Thank you, Presiding Officer. We recently debated proposals from the United Kingdom Department for Work and Pensions to close Jobcentre Plus facilities in Scotland. At the time, I predicted that it would not be long before we would debate such matters again—and here we are.
The proposals for Scotland-wide closures affect communities and people the length and breadth of the country. They are disproportionate in their impact and they have been announced with little detail, after limited consultation and even less engagement with the people who rely on or work in Jobcentre Plus services. Today’s debate allows this Parliament to send a loud and clear message about our concerns about the far-reaching implications for people who rely on access to the services of their local jobcentre—in particular, vulnerable customers—and the implications for DWP staff in the locations and offices that are targeted for closure.
On 7 December last year, the closure of half the jobcentres in Glasgow—eight out of 16—was revealed in the press. There was no consultation of, or prior notice given to, the communities that were affected, to the Scottish Government or to this Parliament.
I alluded to the opportunity that Parliament had to debate the Glasgow closures during a members’ business debate on 18 January, which my friend Bob Doris brought to the chamber. Voices across the chamber united with the voices of people from outside Parliament to express concern about the impact on people who rely on Glasgow’s jobcentre network. Those voices were united in condemnation of the fact that the proposals were not communicated to communities.
Indeed, the UK Government seems not even to know where Glasgow is. When Caroline Nokes MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery, was asked in the House of Commons about the closures in Glasgow, she said:
“the Minister for Employment”—
that is, the UK minister, Damian Hinds—
“was in Musselburgh just two weeks ago”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 30 January 2017; Vol 620, c 671.]
That is just one example of how far removed the UK Government is from communities in Scotland.
If those proposals were not bad enough, on 26 January, again with no consultation, the DWP announced a further raft of closures across the UK and across Scotland. There was no warning, despite my having raised directly with Damian Hinds the failure to provide warnings about the Glasgow proposals when I met him on 19 January. I wrote to Mr Hinds after that meeting. By some miraculous coincidence, today, on the day of this debate, he has replied to my letter. At first glance, what stands out from the letter is that there is not much additional information. There is no commitment to consult on all closures. Particularly disappointing is Mr Hinds’s failure to commit to visiting the communities and people who will be impacted in Scotland, so that he can truly understand their concerns. I continue to urge him to visit those communities.
The proposals that were revealed on 26 January will impact on 16 more sites in other parts of Scotland: nine jobcentres, six back offices and one centre for health and disability assessment. Let me be clear: the proposals could mean closure of another six jobcentres, in Broxburn, Edinburgh city, Inverness, Port Glasgow, Alexandria, and Benbecula.
We have also learned from the press that there is a plan to move Grangemouth jobcentre, which is not on the planned closure list, to Falkirk. That we continue to find out details through the media rather than directly from the UK Government demonstrates the continuing failure to communicate decisions properly.
In Greenock, 28 staff and services will move from the current jobcentre before March 2018. The move is a distance of 2.9 miles. Had the distance been 0.1 of a mile further, a consultation on closure would have been required. It is my view that any proposal for closure should be open to consultation. The UK Government cannot make decisions that are based just on lines or circles on a map, but it seems to be clear that that, to a large extent, is how the decisions about the sites that are to be closed have been made.
I want to highlight my concerns about the plans. Those concerns were voiced by the First Minister in Parliament last week and I have heard them expressed directly by people who will be affected.
The factor that seems to have largely driven the changes is whether lease arrangements for the buildings in which jobcentres are located are coming to an end. That strikes me as an odd way to determine which communities should continue to have jobcentre services. It also seems to be clear that having to travel further, as many jobcentre service users will have to do, will have the biggest impact on people who are vulnerable, who have health and mobility problems and who have caring commitments. Decisions that are based on lines drawn on maps do not reflect the reality that many people do not own, or have access to, a car. They do not reflect the reality of how communities are connected with one another by public transport. They do not reflect the reality that increased travel costs will be a strain on families who are already under financial pressure.
All of us should make no mistake—the closures have left people worried. At the invitation of Bob Doris and Patrick Grady MP, I visited Maryhill burgh halls earlier this week and heard service users’ worries about the costs of travel, and their worries about having to make hard choices between paying for travel and paying for food. It seems to be inevitable that the additional challenge of accessing more remote jobcentres at appointed times will increase the risk of people being subjected to benefits sanctions. That was a particular concern that I heard in Maryhill and when I visited Parkhead Housing Association last week.
The changes also threaten important and established relationships with work coaches. I know at first hand how dedicated and hard working many DWP staff are. For all our concerns and criticisms of the framework within which they have to work, I know that DWP staff are committed to the people with whom they work. I also know that productive relationships with DWP work coaches are really important to customers with complex or sensitive needs, who get to know and trust the work coach with whom they work. When I met One Parent Families Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland and Home Start in Maryhill this week, they spoke eloquently of the “dehumanising” effect on claimants of having over and over again to share personal stories with strangers.
The closures are rationalised on the assumption that more people now access Jobcentre Plus services online. However, a significant number of clients either do not have the information technology that they need to access the services, or they rely on their local jobcentres for the facilities to undertake computer searches and to apply for jobs online. In many cases, the closure of a jobcentre will make accessing services online more difficult.
The reality is that the DWP’s plans mean not just the closure of jobcentres across Scotland but the closure of back-office facilities as well. The DWP also proposes to close six administrative centres across Scotland. Those are not simply faceless, back-of-house administrative offices; the facilities employ hard-working, dedicated and committed people who work to ensure that DWP front-line services are effective. The facilities provide a significant number of jobs and make a vital contribution to their local areas. DWP ministers have stated that staff who are impacted by the changes will have the option of moving elsewhere, but that may not be possible in every instance. For example, jobs in Silvan house in Edinburgh could be moved or redeployed to Newcastle by March 2018, and staff in Cumnock will find it difficult to travel elsewhere readily in order to continue employment with the DWP. I have met the Public and Commercial Services Union and I share its concerns about the negative impact that the closures will have on jobcentre staff as well as on service users.
I believe that we should explore all the options to ensure that services continue to exist for those who need them. Joint working between the Scottish Government and the UK Government could better realise that. Our new devolved employability support services should trigger the opportunity to align existing employability support in Scotland with that at UK level, and to drive alignment and shared governance and accountability.
Paragraph 58 of the Smith commission agreement states that
“the UK and Scottish Government will identify ways to further link services through methods such as co-location wherever possible and establish more formal mechanisms to govern the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland.”