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At the public meeting, I asked Mr. Tim Taylor-Blake, the area manager, whether he agreed with the Ministers statement, and he said, It is not my job to agree or disagreethere speaks a robust, obviously ambitious and, I hope, ultimately very successful civil servant. It is not his job to agree or disagree with the Minister, but neither is it the Ministers job to hide behind officialdom when confronted by questions from a Member of Parliament who is asking him to justify
his assertion that closing the jobcentre in Christchurch will improve the service for constituents.
The only service improvements that Mr. Taylor-Blake could claim were a better level of support and advice and a quicker service. It is fair to say that the audience treated both those claims with derisive laughter, based on incredulity. The proposed Christchurch office closure is the only full-time office closure proposed in Dorset. Although the argument for a fuller service could be applied to the closure of part-time offices staffed by secondees, that is manifestly not the case in Christchurch. What has happened, I suspect, is that a circular letter has been sent out, which applied to part-time offices, but manifestly not to the full-time Christchurch office.
As the Minister knows, I have been pressing him to justify his assertion that we will have a better service. In a written answer published yesterday, it would be fair to say that he again ducked the question, referring to the acting chief executive of Jobcentre Plus. That lady speaks only of increasing numbers of customers accessing services by telephone or internet, but she does not address the significant minority who do not and cannot cope with a remote bureaucracy accessible only by electronic means. That group is by definition composed of the most vulnerable members of society. Its members want and need face-to-face contact with real people, not faceless bureaucrats in some remote location. The people in the Jobcentre Plus service to whom I have spoken welcome that face-to-face contact, and feel that it was for that that they came into the service in the first place. They do not want to be on the end of a telephone with a system that uses computer prompts allowing no flexibility or individual discretion.
How can a better service be provided to the group of people that I have described by closing the jobcentre? Mel Groves has spoken of the critical need to secure the most effective and equitable use of resources. What better cause for the equitable use of resources could there be than helping vulnerable people in face-to-face interviews, close to home? It is a matter of regret that in recent weeks home visiting by staff from the Christchurch jobcentre office has been curtailed. I have been told that home visiting will be possible in the future, but one must remain sceptical about such promises when the existing home visiting service is being reduced.
It is to the credit of the Minister and his Department that the staff at the Christchurch office are so highly regarded by their customers. They have won departmental awards for just that. The area manager includes in the case that he makes the fact that not many people in Christchurch are out of work in the long term. That is true, but I regard that low number as testimony of the quality of the advice and help that people get from the Jobcentre Plus staff. The advice that they get is tailored to individual circumstances and enables them to get into work and stay in work. That is a justification not for closing the office and reducing the service, but for keeping the office open. I fear that the criteria that the Department is using for deciding which offices to close may be based on the idea that the larger the number of long-term unemployed an area has, the stronger the reason is for keeping its office open; the Department should be considering the success rate of the office in getting out-of-work people back into work. Christchurch Jobcentre Plus has a proud record in that respect.
Christchurch borough council has taken a keen interest in the issue, as I have said. I have always thought that there might be a case for localising all benefit and welfare advice under the aegis of the local authority, which already deals with council tax and housing benefit. That might, indeed, offer a way forward, providing a better service for vulnerable people while preserving accessibility and increasing accountability. In the absence of such a radical alternative, the proposed closure will undoubtedly lead to significant disruption to customers and will damage the interests of some of the most vulnerable members of society.
My Government will continue its investment in, and reforms of, the public services in order to improve further their effectiveness and to help the most vulnerable members of society.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): Thank you, Mr. Martlew, for giving us the opportunity to start the debate earlier than scheduled. I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing this debate on what, as he has shown, is an important local issue, in which he takes a keen interest. I also welcome the opportunity not only to talk about the Christchurch office but to express my appreciation, and that of the whole Government, of the work that Jobcentre Plus does in the south-west and throughout Great Britain.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, Jobcentre Plus was launched just over four years ago. The roll-out of the national network of offices and modern services commenced in 2002, and with only 10 more offices to go it is virtually complete. As of 21 June 2007, a total of 855 new offices have been opened around the country, enabling Jobcentre Plus to play a key role in delivering our modern welfare system. The initial local service delivery plans for the roll-out in Dorset and Somerset were agreed after consultation in early 2003. Most of the modernised offices in the district were set up in 2004, and they included the one in Christchurch.
The launch of Jobcentre Plus is rightly acclaimed as the most far-reaching organisational reform of welfare in past decades. Gone are the days when the only way of obtaining job vacancy information was physically to go to a jobcentre and browse a bewildering array of vacancy cards on display stands. Comprehensive information is now available on the internet. The award-winning Jobcentre Plus website regularly records the highest number of visits for any Government website, with many thousands of user visits each week. We are using modern technology to make many services accessible from the comfort of peoples homes, or from public premises such as local libraries. Similarly, our touch-screen job points are increasingly being installed in convenient locations, as well as our offices, making more than 400,000 vacancies readily accessible.
In the south-west region, unemployment has, as the hon. Gentleman knows, gone down by more than 35,000 in the past decade, and there are more than 130,000 more people in work. Meanwhile, the jobseekers allowance claimant count is down 9 per cent. on the year. In Dorset and Somerset district in the period June 2005 to June 2006, the unemployment rate was 3.8 per cent. and the employment rate was 77 per cent. The jobseekers allowance claimant count was 7,775, which was down 15 per cent. on the year.
I want now to discuss the situation in Christchurch. As Jobcentre Plus has significantly improved its services, through advances in telephony and e-enabled services, it has ensured that its resources are put in place so as to support the most disadvantaged, with special focus on the local authority wards that are the most deprived, and which have poor labour markets. Therefore, in March, Jobcentre Plus developed a case for revising the 2003 service delivery plan. The revised plans have led to the consultation on the possible closure of Christchurch jobcentre.
In proposing the closure of an office, Jobcentre Plus takes into account the following criteria: first, the volume of business transacted in the office that it is proposed to close; secondly, how the full range of customer services will be provided following closure; thirdly, the impact on customers, in such matters as travel, journey times and the cost of travel to another office; fourthly, how employers will be affected; fifthly, how staff will be affected; and lastly, costs and potential savings. All those criteria are considered carefully during the consultation period, which in this case began, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on 21 May, and will end on 2 July. The consultation includes the local Members of Parliament in all cases, local advice and welfare groups, employers, staff, trade unions and many other community groups, to which the hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute. I take a personal interest in ensuring that a minimum of six weeks is allowed for local communities and stakeholders to make formal responses to such proposals. Meaningful consultation is vital in gathering all the information to help me to consider all the relevant facts before making my decision.
We shall take into account all the views expressed in relation to the criteria that I listed. However, it is necessary today to consider those criteria in turn to show why Jobcentre Plus has entered into the consultation on proposed closure. First, as to volume of business, Christchurch jobcentre is one of our smaller offices, and now has only 14 staff. In the period July 2005 to June 2006 the relevant unemployment rate was only 2 per cent., with an employment rate of 77 per cent. Both of those rates were better than the national average. The jobseekers allowance claimant count in May 2007 was only 256, which was down more than 20 per cent. on the year. The new deal figures show that no 18 to 24-year-old customers were on the programme after 12 months and that only 15 customers aged 25 or above and only five customers aged over 50 were on the programme after 18 months. Those are historically low levels, and those factors, especially the levels of high employment and low unemployment, raise questions about the operational viability of the jobcentre, given the intention to focus resources where they add most value in Dorset and Somerset.
The second consideration is how the delivery of services would be affected by closure. The Christchurch office is not structurally friendly for public access, especially for customers who have disabilities, as services are sited on the first floor of the building, which is accessed via a lift. In addition, the social fund cannot be delivered through that office.
The third consideration is customer travel. The hon. Gentleman reasonably asked about contingency plans and alternative arrangements. I tell him, and others through him, that I shall not consider specific alternative transport arrangements until we have taken a decision on closure. I do not think that he would welcome me talking about the alternative arrangements that will be put in place, given that we have not yet taken a decision. He well knows that Bournemouth is served by regular bus services from Christchurch, and I am told that customers can purchase a day-tripper bus ticket for £3. Services could also be made available to customers at Winton and Ringwood jobcentres if that would better suit their personal needs.
Fourthly, in respect of the impact on employers, Bournemouth, where most local employers are located, also offers an improved range of services. Employer activity at Christchurch jobcentre is very low: in the past five months, only four employers have used the office for interviews on just eight days.
Fifthly, Jobcentre Plus will be able to redeploy any and all Christchurch staff to the new Bournemouth office if there is a decision to close the Christchurch office at the end of the consultation. The hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to the staff in the Christchurch officeas do I to the staff in all our offices across the networkand to the work of disability employment advisers. When it came to deciding whether to invest in the new deal and disability employment advisers, I voted to invest money in such services. I have voted for every penny piece of new investment into Jobcentre Plus in the past decade, but that has not been a universally consensual approach. There was a bitter, party political divide on whether having disability employment advisers was the right way to progress, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman now welcomes the investment that he and his party so strongly opposed 10 years ago.
Lastly, if we were to go ahead with any proposed closure, the likely impact on costs and savings would be an important consideration. It would be wrong to identify any specific savings or costs, because if we were to go ahead with a closure, the subsequent contingency plans and the nature of any community-based service would lead to additional costs.
Those are the six major issues that we will consider at the end of the consultation process, before Ministers take a decision. The hon. Gentleman has raised his concerns and those of his constituents and of stakeholders, and they will be addressed when we consider those criteria.
The Minister mentioned the revised service delivery plan that was issued in March. Am I right to say that that plan had to be approved by the Jobcentre Plus board and that it was then referred to the Minister as the basis for consultation? If so, why cannot the plan be shared with consultees? There
would certainly be quite a lot of contention regarding some of the information that the Minister has given. He said that the building is not structurally sound and is not friendly to disabled users, but one of the staff members there is disabled and chooses to work there specifically because she finds it an accessible and friendly place. He will know from the area managers reports that many disabled people said at the public meeting that they choose to go to Christchurch jobcentre because it is local, friendly and accessible and is not intimidating. Those issues are highly contentious, so why cannot we see the revised service delivery plan to assess whether it is accurate?
Mr. Murphy: I shall try to respond to that specific point in the time that I have left. For the public record, I confirm that the plan does not have to be approved by the board, although its members and the chief operating officer are aware of and content with the consultation.
On the hon. Gentlemans point about ease of accessibility, as we progress with the proposals in the Welfare Reform Act 2007, it will become increasingly important to offer tailored support to people with disabilities as we will, rightly, offer more support to disabled people to get them back into work. Their involvement will be a condition of continuing to receive employment support allowance. Those who can undertake work focused interviews and work-related activity will do so in return for those benefits. That tailored support will be particularly important from 2008 onwards, with the introduction of the employment and support allowance, and will be underpinned by the extension of pathways across the country. Pathways is another new investment and innovation, and is the single most effective investment and programme of its type in supporting disabled people and giving them the chance to get into work.
I know that the hon. Gentleman will continue to pay close interest to this issue, right up to and beyond the consultation closure on 2 July. I hope that I have set out for him the criteria that we will use to assess this matter at the end of the consultation, and the context in which we will ensure that we continue to provide a service to our customers.
Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the Minister, as we are using all the time available to us. Has he seen the revised service delivery plan? If so, will he share its content with me so that I can comment on it directly?
Mr. Murphy: Of course I see the plans. I see delivery plans and consultation proposals every day as a matter of public business in my Department. I shall speak to the hon. Gentleman about the plan in the next few weeks if he wishes.
In conclusion, I emphasise that we have not yet taken a decision and that we will take the hon. Gentlemans comments into account, as well as those made by people in Christchurch and the surrounding area before reaching a conclusion on the proposed closure. With that, I thank you, Mr. Martlew, and the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate.
Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): I tabled this debate because I visited recently the Palestinian occupied territories with a delegation organised by War on Want. It consisted of War on Want staff, myself, and Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former general secretary of Unison. I am grateful for the opportunity to report on our findings, and I hope that the Minister will take account of them.
I have previously visited the west bank and Gaza on a number occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the time of the first intifadaa Palestinian uprising involving peaceful disobedience or, at worst, children throwing stones at soldiers. Despite the injuries inflicted on children by the Israeli army, the intifada was full of hope, and it led to the negotiation of the Oslo peace accord and the return of Yasser Arafat to Palestine. I was hopeful at that time that a two-state peaceIsrael and Palestinewas possible, that the new Palestinian state would be based on 1967 boundaries with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that there would be a negotiated settlement on Palestinian right of return. Those are the three essential components of a negotiated peace. I was hopeful; but it is now impossible to believe that there will be such a peace. Instead, I fear that unless we change policy, we face the prospect of years and possibly decades of bloodshed and conflict.
I have followed developments in the middle east carefully over many years, and I was well aware before my recent visit how bad things are for the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, I was deeply shocked by Israels blatant, brutal and systematic annexation of land, demolition of Palestinian homes, and deliberate creation of an apartheid system by which the Palestinians are enclosed in four bantustans, surrounded by a wall, with massive checkpoints that control all Palestinian movements in and out of the ghettos.
The Israelis are clearly and systematically attempting to take the maximum amount of land with the minimum number of Palestinians. As things stand, Israel has taken 85 per cent. of historical Palestine, leaving the remaining 15 per cent. for Palestinian ghettos. More shocking than that is that the international community, including the UK and the EU, does nothing to require Israel to abide by international law, despite all the claims made about European support for human rights and international law.
During its visit, the delegation spent a day with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is the agency responsible for humanitarian emergencies. It briefed us on the way in which the wall, the closures, the settlements and the separate system of settler roads were imprisoning the Palestinians. It published a map in the Financial Times to mark the 40th anniversary of the occupation, which is available for all to see.
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