all used to inform discussions with local staff, with their experience and knowledge of their areas.
Any change with an impact on DWP employees has involved consultation with them and their trade unions. In most cases, staff consultation began with an announcement back in January, followed by three to five weeks of discussion when we considered the impact of any changes on their offices. We have consulted the public on any jobcentre mergers that may mean customers will have to travel a little further. There is no statutory requirement for such consultation, but we were committed to making the decisions in consultation and have conducted public consultations on all proposed closures of jobcentres that fall outside the ministerial criteria.
I am fairly sure that I was talking not about that, but about the consultation criteria. At the end of the process, we will have a settled estate, which will put us in a better position to share services and so on with other bodies.
I will skip over some of my material and respond directly to some of the questions that came up in the debate. The hon. Member for Wirral West asked about concerns about travel times and travel costs. I reassure Members that claimants can be reimbursed for any travel to jobcentres that is more frequent than fortnightly. For those on JSA for more than 13 weeks and, in some circumstances, from the very first day on other benefits, it is possible to apply for a Jobcentre Plus travel discount card, which is available for different local transport companies. Of course, anyone on employment and support allowance is not asked to attend the jobcentre regularly. The existing outreach services and the additional ones that we will put in place as a result of the changes will give us more presence in local areas.
On sanctions, the point is that we ask people to make reasonable efforts to get to appointments and other things they have committed to as part of their job search. There will be a transition time as people get used to different arrangements, but the requirement for people to make reasonable efforts will always remain.
On access to online facilities, DWP always has an alternative to online, but in this day and age it is also true that to look for work and to be in work, it is increasingly essential to have some IT skills. We therefore think it is important to help people with that, which is one of the reasons why we provide IT equipment in jobcentre lobbies and have people who can help claimants with it.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) asked whether the other jobcentres in Glasgow have the capacity to take in the extra operations. The answer is that they do—that is the entire basis of our plans. We will put outreach in place in those locations where we had a public consultation because the distances travelled would be a little further.
We want to minimise all risk of job losses. We have not yet completed all the conversations with staff, and we are continuing to have those one-to-ones. The DWP has a good record over many years of retaining staff. We will seek to facilitate that as much as possible.
Some of the questions were about working with the Scottish Government. We are keen to do so, and we look forward to more such opportunities in future. I was also asked about the equality impact assessment, and we have built in consideration of the impact on people with protected characteristics through all stages of the estates project process. We will continue to do so, thus fulfilling our duty under the Equalities Act 2010.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government proposals for better combat compensation.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, in the last Westminster Hall debate before the recess. I refuse to call it the graveyard shift—this is an extraordinarily important debate. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), to his seat. May I formally put on the record the whole House’s gratitude to him for his work, particularly during the terrorist incident, when he administered CPR to PC Keith Palmer? He is a real hero, who has served in uniform and stepped up to the mark when his country needed him.
This debate addresses concerns arising from the “Better combat compensation” consultation, which ran until 23 February 2017 and on which the Government have yet to publish their conclusions. According to the Government, an enhanced compensation scheme will address the
“urgent need to reform the current system for dealing with compensation claims brought before the Courts and provide clarity in law on issues of negligence which may contribute to deaths and injuries suffered by members of our Armed Forces in combat.”
Linked to that scheme, the Government propose to enshrine in legislation an extension to combat immunity, so that it not only applies to deaths or injuries that occur in the course of combat but covers all military operations.
The Secretary of State for Defence has stated that those proposals arise from three main concerns: that service personnel and ex-service personnel who are injured in combat can be drawn into long and frustrating legal cases; that the legal costs of such cases borne by the taxpayer often far outstrip the damages awarded; and that judges are required to second-guess military decisions using criteria appropriate in civilian life.
In essence, through its “Better combat compensation” proposals, the Ministry of Defence plans to scrap the legal duty of care that it owes to service personnel. That duty of care has been in force since 1987, when Parliament repealed section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 to provide protection for those who bravely serve their country. I find it hard to believe that the Minister believes that it is both legally and morally right that the MOD should be allowed to legislate its way out of that duty of care.
I will first address the concern that judges are required to second-guess military decisions using criteria appropriate in civilian life. The courts already recognise the difference between cases involving military decisions made by armed forces personnel in combat and civilian cases where the duty of care applies. The duty of care is not exclusive; it applies to all walks of life. That is reflected by the fact that not a single court decision has second-guessed a military decision made in a battlefield situation.
The right of access to the courts is a long-established common law right that is now enshrined in article 6 of the European convention on human rights. Any exclusion of that right would require primary legislation, which would need to be judged compatible with the convention. Does the Minister know whether such legislation would be judged compatible? If it would, when do the Government propose to bring forward such legislation? There was no mention of it in the Queen’s Speech.
Extending combat immunity could be a slippery slope. If the MOD, as an employer, can legislate its way out of a duty of care to our armed forces, where will that stop? Will other employers, such as the fire service or the police service, be next? Where will it end? As a Government Department, the MOD already enjoys Crown privilege, which means that, although health and safety legislation applies to it, it is not subject to criminal enforcement action in the courts. Instead, such action is mirrored by administrative arrangements, which ultimately lead to a Crown censure instead of prosecution.
Introducing a smokescreen of combat immunity over all military operations, as the Government propose, would be a huge step backwards. Combat immunity, which is currently interpreted by the courts, is there to protect military operations when thinking is impaired in the heat of battle. It does not, and should not, apply to procurement decisions made back at Whitehall when equipment that is procured for our troops turns out to be faulty or unsuitable.
The MOD has already tried and failed to extend the scope of combat immunity in the courts. The Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case that the Government are under a legal obligation to fulfil their duty of care and to ensure that British soldiers are sent to fight with adequate equipment and training. In that case, our troops were travelling in the lightly armoured Snatch Land Rover, the vulnerability of which had led some soldiers to call it the “mobile coffin”. The Chilcot report eventually found that the Snatch Land Rover was at the end of its planned life in service and that an alternative should have been found.
That case defined the legal obligations that the Government owe to soldiers who are killed or injured on active service abroad. Why is the MOD now attempting to ignore the will of the highest court in the land? Under the system of blanket immunity that the MOD proposes, those facts would never have come to light, there would have been no pressure to make changes and no lessons would have been learned.
That brings me to the second concern put forward by the Secretary of State: that legal costs outstrip the compensation awarded. That assumes that people have a purely financial motive for taking cases through the courts, but their motivation is often more complex. Service personnel and their families do not simply seek financial recompense; they often seek justice. They seek to protect others from suffering the same fate as them or their loved ones. They want to shine a light on their case and ensure public scrutiny so that it does not happen again. They want questions answered.
Extending the scope of combat immunity would be discriminatory to armed forces personnel and their families, and would breach the armed forces covenant. The covenant’s two principles are that,
“the armed forces community should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services; and that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given the most such as the injured or the bereaved.”
The covenant is a pledge that together we acknowledge and understand that those who serve or have served in the armed forces, and their families, should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy and society that they have served with their lives.
This is not how we in this country should respect those who risk their lives to protect our way of life. Why should a decision about equipment or training made at a desk in Whitehall not be subject to the same scrutiny as similar decisions made by other employers? In April last year the Defence Committee published its report, “Beyond endurance? Military exercises and the duty of care”, which called for the MOD to be subject to sanctions under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, without exemption. The inquiry was called after three Army reservists died after taking part in SAS selection exercises in the Brecon Beacons. They were three of 135 armed forces personnel who lost their lives while on training and exercises between 1 January 2000 and 20 February 2016: a statistic to make us sit up and think.
The inquiry found that it was wrong for the MOD and armed forces to have exemptions under the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act in situations where they have been penalised by Crown censure for serious failings in hazardous training and selection events. The Government, however, rejected the Committee’s modest proposals to reform the military exemptions in the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act. Why is the MOD so reluctant to accept responsibility for its actions? Do our brave men and women, who put themselves on the front line to protect our country, not deserve better?
I now turn specifically to the compensation awards under the new enhanced scheme. Before doing so, it is important to point out a flaw in the current system that takes no account of those who have suffered brain damage as a result of their injuries and lack capacity to make decisions or control large amounts of money. The MOD simply pays more than half a million pounds into a soldier’s bank account with no checks currently on capacity. They are simply left to get on with it. Lawyers instructed in such cases are under a duty to assess mental capacity and are negligent if they fail to do so. That protects vulnerable claimants. No such checks and balances exist for military service personnel, so I ask the Minister to address that urgently.
The MOD’s enhanced pension scheme should not be reviewed as an issue linked to the extension of combat immunity as the two issues are independent of each other. The Government say that individuals or their families will be awarded better compensation for injury or death in combat and will not require legal representation. Straightforward cases will be suitable for the compensation scheme, but using the scheme should be optional, with the decision taken to do so by armed forces personnel or their family. The option to go through the courts and the subsequent public scrutiny must remain open. Many cases will inevitably be very complex with a need for multiple experts to help to assess the extent of injuries and losses.
Service personnel are often vulnerable and traumatised, and some will have catastrophic injuries. In my constituency I have the South Manchester amputation unit, which I visit regularly and I have seen the extent of many of the injuries. Improvements in medical expertise mean that those who suffer battlefield injuries have extended life expectancy. The complex nature of the injuries, including the cost of adapted housing, equipment and rehabilitation to last a lifetime, has always been determined by experts and the courts, with independent legal advice available. The MOD now proposes to take those calculations away from the courts and instead handle them itself. Further, it expects injured and vulnerable military personnel to be able to assess themselves whether the correct amounts have been awarded. Does the Minister really expect vulnerable and injured service personnel and their families to navigate the process without legal representation? If the MOD is serious about full compensation, servicemen and women must have recourse to legal representation to help prepare the evidence for the courts to adjudicate.
However, the proposal will allow the MOD to create a situation in which it serves not only as gatekeeper, but as both judge and jury. The fact that the MOD itself should decide whether a claim against it is valid creates a clear conflict of interest. As a result, it is unlikely that armed forces personnel and their families will have confidence in the system or its impartiality.
In summary, the Government need to look again at the enhanced compensation scheme and the proposal to extend the definition of combat immunity. As it stands, soldiers will be shut out of justice, and military equipment failures will be swept under the carpet rather than receiving public scrutiny through the court system. I repeat my questions to the Minister: does he legally and morally believe that the MOD should be allowed to legislate its way out of its duty of care to our soldiers as set out in the armed forces covenant and in law? If the Minister proposes to extend combat immunity, when does he propose to put the primary legislation before Parliament?
The Government have stated that there is an urgent need to reform the current system for dealing with compensation claims. When, therefore, can we expect the conclusions of their urgent consultation? I am sure we can all agree in this place that any process of compensation for armed service personnel needs to be transparent, and that everybody needs to be accountable. The enhanced compensation scheme and proposed extension of combat immunity fails to deliver either. Our armed forces deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) on securing this important debate this afternoon.
The hon. Gentleman made a cogent, reasoned and passionate speech about combat compensation, the changes that are likely to be made, and the suffering that service personnel and their families are likely to experience as a result of the Government’s proposed changes. I agree with what he has said. I find it strange that, as he says, the MOD will end up being gatekeeper, judge and jury, especially in compensation claims, and that there has been no real attempt by the Government so far to say when, how and if they are going to do away with their legal duty of care towards service personnel. We all owe them so much. As has already been said, much has come to light because of the fact that combat immunity was not quite so widely drawn.
If the Scottish Government’s Minister for veterans was involved in this matter, he would be seriously concerned. So many service personnel who have been affected by what has happened to them, and of course to their families, might not now be able to get unbiased and free access to compensation. That is really dangerous, especially for those who suffer mental health problems as a result of their service. As we know, sometimes such problems do not occur until many years after service has ended.
The Scottish Government urge the UK Government to publish a response to the latest quinquennial review as soon as possible and to address directly the review’s recommendations. In particular, we urge the Government to increase the maximum tariffs for mental health and to improve communication, particularly for veterans who may experience late onset symptoms.
The Scottish Government welcome the launch of the “Defence people mental health and wellbeing strategy” as a positive step forward, but maintain that there is still much more that could be done. For example, if people receive compensation as a result of their service, that should not be allowed to affect any other benefits that they get. It is vital that we treat our veterans with the utmost dignity and respect and allow them free, fair and equitable access.
The Government must not try to do in private what has recently been done in public, because that has forced the MOD to look at its procedures and at how it carries out its procurement and training methodologies. Service personnel need the utmost respect from the Government and the best possible compensation when things that the MOD is responsible for go wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. To be honest, I was not best pleased when I realised that I had to come to this sitting of Westminster Hall, right at the end of a parliamentary term, but when I realised what issue was to be considered, my attitude soon changed. We owe a great deal of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) for bringing this extremely important issue forward and securing the debate.
All of us here today would agree that we want the best and most appropriate compensation for all those who deserve compensation, whether they are soldiers or other members of the armed forces who have been hurt, or members of their families. We want justice for everyone, and we want it to be done as quickly and expeditiously as possible. I expect we are all concerned about the lengthy delays in some court cases, because we want justice to be achieved as quickly as possible.
I have two profound concerns about the proposals that the Government sent out for consultation. The consultation period has concluded and I shall be interested to hear what they intend to do in the light of the responses—whether they intend to legislate, and what form that legislation will take.
My first concern is quite fundamental, and it is about combat liability. Who exactly would be entitled to put forward a claim for compensation? The consultation paper suggested a new definition of liability:
“We believe that the test should be whether the harm—injury or death—occurred in the course of a UK military operation as a result of direct or indirect hostile enemy action, or as the direct result of misdirected targeting by friendly forces, or as the direct result of action taken to avoid hostile enemy action. If it did, it should be regarded as occurring in combat.”
That might on the face of it seem to be a straightforward, common-sense definition of combat, but its implications are truly profound, and it flies in the face of the practice and legal precedent established in this country since at least the end of the second world war. The suggested definition would mean that the Ministry of Defence could not be held accountable for decisions made far from combat, including those concerning training, procurement and the suitability of future combat equipment in the light of known operational issues. All those issues would be excluded under the proposal.
The practical implications of that are huge. An example that has already been quoted is the case brought with regard to Snatch Land Rovers. It was a long legal case, pursued against the Ministry of Defence by the families of soldiers who lost their lives in those inadequate vehicles in Iraq. In the end, it was successful in securing compensation and, more importantly, in gaining public recognition of the fact that the vehicles were inadequate. They were replaced with better, more sustainable vehicles that provided better protection for soldiers, but there were also lessons that had to be learned. The deficiencies of the Snatch vehicles were identified previously in Northern Ireland but, for reasons best known to civil servants and politicians at the time, action was not taken to replace them with appropriate vehicles. Those issues came to light clearly in the court case, which was long and protracted but extremely thorough. Of course, reference was made to all that in the Chilcot report, which I think should be considered alongside the Government proposal.
My second concern is that the proposal flies in the face of established legal practice based on common law, because it would take away people’s legal rights. It sets out, essentially, an in-house Ministry of Defence system, under which people would not have their legal rights or legal representation, but would accept what was decided by the Ministry. Admittedly, there would be an independent opinion about the entitlement.
I consider the proposal to be extremely worrying, and although I am a lay person, I am not the only one saying that. Lawyers with enormous experience are also concerned about it. The president of the Law Society said:
“This means cases would not be heard by an independent judge, facts would not be independently investigated, responsibility would not be established and a state institution, if liable, would not be held to account.
Soldiers and their families must not be shut out of our justice system.”
That, in a nutshell, is my second reservation.
In the light of those points, I hope that the Government will have second thoughts and listen to the Law Society and the many other people who have made representations. I also hope that the Government will uphold the consensus that was accepted by all parties on the armed forces covenant and take it forward, both in its detail and in its spirit, and that they will continue to have the principle of the duty of care for all armed forces personnel foremost in their mind whenever they consider bringing forward proposals. With those few words about my strong reservations, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East for securing the debate and look forward to hearing the Government response.
I welcome this debate, secured by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). He said that it was the graveyard shift: it is the last day of term, and I am already on my feet to respond to a debate that could have lasted an hour and a half. However, the subject is important, and I am grateful for this opportunity to respond as I begin my work in my present portfolio.
The hon. Gentleman made some very kind initial comments about what happened in the Westminster bridge attack. As this is the last sitting day before the recess, I think we are all reflecting on what has been a dramatic and difficult year for Britain, with the terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire. I feel humbled by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. It was a difficult day for me, and not a day goes by when I do not think about PC Keith Palmer. The toughest part of the day for me after that was going home and finding my eight-year-old boy at the top of the stairs, unable to sleep and wanting explanations of what had happened that day. All I could offer was that there are occasionally very bad people who do very bad things, but that there are always very good people who, even more, do good things. That day I was one of a number of people trying to do a good thing.
A lot of detail has arisen in the debate, and many questions have been asked. I shall do my best to answer the questions, but if I miss any details I shall, if I may, do as I customarily do and write to hon. Members. I do not have the excuse of not having enough time to answer; it is just that the portfolio is new to me, and I will say frankly that the issue is complex. However, as a former regular soldier and as a reservist—something that I should declare—I have a personal interest in making sure that when we send our brave soldiers, sailors and air personnel into harm’s way, we give them the equipment that they require.
I am grateful for the opportunity to elaborate on the Government’s proposals for better compensation. Before I turn to the details, it is worth saying something about the consultation paper, but also, in view of what has been said, rehearsing the rationale for the steps proposed for the consultation paper itself. There could hardly be a more important responsibility for the Ministry of Defence than ensuring that our arrangements for providing financial compensation to people who are injured while fighting for their country, and the families of those who are killed in so doing, are not only fair but generous. We owe them nothing less.
There are currently two routes by which service personnel or their families may be paid compensation for deaths or injuries suffered in that way. Virtually any injury, whether fatal or not, that is sustained by a member of the armed forces as a result of service will attract a payment under the armed forces compensation scheme. The scheme applies to deaths and injuries sustained both in combat and in situations such as training, and whether or not the Ministry of Defence was at fault in any way in the incident concerned. In a relatively small number of cases, a second route to seeking compensation would involve suing the Ministry of Defence for negligence in the law courts. That is because, were a court to find that there was negligence, it would award compensation that would be expected to be higher than that under the armed forces compensation scheme. In practice, the MOD would normally settle a case if it believed that it had been totally or partially to blame. It is fair to say that few cases actually go all the way to trial.
In the main, the MOD has no difficulty with the current approach, and we are not proposing any change whatsoever in cases that do not relate to combat. That distinction is important; I do not think the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East made the distinction in his opening remarks between cases that are in combat and those that are not. If people believe that they have a case, they may sue the MOD, and the Department will normally settle the case if it believes that it was indeed totally or partially to blame.
The real problem with the court route is when it comes to combat. Combat is inherently dangerous—we are sending people into harm’s way to use organised violence. That was why the courts developed a doctrine known as combat immunity, which means that the Government cannot be sued for negligence when a person is injured or killed as a result of being sent into combat. The Ministry of Defence will continue to do everything practicable to minimise casualties among members of Britain’s armed forces when they are called on to fight, but armed hostilities cannot be treated in the same way as training incidents or accidents in civilian life. I hope hon. Members understand and recognise that distinction, which I think is agreed across all parties.
The Minister will know that the armed forces compensation scheme is limited in scope and does not take into account the rehabilitation costs of members of the armed forces who have been injured. We need to keep the court system so that they can get full compensation for the lifetime’s worth of injuries that they have to face.
If I may, I will come on to that in a second. Given that I have some time, it is worth saying that I have just been at a two-day conference with Veterans’ Ministers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, where we discussed that very thing: what support, compensation and packages of measures are available and in place while people are in the service, going through the transition, and once they are veterans. I think that is the point the hon. Gentleman is alluding to, and I will come to that shortly.
The challenge we face is that the scope of the doctrine of combat immunity is complex and unclear. That has resulted in some exceptionally protracted claims alleging that the MOD should not have used certain kinds of equipment or transport or should have trained people in a different way. The strong view of the Government is that decisions about such challenging and sensitive matters should be taken by military commanders with the appropriate expertise, and not—with all respect—by the courts.
Indeed, one of the minority judges in the Supreme Court case I mentioned rightly warned that the decision could lead to “the judicialisation of war”. The result has been a number of long-running cases in which the MOD has been forced to defend its military preparations in the lead-up to combat. Such cases have risked the exposure of sensitive material, which could be useful to our enemies and adversaries. They have also cost large amounts of taxpayers’ money, which could have been spent in better ways. We believe the cases have been highly stressful for the litigants and created much uncertainty for the conduct of future hostilities.
What we cannot have is cases where commanders in a war might be concerned about the manner in which they make decisions for fear of litigation or lawsuits when they come home. Military commanders may come to feel that they will be second-guessed back in Britain by lawyers intent on mounting negligence cases. That could have a chilling effect on decision making and affect our ability to fight and complete actions. Against that background, the proposals we put forward in our consultation paper offered a solution, which we believe will generously meet the needs of any service casualties in future conflicts and their families but also benefit the operational effectiveness of the armed forces.
I will confirm that is the case. What I am saying is that we would not want any officer, commander or non-commissioned officer to be concerned about such a consideration. However, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says.
We have suggested that in future, whenever a member of the armed forces is killed or injured in combat, compensation will be paid at the rate a court would have been likely to award if it had found the MOD to have been negligent, regardless of whether it has indeed been negligent. The amount will be assessed independently —that was a concern the hon. Gentleman had—by an experienced, qualified lawyer. For the claimant, that will mean that there will be no need to spend years engaged in complex legal battles, with no certainty of success, seeking to prove that the MOD has been negligent in law.
One of the purposes of the consultation is to simplify the system. We need a robust system that everybody is able to follow and that is clearcut for both sides.
For the Government, the new system will mean increased expenditure on compensation for death or injury sustained in the most challenging conditions. They will be paying higher sums in cases in which the MOD has not been negligent, but that will be offset to a large extent by a reduction in the costs of litigation. The Government would prefer to spend taxpayers’ money directly on compensation for the armed forces rather than on legal fees. I think everyone would agree with that.
I have two points on that. First, to whom would the lawyer be accountable and who would employ them? Secondly, if the MOD had admitted its negligence and settled the Snatch Land Rover vehicle case, it would not have run up so much expenditure on the legal case.
It is because of such cases that we are now having to provide this compensation. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no court has ever second-guessed a military decision, but the Supreme Court’s judgment opened up the prospect of precisely what is happening and what might happen in future cases.
The corollary to the proposal is that any cases covered by the new, more generous compensation rules can no longer be heard by the courts. That will mean that complex issues of military planning will be decided upon by members of our armed forces with the appropriate experience and not by the courts themselves, as the Government believe is right and proper. The Government therefore believe that our proposals will benefit members of our armed forces involved in future conflicts, their families and the country as a whole, and we launched our consultation paper on that basis last autumn. At the same time as publishing the proposals for future cases, we offered to settle the current cases to which I referred. I am pleased that a number of those offers were accepted.
There were more than 500 responses to the consultation, and it is fair to say that the majority were broadly positive. However, respondents made a number of points that the Government are considering, and in some cases looking at very carefully indeed. For example, some suggested that claimants should be able to choose between the new scheme and the traditional court route. However, as I said earlier, that would be difficult for the Government to accept, because it would perpetuate legal uncertainty and the problem of the judicialisation of war. Some expressed concern about the independence of the assessors, and we are considering how best to demonstrate that they will indeed be totally independent in making their decisions. Some wanted assurance that mental injuries suffered in combat, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, would be covered as generously as physical injuries. The Government completely agree with that point of view.
I think there has to be some faith given to the fact that, when we make those appointments, we choose based on independence. I will look at that process and confirm that. I think we are getting into the weeds a little bit by talking about the confirmation of the independence of those who will make the decisions.
Finally, some suggested that, by removing such combat cases from the courts, an opportunity to prevent any recurrence would be lost. The Government disagree with that argument, because the adversarial nature of litigation makes it an unsatisfactory way of learning lessons. I think we would all agree with that. When a member of the UK armed forces has been killed in combat, a full inquest will always be held. When there has been a non-fatal injury of any significance, there will be a service inquiry. I believe that those non-adversarial inquiries will get to the heart of what happened far more quickly than any civil litigation.
The consultation confirmed the Government’s view that our proposals are fair and just, both for the taxpayer and for those who are killed or injured in combat and their loved ones. However, I must make it clear that we were disappointed that the Labour party’s manifesto expressed itself against the proposal, which, in the current political circumstances, is a matter of some significance.
I am so pleased you said that, Mr Gapes. I was not going to introduce party politics into the debate, but as the Minister has done so, I want to make it absolutely clear that the Opposition want fairness and transparency, but that we also recognise that we live in a parliamentary democracy in which the rule of law is a cornerstone. I understand the operational necessities of conflict, but it is important that we always bear that in mind.
I think it is probably too late to amend the armed forces Bill, which is passing through the House of Lords as we speak, but maybe if the hon. Gentleman and I have a quiet coffee, we will find there is some compromise to be had. I hope he would agree that the thrust of the consultation and the Government’s proposals make sense, but I am happy to discuss them with him in more detail if he is minded to do so. We certainly believe that the arguments for making these changes are compelling, and we will announce how we intend to proceed as soon as possible. Of course, we can do that even earlier if Labour Members are inclined to support the proposals.
There is a scientific law known as Graham’s law, which says that gaseous material expands to fill the room. In the graveyard shift, with four contributions, we have gone on for quite some time and explored these very important issues in great detail. We are beginning to get some more clarity about the Government’s thinking.
I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). We often spar in this place over education issues, and it is rare that we agree on so many things, but I thought she spoke extraordinarily eloquently. She highlighted the issue of veterans with mental health issues. My concern is that the compensation scheme currently pays out but does not look at the long-term health implications for people who need adaptations, equipment and generally help to live. She rightly said that we look for the best possible compensation package.
My Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), always speaks so eloquently. He talked about having the best and most appropriate possible compensation for armed services personnel and their families. He particularly highlighted issues around liability and said that fairness and transparency should be at the heart of the system.
The Minister gave his own extraordinary personal testimony in the light of the death of Keith Palmer. That will stay with him for the rest of his life. I wish him the best, along with his family and children, who he mentioned and who will grow up with that incident. He is in my thoughts and prayers.
The Minister promised to write to me on some of the finer details. Is it correct that primary legislation will be needed to introduce this system? When are the Government thinking of introducing that? I am glad that he praised the Labour manifesto; that was very courteous of him.
At the moment, there is a point of division between us. It would be great if the Front-Bench teams could go for coffee at some stage and reach some unanimity, but currently we stand divided, and we will have to see how this plays out in the weeks and months ahead. I am grateful to the Minister for his courteous and reflective response, to the other Members who have contributed and, as ever, to you for your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government proposals for better combat compensation.