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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) on securing the debate, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for her contribution. I appreciate that they both consider the issue important not just to those who work for the DWP at Norcross and on the Fylde coast, but to the whole community. My hon. Friend made that clear when she spoke of the local authority's concerns.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to reassure both Members. I hope to present a wider picture of the Department's efficiency programme. We have a vision for the Departmenta vision of a modern organisation delivering a first-class service to clients throughout the community. I hope that both Members share that vision. Changes will be needed to make it a reality. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have invested a significant amount of public money in new information technology and infrastructure systems. We aim to centralise much of our benefit processing, streamline our delivery operations and cut wasteful bureaucracy in all parts of the Department. Again, I trust that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will support that.
We are, in fact, transforming the way in which the Department does its business. It is not an easy challenge, but we are determined to succeed. The modern, more efficient organisation that we are putting in place will, by
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design, need fewer staff. Indeed, our efficiency plans are based on a reduction of 30,000 staff between March 2004 and 2008. We are already almost halfway towards achieving that target. The reductions so far have been managed by controlling recruitment, redeploying surplus staff to vacancies, natural turnover and a limited number of managed voluntary releases.
To manage that major programme of change, and especially to handle properly its impact on people's lives, we have put in place a set of work force policies and processes and have established regional and national governance arrangements, managed by senior officials. The Department is playing a major role in initiatives put in place by the Cabinet Office to support the wider efficiency programme across Government, which, again, my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman would support.
Let me be clear: this programme is about establishing a service fit for the 21st century, not about cutting jobs for the sake of it. It is about refocusing our efforts on our clients' needs, not on managing wasteful and outdated processes and systems. We have, under our Gershon efficiency plans, a target of moving 10,000 people to front-line activity by 2008, and I am pleased to report that we have already made progress in moving more than 4,000 people to customer-facing work.
Of course, I understand that at times of major change staff will be concerned about jobs and their career prospects. We all accept that that is a natural reaction to change. However, our current plans still forecast departmental staffing of around 100,000 people nationwide. The Department is, and will continue to be, a major employer, offering good and worthwhile jobs to its staff.
Mrs. McGuire: I was just about to come specifically to the Fylde area, but felt it important to put the subject in its wider context. I shall turn now to the hon. Gentleman's specific questions, and those of my hon. Friend.
The Department and its predecessors has been a major employer in the Fylde area for more than 50 years. We depend heavily on the skills, knowledge and hard work of staff from across the area and from further afield across north-west England. We employ more than 6,000 staff in the area, who are engaged in a vast range of work at a number of sites. More than a fifth of the Department's staff are based in the north-west regionwell over 20,000 staff in all. In addition to our direct, customer-facing outlets, such as jobcentres, the Fylde area is a strategic centre for the Department, from which we run many key operations, including the Disability and Carers Service units at Norcross and Warbreck Hill, where the agency employs around 3,000 staffabout 50 per cent. of its total staff.
The scale and size of our operation in the area and our determination to improve efficiency across all our operations are bound to have some impact on staffing levels. I can, however, categorically reassure the
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hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood that stories in the local press of mass redundancies and wholesale closures are wholly misleading. Furthermore, I must say that the stories have caused unnecessary worry to our staff and the wider community. Likewise, speculation in the media about the Department moving work overseas has no basis in reality. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman. The Department has absolutely no plans to move jobs overseas, and I am pleased to be able to put that on record. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will, like me, want to deal with facts, not rumours.
At times of change, it is more important than ever to be straight and open with staff as plans are developed, as both hon. Members who have contributed tonight have said. Let me reiterate that the Department is a major employer in Fylde and plans to be so in the future, with a significant proportion of our work force based in the area. Indeed, as my hon. Friend remarked, we have recently moved 260 additional posts into the Disability and Carers Service at Warbreck house from Sutton in London, as part of our plans for relocating work from London and the south-east under the Lyons review. I am sure that hon. Members, especially the hon. Gentleman, will welcome that move as much as I do.
The Disability and Carers Service employed more staff in Fylde by the end of December last year than it did in April. Standards are improving, as was shown by the fact that in September the DCS helpline received external accreditation to the Contact Centre Association, the professional body for assessing standards of excellence. It was therefore a serious disappointment to see a headline in the local newspaper suggesting that 93 per cent. of calls went unanswered. That was not the reality of the service that we provided. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will want to congratulate the staff on achieving that accreditation.
We are also running a number of voluntary early retirement and early severance schemes across the country, where they can be shown to offer value for money. So far, some 90 staff have left our Fylde offices under the schemes, with some 250 further releases planned over the next few months. It is important to point out that, although we are well into delivering on our efficiency challenge, we have avoided any compulsory redundancies in the Fylde area, which demonstrates our commitment to staff. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we will take every action necessary to avoid compulsory redundancies in the future.
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It is not just in staffing where we are looking to modernise. Our estate has grown organicallyas the hon. Gentleman highlightedoften as a result of the machinery of government changes and restructuring within the Department's predecessor organisations. We cannot expect to make the degree of change we have to make without ensuring that our estate meets requirements. That would risk wasting taxpayers' money on buildings that we do not need. We are therefore looking closely at our future estate strategy to ensure that we are running our end-to-end operations efficiently. It is singularly unhelpful to link issues of sensible estate rationalisation with the number of redundancies.
We shall need to consider a range of options for where work is done and the best type of estate to use. However, before we introduce any changes, we will talk to our staff and their trade unions. In spite of the comments made during the debate, our managers have a good record in managing change, and in dealing sensitively with the legitimate and understandable concerns of staff.
We are managing the transformation programme in a joined-up way across all the Department's businesses. Our business managers are working closely together to ensure that as many staff as possible who become surplus in one unit can be redeployed in new work in another. Indeed, we have redeployed more than 225 staff over the past 18 months who had become surplus at our main Fylde sites, including Norcross, Peel Park and Warbreck house at Blackpool and Lytham St. Annes.
The Government's aim is to bring about a leaner, more focused organisation that delivers the services people need. Our staff are key in delivering that change; they deal with the most disadvantaged people in our community, often at particularly stressful times of lifeunemployment, sickness or bereavement. It is through their hard work at places such as Fylde and elsewhere that we will achieve the ambitious aims that we have set ourselves.
I regret that the unfounded speculation about our cutting 2,000 jobs in the area has caused so much anxiety and concern to our excellent staff in the area, and I hope that I have reassured both the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood.
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