Thursday 16 March 2017
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Future of Rail (Passenger Experience)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Sixth Report from the Transport Committee of Session 2016-17, The future of rail: Improving the rail passenger experience, HC 64, and the Government Response, HC 905.
It is a pleasure, Sir Edward, to serve under your chairmanship.
Our inquiry into improving the rail passenger experience started early last year, as the second of a series of five investigations into the future of rail. We have also looked at rail technology and rail franchising; we are currently considering rail safety; and we will complete our rail inquiries by looking at rail finance and governance.
There is no doubt that the number of people travelling by train has increased dramatically, which is a real success story, but what of the passenger experience? Examining this issue means examining some pretty basic issues. How easy is it to find and purchase the best-value ticket? How crowded is the train? Are there enough seats? How clearly is information presented on websites and apps? Are staff available to assist people at the station and reassure passengers about safety? How well does the train company keep passengers informed about disruption during the journey? Most fundamentally of all, will the train be on time? Will it be on time to the station to which the individual passenger is travelling and not simply on time at its final destination? We identified many improvements that are required, and the need for some of them is very long standing.
Let us consider the first aspect—looking for and buying the best-value ticket for a journey. The sheer complexity of ticketing, with different types of tickets across the patchwork of operators, has been an issue for far too long. Ten years ago, the Transport Committee described the complexity in rail fares as an “insult to the passenger”. In 2006, the Transport Committee decried the fact that the situation had been allowed to persist for several years. Yet last year we found that this fundamental problem had barely been dealt with and that the situation had barely changed, beyond some very small improvements. Some improvements to ticket vending machines had taken place, for example, but they were small improvements in comparison with the scale of the problem. Despite in-depth research by consumer groups and numerous pronouncements by the regulator—the Office of Rail and Road—and the industry, the problem persists.
A particularly unfair phenomenon is split ticketing. It is often possible for passengers who have the knowledge and time to undertake intricate research to save considerable sums of money by buying separate tickets for different portions of the same journey. It was possible to save money through split ticketing on 33 of 50 cross-country journeys that were examined by The Times last year, when it conducted a survey on this problem. This situation is unsatisfactory and unfair. People can pay as much as £85 more than is necessary for a single train journey, for example on the service from Penzance to Birmingham. There is a differential of £85 if someone buys split tickets rather than just buying one ticket. Further examples can be found on numerous routes.
Despite the problem having been well understood for a long time, no one in the rail sector appears to have a grip on it and no one seems to be responsible for dealing with it. The Transport Committee has been told on numerous occasions by a succession of Ministers that this issue will be dealt with, but nothing has happened and nobody seems to have the power to enforce any change.
Recently the Department for Transport, together with the Rail Delivery Group and the regulator, published a plan to deal with these issues; it contained proposals in December about certain trials that were to take place. It is unclear how effective this plan will be and we still do not know the full details of what these trials will be and where they will take place. I assure the Minister that, as a Committee, we will follow this matter up. It is good to have a plan, but we need to know exactly what it is, how effective it is and—if it is effective—how it would be rolled out across the system.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Given that there are some extremely good websites out there—I have personal experience of using seat61.com and loco2.com—it is possible, quite straightforwardly, for someone to work out good rail routes, if they have access to a computer. So, given that it is possible, why does it seem so difficult for the Government and the train companies to resolve this issue, and what about those people who do not have access to a computer?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If somebody has the time, the knowledge, the ability and the access to the appropriate technology, they can discover a lot of information, but it is not available to everyone, and I find it very surprising that Ministers and the rail sector as a whole are simply unable to take up this issue and ensure that information that is technically available is actually available to the ordinary passenger. That is where my concern lies and where the Committee’s concern lies.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which my constituents will follow with great interest. Does she agree that it is also important that passengers are able to buy any sort of ticket, particularly at unstaffed stations, and that one of the urgent priorities is to make sure that ticket machines are put in place in all those stations where no staff are present, including those on the line through Urmston and Trafford Park, many of which do not have such machines?
My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. There is nothing more frustrating for a passenger than to be told that tickets are available, only to go along to their local station and find that that simply is not the case. I say again that this is a long-standing issue. It is known about, Ministers are well aware of it, but very little indeed has been done to resolve it. My hon. Friend has done a great service to her constituents in drawing attention to this issue during this debate.
Rail passengers want clear and accurate information about their journeys. They want information not only on how to go about their journey and what sorts of journeys are available but on how a journey is progressing. Too often, however, that information is simply not being provided.
When we conducted our inquiry and called for evidence, it came flooding in and we saw that passengers were largely negative, first about their experience of train operating companies’ websites. One such website was described by a passenger as being
“appalling, badly designed, inefficient, difficult to use, often to the point of being unusable”.
Some smartphone apps seem little better, as they routinely failed to provide reliable information, for example about which platform a train will depart from. Once again, that is basic information and it is galling for passengers to read reports about systems being put in place, which can all sound very good. What really matters is what happens to an individual when they make their journey. That is what really counts.
It is important that the technology is available and accessible, but it is also important that people are actually at hand in stations to give assistance and information. That help is essential for everybody—travellers want to see actual people around who can help them, and give them guidance and information—but for people who have a disability it is absolutely essential. Although the systems in place for assisting people with disabilities to travel by train sometimes work, there are also occasions when those systems break down, which is another great concern for us.
Overcrowding is another ongoing concern. It does not happen everywhere, but where it does happen it is extremely important and creates major obstacles. Many people told us that their journeys were uncomfortable. They often worried about whether they could actually get on the train. Many were concerned about the potential danger in getting on very crowded trains, and that is stressful.
My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. I had an email recently from a constituent who is trained in first aid and who was concerned about a journey from Birmingham to Wolverhampton; she and others were standing and somebody fainted so she went to provide assistance. There was not space for the person to lie down, as is required when giving first aid to someone who has fainted. When the train crew got on, they said, “This happens regularly, because the train is so regularly crowded. We are used to people passing out.”
My hon. Friend draws attention to a situation that is all too common. If there is sporadic overcrowding, that can perhaps be coped with, but when it happens regularly, it requires attention and the situation is not being addressed. A great deal of the publicity about overcrowding relates to commuter lines into London, and that is where most of the overcrowding takes place, but it does not solely affect London. There is overcrowding on other routes, too. In Manchester, rush-hour trains are on average 4% over capacity, with 12% of passengers regularly standing. That is a lot of people, and average figures mask a lot of difference. The top 10 overcrowded train services in England and Wales are between 61% and 129% over capacity. Eight of the 10 most overcrowded services are in the London area, with two in Manchester, but there are examples throughout the country. This issue needs attention and it must not be ignored.
Thank you, Sir Edward. The Department is well aware of this long-standing problem. It must identify places where overcrowding has become a persistent serious problem, making journeys uncomfortable. The train companies, through the franchise agreements negotiated with the Department, should be required to identify where there is a serious problem and take action to alleviate overcrowding on specific services. I hope that the Minister will confirm that he is looking at the problem and is proposing action to address it.
Over the past day or two, there has been a lot of discussion about the consultation on the Southeastern franchise, which has rightly raised the big issue of overcrowding. The consultation puts forward certain proposals for dealing with the issue, but it is not a problem just for new franchises; the problem is being experienced now, and it requires the Department’s attention. It relates to the train operating companies and the provision of rolling stock.
I repeat the question that I have asked a succession of Ministers numerous times in a succession of meetings: who is responsible for the long-term planning and delivery of rolling stock? That might sound like a pretty basic, simple, fundamental question, but I have never received a straightforward answer; the nearest I have got is something about “the Department”. I then ask, “Who is it in the Department? The Minister? The Secretary of State?” Then the clarity disappears.
When we come across specific issues and problems—there was one a couple of years ago when a carriage was moved from an important service in the north to go to the then Prime Minister’s constituency—Ministers appear to be powerless. I was told by the then Secretary of State, “It will get resolved.” It did get resolved, in the end and after a great deal of fuss, but I still had no answer to the question of who was actually responsible. The Minister is very diligent about these matters, so I hope he will be able to give a clearer answer. Who is responsible for the long-term planning and delivery of rolling stock, including new rolling stock and refurbishment?
People are facing a whole range of problems in undertaking their journeys on rail. Perhaps one constant feature, which overrides other rail issues, is the constant challenge of the rail system’s fragmentation. Time and again we come back to the issue of how the sector will work together more cohesively to give the best possible service to the passenger.
The Rail Delivery Group was set up to bring the rail sector together. Yes, it has made some improvements, but it has not addressed the basic issues. How will it change the way it operates? Does it need more powers? Do franchises need to be different? Should the Department and Ministers act in a different way? How can the rail regulator be more effective in taking action? That is not clear. Does the regulator need more powers? If so, what are they? What action does the Minister propose to take to make that a reality? The most disappointing thing about the challenges that the Committee and I have identified is that most of them are not new: they are long standing. Despite the best efforts of a succession of Ministers and the Department, not a great deal has changed, and we simply cannot go on like that.
As our inquiry was under way, a major crisis was developing on Southern rail, which is part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. It is run by the parent company, Govia Thameslink Railway —known as GTR—but I will refer to it as Southern, because that is the area in which the bulk of the problems have arisen and where the bulk of the difficulties are for passengers.
As we were conducting our inquiry, passengers on the route were becoming increasingly exasperated and angry that their rail service, for which many pay several thousand pounds a year, was inadequate and utterly unreliable. Whether passengers are paying several thousand pounds a year for a season ticket or simply paying their fare, they are equally entitled to have a proper service, but that was not happening. The situation remains virtually the same, with passengers suffering mass cancellations and inordinate delays. People’s jobs have been put at risk, simply because they cannot get to work on time. Some people reported that they have moved house because of the problem.
Life has been disrupted. Why? It is a sorry combination of a too-large franchise, poor management, misjudgment and disastrous industrial relations, which have conspired to create an appalling situation for passengers. The ongoing strikes have compounded a series of errors and incompetence. Passengers are right to be angry, but the Department does not seem to be doing much about the situation except to accept that there is a big problem.
It cannot be acceptable for those responsible for the problem—not just one party is responsible; responsibility must be shared by a multiplicity of organisations and individuals—to fail so comprehensively and for so long and to appear not to be acting. In 2016 alone, 58,983 train journeys were partly or wholly cancelled. That is a tremendous figure. I do not think the travelling public want to hear all the arguments about who is responsible. They just know that it is a fact that their lives are still being disrupted and that nothing much is changing, and they want something done about it.
The Department has already accepted that the franchise that was drawn up was much too large. It is the largest in the country. It is uniquely large; it contains more than a fifth of all the passenger journeys across Britain’s entire network. It is too large a franchise, and the Department has said that that was its mistake.
Add to that the situation on the ground and the complexity of major infrastructure works planned during the course of the franchise agreement, including the huge and logistically challenging Thameslink programme, and there was a recipe for calamitous passenger experience. The impact of the Thameslink programme on passenger services was substantially underestimated. The estimated number of delay minutes was forecast to be 10,000 per year; the reality has been 10,000 per week. I ask the Minister how that estimate could be so disastrously wrong. It has contributed substantially to the problem.
If we add to those things—too large a franchise and a major infrastructure challenge, the impact of which was grossly underestimated—inadequate levels of staffing, the situation becomes even worse. The industrial action on top of that has escalated the situation to an unacceptable level.
I mention one other factor; I suspect hon. Members will find it difficult to believe if they are not already aware of it. At the very beginning of the franchise, the company did not have enough drivers to operate the trains. That part has been rectified—except for the fact that we are now in a dispute about driver-only operation—but having insufficient drivers at the beginning of the franchise does not suggest great competence.
The question for the Department and the Minister to answer is: what is being done? The franchise was constructed on a management fee basis, which is currently unique, because of the anticipated risk. The revenues go directly to the Government and a fee is paid to the train operator, so there is no risk in that sense. I have described the nature of the services and the problems. The train operator receives an annual management fee of around £1 billion; probably around £3 billion has been paid out to date. Under that system, the public purse foots the bill for losses that occur from lost sales, disruption and passenger compensation.
I do not have an up-to-date figure of exactly how much has been lost and how much the public purse will have to pay out, but the latest figure I have is £38 million and rising. That was supplied by the Minister in a letter to me some time ago. Compensation schemes have been announced since then, and we do not know how they are operating or how much money is involved. The bill could be increasing substantially.
To add to the complexity and difficulty, there is the issue of force majeure, which concerns the dispute—ongoing and unresolved, as far as I am aware—between the train operating company and the Department for Transport about who is responsible for all those cancelled services. Who is responsible for those 58,983 and more train journeys that were wholly or partly cancelled? There is an unresolved dispute between the Department and the train company, with no end date in sight. That cannot be acceptable. All this is continuing—passengers are getting more and more angry, and there is no end date. I hope the Minister can tell us what is happening and when it will be resolved. The public also have a right to know what the Department’s plans are to deal with the situation.
The franchise is due to run until September 2021. I would not like to anticipate the extent or the level of anger that passengers are going to be feeling by then if nothing changes. What is the Department doing? Is it considering restructuring the franchise—perhaps dividing it up and allocating different parts to different operators? There is silence. We simply do not know what is happening. Doing nothing is simply not enough.
My hon. Friend is highlighting well-publicised problems at Southern Rail. She will know that, in the last few weeks, a similar dispute began with Northern Rail, which serves both her constituency and mine. Does she agree that Ministers need to take action swiftly so that we do not end up in the long drawn-out and unresolved situation with Northern Rail that passengers have had to suffer at Southern Rail? Will she call on the Minister to tell us what swift action the Government are taking?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The issue is escalating and is now not solely to do with Southern Rail. I hope the Minister is able to tell us what he and the Department are doing to deal with this unacceptable situation. However blame is apportioned, it is the passengers who are suffering.
I thank the Minister for certain steps that he has taken in relation to Southern Rail, which have an impact on the rest of the rail network. The Committee was extremely concerned to find that the Department was not making information available about its monitoring of the franchise and whether contractual benchmarks were being met. After a lot of pressure from the Committee, the Minister agreed that that information would be made publicly available as far as it could be—not simply for Southern Rail, but across the network for other franchises.
I thank the Minister for responding to our concerns so swiftly when he realised their extent, but I have to ask when that information will actually be made available, for Southern Rail and for franchises in the rest of the country. It is extremely important that the Department monitors franchises. Because of its failures, the situation in the Southern franchise has now reached dramatic proportions, but there are other issues in other parts of the rail network and the Department is equally responsible there. I would like some information on that monitoring.
I have dwelt at some length on what is happening at Southern Rail because it is such a traumatic, ongoing event, but also because some of its features can be applied in other areas. We have major infrastructure works planned for other parts of the network as well. Will the Minister ensure that the problems in miscalculations made in relation to infrastructure on Southern Rail will not be replicated in other parts of the country when major infrastructure works take place? That is a very important question.
It is important to go back to the beginning and ask how we know what passengers’ concerns are and whether we are monitoring them properly. The rail sector does have ways of monitoring passengers’ views. There is an annual rail passenger survey, and other things are done, but the Committee felt that they were not really adequate because some of the information that we picked up from passengers was not reflected in some of the official statistics that had been collected. I would ask that that whole system be looked at again.
Later in this Parliament, we will complete our “future of the rail” series of inquiries by looking at rail finance and governance, and how important changes should and can be implemented. I am in no doubt that the massive increase in the numbers of people using trains is a success story and I applaud many of the developments in our rail service. In many ways, it has been a success—but there are major problems and issues, and one is the passenger experience.
I have outlined some of the report’s findings today, and I thank all Committee members, a number of whom are here this afternoon, for their work and dedication. They looked at the issue as a whole and have drawn attention to their own individual information and experience from their role as constituency MPs. I thank them for that.
We are all working to secure one end: to bring improvements. I conclude by thanking the Minister for the attention he has already shown to some aspects of the issue. However, the Committee would like to know what else will be done so that passengers’ experience can be improved, on a growing and increasingly successful railway.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Sir Edward. I thank the Chairman of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for comprehensively summarising our inquiry. I would like to focus on two or three things and give one or two local examples from my constituency of the failure of both the services and the ticketing arrangements.
The hon. Lady spoke of the dispute on Southern. The only comment I want to add to that and to what is in the report is how amazing I find it that we were told by the two company representatives that there were not enough drivers to operate the services from day one, due to an unexpected fall in the number during the change-over of the franchises. They said that they did not know on day one, but surely they could not have been so incompetent not to have known on day one minus 10 or 20.
It is amazing that, on day one, the company should not have enough staff to operate the services they had committed to. I do not think we managed to tease this out of the Minister at the meeting—perhaps we did and my memory is failing me—but did the Department know that on day one the company could not provide the services it had contracted for?
The hon. Lady gave many examples relating to ticketing. We were told how complex it is because there are so many different routes and tickets, but that applies to many industries. Why are the ticketing arrangements on the railways so far behind the airlines, for example? They have speeded up their process, and it is now pretty easy to check in and get a ticket. I find it amazing that, after all this time and so many promises and reports, we are not able to ensure ease of operation.
The report is about the rail passenger experience, the first part of which is getting a ticket and getting information about train times. The hon. Lady gave an example of different websites giving a ticket price difference of £80. I did a bit of research this morning on how to get from my Cleethorpes constituency to Haverfordwest. Perhaps not a great many people do that journey, but I happen to have family in Haverfordwest and I have done it on a number of occasions. Amazingly enough, it can be done with only one change in Stockport.
I went on the National Rail website. National Rail sounds important, doesn’t it? People look at it and think, “This is the Rolls-Royce of websites.” Okay, it has got the information, but it is, shall we say, variable. When I tap in, “Cleethorpes to Haverfordwest”, the website says at the top, “Buy the cheapest for £157”. That is for a single adult standard class ticket.
Buying a ticket from Cleethorpes to Stockport costs £21. There are numerous fares at different times of the day to then go from Stockport to Haverfordwest, but I chose to leave Cleethorpes at 9.26. I was told that it would be £157, and that if I went 2 hours later it would be £163.80. If I go on the 9.26, I pay £21 to get to Stockport and £44.50 to get from Stockport to Haverfordwest. That is almost a £100 difference. If a family of three or four do that, let us be honest, they are being robbed—there is no getting away from it.
Having gone to south Wales, I thought, “I wonder whether it is cheaper to get to north Wales,” and I did a similar exercise going from Cleethorpes to Bangor; I accept that perhaps not many people do that on a daily basis. Again, I found that if the journey is done in three stages, it can be done for £56.20, whereas the headline says, “Cheapest fare £81.40.”
My final example is to get from Cleethorpes to Felixstowe, which again I found can be done £15 cheaper than what is stated at the top of the webpage—mind you, four tickets are necessary to do that, so perhaps the convenience makes it worth it. In this day and age, this is not rocket science. If the railway companies cannot do it themselves, somebody else should be made to do it on their behalf, and they should have to pay to have it done.
Obviously, I travel down here from Cleethorpes every week and back again, and I am always amazed at how many times my tickets are not checked. There are no ticket barriers at Cleethorpes or where I change at Doncaster, and at least 50% of the time the barriers at King’s Cross are not operational. I have done that journey time and again—I could have saved the taxpayers no end of money if I had just taken a chance on it, but we are all honest, aren’t we?
I totally support the hon. Gentleman’s comments about tickets not being checked. The situation is exacerbated when there is no machine on the station platform and no staff from whom one can buy a ticket. On my local line, passengers regularly travel between Urmston and Trafford Park, for example, without paying—not because they are not willing to pay, but because there is absolutely no way they can do so.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. Seeing you in the Chair, Sir Edward, reminds me of the journeys that can be made from Cleethorpes to Lincoln via Market Rasen. There is often an announcement on the 9.20 train from Grimsby to Lincoln saying, “This train will be overcrowded when we get to Market Rasen. Can we get the tickets sorted out quickly?”
That brings me to overcrowding. You have probably used that 9.20 train yourself, Sir Edward. It leaves Market Rasen at about 10 o’clock in the morning and delivers you to Lincoln or Newark, where you can get down to King’s Cross. The reality is that it is a single unit, and has been one for years and years, despite the fact that it is regularly overcrowded when it leaves Market Rasen.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, there is even a top 10 of overcrowding. I do not know whether the Market Rasen service is on it, but it certainly ought to be. The reality is that it is a single unit. East Midlands Trains will say, as it has said to me, “There isn’t enough rolling stock available, even when it cascades down after new stock has come on,” but that has been the case for 10 years. How long does it take to produce a new diesel unit to run that service?
If trains are regularly overcrowded, notwithstanding the fact that the rail experience is not particularly desirable from the passenger’s point of view, surely the companies are falling down on the commitments they made in their franchises. If they are not falling down on their commitments, the franchise agreements need tightening up.
Finally—the Minister would not expect me not to mention this issue; we have spoken about it on many occasions—the rail experience is much better if people do not have to change trains and there are through services. British Rail ended through services from Cleethorpes to King’s Cross in 1992, and it is about time they were restored.
I know the Minister is sympathetic and that you, Sir Edward, are sympathetic, because you would like through services to go through Market Rasen and Lincoln as they used to. It is about time that the Minister made some more sympathetic noises and guided me through the system, so that in the not-too-distant future—preferably before the next general election—we have an absolute commitment to provide such a service.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on her introduction to the report and the Government response. I came on to the Committee part way through the investigation, but I feel a certain amount of ownership because in my previous life on the Select Committee I was involved in the 2006 report. I am dismayed to be back here still debating exactly the same things we raised in our report all that time ago.
Before the 1997 general election I went to an event attended by the comedian and satirist John Bird, back when rail privatisation was still in its fledgling years. He said that the rail operating companies had given up calling people “passengers” because they did not want to give them the idea that they had any intention of taking them anywhere. People served by Southern and Southeastern —my constituents are served by Southeastern—get the impression that nothing at all has changed since. Things have not moved on.
The passenger experience is at the heart of what we should be seeking to achieve in our railways. It is not satisfactory to say that the railways must be a success because so many more people are travelling on them. People travelling on Southern, for example, do so because they have no alternative but to suffer the service they are being offered. After all, there are few alternatives for getting to work other than to suffer that service.
The poor performance of Southern and Southeastern is exacerbated by the development taking place at London Bridge. I commend the railway industry for keeping London Bridge operating while such an incredible feat of engineering is taking place—to add two additional lines through so busy a station while keeping much of it operating is quite an achievement—but that does not excuse the frequency with which my constituents are inconvenienced because the infrastructure has broken down, whether it is a set of points at Charing Cross, London Bridge or Lewisham, as is frequently the case, or a train that is blocking the rail. That is too often the experience of the customer.
Recently, quite late one evening, coming back from the House, I was at Waterloo East and the trains were all delayed—I cannot remember whether it was a train or the points on that occasion. A woman standing next to me shouted across to the central platforms of the station, trying to get some information from the staff about how she could get to the station that she wanted to get to. They were holding their hands to their ears, trying to hear what she was saying, then a train trundled between them and stopped at the platform. The woman sauntered off down the platform and the train left, while the staff kept talking to each other on the other platform. The impression was that the staff were so beaten down by the quality of the service that they had given up making any attempt to assist passengers.
There is something in that about the quality of the customer interface; the interaction of staff and passengers who have been inconvenienced. That needs to be addressed and the Government should hold the train operating companies to account for it. It is not good enough to collect statistics. The companies should train their staff to react and respond to passengers, in particular when the service is disrupted, and they should be readily available to provide prompt advice. Waterloo East station has four platforms, but on that occasion four members of staff were all on the two central platforms. Why were they not deployed to help the customers who needed information? Southeastern needs a rocket under it to provide better information. I have other experiences, which I could go into.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s contribution. I wanted to make a point about some of our stations, as I shall very shortly experience the joys of Euston station, to get back to Stoke. Why is it, for example, that we are told only 15 minutes before departure which platform our train to Stoke is to leave from, even though the train has been there for ages? That sort of thing drives people crazy.
My hon. Friend’s intervention is incredibly timely, because I was about to go on to describe my attempts to get to Stoke-on-Trent on Virgin Trains on 23 February. I was fortunate that I did not take the 10.30 am train as my colleagues had. It had left, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is present, only got to Stafford at 8 o’clock in the evening, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) did. He texted me from there; he had been travelling for more than 10 hours. My train did not leave at all. I sat there for 45 minutes and finally it was cancelled, although that turned out to be fortunate, because I did not end up trapped half way up the country, nowhere near where I wanted to go.
I then tried to claim my ticket back. I know we are going to do an inquiry into this, but it too is part of the passenger experience. As instructed, I went on to the Virgin website to claim my ticket back, but there was no facility to say that my train had been cancelled. I was allowed to say that my train had been delayed, but I was unable to say that it had been cancelled. Every time I pressed the button, I was sent back to the beginning, so I took to Twitter and asked, “Is anyone else having this problem with Virgin rail?” I am sure because I am a Member of Parliament and on the Select Committee, I then got Rolls-Royce treatment—[Interruption.] It was absolutely Rolls-Royce, because Virgin wrote back to me saying, “Dear Joseph”, and that they were sorry about my customer experience. They also sent me half the money and we finally resolved the matter. The point, however, is that the experience should not be like that.
In the report one of the online ticketing companies, Trainline, said that people were uncertain whether they had bought the cheapest ticket, which was a barrier to some people choosing to use rail at all. Which companies make the cost of their product so opaque that it might put customers off, other than one that has a trapped market and people who have no choice but to use that service, no matter how bad it is? We really need to deal with that customer experience.
My last point is about overcrowding and capacity. I go back to Southeastern. The figures in the report show that Southeastern operates an appalling service. It is one of the worst, and it should be thankful for Southern which stops it from being bottom of the customer satisfaction rankings. When we consider that every day so many people in south-east London rely on that surface rail service to get to work, and that there is no alternative but road, we realise what an appalling service it is and what an appalling and disproportionate impact it has on the lives of people from that part of London.
Many people think that the whole of London is served by the underground, but my part of London is well outside the orbit of the underground, and buses from outer south-east London take a devil of a time to get into central London. We rely almost entirely on that commuter rail service, and it is not acceptable that it is such an appalling performer. When we do get on trains, they are overcrowded at peak times because they are not long enough and there are so few alternatives to that rail service.
We have lengthened the platforms, so let us now lengthen the trains. We need to ensure that we have the capacity on Southeastern rail services so that people can get on the trains at peak time. We need 12-car trains serving the metro services in south-east London so that constituents from north Kent and my constituency can get to work comfortably and on time every day. Thank you, Sir Edward, for allowing me to make that contribution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on securing the debate, which I have found fascinating—I must confess that I did not think I would. I am pleased to be here to sum up for the third party in the House.
The hon. Lady was encyclopaedic in her knowledge and wonderful in explaining the key issues. I will not repeat each and every one, but she talked about ticketing—as did the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), to whom I will come in a moment—and that rings all sorts of bells. We need a method across the entire rail network for getting the best deal for customers.
At this point, I should declare an interest: I frequently use the Virgin Trains West Coast, and with my senior railcard I manage to get some good discounts. However, because of the nature of how we work in this place, I cannot always book a ticket when that would be cheapest, which makes it very expensive.
I totally understand overcrowding on trains. I am fortunate in that I do not have to commute around London; even though my claustrophobia is now much better, I do not know whether I could do it. Sometimes, when I see how bad the tube is, I am able to step back and wait for 20 minutes until things calm down, but that cannot be done on a train. I feel very sorry for people who have to go through that on a daily basis.
The biggest issue seems to be how the franchises are handed out. We hear that some franchises were given to operators who did not have enough drivers—that is a complete disgrace. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, passengers should be entitled to a full service, but, if I picked it up correctly, 58,500 cancellations took place in a week—not in a year?
I stand corrected. However, in anyone’s book that number of cancellations is not acceptable. The management fee basis on which the Southern franchise was put out seems to be quite a drain on the public purse and something that the Government should look at as quickly as possible.
Did the Scottish National party Government in Scotland learn anything from the franchising process we have undergone in England? The passenger survey shows that, since the Scottish Government privatised the service to Abellio, satisfaction in the service has declined, and the service has declined since then. I wonder whether any lessons—
Perhaps we should. It is important that the Minister hears how we dealt with these things in Scotland so that he can take on board some of the things the Government there have done.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes gave us an interesting and humorous list of journeys from Cleethorpes to Haverfordwest. I really enjoyed that. I could introduce him to someone I know well who regularly journeys from here in London to north of Dundee. She is an expert on how to get the best deal with split ticketing. However, the whole point is that people should not have to become experts in that area. There should be a way of simply going on to a website and finding the cheapest journey as easily as possible.
The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) referred to his time on the Select Committee in a former Parliament and was disturbed to find that we are still dealing with the same issues. I know you do not want me to go on for too long, Sir Edward, so I will not do a full summing up of what everyone else said, but, for the Minister’s benefit, yes, there were issues in Scotland over the franchise given to Abellio, but after much consternation among passengers, the Scottish Government brought in an improvement plan and since then things have moved forward. The score for ScotRail on the passenger satisfaction survey was at 83%, which was lower than the previous year, but in the last month or so it has gone back up to about 90%—a number that many companies and commuters in the south-east of England would be delighted to have.
The Scottish Government have put more than £5 billion in an investment programme for the five-year period to 2019. We will open new stations and build new lines. We see that as a way to get a greener Scotland and to increase Scotland’s economic base.
I commend to the House the ten-minute rule Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—I myself have to read his constituency because it is so vast—introduced in the Chamber only this week. What we really need in Scotland is Network Rail to be devolved. The Scottish Government can take forward many programmes, but ultimately Network Rail is not devolved, which means it does not have full control over the rail network in Scotland.
Yes, I shall do—I apologise, Sir Edward. It is important for the Minister to understand that it is possible to improve things and move them forward. As part of the process of making things better on the English railways, if I can put it that way, he may also want to look at taking powers to nationalise them again, as we did in Scotland, so that Government organisations and national organisations could bid for franchises. That happened on the east coast main line, and it ran very well.
I want to come back to the hon. Lady’s point on further fragmentation of the rail network. How does she feel the passenger experience of travelling on the railways would improve if the management of the infrastructure were further fragmented by having part of it devolved to Scotland, even though many franchises operate in both Scotland and the rest of the UK?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I could speak of a personal constituency issue: there were real difficulties with the electrification of the Glasgow to Edinburgh line. Transport Scotland was responsible for part of it, but some of the issues were being dealt with down here with Network Rail. That made it difficult to get real accountability. The Scottish Government wanted to be accountable for everything, but they could not be because Network Rail is not devolved. That is why we ask for it to be devolved.
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time in giving way. When we consider some of the services that operate on the west coast main line and the east coast main line that cross the border, does she not accept that it would be even more difficult to operate a seamless passenger experience if those operators had to deal with both Network Rail in England and a separate network rail in Scotland?
I see where the hon. Lady is coming from, but no, I would not agree with that; at the moment it is working well. I see no reason why the Scottish Government would make life difficult for Network Rail in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am sorry, but I cannot agree with her on this occasion.
I will end there, Sir Edward; thank you for the opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the Transport Committee for its excellent report. It sets out the details very clearly and is also readable, which is great. I am grateful that it focuses on passengers. We hear so much about train operating companies, Network Rail and the Department for Transport, but the report focuses on passengers and their experiences. They are the bottom line and the end receivers of all of this.
I will briefly say something about Select Committees. In my first five years in Parliament I was a member of the Education Committee. In my experience, Select Committees work really hard and their reports are full of good analysis, hard work and excellent recommendations. Governments do not generally take up those recommendations immediately, but over a period of two or three years, they tend to drip into manifestos and legislation. I therefore give credit to the Minister; I think he has accepted all of the report’s recommendations in full or in part, which I think says something about the report’s excellence. On the recommendations that he has accepted in full, given the Department for Transport’s history, can we not have a long, protracted period of announcement after announcement and just get on with delivering on them?
The bottom line and the reason for the series of five reports, of which this is one, is that rail passengers in the United Kingdom pay some of the highest fares in Europe and receive a poor, and in some cases very poor, service in return. In January this year, rail fares again rose above the rate of inflation, at a time when many commuters face a daily struggle to and from work to get there on time or to get there at all. That is down to the poor and deteriorating performance of train operating companies—not all of them, but far too many. While we in here might debate the high-level stuff about who should run the railways—whether it should be the market, whether it should be publicly owned and so on—rail passengers I speak to do not really care about that. They want an efficient, effective, affordable and accessible railway system. That is not what they are getting at the moment.
Given that the Government accept 13 of the recommendations in full and six in part, and do not disagree with any of the Committee’s recommendations, I will focus on the areas for which the Government only partially accept the recommendations. I ask the Minister to look again at the Government’s responses to the Committee’s criticisms and the recommendations that they have not wholeheartedly accepted. As the Committee forcibly points out, passenger experience, particularly and especially on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise, has been “woeful”. It puts that down to
“inadequate planning, weaknesses in the franchise handover process, infrastructure and rolling stock failures, mismanagement, poor industrial relations”.
The report states that the Department for Transport must “get a grip”. It actually says that, and I think anyone who has ever travelled on that franchise would agree. I recently took a journey on that franchise. I am from the north-east and do not normally travel on Southern, but I thought I should experience these things if I was to talk about them, so I did. I travelled down to Brighton and came back in the rush hour, and it was absolute hell; it beggars belief that people have to pay enormous amounts of money to endure that daily hell.
In the light of the report, the Department for Transport can no longer claim that no operator could do a better job than TSGN; in fact, it is hard to see how any operator could do a worse job. However, the whole blame does not rest solely with that train operating company. A lack of transparency over performance against contractual obligations is down to the Department for Transport. A lack of publicly available data for monitoring is down to the Department for Transport. A woefully inadequate franchise, including lack of proper information at the time of the bidding process, is down to the Department for Transport.
Even, as we have heard, the lack of drivers at the start of the franchise is down to the Department for Transport in part. Anyone who has ever run a company, public organisation or any kind of organisation knows that there will be significant staff wastage at a point of change, including in a handover period. Staff will take the opportunity to move on to other companies or jobs or to retire. Anyone who does not take account of that is quite frankly negligent. I think that is down to the Department as well as the train operating company. The failure to address that demonstrates a gross lack of knowledge or experience, insufficient due diligence or a lack of care on behalf of both the Department and the franchisee—or probably a combination of all of those factors.
Current and deteriorating industrial relations issues clearly have a part to play in this. The Committee is absolutely right to point out that those disputes can ultimately be resolved only through negotiation between Govia Thameslink Railway and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. However, given the Department for Transport’s unusually direct involvement in that franchise, it should take greater responsibility for fostering productive negotiations. The Secretary of State’s current Pontius Pilate-like handling of this is simply not good enough; this is the Government’s business and the Secretary of State has to get involved, not least to stop the dispute from spreading any further. He owes that to passengers. The dispute is not insolvable. The Government need to get the parties together and take a lead. The alternative is that it spreads across the country, as we are beginning to see now, with more and more franchises and passengers becoming involved.
We have heard a lot about Scottish rail and all its difficulties, which I accept entirely. There was a ten-minute rule Bill yesterday about handing over Network Rail to the Scottish Government; given that they have done such a cracking job of everything else that has been delegated to them, as somebody who lives on the east coast I think it would be an act of negligence for the Government to do so. However, I have to give credit where it is due, even though I dislike doing so: this dispute has been solved in Scotland. The roof did not cave in and the world did not come to an end; it was simply solved. If they can solve it in Scotland, we can solve it here. It needs some Government will and a bit of heavy lifting on all sides.
The Minister will expect me to say something on recommendation five of the report and the impact of driver-only operation on disabled people’s access—particularly in relation to “turn up and go”. The Committee asks for research to be undertaken into the potential impact of DOO on disabled passengers and for the Department to use that research to issue guidance to train operating companies to help them mitigate potential detrimental effects on disabled passengers; in other words, to make the reasonable adjustments they need to make under the law. That is reasonable and is the very least the Government could do.
Before I came to this place, I worked with disabled young people in education. I know how hard their lives are, and while I was not always able to give them everything that they wanted, I spent a great deal of time trying to give them what they needed. I know that a great deal can be done to mitigate detrimental effects with technology and through equipment, but ultimately, my experience is that it always comes down to the intervention of people. To pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous. Providing more accessible trains and buses is good. Providing audible and visual displays is good. Providing an ombudsman is good, although disabled passengers tell me that they do not want an ombudsman who will bung them a few quid a year or several months after an event. They want to be able to travel, as we all do, when they need to and with dignity, and unless the Department for Transport or the train operating companies demonstrate to them otherwise, that will mean a person other than the driver on the train or the platform to assist them.
I have always thought that the role of Government is to ensure that as we move forward no one is left behind. Frankly, if Government do not believe in that, they do not have a right to call themselves a Government; they are nothing other than a special interest group. Disabled passengers are not asking a great deal. They simply want to be able to travel when they need to, and with dignity, and that requires people.
The strength of this report is that it is not about the Department for Transport, the train operating companies or Network Rail but about the passengers, who are currently being woefully let down. I thank the Select Committee for that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), on securing the debate, and all the Committee members who have attended it as well as the other hon. Members who have participated in it.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) has, to her surprise, enjoyed the debate. Let me warn her to be careful: rail is a very seductive and addictive issue. Transport was my first Select Committee, and look what has happened to me. I put it down to the good stewardship of its Chairman that I am where I am today, so the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw should watch out for what might occur, either here or in Edinburgh—who knows?
I thank the Select Committee for its report, which is of the usual high standard. As has been suggested, I take these reports very seriously indeed. I know how much work goes into compiling them, cross-examining witnesses and drawing sensible conclusions, so I never take any report such as this lightly.
Much of the report came from an evidence session that I did on, I think, day three of being in my current role. I was a little petrified, to say the least, but the report reflects what I said, and I stand by every word of it. However, since that appearance, my knowledge has developed a bit—thank goodness—and of course the circumstances that we are addressing on the railways have changed. I want to use this opportunity to discuss some of the recommendations in the report, as well as the points made today by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass).
One important point made—by the hon. Member for North West Durham, I think—was that actions speak louder than words. We can all agree to specific points in reports and so on, but what matters is actions. Ticketing reform is a good case study for that. I remember when we looked at ticketing reform in the Select Committee—I think that was in 2012. There was a big, thick, wodgey Government document—I think it was about 200 pages in two sections—with everything that they were going to do to reform ticketing and make it all work fine on behalf of the consumer. Nothing ever happened with that. I got it out soon after my appointment as a Minister and reread it, thinking, “Maybe there are some clues in here.” And I thought, “Well, I’m not going to repeat that mistake.”
In my first week as Minister, there was a significant news story about split ticketing on the front page of The Times. I immediately sat down with my officials and said, “Right. Passenger experience has to be the key issue that we focus on,” and everyone said, “Okay, how do we define passenger experience?”, because in a sense, as we have heard today, it means everything.
Passenger experience is every single interaction between a customer who wants to travel by train and the train operators. It is quite hard to segment down, but segment we must, so when it came to my recent fares and ticketing action plan, I did not want just a list of actions that I wanted the industry to take at some future date. I wanted quite specific itemised actions, with a delivery date—because delivery dates are often quite rare in these action plans—that we could hold the industry and, indeed, the Department to account on. As the Minister, I could then start to measure whether we were achieving those goals.
Just this week, for example, I was pleased to note that the Rail Delivery Group has changed its rules on how those who leave their railcards at home are compensated. Gradually, slowly but surely, the ticketing action plan is coming into effect; that is happening as rapidly as possible. I find that all too often the greatest hurdles relate to system change—programming the computers and ensuring that each computer can speak to every other computer, so that we can then get the outcomes we want.
A large number of comments today and, indeed, the bulk of this report, focused on the issues involving GTR. I know that the Select Committee has taken a close interest in that matter, so I want to try to address it. It will come as no surprise to those gathered here today when I say that the performance of GTR is not good enough. It continues to be not good enough; I continue to be dissatisfied. I expect GTR to run a timely, reliable and predictable service for passengers, but I will only ever look at changes to that franchise arrangement if that delivers an improvement on behalf of passengers and is not merely for the sake of structural change.
The report highlighted the fact that we did not wholly accept the case that someone might do a better job. I entirely accept, philosophically, that yes, someone one day might be able to do a better job. My concern at the moment is to ensure that there is not a severe deterioration in provision because of yet another handover in franchise operator. We need to evolve this franchise into a much better place.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I do not think that it is for me as a Minister to say that there is a specific target that must be hit. What I expect GTR to be doing on a regular basis is seeking to improve performance, and I will talk the hon. Lady through what I expect GTR to do.
The punctuality of services operated by GTR was at 73.1% over the 12 months to 4 March 2017. That compares significantly unfavourably with the London and south-east average of 85.2%. No one can pretend that it is anything other than simply unacceptable. It is despite the establishment of joint industry recovery plans. None the less, we are doing everything we can to improve the situation.
The Chairman of the Select Committee rightly raised the issue of force majeure. This has been one of my bugbears as Minister for many months now. Indeed, my enthusiasm for solving it rather overcame established procedure in terms of how we go about that. I am pleased to report to hon. Members that we have now completed assessing six full periods of GTR’s performance.
The quality of the data has significantly improved, allowing us to make swifter judgments, but because what we are discussing is a contractual obligation, GTR has the right, if it disagrees with the Department’s findings, to challenge those findings. That is what we are still stuck in at the moment. I aspire to bring that to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I share the undoubted enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside for putting that particular aspect of GTR’s performance behind us, but sadly I am not yet in a position to do that.
None the less, I am still trying to get Network Rail and the train operators to improve their focus on industry performance outputs. They are concentrating on three key workstreams to deliver improvements across the south-east. The first is the 2018 timetable specification, which will be crucial to increasing capacity across the south-east. The second is a back-to-basics approach—ensuring that trains are on time and correct processes are being followed and, in particular, focusing on the peaks in the morning and evening. We have found time and again that when something goes wrong on this network, what is called the perturbation and the consequential delays are significant.
I remember that in my first week, we had a sinkhole at Forest Hill—it no doubt delayed the hon. Member for Eltham on his way back to his constituency. That was an example of how something that simply could not be expected caused significant delays. It is really important that both the train operator and Network Rail work much more closely together to ensure that they recover from these problems when they occur, rather than allowing them to cascade throughout the timetable.
That is why it is important that the Department as a whole works with all the industry stakeholders to find new ways to measure performance that are more closely aligned with what passengers themselves experience day to day. That is why we are looking at improving our measurement of what is called right-time departure and right-time arrival. A passenger judges whether a train is on time by whether it arrives at the time said in timetable, and not within five to 10 minutes. Right-time departure is going to be a much more important figure in years to come, rather than the old-style public performance measure. I want to bring that change in as part of control period 6.
We also want to make sure that, as the hon. Member for North West Durham mentioned, there is much greater industry transparency on train service performance levels across franchises. I am absolutely committed to a much greater degree of transparency; none the less, it is a difficult process to engineer—if only because every single franchise has a slightly different set of measurements, which are contractual obligations in respect of the individual train operating company. That work is ongoing within the Department; it cannot come soon enough, in my view. I hope to make announcements in due course—as we always say in civil service parlance—and am very eager that we keep the pace going on it.
Many Members mentioned whether the company had a full complement of drivers on day one when they took over the franchise. I was not the Minister at the time, but I understand that part of the problem was that when the deal was announced it said it did have enough drivers, but, when it came to mobilisation day, some of those drivers had left to work in the freight sector. It is entirely right and proper that we express concerns as to how that gap occurred between those two points, but we need to take a wider look at driver recruitment across the industry as a whole.
We all know that there are skills issues across the rail sector. We have an ageing workforce and a large number of workers who are about to retire. Are we doing everything we can to make sure that we are recruiting enough drivers, that driver training is an efficient process and that people have the option of going through driver training themselves—as HGV drivers do—to seek employment somewhere else? Are we making full use of all the training facilities that we now have around the country, which I am sure the Select Committee has visited? We are in close talks with the Rail Delivery Group about how we can improve driver training as a whole to improve the throughput, make sure it meets the needs in the here and now and get the numbers we need.
Many have mentioned the industrial relations problems currently on the network. I am as frustrated as everybody else at seeing yet more RMT strikes this week, but it is clear that they are now having very little impact on the network. Last Monday, 90.5% of Southern services ran. Any strike is frustrating for passengers, but I say to the RMT, “Your strikes on Southern are not having the impact you desire. It is far better that you cease industrial action and have talks with the company, rather than persisting with the strikes.”
I take the hon. Lady’s point that it is spreading, but we remain open to talking to the RMT if it calls off its industrial action. That is the blockage that stops it from having a discussion with the Government and the various train operating companies. Nobody is losing their job; nobody is losing any pay. The independent regulator has found that the system on Southern can be safe, and GTR is taking all necessary action to ensure that it is delivered safely. I welcome yesterday’s renewed agreement between ASLEF and GTR. I gather it will now go to a ballot of ASLEF members; I hope that they endorse it, and that it then ensures we can focus on delivering improved services across the Southern network.
We are working to improve the service for GTR customers and improve compensation measures. Overall, “delay repay” payments totalled £3.2 million in the last period, of which £175,000 were “delay repay 15”. We have also launched our special one-off form of compensation, the equivalent of a month’s free travel, for all Southern season ticket holders. GTR has handled almost 37,000 special claims in that regard, totalling £8.84 million in compensation. The scheme closes on 30 April 2017, and we continue to advertise it—as does GTR—in the media, on posters at all Southern stations, on electronic billboards, in customer service announcements and on Twitter.
Please be assured that I stay in touch with the situation by having regular meetings with GTR’s chief executive officer and chief operating officer to discuss all the issues. They include compensation and the implementation and progress of all the Government-funded schemes under both the £20 million that was initially given out, and the current £300 million that will go on improving the Balcombe tunnel, removing vegetation and ensuring greater reliability.
I have five minutes remaining. As ever, how can one discuss everything about rail in the time allowed? Indeed, it is even less than that because I have to give the Select Committee Chairman a chance to have her say. I will briefly deal with accessibility, which is a mutual concern for both myself and the Labour party spokesman, the hon. Member for North West Durham.
It goes without saying that we want everybody to have equal access to transport. We have committed more than £400 million through Access for All funding and other means to improve accessibility, and train companies have to comply with the Equality Act 2010. However, I think the real picture is the fact that more and more disabled people are seeking to travel by train. The challenge for the train operating companies is getting harder with every passing month.
In the past year, we have seen 4% more sales of the disabled persons railcard and 7% more bookings under the passenger assist scheme. With more disabled people travelling, train operating companies have an ever decreasing margin for getting it wrong. I welcome the fact that the Rail Delivery Group is trying to merge the ticket reservation system and the passenger assist reservation system by December 2018, although I query whether that is soon enough and whether it could do more to bring that forward.
I remind all train operating companies that they must ensure that procedures are in place to enable disabled passengers and persons of reduced mobility to board a train in service that is under the sole operation of the driver. Where that occurs, I want to see a second person on board or on the platform to render help to those passengers who need it most. The key difference is that I do not believe that that person should be a safety-critical person. I do not think it is acceptable to have a situation where a train is cancelled and a disabled passenger cannot depart the station in the first place because there is not a second person on that train. It is fair to say that that is a small difference between myself and the hon. Lady.
Regardless of whether such assistance has been pre-booked, the principle of a “turn up and go” railway is important and must become more important in the future. It will include the requirement for all train operating companies to provide appropriately trained staff to meet their obligations. I see that as meaning more staff required on the railways, and more passenger-facing staff—not locked behind a door focusing on buttons—engaging with passengers on a regular basis. In addition, if a disabled passenger is unable to access a station, the operator must provide alternative transport—usually an accessible taxi. That will require much more cross-Government work to ensure that we have a greater supply of accessible taxis.
I am conscious that the Chairman of the Select Committee needs to say a few final words, so I shall leave my remarks there.
I thank the Committee and hon. Members present for their valuable contributions. The Minister clearly has an understanding of these issues, and I like to think that he received his training when he was a member of the Transport Committee in previous years.
The Minister spoke about the importance of having a delivery date. It is vital that we have an early delivery date for the improvement of the passenger experience, and I assure him that we will continue to pursue that aim.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Sixth Report from the Transport Committee of Session 2016-17, The future of rail: Improving the rail passenger experience, HC 64, and the Government Response, HC 905.
Jobcentre Plus Office Closures
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Jobcentre Plus office closures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, for which there is cross-party support. With the exception of an urgent question, this is the first time that the House has managed to debate this issue since the announcement of UK-wide office closures. This is an opportunity for hon. Members to represent their constituents and to discuss the effects that the office closures will have on their constituencies. As has been indicated, there is widespread disquiet about the impact that the jobcentre closures will have. I will keep my opening remarks brief to allow hon. Members with closures in their constituencies the opportunity to inform us all of the local impacts on their constituents and communities.
The House is rightly exercised—as are many hon. Members—by the haphazard nature of the closures and the lack of evidence or rationale to support them, other than that they will save money in the short term. The lack of an adequate equality impact assessment is particularly damning. The closures have been presented by the Government as a straightforward process of rationalising the estate—that is, as sensible, considered and thought through in great detail. I would suggest otherwise, however. Far from this being a planned process to make the most of the expiry of contracts to improve services and locate them where they are needed most, it is a cost-cutting, penny-pinching cuts programme being done with poor to non-existent consideration of local conditions.
Instead of consulting appropriately with local partners and seeking to co-locate with other services to improve the effectiveness of Jobcentre Plus services, the Government have embarked upon a Google Maps, back-of-an-envelope exercise, based on achieving a targeted percentage of closures—10% overall, but 50% in Glasgow, as I am sure we will hear. Instead of enabling jobseekers to easily access other services—such as support with housing, childcare, debt management and health conditions—to help them to overcome their barriers to work, the Government have started with the basic premise of how many offices they can close and then worked backwards.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. For the record, we should remember that at least 30,000 people have lost their jobs in the civil service, and this is part of that. He spoke about the increasing workload. Citizens advice bureaus have reported that their workloads have gone up by 88%, in particular because of personal independence payment claims. Tile Hill jobcentre in my constituency is being closed, so people will have to walk miles or get buses. Importantly, a lot of them suffer from disabilities, so they will be at a disadvantage.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there have been 30,000 job losses in the civil service. As I will point out, there will be more in relation to this particular exercise, as the Government admitted in written answers to me. He is also correct about the lack of an equality impact assessment, which I will also mention.
This is a deeply flawed process, tainted by the lack of consultation with local community planning partners. In Glasgow, the Department for Work and Pensions is meant to be a key player in the process, but the closures were announced without consultation, and that is about as far from a “One Glasgow” approach as we can get. Nor to the closures do anything to support a locally agreed priority of youth employment.
Instead of respecting the terms of the Smith agreement, the UK Government announced the closures without any advance consultation with the communities that will be affected and in so doing bypassed the Scottish Government. Paragraph 58 of the Smith Commission report states:
“As the single face-to-face channel for citizens to access all benefits delivered by DWP, Jobcentre Plus will remain reserved. However, the UK and Scottish Government will identify ways to further link services through methods such as co-location wherever possible and establish more formal mechanisms to govern the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland.”
Ministers have had to publicly admit, including in a written answer to me, that they expect at least 750 DWP staff to lose their jobs and they have refused to rule out compulsory redundancies. Jobs will disappear through this process, not only directly but indirectly. That will be less visible in cities, where jobs in call centres, delivery companies and coffee shops have replaced the thousands of admin and clerical posts that have been cut year on year for longer than I can remember. Every public sector office closure leads to money being taken out of the local economy and reduces the opportunities for young people to build a career, instead of just holding down a job. The impact on smaller cities and towns should not be underestimated. For some communities it is the equivalent of a Ravenscraig or a Linwood. Local traders are affected, small businesses fold, young people move away if they can and the local economy declines.
Finally, I want to highlight the link between the push to digital services and office closures, when it becomes much more difficult to find a person to talk to in a public office. I have spoken recently about the unfair telephone tax, where the most vulnerable are hit with call charges for contacting the DWP and other government services. The DWP is a long way from being digital by default. A vicious circle is emerging, whereby access to advice and support is being blocked to those who need it most. Every Member here can testify that our offices are now providing more and more of that support through our constituency casework. Widespread jobcentre closures will only increase the workload on other staff in the DWP, giving them less time to spend on individuals.
I will now leave it to other hon. Members to voice their concerns and no doubt vent their frustrations about this botched and flawed process.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). I congratulate him on securing the debate and, like him, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us this opportunity today.
Lewisham jobcentre, which is based in my constituency, is one of the jobcentres earmarked for closure. In my borough the unemployment rate is higher than average. We have 3,100 people in receipt of either jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit, who have a reason to visit the jobcentre once a fortnight. Another 15,000 people in the borough of Lewisham receive employment and support allowance or income support. Although they visit the jobcentre less frequently, it is estimated that between 100 and 200 of them use the jobcentre in Rushey Green every week.
At the moment the jobcentre is located in the heart of the borough of Lewisham, on a busy street between Lewisham and Catford. It is easily accessible on a number of different bus routes and from five different overground railway stations. The Department for Work and Pensions proposes to close that much needed, busy jobcentre in my constituency and relocate it to another office that it has in Forest Hill. That office is small, and although there is a proposal to expand into some of the space available in that building, my fear is that we will squeeze staff from the main jobcentre in Lewisham into unsuitable, smaller premises in Forest Hill that are less accessible.
I know that the DWP is exploring taking up some space in a council-owned building called Eros House. I ask the Minister to do everything he can to ensure that the local presence of the DWP is able to pursue that option. It is no good sending people down to Bromley from Lewisham or trying to run those services from a constrained site in Forest Hill. It is vital that we can have that easily accessible location at Eros House in Catford.
Let me take a minute to reflect on how we got here. The lease arrangements for the DWP have been in place for 30 years and they are coming to an end. For the last six months an agent has been looking to secure space in a central Lewisham location, but has been unable to find any. I do not know whether the process should have started sooner, so that consideration could have been given to the new developments in the borough of Lewisham to ensure that appropriate space could be found. We find ourselves in this situation partly because of the Government’s changes to permitted development rights and the planning system in the last few years. The owner of the building that the jobcentre is currently located in has decided to convert that office building to residential under permitted development rights, and there is a real problem sourcing office space in central locations, particularly in London.
I am concerned about the impact on people who rely on the jobcentre to access the help, advice and support that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West talked about. As politicians, we spend a lot of time talking about how much money is paid to individuals in benefit and less time on exactly what support is provided to help people back into work. It goes without saying that people need to be able to get to that help and support easily. I know that the consultation process and equality impact assessment might not kick in for some jobcentres in London because of the issue of being within 20 minutes to the next jobcentre, but anyone who has sat on a bus on the south circular in south London trying to get from one place to the next will realise that 20 minutes in theory is not always 20 minutes in practice.
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman said about the move to digital services. Some of the people in my constituency who use the jobcentre frequently will want to see somebody face to face. At my own advice surgeries every fortnight I see between 25 and 40 people, which is testament to the fact that people want to speak to somebody directly.
We need to provide tailored support to individuals trying to get back into work. I was interested to read an article in the Evening Standard on 31 January by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the disability unemployment rate in London, in which he wrote:
“The gap between the number of disabled people in work compared with the employment rate of non-disabled people in London is around 28 percentage points—a figure that is frankly unacceptable in 2017.”
I agree with the Secretary of State about that, but it is a bit rich for him then to say:
“We’re building a locally-based system that works with businesses in the area and can offer people intense support”.
I think that is a bit rich, because in London the DWP is proposing to close one in three jobcentres: 22 of the capital’s 73 existing jobcentres. Of the 22 that are closing, 15 are located in boroughs with a higher than average claimant count, and, as we know, London has a higher than average claimant count than the country as a whole.
I am also concerned that the rate of unemployment among young people, the disabled and those from black and minority ethnic communities is higher in London than the national average. In fact, Office for National Statistics data from last September showed that BME unemployment in London stood at 9%. Ministers should review the criteria they use to determine the closures.
I am listening with great interest to the case that my hon. Friend is making. One of the puzzling things about the closure programme is that the Government also want to increase the workload of jobcentres and want some people to go more frequently. They also want to introduce conditionality for people who are in work. It is difficult to see how those additional tasks can be managed at the same time as shutting down so many jobcentres.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, who has huge expertise and experience in this area. Ministers need to review the criteria that they use to determine which closures are subject to full public consultation processes. We have not yet seen an equality impact assessment of the closures, which is absolutely critical in a London context, for the reasons that I have set out.
I urge the Minister to have an eye to the future as opposed to the past. The Government might pat themselves on the back over employment rates—we could have a discussion another time about the nature of the employment that has been created in recent years—but they need to think about what might happen over the next couple of years. I detect some complacency among Ministers about Brexit and its economic consequences. In my constituency, we are heavily dependent on jobs in the financial services industry and in professional services that support industry such as cleaning, security and employment agencies. Some of my low-paid constituents work in retail and hospitality.
I am concerned about the prospects for employment should we see the movement of financial services from London to other cities in Europe. If we are likely to see an increasing caseload in jobcentres, allied to the issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has set out about how individuals’ interaction with jobcentres is changing, then the Government’s proposal is short-sighted and could have serious long-term consequences for people’s ability to get back into employment. I ask the Minister to review the closures across London and to look in detail at what provision can be made in central Lewisham for my own jobcentre.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate, not least because it is the only time that anyone from Inverclyde will be afforded the opportunity to have a say on the proposed closure of the Port Glasgow jobcentre.
As the Minister will already be aware, the decision to close one of my constituency’s two jobcentres was not put out to consultation because the distance between the Greenock and Port Glasgow jobcentres is less than three miles. By my reckoning it is 2.6 miles between the two buildings as the crow flies, and 2.84 miles if one measures the actual route that one would need to take along the road network. For the sake of an additional 250 metres it is hard to understand why the UK Government would not consult on this decision so that service users could outline how the changes affect them.
Or maybe the UK Government simply do not care what service users think, otherwise the obvious course of action would have been to undertake a consultation on all closures. By setting up the consultation criteria in the way that they have, the UK Government have manufactured the result they wanted: namely, only 30 job- centres out of the 183 affected by the changes will be subject to consultation. We all know that the reality of this situation is that the closure decision has absolutely nothing to do with providing a Government service. Rather, it is part of the UK Government’s goal of selling £4.5 billion-worth of Government land and property by 2020-21.
Over the course of the previous Parliament, the DWP estate shrunk by 17%, with the Government intent on reducing the size by a further 20%. I fully appreciate the need for any Government to spend public funds wisely, but the decision to slash the number of jobcentres will most definitely have a negative impact on my constituents. The most obvious consideration is the additional travel costs that service users will face in getting to their appointments. This will barely register as small change for a UK Government Minister or indeed an MP, but it is an unwanted additional expense for someone already struggling on a low income.
Constituents will also be burdened with increased travel times, which in turn puts them at an increased risk of being sanctioned under the DWP’s draconian and uncompromising rules. Again, the Minister may say, “It’s only three miles’ difference. What’s the big deal?”
One issue that may have been identified had a local consultation taken place is that the only main road between Greenock and Port Glasgow is liable to flooding at certain times of the year. It may block traffic once or twice a year, but one missed appointment is all it takes to be sanctioned. I want to say that I support the staff of the Port Glasgow jobcentre, who are fulfilling their support roles as best they can with the guidance handed to them from ministerial level. I am aware that they have their own reservations about the closure and how it will affect their clients. In the words of Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union:
“Jobcentres provide a lifeline for unemployed people and forcing them to travel further is not only unfair, it undermines support to get them back to work.”
A report from the Disability Benefits Consortium found that 93% of respondents to a survey of service users thought that the process for applying for PIP was stressful: 80% experienced difficulties in completing the claim form, while 82% felt that the application process had a negative impact on their health. Will Minister explain how closing one of my constituency’s two jobcentres will improve that experience for service users?
We can highlight the lack of consultation and the specific practical issues surrounding this closure. My fear, however, is that the issue highlights, once again, a more general problem—the UK Government’s complete lack of compassion or genuine concern for vulnerable people. Instead they pursue spreadsheet politics where the only thing that matters is the bottom line.
I hope that the debate will not conclude with a meaningless regurgitation of the Government’s policy. At the very least the Minister should have the intellectual honesty to come to the Chamber and admit that the experience of service users is not a consideration in the closure decision. My constituents deserve that. I support the calls for closures to be suspended until a wider consultation is conducted, so that we can properly assess the impact of the decision on all our constituents.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing today’s important debate through the Backbench Business Committee; I also thank all those who supported the application, and the Members who are participating today.
We are back again: this is the third full debate on the issue in which I have participated. I am rather disappointed that many of the questions and points raised in the first two are yet to be addressed by the Department for Work and Pensions. Parliamentary questions tabled by me and my colleagues have received poor-quality answers. At least one thing can be said of the Department: it is consistent in its handling of the matter. Right from the start, it has been a shambles. As we have heard, after the news broke in the press that half Glasgow’s jobcentres were to be axed, it took seven hours for the Department to write to the affected MPs and inform us. It did not see fit to inform us or even consult us; nor did it bother to speak with the devolved Administration in Scotland.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West said, paragraph 58 of the Smith commission report states that
“the UK and Scottish Government will identify ways to further link services through methods such as co-location wherever possible and establish more formal mechanisms to govern the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland.”
The report emphasised that the Scottish Government would have greater responsibility, jointly with the UK Government, in relation to Jobcentre Plus. Yet that did not happen. Not only were the Scottish Government kept in the dark; I have discovered through written parliamentary questions that the Secretary of State for Scotland was not even informed of the specific plans for the jobcentre closures in Glasgow before the information was made public. Why were neither the devolved Administration at Holyrood nor the Scotland Office made aware of DWP plans? Was it arrogance or ignorance that led the DWP to act in such a cavalier fashion, with such disregard for those alongside whom it is supposed to be working constructively? I will be kind and say it was ignorance of the needs of the people of Scotland.
The Department will have to listen to the views of those who rely on the services, and meet the needs of the people of Scotland. It needs to understand that the impact of the closures is part of an intricate local picture. I wonder whether the Minister knows, for instance, of the issues affecting Cambuslang in my constituency, where the Main Street jobcentre is due to close next year. Is the Department aware that Royal Bank of Scotland closed its doors there just months ago, that local traders have subsequently suffered a reported 30% drop in footfall, or that the two remaining banks, TSB and Clydesdale, have announced that they too are to close in the coming months? Has it considered at all the cumulative impact that those closures will have along with the closure of a major resource such as the jobcentre? I am guessing the answer to all of those questions is no. Perhaps if Ministers had bothered to consult me, they would be better informed.
The Department will have seriously to make up for its former ignorance by consulting service users, local stakeholders—such as the local Church of Scotland minister Neil Glover, who has spoken out against the jobcentre closure and described it as a moral issue— and elected representatives, and by working with the Scottish Government. Scottish Employability and Training Minister Jamie Hepburn has written to and met Ministers from the Department, not only to express grave concerns but to seek clarity on the issue. He has requested that UK Ministers meet benefit recipients and others from the communities that will be affected by the proposals.
It is vital that the UK Government should consult properly and consider all options, including co-location opportunities. The Scottish Government are proactively exploring opportunities to co-locate jobcentre services with local partners to ease the impact on individuals and communities. The Department should do likewise, and ensure that the Scottish Government are fully engaged with the process.
As I have said, this is the third debate on the subject. It is frustrating that we have to bring up the same issues again. I ask the Minister today to take seriously the points that have been raised—I shall go further, and ask for a guarantee that the jobcentre in Cambuslang will not close its doors. If he decides that it should, at the very least we need a presence in Cambuslang to ensure that claimants will not have to travel further, with increased travel costs, all the way to Rutherglen. My constituents deserve better than the approach taken by the UK Government so far.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I, too, offer thanks and congratulations to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).
When I first saw the announcement about the closure of the Eastern Avenue jobcentre in my constituency I was relatively agnostic about it. Given that there were to be no compulsory redundancies and it is a relatively short distance into town, I did not think it would be that much of a problem. If the Government could make a case that centres needed to be closed and services improved in certain areas, I was prepared to listen to it. However, having read the further announcement, followed the plan’s progress and, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, participated in several debates, I have been horrified that no justification has been given for the decisions at all. None of the work—the assessments or gathering and publication of evidence—that one would expect ahead of a decision of this kind has been done; no such work informed the pitiful consultation process that has taken place so far.
It is claimed on the Government website that the decisions are due to the claimant count reducing and the number of digital interactions increasing, and the fact that 20% of the DWP estate is underutilised. To take those one by one, it may be the case that the claimant count is falling, but I do not think that anyone could tell jobcentre staff anywhere in the UK that their workload has reduced in the past seven years and is likely to continue to reduce—not least because of the roll-out of universal credit, which is incredibly complex. As has been mentioned, universal credit will require more interactions than in the past, including face-to-face interactions. For the first time, working people will have to attend interviews at jobcentres; and from April lone parents will be obliged to see work coaches once their child reaches three years old, rather than five, which is the current threshold. It is highly unlikely that interactions and workload will fall in the coming years.
As to digital interactions, the ward in which Eastern Avenue jobcentre is to close is one of the most deprived in the country; 74% of people there are in the 10% most deprived in the country. Many of them do not use the internet at all, let alone have the capacity to apply online—there are very high levels of digital exclusion. Ironically, the council is currently doing some work on digital inclusion, commissioned by the DWP, around Eastern Avenue jobcentre; that work will have to be halted. Again, there does not seem to have been any recognition or cognisance of the impact that the cuts will have on that work.
Whether or not the estate is underutilised at Eastern Avenue—or indeed at Cavendish Court, where the Government are expecting claimants to move to—is open to question. I have been to both jobcentres and there certainly does not seem to be any underutilised space—Cavendish Court in particular is bursting at the seams—but we do not know, because the Government have not published any of the evidence and do not seem to have done any of the work behind it. I met the manager for my region, North, East Yorkshire and the Humber, after the Minister advised me that that was the best way to proceed. It was not her fault, but I am afraid the manager had absolutely nothing to add to what the Government had already published.
As other Members have said, there has clearly been no equality impact assessment. Nor has there been any assessment of how many employment and support allowance or income support claimants are currently using Eastern Avenue and will therefore now have to go to the city centre. The Government do not know how many claimants the closure is going to affect, which is basic information that we would expect to inform the consultation process. There was no information on how much the Government would save by closing Eastern Avenue. That is important, because the regional manager admitted that money would have to be spent on the city centre jobcentre to increase its capacity and accommodate all the extra claimants, so we do not know whether the closure will actually save the taxpayer a single penny.
No plans have been put in place and no work has been done on whether claimants who currently come under Woodhouse jobcentre, but are looked after by Eastern Avenue if they need group sessions or screened appointments, can be accommodated by Cavendish Court, or whether more money will have to spent to develop the space at Woodhouse to conduct those sessions. Eastern Avenue currently conducts 17 screened appointments a week. That is a considerable amount of time to dedicate to claimants, and we have absolutely no idea whether Cavendish Court can accommodate them.
There was a paltry four-week consultation, although we were lucky to get even that in Sheffield; as we have heard today, many jobcentres throughout the country did not. The Government have treated Parliament and, worse, the public with disdain by refusing to justify their decision and publish the evidential basis behind it. How can Ministers possibly ask us to support the decision if the information is not available? Now that the consultation has closed, before the Government publish their final decision I ask the Minister to publish the DWP’s people and estates programme and any of the other impact assessments that were presumably conducted internally. I really hope that the Government have not taken the approach, which they seem to have taken in the past, of just pointing to jobcentres on Google Maps and deciding, seemingly haphazardly and arbitrarily, which centres to close.
I particularly want to press the Minister on why the Government have rowed back on their original commitment not to close jobcentres in particularly deprived areas. Finally, I urge him not to rely solely on Google Maps for travel times, as he recently admitted to doing in answer to a written question from me. [Interruption.] He is looking confused, but he confirmed to me that his Department used Google Maps for travel times.
Yes. The Department’s introduction to the announcement confidently asserted that the travel time between Eastern Avenue and the city centre would be 24 minutes. That analysis was based on Google Maps. A claimant who currently goes to Eastern Avenue did a travel journal for me of his journeys from Eastern Avenue to Cavendish Court on eight separate occasions, and not one of them took 24 minutes. The average journey time between the two jobcentres is 44 minutes.
That is another interesting point that shows the problems with using Google Maps without consulting the local authority or the local passenger transport executive, as any rational person would expect the Government to do. On average, the journey between Eastern Avenue and the city centre takes 44 minutes. The maximum time it took Antony was 63 minutes.
There is clear consensus today that the evidence base and the impact assessments need to be published before the final decision is made. I would really like the Minister to reflect today on the long-term impact of removing a respected community service from incredibly deprived areas—Arbourthorne and Manor Top are some of the most deprived in the country—that have relied on them for so long.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing the debate, and all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed.
It is vital that we stand up for workers’ rights in these times of austerity. It is critical that the Government engage with unions in a meaningful way and include them in the determination and resolution of any appropriate issue such as office closures. My hon. Friends have covered the lack of interface with the Scottish Government; their points were well made and I will not repeat them. My constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is affected by the cuts to jobcentre locations, as are the constituencies of many other Members present. I commend them for their attendance; appropriately, given the debate’s cross-party nature, we have adopted a collective response.
Coatbridge is a local DWP back office that employs about 250 people and is facing closure as a result of these cuts. I have been in contact with union representatives about the closure since the announcement was made and I recently attended the annual general meeting of the local branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union to discuss the impact of the closure on its members and on the local community. I was particularly concerned to be informed by the union that the DWP’s announcement was made without any consultation with the workers or the union at all. The DWP did not inform me of the lack of consultation when I was contacted about the closure. Although the DWP has stated that the closure will not involve any job losses, it has indicated that the jobs in question will be moved to alternate locations in central Glasgow or Motherwell, both of which are approximately half an hour’s drive away—and that is if we assume no traffic delays.
Coatbridge is a community filled with young families. Many people base decisions about who they work for on the location of their potential workplace: they choose to work in locations that allow them to drop their children at school in the morning or be near an elderly or poorly relative. There is also the issue of additional travel costs for the predominantly local staff to and from Glasgow and Motherwell—again, colleagues have covered that well, so I will not repeat the points they made. For many workers affected by the cut, the loss of that essential proximity to home, the additional travel and the associated costs may mean that they need to seek alternative employment. I can hardly see how a Government can describe themselves as pro-family when they put so many in such a precarious position.
The union members I spoke to were concerned about the dilution and inevitable reduction in the quality of services provided to service users that the cuts will cause, as was well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan). The closure will affect not only current employees and their families but local businesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) articulated well. The DWP facility that faces closure is just off the main street in Coatbridge and, like many town centres throughout the country, it suffers from massive reductions in footfall, and subsequently business, for high street retailers and service providers. It seemed as if things could not get any worse for our main street retailers, but the facility’s relocation out of Coatbridge town centre will be yet another blow for the businesses in and around it and for the other businesses, such as childcare businesses, restaurants and takeaways, that support the local workforce in my constituency and the surrounding constituencies.
Unfortunately, the announced closure is only one of a decades-long series of ideologically driven cuts to services in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill from a London-centric UK Government. It gives the lie to the claim we hear from London about caring conservatism. Nothing could be further from the truth. I urge the Minister to focus on the decentralisation of services if he and his Government are truly serious about a more inclusive Britain for all. Like my colleagues, I ask the Minister to reconsider, to halt the closures and to review them after proper assessments and a proper consultation process have been carried out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and thank him for securing this debate. I want to speak against the impending closure of Phoenix House in Barrow, which is not a jobcentre but a back-office benefits processing centre. As I will outline, the 80 people in that centre perform an important service to people throughout the United Kingdom. As I said to the Minister, who was good enough to make himself available in the days immediately after the shock announcement, closing the centre could have damaging consequences for the people whom we as a country, the state and his Department are supposed to be serving.
In contrast with some of the tone of the debate so far, I am not questioning the Minister’s integrity. Everything that I saw of him in the time before he became a Minister suggests that he is genuinely committed to the field, in which he spent a considerable amount of time before being promoted to a ministerial role. However, he is presiding over a process that is simply not acceptable, for many reasons that have been outlined in this debate. This is an important opportunity for him to listen and make amends.
I imagine that the Minister will recall our brief meeting. Having worked as an adviser in the Department where he now serves, I have some experience of how it can sometimes drive forward with a programme while treating ministerial direction—which, frankly, it sometimes seems to take as advice—as wholly unwelcome, although I do not expect him to confirm that in his remarks. I have spoken with his Department. Mentioning the conduct of civil servants is not something I do lightly, but I was genuinely taken aback when I went to see the Minister and the civil servant who was there to support him did not even know what benefit was processed in Barrow. That is lacking in and of itself when we are talking about 80 people in my constituency who are losing their jobs. As the Minister for Employment, he will have some understanding that when skilled office jobs are eliminated in a geographically remote constituency such as Barrow, they have little prospect of being replaced by something else, and people cannot realistically travel to another place two or more hours away. I expected that civil servant to know what those people did, at least.
Due to the nature of the benefit, closing Phoenix House and taking the facilities somewhere else in the country, inevitably employing new people, will do damage to the service provided. The centre processes industrial injuries disablement benefit. The team say proudly that they have more than 100 years’ experience between them of processing that benefit. Due to that build-up of expertise, the Barrow team has taken part in a process that has reduced the processing time for that benefit from 175 days to 33 days. That is an achievement and welcome in itself, but we must also take into account who receives the benefit. It goes to people who have developed terrible conditions. Many of them, such as those suffering from the likes of asbestosis, are terminally ill due to negligence in past decades. That is why they have been given compensation in the form of the benefit. The whole point of focusing on driving down the time that it takes for them to get it is that it makes the difference between them receiving it while they are still alive and receiving it after they have died.
When I made the case to the Minister, he told me that he and the Government were not in the business of reversing that progress and going back to the days when, unfortunately, many people died before they were given the benefit, which is itself inadequate compensation for having their lives taken away but is nevertheless important both financially and as recognition that they were wronged in their employment. I put it to him again that reversing progress is exactly what will happen if that function is taken away from Phoenix House and put elsewhere in the country.
The Minister will know by now, I hope, that it takes 12 to 18 months to train people in even a basic level of competence, and the people at Phoenix House have much more than that due to the experience that they have built up. I am coming to the end of my time; I am pleased that we are giving him ample time to address all the diverse issues. I hope that he can address the plight of the staff members at Phoenix House, who are campaigning hard. They have set up a petition, and I supported their march in Barrow on Saturday. They are fighting for their jobs, but they are also fighting for the service that they give to the rest of the nation, and I hope that he takes it seriously in his response.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I congratulate and thank my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this debate. After many—possibly more than 100—written questions, urgent questions, debates in Westminster Hall and points of order that are not really points of order, I salute his indefatigability in pursuing this issue.
I also thank the PCS Scotland union for the excellent job that it has done assisting Members of Parliament throughout the country, and particularly in Glasgow, where we heard the rather unwelcome news just before Christmas that the Government intend to reduce the jobcentre estate by half, from 16 jobcentres to eight, two of which—the Castlemilk and Langside jobcentres—are in my constituency.
I hate to say it, but having spoken in the two previous debates, met the Minister along with colleagues and taken part in the urgent questions, there is not much new for me to say. However, as you will know, Mr Walker, the Speaker reminds us that repetition is not a vice in this House, so I will repeat some of it. The Castlemilk jobcentre serves a community that was once more populous than the city of Perth and has some of the most deprived neighbourhoods anywhere in the United Kingdom. It sits in the Braes shopping centre in the centre of Castlemilk, and it is, I think, the only serious anchor tenant there. If the jobcentre goes, it will create big problems.
However, that should not be the only reason for it to stay. The other reason is that closure will have an impact on those who use the jobcentre. I hate to say it, but to return to the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), this plan has been designed by Google Maps. Like the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), I do not want to mention civil servants on the public record, but when we met senior civil servants from the Department for Work and Pensions in Glasgow before Christmas, I jokingly asked if they had worked it out using Google Maps, expecting the answer to be, “Don’t be so ridiculous, Mr McDonald; we would never do such a thing.” However, the response I got was, “Yes, we’ve used Google Maps,” which has bus services that no longer exist and does not take into account travel times as far as traffic goes.
Langside jobcentre serves the second most densely populated council ward anywhere in Scotland, and it serves a population of people who live in private lets and who often have quite precarious working conditions, in temporary jobs, on zero-hours contracts and with relatively low pay, and whose employment is in many cases anything but secure.
I would ask the Minister why, despite several genuine and friendly invitations, he has not taken any time at all to visit any of the jobcentres in Glasgow that he wishes to close. I do not know what he thinks will happen to him if he comes, but I can assure him that either I or one of my hon. Friends from the city of Glasgow will look after him. He will be okay. Even at this late stage, I implore him to visit a jobcentre in Glasgow to hear what the staff and the users have to say.
Absolutely. With the Castlemilk jobcentre, all the people who use it will effectively have to use what the Department calls the Newlands jobcentre—it is called that, but it is actually in Pollokshaws, which is even further away than Newlands. All the people from Castlemilk who have to use that jobcentre will have an 8-mile round trip to get there and back. At the minute, no matter where someone is in Castlemilk, they can walk to the jobcentre in, at the most, maybe seven minutes, and that is for a perfectly able-bodied person.
I do not see the need to put those kinds of barriers in people’s way for trying to access a service that has been in their community for a long, long time. The Department seems to think that people can get from Castlemilk to the jobcentre in Pollokshaws in under 30 minutes—I think that is what it has said. I say, “Well, good luck with that,” because, having gone around the constituency countless times over the years I have lived in Glasgow, which is my entire adult life, I certainly have never been able to make that journey in just over 20 minutes.
However, I will come to my final point, which is on the consultation. We had to drag the Government to publish their consultation on the Glasgow jobcentres online; they had no intention of doing that. [Interruption.] The Minister can shake his head or gesticulate in any way he wants, but they had no intention of putting that on the Department for Work and Pensions website. It was welcome that they did, and it was also welcome that they extended the consultation for around two weeks. I am not sure what the Minister is so flabbergasted by, but I look forward to hearing about it none the less.
It was quite remiss of the Government not to take the time to write to every single person who would have been affected by these closures. When someone goes to the jobcentre to register, there is not a bit of information that the staff do not get from them, so the Government could have made it easy for those for whom this closure would be a big issue to take part in the consultation. Rather than just having fliers and putting up a couple of posters in jobcentres, the Government could have sent a consultation response form directly to their houses, or by email, rather than relying on Members of Parliament or members of the public—I had several people willing to do this, even though they were not exactly happy about it—standing outside jobcentres and informing people that they were going to close, which was the first time they had heard about it. In my view, it was quite wrong of Ministers not to inform MPs about this matter and for us to have to read about it in the press, but that is nothing in comparison with members of the public who use the jobcentres finding out from a stranger in the street campaigning outside a jobcentre.
The Government have handled the consultation poorly; however, I would like to hear what the responses to the consultation contain. I would also like to hear how many responses there have been and to know when the announcement on closures will be made. My understanding is that we can expect an announcement towards the end of March—that is, around about the time that article 50 is in full-blown scale, so it will perhaps be a good time to bury bad news.
Nevertheless, I ask the Minister this quite sincerely: can he commit to making an oral statement on the Floor of the House and to not sneaking this news out in a written statement, a press release, or in some fashion that avoids proper parliamentary scrutiny? If he gives me nothing else today—U-turns are quite fashionable this week, but I am not sure he will do another—I ask him to commit at the very least to making a full oral statement on the Floor of the House, so that Members can scrutinise the decision further.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this critical debate.
As the Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire, I would like to put on the record the fact that the Alexandria jobcentre in the Vale of Leven in my constituency has been proposed for closure. Colleagues from all parties have made strong cases for the reversal of the UK Government’s proposals to close a number of jobcentres in their respective constituencies. I hope the Minister will take their points on board. I feel for the Minister, because I am led to believe that there will be a closure in his own constituency, which must be going down like a lead balloon.
Although I agree with the arguments put forward by colleagues, there are special circumstances that set the Alexandria jobcentre apart. The catchment area shares similar characteristics with others earmarked for closure. There are high levels of deprivation and unemployment, which, as in other urban areas, must be taken into consideration. The Alexandria jobcentre differs, in that it serves a population that is not only urban but suburban, in the true sense, and a rural community, which results in a set of unique challenges for those living in those communities, especially given that the area includes the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park boundary.
An argument put forward by the DWP to support its proposal is that it is now easier to access jobcentre services, whether over the phone, online or in person. Let me take those in order. For citizens living in rural areas, the practical challenges are many. People whose line connections depend on weather conditions, which in my constituency are temperamental at best, do not have easy access to services by phone, as the Department argues. Given BT Openreach’s dubious record in elements of the rural sections of my constituency, there are difficulties in online connectivity.
It is an outrage. My hon. Friend highlights something that makes a mockery of the suggestion that this will save money.
Those who do not have an internet connection because their area has not yet had substantial investment in broadband connectivity—in my area we need investment in the copper wiring, never mind new fibre—cannot access the services online as easily as the Department presumes. Many urban, suburban and rural citizens simply cannot afford to sign up to an internet provider. That also holds true in relation to phone and mobile operators.
Reducing the number of jobcentres and moving those services to a central location—in my constituency, down to Dumbarton—will make it more difficult for citizens to access those so-called local services in person. It will result in longer journeys at a greater cost to those who are already struggling to pay the bills, and it may exacerbate health conditions. In certain parts of my consistency in the winter, it is not an easy journey, especially for people coming from the national park end. To suggest that those individuals can claim back any cost incurred through the longer journey misses the bigger point. They are already struggling financially, and the lack of awareness from the Government and specifically the Department is quite unnerving.
To ensure the best service for citizens, all interested parties must be involved. I welcome West Dunbartonshire Council’s proactive cross-party approach to tackling these issues in the best way for our constituents. I urge the Minister in the strongest possible terms to engage constructively with the local authority to retain those local services. In the light of that, I ask him to draw its attention to the policy, because there are different policy frameworks across the UK. For Scotland, I urge the Department to read the report by the Christie commission on the future delivery of public services, which shows how that delivery might be achieved with community planning partners. The clue is in the name: it is about partners and partnership.
Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) cannot be here today for personal reasons, and she asked me to raise a few points on her behalf. The Department announced that it was relocating 300 jobs out of her constituency into the city of Glasgow, with no consideration of the impact on the local economy. In addition, no consideration has been given to how existing staff will be affected and how the travel time will impact on their lives. That could be a major factor that may force some existing staff to consider taking redundancy, as any move may be impractical. Why is the DWP abandoning a purpose-built office to take on a new lease?
To sum up, I hope that the Minister and his civil servants will take on board the valid concerns expressed by all Members and be proactive in responding, in particular by recognising the opportunities for co-location and partnership working for local services in local communities. I am sure I speak on behalf of all Members in praising the staff and those from the PCS union. I have been meeting them to ensure that this is kept to the fore as a major issue for us to debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this debate. He spoke passionately about the haphazard nature of the closures, and described it as a Google Maps exercise done on the back of an envelope. He also spoke about the loss of jobs and the impact on the local economy. It has been a very important debate, even though we have already had several debates on this issue.
We have had some excellent contributions, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who made a measured speech about the impact on her constituents and the Government’s complacency on the economic consequences of Brexit for the financial sector, on which many of her constituents rely. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) spoke about practical problems, such as flood risk and the impact that might have on people being sanctioned. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) talked about the cumulative impact in her constituency of other closures, such as those of local banks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) represents one of the most deprived areas of the country. She asked the Minister why we should be asked to support the measure, given that we have not been given the evidence base or any impact assessment. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) made some very good points about the remote geographical location of his constituency and the loss of expertise for Jobcentre Plus. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) spoke about the doubling of public transport fares for people in his constituency. There were also contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell).
Many questions still need to be answered. The Government appear to believe that the current levels of employment and the introduction of universal credit mean that more than one in 10 Jobcentre Plus offices can be closed, regardless of the impact on the local community. According to House of Commons Library analysis, 33% of jobcentres in London, 18% of jobcentres in Scotland and 16% of jobcentres in the north-west will be lost at a time when communities are already under real pressure due to seven years of Tory austerity.
Jobcentre Plus faces considerable challenges in the immediate future. From this April, it will play a much greater role in directly providing employment support when new referrals to the Work programme cease. From the end of this year, the Work programme and Work Choice will be replaced by the Work and Health programme. Most people claiming JSA are currently asked to take part in the Work programme, while Work Choice provides specialist employment support for disabled people.
Does the shadow Minister agree that it is about not only the expertise of jobcentre staff in carrying out their role, but the rapport built up between them and the clients? That is even more important when dealing with those with mental health issues, where continuity is crucial.
I thank the hon. Lady for that; she makes a good point.
Eligibility for the Work and Health programme will be much more restricted than the programmes it replaces. It will be open to certain disabled people and to people who have been unemployed for two years or more. In the light of that, the Employment Related Services Association estimates that as many as 45,000 fewer disabled people will have access to specialist employment support in every remaining year of this Parliament. Employment support for almost everyone else will be provided by Jobcentre Plus, including many disabled people with specialist needs.
How does the programme of jobcentre closures square with the Government’s aim of meeting their manifesto commitment of halving the disability employment gap? The longer and more complicated journeys to jobcentres as a result of the closures will particularly affect disabled people and people with caring responsibilities. Why has the DWP not yet published an equality impact assessment to analyse the effect of the closures on claimants and the local community?
More difficult journeys also increase the risk of claimants being sanctioned by staff for being late for or missing appointments. Will DWP issue guidance that, when considering sanctions, jobcentres should take account of increased journey times due to closures? There is already a backlog of sanctions, which in some cases is leading to money being withdrawn from claimants months after non-compliance, even though claimants may in the meantime have done what they were asked to do.
The roll-out of universal credit is continuing and will also present additional challenges for Jobcentre Plus. Jobcentres are having to do a huge range of things: provide careers advice to schools; deliver the new youth obligation under universal credit, which involves much more intensive support for 18 to 21-year-olds for the first six months of their claim; assess the viability of businesses for self-employed people claiming universal credit; and extend services to the partners of jobseekers, because universal credit applies to a household, so for the first time a spouse or partner of a claimant can be asked to attend a jobcentre to discuss work, even if they themselves have not made a claim or are in work. In future, jobcentres will also have to operate in-work conditionality under universal credit. In other words, people on low incomes who are working will be required to increase their earnings or risk being sanctioned—another first.
There is growing evidence that the supposed six-week wait for payment at the start of a universal credit claim is much longer in some areas, leading to people being in arrears with their rent and building up debts. Will the Minister assure us that the DWP has fully taken into account the need to tackle existing delays in processing claims in its plans for closures? Furthermore, universal credit is being rolled out at a rate of five jobcentres per month, rising to 30 jobcentres per month from July and 50 jobcentres after September, but by the end of last year the Department was ready to announce a dramatic programme of closures at the very time it was going to speed up the roll-out of universal credit.
Universal credit is, of course, designed for claims to be made and managed online. The Minister, in his statement of 26 January, highlighted that
“99.6% of applicants for Universal Credit full service submitted their claim online.”
As has been said by many Members, however, not everyone is confident of using IT, and many people rely on access to a computer in local libraries to do so—and libraries, too, are under threat from the cuts to local authority funding, with which we are all so familiar.
Just because a claim is made online does not mean that it can then be completely managed online. When there is a problem, a claimant may have little choice but to ring the DWP helpline or to go to a jobcentre to resolve it. We know from parliamentary questions last year that many claimants are spending long periods on the phone to DWP’s universal credit helpline.
The DWP is not alone in closing offices. HMRC is also planning to close all its 170 offices nationwide by 2020, replacing them with only 13 regional centres. Employment support works best when people have a good relationship with their adviser or work coach and it is tailored to a claimant’s specific needs. I am concerned that the system is already buckling under increasing pressure and that, in closing so many jobcentres at the same time as speeding up the roll-out of universal credit, the Government are simply asking the impossible of work coaches, who are at the heart of our system of employment support.
It is vital that we have a reliable social security system that is there for any one of us should we fall on hard times. Those closures look set to erode the infrastructure in place to deliver that system without the Government’s even having made an equality impact assessment. I urge the Government to think again.
As always, it is a great pleasure to see you chairing the debate, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing it and giving us the chance to debate these matters again. I think at one point he suggested that this was the first chance that we had had to debate—
I am pleased with that clarification, although we had the urgent question on 30 January, after the UK-wide announcement on 26 January, and the Westminster Hall debate in this Chamber on 20 December, as well as a number of oral and written questions—the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), suggested more than 100. I have not been counting, but I confirm that it is a substantial number. Of course, we have had the opportunity to meet one to one and with groups as well. I am grateful for this further opportunity to debate these important matters.
On 31 March next year, the DWP’s 20-year private finance initiative contract, which covers the majority of the Department’s property portfolio of more than 900 sites, will expire. The Department for Work and Pensions currently occupies about 1.5 million square metres of office space, and these days at least 20% of it is under-occupied. The falling claimant count and the increased use of our online services in recent years means that 20% of the taxpayers’ money that the Department is spending on rent is going towards space that is not being used. By paying only for the space we do need and the services required to operate from that, we anticipate saving about £180 million a year for the next 10 years.
The expiry of that contract at the end of March 2018 presents both a unique opportunity and a specific requirement to review the estate. In response to changing demands facing the Department, we have redesigned the estate in a way that delivers better value for the taxpayer. I need to be clear that this is not about reducing services; it is about taking the opportunity to stop spending taxpayers’ money on unused space so that we can target money effectively on supporting those in need. We have carefully considered the challenges that we anticipate the Department is likely to face in the future, but the jobs landscape and the way people work has changed significantly in the past 20 years.
As has been mentioned, some 90% of universal credit claims are made online and with more of our services moving online, in common with other organisations, we want to continue making the most of the opportunities that new technologies present to help best meet our claimants’ needs.
On the roll-out of universal credit, in Sheffield it has been rolled out only to lone individuals with no children. As it expands to cover other types of benefits, the rate will decrease dramatically and, as has been mentioned, the number of interactions is only going in one direction. It is therefore misleading to use that statistic.
I am certainly not trying to mislead and I do not think I am misleading. I reassure the hon. Lady that the Department for Work and Pensions, in common with others, does staff and resource planning that takes into account all the different demands that will be made on our services, and that includes the fact that, as a number of Members have mentioned, in universal credit there is the opportunity to work more closely with people, with the workload that that will involve, to encourage more people into work. Of course, that is all part of the plans and not something additional that has not been considered.
The hon. Lady mentioned work with, for example, lone mums on income support. There is also work with partners, as the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) mentioned, and then work with people in work, the self-employed and so on. I should add that some of those offers are in development, and we will adjust and evolve the operation of the offer to optimise it as time goes on. However, of course the assumptions on the amount of workload involved are reflected in the plans.
It is right that we reflect not only the impact of the digital revolution in meeting our claimants’ needs but the realities of a more flexible labour market and significant falls in unemployment since 2010. The employment rate is at a new record high: there are more people in work than ever before. We had the statistics on the unemployment rate come out just yesterday: they have hit a 12-year low. In fact, the last time the unemployment rate was lower than what was announced yesterday was in the mid-1970s. Of course, we always have to consider that things in the world will change. That is also considered in the planning assumptions made by the Department.
In terms of employment rates, does the Minister not concede that one result of that is that those who are not in work at the moment have specific circumstances and challenges to overcome? On that basis, that should result in more face-to-face, rather than online, contact.
The hon. Gentleman makes a characteristically important and insightful point. Of course, what he says is true. There is a distinction to be made between different claimants and clients in different circumstances, in receipt of different types or benefits—for example, people who are on employment and support allowance are not required to attend jobcentres fortnightly or weekly in the same way as people who are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance.
We want to maximise the opportunities available to all those groups of people, of course. Some of that is about stuff that happens in jobcentres; some of it is not. There are some things that could be done more effectively not in jobcentres than in them, particularly with some people who are further away from the jobs market, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise.
The claimant count in my constituency went up by 50 in the last month. Although that may be a monthly blip, I am concerned about the overall strength of the London economy moving forward. The Minister talked about the space being under-occupied by a fifth, yet in London he is proposing to close a third of jobcentres. Will he explain that for me?
I can. I was going to come on to Lewisham and some of the points that the hon. Lady raised on London, but I will address it now. Overall, the estate is 20% under-utilised, but that does not mean to say that in every individual jobcentre there is exactly 20% of unused space. In terms of the utilisation rates, there is a wide range in individual jobcentres and between cities, when we take the total estate in that city into account. There is no complacency at all about the strength of the labour market in London, Sheffield or Glasgow, or in any other place. In all of the locations that we operate from throughout the United Kingdom, jobcentre staff are focused night and day on helping people to get into work.
In the case of Lewisham, the landlord did not want to re-lease and we believe that 2.1 miles to the Forest Hill location is a reasonable distance to ask people to travel additionally. As the hon. Lady will realise, the London property market is an expensive place to have real estate and there are particular challenges with finding premises in London. We think that the estate we have across London is reasonable in terms of asking people to get around.
The hon. Lady will understand that I am not going to stand up in Westminster Hall—nor should I—and talk about detailed proposals and plans for sites that she or others may put forward, but we are always open to talking about the range of opportunities. I am happy to follow up with her on the specific points she raises.
In every case where change is proposed, we have sought to minimise disruption and listen carefully to those who might be affected, but as a result of modernisation, the Department’s services are demanding fewer people to deliver. It is only right that we consider our options going forward. Delivering a modern and dynamic service to claimants requires modern and dynamic working environments, and that is what we are striving towards as part of our vision for DWP in 2020. Our aim is to maintain and improve the services offered across the country.
We recognise, of course, how important the DWP’s staff are to achieving that aim. They 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. My colleagues and I have been clear that the proposals 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 of the United Kingdom at the end of this process in March 2018 than we do today.
For staff across the DWP network who may be affected by the estate changes, we are currently working through options with each individual, identifying relocation opportunities in the event of closure, but most of all we are listening carefully to understand fully the impact on staff.
If the Minister is going to answer this, great, but does he recognise the particular issue of the unfeasibility of Barrow staff relocating, and has he had a chance to examine the proposal that I made when we met to find a cheaper lease on a smaller property in Barrow than Phoenix House?
I recognise, of course, the difficult position that staff in Barrow are in and I join the hon. Gentleman in the tribute that he paid to the immensely valuable work that they do. I fully recognise, as he does, the accumulated experience that that group of dedicated staff has. One-to-one conversations will be going on in Barrow and, indeed, in all other locations where there are affected staff. There will be some limited opportunities for staff in Barrow jobcentre, but I am not suggesting that that covers everybody.
The industrial injuries work rightly raised by the hon. Gentleman is moving to Barnsley, which is an existing centre with experience and expertise. Overall for that work, reducing volume demand is projected over the next five years, and we do not expect an impact on service to the customer.
The Department has already made a commitment to support anyone who chooses to relocate in the event of a site closure. That would include 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 our customers, even allowing, of course, for a sensible margin. It is imperative that we strive towards more modern and dynamic delivery methods.
Although there is no statutory requirement for consultation on the estate changes to jobcentres, we are conducting consultation on all proposed closures of jobcentres that fall outside what are known as the ministerial criteria. It is not unreasonable to expect claimants to travel to an office that is within 3 miles, or 20 minutes by public transport, of their existing jobcentre. Where a proposed move is outside those criteria, we have chosen to consult publicly both stakeholders and claimants to ensure that the full implications of the closure are considered before we make a final decision. To enhance the profile of such consultations, we have written to local stakeholders and have distributed leaflets and put up posters at affected sites. We have undertaken public consultation where we think the proposals may have a significant effect on claimants. The objective is to ensure that the effects of our proposals are fully considered before any final decisions are made, and I welcome the engagement and responses that we have had from local stakeholders.
We have had a total of 290 responses from across the three sites in Glasgow. Those include responses from claimants, Members of Parliament, including some present here, interested third-party organisations and the wider public. Alongside taking into account the views of a range of stakeholders via consultation, I have met a number of fellow Members of Parliament to discuss how proposed changes to the estate will impact at local level. I will be considering the feedback to all the public consultations and I reiterate to hon. Members that these are genuinely proposals at this stage. When we make final decisions on the design of our estate, we will do so with all the feedback that we have had in mind. That may include considering additional options for outreach or indeed something wider—nothing is off the table at this stage.
To allow two minutes for the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, I had better not.
When a jobcentre closes, the Department has a comprehensive set of outreach and support measures in place to support claimants in accessing the services they need. We embrace closer working with local organisations and support outreach activity at community and partner facilities, including local authorities across the country. That allows work coaches and partner organisations to support the shared needs of claimants. By working with a range of partners, including local authorities, we are able to expand the range and offer of our services.
We respond to personal circumstances. For claimants who are unable to attend a jobcentre due to their vulnerability or the complexity of the transaction required with the Department, we have robust procedures in place, including home visits and maintaining a claim by post. Travel expenses are refundable under certain circumstances, including where claimants are required to attend a jobcentre more frequently than fortnightly. Claimants can also choose to attend an alternative jobcentre to the one allocated to them if the jobcentre they have been allocated is not the closest or least costly for them.
I touched briefly on Lewisham. On Sheffield, there has been a consultation. The proposal is that Sheffield would better utilise space at Cavendish Court, which is currently only 45% utilised. Eastern Avenue is 74% utilised, but the move would not work in reverse because of the different configurations and sizes of the buildings, and Cavendish Court and Bailey Court are respectively 4.4 miles and 4.7 miles away.
The Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), spoke about partnership and outreach. I entirely agree about the need for partnership and for continuing to enhance it; the West Dunbartonshire employability hub is a particularly good example of that. As I mentioned, we are always keen to do more and to discover such opportunities, and that includes close working with Skills Development Scotland and others.
The proposed changes are the result of careful analysis and planning. While I appreciate hon. Members’ concerns about the proposed closures, and again thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West for securing this debate, the rationale for the proposals is clear. We are working towards a more modern, dynamic estate. This will ensure that we continue to have sufficient flexible capacity to deliver the best services we can to our customers. It is important to stress again that all the specific changes to the estate that have been raised in this debate are still only a set of proposals, and we are continuing the consultation process with our staff to assess how each might be affected. I want to reiterate that in the event that co-location or closures are required, we expect that to have no impact on the excellent services we continue to provide to customers across the country.
May I first apologise to you Mr Walker? So keen was I to raise this issue that I forgot to refer the House to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as chair of the PCS parliamentary group. I apologise for that.
A number of issues have not yet been answered. There is the question of the review criteria. I am clear, as are many hon. Members, that all 78 sites that were earmarked for closure should have been subjected to a full public consultation. The reason why is that the equality impact issue is still outstanding; there is no equality impact assessment for disabled people or the black and minority ethnic community, among others. The economic impact will certainly be hard on many areas; the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) identified that, and made an excellent point on industrial injury benefit. There is also the workforce impact; we have a written answer that says that the DWP expects 750 staff posts to go. If it is hiring staff and letting 750 posts go, I suspect that there will be an employment tribunal at some stage.
We need to make sure that this is done with the correct information, and not wrong and inaccurate information. I ask the Minister to listen to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) about parliamentary scrutiny going forward, and to make sure that we deal with this issue on the Floor of the House. Certainly, if the Minister makes announcements, we expect that to be on the Floor of the House and not sneaked through in a written statement on a Thursday or Friday, or before a recess.
I thank you, Mr Walker, and thank all hon. Members for taking part in this important debate.