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Department for Work and Pensions Services (North Staffordshire)

2 pm

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this most important debate on the services of the Department for Work and Pensions throughout Staffordshire and in north Staffordshire in particular.

I am a little disappointed, although I understand entirely, that the Minister for Work, who has direct responsibility for these services, cannot be with us today, but I should say from the outset how important it is that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and   Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) is in the Chamber. I know of his longstanding involvement with the Low Pay Unit and how much he has been concerned with combating poverty throughout his working life. I also know that he has worked very closely with Mr. Hugh Edwards, who is now the chairman of the Burslem Regeneration Company, which is tasked with regeneration of the Burslem area. I am sure that the Minister will be conversant with the issues that we will discuss this afternoon.

I ask the Minister to listen to our concerns and to take genuine account of them. I do not suggest for a moment that he has a script from his Department this afternoon, but if he does, I ask him not to stick to it entirely but to    understand that north Staffordshire MPs care passionately about the area that they represent. We want the Government to modernise and to hold every penny to account, but by the same token we want to hold the Government to account in the way in which they administer their services on our behalf.

We should consider the matter in the round. I hope that the Minister will arrange a follow-up meeting to    today's debate in Westminster Hall to address in   some detail the particular concerns surrounding Burslem jobcentre, and that in the light of that careful reconsideration, we might find a more appropriate way of delivering the Department for Work and Pensions services that are so important to my constituents and people in the Burslem area in particular.

I am aware that this is a very broad issue, which relates to the services provided by the Department throughout north Staffordshire, and that other colleagues wish to pursue the matter in more detail. It is important that the targets set for the Department are met and that services are delivered so that work is promoted as the best form of welfare for people of working age while the position of those in greatest need is protected. It is also important that the Government require the Department to combat poverty and to promote security and independence in retirement for today's and tomorrow's pensioners. That, of course, involves customers receiving a high quality service in every region. All I am asking is that we receive that high quality service in north Staffordshire and in Burslem in particular.

I shall talk briefly about pension services, which are part of the wider agenda.
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Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady. Does she accept that the closure of the Stone and Cheadle jobcentres has caused immense damage to my constituency, and that the idea that they could be substituted by telephone lines or internet websites is simply absurd? I protest vigorously against this.

Ms Walley : I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, and I hope that he will have an opportunity in this debate or in further consultations with the Department to set out in more detail the effects that these changes are already having in that part of north Staffordshire.

We have been offered service improvements such as pensioners' surgeries, which have been a closely guarded secret in my area. Not many people know how to access them. Insufficient thought has been given to the front-line services that pensioners in north Staffordshire will require. Will the Minister examine how, under the new order that has been proposed, people will be best served by a processing centre in Wolverhampton. Some of us in north Staffordshire have a sense of déjà vu about such matters. Some years back, I remember arguing strongly that the Post Office should not relocate its sorting office in north Staffordshire to Wolverhampton. That caused us enormous difficulties and I should hate the so-called current rationalisation to result in a similar service, with no easy front-line service and people having to rely on call centres and telephones, not face-to-face contact with a trained and dedicated staff, which often makes the world of difference between receiving the service and not receiving it.

Telephone lines are not necessarily the best way in which to deal with people. They have a part to play, but they are not the only way in which to deliver the service. It bothers me that, in the Department's new vision, there will be less provision for face-to-face contact.The take-up of benefits is complex. To provide that service requires trained, experienced and dedicated front-line staff. Unless great care is taken in how the changes are brought about in north Staffordshire, we will lose an effective service.

I wish now to concentrate on the Burslem jobcentre. It is run by highly trained and committed staff and it is very much appreciated by people in the Burslem area. I pay tribute to the Department for Work and Pensions and its civil servants who look after the 34,000 or so people whom the office serves. The area has seen more job losses than most other areas in north Staffordshire, in the west midlands and in the country as a whole. The last remaining Royal Doulton factory is to close with a loss of 500 jobs. There have been job losses at Wedgwood and throughout the Potteries. Yes, we must bring in new jobs—that is part of our common task—but let us not escape the reality that those job losses are affecting people's lives now.

Set against that, there are new business developments, but in my area they are about 24 per thousand of population compared with the national average of 40. The area is identified as one of the five areas of deprivation by the Government office for the west midlands, and that is why we have such a proactive agenda for regeneration. On the specific instructions of
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the Secretary of State, the Department of Trade and Industry is making sure that the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, is looking at prioritising regeneration, new jobs and new training in the area.

A similar priority is being given to the agenda by the   learning and skills council. Within Advantage West    Midlands' remit is the North Staffordshire Regeneration Zone and, within that, is the Burslem Regeneration Company, chaired by Hugh Edwards, to which I referred in my opening comments. All such initiatives are in place to deal with people who have lost their jobs and to make sure that investment is made in the area, that we have training and that people are moving from sickness and incapacity into work. It is vital that the Department for Work and Pensions is integrated in all such services.

We also have Renew North Staffordshire, the housing market renewal pathfinder scheme, and Middleport and Burslem are the top priorities in that initiative. In his visit to Stoke-on-Trent, the Minister for Regeneration and the Regions, my noble Friend Lord Rooker, stressed that, whatever else the housing renewal programme does, it must link to the current economic regeneration in Burslem under the Burslem Regeneration Company project. Given that statement from my noble Friend, I should have thought that, at the least, civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions would want to work with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Market renewal means that communities are in a fragile state because they are in transition, as a result of which they will need more support, not less. Surely that should have guided and informed the Department for Work and Pensions in its reconfiguration of services as a result of the modernisation programme. Such support needs to be maintained until such time as the housing renewal programme has been completed. I have other examples of Government support for what we are doing, and when I say "we" I mean all the partners across north Staffordshire who are working together against all the odds to build a better future for Burslem.

Just in case the Minister doubts the work that we are doing, I refer him to letters that I have had from the Department for Work and Pensions and to correspondence that I have received from the Treasury. The most recent letter, dated 3 September, sets out all that the Government are doing to support regeneration in Burslem, and ends with the comment:

That is what the Minister's Department should be doing for Burslem.

The crux of the problem is that we have effectively been given a fait accompli: that the Burslem jobcentre is to close. I want to know why, and why we have not been given the opportunity for real consultation on that.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that in the letter on this subject in September—certainly the one that I received—the statement from the district manager that the

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is absolutely appalling, and gives us no satisfaction whatever?

Ms Walley : I must say that it is rather strange to find myself agreeing so much with the hon. Gentleman. I received two letters, one of them early in the summer, that set out the thinking behind the long-term programme. I checked very carefully, as hon. Members would expect, whether Burslem was affected, and the original letter made no mention whatever of Burslem jobcentre closing. Somehow, between that original letter and the final letter that announced that the decision had been made, the fact that the Burslem jobcentre was to close crept in, with no reasoning given and no clear vision of why or how. It is that which I want to highlight today.

I state categorically that I have not been consulted on the 7 September letter's proposal to include Burslem, and I do not think that other partners delivering the regeneration agenda in north Staffordshire have been consulted either. That might rest on what is meant by "consultation". It might be that if other partners have had letters telling them that the Burslem office is to close, that is classed as consultation; but I do not count that as consultation, particularly given all the bodies that have been set up by the Government to deliver the most effective agenda.

I have looked very carefully at the 1999 White Paper "Modernising Government", and I cannot quarrel with any of its objectives. It mentions better provision and better services, including better services in jobcentres. It talks about the need for joined-up government and integrated government, commits us all to putting pressure on the obstacles to joined-up working through local partnerships, one-stop shops and other means, and commits the Government to area-based programmes. I go along with all those 1999 objectives, and I am sure that the Government are delivering them all in other parts of the country, but it does not seem as if they are in north Staffordshire.

I also go along with the objectives set out in Sir Peter Gershon's report. When he was addressing an all-party group in the House last night, I made it my business to go along and hear what he had to say on his report, which Ministers are taking very seriously. In that talk, just last night, he said clearly that the objectives of the modernisation programme were to release major resources to front-line services for the period 2005–06 to 2007–08. If that is the objective, it is hard to see how it is to be done in Burslem when the jobcentre there is to be closed. I sincerely bring that to the attention of the Minister.

There is also an issue, which I will come to later, about time scales. If we are meant to be saving money for the period 2005–06 to 2007–08, is the Minister really sure that that time scale is workable in terms of what is   happening in Burslem? I am committed to the Lyons review and, along with my north Staffordshire colleagues, I have met local partners to see how we can make a sound business case for the relocation of civil service and private sector jobs from the south-east to north Staffordshire—an area in which there are issues because of the number of jobs that we have lost.

At a constituency meeting only four or five months ago, I remember talking about the importance of the Lyons review and trying to encourage Departments to
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relocate. Somebody said to me, "Joan, how can you talk about that when at the same time there is going to be an issue about closing local jobcentres?" We need to consider the matter in a joined-up way and I hope that today's debate will be an opportunity to do that.

The real problem for us in Burslem is that all the Government's objectives sound fine, but the reality of the way in which they are being implemented by the Department for Work and Pensions is completely different. It just does not match the vision. I have a series of questions. I hope that the Minister will consider them and that he and his colleagues will get back to me in the coming weeks.

How can the closure of the Burslem jobcentre office be presented as a done deal? The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has already raised the issue of consultation. I just do not accept that it should be a done deal. Even at this 11th hour, is there an opportunity for the Minister to look again at what is being proposed? Why was there no mention of the closure in the original paper that went out under the original service delivery plan? If that had flagged up the possibility of closing Burslem jobcentre, I would have wanted early discussions with all the partners to see what could be done and whether, with the knowledge of those of us who are on the ground, rather than civil servants from elsewhere in the west midlands, we could not have come up with a more workable solution. We want the very best service.

As I have said, according to the original plans the Burslem jobcentre was to stay open. What changed between that service delivery plan and the fait accompli letter of 7 September? Why was there not proper consultation? The Minister will see from dispatches that I was not told about this matter, but nor were those involved with the north Staffordshire regeneration zone or the housing renewal pathfinder given an opportunity to consider the issues raised.

Given that the Minister is answerable to Parliament for the service delivery, how can he be satisfied that the so-called estates challenge, which relates to the White Paper, is anything other than a pure cost-cutting exercise with regard to the way in which it has been implemented in north Staffordshire? I understand that a service administered by civil servants in Staffordshire is under pressure to get rid of uneconomic buildings and floor space, and that the state of buildings and access for disabled people may need to be considered and re-examined. If there are opportunities for shared buildings, of course we should go down that route. Those are all material considerations that should have been taken into account.

However, I wonder just how much of the rationale for the closure of the Burslem jobcentre relates to the rents charged by Land Securities Trillium. Should not the driving factors be about the level of need in the Burslem area? Given that level of need, it makes no sense to have proposals to close the office serving the area. If we look at the figures, it is the area of greatest need. What account has been taken of that? Will the Minister look at the figures? I do not know whether I have the most up-to-date figures. I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that we are talking about an area with an overall population of about 36,000. In the Burslem area, something like 4,730 people are on
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incapacity benefit. Surely those people should be our priority group. Surely they are the people who need front-line face-to-face interviews with trained, dedicated staff to get them into work and to help us create the new investment that we need for the area.

If the Government are as serious as I am about meeting their public service agreement targets, they should be concentrating on the number of people on incapacity benefits. It is difficult enough for constituents to claim and to go through the process of getting into work following incapacity. Some of my constituents find that path so painful and difficult that they prefer staying in poverty to trying to find a way out. It can be difficult from here in Westminster to understand the levels of poverty and need that exist.

How will the Government deliver their improved services to lone parents, those on new deal, the 18 to 24-year-olds and the over-50s, when they have closed the Burslem jobcentre and people are asked to change the habits of a lifetime by travelling elsewhere? If the Minister has time to visit Stoke-on-Trent, it would be helpful if he did so. We could show him that Stoke-on-Trent is not like most other cities where there is one dedicated city centre; it is a collection of six towns, where people still do not venture outside the area they live in, even if they can afford the bus fares.

The incapacity benefit load is a big issue in Stoke-on-Trent, and particularly in Burslem. I do not see how the Government can meet their targets for getting people from benefit into work without the specialist help of the   jobcentre advisers or the support of the local community. This is not the right way to go about getting its support.

The Minister should look at the time scale of all the work that is under way as a consequence of the North Staffordshire Regeneration Zone's initiatives. Had that body been properly consulted about the Burslem closure rather than told about it, I suspect that it could have got all the many partners together around the table and looked closely at what has been proposed within the context of the time scales that it is working to.

There is a need for more support for Burslem, not for less. I will be reminding the Minister for Work at every opportunity that she is responsible for the delivery of the wider objective of full employment in every region over the three years to 2008. I want her to make a good job of that in Burslem. I hope that as a result of this debate we can proceed with a follow-up meeting to look in detail at how we can achieve it collaboratively.

The modernisation agenda is all very well and good, but I owe it to my constituents to put their needs at the heart of an integrated policy. That has not been done, but there is still time to revisit the matter.

2.23 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), on securing it. I am surprised that the issues we are discussing have not received greater prominence both in the press and the House. My hon. Friend has done the House in general a service in raising them, because these problems are not confined to north Staffordshire or to her constituency—or even to that of
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the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash); they affect the whole country, as I am sure other contributors to this debate will emphasise.

My hon. Friend admirably spelled out the particular problems that her constituents will face with the closure of the Burslem jobcentre. Towards the end of her remarks she touched on the strange geography of our city. It is the only non-radial city in the country. It stretches for 13 miles along a valley, and there is no contact into the city centre. Therefore, closures of services in the outlying—the constituent—towns of Stoke-on-Trent always cause problems. We do not have an easily accessible city centre of the kind that on paper perhaps makes sense of closures of commercial or government branch offices because people can get their services by going into that city centre.

We have particular geographical problems, and my hon. Friend described them very well. She was also particularly impressive when dealing with the inconsistent impact of what the Government and we are trying to do in terms of regeneration in north Staffordshire, so I will not return to those matters. I will not even labour the case that has been put to me by staff working in the Hanley jobcentre about the job losses. They made a powerful, moving case and I was impressed by their dedication. For many staff, working in jobcentres is not simply a way to earn a living; they become involved in the delivery of services and with their clients. For front-line staff in the benefits agencies, there is a large element of vocational work involved, with satisfaction gained from helping vulnerable people get what is rightly theirs. However, although that dedication impressed me, that is not why I want to contribute to this debate.

I am concerned about the services that those people provide to my constituents and benefits claimants generally throughout the country, because the changes that the Government are implementing in north Staffordshire and all over the United Kingdom will severely undermine them. The hon. Member for Stone quoted from the letter from a district manager of the Department for Work and Pensions, saying: "This was a positive development." That is incomprehensible. It is difficult to see how this is a positive development for my constituents, or makes better provision or a better service. My constituents, and claimants all over the country, will find it more difficult to get what is rightfully theirs. They need help and advice.

The Minister had an admirable record in the Low Pay Unit, working with people in poverty, before he was elected to the House. He, of all members of this Government, knows the reality of life for people on low incomes—they have never found the details of the   welfare state easy to grasp and are particularly vulnerable to the complexities. Given the many passionate speeches he made to conferences on poverty, he must know why such a large proportion of benefits are unclaimed each year from time immemorial. That problem has been inherent in the welfare state over the past 50 years, and it has nothing to do with this Government or the previous one.

The complexity of the system means that there is a relatively low take-up and so much unclaimed by the people who need it most, and to whom it would make the greatest difference to the quality of their life. People in desperate need of benefit—lone parents, unemployed
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people and those with disabilities, as my hon. Friend said—are vulnerable and do not have first-class degrees and the ability to understand the fine print of documents. That is why they get ripped off by loan sharks and are vulnerable to almost all problems in life that involve bureaucracy. They, of all people, need help when filling in forms. People working in the Benefits Agency and jobcentres have been providing just that. They hold the hands of people as they go in and they sit down with them, giving advice and ensuring that the form is understandable and correctly filled in. That is essential for the claimant and good for the system, because the form is properly completed and is not returned or junked. That makes for a more efficient delivery of the service, but it is not why it is important; it is important because it is often the only way a person can get what they are rightfully entitled to.

All Members of Parliament know about such problems from constituents who attend our surgeries. They have probably seen a counsellor and asked for advice first, after which they see us and ask for our advice. They often bring forms to our surgeries to be completed, but I often find that I do not trust myself to help fill them in because I do not understand them. I am the worst person to give advice and would hate to see my constituents leave with their form wrongly completed. I usually say, "Please don't take it from me. We haven't got time"—it takes 20 minutes or half an hour to go through a form properly, and many other problems in their lives may be uncovered, revealing their entitlement to other benefits—"and I am not the person to do it. I am just an MP—a generalist and non-expert. Please go to your citizens advice bureau, talk to your social worker, if you have one, and go to the benefits agencies, which will help." I have been saying that to my constituents for the past 21 years, and I think it is good and sensible advice.

If we Members of Parliament—who have nice degrees and lots of experience, and who are quite articulate and confident with forms—do not trust ourselves to fill in forms for our constituents, how on earth can many of them fill them in? Some deal with the forms amazingly and admirably, but others have always gone into benefits agencies and said, "Please help me fill in this form." We cannot help them; how on earth will it help when they are told, under the changes, "Get on the phone, or online, and sort it out"? We know from our work as MPs that it is much less satisfactory, both for our constituents and for us, when people ring in with problems than when they sit down with us at our surgeries. Some people are not very confident on the phone, and one cannot pick up on nuances and see where the problems are. If we are trying to help someone with a form that we cannot see, and which is front of him and he is not reading it correctly, we are absolutely lost.

The idea that the most vulnerable people in desperate need are to be told to ring someone in Birmingham, whom they do not know and who does not know what sort of estate they live on, who will help them through their claim for entitlement is frankly extraordinary. There is no way that can be described as an improvement in service, a modernisation or a positive development. For my constituents, it will be a disaster. They may try that system once or twice, but it is unlikely to lead to a satisfactory outcome, and they will give up.
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As for telling them to get online, many of my constituents do not have telephones; they certainly do not have computers.

I am hopelessly computer-illiterate. I tried to fill in an application form online, but I kept going round in circles and gave up after a bit. Perhaps I am particularly crass, stupid and old; I have just had my 60th birthday, and by God I felt it when I filled in the form. I wanted to join eBay, and it is apparently simple. Everyone says, "Oh, it's easy; it'll take you 10 minutes, and they'll hold your hand throughout the process," but after some 25 minutes I gave up and did not join because I could not work out the system. If I cannot work out something as   simple as eBay, which just involves filling in the right details, God help my constituents—forgive my language, Mr. Deputy Speaker—when they fill in their forms, which are about matters of central importance to them and their income for life.

I beg the Minister to look into the system again, because it is not right, although it may look fine. As my hon. Friend said, we all want the Government not to be wasteful, and we all want them to modernise where it is sensible, and so on. We have all signed up to that, and it is not a problem, but when it comes to how we help the poorest members of our society obtain access to the benefits that are rightfully theirs, that desire for efficiency and modernisation must surely be tempered with some human understanding of where those people are coming from and what it is realistic to expect from them, in both the short and medium term.

I fear that the system will lead to considerable poverty and reduction in access. Even if we are talking about only a few tens of thousands of cases a year, it is tens of    thousands of the very poorest people in our constituencies who will suffer. I am most upset, as hon. Members can see; I am as upset as my constituents are. I am sure that the scheme makes sense to the Department, which will be able to tell the Treasury that it is using public money very efficiently.

The idea looks good on paper, and for some people who are more confident than I am about filling in online forms it will undoubtedly work in theory, too. Obviously, some people will make the system work. If they do, and it saves the Government money and is not inconvenient for those people, great; that will perhaps speed things up. But to go over so wholeheartedly to a new system with so few and so basic safety nets is bitterly regrettable. I fear that it is too late for a pilot study, but I ask the Minister to consider quickly conducting some study of how the system will work in practice, whether there will be a fall-off in applications and correctly filled-in applications, how many people will use the internet generally and in particular areas, and what successful conclusions can be drawn from those cases that go online. I would be amazed if such a study did not confirm at least some of the fears that I have tried to express this afternoon.

Perhaps I am underestimating the online skills of my constituents and they would in fact be quite happy to stay at home or try to find somebody online on their estate and not flock to Hanley on expensive buses. If I am patronising them by saying that they will have difficulty with online services, I would be very pleased to be proved wrong. I do not know how much consultation
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there was in advance, but it is not too late for the Minister to conduct a study of how the service is working in practice, talking to those people delivering and receiving it. Perhaps the study will lead to ways of putting in more safety nets to ensure that when people need and want personal services that they have had ever since the welfare state began, those services will continue to be available.

2.46 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on his able contribution.

The hon. Gentleman said in his opening comments that he was sure that subsequent speakers would point out that the problems relating to the closure of the Burslem centre are not unique, and indeed they are widespread and national. Through my regular contact with the unemployed workers centre in Chesterfield and its network of smaller offices, particularly in the Derbyshire coalfield, I hear of those problems. In 2003, there were three such closures that mirror exactly the problems in Burslem that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North described in such detail. Offices were closed in New Mills, which is in the High Peak area in the north of Derbyshire, in Bakewell, a west Derbyshire area, and in Eckington, a north-east Derbyshire community, just to the north of my constituency. All closed in 2003 as part of the general centralisation and cost-cutting process.

The example of the Eckington centre particularly mirrors that of Burslem, because it is in a deprived coalfield area that suffered tremendous job losses when the pits were closed down overnight 10 to 12 years ago. It suffered particularly from the closure of the local Renishaw foundry, an issue that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has raised on several occasions in the House.

Eckington is a regeneration area. As with Burslem and north Staffordshire, it is supposed to receive regeneration support precisely because of the deprivation concentrated there. Yet the local jobcentre that provides such support to people in that area is closed. That means, for example, that residents of Eckington and of the Killamarsh area who went to Eckington, must either go to Sheffield to access services or visit the Chesterfield or Staveley offices in my constituency, the latter being nearer. They have to travel some distance to other areas to access the services that were once provided on their doorstep in the middle of deprived communities.

Colin Hampton, the organiser at the unemployed workers centre in Chesterfield, has done a certain amount of outreach work and campaigning, and when he has been at the Staveley jobcentre on the edge of my constituency, next to North-East Derbyshire, he has talked to some of the people who must visit it because of the closure of the Eckington office. They have said that they have to walk several miles from Eckington to the jobcentre because they cannot afford the bus fare. The people who are being hit by those closures are among the poorest in society. They are most in need of those services, but have to walk a number of miles to the nearest office to get them.
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There is some confusion on this issue. When I visited the Chesterfield Jobcentre Plus office, one member of staff told me, off the record, that staff were allowed to tell claimants in that situation that they could be provided with bus fares, but were not supposed to volunteer the information. Staff could tell the claimant only if they were asked. I am sure that the Minister will reassure me and say that that is not the case and that staff are advised to be proactive.

There is another possible area of confusion, about which Colin Hampton talked. Perhaps such fares apply not to new claimants but only to existing claimants whose jobcentre has closed and who have had to move further afield, to Sheffield or Staveley, to access services. There is some uncertainty among the people who work at the jobcentre and on the part of someone who works full time at the unemployed workers centre in Chesterfield. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to clarify that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): Order. As has been said, there is a general point to be made, which the hon. Gentleman illustrated by reference to his constituency, but I remind him that the debate is mainly about Department for Work and Pensions services in north Staffordshire.

Paul Holmes : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I    hope that I explained why I was making such comparisons. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said that he was sure that subsequent speakers would point out that the problem was nationwide. It is not an isolated one-off. I do not think that the Minister will be able to address the problem completely by talking about one isolated instance, given that the programme is nationwide, with a nationwide pattern.

The general context for the closure of Burslem jobcentre and others, touched on by the two previous speakers, is the modernisation process, the Gershon efficiency review and the 100,000 civil service job cuts, which heavily hit the Department for Work and Pensions. What is the rationale for such closures? One   argument is that they will bring the benefits of centralisation and that technology means that we do not need so many outreach stations. As we heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, provision of electronic and internet services will solve some of the problems. Human beings will not be on the doorstep, but people will be able to access electronic machinery, perhaps through local libraries.

So one argument is that centralisation brings more efficiency and allows money to go into better services, and another relates to the use of electronic processes. There is also the argument that the introduction of better computer services into jobcentres means that a more efficient service can be provided—fewer staff are needed because the computer takes a lot of the strain—and that not so many staff are needed in the central building because more centres are scattered around the country, have economies of scale and do everything electronically.

However, all that is based on a myth. We have heard a lot of detail, ably explained, about the fact that many people—especially the unemployed, people on benefits and the elderly in Burslem—do not have an easy
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familiarity with modern technology or easy access to the hardware and software that facilitates it. In jobcentres, the problem is that a lot of the technology on which the streamlining and rationalisation are based has not worked effectively. Not long ago, the Department for Work and Pensions Committee issued a scathing report on the failures of the IT systems that were supposed to introduce more efficiency and that predicated the closure of small centres such as Burslem.

People have to be slightly sceptical and ask whether the 100,000 job cuts—Burslem is just one small cog in that machine—are based on efficiency and the better delivery of services or whether that figure has been chosen because it is nice and round? If the efficiency cuts are based on a proper, rational assessment of where services are overprovided or no longer needed, why does the figure come out at a nice, round 100,000 rather than at 63,000 or 106,000? Is it just a nice, round figure that is good for headlines, like the target of 50 per cent. entry into higher education? That was plucked out of the air as a nice, round figure that is good for media journalists. There seems to be no proper analysis of where the efficiency savings and closures of small, inefficient units in favour of more efficient units elsewhere should take place. If there has been a proper, rational analysis of where such cuts should take place, why is it that some time after announcing 100,000 job cuts the Government still cannot say specifically where many of the closures and job cuts will occur?

We would not argue that taxpayers' money should be spent on a job that does not actually exist. If the work of   the Burslem jobcentre was unnecessary, it would obviously be a gross misuse of taxpayers' money to keep it open. If there were more efficient ways of providing the service, one could not argue against closure, as long as there were not strong downsides resulting from the loss of service. If there is waste of taxpayers' money, fine, that should be reversed and the money should be spent better.

However, if anything, the Department for Work and Pensions staff provide services to the most vulnerable and needy members of society, as we heard in the Burslem example. Centres such as Burslem serve people on benefits or pensions. They include jobseekers, particularly jobseekers in the most hard-to-place categories and people who need the most help from a personal service rather than a distant, impersonal service over a computer line; disabled people, 1 million of whom say that they want to get into work but have numerous problems to overcome before they can access such a service; older people over 50 who have particular problems getting back into work; and people who are less qualified. If anything, a rational analysis would suggest that, rather than cutting a centre such as Burslem and saving money on staff, more staff with better pay, and more, not fewer, outreach centres are needed.

A parallel is the question about the Pension Service that I asked the Minister in oral questions some time ago. In September, the local Pension Service staff were praised in Parliament for going into the community to visit pensioners at home who were not claiming pension credit, and helping them to access pension credit and many other benefits that they may have been missing out on. Yet some of those staff may lose their jobs in the modernisation and efficiency job cuts. If people who
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deliver front-line services lose their jobs, the vulnerable people who benefit from their work will lose out on access to services.

The Department is one of the lowest payers among Government Departments, if not the lowest. I visited a job brokering service in London that is run by Working Links. It pays its personal advisers £21,000, whereas the Department starts their staff on £12,000 to £14,000. Far from cutting a centre such as Burslem and removing the staff completely, such local centres should be kept, and the pay, training and conditions of staff who work under great pressure in delivering key services should be improved.

We must consider the aggressive management style of the Department and the introduction in the centres of performance pay, which has been controversial because of the artificial quotas that determine who qualifies for different levels of pay. We must also consider whether staff training is adequate. A comparable example—again, this is not Burslem—would be some of the unemployed workers centres around the Chesterfield coalfield area. It is reported that, because the small local jobcentres do not have enough staff or their staff are not adequately trained, claimants are sent to unemployed workers centres to ask simple, basic questions about, for example, the new minimum wage or how to access such and such a service.

To conclude, rational analysis of the Burslem centre and other examples nationwide would show that, far from removing such services, we should be increasing the number of small outreach centres and improving the pay, training and facilities for the staff who work in them. I hope that the Minister will respond to many of those specific points about the loss of services to vulnerable, needy people and to a regeneration area into which the Government are putting extra resources with one hand while removing resources with the other hand. Whether in Burslem in north Staffordshire or in the Derbyshire coalfield, there is a need to improve Department services in general rather than to slash them.

2.49 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing this debate, which has proved very interesting. When I was preparing for it, I was struck by the similarity between the points that are being made in north Staffordshire and the points that are being made to me in Chichester. I will not linger long in discussing Chichester, save to say that I have a two-page letter from a constituent, Mr. Michael Cameron, which is more or less a summary of the points made in the debate. It is important that the Minister takes on board the fact that the concerns that are being addressed in north Staffordshire are concerns of national significance.

I sympathise with the Minister. In this debate, he is responding at a micro-level to the consequences of the rolling-out of the policy to which the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) alluded. That is, of course, the sudden policy completely to reverse the large increase in recruitment into the civil service that has taken place for most of the last seven years and start
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shedding civil service jobs at a high rate. The figure of 100,000 job losses was mentioned. The Department for Work and Pensions is scheduled to lose 30,000 jobs. In   addition, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned the Lyons review, which involves the relocation of civil servants and is causing widespread concern in Chichester and many other constituencies.

I referred to the points made by Mr. Cameron. One of them was exactly the same as one of the points made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. He is understandably concerned about the employment prospects of staff in    jobcentres. Will the Minister say how many redundancies there will be in Longton, Staffordshire Moorlands and Leek? He has not yet been asked directly what the number will be, but I am interested to know. How many of those staff will be relocated? Has that been thought through? Are those relocations feasible? While he is at it, perhaps he would send me a letter answering the same questions about Chichester.

What about the people who use jobcentres? The issue has been raised at some length by a number of hon. Members. Let me address a couple of questions. One is: how far will people be expected to travel under the new regime, with far fewer centres available? I note that a Labour local councillor, Paul Robinson, referring to the Leek jobcentre, said:

I was particularly struck by the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, who pointed out that some people have been told that money is available, but only if specifically asked for and only if the person is alert enough to realise that that protection is available. Is the figure of £3.50 in the right ballpark? Will the Minister confirm whether travel cost assistance is available? Are we mistaken? What about disabled people? They have not been mentioned so far. They are not in a good position to travel long distances for these interviews.

Will the Minister provide a general clarification on another point? I may be wrong, but as I understand it,   the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus is scheduled to be completed by April 2006. Why is Longton jobcentre not scheduled for closure until 2008? Will its service overlap with the new Jobcentre Plus scheme or is the Jobcentre Plus office deemed to provide an insufficient service on its own? Before coming to the debate, I looked at a map and could not understand the logic of what is proposed for the area. Perhaps I do not know enough about the local area, but the Minister should try to respond to the point that I have touched on.

Many of the other points that I might have made were made by other hon. Members and I shall not repeat them. I conclude by making two general points. First, there is undoubtedly a case for rationalisation. That always causes tension and I sympathise with the   Minister. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) made a crucial point about the internet, citing himself. Some of the rationalisation that we are seeking to undertake may be premature. In 10 or 20 years, a whole generation of people will have learned elementary techniques in modern communication and will be much more able to cope with the sort of rationalisation that is proposed. Is it right to do it now? I am not convinced that it is.
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My second point is even more general. The Minister's difficulty is a subset of deep tension, which we face in many areas of public policy, between the savings from centralisation—for example, bigger hospitals—and the erosion of a sense of locality and local community, with the decline in the number of post offices, the transport system, the number of local shops and so on. That tension will not go away, but will get worse for all of us. I worry that the Government may not have thought through carefully the implications for local communities, particularly in rural areas and areas that are not close to large conurbations. I do not question the Government's intentions. What I am concerned about is whether they have thought through carefully enough what they are applying.

2.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond) : I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing this important debate and on highlighting some important issues about the provision of Jobcentre Plus services to her constituents. She is known in the House as an energetic and effective campaigner on behalf of her constituents, as was well demonstrated today.

My hon. Friend will acknowledge, as she has done previously, that there has been a significant reduction in the overall level of unemployment in her constituency, as elsewhere in the country, as a result of the new deals    and stable macro-economic policy. Overall unemployment at 2.1 per cent. is slightly below the national average and long-term unemployment, especially among young people, has fallen by more than    three quarters. However, that part of north Staffordshire, as my hon. Friend reminded us this afternoon, has been hit hard by manufacturing losses, especially in the ceramics industry. As she said, one of   the people who are closely involved in seeking to stem   such losses and to find alternative employment for    people is my good friend, the chair of the Burslem   Regeneration Company, Hugh Edwards. Perhaps I should declare an interest, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because he was the chair of the Low Pay Unit of which I was once the director.

As a Government, we give all the support we can to manufacturing, as hon. Members appreciate, but we cannot wholly protect people from the winds of economic change, which is often global. What we can do and what we should do is help people to adapt to those changes and build on the new opportunities when they arise from the dynamic economy in which we live. That is where the services of Jobcentre Plus come in. The House will know that it combines the former Employment Service and those parts of the former Benefits Agency responsible for paying benefits to people of working age. Bringing two agencies together means not only that we have a more efficient operation but that we can provide better quality services to the people whom we seek to serve. We have strengthened the link between receiving benefits on the one hand and the world of work opportunity and independence on the other.
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I can tell my hon. Friend and others who have contributed to a very useful debate this afternoon that Jobcentre Plus services are not just about office accommodation but about services in the broadest sense, which we can provide in several different and flexible ways. We have heard about service provision by telephone and, in some circumstances, by internet. I take very much to heart the points made in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and others that the internet does provide huge opportunities for many people, but that it does not provide access for many others. That is why we also want to ensure that we provide the sort of personal service that people so often need.

The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North has a high proportion of people on incapacity benefit. She will know that we are considering through the pathways-to-work pilots new and innovative ways of supporting people on incapacity benefit who want to return to work, as the majority do. I appreciate the points that she and others have made about the difficulties sometimes presented by the need to travel albeit a short distance—in this case, to Hanley—but those on incapacity benefit have always reported to Hanley rather than to Burslem, so this will not be a significant change for them, although we do need to ensure that we consider all the time ways of providing more appropriate services to them.

My hon. Friend asked whether the changes that we have been discussing this afternoon are a fait accompli. I   assure her that they are not. They are part of an ongoing consultation, which we have not yet completed, on the configuration of Jobcentre Plus services in her part of north Staffordshire. We want to discuss with her and with other hon. Members who are affected, as well as with all the other stakeholders, new and innovative ways in which we can help people to seek work in her constituency. Those ways include the possibility of enhanced outreach facilities, postal signing where appropriate, and even mobile jobcentre services and home visits for those who need them.

The consultation will therefore not only be about whether Burslem jobcentre should continue but about whether there are other ways in which we can provide even better services to the people whom my hon. Friend represents.

Paul Holmes : In the context of the consultation on whether Burslem jobcentre should close, which the Minister reassures us is ongoing, does he have a rough idea of what percentage of local jobcentres throughout the country have been kept open following the consultation in the past year or two? I can think of three examples in Derbyshire.

Mr. Pond : The hon. Gentleman tempts me to stray into a wide range of issues, but given that this is a debate about north Staffordshire, perhaps I should state for the record that when he talked about a reduction of 100,000 members of staff at the Department for Work and Pensions, that was not 100,000 members of staff in north Staffordshire. Some people might believe that it was, given that he raised the issue in this debate.
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Each decision about the closure, merging or improvement of any of the Jobcentre Plus services is a matter for individual consideration. I therefore cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how many jobcentres remained open throughout the country following the consultation. In any case, that figure would be irrelevant, because it would not show that we had a target to close x percent. of jobcentres.

Ms Walley : The Minister's remark that the closure of Burslem jobcentre is not a fait accompli is welcome news. I want to press him a little further about the timetable for the current consultation. I understand that decisions have been reached. As a result of our debate, is my hon. Friend saying that there is an extended period for consultation? Will he confirm that the parties he envisages sitting round the table will include the North Staffordshire Regeneration Zone and the Burslem Regeneration Company?

Mr. Pond : We will be happy to have discussions with all the relevant stakeholders. The process is not yet complete. I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that, as a result of those consultations, we will be able to go back on a set of proposals that, from careful consideration, suggest that such action is the way forward. However, we shall be happy to discuss my hon. Friend's concerns with her and others. What has been said in the debate will certainly be part of the discussions.

Ms Walley : In the light of what the Minister has just said and given that the various options will be considered, will he put in the public domain the economic factors that are involved in such matters? Will he explain the cost of the rentals? Can we look at such matters in an open way, so that we can see how the money spent can deliver the service that best meets the needs of my constituents? I do not want the review to be informed by factors such as where most money can be saved, instead of how we can best meet the requirements of people with different benefit needs and who need jobcentre support.

Mr. Pond : Indeed. If I may, I shall say more about the matter in a moment. My hon. Friend has anticipated some of my comments. As for the time scale, the end of the consultation process is discretionary. From our point of view—and, I think, from hers—we want to complete the process by Christmas. I am sure that she will appreciate that.

I will be pleased to meet at the earliest opportunity the manager of the Jobcentre Plus district, who I am sure will pay careful attention to our discussions this afternoon, as will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work, who is unable to participate in today's debate. As part of our consultation process, we need to examine various alternative flexible ways in which to deliver the service. In some parts of the country, there have been exciting examples of that.

I wish to stray slightly out of north Staffordshire to Hereford and Worcester district, which has been developing flexible services that are designed around customers' needs. It has worked with partners in nine
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locations to deploy job points and customer access telephones through, for instance, University college in Worcester, three libraries, Bromyard one-stop service centre, Hereford help point, Kington community resource centre and Wychavon district council. We need to consider imaginatively how best we can serve the needs of people in constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend.

As for the Burslem proposal, my hon. Friend will know that it is expected that 80 per cent. of customers will be accessing Hanley jobcentre. It will provide purpose-built premises and excellent transport links, and as it is one of the larger offices it will also provide a wider range of facilities through a larger staff.

Ms Walley : Can the Minister explain the time scale for the proposed Hanley office to be up and running?

Mr. Pond : I will come back to my hon. Friend in a moment on that specific point.

Several hon. Members have referred to the consultation process. My hon. Friend was right to say that, when we first looked at the matter in September 2003, it seemed that Burslem should remain open as part of the service delivery plan. She will know that, when we considered the matter again in September 2004, circumstances had changed. A number of factors emerged from that reconsideration. The reconsideration involved extensive consultation with a number of stakeholder organisations. What had happened between those two dates? We looked at the cost of refurbishing the Burslem jobcentre to bring it up to the sort of standard that my hon. Friend would agree her constituents deserve in terms of space, disability access and general state of repair, and that cost was very considerable.

In the meantime, there was the efficiency challenge that the Department has taken up. That challenge was   not about simply making cuts across the board on   a proportionate basis, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield suggested; it was about discovering how we could best provide the highest quality of service to our customers within the efficiency constraints with which we are faced.

Ms Walley : May I press the Minister on his undertaking that there was consultation with other stakeholders? Will he make available the full text of that consultation and the responses from those stakeholders?

In respect of the cost of upgrading the Burslem office, I have been pressing previous Ministers for 17 years for the investment in the Burslem office that has been needed for it to meet all the desired standards. I am not saying that the service must be continued in that building for ever, but I am saying that there should be a jobcentre presence in Burslem.

Mr. Pond : I shall write to my hon. Friend about the consultation process. I am told that 196 letters were issued, and I understand that she was one of the recipients of them, along with Hayward hospital, Beat the Cold, the Hibiscus project, the North Staffs Carers Association and 40 Stoke-wide bodies, including disability organisations.

My hon. Friend looks as if she wants to intervene again. If she wants to do so to tell the House that she was not part of that consultation process and that she did
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not receive notification of it, we should discuss that further when she meets my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work, and I will be happy to discuss it with her myself. Does my hon. Friend wish to intervene again?

Ms Walley : I am loth to do so. I simply want to make the point that the key issue is whether people were told that there would be a proposal to close the jobcentre, and whether they were invited to come up with constructive ideas as to how we could provide the service. I am very grateful for having been allowed to intervene in this way.

Mr. Pond : My hon. Friend asked about the time scale for the new Hanley office; the answer to that is by the end of 2006.

Before the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) sadly had to leave the Room, he made a point about reliance on the telephone and internet services. Unfortunately, he will be unable to hear me say that we are not simply relying on those services. I understand that he has raised that as an issue in his local press in relation to the closure of the Stone and Cheadle jobcentres. He also raised it briefly in the debate, before his departure. However, I have to say that he has not raised it with the Department for Work and Pensions or Jobcentre Plus. We would welcome the opportunity—perhaps it will arise if he reads the Hansard record of this debate—to discuss with him the ways in which we are seeking to meet the needs of his constituents given the reconfiguration of those services, and the way in which people will be able to access face-to-face services in Stafford and Hanley.

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman were present he would wish to join us in celebrating the fact that as a    result of the reduction in unemployment in his constituency the number of people on the jobseeker's allowance register in Stone is now under 200 and in Cheadle it is even smaller, which is why the House will understand that it is not feasible to maintain both or either of those offices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central made a point about support for the most vulnerable to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. Like him, we are committed to increasing take-up of benefits and ensuring that people receive the help to which they are entitled. Part of that involves making the claims process as simple and straightforward as possible.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the use of technology and shared with us very honestly his anxieties about the use of the internet. We are ensuring that, while some people can use that process, there are still opportunities for face-to-face contact for those who cannot. I mentioned some of the ideas about mobile Jobcentre Plus services and other ways in which people could access those services on a face-to-face basis, even were the decision to close Burslem jobcentre to go ahead.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of whether we piloted the process. There was extensive piloting through the 56 pathfinder offices to establish Jobcentre
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Plus. That taught us a great deal about joining up services and ensuring that we could provide people with a one-stop-shop approach.

The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) asked how many redundancies we anticipated as a result of the changes in north Staffordshire and Chichester, and whether I would write to him about Chichester. Given that we are currently discussing north Staffordshire, that would be the appropriate way of replying. However, I suspect that the answer in that letter will be very similar to that which I am about to give in relation to north Staffordshire: although it is too early to give specific commitments on redundancies, he will know that we consider redundancy to be only a last resort as part of the process of meeting the efficiency challenge. The process is not about reducing the level of jobs.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that, with Jobcentre Plus, we have been reducing the number of people who fulfil some of the roles that have been sometimes unkindly described as backroom operations. They are fundamental to the work that we do, but many of those tasks can now be carried out with greater efficiency through the use of technology. Having fewer people in that area allows us to put more people on to the front line and to give the face-to-face contact that people really need.

I was also asked how far we expected people to travel. In the case of the Jobcentre Plus that we are talking about, the cost of travel is a £2 return fare from Tunstall to Hanley, from Endon to Hanley, from Brown Edge to   Hanley, or from Burslem to Kidsgrove. There is comprehensive guidance on the payment of fares and I   am happy to write to the hon. Member for Chesterfield, who raised the issue, to set that out. Essentially, we reimburse fares if a person faces a journey of more than one hour from the office and if we have asked that person to attend for a pre-arranged interview. There are special, more discretionary provisions for people who have particular mobility problems. We do not pay fares for jobseekers to attend their normal fortnightly interviews, but in the case of Burslem we need to discuss, for instance, the possibility of postal signing, where that is appropriate and where it would be difficult for people to make the journey.

In the context of overall regeneration, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North is quite right to say that a number of Government agencies are putting in a lot of extra resources and energy. We have heard about Advantage West Midlands, the learning and skills council and the housing renewal programme. She asked for reassurance that Jobcentre Plus and DWP were fully linked up to all those developments. I can tell her that they are. However, we need to recognise that the provision of services, to which we are absolutely committed for her constituents and others, is not just about office accommodation. We want to provide the highest quality of service through whatever mechanism is most appropriate. I hope that she will join our discussion on how we can do that. As I have said, both the Jobcentre Plus district manager and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work will be happy to meet her to discuss that.

My hon. Friend has served her constituents well this afternoon by raising this matter, and has done us all a service by allowing us to have a useful, important debate on how we ensure that we provide the highest quality
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service to our constituents, albeit in an environment where the Government have made a commitment to provide those services with greater efficiency. I hope that she and other hon. Members will feel that, as part of the   consultation process, we can ensure that we continue to drive forward our agendas of giving people opportunities for employment, building a better life for themselves and building on their ambitions and abilities, while doing that in the most efficient and effective way possible.

3.21 pm

Sitting suspended.

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