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Benefit Office Closures

11 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): I shall commence as the highland retreat beats its way from the Chamber. I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce a debate on benefit office closures, which are taking place not only in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom. I want to talk in particular about the impact of such closures on service delivery, as Parliament has not yet had an opportunity to explore that aspect—in fact, we have not had an opportunity to explore any aspect of the closures. The announcement was made at the very last hour on the very last day of the now defunct September recall, and we did not have time to digest it. We returned to our constituencies only to have jobcentre staff furiously phone us on Friday saying, "We must talk." It is a great pity that there was no consultation with members of the public, staff and unions before the announcement was made.

Since the announcement, in my constituency—I am sure that this is reflected throughout the UK—there has been a wave of concern, protest and real anger that the Government are implementing the plan. The anger has arisen in Wales because we have seen such a proposal before: the Conservative Administration brought in a blueprint for change about 10 years ago. The unions, Welsh Labour MPs, Plaid Cymru and, I am sure, the Liberal Democrats fought it tooth and nail, and we were successful. Benefits Agency offices, local processing facilities and not only jobs but services, too, were kept going in communities. The lack of response, particularly from Welsh Labour Back-Benchers, to the impact of the Labour Government's plans is therefore extremely disheartening.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Like me, my hon. Friend is concerned that the bulk of the jobs that are likely to be lost—some 6,000 of them—will be lost from an objective 1 area in Wales, and that the whole change is predicated on the idea that the vulnerable in society will make their first contact by telephoning an office.

Mr. Thomas : I agree with my hon. Friend, and later I shall expand on that point. It is deeply ironic that whereas high street financial institutions are now reaching out to us saying, "We are opening branches again, you can contact us in person and you can have direct personal customer care," the Government are saying that any level or quality of service can be delivered via telephone or e-mail. I shall address the effect that that will have on disabled people, people with learning difficulties and the most vulnerable people in society, who use such services.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): It is indeed ironic that the private sector is genuinely decentralising but the public sector is centralising through such closures, and doing so in an entirely arbitrary way. The staffing levels that have been set for the centralised offices bear absolutely no relation to what it is possible to achieve in rural areas such as the hon. Gentleman's and mine. Customers will suffer because accountants are calling the shots.
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Mr. Thomas : It always pains me to say this, but the hon. Gentleman has a good point. He is right to draw attention to the fact that an arbitrary staffing level has been set for call centres and that it cannot be sustained in rural areas. A whole swathe of territory in mid and west Wales—I am sure that many other parts of the UK are similarly affected—of more than 100 square miles, with 350,000 people in it, will not have a single office with a processing facility. All such work will be shoved to what I call the periphery of Wales, but other people prefer to call its main corridors, along the M4 or the A55 in the north. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the exercise is accountant-driven.

I wish to thank the staff and the union at my local office, the Aberystwyth benefit office and jobcentre. They have reacted magnificently to this threatening and disturbing news. They have come together and united behind local councillors and organisations such as Access Ceredigion, which is a disability rights organisation in my constituency, and Age Concern. We have persuaded Cambrian News, the newspaper for all mid-Wales, to run a campaign among its readers to retain the services in my constituency—and, I think, in that of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

We are discussing public services that at the moment are delivered directly to the public. They are worth fighting for. Civil servants do a decent job and deliver a good-quality service; we should not endanger the quality of services for the most vulnerable and needy.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP): In my constituency, the Department for Work and Pensions plans to close the social security office completely, with the loss of 54 jobs. As my hon. Friend rightly says, those people are not faceless bureaucrats; they provide key front-line services to vulnerable members of our society. Does he agree that if the proposed closure goes ahead, it is likely that voluntary bodies and local authority welfare departments will be expected to pick up the pieces on the cheap?

Mr. Thomas : I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. As might be expected, all the hon. Members who have intervened have anticipated what I was about to say.

When the pension credit was introduced in my neck of the woods—I do not know about Perth—there was a huge increase in the number of pensioners who had difficulty contacting offices and understanding the system. Many pensioners came to see me, but I am sure they were only a fraction of those who approached the citizens advice bureau, the local authority, Age Concern or similar organisations that were trying to pick up the pieces on a voluntary basis, without being properly funded to do so.

It is convenient for the Government, as it has been for many financial institutions, to move the cost of accessing services from themselves to the individual, so that it is members of the public who pay for the national telephone call, the e-mail, to log on to the internet, or to be kept on the line for 10 minutes because the person they are talking to says they cannot find their
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record or their number. Companies have used that trick and now the Government want to use it as well, but that will not do, because we are talking about people who are receiving what the Government say is the minimum that they should have to live on—the minimum to which they are entitled because of a disability or other circumstances. There is a real threat in the Government's actions.

Wales has a problem with continuing disability and sickness benefits. Although it has been announced today that unemployment has increased slightly, it has generally decreased; despite that, the uptake of disability and sickness benefits is on the increase in Wales. That could in part have happened because the Benefits Agency has—rightly—reformed its culture in the past few years: it no longer refuses to tell people what they are entitled to, as it used to do under the Conservatives. The increase in take-up of such benefits is also due to a trend of moving people off the unemployment register and on to sickness and disability payments. The Government say that they now want to reverse that trend, but it will be difficult to do that and to deal with people without having the staff in the offices who understand what is going on in the community and the reasons why people make such claims.

We expect at least 6,000 job losses across the civil service in Wales. That is what the Public and Commercial Services union has forecast, and I think it is a fair estimate. It is a pro rata forecast based on the fact that we in Wales have a slightly higher number of civil servants per capita than elsewhere in the United Kingdom and a much greater reliance on public sector jobs: about 60 per cent. of our gross domestic product is public sector, compared with the UK average of 40 per cent. We are particularly concerned about the first wave of cuts, which will result in 2,000 jobs being lost as local offices are closed and centralised benefit processing centres are created. Those centres will have the minimum number of employees—150 or 200—needed to function. The Government have said that they must have that number of people.

The current system has many virtues. I will talk about my local Benefits Agency office, although practices may vary. The staff there have allocated claimants alphabetically. They know the claimants, so that when someone goes in to consult a member of staff, they talk to a person they met last week, or the week before that, or the previous year. They know that there will be face-to-face contact and that the member of staff will have local knowledge. The fact that the office is local means that a huge support mechanism is in place. In the public meeting that we called to discuss the closure— a very well attended public meeting in Aberystwyth—several people said how grateful they were to the staff for helping them, for example, through periods of bereavement when they did not know where to turn. It is difficult to provide that type of help on the phone, and impossible by e-mail. We all know how psychologically important it is to have eye contact with somebody who is in a state of distress and searching for advice and help. That eye contact will be lost if the office is closed.

I hope the Minister will be able to tell me what alternative procedures will be put in place. Obviously, I am arguing against any closures, particularly in mid-Wales, because we need to retain some provision
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between Llanelli and Wrexham, but if there are to be closures in Wales or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, what arrangements will be made so that a face-to-face service can continue to be delivered?

With pension credit, surgeries were set up. The only reason that pension credit worked at all in my constituency was that the local service in Swansea made a huge effort to hold local surgeries in the towns and villages of Ceredigion. They are still doing that, but one of the unseen side effects of the new policy that was not much publicised in the announcement is that that service, too, will be reduced. Both benefits processing and the Pension Service are to be hit by a 10 per cent. cut, which will remove the face-to-face link with pensioners. Furthermore, the Child Support Agency is to be hit with up to 50 per cent. cuts in face-to-face services. I have a large pile of CSA cases that I have been wrangling with for four or five years—I am sure that all hon. Members have similar piles. How much more frustrating will it be it if those individuals are not able to call in to a local office for an update about the problems that they are having with the Child Support Agency? Throughout mid and west Wales we will lose that service.

Owing to historical accident, we in Wales have a higher proportion of claimants than the rest of the UK. Our population is much more geographically dispersed than that of the UK. Closing the Aberystwyth office will mean that there are no offices between Llanelli and Wrexham. People living an area where—despite the fact that it is rural—car ownership is lower than average will be asked to travel longer distances.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) remarked, the change will put pressure on voluntary organisations, councils, politicians and councillors to fill the gap. The primary disability rights organisation in my area, Access Ceredigion, has just lost its local authority funding and it closed last week. At the same time as these cuts are happening, the organisation that brought millions of pounds in extra benefits to Ceredigion is closing. Ten thousand people in Ceredigion claim some form of disability benefit, which is what happens when there is an ageing population in a seaside constituency. Those people will lose their direct contact and their ability to access support through the social fund, bereavement benefit and maternity allowance payments. The whole process will be removed from the local community and relocated at the other end of a phone, where it might not be got hold of.

We all know the history of numerous Government IT projects. One only has to consider the CSA—and when are the magistrates courts going to get their integrated computer system? I think that that system is about seven years overdue. We are putting a lot of faith in technology. We have kept two magistrates courts in Ceredigion, which shows that we have a record of fighting for local services and keeping them. We will try to do so again.

Services are being replaced by unreliable technology that cannot meet human needs, especially the needs of vulnerable people who are suffering and are uncertain about their rights and their future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) remarked, it is ironic that this is happening in an objective 1 area—precisely the type of area that, as the Government acknowledged to the European Union,
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needs to be uplifted and supported. That means more than just an increase in wage levels in such areas. If people are in need of Government support, they should receive it.

It is doubly ironic that jobs are being lost from Aberystwyth just as the National Assembly decides to decentralise and put jobs back into Aberystwyth. Before anyone thinks, "Oh well, jobs are coming to Aberystwyth so I shouldn't be concerned," let me point out that the jobs in question were centralised 10 years ago by the Conservatives, so we are getting back only what was centralised by the previous Government, and now a Labour Government are centralising again. We are dealing with fashions and trends that go around but do not actually take service delivery into account. I am particularly concerned about that.

I have had lots of correspondence from those who use the service, and I want to read briefly from one constituent's letter, which I received at the start of the week. My constituent writes:

I agree 100 per cent.

and my constituent lives five miles outside Aberystwyth, in the country.

The public know what is going on, even if some politicians do not.

That is what is happening. The Government's policy is driving people to nationalism, so perhaps we should support that policy, but the fact is that the cuts are seen as an attack on local services and delivery. People are asking why a Labour Government are introducing them when the Labour party has always stood for local services and delivery and always opposed what the Conservatives have said. I see that there are no Labour Members from Wales present apart from the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who I understand is on duty this morning.

Finally, I turn to future savings. The statement that we received on 16 September—we have not had anything since—said simply that the modernisation programme

That broad statement in no way addresses service delivery. It refers to the Government's objective of saving money, but it does not address the quality of services. However, I want to put on record my understanding that the maintenance and ownership of the buildings has now been put out to Land Securities Trillium Ltd., so when the buildings or offices are closed or run down, there is no huge saving for the Government, because the financial benefits of the offices go to the private company.

The plans need to be re-examined. It is a disgrace that we have not had an opportunity to debate them in detail in Parliament. I have not been able to go into great detail
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in the short time available, so I have concentrated on examples from my constituency and mid and west Wales. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is to meet the Minister before long to discuss these matters further. As well as a delivery system for mid and west Wales, we need the Government to think again about how they treat the most vulnerable people in our society.

11.18 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on his impeccable timing in securing the debate—within hours of learning from the latest employment figures that 103,000 more people in Wales are in work, partly as a result of the contribution of Jobcentre Plus and partly because of the Government's overall macro-economic policies. More than 2 million people throughout the country are better off because of the individual efforts that staff have made in the past two years to help people claim the right benefit to move into work and to ensure that employers get the right people to fill their vacancies.

I was pleased to see in the Cambrian News, which I often read, that the hon. Gentleman regards the services provided by civil servants in Ceredigion as first class—indeed, he reiterated that point in his contribution. On their behalf, I thank him for those comments, and I add my own tribute to their work.

As Members of Parliament, we all have a responsibility and duty to fight to improve services in our local communities, but I say to the hon. Gentleman and to others who have contributed to the debate that fighting to improve services is not the same as fighting to maintain buildings. Through Jobcentre Plus and our range of other services, we are working in new ways. Of course, as we have made clear, the focus is to ensure efficiencies in the provision of services where possible, but it is also to ensure that we provide the highest-possible quality of service to the people whom we serve.

The ways of working are now different. Gone are the days when we expected jobseekers or pensioners to traipse along to a benefit office to collect their benefit, and then off to an employment office or a jobcentre to look for vacancy information. People physically had to go to the jobcentre to look at a bewildering array of jobs, and had very little support. Jobcentre Plus is not just about offices; it is about the service that we provide, day in, day out, to thousands of people. We are making sure that people can access services without having to go to a Jobcentre Plus office. Comprehensive information is available in local libraries and other places, as well as on the internet. Also, there is a touch-screen service through the job points, an increasing number of which are being installed in convenient locations, including our own offices. They are making more than 400,000 vacancies readily accessible. We are consulting locally on the most appropriate form of provision in each area.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) claimed that the changes were being made in an arbitrary way, and the hon. Member for Ceredigion supported him in that.
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Lembit Öpik : My point—and, I am sure, the hon. Member for Ceredigion's—was that the threshold for how many staff are required to make a centre viable is arbitrary. We think that more than 100 members of staff are needed. That threshold is the arbitrary measure that makes it pretty much impossible for any centre in my constituency or the hon. Gentleman's to be viable.

Mr. Pond : Questioning how viable some of our jobcentres are is inevitable, since we are talking about very few staff serving very few people in some jobcentres. However, the numbers are not arbitrary. There is no clear and fixed threshold, although there are guidelines. District managers have to make a decision on how best to provide the highest-quality service to customers in each area. In doing that, they have been consulting with local MPs, local voluntary organisations, staff, the trade unions and many other organisations, including welfare groups, to find out how we can provide our service most efficiently and at the highest quality to the people whom we serve.

Mr. Llwyd : I confess that I have not been consulted at all about the closures. Let me mention one thing that disturbs many of us present today: at the beginning of May, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions met the First Minister in Cardiff, and they discussed a range of subjects, but the Secretary of State did not even mention that the closures were on the horizon. Why did he not even consult the National Assembly for Wales?

Mr. Pond : I understand that the hon. Gentleman is having a meeting in the near future with my ministerial colleague, which will provide an ideal opportunity to run through some of his concerns. We would be happy for other hon. Members who have contributed to this debate to sit down with us and discuss some of the issues face to face, because we all recognise that these are important issues for our constituents. Valuable though today's opportunity to raise the issue is, it is not possible for us to talk through precisely how we will move ahead at local level during such a short debate, especially when we are talking about several different communities.

In trying to work out the best way forward, our plan is to take account of a wide range of factors in relation to the location of new centres. In some places, such as Aberystwyth, we can refurbish existing premises; in others, we are investing in brand-new acquisitions. We are to open a new 250-seat contact centre in Bangor by December 2005; that contact centre will play a pivotal role in the provision of Welsh language services. I am sure that hon. Members accept that that is one of the ways in which we can improve the provision of Welsh language services in a way that is not always possible through the current office structure. It is also important to stress that the choices remain subject to detailed planning, which is still ongoing. We welcome the discussions with Members on how we should move forward.

When a full Jobcentre Plus presence is neither practicable nor viable, we will adopt more flexible approaches, such as the installation of job points, the use of telephones that give direct access to our facilities and other services delivered through the premises of some of our partners—I am talking mainly about local authorities. Such approaches may be particularly
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helpful in some areas. We can also consider ways—postal signing, for example—of helping people who find it physically difficult to make the journey to a Jobcentre Plus building. We are running a pilot to establish how telephone signing might work, while making sure that the tailored provision of the personal adviser service is available to people who are able to visit the jobcentre. Sometimes, we shall be able to meet the travel costs of people who are not on a regular signing cycle so that they can get face-to-face support.

Mr. Simon Thomas : In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, the Minister talked about consultation and achieving the best way of delivering services to our communities. The statement of 16 September said clearly that the 37 sites will cease to be viable and will close altogether. Is the Minister now saying that if a strong case can be made on service delivery grounds for retention or for a change in those plans, he and his Department will be open to persuasion?

Mr. Pond : I am saying that we will have real discussions with hon. Members. However, they have to accept the fact that we seek to achieve two objectives: greater efficiency and better-quality provision. The assumption in this debate has been that there is a trade-off between the two, but I believe that we can achieve an improvement in both. We shall be happy to discuss the way forward with hon. Members in more detail than is possible in this debate.

In the last few minutes remaining, I should like to focus on staff, particularly those in Aberystwyth. That issue was also raised when we had to make rationalisations in office provision. I want to send out
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the message that we are committed to doing everything that we can to provide help and support for our staff, whose work we value greatly. We shall continue in our discussions with the trade unions. As we have said, redundancy will only be a last resort in this case, as elsewhere. We will do everything we can to help people to relocate, if that is necessary. We are talking to other Government Departments nationally to establish whether there are alternative forms of employment that people could pursue within the public service—we know of people's commitment to public service. We are currently in discussions with the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Development Agency to establish whether, given their timetable and ours, we can work more closely together to make sure that jobs are available.

I emphasise that although we have to rationalise some of our processing procedures, we are increasing the overall number of front-line staff. Jobcentre Plus will increase customer-facing staff by 17 per cent. Through the substantial investment that we have made in recent years, we hope to achieve a more efficient system that will provide a better quality of service for the people whom we serve. That will allow us to continue to deliver a high-quality service, and although any job losses are regrettable, we are doing everything we can to minimise them. At the end of the day, the improvement in efficiency will release resources to make further progress towards achieving the objectives that everyone in this Chamber shares: dealing with the problems of child and pensioner poverty, and getting even closer to full employment than today's figures show.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.
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