Meeting date: Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 08 February 2017
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Jobcentre Plus Network, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Trident (Case for Non-renewal)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Jobcentre Plus Network
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Trident (Case for Non-renewal)
Jobcentre Plus Network
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-03873, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on the future of the Jobcentre Plus network.14:44
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.”
Will the minister give way?
I will, of course, give way to Mr Tomkins, who will understand the Smith commission agreement very well, given that he was on the commission.
I am not solely responsible for having written every word of the Smith commission agreement, but I thank the minister for the compliment.
There is much in the minister’s remarks that I agree with, but I would like to push him a little on whether he has made any particular suggestions—either through the joint ministerial working group on welfare or through any other mechanism of intergovernmental communication—about the location of any specific devolved service in any of the jobcentres or other DWP properties that are cited for closure.
Let me make it clear that I did not mean accepting the intervention to be a compliment to Mr Tomkins, and I am aware that he did not write the entire Smith commission agreement. I hope that that was not him trying to step back from the shared commitment to paragraph 58 of the Smith commission agreement. [Interruption.] I hear him from a sedentary position saying, “Absolutely not.” I very much welcome that.
I recognise that the matter has been laid out in the member’s amendment. I could have accepted much of his amendment, but it is unfortunate that he has sought to alter our wording. We will not accept it because of that. It is clear, as we say in the motion, that the DWP’s proposed changes “will have” a negative impact on service users, but he would rather say that they “may have” a negative impact on service users.
I agree with much of the rest of the tenor of Mr Tomkins’ amendment. He refers to the need to have in place a process of two-way dialogue. I absolutely accept the need for that. All that I can say to Parliament is that, up until now, our side has made the effort, and the dialogue has been one way, with little coming back from the other side.
On Mr Tomkins specific point, I have sought to explore with the UK Government the possibility of how we can undertake a programme of co-location. My officials have done that, too, and Skills Development Scotland has met the DWP to try to see how we can undertake that at specific locations.
To Parliament I say—I would have thought that this point would be self-evident—that it is rather difficult to make a specific proposal about any specific location where a jobcentre might be closed when we do not find out about the specific centres that are going to be closed until a decision has been taken. If we want to engage in the terms of paragraph 58 and have “meaningful dialogue”, it would be better if the DWP were to engage in the process of two-way dialogue that Mr Tomkins has urged should take place and, I am sure, that this entire Parliament would accept is necessary, so that we can see how we can co-locate services to ensure better services for people.
Let me be clear that the process so far around the closures suggests that further progress is needed to make the terms of paragraph 58 of the Smith commission agreement a reality.
The rationale for the decisions that have been taken by the UK Government needs to be better explained, examined and justified. The Scottish Government—and, I believe, this Parliament—should be involved in the planning and the delivery of co-location or outreach services. I hope that I have just made that point clearly to Mr Tomkins. More can—and must—be done to seek alternative accommodation or facilities in locations where jobcentres could close.
I urge the UK Government to share its plans in order to allow the Scottish Government to engage better and to provide a platform for further discussion on paragraph 58 of the Smith commission agreement. Until it does so, it is incumbent on us to send a clear message to the UK Government—I hope that the entire Parliament will unite this evening behind this message—that until it engages in that process, it should halt its closures process in order to allow us collectively to ensure continued support for our communities. I urge Parliament to back that position.
That the Parliament is concerned at the impact that the announced closure of up to 23 Jobcentre Plus sites across Scotland by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will have on people and communities; recognises the negative outcomes on those who need to access Jobcentre Plus sites that these closures will bring; calls on the DWP to provide more detail on the timing, scope and rationale for these closures, alongside equality impact assessments; believes that the terms of paragraph 58 of the Smith Commission Agreement, which sets out 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” should have triggered more meaningful dialogue between the DWP and the Scottish Government on the future of Jobcentre Plus sites in Scotland, and calls on the DWP to halt the closures to allow the Scottish Government to bring forward substantive co-location proposals to save these jobcentres.14:58
From the day that I discovered that the DWP had plans to close a number of jobcentres—initially in Glasgow and then across Scotland more broadly—I articulated my concerns about the proposals, first to the Secretary of State for Scotland, as the minister knows, and latterly in this Parliament and in the press. From the beginning, our priority has been to seek to understand the proposals, not to condemn or to condone them. Our amendment seeks to reflect that position.
It is important to understand the context in which the changes are happening. There are two elements to that. The first is that, in Westminster, there is all-party agreement—that includes the Labour Party and the SNP—that the future of Jobcentre Plus needs to be different from its past. The employment market is changing; the work that jobcentres perform is also changing. For example, it is increasingly important to the work of jobcentres for them to have the facility and the space to act as recruiting hubs for local employers so that employers can seek to hire employees at those jobcentres. That is much easier to do with a smaller number of larger jobcentres than it is with a larger number of smaller jobcentres. It is worth recalling that, in November 2016, the all-party House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee said:
“The future of Jobcentre Plus ... is one of change ... To make a success of its new, expanded role, JCP will have to ensure that it is open to working in ways that are increasingly flexible, adaptable and experimental.”
The member rightly talks about having a UK perspective on jobcentre closures, but does he think that Glasgow—the city that he represents—is ready for half of its centres to close, particularly given the level of digital exclusion in Glasgow?
I have said before that I think that all eight of the proposed Glasgow jobcentre closures should be put out to public consultation. I have made that point to the secretary of state and in the chamber. Three of the closures have been put out to public consultation, and my view is that all eight of them should have been.
The second aspect of the context in which we must understand the DWP’s proposals is that they come at a time when the jobs market in the UK, including here in Scotland, has changed considerably. There are now more jobs in the British economy than ever before, and there are more than 2.7 million more jobs than there were when Labour was last in office in 2010. Pauline McNeill has just asked me about Glasgow. In Glasgow, the claimant count has fallen by 44 per cent since 2010. In that context, it is surely rational to keep under review the nature and scale of the jobcentre provision that we need.
Leaving aside the fact that I might have some issues with the statistics that Mr Tomkins used on the fall in the claimant count, does he accept that those who remain unemployed in Glasgow will be among the most marginalised, vulnerable and furthest-away-from-the-labour-market people in the UK, and that those individuals and families need that service at the heart of their communities, not three and a half miles away?
I accepted that point when we debated Mr Doris’s motion on 19 January, and I accept it now. I was about to say that, all of that said, as I said in our previous debate on the matter a few weeks ago, even if the nature of the demand and the nature of the work that jobcentres perform are changing, it remains an important consideration that the demand is met locally, where possible. We know that some of our fellow citizens are a long way removed from the jobs market and that it is already enough of a challenge to encourage such people to engage with their work coaches at their local jobcentres. To move jobcentres further away from where those people live may act as a further disincentive to engage and make them even harder to reach. That cannot be in their interests, nor is it in the national interest, which is why I have called for all eight of the Glasgow jobcentre closure proposals to be put out to public consultation. That would enable us to better understand what is at stake.
If that applies to Jobcentre Plus, surely it also applies to other public services. Since we last spoke about jobcentres in the debate on Mr Doris’s motion, I have received notification that no fewer than four police stations across Glasgow are being “reviewed”, as Police Scotland put it. I have been told that
“Police Scotland is currently assessing its estate requirements”—
again, we are talking about a proposal that is driven by estate requirements—
“with many of its buildings no longer meeting current operational requirements ... This means we need to consider the viability and suitability of some of our properties.”
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The debate is about jobcentre closures, but Mr Tomkins is talking about police stations, which have nothing whatsoever to do with jobcentres.
Thank you, Ms White. That was not really a point of order. I have already considered whether Mr Tomkins has moved too far away from his amendment. I understand that he is discussing other closures as an example of centralising before moving back to jobcentres, so I believe that he is within a whisker of his amendment.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
As I understand it, Pollokshaws police station might close, as might Saracen police station—which I think is in Bob Doris’s constituency—and Easterhouse and Castlemilk police stations. Where are the howls of anguish from the SNP’s Glasgow MSPs when it comes to the proposed closure of police offices? Surely what goes for the DWP goes also for Police Scotland.
Will the member give way?
Not on this occasion.
It is also important to understand what is not happening with regard to jobcentres. The DWP’s proposals are about enhancing services, not cutting them; they are about improving claimant access to more employers. The proposals are for a reduction in floor space only. All staff and services will be relocated and no job losses are planned. Indeed, the number of work coaches in Scotland is going up—between April and September of last year, the DWP hired 122 work coaches in Scotland, notwithstanding the fact that there are fewer claimants than there have been at any point since the 1970s.
I want to pick up on the member’s point that there are no planned job losses. I accept and readily concede that I am at an advantage in having received a letter from Damian Hinds today, although I have not seen it that much before Mr Tomkins, but it says very clearly—indeed, it is one of the few things that it is rather clear on—that
“At this stage it is not possible to say how many potential redundancies may be necessary”.
The minister has been assiduous in sharing with Glasgow MSPs and members of the Social Security Committee correspondence that he has received from UK Government ministers—until today. That letter has not been shared with us before today.
Last month, I visited Partick jobcentre, which is one of the larger jobcentres in Glasgow, and I asked staff and managers there about the DWP’s plans. One of the things that is happening in that part of Glasgow is that Anniesland jobcentre is to be closed, with its work being rolled mainly into Partick but partly into Drumchapel. The staff and managers at Partick assured me that their jobcentre had ample capacity to absorb the additional work from Anniesland. They also told me that Anniesland is working at only one third of capacity.
Will the member give way?
Please sit down, Mr Greer.
I asked how they knew that, because I knew that the issue of how jobcentre capacity is measured has been challenged in the House of Commons, and they told me, “Well, Anniesland jobcentre is located in a three-storey building, and two storeys of it are closed.” Only one third of the building that the taxpayer is renting is being used by the jobcentre—
Will the member give way?
The member is in his last minute.
I am in my last two seconds.
The other two thirds of the building are being used by other Government departments. It illustrates the magnitude of what we are talking about, which is about redesigning jobcentres to be more effective instead of cutting services. If we held that in our minds, perhaps we would understand the proposals a bit more clearly.
Finally, as the minister knows, I am all in favour of co-location and linking devolved employability services and the like with Jobcentre Plus; indeed, I want more, not less joined-up working between the UK Government and the Scottish Government. I also fully accept what he said about two-way streets for communication and having dialogue rather than monologue on this score.
However, the fact is that, as our amendment makes clear, this is a two-way process, and the minister, for all his protestations to the contrary, has been—if I may say so—remarkably reticent in coming forward with concrete proposals as to how either Skills Development Scotland or the proposed new Scottish social security agency could in practice co-locate or link with existing Jobcentre Plus provision. Instead of shouting from the rooftops, a little more maturity might have realised better results.
I move amendment S5M-03873.1, to leave out from “will have” to end and insert:
“may have on people and communities; calls on the DWP to provide more detail on the timing and scope of these closures, alongside equality impact assessments; believes that the terms of paragraph 58 of the Smith Commission Agreement, which sets out 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’ should have triggered more meaningful dialogue between the DWP and the Scottish Government; recognises that such dialogue is a two-way process, and calls on the Scottish Government to make plain its proposals as to how Skills Development Scotland or the proposed Scottish social security agency could co-locate or otherwise link with the existing Jobcentre Plus network.”15:07
The closure of 23 jobcentres that the DWP is pursuing will affect deprived communities across Scotland, from Lanarkshire and Glasgow to the Western Isles and the Highlands. Labour members will support the Government motion, because we agree that the closures must be halted and because the UK and Scottish Governments must find a way forward.
Since December, Glasgow Labour has worked hand in hand with its SNP counterparts to fight the proposals. Eight jobcentres in Glasgow—half the number in the city—are up for closure, and the parties have been working together for the sake of people who are desperately looking to exercise their right to work and who need their jobcentre’s support to do that.
Now that the same challenge is extending across the country, I hope that all parties and all party leaders will join the call today for the DWP to halt the closures. Ruth Davidson must break her silence on the closure of the jobcentre in her Edinburgh constituency and on the massive impact that the closures will have on the Glasgow region, which she vacated, and on wider Scotland.
At a time when the Tories are cutting social security and hitting low-paid workers with sanctions, and when 139,000 people in Scotland are out of work, the proposals are reckless at best and utterly perverse at worst. It is completely counterproductive for the UK Government to close so many jobcentres.
The Tory spin that is used to justify the Glasgow cuts is shocking and masks the true harm that the closures will inflict on Scotland’s communities. The claimant count in the city is down by 44 per cent, as the Tories pointed out last month and have pointed out again today, but they choose to overlook the fact that the count across Scotland remains 14 per cent higher than it was before the financial crash. In fact, the number of economically inactive people who would still like a job stands at 190,000, which is 5 per cent higher than the figure before the crash.
The claimant count does not give the whole picture. As the Public and Commercial Services Union has pointed out, the effect of welfare reform is that too many people are falling between the cracks. Digitalisation, sanctions and mandatory reconsideration mean that fewer people are claiming the entitlements that they deserve.
It is astonishing that £2 billion in social security payments goes unclaimed in Scotland each year. Jobseekers allowance and employment and support allowance make up almost £600 million of that. Given the difficulty that people face in just making a claim, that number will keep increasing unless the closures are halted.
One Parent Families Scotland and Inclusion Scotland have stressed the fears that lone parents and disabled people have because of the closures. They fear increased travel times, which will risk lateness and the threat of sanctions; £4.50 bus tickets, which are unaffordable, or having to get taxis for longer journeys; and dealing with childcare arrangements. All that is added to the stress of meeting DWP demands in order to avoid sanctions.
PCS has highlighted the value of the local labour market knowledge that is set to be lost at Easterhouse jobcentre. In such a deprived area, staff knowledge of local employers means that employment support is provided that helps people to find local, accessible work rather than work that is several bus journeys away.
There are 713 jobcentres in Great Britain. I want to ensure that I have understood the Labour Party’s position. Is that position that there are no circumstances at all in which any of those 713 jobcentres could ever be closed or merged?
If the Conservative Government invested in public services and got people into work, and if we had a zero unemployment rate, maybe there would be a case for closing jobcentres but, when the claimant count and the unemployment rate are still higher than they were before the crash, there is no justification for making the closures.
It is ironic that the closures will have a wider impact on local communities and job markets. The jobcentres are anchor offices in communities. When they are pulled from communities, so too is the passing trade and the service jobs that keep people fed at lunch time, bus networks running and offices cleaned. It is not just the people who rely on support from the jobcentres who will be affected; there will be wider job losses, too. At the same time, critical support networks from organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland will be abandoned.
The Tories have said that no jobs will be lost in Scotland, but we have heard different news from the minister from the letter to the Scottish Government. I have already been contacted by constituents; non-mobile staff have contacted me to say that they are to have belated consultation and one-to-one interviews to discuss their position before April as a result of the proposals.
In a shocking display of honesty, Annie Wells has said on the record that she can neither condemn nor condone the closures. That sentiment was articulated again by Mr Tomkins today. Ruth Davidson remains in hiding, even though the issue affects her constituency. Given that communities throughout Scotland will be affected by the closures, that is simply not good enough. Ruth Davidson’s Tories need to stop trying to rebuild the economy off the backs of the poor, the sick and disabled people, and to call on the DWP to halt the plans.
The motion recalls the Smith commission agreement, which said that more should be done to devolve formal governance over the network and to explore the options for co-location. The triggering of that dialogue should have happened well before the closures of the Glasgow offices were announced. The UK Government must halt the closure plans and work with the Scottish Government to deliver co-location. With new powers over employability schemes coming to the Parliament, ministers must explore those co-location opportunities.
Labour members expect services to be free of the punitive sanctions regime and the misery that sanctions create, but we also expect services that provide high-quality and responsive local employment support to get people into the work that they want and cut through the worst effects of Tory austerity, in order to tackle poverty in Scotland. Delivering dignity and respect in those schemes does not rely solely on jobcentres, but finding ways to protect them and halt the closures would certainly contribute to that ambition.15:14
On Monday, Patrick Grady MP and I met single parents who will be impacted by the jobcentre closure in Maryhill. I thank the Minister for Employability and Training, Jamie Hepburn, for listening to those people’s concerns during his visit to Maryhill burgh halls. They had concerns about matters such as how on earth they would get to the jobcentre in Springburn, which is a four-bus round trip away and, for some, potentially a two and a half hour journey, even though they have caring commitments. They are also concerned about the cost of public transport to get to Springburn, because a £4.50 day ticket is a huge chunk out of a weekly benefit of £70 or so.
Claimants are concerned about losing the relationship that they have developed with their Jobcentre Plus job coach, because that relationship is not guaranteed to continue under the proposed changes, no matter what Jobcentre Plus has told us. It has told us that staff have the option of transferring to a jobcentre that is closer to where they stay, if they wish, so it is wrong about the job coaches.
People have not just concerns but fear about the risk of sanctions should their family and caring commitments be inconsistent with attending changed appointment times and having longer journey times. People have had sleepless nights because of the impact that the changes will have not on them but on their children and families—that is their primary concern.
Despite all that, the Tories in the debate today have, unfortunately, sought to water down the Scottish Parliament’s position of opposition to the jobcentre closures. The Tories cannot even bring themselves to talk about the impact that the motion states that the closures “will have”; their amendment would change the words to “may have”. That shows that they are paying only sad and pathetic lip service to doing something about the closures for those who will—not “may”—be impacted. The worry that the proposed closures are causing is already having an impact, and I met people on Monday who are being impacted.
I believe that the Tories wish to do more than just pay lip service to doing something about the closures, but it is increasingly clear that the Tory line on Jobcentre Plus has been developed not in Scotland but by the UK Tory Government. It is time for the Tories to stand up for their constituents and not for the Conservatives.
I will say a bit about equality impact assessments or, rather, the lack of them. Some basic information is needed before anyone can conduct an equality impact assessment, such as information on the catchment area that a jobcentre covers, but that information does not exist. To conduct an EIA, we would need to know the number of claimants who use the jobcentre, but Jobcentre Plus is a bit hazy about that. In fact, it is worse than hazy about it; Patrick Grady MP and I were told during a visit to the jobcentre in Maryhill that Jobcentre Plus does not collect that information. That is right—Jobcentre Plus does not collect that information, which is ridiculous.
If anyone wants to know why there should have been equality impact assessments, they should look at the Inclusion Scotland briefing that was prepared for this debate and for my members’ business debate the other week. I will not reiterate what that briefing says, but it is vital that no decisions on closures are made until a full and genuine equality impact assessment has been conducted for all Jobcentre Plus sites.
The Inclusion Scotland briefing provides a case study that I am sure is pertinent to not only the jobcentre in my constituency but those in the constituencies of MSPs across the chamber. The briefing states:
“One client told Jobcentre Plus that he did not have the money to get there for an appointment, they advised him to walk, but he explained that his poor health meant that he was unable to walk the long distance. He received a 13-week sanction for failing to attend.”
Those are not my words; they report the situation of someone who is living the life of a benefits claimant who struggles to survive. We can imagine the impact on physical and mental health that many vulnerable claimants face right now.
I want to be optimistic about something, because we can get opportunity from a crisis. I did not realise beforehand that the relationship between the job or work coaches and claimants is often, if not always, positive. However, as I said, the link between job coaches and claimants is not guaranteed to continue. Claimants sometimes have good relationships not only with job coaches but with One Parent Families Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland and Home-Start, which act as positive intermediaries that support the vulnerable individuals who should be at the heart of all this. Those relationships are positive and local. Clients can drop into the jobcentre in Maryhill outside required times to use the IT facilities for job searches, and support is provided for that. Those people will not go to Springburn and there are no other appropriate support facilities in the local area, which is just not on.
I will say a bit about co-location. Mr Tomkins tried to compare the co-location options of Jobcentre Plus and Scottish public agencies with police estate rationalisation. I got the same email as he did from Chief Inspector Ross Allan at Maryhill police station. On 24 January, the chief inspector told me:
“efforts are underway to identify suitable front counter facilities in a shared facility in the local community to complement the other existing sub-division police offices at Maryhill and Baird Street”.
In other words, officers from Police Scotland are saying to MSPs in their communities, “We are not leaving the communities; let’s identify co-location options,” whereas Jobcentre Plus is saying, “We are out of here—good luck with your benefits claimants.” That is very different, so Mr Tomkins should not mislead the Parliament about what Police Scotland is doing—that is very unbecoming of an MSP who says that he is trying to defend vulnerable people in Glasgow.
I will talk a bit more about co-location.
Will the member take an intervention?
If I have time.
No—you are in your last minute.
As a community, Maryhill is ripe for co-location. I have listed some of the organisations in Maryhill, such as Citizens Advice Scotland on Avenuepark Street and Home-Start just down the road, One Parent Families Scotland, Jobs and Business Glasgow, Cube Housing Association, Glasgow Housing Association and Maryhill Housing Association, and there are two nearby branches of Skills Development Scotland. As Maryhill jobcentre celebrates its 75th anniversary, we could do something really special on co-location to meet the needs of the vulnerable constituents who I represent, as we all represent vulnerable constituents across Scotland. However, we should not be doing things in the current way; we should give the great ideas breathing space to develop. We have to halt all the closures and think again.15:21
I understand the concerns that have been raised here today and at the members’ business debate on 19 January in which I spoke. During that debate, I was open about my concerns about how the proposals were communicated and about the speed with which the consultation took place. I was open about the concern that I had about the consultation being restricted to just three jobcentres—Bridgeton, Maryhill and Castlemilk, as Adam Tomkins said—and I made it clear that services need to be made as accessible as possible for everyone. I reiterated those concerns in my response to the DWP’s public consultation.
Although I stated that it was right to review the future of the jobcentres in the light of the 20-year lease contract coming to an end next year and statistics revealing a 20 to 40 per cent underoccupancy rate, I did not believe that it was right to steamroller ahead with blanket closures without fully considering the responses that were submitted.
I stated that, in the event of any closures, we could not find ourselves in a situation in which those with disabilities, long-term illnesses or a severe lack of funds were found to be disadvantaged by increased journey times. If closures did take place, provision within a clearly defined system would need to be made and communicated in a way that was clear to all and could include a programme of tailored outreach, such as home visits, online applications and—for those not able to access the internet—applications by post.
I echo the concerns of other members regarding the need for the DWP to provide more detail on the issue, particularly now that the consultation is closed, and I am pleased that such a request has been retained in my colleague’s amendment.
Communication is key and, at the moment, we are not having a meaningful dialogue about the alternatives that might need to be put in place.
Will the member give way?
Not at the moment; I want to make progress.
We need a dialogue about alternatives that could provide as good a service as we have now. Ideas were put forward in the consultation template itself that could go a long way towards solving the issue and reaching a compromise that disadvantages no one. For example, there was the idea of an alternative service that involves the Jobcentre Plus staff travelling to community venues to carry out their work. Why not consider that?
We did an investigation and went to Musselburgh jobcentre, which has an outreach service. One issue that was raised concerned someone who turned up at the outreach service at the library with a sick line, thinking that they could hand it to the person from Jobcentre Plus, but they were told that they had to go to the jobcentre to hand it in there. Surely that is very wrong. How do we get over that?
We need a dialogue about that. It is a two-way process and we need to ensure that we look at solutions, not problems. That is what I am trying to put forward.
In its response to the consultation, the Poverty Alliance stated that despite its wish for centres to remain open, the suggested idea might be an alternative option. The obvious concern was to ensure that service users had access to an environment in which they felt safe and felt that they could speak privately without their concerns being heard. It also stated that one adviser alone would not be sufficient to meet the needs of the community. However, there is no reason why those concerns could not be properly addressed in providing a full outreach service that could protect the most vulnerable and those with childcare responsibilities.
Will the member take an intervention?
Sorry, but I want to move on.
Even now, in circumstances in which people feel sufficiently vulnerable, members of the Jobcentre Plus network already visit them in their homes. Could we not expand on that?
In a debate on 30 January, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Welfare Delivery, Caroline Nokes, was open to the suggestion of using satellite visits on commercial premises, which would be run by job organisations and at which workplace coaches could coach a number of people together. If we are looking at actually making the services better, we should look at more creative ways of working, and I would point to the substantial powers that the Scottish Government now has over employment services.
Ms Wells makes a number of innovative and sensible suggestions about how we could better provide Jobcentre Plus services in the community. She and Adam Tomkins referred to the process of two-way dialogue, and Mr Tomkins was at pains to point out that both he and Ms Wells had communicated their concerns to the UK Government. What response to her innovative suggestions has Ms Wells had from the UK Government?
As I was saying, the parliamentary under-secretary said during the debate on 30 January that she would be open to those suggestions.
That will be no reply, then.
Do not have discussions across the chamber, if you do not mind.
I appreciate that the minister has opened the door to discussions between Skills Development Scotland and the DWP, but we need more information on how that will work.
There has been no mention by the DWP of it making cuts to investment. As I said in my speech in the previous debate on this subject, last year more than 122 additional work coaches were recruited by Jobcentre Plus in Scotland to ease workload and to provide a service that is based more on rapport.
I ask members to reflect on something that my colleague Adam Tomkins mentioned. I recognise that police offices and jobcentres are two very different services, but they are both used by people who are vulnerable—no one can deny that.
I am running out of time.
I recognise that the UK Government needs to provide more information on the timing and scope of the closures and I am pleased that we have asked for that in our amendment, alongside highlighting the need for equality impact assessments.15:27
Some would call the closure of the jobcentres decimation, but it is worse than that; “decimation” means culling one in 10, and in Glasgow we will experience a cull of one in two jobcentres in the next year.
The reduction in the number of jobcentres will mean that many people will need, for a host of reasons, to take transport to alternative jobcentres. In her feedback to One Parent Families Scotland, a jobseeker said:
“The cost is going to be a big issue—£4.50 for an all-day ticket. From an income of £73.10 week it’s a lot—like losing food shopping for a day”.
I am sure that policy makers do not see the problem in needing to spend £4.50 on transport once a week, but the people who are affected, in some of the poorest parts of the UK, will definitely suffer because of the closures. One in three children in Glasgow is living in poverty. The affected communities are communities with real issues, where child poverty is high and where £4.50 for an all-day bus ticket is just too much money to spend on transport rather than on eating.
In the area of Newton Farm, in my constituency, the current walk to Cambuslang jobcentre takes 37 minutes—and that is one way. Cambuslang jobcentre is due to close, and the walk to the next jobcentre, in Rutherglen, takes 1 hour and 19 minutes. Assuming that someone is fit and healthy, that means that what was once an hour-and-a-quarter round trip will now take two and half hours. I have not tried the walk; I have just been using the Westminster Government’s tool of choice—Google Maps—to check the results. The results are strange given that Google Maps is the tool that was consulted to ensure that no trip to a jobcentre would take that long. Simply assuming that people can pay the bus or taxi fare, or can just walk to the next jobcentre, shows how removed from reality the policy makers in Westminster are.
The lack of consultation or impact assessment on many of the closures shows wilful ignorance of just how they will impact the lives of ordinary people. The policies do not take account of people’s responsibilities as caregivers, their own ill health or any individual circumstances whatsoever. They are focused purely on cutting numbers, cutting services and cutting investment in people, particularly the people of Glasgow.
Will the member identify one service that is being cut in Glasgow? I understand that premises are being closed, but can she identify even a single jobcentre service that is being cut, which is what she just said?
I believe that this is just the thin end of the wedge
We need a social security system that works for Scotland, not for the establishment at Westminster. We need to invest in people and treat them with dignity, and understand that the overwhelming majority of people want to be working. The continual turning of the screw, with sanctions, daily signing on and the slashing of jobcentres, is simply Westminster setting up more hoops for people to jump through.
As was laid out in the Scottish Government’s employability support consultation, Scotland needs a system that takes into account everyone’s individual circumstances. Avoiding sanctions should not be the biggest concern for a jobseeker and neither should worries about how they will manage a 2.5-hour round trip to sign on. Personal action plans should take into consideration circumstances such as whether people are a parent or a caregiver or have physical or mental health issues.
The aim should be not merely to get someone into a job—any job—just to get them off the books and keep the numbers down. Jobcentre provision should help people to build careers—real jobs with real personal and economic development—not put them back on a zero-hours merry-go-round that will see them back at the jobcentre and receiving treatment for stress. The DWP should be looking to support people to build sustainable careers and communities that do not have some of the highest child poverty rates in Scotland, thanks in part to sanctions on mothers who are already on the breadline.
The number of jobcentres in Scotland has already fallen from 117 in 2008 to 104 today, and now we are going to see a further cut of 23 sites. The centres are being closed without the affected local communities being consulted. There has been no consultation over the closure of Cambuslang jobcentre, despite some areas it serves being a minimum 80-minute walk from Rutherglen jobcentre, running counter to the DWP’s consultation criterion of being within a reasonable travel distance. If the DWP will not consult the community, it needs to consult the Scottish Government on the best way to structure the jobcentre network to support the most vulnerable.
I call on the UK Government at Westminster to halt the closures and to work with the Scottish Government. As was agreed in the Smith commission, the UK Government is supposed to be committed to working with the Scottish Government to create
“more formal mechanisms to govern the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland.”
Now is the time for Westminster to honour the Smith commission, as we desperately need to find a solution that suits the many unique conditions here in Scotland, especially in Glasgow.15:33
The latest wave of closures includes the Alexandria jobcentre in my constituency. I first heard about the proposal two weeks ago when I received an email at 1 pm inviting me to meet Damian Hinds, the Minister of State for Employment, at 4 pm on the same day in London—clearly, geography is not the minister’s strong point.
Damian Hinds also said that staff and service users in Alexandria would be moved to the jobcentre in Dumbarton. I was told not to worry, because the two sites are “just 3 miles” apart. However, I have checked and the actual distance is 3.5 miles. This is not nitpicking; it is important because the DWP has agreed to launch full public consultation on jobcentre closures only where the distance between the two sites is more than 3 miles, so I want a consultation on the closure of Alexandria jobcentre. Either the DWP has simply not bothered to work out how far it is forcing staff and claimants to travel, or it knows the actual distance but wants to avoid proper scrutiny of its plans.
Like the round of closures in Glasgow that were announced at the end of last year, the DWP’s handling of the Alexandria closure has been wholly unsatisfactory. There was no consultation with jobcentre staff before the announcement; there was no information provided on the number of claimants who would be affected by the closure; and there was no equality impact assessment to examine the impact on some of the most marginalised groups in my constituency.
Let us be honest about the reasons behind the closures. Decisions on which jobcentres to close and the timing of the announcements have been determined by the fact that the leases on the buildings are coming to an end. This is about properties and saving money. The last thing that it is about is the needs of jobseekers and local communities. I would be interested to know whether the DWP’s reluctance to engage properly with the people who will be affected by the closures is down to the fact that it is in a rush to hand in its notice to the landlords. The local branch of PCS makes the point that, at a time when the DWP is requiring benefit claimants to engage more frequently in face-to-face interviews in jobcentres, it should be opening more of them, not closing the ones that we have.
Closing the Alexandria jobcentre would, without a doubt, make it even harder for people in the Vale of Leven to find work. It makes a complete mockery of Theresa May’s pledge at the Tory conference to lead a Government that cares about ordinary working people.
As someone who had to sign on at Alexandria jobcentre in years gone by, I can say that that journey to Dumbarton is not only impractical but unrealistic, and that the closure would be devastating to the attempts to regenerate Alexandria town centre.
I could not agree more, because the closure will hit some of the poorest families in the Vale of Leven with extra travel costs and fewer opportunities to find a job.
Across the country, we are facing a joblessness crisis, with 139,000 Scots out of work and rising numbers of people who are economically inactive, many of whom want to find work. If we look at the caseload statistics that were produced by the DWP for May 2016, we see that, in the communities that are served by the jobcentre—Alexandria, Renton and Tullichewan—approximately 60 per cent more people than the Scottish average are in receipt of the five key benefits. This is clearly an area with high levels of service demand, and it makes no sense to close the jobcentre.
Scotland’s economy is lagging behind that of the rest of the United Kingdom. There is less employment and more unemployment. Whether we consider my local argument or a national one, we can see that shutting down Alexandria jobcentre and vast swathes of the jobcentre network is completely wrong-headed. Where, then, is the condemnation from Ruth Davidson? I think that I can safely say that she is not shy by nature. However, I do not know whether she is representing the Tory party at Westminster or people in Scotland. The closures will affect her constituents, too, and she owes it to them at least to demand a halt.
Tory ministers used to tell unemployed people to get on their bike to find a job. In Alexandria, unemployed people might not have a choice to do anything other than that, because the public transport links to Dumbarton are unreliable. The transport minister will be aware of frequent station skipping on ScotRail services in my area, and the buses are not much better, with services often being cancelled without notice. Once the DWP has finally worked out the actual distance between Dumbarton and Alexandria, I would urge its representatives to actually try making the journey themselves. I invite the minister to come up and do it. It is one thing to look at Google Maps and another thing to stand waiting for a bus or train that never turns up.
The closure will have real consequences for unemployed and disabled people in Alexandria who miss appointments or arrive late through no fault of their own. Sanctions will increase and local families will suffer.
What about the cost of travel? Someone who is on a fixed low income might sometimes not have the funds to pay for travel. The DWP will apparently pay for travel, but only for attendance above the fortnightly signing appointment. A train ticket for a return journey from Alexandria to Dumbarton is £3.60. On a low income, that is a lot of money.
The DWP talks about co-location with council services. In Alexandria, there is an effective partnership between the council’s Working 4 U service and the jobcentre, but the council was not consulted in advance of the closure announcement. The closure of the jobcentre will mean that we will miss the opportunity for joined-up employability services and lose a gateway to learning and money advice and a way of getting people into jobs—all of that will be undermined.
Alexandria is not simply an add-on to Dumbarton; it is a community in its own right. There is a clear need for the jobcentre and I ask the UK Government to think again.15:39
I am glad to take part in the debate because, for me, it is very personal. I feel that my town—my place of birth—is under attack from an uncaring right-wing Tory Government. The UK Government in Westminster believes that Paisley does not need the 300 jobs that come with the Lonend DWP office. There is no thinking about the economic future of our town when the heartless Westminster Government decides that it is time to get rid of that valuable facility. Those are 300 jobs at a DWP office that is part of a back-of-house support mechanism that many of our citizens really need at this time.
A number of parts of the decision do not make sense. One of them is the secretive way in which the closure was announced. On the morning of the announcement, staff at the Lonend office received an email telling them that they were doing a fantastic job and that the management were happy. A couple of hours later, they were told that there would be a meeting in the early afternoon. Staff turned up at the meeting with concerns, as they were well aware of the sweeping cuts that the DWP was making. At the meeting, they were once again told what a wonderful job they were doing—and that the office was closing. One minute they were told how well they were doing; the next minute they were told that the office was closing.
I have yet to receive any official correspondence from the UK Government on the matter. Paisley’s MSP has not been told of the closure of a major Government facility within his constituency. We often hear from members on the Opposition benches that there should be respect between the UK Government and the Scottish Government. At times like this, there seldom appears to be that respect.
During last week’s meeting of the Social Security Committee, Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Employability and Training, explained to us that he first heard about the closure in the pages of the Daily Record. It is bad enough that the Tory Government has no respect for local parliamentarians, but for it to ignore a Scottish Government minister is shocking and shows the contempt with which it treats this institution.
One of the other issues that I have with this ill-thought-out closure scheme is the fact that a support mechanism is being taken away from our communities. The universal credit experiment appears to have been an unmitigated disaster for the UK Government. As a member of the Social Security Committee, I visited people in Musselburgh to see how that Tory experiment has gone—the Tories believe it to be a pilot programme. The quickest time for a claimant to receive any form of payment is eight weeks, if they are lucky. By that time, they will have accrued rent arrears and some of them will have chosen to pay for their broadband service over paying for food and heat, because that is the only way that they can communicate with the DWP. They can go to their local jobcentre to try and progress their claim, but the staff have not received the necessary training—they have been told to point people towards a computer in the jobcentre. Not only are people suffering from this Tory ideal but any form of human contact in the process is now being taken away, with no jobcentre and no telephone centre to provide any form of advice.
We have all seen the financial devastation that the Tory sanctions scheme has brought to our communities. I have had conversations with constituents who have been sanctioned for being minutes late. What it will be like when there are no local jobcentres to attend?
We need to ask ourselves how the closures will affect members of our communities who live with disabilities. We are aware that the Tory Government is already attacking people with a disability in Scotland, but we now find that they will have another barrier, which Mark Griffin mentioned. How will a disabled person get to the jobcentre? They might already have lost their disability living allowance or personal independence payment, or at least the mobility component of it, so they will need to get a bus. The journey could be anywhere between 3 and 6 miles, which may prove challenging.
As Inclusion Scotland states in its very interesting briefing for the debate, not all the disabled people affected will be able to travel by public transport. Some wheelchair users may not be able to find an accessible bus on which to make the journey. Even where buses are accessible, two wheelchair users cannot travel on the same route at the same time, although such an occurrence will become more likely when the services are concentrated in fewer locations.
Once again, no thought has been given to people with a disability—but should we not just expect that from this lot in Westminster?
I think I have already said that I do not like the phrase “this lot”. Keep to what I have said to other people.
Well, Presiding Officer, I get very passionate when people are being attacked by the Tory Government—
You can be passionate and polite, Mr Adam.
I return to the subject of the DWP office in Paisley and the loss of 300 jobs in our town. How can the Tory Government justify the closure of that office when the staff were told what a good job they were doing and the call centre was promised that it would receive calls about universal credit when the scheme was rolled out? As I know from my interaction with people in Musselburgh, that is exactly the type of facility that is needed.
The UK Government claims that people use different channels of digital communication. In Musselburgh, I met one gentleman whose form of digital communication was a large mobile telephone; that is not the best way to complete a complex form. The whole process is a sham and should be thought through again.
It is time for the UK Government to address this shambles—it cannot withdraw that valuable support from the people in our community. In 1987, I joined the SNP to protect my community from an uncaring, right-wing Tory Government. The world has changed, but unfortunately the Tories have not. They are happy to sacrifice the people in my community for their ideals, but the one thing that they will not stop is my love for my town and the people I represent. As long as I have a breath in my body, I will continue to fight to protect my community from the on-going, heartless attacks from this Tory Government.
Thank you very much, Mr Adam—and there was passion.15:46
The strength of feeling that is associated with this debate—which we have just heard from our colleague George Adam—exemplifies the work that jobcentres do in communities. They assist people who are in need of help, and it is crucially important that we recognise the good efforts of hard-working staff up and down the country. That should not be lost in the rhetoric that so often surrounds issues that are debated in the chamber. It is also important that we remember the context in which the consideration of jobcentre closures has arisen: the natural end of the contracts that the DWP has in place for many of its offices.
Will the member take an intervention on that point?
I will not at this stage.
That natural end provides an opportunity to assess the overall provision of services and to look at where and how those are best delivered in the modern internet world of the 21st century. That reassessment, of course, merits the most careful scrutiny. As a member of the Social Security Committee, I, along with other members of the committee, have had the opportunity to raise issues with representatives from the DWP. It is encouraging that, following our committee meeting on 15 December last year, the DWP responded to concerns that I and other committee members expressed by lengthening the existing consultation period for jobcentre closures in Glasgow.
The Government motion that is before us today comes a long time after, and exists in a very different context from, the original opening in 1998 of many of the offices that are under discussion. We are now firmly entrenched in a digital age—
The member may be aware that I wrote to Ruth Davidson on jobcentre closures and asked her to stand up for her constituents over a specific closure in Edinburgh. She wrote back to me, but I have to say that I was not overly comforted by the contents of that letter. Now is surely the time for Conservative members to stop simply accepting plans that look really good from an office in Whitehall and instead stand up for their constituents, given the reality on the ground, and join with us in opposing the closures.
The Conservatives will indeed stand up for their constituents, but not simply by carrying on regardless of the realities of the situation.
I return to what I was saying previously to explain my position on the matter. We are not in 1998 now. We are firmly entrenched in a digital age that has followed a complete revolution driven by the internet. We cannot ignore computer literacy—
Will the member take an intervention?
I will not at this stage.
We cannot ignore computer literacy as an essential tool for Scotland’s workforce, and that applies equally to the services that the DWP provides.
Eighty per cent of—
Will the member take an intervention?
Will the member give way?
Eighty per cent of claims for jobseekers allowance and 99.6 per cent of applications for universal credit are made online. Moving services online can help to provide a more efficient service. It can also provide claimants with an opportunity to interact using skills and practices that are needed to survive in the modern workforce—
Will the member take an intervention?
That is provided, of course, that that is backed up by sufficient support. A direct consequence of that high use of online services is the underutilisation of face-to-face services that require physical office space.
Will the member take an intervention?
With over 3 million square feet of space going unused in current offices, a review of the DWP estate is an absolute necessity. Co-location—which I am pleased to hear that the minister is interested in—may be an option, with the chance for additional services, such as health and other public services, to be provided within the same building.
As reflected in the Scottish Conservative amendment, which I support, the Scottish Government should consider how Skills Development Scotland, or indeed the Scottish social security agency, could link up services.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, not at this stage.
However, as my colleague Adam Tomkins pointed out, we need specific proposals—the minister was unable to name any—to put to the UK Government to develop co-location—
Will the member take an intervention?
I will allow an intervention from the minister.
That is remarkably generous. Surely Mr Lindhurst would concede that it is rather difficult to come up with specific propositions for specific areas when the UK Government does not let us know in which areas it is considering closing a jobcentre.
I have not seen the terms of the letter from which a partial quotation was given earlier, so I cannot comment on what stage the discussions between the minister and the UK Government have reached.
There are a few matters that need to be borne in mind, including flexibility and the use of work coaches. I am running out of time due to the number of interventions—taken and not taken.
I hope that the Scottish Government will work constructively with the DWP in trying to make this a reality. There are many things from the UK Government to welcome, such as the 2,500 new work coaches, because it is people who matter, and not so much the buildings. People are not made for buildings; buildings are made for people.
That was quite a finish, Mr Lindhurst.15:52
Before I start, I have to say that every Conservative speech so far in the debate has been an absolute disgrace. The Conservatives have hidden behind smoke-and-mirrors technical language: they have talked the debate out. Not one of them has been willing to say that if Annie Wells’s grand aspirations for DWP extra provisions are not met, they will stand with us and actually oppose the jobcentre cuts. It is cowardly—cowardly, I repeat—behaviour.
What the Tories have done to jobseekers and others who rely on our social security system is nothing short of despicable. Jobcentres are meant to be institutions to help people—to help them into work, to access training—[Interruption.]
If Mr Tomkins wants to say something, he should stand up and I will reject him, just as every Conservative member so far has rejected me.
Jobcentres are supposed to help people to start their own businesses and to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. The Conservatives at Westminster—aided, I have to say, by the Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015—have bastardised that concept. They have turned an institution that was designed to help people into an environment of hostility, mistrust and threats. The sanctions that are handed out to people who are looking for work are a stain on the reputation of the UK and they are devastating for the individuals and the families who are victims of them.
The reasons behind the sanctions are often completely ridiculous. A man was sanctioned for missing an appointment because he was taking his wife to hospital when she went into labour prematurely. A person was unable to attend their workfare placement because the transport was too expensive—of course, in the workfare programme, people are not paid—despite that person having offered to work at a branch that was closer to them. A mother of two was sanctioned for a month for being five minutes late to an appointment at the jobcentre. Many, many more examples have appeared across newspapers and broadcast media, in our inboxes and at our surgeries over recent months and years.
The Tories have created a system that is designed to block access to the support to which people are entitled, and to make their lives harder when they are most in need of support.
There is even evidence to suggest that jobcentres were directed to increase intentionally the number of sanctions. We do not need to watch Ken Loach’s new film “I, Daniel Blake” to know that—although I suggest that every member of this Parliament, and especially our Conservative colleagues, watch that devastatingly realistic story of life inside the UK welfare system.
Sanctions have a real, human impact. The number of people who have been sanctioned who have died prematurely, including suicides, is far too high. Although numbers are hard to come by, from what we could find, from 2012 to 2014, 90 people a month were dying after having been found “fit to work”, and the number was far higher when people in the work-related activity group were added.
According to the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, the sanctions regime has constituted a systematic violation of human rights. The Conservatives are responsible for that, and Conservative Party members in this Parliament have been unable or unwilling either to defend or condemn that. I am thankful, however, that we in this Parliament will no longer be completely powerless to act. As new social security powers are being devolved, we will be able to restrict the number of sanctions that are issued in Scotland. Work by my Green colleague Alison Johnstone has established that we can use the powers over the work programme simply to prevent information that would lead to sanctions from being passed on. That will save thousands of people in Scotland from that suffering.
However, for the Tories, the chaos of their welfare policy is apparently not enough—now they want to make people’s lives even harder by closing down jobcentres, which will make access to them even more difficult. I ask members to recall some of the reasons for sanctions that I mentioned, including a person being late and a person not being able to afford travel costs. As jobcentres are closed across Scotland, it will be more difficult for claimants to get to appointments on time and to carry the costs of transport. People who are already struggling to get by will find it even harder.
Some of the proposed closures are truly shocking. Either the implications have not been considered or they have been considered and the UK Government knows exactly what the consequences will be but is deciding to proceed anyway.
There has been a lot of talk of co-location this afternoon. Does Ross Greer share my concern about the idea that someone would go to one desk in a building to be sanctioned, only to be passed to the next desk to access the Scottish welfare fund? Does he agree that that would be perverse and that it would let the DWP off the hook on the issue of sanctions?
Absolutely. Clare Adamson has made an important point.
If the Alexandria jobcentre in my region is closed, the nearest jobcentre will be in Dumbarton, which, as Jackie Baillie mentioned, is an hour’s walk by the most direct route. For service users in areas like Haldane, it is even further. It is a scenic walk, mind you, given that it involves travelling through a field. I invited the UK Cabinet minister Damian Hinds to join me on that walk. Jackie Baillie has suggested that, too, but I have already sent him the invitation and I await his reply. I am sure that Jackie Baillie would be happy to join in, but I have a feeling that it might just be the two of us.
Last month, the Scottish Greens organised a walk in Glasgow from Bridgeton jobcentre to Shettleston jobcentre. Again, that is about an hour’s walk, or a journey involving two buses, for people who are able to afford public transport. On that walk, Green activists spoke to a number of constituents, all of whom were shocked to hear that Bridgeton jobcentre was closing. They had no idea. That walk was possible for fit and healthy Green activists and councillors, but it is not possible for many of the people who have to use the services of a jobcentre—people who have young children, people with disabilities and those with health conditions.
Will you come to a close, please, Mr Greer?
The examples that we have given are nothing compared with what the people on Benbecula will have to face.
The proposals are plainly ridiculous and will only cause further pain. They are not being consulted on properly and they must be opposed, including by Conservative members of this Parliament.15:58
I commend the Government for its excellent motion and Labour for its amendment. We will support both this evening. The Jobcentre Plus network has been and remains an essential physical edifice for social security and employability in our society.
Will the member give way?
I will not give way in my first 20 seconds. I will make some progress before I take an intervention from Mr Tomkins.
The network has connected untold millions with work and career opportunities while bringing help and access to people who rely on the financial assistance of the state in times of economic inactivity. We can trace the jobcentre back to the Labour Exchanges Act 1909, which was a Liberal construct under the Government of Asquith and was the first effort by a national Administration to seek to connect the labour market with opportunities for work and to foster that most Liberal of principles—social mobility.
I will take an intervention from Professor Tomkins.
I just wanted to make sure that the member is in the right debate, because there is no Labour amendment for him to support this evening.
I will take that on the chin.
Let me take members back to 1909. In the second reading of the Labour Exchanges Bill, Lord Dalzell, a Liberal peer, said:
“I do not think it is necessary for me to elaborate in any way the great distress and misery which arise from lack of work.”
He went on to say:
“relief works cannot seriously be regarded as a cure for unemployment. At the best they are only a palliative. What is wanted is not a drug to still the pain of this disease, but a cure which will reach deep down to its roots.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 August 1909; Vol 2, c 877-8.]
There, in that sentence, members have the creation of the labour exchange movement.
Throughout the eleven decades that followed, and over the course of two world wars, eight recessions and the ebb and flow of industrialisation, urbanisation and automation, the labour exchange, and subsequently the jobcentre network, has been a lodestone in our nation’s efforts to bring work rather than charity and, by extension, hope to the masses.
I am in no way suggesting that circumstances have not changed over the course of history. The inexorable shift towards online service provision has reduced footfall in some cases, thereby reducing the business case for some of the sector. However, the news from the DWP that as part of the 2015 spending review it will renegotiate all Jobcentre Plus tenancies came as a hammer blow to communities that experience the backwash and churn between hard times and prosperity.
The DWP was right to say that eight out of 10 JSA claims and almost all universal credit applications, given the strictures in that regard, are made online. However, although jobcentres might no longer be the gateway to social security, they can still play a vital role in connecting people to work and skills development. The vital face-to-face connection is as important as it ever was. As Lord Dalzell said in 1909 of the labour exchange:
“Its object is the same as that of any other exchange—to bring buyer and seller together.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 August 1909; Vol 2, c 878.]
If the jobcentre did nothing more than that, it would amply justify its existence. Lord Dalzell’s words ring as true as they ever did.
I am enjoying Mr Cole-Hamilton’s reaching back into history, but in relation to a more recent era, is he proud of his party’s record in Government with the Conservatives on expanding the sanctions regime through the jobcentres?
I always welcome an intervention from Ross Greer, but I think that that was a bit of a cheap shot, considering that the Liberal Democrats were the tempering influence on a Government that is now operating unbridled. I thank Mr Greer for shattering the consensus of the debate.
The fact is that it is the hardest to reach people who will be worst affected by the retrograde step that is proposed. There is consensus on that in this Parliament. The closures will rip the ladders of social mobility away from some of the most deprived communities in our society, at a time when we might be on the verge of needing them as we have never needed them before.
What baffles me is that the Tory UK Government, which is so fond of the adage, “Let’s mend the roof while the sun shines”, is looking to strip the timbers off the canopy on the basis of short-term and transient employment figures—at a time when we stand on the precipice of the economic uncertainty that Brexit represents. The prudence of the Conservative Party does not appear to extend to the needs of people who are adrift from the labour market, and I see no evidence of a plan to scale up support in the event of economic calamity.
We all remember that Norman Tebbit said:
“I grew up in the 30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot; he got on his bike and looked for work”.
In that famous couple of lines, we see the mettle of Tory ideology, but it is much harder for a person to get on their bike and look for work if they are in a wheelchair or more than two bus rides away from the nearest jobcentre, as members have said. That is why the equality impact assessment that the Scottish Government rightly proposes is so essential in any service redesign.
What matters is not just the physical proximity of jobcentres to people who are furthest from the labour market, but the local knowledge, the personal one-to-one advice, the internet access and the wraparound services that make the support so effective. At a time when economic inactivity is having an impact on people who are impeded by a range of social barriers, we must not blindly remove local access to the exchange of labour and, in so doing, erect further barriers to employment and social mobility.16:04
I was slightly confused by Mr Cole-Hamilton’s speech, on which I would have liked to intervene. I am not sure whether he is supporting the Conservatives’ amendment.
No, I am not.
He is not supporting the Conservative amendment. There we are. I just wanted clarification on that point. I can now include Mr Cole-Hamilton in my thanks to all my colleagues—apart from the Tories—who have spoken in the debate. They have all made excellent and thoughtful speeches.
Various organisations and individuals have sent us stuff to look at, but I thank especially the Evening Times in Glasgow, which has been running the story constantly. It has provided great coverage and very welcome support in the campaign against the closures.
The closures will have a devastating effect on people throughout Scotland. There will be no jobcentre closures in my constituency, but there will be back-office closures, with the closure of the offices at Portcullis house and Corunna house. The closure of Corunna house is very serious, because it is where people go for medical assessments. If it closes along with the jobcentres, where will people go for medical assessments? That is a real worry.
The closures will also hit the most vulnerable people in society and—in most, if not all, cases—will have the opposite effect to helping people back into work. I echo what Labour members and others have said about the closures being not about helping people back into work, but about saving money. They show the Tories for what they are: they have no thought for the people in Glasgow and Scotland—their only thought is to save money. From what I can see, whatever Westminster says, that is what they are doing.
The Conservative amendment is a feeble amendment that seeks to change just two words in the motion. I wonder how long it took Mr Tomkins to draft it. As has been said, the amendment proposes a change from “will have” to “may have”. It must have taken a lot of thinking by a member who has been an academic to come up with that. The last line of the Government’s motion is that the Parliament
“calls on the DWP to halt the closures to allow the Scottish Government to bring forward substantive co-location proposals to save these jobcentres.”
It is eminently sensible to keep that line in—I do not see anything at all wrong with it. However, the Tories want to take that out and replace it with
“calls on the Scottish Government to make plain its proposals as to how Skills Development Scotland or the proposed Scottish social security agency”
and so on. An awful lot of thought must have gone into that—or absolutely none at all.
Mr Tomkins, who is a member of the Social Security Committee, knows that the evidence that we have is that Damian Green and the rest of them at the DWP do not care what happens to the poor folk in Glasgow and Scotland, because they do not even reply to our letters. We write to them, saying that we asked them about something, and they do not reply. Then, all of a sudden, we read in the newspapers that jobcentres are closing. That is how they treat us here—it is about time the Tories realised that.
Mr Tomkins is fond of talking about how good the all-party House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee is. Well, last year it said that Jobcentre Plus must be
“open to working in ways that are increasingly flexible”
and “adaptable”. That sounds quite good. I do not think that any of us would have any qualms about that. However, being flexible and adaptable does not mean shutting down 50 per cent of the jobcentres in Glasgow and putting nothing in their place. That is not being flexible and adaptable. Mr Tomkins can quote all he likes, but the fact of the matter is that the DWP does not care about people in Glasgow and Scotland.
The Westminster committee also mentioned that the DWP wants to save money and close jobcentres, but it called for a reduction of 20 per cent across the UK; it did not say that the DWP should close 50 per cent of its offices in Glasgow. That will be detrimental to Glasgow and to the rest of Scotland. It is about time the Tories here stood up and told people the truth. They can pick out what they like, but the truth is that 50 per cent of the jobcentre closures will be in Glasgow.
Does Sandra White accept that the figure is 75 per cent in the east end of Glasgow, with three out of four jobcentres closing?
I accept that. John Mason is absolutely right.
Other members have talked about the £4.50 all-day bus fare. My constituency is fortunate, because the jobcentre in Partick is not closing, but the two medical assessment centres in the city centre are closing.
Jobcentres are closing in the east end, as John Mason said, and in other areas, including Castlemilk and in Bob Doris’s constituency. There is a bus service, but the train service is not all that great and people do not have the money to travel back and forth. That is what the UK Government should be told.
There should be no false tears and weeping from the Tories. They know exactly what is going on. It is a pity that when we write to the Westminster Government we do not get any replies, but when they write they do. It is a pity that we do not work together on co-location of the jobcentres and where people are going to be put, because we would like to know as much as anyone else would.16:10
In case members from the other parties cannot stay for the whole of my speech, on the Ross Greer scale I will probably be a disgrace and despicable by the end of it. I shall apply Lindhurst’s law of taking interventions only when I am drinking water—oh, my glass seems to be pretty empty.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate on the future of the Jobcentre Plus network here in Scotland; it follows on from the 19 January members’ business debate on the Glasgow jobcentres.
As we know, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee produced a report on the subject. Page 3 of the report’s summary makes it explicitly clear that the future of Jobcentre Plus is “one of change”. We may not all agree on what that change looks like, but it is vital that public services adapt to reflect the changing needs of the people that they serve.
I cannot go as far back as 1909, as one member did, but I can go back more than half a century to 1963, when President Kennedy spoke in Frankfurt. He summed up the issue quite well:
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
That is exactly what the changes are about: creating a fit-for-purpose network of jobcentres that are better able to meet the needs of those who require them most.
Will the member give way? He may want to have a drink of water.
Let me make a little bit more progress, thank you.
I am sure that everyone in this chamber would welcome the fact that the number of people needing to use a jobcentre has fallen—
Will the member give way?
Let me make a little bit more progress, please.
Is that a yes?
That is maybe, later.
The number of people now in work across the UK is 31.8 million. That is more than just a statistic—that is almost 32 million people going home with a pay packet in their pocket and able to provide for themselves and any family and dependants.
In my maiden speech, I mentioned that there is no better feeling or sense of satisfaction than being able to look after your family—
Jamie Hepburn rose—
Alex Cole-Hamilton rose—
I give way.
Are you giving way to Jamie Hepburn or to Alex Cole-Hamilton?
I give way to the minister.
It is good to know that Mr Bowman prefers an intervention from me than from Mr Cole-Hamilton; that is instructive.
Mr Bowman refers to those who are in employment. This debate is about the unemployed and how we can better support them to get into employment. He suggests that the UK Government’s proposals are about making the Jobcentre Plus better purposed for the future. Is that informed by any discussion or dialogue whatsoever with service users at the proposed jobcentres that are going to close?
I was just about to say that too many people are out of work and require the facilities and services offered by the Jobcentre Plus network.
Here in Scotland, according to the latest Office for National Statistics labour market briefing, the picture is a bit bleaker. There is an unemployment rate of 5.1 per cent, which is below that of Northern Ireland’s 5.6 per cent rate, but above that of England and Wales.
I know that it is the case that in this chamber some members occasionally like to blame Westminster for what happens here. The reality is a little different, as was made clear last week when the SNP’s budget was given a last-minute kiss of life by the Greens. Instead of growing our economy and putting more of our people back to work, the SNP and the Greens opted for a budget that will slash local services and make this country the highest taxed part of the UK—a regressive move that will do anything but encourage businesses to set up or to expand here.
Will the member give way on that point?
I am grateful to the member for giving way. Does he accept that the impact of Brexit and the resultant slide of our economy might well prevent many businesses from setting up in this country, and that that is entirely the result of his Government?
No. I have a background in business and commerce. In public services, as in business, it is important to look at how things can be done better.
Without repeating what was said in the debate two weeks ago, like my colleagues Adam Tomkins and Annie Wells, I neither condone nor condemn the DWP’s proposals for Glasgow. Adam Tomkins and Annie Wells have raised concerns in the consultation and with the relevant ministers.
We need to understand that the labour market is changing and, as others have said, we all want to have a Jobcentre Plus network that provides more tailored support, where possible. That is a key point in the Commons select committee’s report, which was accepted by that committee’s members, including Mhairi Black—a name that members may not recognise.
That change in the labour market reflects the changing nature of the world that we live in. Eight out of 10 of those who make claims for jobseekers allowance and—as has been mentioned—99.6 per cent of applicants for universal credit submit their claims online. I am not suggesting that that means that the jobcentres are no longer needed, and I fully accept that not everyone has easy access to a computer or the internet, but it does mean that the number of people who need to visit the jobcentre is less than it was.
A lot has been said about the DWP’s proposals and their aim to deal with the significant amount of underused space that the estate has. Another aim of the proposals is to give people the chance to visit a single building that offers a number of Government services—a social hub, if you like.
I want to conclude—
I think you should, Mr Bowman.
I am concluding.
Well, hurry up.
I thank those who work in our jobcentre network up and down the country. They do a fantastic job in equipping people with the advice that they need to go back to work, and I believe that it is right that the Parliament acknowledges that.
Thank you for giving me the time to say that, Presiding Officer.16:17
Like many other members who have spoken in the debate, I was shocked and disappointed by the decision that was announced a week or so ago about the further jobcentre closures in Glasgow and throughout Scotland. It is just another in a long line of decisions that have been taken by the distant and remote Tory party in London with no regard for the people who are involved, the surrounding businesses and the local communities that are affected.
As other members have said, the proposed closures are sure to have a devastating effect on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our society, many of whom are already living in poverty as austerity kicks in. For many vulnerable individuals, the process of sanctions and the difficulty of maintaining appointments because of health worries and disability are already enough of a challenge without further barriers being put in place. It is very clear that the changes that are being implemented by Westminster are not being made with the people in mind; it is also clear that the UK Government has absolutely no ambition to lift those who are most in need out of poverty and into work.
My constituency has already experienced a jobcentre closure decision—it did so in January 2006, which was before my time as an MSP. The jobcentre in Coatbridge, one of the most impoverished areas in our country, was closed down by the then Labour UK Government, which was ignorant of the changing needs of its old industrial heartlands. Service users in my constituency are now redirected to jobcentres in Airdrie, Bellshill and Cumbernauld, and no additional contribution to travel costs is made. For some users, that is a bus trip that they would previously never have had to make, and when money is tight, as is so often the case when someone is seeking employment, those additional expenses can become problematic.
Such decisions can impact on many other areas of people’s lives, including their mental health. I would like to take the opportunity to highlight the fact that, later today, I am hosting a reception for the Scottish Association for Mental Health in the garden lobby. The organisation does fantastic work throughout Scotland, including in my constituency, and I hope that members from across the chamber will be able to come along.
As I said, many of my constituents who are jobseekers are now directed elsewhere. Last week, I visited Airdrie jobcentre. I was meant to go with my colleague Alex Neil MSP but, as members will know, he is off unwell at the moment; I wish him a speedy recovery.
Members: Hear, hear.
While I was there I met district manager Etta Wright and a group of the job coaches. The visit was very encouraging, and it was clear that the enthusiastic staff at the centre offer an excellent and dynamic service; indeed, I am glad that Bob Doris and others have mentioned that. I heard about the team’s dedication to ensuring that their service delivery is and continues to be customer focused, something that I think the jobcentre can be very proud of. I was also really struck by the work ethic of the job coaches, and it was obvious that the employees there really care about people who come through the doors. It is just a real pity that some people need to travel there from the back of Coatbridge, which is more than 5 miles away.
Unfortunately, the closure of the jobcentre is not where the story ends for Coatbridge. What Thatcher started in the 1980s when she savaged the old industries and closed the steel works at the Calder where my grandad worked, and what Blair’s Labour continued by hitting us while we were down with the closure of the jobcentre, is being taken even further by this new crop of Tory London-based MPs, with the UK Government’s announcement of the closure of the DWP processing unit at South Circular Road in Coatbridge. It is no wonder that people in my constituency wanted self-determination and voted yes in 2014, after years of a UK Government that was so out of touch with our needs and which continued to heap misery on our area.
What is worse, as others have pointed out, is the way in which the whole situation has been handled. Just under two weeks ago, I received a worried message from one of my constituents who has been employed at the centre for years. She told me that she had just been told, without any prior consultation at all, that the unit would be closing next year at the latest and that she would be moved to Motherwell or Glasgow. I had received no notification of that from the DWP, and it was only later that I got a tokenistic letter from Damian Hinds MP that confirmed what, by that stage, I already knew. The MP for the area, Phil Boswell, and I have now had conversations with the union representatives and I have set up a meeting with the manager, Alan Bowman, for 6 March to ensure that staff are fully supported. I have also written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to urge him to halt these summary closures of services throughout Scotland.
Approximately 234 staff in Coatbridge will be affected, with the vast majority coming from the town itself. Coatbridge Main Street has been struggling under North Lanarkshire Council rates for years, and with the closure of the DWP processing centre, coupled with the recently announced closure of Airdrie Savings Bank at the Fountain, the remaining local businesses on Main Street will feel the pressure more than ever. The situation is getting beyond a joke, as has been highlighted by a recent article in the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser, and I have now taken steps to set up a public meeting involving local traders and other partners to find a way of stemming this tide.
Last week, we had a heritage debate in this chamber, and it was good to hear my town’s history being praised by MSPs across the various parties. However, there is a more fundamental story here. Tory Governments have ripped the heart out of these communities and slowly but surely the SNP and this Government—and I do not mind saying that—are trying to help get them back together. My constituency wants full control and self-determination and—we should make no mistake about it—the attacks from this UK Government on areas that had the biggest yes votes are no coincidence. It might well be a real-life example of “The Empire Strikes Back”. That is why I commend the minister’s motion and ask for a reversal of these decisions.16:23
The case for jobcentre closures has not been made. A child can see that what is driving the consultation is the fact that the DWP’s lease arrangements are coming to an end and that it is working backwards to justify this move. None of the rationale that I have heard so far in any way passes the test of whether the needs of the people who rely on jobcentres will be met.
This feels like an attack on the jobless and an attack on a city like Glasgow. The Tories say that the best route out of poverty is to get a job; I agree, but people need their jobcentres to help them find that route to a job. If the DWP’s aspiration is to create a new system, I think that that is a fair argument, but can the Tories not see that such a move is out of step with the needs of Glaswegians, certainly, and those from other poorer cities?
As we have heard, the closures will compound poverty and hardship and will add to the costs for almost every single person affected. The transport difficulties that we have heard about are not imagined; they will be real, and I believe that they will lead to ill health in many people as they worry about how they will get the extra bus or how they will be able to travel much further if the jobcentres close.
As we have heard, there will be a 20 per cent cut in jobcentres nationally, but Glasgow will lose half of its jobcentres if the consultation does not conclude in a different way. Bridgeton, Parkhead and Easterhouse are in the top 5 to 10 per cent of the most deprived areas in the country, and they are served by three jobcentres that face closure. We have heard that the rationale for that is that there is a move to online access, that the 20-year lease arrangements have come to an end, and that, apparently, the claimant figures are dropping. I will address that point later.
Bill Bowman’s John F Kennedy quote was rather out of step with the debate. I ask him in all seriousness to listen. I can speak only for Glasgow, which is the city that I know. Perhaps he is not familiar with the fact that the uptake of online digital access by Glaswegians is the lowest anywhere in the country. Half of Glaswegians have no computer at home. How will the DWP’s aspirations ever be met? According to surveys, seven out of 10 people need support to help them online. Glasgow is not ready for the change; it is completely out of step. That is not an anti-DWP argument; that is just plain to see.
I very much concur with Pauline McNeill’s point about the problems that people in Glasgow and other areas have in accessing IT facilities. When I was in Maryhill, I heard very clearly that people rely on their local jobcentre to access IT facilities. The same will apply in other areas. Does Pauline McNeill therefore agree that we are talking about a counterproductive move?
That is exactly the point that I am making. I do not disagree that there might be a beneficial aspiration for people to go online, but that is out of step with people’s experiences on the ground. The DWP must take account of that in the consultation.
Other members have talked about solutions. I want to address Annie Wells’s points. Perhaps there are solutions, but the Tories cannot just hide behind the fig leaf of the process. That is all that we have heard, and that is what the amendment addresses. Annie Wells made some very good points, but is there any prospect that the DWP will seriously look at the matter? Members should bear it in mind that claimants will still require to sign on every two weeks. Satellites will not be an answer to that. Perhaps the Tories would like to address that point.
I will move on to the Tories’ spin in the 19 January debate about the claimant count dropping by 44 per cent. I accept that that figure is true, but we must consider that the figures that the Tories used are those from 2010 to 2016. Most people accept that the post-financial crash figures show a spike in the unemployment figures. If we look at the figures for 2016, we see that they have pretty much settled to pre-crash levels. I ask the Tories to consider that. The drop in the claimant count is accounted for in that way, and it really is unfair to use that as one of the justifications for closing Glasgow’s jobcentres.
It simply cannot be just about the process. We have heard many others talk about their visits to jobcentres. I have made visits to the Partick and Castlemilk jobcentres. Some of the poorest people live in Castlemilk. It is quite clear that they will have to take three buses to attend Newlands jobcentre, which is the nearest one to them.
In conclusion, if there is to be any real consensus among the parties in this Parliament to fight the jobcentre closures—it is imperative that we win that fight—there must be a meeting of the ways with the Tory MSPs who represent Glasgow because, unless they are prepared to condemn some of the closures, I do not see that the DWP will listen to the rest of us.
It needs to be recognised in the consultation that there has already been a breach of the DWP’s rules on travel arrangements. There must be a single message from the Parliament that the level of jobcentre closures that we are discussing is out of step with the needs of the people of Scotland.16:29
If the UK Government and the DWP seriously believe that work is the best route out of poverty, it must be made as easy as possible for people to enter the workplace; it must not be made more difficult. It is important to think about the impact that closing jobcentres will have on surrounding services. Jobcentre staff already face increased pressure because of the roll-out of universal credit, increased conditionality for lone parents and people in work, and the increasing digitalisation of social security. My constituency of Greenock and Inverclyde has long-term high levels of deprivation, and closing the jobcentre in Port Glasgow will not improve that situation.
MSPs from across the chamber have explained the closure process, so I will not go over that ground again. I will focus my attention on my constituency. First, I welcome the announcement that the 28 staff at the Port Glasgow jobcentre will not lose their jobs and are to be redeployed to the Greenock jobcentre. Secondly, I welcome the announcement that those who claim JSA and the equivalent universal credit at the Port Glasgow jobcentre will get their travelling expenses paid for additional meetings above their fortnightly scheduled meeting. However, the obvious question is how long that will happen for. In addition, if the target is to save £180 million, how does paying for travelling expenses help to save that money?
We know that the UK National Audit Office indicated that the cost of administering the sanctions system is £285 million per annum, and the UK Government expects to save £132 million from sanctioning JSA and ESA claimants. Given the introduction of policies like that by the Tory Government, it is no wonder that the UK debt mountain is £1.8 trillion and the deficit is £68.2 billion.
The Tory Government claims that it needs fewer jobcentre offices to cover the UK because people tend to submit their claims for benefits online. Gordon Lindhurst failed to accept the point that many people do not have access to the required technology, whereas Bill Bowman at least had the grace to appreciate that point. Not everyone is inclined to use the internet and if someone is older, has a visual impairment, and is not tech savvy, the so-called old-fashioned way is vital. That point was raised with the Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, when she spoke at the RNIB Scotland fringe event at the SNP conference.
As we know, however, unemployment claimants are still required to attend jobcentres at least every two weeks, with the UK Government having trialled weekly sign-ons and even more intensive daily sign-ons. The DWP work services director for Scotland, Denise Horsfall, admitted that no one has tested the distance that claimants will need to travel to another jobcentre—and the time that that will take—when their local jobcentre closes. Denise Horsfall said that the DWP used Google Maps for measuring such distances, which is, frankly, shameful and an insult to everyone who will be adversely affected.
The DWP’s closure calculations give absolutely no consideration to the particular circumstances of each community or to the topography, geography, demographics and long-term nature of unemployment in our communities. Three miles might be a walkable distance in good weather for those who are fit and healthy, but it will be another significant barrier for others. Putting additional barriers in the way of people getting into employment is a ridiculous position to take, and the Tories in this chamber, particularly those who represent the west of Scotland—a couple of them are here at the moment—should be ashamed of their party down in London for introducing the closures policy. I ask them to stand up for their constituents and ensure that the proposed closures do not happen.
The word that was used most commonly by the Tories in the article 50 debate yesterday was “grievance”. I confess that I have a grievance against Westminster policies that are punitive. I have a grievance against members of a political elite who give little consideration to those people who need their assistance. I have a grievance against Westminster policies that have led to long-term unemployment in constituencies like mine. The eradication of the manufacturing base in Inverclyde in the 1970s and 1980s led to my community struggling, but it is now beginning to move forward.
However, Inverclyde currently has 41 data zones in the 15 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland, which in percentage terms means that 36 per cent of Inverclyde’s data zones feature in the 15 per cent most deprived areas in the country—that is not a record that Westminster should be proud of. Despite the tens of millions of pounds ploughed into Inverclyde via the creation of the urban regeneration company Riverside Inverclyde, the hundreds of new homes built by the housing associations, the new schools being built via the local authority and the Scottish Government, and the investment by businesses determined to make a success in Inverclyde, things are still tough. That goes to show how bad Westminster has been for my constituency and shows the catch-up job that the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government have on their hands in trying to move all of Inverclyde forward.
Income and employment deprivation continue to be higher in Inverclyde than in Scotland as a whole. Inverclyde also has a higher proportion of people who are economically inactive due to a long-term health condition or disability than most other local authorities in Scotland have. That means that, in Inverclyde, there is also a higher proportion of JSA and ESA claimants with a limiting disability who are required to attend jobseeker interviews. As long as the sanctions regime continues to punish people for even slight lateness, the closure of jobcentres might lead to more people being unduly penalised. I also have a grievance against Westminster for that.
The closures of jobcentres around the country are more to do with a Tory agenda to penalise the most disadvantaged in our communities than they are to do with requirement. Austerity is not inevitable or even advisable, as the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and others tell us. Jobcentres that are being closed in disadvantaged communities are the next victim of the Tory Government’s draconian austerity agenda. Even Margaret Thatcher did not fully manage to do that.16:35
We have had a good debate today on a very difficult issue and I hope that it will bring as much cross-party consensus as possible to the chamber.
There have been some surreal moments in the chamber this afternoon. In his keenness to support a Lib-Lab coalition, Alex Cole-Hamilton supported a Labour amendment that did not exist. If only there were more of you, Alex, and more of us, that coalition could be a reality.
We learned from Gordon Lindhurst that he is Mr No. Ross Greer seemed to give an invitation of sorts to Jackie Baillie, which made me think of the song, “Just the two of us”. I was particularly delighted to hear the implication from Sandra White that the brains of front-bench Conservative Party members were intellectually challenged—that was a pleasure. We heard from Bill Bowman and, having heard of a glass-half-empty person and a glass-half-full person, I now know that Bill Bowman is a glass-empty person.
Moving to the serious elements of the debate, I thank all our DWP and Jobcentre Plus staff, as the minister did before me. Many of the staff have a thankless task in really challenging circumstances. Other people in our public services—such as national health service staff—get recognition, and it is important that we also thank DWP and Jobcentre Plus staff, who are obviously anxious at this time.
I am delighted to say that I stand shoulder to shoulder with Jamie Hepburn and the SNP Government on the issue of jobcentres and I think that the motion in the name of the minister is very balanced and fair. It makes a plea for dialogue with the UK Government, for consideration of co-location and for the closures to be halted to give the Scottish Government more time to see what it can do to support local people and local jobcentres. I hope that the UK Government will consider that invitation very seriously.
I repeat Sandra White’s thanks to the Glasgow Evening Times, which has run a phenomenal campaign on jobcentres and which has sought to bring together Glasgow elected representatives from all political parties in support of our communities. In that spirit of cross-party work, I thank Bob Doris, who led a members’ business debate on the issue a couple of weeks ago, which I was pleased to support. I thank Stuart McDonald MP, who took the initiative and brought together MPs, MSPs and council group leaders to send a letter to the UK Government. They asked the Government to think again about those proposals and they gave a direct invitation to the secretary of state.
I welcome the cross-party support on the issue of jobcentres, but I think that we can get cross-party support more often on issues of importance to the city of Glasgow, whether it is on police station closures, hospital closures—for example, the Lightburn hospital—or the issue of Glasgow City Council’s budget being cut by £377 million since 2007. I hope that we can find cross-party consensus to not only pick flaws and talk up injustices done by Westminster, but to expose injustices done by Holyrood to the people of Glasgow and other difficult communities. That is why I welcome George Adam’s comment that he will work to his last dying breath to fight these closures. I hope that he will also work to his last dying breath against the proposed closure of paediatric services at the Royal Alexandra hospital.
I hope that Stuart McMillan will fight to his last dying breath to save the maternity unit at the Inverclyde royal hospital. Wherever bad decisions come from—whether they come from the UK Government or the Scottish Government—it is important that all elected members work together to defend the communities that they represent.
Let us be clear about the jobcentre proposals. There has been no engagement. It is simply unacceptable for people to read about these things in the newspaper and for there to be little or no consultation. Like Mark Griffin, I think that it is unacceptable that Ruth Davidson can hide behind other people in this debate. She should speak out about the closure that is happening in her constituency and call out the failures of the UK Government on this issue.
Like Pauline McNeill, I do not think that the case has been made for the closures. The impact that they will have on communities has not been considered; it is another uncaring decision from an uncaring Government. We know from history that for the Conservative Party, unemployment is a price worth playing, and that is unacceptable.
Ross Greer was right to mention sanctions. The UK Government sanctions people for not turning up for their fortnightly appointment. If it makes it harder for people to attend, they are more likely to be sanctioned, and that is not acceptable. I hope that we can find some cross-party opposition to that.
I realise that I am in my last few seconds, Presiding Officer. This decision has not been thought through, it has been made without any consultation and it is not respected by this Parliament or local communities. I would expect better from the UK Government. I hope that David Mundell and the minister, Damian Hinds, will take up the invitation to come directly to local communities and hear for themselves why the decision is wrong and why they should be standing up and defending the most vulnerable people in our communities.16:41
We have had a lively debate and there have been a number of robust contributions from across the chamber. There has been some consensus on the concerns relating to proposed closures of Jobcentre Plus sites across Scotland. There has also been clear recognition of the invaluable work that is done by DWP staff across Scotland, and I repeat what a number of members have said by thanking those staff.
At the same time as this debate has been taking place, the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster has been hearing evidence on the same topic. I will mention later some of the issues coming out from that meeting.
The Scottish Government’s motion
“calls on the DWP to provide more detail on the timing, scope and rationale for these closures”.
That has been echoed in a number of members’ speeches. We have heard from Bob Doris, Jackie Baillie and Annie Wells and others the concerns that have been expressed by their constituents about the closure of their local jobcentre. We have heard concerns about the insufficient timing and scope of the public consultation process and concerns that the internal and public announcements of the proposals should have been handled better.
We agree with many of those concerns, and we believe that the consultation process should be extended to all of the eight Glasgow jobcentres in question. We also agree that it is important to balance any proposed changes with continuing to ensure that vulnerable local residents who need additional assistance—whether because of disability, long-term health issues or other reasons—get that assistance. Annie Wells set out a number of very good practical ideas for how that might be taken forward. We hope that the current consultation process, as well as the debates in this chamber and in the House of Commons, will provide the DWP with a full and better understanding of the concerns.
Although we agree that more details are required on the timing and the scope of the reorganisation, we think that the DWP has made clear the rationale behind the reorganisation.
I am genuinely interested in the proposals that Annie Wells put forward—I would not reject them outright. However, members have talked about the difficulties in getting to jobcentres. If the eight jobcentres are closed, people will still have to sign on every two weeks. A satellite arrangement will not really help that.
That goes to the point about the two-way dialogue and the consultation process. I hope that, as a result of the consultation process, we will see a consensus around some of those practical issues.
I turn to the rationale behind the reorganisation. As the all-party House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has said:
“The future of Jobcentre Plus ... is one of change”.
That statement was approved by Mhairi Black MP, among others. We agree with that and many of the drivers for the change are positive. Across Scotland, the claimant count has declined from 135,000 six years ago to 81,000 last month. As Adam Tomkins said, the claimant count in Glasgow has declined by 40 per cent. The fall in claimant count across the UK and Scotland has resulted in underutilisation in the Jobcentre Plus network by as much as 40 per cent in places such as Glasgow.
One observation that is coming out of the Scottish Affairs Committee this afternoon is that Glasgow will have more jobcentres per 1,000 people than Birmingham or Sheffield, even if the proposed closures go ahead. I therefore recommend to members that they look at the meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee. I am not saying that that is a justification for the proposals, but it is an interesting observation.
Will the member give way?
I would like to make a bit of progress.
Other reasons are driving the change to the network. The increasing digitalisation of services has resulted in a more accessible welfare system. More than 80 per cent of JSA claims are made online and more than 99 per cent of applications for universal credit are submitted online.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will later.
In addition, the introduction of a more simplified welfare system, such as universal credit, has helped to streamline the system. All those changes to the welfare system now mean that the DWP needs less than 80 per cent of the office space that it currently occupies.
In my speech, I made a point about people who are either blind or visually impaired. If we are to help those people to get back into the workplace, the jobcentres are crucial. If the jobcentres are not there, how will that happen?
I agree that additional support must continue to be made available to those individuals.
A number of members have said that the reorganisation is about reducing floor space. I do not agree. There are two much more important elements to it, the first of which is how the DWP can best use its budget to concentrate on helping the people who need it most. The plan will save £180 million a year over 10 years, which is up to £2 billion. Rather than spending £2 billion on empty space, the DWP aims to recruit 2,500 additional work coaches in the next period; that includes 122 new work coaches who were recruited last year in Scotland, and more going forward.
Will the member give way?
Will the member take an intervention?
Not right now. I am sure that members agree that that is a much better use of money than spending it on empty space.
The second element is that the reorganisation is about reflecting the changing demands that are placed on the Jobcentre Plus service. It recognises that jobcentres these days are not just about finding jobs. They are places in which adult learning issues, skills acquisition, mental health issues and disability issues, as well as social security, are discussed. To meet those changing demands, the DWP is not cutting back services: it is expanding the level of services across a different network.
The Scottish Government’s motion suggests that it might have co-location proposals that would address some of the issues that I have mentioned. If that is the case, we would welcome them and I look forward to hearing the specific details. It has been more than two months since the changes were first announced.
We look forward to hearing the outcome of the consultation exercise. We will remain fully engaged with it, and we look forward to an outcome that balances the need for change with the needs of vulnerable people in our communities. We also look forward to hearing about the Scottish Government’s co-location proposals, and to seeing a more joined-up working arrangement between the UK Government and the Scottish Government. As our amendment makes clear, this is a two-way process and we look forward to a closer working relationship. I support the amendment in Adam Tomkins’s name.16:49
I thank those members who have taken part in today’s debate. It has certainly been an opportunity for most of us to lay out our concerns about the broad thrust of all the closures, and for individual members to raise their concerns when there are closures proposed for their areas.
I thought that, at the start of my closing speech, it would be useful to start at the logical place—the beginning—and take a look at the process that has led us to where we are today. In his opening speech, Adam Tomkins said that it was sensible for DWP to review its Jobcentre Plus estate. I do not disagree with that per se—I am not convinced that anyone has said anything that is in disagreement with that perspective. He noted that the Anniesland office is two-thirds empty, with two floors being unused, and all the Conservative members spoke about the fact that the lease arrangements are coming to an end. I accept that all that might be the case, but none of it is an argument for removing jobcentres from Anniesland or any of the communities that they serve. I agree with the point that was made well by Jackie Baillie and Pauline McNeill, which is that it is peculiar to predicate a decision about which communities should be supported on the mere fact that lease arrangements for particular offices are coming to an end.
Given that Dean Lockhart has brought up the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee having a session on this subject at the same time as we are having this debate, I thought that the minister might like to know that a Conservative member of that committee has just said that the evidence that the committee has heard against the DWP’s proposals is compelling, and that the department should start the process again.
I can only hope that Conservative members in this Parliament hear that salient message from one of their colleagues south of the border. I also hope that UK Government ministers have been watching the progress of our debate in the Scottish Parliament as assiduously as Mr Lockhart was watching the progress of the evidence-taking session of the UK Parliament’s select committee.
I did not agree with much of what Gordon Lindhurst said, but I agreed with him when he said that it is people who matter, not buildings. In this instance, we are concerned not with the bricks and mortar but with the proposals to withdraw from communities. Mr Tomkins and Mr Bowman made much of the unanimous view of the Work and Pensions Select Committee that Jobcentre Plus has to reform. Again, I do not think that anyone would dispute that any public institution should be subject to reform, revision and change. However, we are not debating the process of reform; we are debating a specific set of closure proposals, which, as we have just heard, at least one Conservative member of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee concedes there is no evidence base for.
We are told that Tory members here neither “condone” nor “condemn” these proposals. Well, the Tories are clearly looking to cull and close these jobcentres.
Adam Tomkins urged me to demonstrate more maturity in my approach to this issue. If he does not mind me saying so, I think that that was uncharacteristically churlish of him. I suppose that my intervention on him must have irked and upset him a little bit. He knows—because, along with other members who represent the city of Glasgow, I have made every effort to let him know—that I have sought to engage with DWP ministers to seek ways in which we can pursue alternatives to the closures, and I will continue to do so. On 30 January, officials from Skills Development Scotland and the DWP had a meeting. Skills Development Scotland has responded to the DWP’s consultation and has set out specific proposals for how it might be able to allow for a continued service from its premises at specific locations in Glasgow, and it will undoubtedly be happy to continue to engage in that dialogue in other parts of the country. I am happy to consider various ways in which we can work with others.
I know that the leader of the opposition in Glasgow City Council has set out concerns about the closures in Glasgow, and local authorities can have a role to play in this matter. Bob Doris clearly made the point that there are third sector community organisations in Maryhill, which he represents, that could be part of the equation in supporting the continued provision of services.
Annie Wells made a number of innovative suggestions about ways in which we could approach outreach services. I will happily pursue each and every suggestion that she has earnestly made. However, I think that it was telling that, when I asked what response she and Mr Tomkins have had from the DWP to their propositions, she could not confirm that she has even received a response. It seems that problems in achieving two-way dialogue are not restricted to the two Administrations and that the problems also occur within the Conservative Party.
Mr Tomkins and other Conservative members have urged me to provide real proposals for co-location. I will readily commit to doing that. We are already starting to work towards that, as I have set out. I have just committed to hear any suggestions from any member about how services can be better aligned. I will readily take real proposals to the UK Government, and I will readily make our proposals publicly available so that members of the Parliament and the public know about them. I will readily commit to the proposition that is set out in the Conservative amendment to make our proposals plain.
Let me make this clear: it is a little rich to hear the Tories’ criticism—
Excuse me, minister. I ask members coming into the chamber to do so quietly and to refrain from private conversations.
They were not putting me off, Presiding Officer.
It is a little rich to hear Tory criticism of our inability thus far to make real proposals when we have had no consultation from the DWP and no prior notification from the DWP about its closures. It is rather difficult to make proposals for specific locations when we find out about closures only when they are publicly announced.
There was a clear example of the poor process of consultation and communication when my friend George Adam—who is, as we all know, the assiduous and ardent representative of his home town of Paisley—told us that he has had no communication, as the town’s representative, from the UK Government about the closure that will take place there. That is completely unacceptable, and I can assure Mr Adam that I will raise the matter with Damian Hinds and Damian Green.
Perhaps Tory members will wish to reflect on the process that has been engaged in by their party in government south of the border. It is a telling example that we have some way to go to make paragraph 58 of the Smith commission agreement real and meaningful. The arguments that I deploy on making it meaningful are not some obscure constitutional argument that is made for its own sake, lest anyone make that suggestion. The process that has taken place sets out how, if the arrangements were in place, they would provide a practical way to explore how better to support people into employment.
Many members spoke about their local issues. Bob Doris had his members’ business debate on the situation in Maryhill; Clare Haughey spoke about her constituency; and Jackie Baillie and Ross Greer spoke about the circumstances in Alexandria. Like Mr Doris, I know the area very well. My father’s family were from that part of the world, and I understand the travel difficulties there. They will be reflected in other areas, but I very much understand the travel difficulties in that particular area, between Alexandria and Dumbarton.
If I heard Jackie Baillie correctly—I am sure that she will correct me if I am wrong—she suggested that the UK Government had invited her to discuss the situation in Alexandria in London. The people concerned in the UK Government would do rather better to respond to the invites that Ms Baillie and Mr Greer have given them to visit the site in Alexandria and see what the reality on the ground is there—although, given the confusion between Musselburgh and Glasgow, they will probably need to find Alexandria on a map first. I will readily commit to visiting any community that is affected and to meeting representatives of any local organisation or service users who are affected by the changes, if any member wishes to invite me. I might even walk through the fields with Mr Greer and Ms Baillie if they invite me to do so.
Gordon Lindhurst spoke about the increased utilisation of online services. That is all well and good. However, he was talking about what was in place in 1998; let me talk about what happened in May 2016. Citizens Advice Scotland undertook research showing that one in five clients of Jobcentre Plus cannot use a computer, that 21 per cent of them never use the internet, that 59 per cent cannot claim benefits online without help, and that 54 per cent cannot apply for a job online without help. It is rather rich to say that, because of the changed nature of the world, we can just move towards online applications. That does not reflect the reality on the ground.
I have not even spoken about the reality that the closures will increase sanctions. I hope that the UK Government has been listening to the debate. I am not particularly interested in getting the Tories in the Scottish Parliament to condemn or condone the closures. I am interested in getting this Parliament’s voice heard by the UK Government, and I want all parties in the chamber to be part of that process.
In recent weeks, the Tories have often said that members should stand up and be counted and represent their constituents. Annie Wells and Adam Tomkins have raised concerns about the process in Glasgow, and Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Conservatives in this place, faces a potential jobcentre closure in her constituency. They and their colleagues should stand up for their constituents this evening. Let us back the motion, get the UK Government to halt the process and ensure a continued service for people who need it to get into employment.