(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on the proposed closure of Jobcentre Plus offices throughout the United Kingdom.
On Thursday 26 January, the Department for Work and Pensions published proposals for the future of its estate, including jobcentres and back-office sites.
The Government are committed to helping people who can work to get back into work. Since 2010, the claimant count has dropped from almost 1.5 million to about 800,000, and employment has risen by 2.7 million to near record levels.
Old office contracts that are held by our jobcentres and benefits centres are now coming up for renewal, and in the 20 years since those contracts were signed the welfare system has undergone large-scale reform.
The roll-out of universal credit and our reforms of Jobcentre Plus have increased the number of digital interactions that claimants now have with us. Eight out of 10 claims for jobseeker’s allowance are now made online, and 99.6% of applicants for universal credit full service submitted their claim online. That has resulted in the DWP buildings being used much less: 20% of the DWP estate is currently underutilised.
As we renegotiate our out-of-date contracts, we are merging some smaller jobcentres with larger ones and co-locating others with local government premises. That will help the DWP to offer a better service to people looking for work, while delivering a better deal for the taxpayer, saving about £180 million a year for the next 10 years. That means that we can bolster the support that we offer jobseekers, with a recruitment drive to hire 2,500 new work coaches.
Of course, DWP staff will be consulted on those changes and the vast majority will have the option to relocate or be offered alternative roles. For any vulnerable claimants that may be affected, we will put in place robust procedures, such as offering home visits or maintaining a claim by post, to make sure that they get the support they need.
The UK Government’s proposal to drastically cut the number of jobcentres and DWP offices across Scotland and, indeed, the UK, including in my constituency of Inverclyde, will have a profound impact on thousands of people desperately seeking work and the support to which they are entitled. It is an insult that there has been a distinct lack of consultation with the communities affected and with our Government in Scotland. That lack of consultation is against the principles of the Smith agreement. Can the Minister explain to me why no consultation took place before the announcement of the closures?
In my constituency, the proposal is to close Port Glasgow jobcentre and make people from Kilmacolm, Port Glasgow and the east of Greenock travel miles to access DWP services. Disappointingly, this model has been replicated across the UK. That is an utter disgrace and it could push vulnerable people further into crisis, what with the added travel distance and cost placed upon individuals, many of whom have little or no readily available funds to pay for that commute. What assurances can the Minister provide to my constituents that they will still have ready access to Jobcentre Plus and DWP services?
This should be far more than a spreadsheet exercise. I ask the Minister to put people first. Many Jobcentre Plus staff work hard to build good working relationships with service users, and they are aware of specific issues and needs. Can the Minister guarantee service users the continuity and quality of those working relationships? If the Minister is so certain that the measures are required, will she at least halt their implementation until a full equality impact assessment has been conducted and a full consultation of all sites has taken place; and if not, why not?
There are lots of points to reflect on. Most importantly, we want to see service delivery to claimants, and the hon. Gentleman was right to focus on claimants in his constituency. As he will be aware, the claimant count in his constituency is down by 39%. I believe it is critical that we seek to maintain the relationship between work coaches and the claimants they have been working with, which is why we will seek to replicate that when work coaches are moved to a new jobcentre.
Claimants will be able not just to go to the jobcentre that falls in the catchment allocated by us, but to choose the one that works best for them. We are very conscious of the fact that many people in employment already travel significant distances to work. We are making sure that when changes fall outside the ministerial criteria, there is a public consultation, and we will use that to reflect on our public sector equality duty, which we take very seriously indeed.
Order. I am keen to accommodate the very considerable interest in this subject, but I should point out to the House—and remind those colleagues who previously knew—that there is a statement by the Foreign Secretary to follow, and thereafter other important business, which is likely to be well subscribed. There is a premium on brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike.
Does the Minister agree that the Government’s success in reducing unemployment leads to the need to look at reducing the number of Jobcentre Plus offices?
As my hon. Friend will have heard me say, the jobcentres that we are looking at are, in some cases, 20% under-occupied. It is absolutely critical and appropriate that we look at how we use our estate, and that we reflect on providing not only the best service that we can to jobseekers, but value for money to the taxpayer.
The Opposition strongly oppose the Government’s latest plans for the closure of one in 10 jobcentres in the UK. What assessment has the Department made of the impact of these closures on claimants, in terms of travel times and additional costs? Will the Department consider issuing guidance to staff to take into account increased travel times when issuing sanctions? Accessibility is a major issue for many disabled people. The Government have said that they aim to halve the disability employment gap in the lifetime of this Parliament. How do the planned closures fit with that aim?
From this April, lone parents will be obliged to prepare for work through interviews with work coaches once a child is three years old, rather than five years old as is currently the case. We are particularly concerned about the impact on women, children and people with disabilities. Will the Government publish an assessment of the impact of these proposals on equality issues?
The Government continue to roll out universal credit, and, for the first time, people who are actually in work will have to attend interviews at jobcentres. Will the Government delay their plans to reduce their estate until they have a clearer idea of what the demands on jobcentres and staff will be under universal credit? The Government’s hope seems to be that universal credit claims will be made and managed online, but many people are not confident using IT and they may not have access to a PC, laptop or tablet. What provision will be made for claimants who have difficulty using PCs and the internet in areas where jobcentres are earmarked for closure?
These plans have simply not been thought through, and they will have a damaging impact on the way in which vital employment support is provided. The Government should think again.
As the hon. Lady will have heard me say, the vast majority of our UC claimants now access services online, and we welcome and encourage such a relationship. We have made it very clear that vulnerable claimants will be able to make claims by post in some circumstances, particularly where they find it difficult to access a jobcentre or have childcare responsibilities, and it is very important to make that distinction. The hon. Lady talked about accessibility. Where there is a difference under the ministerial criteria of more than 3 miles or of 20 minutes by public transport, we will seek to hold a public consultation, which will then feed in to our equality analysis so that we can best understand the impact on claimants.
One of the things that really impressed me during my spell at the DWP was the quality of the work coaches and their capacity for supporting real, positive change in people’s lives. If there is an opportunity to spend less on near-empty bricks and mortar and to invest more in a greater number of work coaches, is that not exactly the right thing to do?
My right hon. Friend is of course right. Our work coaches are on the frontline of delivering services to claimants, not just helping them into work but helping those who are in work into more and better-paid work. That is why we are recruiting more work coaches and looking to make sure that our DWP estate both best reflects value for money for taxpayers and provides the services we need for claimants.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
May I tell the Minister that the Government appear to be making exactly the same errors as they did with the announcement of the Glasgow closure programme? Will the Minister tell us why the Scottish Government were not consulted, as per the Smith agreement? Why did she say in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) that jobcentres have catchment areas, when written answers to Members of the House have suggested that there are no catchment areas for jobcentres? Will she also tell us why the written ministerial statement indicated that redundancies may be required, and may we have further detail on that? Finally, what support, if any, will be available to claimants, particularly those with caring responsibilities, who have to travel greater distances?
The hon. Gentleman will of course be conscious that, as an employer, the DWP has sought to put its staff first and to make sure that they are informed first about the proposals. It is important to reflect that we need to make sure we have good working relations with the Scottish Government, and he will be aware that my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment travelled to the Musselburgh jobcentre the week before last. It does matter to us that people get to go to the jobcentre most convenient for them. That need not be the one allocated to them by the jobcentre, but could be one they choose for themselves. In every instance, we are seeking to make sure that claimants can work with their work coach and go to the jobcentre that is most appropriate for them.
I received notice on 26 January of a proposal to relocate the jobcentre from Red Lion Street in Chesham to Chesham library on Elgiva Lane. Will the Minister say what consultation has taken place with the 14 members of staff, and will she confirm that there will be no reduction in services for my constituents in the surrounding areas? We all want to see value for money, but will she send me the detailed analysis of the costs and savings that derive from this move, because it is just around the corner and we need to ensure that it makes sense and provides the value for money that she is rightly seeking?
In many instances, co-location provides the best solution, exactly as my right hon. Friend has described, for claimants and indeed for our own staff. She will be aware that we have consulted jobcentre staff closely and looked at how we can best make sure that the new location for their roles fits with what they want, or, where essential, that they can be redeployed to other DWP roles.
In 2010, I had three jobcentres in my constituency. Old Swan was closed by the Minister’s Department at the start of 2010, and now she wants to close the other two, in Edge Hill and Wavertree. My constituency has the 39th highest level of unemployment in our country. Why does she want to make it harder for the 2,950 people who want to access support but will have to pay £8.80 every month to do so?
It is important to reflect that we are trying to make it easier for claimants who interact with the DWP online to do so. We are looking at instances where we can get involved in outreach projects, as has happened in various places around the country. When there are special circumstances and when people are vulnerable, we are trying to ensure that they can be given assistance with travel to jobcentres.
Shipley jobcentre has an excellent local rapport with the Salvation Army, which is situated next door and provides additional help and support for many of the people who go to the jobcentre. Will the Minister look again at such local circumstances before she goes ahead with her closure programme? In doing so, will she tell me what consultation will take place with the local community and staff at the Shipley jobcentre to ensure that any decisions taken are the right ones for my constituents and the people in the surrounding areas?
We are seeking to ensure that we consult our staff, local stakeholders and claimants to understand what is best for them. This is part of a process brought about because the prime contract expires in March 2018. It would be grossly irresponsible of us not to reflect on how we make best use of our DWP estate, particularly when up to 20% of it is underutilised.
Will the Minister give it a rest with the jargon about relocating or co-locating, because she is actually closing jobcentres? Hyson Green jobcentre in Nottingham, where we have twice the national average unemployment and are in the 5% least employed, was opened by Lord Heseltine after civil disturbances in the city. It has been important in matching people with vacancies. Please will she think again?
It is important to match people with vacancies, but it is also important to reflect on making the best use of our estate. This is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that 20% of our space is underutilised. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that this comes at a time when we should not be wasting taxpayers’ money.
I support the rationalisation and modernisation of any service, but Brighouse is the largest township within the Calder Valley, so relocating our jobcentre uphill and down dale out of the constituency will be a disaster to the long-term unemployed who rely on it for job advice and training. Will my hon. Friend assure me that those who have put forward the proposals have visited places such as the Calder Valley to understand the demographics and geography, or have they just sat in their offices in Whitehall using Google Maps?
This is not an exercise using Google Maps. We have engaged in the exercise over very many months to make the best use of our DWP estate. When we are not using the space we have but are paying for it, it is critical that we think very hard about how we can best provide services to our claimants.
Has the Minister done another Glasgow? Before Christmas, her Department announced the closures of eight out of 16 jobcentres in Glasgow, calculated using Google Maps. Has she done the same again?
The hon. Gentleman and I discussed this matter in Westminster Hall just a few weeks ago. It is important that we reflect not only on geographic location, but on travel patterns so that people can get to the jobcentre that is most convenient for them. We should not simply allocate them to the jobcentre that we want them to go to. They should have the ability to choose and work with their work coaches to ensure they have the best access to facilities.
In 2013, I sat on the Work and Pensions Committee when we produced a report on jobcentres. Overwhelmingly, we found that it is more important to have quality over quantity. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is more important to have modern and efficient services in our jobcentres, such as disabled access? At the end of the day, it is all about outcomes. We have more jobs than ever in our country, and it is all about getting the long-term unemployed into work.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government have done a great job in getting people into work, but it is important that we do so through our work coaches, whom I have visited in many jobcentres up and down the country. They are working as hard as they can to help individual claimants. We must focus on those relationships.
Is there not a more sinister reason as well as some of the ones discussed earlier—namely, the operation of agency workers in most of the ex-mining areas, where people do not use the jobcentre, principally because as many as 500 people at a time can be brought in to work on zero-hours contracts? As a result, they do not go to the jobcentre at all. That is one of the reasons.
I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that this is not about anything sinister. This is about us looking at the best use of the DWP estate, value for money for taxpayers, and the unemployment rate, which is down significantly since 2010.
The staff and users of the Bury Jobcentre Plus office will be delighted that it will remain open, but will my hon. Friend say when her Department next plans to review the number of Jobcentre Plus offices?
As I indicated, this review is part of the prime contract established in 1998. It is nearly 20 years old and expires next year. All the proposals are a part of our making the best use of that contract and looking forward to what we need to provide now and in the future.
Two jobcentres in my constituency are being relocated to another jobcentre in my constituency. I need to understand why that decision was taken. We have no evidence or anything on our equality duty. I am very concerned that in Lambeth there is still a problem with gang culture, and young people in particular do not want to move from one area to another. Will the Minister please look at this again and talk to people in Lambeth before the decision is taken?
The hon. Lady makes a really important point. We want people to be able to access the jobcentres they feel most comfortable with. In some circumstances, for example where people feel sufficiently vulnerable that they do not wish to go to a jobcentre, we send the DWP visiting. I have seen that at first hand, with claimants accessing services by telephone—perhaps in instances of domestic violence—where they feel vulnerable about having to go to a public building. I absolutely take on board her points about our public sector equality duty, which we take very seriously. That is why we are carrying out an equality analysis and talking to our claimants to understand how this will impact on them.
In my constituency over the past seven years, unemployment has more than halved. That is good news, but it means that the people who are still unemployed are the more difficult people to place and they need more intensive work. The good people of Edgware will be wondering what they have done to upset their public services, with the closure of two libraries and the jobcentre. Will my hon. Friend consider the potential for not only home visits but satellite visits using commercial premises so that job organisations can run them and workplace coaches can coach a number of people together?
I reassure my hon. Friend that the DWP is doing exactly that. Outreach is an important part of our suite of products to enable claimants to be get back into work. We will continue to look at the best ways to deliver that in the best locations across the country.
Closure of the last jobcentre in my constituency will require those who sign on fortnightly to pay an extra £6 a month in bus fares to get to a more distant jobcentre. Can the Minister reassure me that Jobcentre Plus will reimburse claimants with those additional costs?
Where claimants are required to sign on more frequently than fortnightly we will look to reimburse costs, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman that across London the claimant count is down 24.6% since 2010. There are fewer people claiming and we are trying to work with them more intensively.
It is all very well to talk about jobcentres in London, but in rural Lancashire my constituents in Edgworth will have to travel for over an hour to get to Blackburn if we close the Darwen jobcentre. They are supremely hardworking and supremely successful, and anyone who thinks they can get from Darwen to Blackburn in 23 minutes is living in la-la land.
Like me, my hon. Friend represents a rural constituency. Our constituents are used to having to travel long distances to access services. Where claimants will have to travel for over an hour by public transport, we are considering what arrangements we can put in place, including claiming by post.
Leytonstone jobcentre, which is bang in the middle of my constituency, is due to close. I deal with vulnerable people week in, week out for whom that centre is highly important. They will have to travel to either Walthamstow or Stratford to receive advice and sign on. What impact assessment was made before the announcement on the effects across north-east London?
The consultation that we are carrying out with both our staff and claimants will feed into the equality analysis that we are carrying out.
The good news in Kettering is that the number of unemployed people has fallen from more than 2,000 in May 2010 to just over 900 today, and record numbers of local people are in employment. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key achievements of hard-working jobcentre staff is to get many people online for the first time, thus improving their employability?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We should celebrate not only the high number of people in Kettering in work, but the additional skills with which they have been helped by our hard-working work coaches.
Unemployment may be falling now, but numerous forecasts suggest that the effects of Brexit might reverse or stagnate this decline. What assessment have the Government made of the ability to scale up support in the already overstretched jobcentre pluses if, as many expect, unemployment begins to increase in the future if the cuts go ahead?
I would like to direct the hon. Lady’s attention to the National Audit Office report of 2005, which says:
“One of the Department’s main needs is flexibility in the amount of accommodation it uses.”
I reassure the hon. Lady that we are ensuring that we retain enough flexibility within the system to be able to cope with future changes in the jobs market.
For those out of work or in other difficulties, it could be incredibly useful if citizens rights bureaux, jobcentre plus offices, council offices, local law centres and possibly agencies for those with disabilities were found in the same place—more or less co-located. Will the Minister update us on the extent to which regional Jobcentre Plus managers are discussing that with local authorities?
I do not intend to give a blow-by-blow account of the sensitive commercial negotiations, but my hon. Friend will be aware that we are working very closely with local authorities, the voluntary sector and the education sector to make sure that we can put co-location in place. I direct him to the co-location that has taken place in Lincoln, which has proved to be a beacon of how we can best deliver services.
Some of my constituents do not use the internet, and they use jobcentre resources to complete their job searches. With the closure of Batley jobcentre, will the Minister confirm that she will reimburse those who wish to travel to use Dewsbury jobcentre for visits which, while not mandatory, are absolutely and utterly essential?
What we are looking at is how best to support the vulnerable. The hon. Lady makes a really important point about those who are not able to deal with their claims online. It is crucial to continue to look at how our work coaches can work with those people to make sure that provision, whether it be in the shape of outreach or at a different location, is best tailored to their needs.
Wellington Jobcentre Plus office is due to relocate to Telford later this year, and Telford is 4 miles away. While we have record employment in Shropshire and in my constituency, which is most welcome, what can the Minister do to mitigate the increased costs for those who are long-term unemployed to get from Wellington to Telford to seek work?
Many jobseekers will already travel more than 4 miles to access their nearest jobcentre, and it is important that we remember not just that, but that people in employment will also be travelling significant distances in their daily commute. We are seeking the best solutions for individuals by looking at outreach and co-location—to find ways that people can access services online so that where possible we can minimise the disruption to their looking for work.
The DWP administration centre in my constituency is closing, and 300 jobs will be transferred out of Paisley. Has there been any assessment or consideration of the economic impact on the area? Has there been any consultation whatever; and if not, why not?
The most important aspect when it comes to relocations such as that one is, of course, the staff. That is why we have been working closely with all our DWP staff to make sure that we find roles for them elsewhere and give them the assistance they need, should we choose to relocate them.
Many of my constituents use the jobcentre or the council’s housing services, so I welcome the decision to move Kingston jobcentre to the council offices when the lease expires in a few months’ time. It will be much more convenient for my constituents.
Co-location is an important part of our strategy, and I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes it. We need to identify the ways in which our claimants can best gain access not only to DWP services, but to the services of other organisations such as, in this instance, the local authority.
The Minister has refused to answer this question, so I am going to give her another chance. Is she saying that she will repay the bus fares of my constituents who will now have to travel from the west end of Newcastle into the centre, or is she seriously proposing to make the most vulnerable people in Newcastle pay the cost of her failure?
One of my first visits as a DWP Minister was to the jobcentre in Newcastle, and it was a great opportunity to see the universal credit full service being delivered at first hand. It is important to reflect on the specific criteria, and I am happy to answer the hon. Lady’s question. When people have to attend a jobcentre more than once a fortnight, we will reimburse them. As for those who are vulnerable and have childcare responsibilities, we are considering various ways in which we can deliver the service, which include allowing them to claim by post. We are very conscious that many people already travel much further than the distances that the hon. Lady has mentioned, either to go to work or to gain access to jobcentre services.
In Corby and east Northamptonshire unemployment has also fallen by more than 50% since 2010, but what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the actual outcomes for jobseekers when Jobcentre Plus facilities are co-located with other services?
We should reflect on some of our successful co-locations. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, we have worked closely with the local authority in Lincoln. The outcomes for jobseekers who are able to gain access to many services in the same place are as good as, or better than, the outcomes at individual jobcentres. It is important for us not to get hung up on the bricks and mortar, but to focus on the services that our work coaches provide for people who are looking for work.
On 23 January, in a written question, I asked the Secretary of State what the criteria were for the equality analysis. I was told:
“The criteria for equality analysis requires us to pay due regard to the requirements of the Equality Act 2010… We will be undertaking an equality analysis…This will include feedback from public consultation”.
As the only promotion of that public consultation has been carried out by my colleagues and me, how can the Minister ensure that due regard has been given to the Equality Act?
In fact, there are also notices in all the Jobcentre Pluses indicating that the consultation is ongoing. We have communicated with our claimants, and it is very important that it is their views that feed into this process.
Does the Minister or her Department think that there is any correlation between ease of access to jobcentre facilities and those who are seeking work? Can she give a cast-iron guarantee that no one will be sanctioned as a result of the closure of jobcentres in a locality?
What we do know is that those who are on universal credit full service are spending more time looking for work. We also know that the vast majority of those job searches are conducted online, and that they are more successful.
It is important for individual claimants to have a relationship with their work coaches, because circumstances may change. That was emphasised to me in a Westminster Hall debate relatively recently. What is someone misses a bus? What if missing a connection means that a person is late for an appointment with the work coach? We want people to have a good relationship with their work coaches, so that they give them the necessary information. It is critical that if people miss appointments, they tell us why.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I am extremely worried that closing jobcentres will make employment even less accessible to disabled claimants. Will the intensive support that needs to be given in person—not online or by post—be afforded to that group, and will home visits be afforded to all disabled constituents?
Of course, many disabled claimants access our services very successfully online, but, as I have said, the DWP has a home visiting service which we can extend to all disabled claimants who ask for it when their circumstances make it difficult for them to go to a jobcentre. We want our work coaches to provide tailored support for each of their claimants, to have a relationship with them, and to understand their specific needs.
It is difficult to square the Minister’s claim that she is merging smaller jobcentres into larger ones with her plan to close Hammersmith, our busiest jobcentre in our main town centre. Coming on top of the closure of courts, post offices and police stations, is this not the hollowing out of vital public services from our towns and cities?
No, it is not the hollowing out of public services; it is finding the best way to deliver services to our jobseekers at the most cost-effective price for the taxpayer.
The proposal to cut the back-office functions at Corunna House and Portcullis House in my constituency came on the back of the proposal to shut the Jobcentre Plus office in Bridgeton, one of eight being closed in the city of Glasgow—and before the consultation which closes tomorrow had even concluded. This proposal is a bolt from the blue, with no consultation with agencies in the city or with the Scottish Government. What do this Government have against the people of Glasgow?
The hon. Lady will have heard me say earlier that my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment was in Musselburgh just two weeks ago, and she will remember that the claimant count in her constituency is down 42% since 2010.
The Minister has talked a lot about jobseekers choosing the jobcentre that works best for them. For many of my constituents, that is the one on Eastern Avenue, which she is proposing to close. She has talked about claimants who have to attend more than fortnightly, but does she not recognise that, even for claimants who have to attend fortnightly, she is imposing huge additional travel costs on those who can least afford them?
The hon. Gentleman will, of course, be aware that we expect claimants to be prepared to travel for up to an hour to seek work, and it is important that we get feedback from claimants and talk to our staff and understand the impacts. As I have said, we are looking at outreach options, we can do DWP home visiting, and many claimants will be able to conduct their claims either online or by post.
One of the “super co-location” proposals we have heard about applies to Ayr jobcentre: Russell House, a medical centre, is going to close down and be relocated to the jobcentre. The medical centre has a car park with disabled parking spaces and a bus stop that my constituents can use, but it will be moved to a jobcentre with no parking that is half a mile from the nearest bus stop. How does that meet an equality impact assessment?
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say, we are very concerned that disabled claimants make us aware of their circumstances so that they can nominate the jobcentre that is most convenient for them, benefit from DWP home visiting or conduct their claims online.
Rhondda has one of the highest unemployment rates in this country, so how on earth does it make sense to close the debt management service—the only one in Wales, at Oldway House in Porth in the Rhondda—taking the 93 jobs and sending them somewhere else? For that matter, why on earth are they closing the office in Llanelli as well? Is the plan just to put everything in Cardiff, because I simply say, like the Prime Minister said last week, yes, Cardiff is in Wales, but not all Wales is in Cardiff?
No, of course the plan is not to put all services in Cardiff. As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say many times, what we are seeking to do is make the best use of our estate, learn from what claimants and our Jobcentre Plus staff are telling us about these proposals, and make sure we get value for money for the taxpayer.
The DWP said that it wants to reduce its estate by 20%, but in Glasgow it is closing 50% of the estate, and in Inverness, where I grew up and my father once worked at the jobcentre, it is reducing locations by two thirds. Why is Glasgow losing out disproportionately?
The hon. Gentleman will, of course, be conscious that the Jobcentre Plus estate in Glasgow has grown up historically and has many more smaller jobcentres than other parts of the country. This is about making best use of the premises we have and making sure we do not have empty desk space in our buildings.
Lewisham has a higher than average unemployment rate, yet the Government are proposing to close the main jobcentre in Rushey Green. They want to squash it into an alternative, less accessible premises in Forest Hill. That defies common sense, to be honest. Will the Minister confirm that she will seek to find alternative premises in Lewisham town centre?
This is not about squashing anything; it is about making sure that we have full desks in buildings, not empty desks. In some instances, we have jobcentres where more than 20% of the desks are unused. The hon. Lady will be aware that unemployment is down nearly 5% across London since 2015, and it is very important that we make the best use of the facilities we have and get the best value for taxpayers.
The DWP guidance says that it is a reasonable expectation that claimants should have access to an office within 3 miles or 20 minutes’ travelling time. The Minister is planning to close the Broxburn centre in my constituency, which will result in claimants travelling 6 miles or 30 minutes. Given that that closure is in breach of her own guidelines, will she reverse the decision? If not, will she put on a free, accessible bus for my constituents and others so that they will not be left out in the cold?
The circumstances that the hon. Lady has outlined are outside the ministerial criteria, and that is exactly why we are having a consultation with the public on the matter.
The Torrington Avenue office in my constituency is due to be closed and its claimants sent into the centre of the city. Does the Minister not realise that this will cause great inconvenience and great cost to my constituents, who live in one of the least well-off areas of Coventry? What is she going to do about that?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we expect jobseekers to be prepared to travel for up to an hour for work. This is about making the best use of the DWP’s estate and making sure that there are no empty desks in jobcentres up and down the country.
Contrary to the Minister’s assertion, it was confirmed to Glasgow’s MPs at meetings with DWP Ministers and representatives before Christmas that the Department used Google Maps. The Government have stated that they are consulting in areas where service users would be forced to travel more than 3 miles or for more than 20 minutes on public transport. I have checked, and it takes 23 minutes to travel the 3 miles from Easterhouse to Shettleston. Given that I made the Minister aware of this fact in last week’s Westminster Hall debate, will she tell my constituents why Easterhouse was not included in the consultation, either initially or subsequently?
As I have said several times this afternoon, we expect people who are looking for work to be prepared to travel for a great deal longer than 23 minutes to get to the workplace. The hon. Lady makes an important point about the consultation, which I will raise with the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds).
The industrial injuries team in Barrow has accumulated many years of experience, and that expertise has enabled the team to take the claimant handling time for one of the nation’s most complex benefits down from 175 days to 33 days. That reduction has meant that some of the most vulnerable people in the country, with terminal conditions such as asbestosis, have been able to receive their benefit before they died. Will she listen to the concern that if that expertise is dissipated when a new team comes in, the waiting times will go back up and many people will die before they receive their benefit?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. It is crucial that we do not lose expertise, which is why we will be listening to all DWP staff to see how we can best use that resource in future.
What an unenviable dilemma! I call Margaret Ferrier.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have been out on the streets of Halfway and Rutherglen in my constituency over the past two wet weekends, collecting signatures for the petition to keep the Cambuslang jobcentre open. Collecting the signatures has not been a difficult task; people are outraged by the DWP’s decision and they want to make their views known. Will the Minister please allow them to do that by doing the right thing and opening up the consultation process to all DWP sites marked for closure?
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment will be delighted to receive the petition from the hon. Lady’s constituency and that he will reflect on the views expressed.
Does the Minister agree with those of us losing local services, such as the Alexandria jobcentre in my constituency, that the Prime Minister’s vision of a shared society is nothing other than this Government’s camouflage for attacking the most vulnerable in our communities and putting them at risk?
We are talking about a shared society in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, where unemployment has gone down by 56% since 2010. It is really important that we ensure that our DWP estate and our work coaches are in the right locations to provide the best service to claimants and value for money to the taxpayer.
I am most grateful to all colleagues, and I thank the Minister for her splendidly succinct replies. Perhaps she should send a copy of her textbook to all her ministerial colleagues.