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DWP Estate: Office Closures

Volume 710: debated on Thursday 17 March 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on proposed office closures in the Department’s estate.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your guidance on whether it is orderly for an hon. Member who has taken very substantial donations from a trade union to ask an urgent question on a matter of direct interest to that trade union?

We need to be careful. Is the right hon. Gentleman sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) took the donation, or was it an agreement with the constituency party? This is a very serious allegation. Is it a constituency party donation or was it donated directly to the hon. Gentleman?

At the Department for Work and Pensions, we constantly look at ways to improve our services. I wish to say up-front that we know it is important to communicate changes to all relevant stakeholders so that everyone understands our plans and why we are making changes.

This seems to be an unusual situation, Mr Speaker. It is very disappointing that the embargo agreed with the Public and Commercial Services Union does not seem to have been respected. Clearly, our staff should be the top priority at this time. I hope colleagues will understand that I am not able to go into all the detail this morning as we are briefing affected colleagues as we speak. In fact, the delivery of the first stage of the strategy is being announced to affected colleagues at 10.30 today—right now. The Minister for Employment will write to MPs with an affected site in their constituency after 1 pm today, and there will be a written statement to Parliament tomorrow morning. The letter to MPs will include notification of a virtual surgery that the Minister for Employment will hold on Wednesday 23 March.

The change is to back-of-house offices and will support the delivery of the Government priorities to get more people back into employment, to deliver long-term savings for the taxpayer and to meet Government commitments to modernise public services. The Department has developed a strategy that will, over the next 10 years, reshape and improve how, where and when it delivers services to claimants. The Department is transitioning to an estate that is smaller, greener and better. This will deliver substantial benefits by increasingly developing modern, secure, resilient, sustainable and automated systems to drive better experiences for our customers, colleagues and taxpayers.

The plans for the next three-year period affect the future delivery of back-of-house services—that is, services that are delivered remotely via telephone and online, without the need to see customers face to face. I assure the House that the plans do not affect Jobcentre Plus and customer-facing roles. We have been engaging fully with PCS union representatives at the sites affected since January, and PCS union representatives will be present at sites for the announcements today, as the House would expect. Our focus today is, of course, on supporting staff through the changes.

Changes to DWP estates are not unusual. Like most public services, we are always looking to meet our customers’ changing needs, reflecting developments in technology and the approaches of successive Governments. We value our staff and are working with them now to support those who will be affected by the changes as we seek to deliver the best possible services to our customers at all times.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as chair of the PCS parliamentary group—which, of course, contains more than 100 Members of Parliament.

Will the Minister confirm that the announcement could mean that 3,000 jobs in the Department for Work and Pensions are at risk of redundancy? What measures will he take to ensure that that does not happen? Has there been an equality impact assessment of the proposals? I am thinking particularly about the impact on employees who have disabilities, for example, and may not be able to move to another location that may be miles away.

The Minister is aware that the proposals were first mooted six years ago and that the Department is looking to close offices in areas of high economic deprivation. That seems rather counterintuitive in the context of the so-called levelling-up agenda. Has an economic assessment been made of the closures and their impact on the local economies in the areas where it is proposed to close offices?

On our plans, we have, as I said, been working closely with colleagues and PCS over recent months. Around 12,000 colleagues will be moving from one site to another that is in close proximity—that will involve around 28 sites. Around 1,300 colleagues could be involved at sites where there is no other strategic site nearby. We are looking at what opportunities there are within the DWP and at what other opportunities there might be across other Government Departments. We have seen in other areas how this can work, and we are committed to doing that. Clearly, we will look at any other options that might work for those individuals.

Let me turn to the impact on the local economies. There are not normally too many people involved on each individual site, but, clearly, we have been working very hard to strengthen local economies, with the opening of a large number of new jobcentres. Again, I stress that this is about back-of house roles. This will not impact on jobcentres and the customer-facing interactions within the constituencies.

I think that this would have been much better dealt with in a statement rather than requiring an urgent question. I understand that an office in a neighbouring constituency will be closing, so I urge my hon. Friend to make sure that we notify not just MPs in the constituency where the office is closing, but MPs in neighbouring constituencies, such as mine, where, for example, people will be travelling to work in those places and will be affected.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We will, of course, make sure that those communications are made. We will also make sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has those conversations with MPs. If any MP needs to contact her, they should do so, and she will be willing to talk to them. She will also proactively get out to speak to colleagues. Please be sensitive to the fact that she is currently recovering from covid at home, so I am fulfilling her role today. If any colleagues wish to speak to me after this urgent question, I will gladly meet them.

It looks as though the Department for Work and Pensions does not believe in levelling up, does not believe in its own rhetoric on jobs, and does not believe in keeping people in work. We hear that offices will be closed in Stoke, Southend, Peterborough, Chesterfield, Aberdeen, Kirkcaldy, Barrow, Bishop Auckland, Doncaster and Burnley, taking jobs out of these communities. Can the Minister answer these questions for the Members in Stoke, in Wellingborough and in Stockton whose communities and constituents will be concerned about the news today? We have heard that up to 12,000 jobs might be affected, but how many of the workers will be able to find new jobs locally within the Department? Can the Minister guarantee that there will no compulsory redundancies?

I appreciate that staff are being informed only this morning, but this is the correct forum for the Minister to answer these important questions. The PSC Union has said that its members are facing spiralling workloads. Is it not the case that the Department actually needs more staff, not fewer? If these closures are allowed to go ahead, we will face the absurd prospect of making staff redundant in one area, while recruiting new staff in another to do exactly the same job. That will be both costly and inefficient, so can the Minister confirm that that will not be allowed to happen?

If these closures go ahead, local communities will be faced with the loss of hundreds of good jobs potentially. Many of the closures are in areas of economic deprivation that can hardly afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs. Will there be a plan to help those communities attract well-paid jobs back to their local areas? This all comes at a time when families and working people are being hit hard by the cost of living crisis made by this Government. The price of petrol, food and energy is still soaring and people are worried about the future. Has there been any assessment of the impact that these job losses will have on the local economy? I think the Minister indicated in his previous answer that there had not been, but I would be grateful if he could confirm that. Has any consideration been given to the effect that this will have on the high streets of the affected towns? Will we see yet more boarded-up buildings? This is the opposite of levelling up; this is levelling down and it is closing down.

We are absolutely committed to bringing forward more jobs. Jobs are being filled and employment is at a record high. We have vacancies. It is important to highlight that the number of front-of-house roles that we are fulfilling has increased significantly. We have taken forward a rapid estate expansion programme over the past two years. We have created 170 new Jobcentre Plus offices. Many colleagues across the House will be beneficiaries of that along with their constituents. By the end of March, that increase will be up to 194, so there will be 831 Jobcentre Plus offices, which is a huge, huge investment. There will also be an increase in work coaches, which will be a real benefit to our customers. As I have said, the roles that we are talking about are back of house. An equality impact assessment has been made—I do not think that I mentioned that earlier. On the impact on communities, on the whole, this will involve a relatively small number of colleagues in particular communities. We want to make sure that we support those people back into work. For the vast majority, there are jobs close by, and we will help them to transition into those areas. For those who do not have jobs close by, we will give them the support that they need.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on this urgent question, though I feel this should perhaps have been offered as a statement. What I cannot quite understand is that the Minister is saying that no Jobcentre Plus offices are closing, but the shadow Minister says offices are closing. Which is correct, and does it affect anything in my area? This is all new to me.

To be clear, this relates to back-of-house offices that are often in our local communities. We are trying to update our estates, some of which are no longer fit for purpose, and to bring together colleagues with the right levels of experience to create clusters that will help the provision of back-of-house facilities and services. I want to be clear again—I am sorry if I was not clear earlier—that this does not affect front-of-house Jobcentre Plus. By the end of March we will have invested in an extra 194 of those facilities. We have increased the number of people who work in our Department and, as I said, we want to look after the people affected by these back-of-house changes. Hopefully that is clear to my hon. Friend.

I, too, think it would have been better if the Government had offered this as a statement to the House. May I ask specifically about the Longbenton site in East Newcastle, which the Department shares with the Inland Revenue? What impact will today’s statement have on employment at the site and the future location of the Department’s employees on the site? It is a famous site, and they have been there since the 1950s. The Inland Revenue, which holds the lease, is giving it up and moving elsewhere. It is pretty logical that the Department will follow. Is it moving, and if so, where to? I make the obvious plea to the Minister that we want to keep the jobs in Newcastle upon Tyne.

I understand the question and the tone in which the right hon. Gentleman asks it; I know he has a lot of concern for his own constituency. We are briefing staff right now, so I am not in a position to give him the details now from the Dispatch Box, but I will gladly meet him directly afterwards to talk through his concerns and seek to reassure him. I think that is the most appropriate way of doing it, given where we are right now in the process.

Can my hon. Friend outline to the House in a little more detail how these changes will lead to better working conditions for staff in the Department, what amounts of excess space the Department has and what opportunities there will be for people to relocate? I am thinking of those people elsewhere in County Durham perhaps having the opportunity to relocate to offices in my constituency.

DWP has too much estate. Recent calculations estimate there is capacity for 158,000 people, but the maximum headcount is forecast to be around 97,500 people. We need to ensure that we use that estate as effectively as possible, both for our colleagues and for the taxpayer. We want to refocus colleagues to work in clusters so that they can most effectively support customers and claimants, but at the same time help them to improve and develop their careers.

Many of the closures are in disadvantaged areas, including Liverpool, which cannot afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs. Can the Minister explain what he is doing to support those areas?

As I have said to other hon. Members, our top priority right now is working with the staff and supporting them through the changes. Most of the colleagues affected will be moving to other facilities that are really close by. In terms of the impact on the specific communities involved, typically the number of staff involved in a particular area is quite small. However, we will seek to see what we can do to improve. I do not have the details in front of me, but I am sure there will have been new, front-facing Jobcentre Plus offices put in place in Liverpool, because that is our commitment to help more people to get into work.

In Harlow, the Department actually expanded the jobcentre, so it is now in two buildings, one in the Harvey Centre, which I visited recently and which is doing an enormous amount of work in getting Harlow people back to work. Will my hon. Friend or the Minister for employment come and visit the two jobcentres we now have in Harlow that are doing so much to help employment in our town?

As my right hon. Friend highlights, we are doing a huge amount of work to help claimants to find work and to help people to progress in work. I am delighted that he has those facilities in Harlow and I or the Minister for employment will gladly come and visit in the very near future.

This week’s employment figures show that there are 580,000 fewer people in work now than there were before the pandemic. In particular, there seem to be several hundred thousand older workers now choosing not to work nor to claim benefit. We all want a full labour market recovery. Does the Minister recognise that this is going to require major Government investment rather than the disinvestment that I think he is announcing this morning?

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, and he says it with authority as the Chair of the Select Committee, but I think he also understands that we are making a major investment in the front end—the customer-facing side—of our Department. As I said, over the past two years we have been increasing the number of jobcentres to 194. That will enable us to do exactly what he wants—to provide support for individuals across all ages through the plan for jobs.

I was a bit concerned about the response that the Minister gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) about the proposals for the site at Longbenton. We already know that the Inland Revenue is relocating from that site to central Newcastle upon Tyne, but what is proposed directly for the staff employed by the Department for Work and Pensions? This affects many MPs in the area who have hundreds of constituents employed at that very large site.

As I indicated to the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), I will gladly meet both him and the hon. Gentleman after this to discuss those concerns further. The Minister for employment will actively engage with affected colleagues, and we are engaging with the staff as we speak.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this urgent question. Ebury House in my constituency has been earmarked for closure. Will the Minister agree to meet me urgently to discuss what impact this will have on staff, and can he provide a cast-iron guarantee to this House and to my constituents that the services they receive will not be impacted?

This will not impact on services because the services we are talking about are primarily telephony and digital. Clearly, our primary concern now is to see what we can do to support people who might be impacted by the changing terms for staff. I will of course meet the hon. Gentleman after this, or during the course of today, to discuss his concerns more fully.

On two occasions now, the Minister has referred to the equalities impact assessment, saying that this amounts to relatively small numbers of people at each site who will be affected, but over the whole estate, “small” can add up to a lot of individuals. Given that these jobs are located disproportionately in more deprived communities, the loss of good-quality public sector jobs is a really important issue. What conversations are the Minister and his Department having now with those people who may be affected, and what efforts is he really putting in place to ensure that nobody loses their job and everybody is redeployed?

As I have said before, we are working with the vast majority of the individuals who can be relocated very close to their current facility. We will continue to work hard with others, too. This is our top priority. We value our colleagues, who have helped the Department through some incredibly challenging times over the past couple of years, and we want to support them through the period now. I highlight to a couple of Members who have made this point that we continue to be committed to the Newcastle area, but I will meet those colleagues after this urgent question.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this urgent question, although I entirely agree that it would not have been necessary, had the Minister not tried to sneak the announcement out in a written statement on Friday after most of us had gone back to our constituencies. One of the premises earmarked for closure is Victoria Road in Kirkcaldy, which is not in my constituency, but employs a number of my constituents and provides support services for about 3,000 of my constituents in north-west Kirkcaldy. I echo the plea made earlier that the Minister should write to all Members of Parliament, because he probably does not know which constituencies have people who are affected by each of those closures. In that letter, will he explicitly set out why they should believe the assurances being given that this office closure programme will have no impact on public service, when similar promises given about HMRC’s office closure programme turned out to be utterly worthless?

Those MPs who have affected sites in their constituencies will be written to by 1 pm today, so further details will be available. If other colleagues may be affected tangentially, we will make an extra effort to contact them as well.

I am not sure that is good enough, if the Minister does not mind me saying so. I think all Members of Parliament should be written to, clearly explaining what the Government are doing and what the implications are for our constituencies. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) read out the list of areas affected. He mentioned Doncaster, so can the Minister please tell me what that means for my constituency of Hull North and the city of Hull?

Right now, we are speaking to the colleagues affected. We have engaged PCS every step of the way to ensure we are following the right process so far as colleagues go. The engagement with parliamentary colleagues will take place as planned at 1 pm today, when letters will be made available. If the right hon. Member has further concerns, I will make sure that the Minister for employment contacts her after this urgent question.

This issue speaks to the treatment of DWP staff, with morale in DWP offices across the country already at rock bottom, not least due to DWP management’s response to covid among staff. That has been an ongoing issue, but the Renfrew Jobcentre Plus office effectively closed after staff had to walk out after management refused to act after eight out of 18 staff tested positive for covid. In the end, 16 out of 18 staff tested positive. Can the Minister tell me what covid safeguarding, if any, is in place at DWP offices across the country, whether earmarked for closure or otherwise? Do they all follow the relevant local public health advice and regulations?

The Department has been following all the guidance that it needed to, and if there are concerns about that, I will gladly follow up with the hon. Member outside the Chamber.

Will the Minister clarify something? My understanding is that the Government are proposing a full site consolidation involving moving staff from Seaham Lighthouse View in my constituency to Wear View House in Sunderland. The impact of these closures in areas of economic deprivation, such as east Durham, will be huge, and we can ill afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs. My question to the Minister is: how will closing a DWP office in my constituency that employs 390 people help Easington to level up, when the Government are moving employment to the larger cities?

We had a full debate in Westminster Hall yesterday that the hon. Member was successful in securing, and we discussed this in more detail. What we can do to support his area is not just around the changes we are proposing today, but is much broader. There is a big broad economic agenda to improve the north-east, which his constituency will benefit from, too.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this urgent question. He is open and transparent about his strong trade union membership, unlike some Members of the House, who spend their weekends partying with Russian lords and are not open about that.

The Minister talked about the process of digitisation. Estonia is one of the great digital states of Europe and, as it admitted, the big failure of its transition to digital statehood was not recognising the profound impact on the most vulnerable, not only in the delivery of public service at the front end but in the back office. Can he assure the House that there will be no detriment to public service at the front end, given that he is removing the back office?

We are not removing the back office; we are modernising it. Of course we want to ensure that we deliver, at the front end, for people in the channels that need it. It is interesting and important that many people who have disabilities or health conditions and who are staff members can now be empowered to do their work, because they do not have to travel because of digital capabilities. There are some exciting possibilities there, notwithstanding the fact that, on the frontline, we need to ensure that we are providing support for all customers in the way they need it.

On the impact of job losses, the Minister has clearly said that, in his opinion, there will be no impact on the offices and the delivery of the service, but I suggest that there is always an impact when jobs are lost. People who live in rural constituencies who have to travel by bus or do not have a car can be sanctioned if they do not attend their appointments. Can he assure the House that the benefit entitlements of constituents of MPs present, and not present, will not be affected by the changes in the offices?

I assure the House that this does not have an impact on the front end—on the activities that we do to support our claimants and our customers. It is also important to reconfirm that we are not reducing staff numbers; the focus is on retaining as many people as possible. We have great staff and we want to retain them. In many cases, people will relocate to another site in close proximity.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At last week’s business questions, the Leader of the House announced that there would be a debate this afternoon on protecting and restoring nature at COP15 and beyond. Unfortunately, it seems to have dropped off the Order Paper and no one understands why. I am sure that Government business has changed, but through your offices, may I encourage the Leader of the House and the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee to allow time for that debate, plenty of time before COP15 happens?

I do not know whether the Leader of the House wishes to give an answer to that. [Interruption.] I am sure that we can get you an answer but I do not have one to hand. I am sure that, as we go to business questions, the Leader of the House may want to point it out.