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Vinovium House

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 8 March 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to raise the proposed closure of Vinovium House, the office in Bishop Auckland that administers part of the child maintenance system, with the consequent loss of between 85 and 100 jobs. I have tabled early-day motion 1,001, which hon. Members are most welcome to sign.

To set the debate in context, the reforms to child support introduced by the Tory-led Government in the last Parliament were highly controversial, appearing to rely on good will, which is sadly lacking in all too many cases. None the less, it was agreed that the administration of the old system should continue, so that children could receive their legal entitlements. According to the Department for Work and Pensions December 2016 statistics, there are 1.1 million cases in the Child Support Agency system, and arrears now totalling £3.4 billion. It is vital for those million families—probably 1.5 million children—that this money is recovered and paid to them.

There is no published plan for how the debt cases currently administered at Vinovium House will be administered if the closure goes ahead. The team at Vinovium House had secured the debt work until 2020. In a four-year programme, surely it does not make financial sense to relocate and retrain staff to undertake that work if the current staff will no longer do the job. What exactly is the Department’s plan? How does it intend to run it, or is the plan to let the old child support system wither on the vine, irrespective of the impact on the 1 million families receiving their money?

The staff are extremely well respected. They were a top five office when they administered incapacity benefit. They are currently the highest performing office. They have the highest engagement score. They provide telephone cover from 8 o’clock in the morning until 8 o’clock at night—hours that are not covered in other offices. The telephone system went down when the announcement was made, and the entire national system crashed as it was unable to cope with the volume of calls without those staff. This does not bode well for the future. Child poverty is increasing under this Government, and further delays in Department for Work and Pensions systems for child support will undoubtedly tip some families over the edge.

In correspondence with me, the Minister for Employment said that he has conducted an equality impact assessment. I find that difficult to believe given that 69 of the staff are women and 14 are men. There are also support staff. The one-to-one interviews currently being conducted are a sham. Staff are asked to say whether they want to be transferred to other jobs or to leave on voluntary redundancy, but they are not being told where else they might work.

Quite a few of the staff who work at Vinovium House live in Sedgefield. I have had several emails from staff who have a deep anxiety about the way they have been treated, their futures and where they might be transferred to. This is not just an issue for Bishop Auckland and Sedgefield. The staff live all over County Durham, and a lot of families will be affected.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a lot of anxiety, and I will read out an email from someone who works there to explain to the Minister why:

“On the day the closure was announced to us, we were told there would be an option between a job if we were prepared to travel, or an exit package if not—a small lifeline to me that may have cushioned the closure up to my pension age, but the next day the package offer was revoked with a statement that failure to accept a compulsory transfer could result in disciplinary action.”

Will the Minister please tell us exactly what is going on? What offers are being made to people?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this issue to the House for consideration. Surely, if someone has a contract of employment with a Department and that contract is changed, the rights of the individual must be retained. Therefore, should not the option of a package to leave still be on the table? Should not the Government endorse and deliver that earlier commitment?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I agree, which is why I want to know what is going on in the Department for Work and Pensions.

The underlying issues are travel times and costs, the lack of affordable childcare and the fact that most people who work at Vinovium House combine their job with some caring responsibilities. Many work part-time close to home, as they have caring responsibilities for children or elderly parents. The Tory party claims to be the party of the family. This change will adversely affect at least 85 families and will have a devastating impact.

Let me give one example. I talked to a woman who was very young—well, I think she was very young because she was in her 30s—and a widow with two children. Unfortunately, her partner died a year ago. At the moment, she drops her children off at school, gets to work by 9 o’clock and works until 6 o’clock, but she is given time to pick her children up at 3.30 pm. If she has to go to work in another town or another place, there is no possibility that this arrangement can continue. Her children are beyond three and four years old, when free childcare is available, but are too young to leave at home after school.

One thing Ministers need to bear in mind is the pay. The highest full-time pay is £18,000, and many of these people are on £12,000. They simply cannot afford to take home less, because they have to fork out on travel costs or childcare. There is also little other office work in the area, which is why the DWP is a valuable employer.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) suggested, a third of these people come from other villages round about. There is currently a bus connection into Bishop, but if the Bishop office closes, there is no guarantee people will be able to get transport onwards to other locations. The Department’s Darlington and Peterlee offices are already scheduled for closure. I strongly suggest that the Minister’s officials stop looking on Google Maps and that she send them up to the north to start looking at the geographical problems. Let them try to get a bus at 8 o’clock in the morning to Washington, near Sunderland, or to Newcastle, and get back in time to collect children from school at 3 o’clock. It is frankly impossible; it is a five-hour trip, including eight different buses. Of course, there is the massive devastation of public transport. What is being proposed is intolerable for these families.

There are many unanswered questions. The DWP guideline for staff travel times is one hour. How many sites are available for the staff to transfer to that are within an hour’s travel by public transport? What happens to people who received travel costs for three years if they go to work at another site? What happens after that? I suppose they will have to pay for themselves. Is there capacity in other offices nearby to take on these workers? Will they need to be retrained? What will that cost?

I am extremely grateful to the Public and Commercial Services Union for arranging for me to visit the office in February. I met a large number of staff, and they said things like this: “My husband is due to leave the armed forces later this year, so that could be two of us without a job,” “I moved here specifically to be close to my elderly parents,” “There is no childcare for children over 10-years-old,” “I have a child with disabilities, which results in lots of appointments. I couldn’t manage to meet them if I had to travel further afield,” “I’m dependent on my mum for childcare. If I had to leave earlier to travel further, she might not be able to manage, because she is dependent on getting to my children on the bus,” “I’m on maternity leave. I’ve worked here for nine years, and my future is up in the air. Will I have a job to come back to?” “I live in the Dales, where there is limited and often no public transport. How could I travel further afield? If I finished work in Newcastle at half-past seven, it would be physically impossible for me to get home at night,” and “I have a child starting university in September. How can I afford to support my child if I lose my job?”

The Minister must understand that these are significant problems for people. These people are not simply cogs in a machine or units of production; these are real people with real families. Many of the staff said that, in effect, they had to put their lives on hold, because they do not know what the upshot is going to be. They have had to cancel their holidays and things like that.

I want to propose a better way forward to the Minister. Historically, the jobcentre was in Vinovium House, and it would be much better in the long term if, instead of the medical assessment team moving to the jobcentre in the marketplace, the jobcentre people moved to Vinovium House and held on to the lease with the CSA people. There is already information and communications technology, telephones and security. That move would be much more cost-effective than what is being proposed at the moment.

There is, of course, another aspect: the impact on the rest of the town. I have had a letter from the Auckland Castle Trust. I do not know whether the Minister is aware that a philanthropist called Jonathan Ruffer has put at least £50 million into restoring and regenerating Auckland castle, with a view to building up the tourist industry. The Auckland Castle Trust says that it has moved into the upper five floors of Vinovium House, and it requires that office space until 2020. It has been told that if the DWP moves, it will also have to move, and that will cost it a great deal of money. If it has to spend money moving, it will have less money for the regeneration project that it is undertaking.

The DWP decision is doubly bad; it threatens unemployment for the 80 people employed by the DWP, and at exactly the moment when the trust is bending every sinew to regenerate the town, the DWP is pulling the rug from under it. The staff are 100% committed to the local area. They have done a lot of work for local charities, and they have counted up how much they spend every week, which is about £2,000. We know from that that local shops will be extremely badly affected and there will be job losses there, too.

I think the Government should take a more holistic approach. The problem is that Whitehall lives in departmental silos, but people do not. I understand the pressure to save money, but I do not understand why Bishop Auckland is always at the sharp end. We have lost our magistrates court. We have lost our driving test centre. We have lost an HMRC officer. For once, if there is going to be centralisation, could it be into Bishop Auckland instead? I simply do not believe that the Minister can find a place where rents are cheaper than they are in Bishop; that is not credible. People in Bishop Auckland feel very strongly about this, and thousands are currently collecting signatures for a petition. As a hard-working, long-serving staff member said to me,

“It’s become about the building not the service and the staff”.

I am sure the Minister will agree that that is not the right approach.

I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for securing this debate. Its subject, as she has passionately and ably outlined, is Vinovium House in Bishop Auckland, one of the Department’s back-of-house processing sites for child maintenance claims. From the outset of the debate, I want to be clear that the services provided by the Department for Work and Pensions matter to millions of people every single day. But for the Department to continue to deliver its critical services and support across the country, it is vital that arrangements are put in place to protect the long-term sustainability of our services.

There is near-universal agreement that the Department for Work and Pensions needs to continue to provide excellent services for its customers while providing good value for money for the taxpayer. Reducing the amount of under-utilised space that the Department occupies is an excellent way of making sure that the Department is delivering value for money, both for those using its services and for the taxpayer.

On 31 March next year, DWP’s 20-year contract, which covers the majority of its current property portfolio of more than 900 sites, will expire. That portfolio includes Vinovium House, in the hon. Lady’s constituency. To put that into context, the DWP currently occupies about 1.5 million square metres of office space, and we must acknowledge that at least 20% of that is under-occupied. The falling claimant count and the increased use of our online services in recent years means that 20% of the money that the Department is spending on rent is going towards space that we are not using. By paying only for the space that we need and the services required to operate from it, we anticipate saving £180 million per annum over the next 10 years.

In response to the changing demands facing the Department, we have redesigned our estate in a way that delivers better value for the taxpayer. The expiry of the property contract has presented both a unique opportunity and an essential requirement to review our estate. Let me be clear: this is not about reducing services; it is about taking the opportunity to stop spending taxpayers’ money on empty space so that we can spend more on supporting those in most need.

We have carefully considered the challenges that we anticipate in the Department, but the jobs landscape and the way people work have changed significantly in the past 20 years. The Department’s services always have adapted and always will adapt to social trends. Nearly 90% of universal credit claims are made online, and more of our services are moving online. We want to continue making the most of the opportunities that new technologies present to help best meet our claimants’ needs. It is right that we reflect not only the impact of such a digital revolution on meeting our claimants’ needs, but the realities of a more flexible labour market and the significant falls in unemployment since 2010. The employment rate is at 74.6%—a new record high—and unemployment is down 913,000 since 2010, as the economy has grown. Only by building a more modern and more dynamic DWP estate can we take full advantage of new opportunities and ensure that we have sufficient flexible capacity to allow us to expand in the event of an economic downturn.

In every case where change is proposed, including that of Vinovium House, we have sought to minimise disruption and to listen carefully to those who might be affected. As I have already said, Vinovium House is a back-of-house processing site for child maintenance claims. It is a comparatively small processing site, which has total capacity for only about 135 people, and is currently only 64% used. As a result of modernisation and efficiencies, the Department’s Child Maintenance Service now takes fewer people to deliver than it did previously. Across the whole of the DWP estate, there is significantly more capacity than is needed, and it is only right that we consider our options.

Delivering a modern and dynamic service to claimants requires modern and dynamic working environments, and we are striving to work towards that as part of our vision for the DWP in 2020. Our aim is to maintain and improve the services offered across the country, and we recognise how important DWP staff are to achieving that aim. In fact, DWP staff are our most valuable resource. It is as a result of their immense effort that the Department is able to provide such a high level of service to our customers. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out the high performance of our staff at this location and to comment on the office’s top-five rating. I recognise and celebrate how great our staff are, and I reassure her that our staff are our highest priority. My colleagues and I have been clear that the proposals put forward for the DWP’s redesigned estate do not mean a reduction in the number of frontline staff. In fact, we are recruiting, and we expect to have more work coaches in every nation and region in March 2018 than we have today.

For staff at Vinovium House, we are currently working through options with each individual, identifying relocation opportunities in the event of closure, but, most of all, listening carefully to them to understand fully the impact on staff. To that end, every member of staff has been offered a face-to-face meeting with their manager as part of the current consultation. This will allow us to hear the opinions of any of the staff members who would be impacted by the proposed changes. We are listening to the views that the staff are expressing. The hon. Lady was good enough to write to the Department in advance of this debate, and she has highlighted in her letter and this evening the concerns that the staff have already raised. I want to reassure her that we are taking those concerns very seriously indeed.

In the event of site closure, the Department has already made a commitment to support anyone who chooses to relocate, including the payment of additional travel expenses for up to three years. However, the fact remains that the Department has significantly more capacity across its network than is needed to serve the needs of child maintenance group clients.

Vinovium House in Bishop Auckland accommodates a team of Child Support Agency staff working on the 2003 scheme cases. These staff ensure that compliance is maintained on ongoing cases. We recognise the vital importance of compliance and of as many children as possible benefiting from the maintenance they are owed by their non-resident parent. Although we do not envisage this, should the closure of Vinovium House result in a shortfall of staff, we are committed to deploying appropriate resources to make sure we continue to keep the money flowing for the children.

Before the hon. Lady moves on to another aspect of this problem, may I say that when someone phones up non-resident parents to get them to pay the money that the parent with care is entitled to receive, they have to have a bit of a negotiation. It is not like applying for child benefit—I agree that people can apply for child benefit online—because, as she must know, such discussions are particular, personalised and specific. All this about being able to do it online is irrelevant to the work done by these people in this office.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have sat with Child Maintenance Service officers, listening to the calls that they make to non-resident parents. My first visit as a Minister in the Department for Work and Pension was to the north-east. I went to Cobalt House and saw the Child Maintenance Service in action. I have also been to the compliance unit in Hastings. She is right that those discussions are not easy—they are negotiations. That is something the staff made very clear to me. I want her to understand that one of my highest priorities is ensuring that we keep the money flowing to the children who are owed it by their non-resident parents.

I emphasise the need to cleanse the cases on the old CSA system that we are transferring to the new CMS caseload. While compliance work is immediate and happens, the arrears cleanse process can be undertaken as resources are available. We will, therefore, be able to flex our rate of cleanse in line with the amount of resources needed, to ensure that compliance work is not affected.

The overriding story to be told about the child maintenance group is one of immense improvement. All ongoing maintenance liabilities, like those managed by Vinovium House, will be managed by the Child Maintenance Service once all case closure is complete. We are seeing non-resident parents contributing to maintenance liability in seven out of eight cases. That has resulted in nearly 90% of the money due being paid towards the liability. Arrears growth is slowing and is down to 13% of total liability from 17% in 2015. Those figures reflect the Department’s commitment to improving the performance of the Child Maintenance Service.

We have made a number of changes in line with the recommendations of the Henshaw report. We have simplified the administration of the service; we have made our calculations faster and simpler through the use of HMRC income information; and we have introduced new applications in a staged pathfinder approach to ensure smooth delivery of the new scheme. All of those measures have put collaboration between parents and increased parental responsibility at the heart of the Child Maintenance Service. I am proud to say that, according to the latest figures, approximately 250,000 children are benefiting from maintenance, in part due to the excellent work of the DWP’s child maintenance service.

The proposed changes—I emphasise to the hon. Lady that they are proposed changes—are the result of careful analysis and planning. I appreciate the hon. Lady’s concerns about the proposals and thank her again for this debate, but the rationale for them is very clear: Vinovium House is currently only 64% utilised, and across the whole DWP estate 20% of the occupied space is underutilised. We are striving towards a more modern, dynamic DWP estate. That will ensure that we continue to have sufficient flexible capacity and to deliver the best services we can to our customers. To that end, we are considering whether the work currently undertaken at Vinovium House could be redistributed across the existing DWP network. In the event that that course of action is required, we would expect it to have no impact on the services we continue to provide to child maintenance group users. It is important to stress again that the closure of Vinovium House is still only a proposal at this stage, and we are continuing the consultation process with our staff to assess how each of them might be affected.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.