Meeting date: Thursday, January 19, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 19 January 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Jobcentres (Glasgow), Draft Climate Change Plan, Rural Development (Funding), Decision Time, Points of Order
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Jobcentres (Glasgow)
- Draft Climate Change Plan
- Rural Development (Funding)
- Decision Time
- Points of Order
I ask those leaving the chamber to do so quietly.
The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-02971, in the name of Bob Doris, on the closure of jobcentres in Glasgow. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament notes with concern reports that eight jobcentres in Glasgow are facing closure, including in Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn; believes that the closure of these jobcentres would have a devastating impact on jobseekers who rely on the service, and would be incompatible with the ambition of supporting people into work, and further believes that the social security system should have dignity and respect at its heart.12:47
The motion at its core has the principles of dignity and respect in relation to how we treat vulnerable groups in our communities. The plans by the Department for Work and Pensions to close half of the jobcentres in Glasgow undermine such principles and make no sense in terms of encouraging jobseekers back into employment. This afternoon, we are joined by MP colleagues who have forcefully opposed jobcentre closures across Glasgow.
I will focus today on the impact on those who use Maryhill jobcentre. Along with Patrick Grady MP, I met a group of single parents who would be seriously impacted by the closure of Maryhill jobcentre. I thank One Parent Families Scotland for arranging the meeting and for the openness, frankness and honesty of those who spoke to us. Those single parents would be required to make a trip to Springburn jobcentre instead, and the local MP, Anne McLaughlin, shares my concerns about the knock-on consequences for Springburn jobcentre.
This is what one-parent families in Maryhill had to say about travelling to Springburn:
“If your child’s unwell, how do you get up there? I don’t want to take them on the bus. Just now I can ask a neighbour to look after them for a short while, but not for over two hours.”
Another person said:
“I suffer from chronic pain. The thought of sitting on buses for almost an hour each way scares me. It is really worrying and it’s scary for lots of people.”
On the expense of it all, they said:
“If you used that to get to Springburn, you’d be taking it out of your child’s mouth.”
“I suffer from depression and anxiety and I’ll not be able to travel to Springburn. I also don’t have enough money to live on. I couldn’t afford the extra expense.”
On appointments at Springburn, they said:
“If the appointment is at 2 pm, how would you sign on and pick up your wean? It’s the same in the morning, as well—10 am means you’d not be able to drop off your kid in time.”
“The jobcentre doesn’t offer earlier or later. There’s not usually anything else available.”
Concerns over closure go far beyond the practicalities of getting to Springburn. For many, it is also about the hard-won relationship and trust that they have developed with a benefits adviser over time, which is crucial for supporting vulnerable groups back into employment. People are unlikely to retain the same work coach, so the relationship is likely to be dismantled and much of that trust will be shattered. Jobcentre staff and the Public and Commercial Services Union share those concerns.
We all know that Jobcentre Plus is a toxic brand and there is a huge controversy over the United Kingdom Government’s welfare reforms and sanction regime. Despite that, many jobcentre staff know well that the key to getting a vulnerable person who faces barriers to employment ready for work is to nurture those relationships, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. A parent in a one-parent family said:
“I’ve got one in there and they are absolutely brilliant. She knows I’ve got the weans and tries to help. I’ve built a relationship with mine. With others the trust falls down.”
“You don’t want to keep retelling your story. It’s often very personal and your existing job coach knows you.”
Along with MP colleagues, I met senior managers at Jobcentre Plus. When I asked how many claimants use Maryhill jobcentre, they were unable to tell us. When I asked for a map of the area that Maryhill jobcentre covers, they were unable to provide it. When we requested an equality impact assessment, to see how groups such as single parents, carers and those with disabilities might be impacted by the closure, Jobcentre Plus said that it would do one only after a decision had been taken. When we asked how Jobcentre Plus had interrogated the travel implications for service users, it appeared that Google Maps was the only travel expertise that had been applied.
If a council consulted on closing a school in such a manner, the Scottish Government would have the power to call in and block the decision—it has done so in the past. That is precisely what the UK Government must now do: intervene in a flawed process and save Maryhill jobcentre and the others that are threatened across the city.
I congratulate Bob Doris on bringing forward this important debate. Every Glasgow MSP and MP is united in their condemnation of the decision to close the jobcentres. Is it not time that the UK Government listens to the city’s elected members?
Absolutely. I hope that the UK Government will be listening carefully to this debate and will use it to inform a decision to halt every closure right across the city.
Will the member take an intervention on that point?
I need to make a little progress.
The Smith commission agreement referred to jobcentres. It called for the UK and Scottish Governments to
“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.”
Yet the DWP does not appear to have even informed the Scottish Government of the proposals in advance of announcing them. Maybe we will hear more about that from the minister.
I want to say a little bit more about the jobcentre in Maryhill. It sits directly opposite another office block that is largely unoccupied. The rent on that property would, in all likelihood, be cheap as chips. The DWP could also cast an eye around the corner, just over the canal towards Ruchill, where the former social work building at the Quadrangle sits mostly empty along with other properties at low market rent. The citizens advice bureau is based just down the road at Avenuepark Street, and Skills Development Scotland has skills shops on Byres Road and on Saracen Street in Possilpark, yet there has been no discussion with any partner on any form of partnership working or co-location.
Will the member take an intervention?
In a moment.
The DWP could recognise that the current Maryhill jobcentre location is a stone’s throw away from a new £12 million health and social care centre at Gairbraid Avenue in Maryhill and is directly opposite Maryhill burgh halls. The area is a growing community hub and I urge Jobcentre Plus not to turn its back on Maryhill and on those whom I represent who have multiple barriers to employment.
If I can have some time added on, I will be happy to take an intervention from Adam Tomkins.
I thank Bob Doris for giving way. I know that time is tight, so I appreciate it.
In November last year, the all-party House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee reported on the future of jobcentres. It said unanimously that
“The future of Jobcentre Plus ... is one of change”
and that Jobcentre Plus must be
“open to working in ways that are increasingly flexible, adaptable and experimental.”
That report was signed up to by every member of the committee, including the Scottish National Party’s own Mhairi Black. What evidence supports the view that just because Glasgow has 16 jobcentres now, it must always have 16 jobcentres, even though the nature of jobcentres and the employment market is changing?
I am deeply worried by that intervention from Adam Tomkins, as I thought that we had cross-party solidarity on the matter. Perhaps we need 20 jobcentres. If Mr Tomkins looks at the issue, he will see that the UK Government is talking about a 20 per cent reduction in jobcentres. Why has Glasgow been targeted for a 50 per cent cull of our jobcentres? Why, Mr Tomkins? I have no idea.
I invite the Minister for Employability and Training, Jamie Hepburn, who is in the chamber today, and Damian Hinds MP, who is minister of state at the Department for Work and Pensions, to come along to Maryhill together—that is partnership working—and meet those who will be impacted directly by the jobcentre closure, should it go ahead. Mr Hinds could see the area for himself, meet local partners and better understand the opportunities that exist locally for co-location and partnership working.
Let us improve, rather than diminish, the support that we provide to vulnerable groups. To realise that opportunity, the DWP must first ditch plans to axe Maryhill jobcentre. I hope that Mr Tomkins and his Conservative colleagues will support that call in their contributions today, not just for Maryhill jobcentre but for jobcentres across the city.
Glasgow’s elected representatives across all parties can see the clear deficiencies in a rushed and threadbare consultation. Issues such as the risk of sanctions, the risk of additional expense, the impact on families and the loss of valued work coaches at a local level are all worrying my constituents. Together, with cross-party unity, we can halt the closures. I hope that we can keep that solidarity this afternoon and meet the needs of those vulnerable people whom we are all supposed to represent in the chamber.12:56
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on an issue that has growing media attention, and I thank Bob Doris for bringing the debate to the chamber. I will not condone the DWP proposals but neither will I condemn them.
Glasgow has some of the worst employment rates in the whole of Scotland. The claimant count in the city is 3.1 per cent, in comparison with 2.2 per cent for Scotland and 1.8 per cent in the UK. Of course it is important that we support those people into work in the best way possible, and I share the concerns of members in the chamber. I am concerned, as my colleagues are, about the communication around the proposed closures. Change, whether it is permissible or not, should not be sprung on people out of the blue.
Consultation on change should not come across as a lip-service exercise, and I was disappointed to see the length of time for which the consultation is open. As new arguments for and against come to light, people should be given the opportunity to digest the information that is available and make informed responses. With the further roll-out of universal credit in Scotland, I am concerned about the increased need to make jobcentres as accessible as they can be.
Annie Wells makes the point that people must have informed opinions on the matter. However, given that neither MSPs and MPs nor anyone else knows how many people use Maryhill jobcentre or even which area it serves, is the consultation not fatally flawed? Irrespective of her views on jobcentres, does she agree that every ftjobcentre closure proposal in Glasgow should be scrapped right now and the DWP should start again?
I agree that we need to monitor the use of jobcentres more closely, but we also know that the claimant count in Glasgow has dropped by 44 per cent since 2010, going from 24,200 to approximately 13,000.
I am concerned about the fact that the consultation is restricted to just three jobcentres: Maryhill, Bridgeton and Castlemilk. However, the situation is difficult. The 20-year lease contract is coming to an end next year, and it is only logical that we have the discussion now. We need at least to be open to the idea, and I will make a few points for members to reflect on today. Between 20 and 40 per cent of the floor space in the buildings is currently underoccupied. Is it right for the Government to sit on empty floor space and go rolling into a new contract without at least asking whether that is a good use of resource? Is it right to send the message that a 3-mile journey is plain wrong—no matter the circumstances—when many of the jobs that are advertised at the centre will require just that and more?
Of course, extra efforts should be made to ensure that service users with long-term health conditions or disabilities are not adversely affected, and I shall make that point well known when I submit my entry to the public consultation. That is what it should be about: compromise. It is not about black and white decision making but about making the most sensible decision while making the necessary provision for the most vulnerable.
None of the 260 staff who would be relocated as part of the change are expected to lose their jobs and the DWP has made no mention of cutting investment. In fact, last year, more than 122 additional work coaches were recruited to jobcentres in Scotland to ease workload and to ensure a service based on rapport.
I did not omit to sign Stewart McDonald’s letter because I do not share the same concerns. I did not sign it because the finality of its tone suggests that the decision has been made. The language that is used suggests that every person visiting the jobcentres will be struck down by such a change. That is not a reasonable assertion to make, particularly if, as I have said, emphasis is placed on looking after the most vulnerable if journey times increase.
I encourage all members of the public who feel strongly on the issue to submit their opinions now to the DWP through its consultation. I have posted details of the consultation on my website.
I, as much as anyone here in the chamber today, hope that the best outcome will be reached on the issue.13:01
Before I begin, I apologise to Bob Doris and to you, Presiding Officer, because I will have to leave the chamber after my speech to host an event.
I will come back to Annie Wells’s points, but first I welcome the MPs in the gallery. We have Chris Stevens, Margaret Ferrier, Patrick Grady, Anne McLaughlin and, of course, my MP, Stewart McDonald, who has been pushing the issue hard in my constituency. Thank you for coming.
When I was first informed that not one, but two, jobcentres would potentially be closed in my constituency, my first reaction was, obviously, concern. I represent a diverse community and many of my constituents face extreme socioeconomic hardship. Jobcentres are part of a lifeline to many of them.
The name “jobcentre” suggests that it is a place to find work, but as every member of this Parliament knows, jobcentres are so much more. Are they places to find employment? Yes—but they are also places to discuss adult learning and skills acquisition, disability issues and, of course, benefits and social security.
Damian Green MP may think that the closures are necessary as the Westminster Government continues to harm the most vulnerable members of Scottish society with its austerity agenda, but my job is to remind the Tories both at Westminster and here of the devastating effects the closures would have on communities across Glasgow.
It has been well documented in the media that cruel benefit sanctions are hitting the desperately ill and people with disabilities especially hard. They are often unable to reach appointments due to distance and ill health. Imagine how difficult the appointments would be for vulnerable people to reach after the proposed changes.
I will highlight what one of the closures in my constituency would mean for some of the most disadvantaged local residents. Despite Annie Wells’s saying that she does not want to see people “stricken down” by the changes, the distance between Castlemilk jobcentre and Newlands jobcentre, which is to remain open, takes—according to Google Maps—15 minutes by car. Many Castlemilk jobcentre users do not have a car, so let us look at the map again. A walk between the two takes 58 minutes for an able-bodied person. Imagine that you are a young mother with a couple of young kids having to make your way there for fairly regular meetings. If you do not make the meetings, the sanctions will kick in very quickly. Imagine that you have a mobility issue and have to make it to meetings, because if you do not, the sanctions will kick in very quickly. That is how thoughtless the whole consultation and “Pretend that you care” process is. It is about the Tories saying, “Glasgow? We’re never going to win that place. Who cares?” This is poll tax 2. It is completely unacceptable.
Last year, I met a constituent who had to flee her home because of domestic violence. She has young children and is living on the breadline. She attends Castlemilk jobcentre. When I was talking to her, she showed me the holes in her shoes. What the Tories are asking her to do—what their Government is asking her to do—is to walk an extra 4 miles in those holey shoes to get to that jobcentre before she is sanctioned and life becomes even more difficult.
Let us not pretend that the Tories are trying to make life easier for people on the breadline or make it easier for people to get back into work, because the measure is shameless in that it has taken nothing into account except the bank balance and the bottom line. There is meant to be a consultation that takes into account people’s needs, but there has been none of that. It is not a real consultation. We know fine well that, at the end of the consultation, there will be no changes of any substance in Glasgow. We will be fighting hard for changes.
I was really disappointed—but not surprised—that Adam Tomkins and Annie Wells did not sign the letter that has been mentioned. I know that they would have been happy to sign it, but I am not surprised that their party told them not to sign it under any circumstances.
It is absolutely not the case that my party told me to sign or not to sign that letter. I read it and considered every word of it. I wanted to be able to sign it but I advised its author that I was unable to sign it for the reasons that Annie Wells has given. I would be grateful if James Dornan would retract that baseless allegation.
I am more than happy to retract the allegation that I thought you wanted to keep the jobcentres open and sign the letter. I apologise. I just thought I knew you a bit better than that.
You must come to a close, Mr Dornan.
I will do, Presiding Officer. I apologise.
It is important—despite the reservations that the Tories might have, for whatever reason—that the campaign is cross-party. We have cross-party support from all parties in the chamber except the Tories. Let us ensure that, despite your concerns, we get to a position that allows you to go back to your masters so that we can all push the Westminster Government to ensure that the jobcentres stay open. If you do not, you will penalise people who are already suffering and do not deserve to be penalised any more.
I remind members that they should always speak through the chair.13:06
I will certainly do my best.
I congratulate Bob Doris on securing the debate and on recognising the importance of the subject matter. I cannot be the only person who, when the decision was announced—I think that it had been leaked ahead of the announcement—was shocked by the rush with little regard for the impact on communities.
The decision has resulted in significant campaigning throughout the city, although I will talk particularly about the Southside. I commend the Evening Times for its campaign to address the grave concerns about the implications of the closures. We have heard from Bob Doris about the work that he and his colleagues have done. I also highlight my party’s work. Local Labour councillors—Archie Graham, Malcolm Cunning and Emma Gillan—and activists including Steven Livingston have, with others, recognised the importance of the issue and been out highlighting their concerns and their desire to ensure that the closures are stopped. They have also been talking to the public about the importance of building public support for encouraging the Government to think again and for taking on the DWP on the matter.
I am particularly concerned about what is happening in Castlemilk and Langside, but I also recognise that there are implications throughout the city. In fact, this morning my Labour colleagues were out campaigning on the issue, and I was struck by the response that they received across the communities. However, it would not be right simply to say what our individual parties have done or just to recognise the important point that people beyond parties have strong views on the matter—as campaign groups have highlighted—because the campaign has been marked by an important effort to build local cross-party consensus.
I commend people who have done that—local MPs or Frank McAveety, the leader of Glasgow City Council. We have all acknowledged the importance of drawing together on the question. I commend that type of working—not only in respect of the jobcentre closures, and regardless of who is making the decision. Whether a decision is made by the UK Government, the Scottish Government or local government, politicians need to have the freedom and confidence to come together on matters that are of great significance in their communities.
We should urge David Mundell to listen to the concerns. Adam Tomkins talked about the importance of evidence. The fact is that the decision is not evidence based, as James Dornan highlighted. I am also concerned that the decision has been made without an equality impact assessment having been done. If there had been, cuts would not be being disproportionately targeted on a city that relies on the services.
There is no understanding of the transport challenges. It is all right to look at Google Maps, but people should try in the real world to travel on the bus or use the walking routes for accessing the services. This morning, the Public Petitions Committee looked at the failures of the bus system. The idea that a person would rely on a bus to travel even further to access support without anybody having done the basic working out of where transport links are is a nonsense.
The reality is that it has been a paper exercise. It has not looked at whether there would be a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, women, lone parents or disabled people who want to access services. It has not been driven by a rational assessment of need and purpose; rather, it started at the end of the process and worked back. Surely the rational minds among Conservative members must agree that that is not acceptable.
I recognise that the issue becomes even more challenging because of the highly contentious debate on the key elements of the welfare system and the Tory Government’s approach, which—in George Osborne’s unforgivable terms—sought to divide the “workers” and the “shirkers”. If the argument is that we need to support people into work in the current welfare system, why make it so difficult to access that support? If that is its purpose and its job, why make it more difficult for people who need the support to get it in Glasgow—a city that has disproportionate need for it? Even if people believe in conditionality and the benefits of a sanctions system—I do not—why make increasing the level of sanctions more likely? Why make it more difficult for people to comply? Why make a decision that is not connected to the experience of ordinary people?
Will Johann Lamont take an intervention?
The member has no time, Mr Tomkins.
The reality is that, rather than looking at needs, the decision was made on paper in order to meet a budget requirement.
You must come to a close, Ms Lamont.
We need to start with people in our communities and then make decisions that follow from that. I urge all members to make their voices heard, because the implications for families in my city are immensely serious.
Due to the number of members who wish to speak and the overrunning of every speech so far, I am minded to accept a motion, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Bob Doris]
Motion agreed to.
That does not mean that members should fill all of that time.13:12
I was going to ask whether that gives me more time, but I will stick to the time limit, as the Presiding Officer said that I should.
I commend Bob Doris for securing the debate and thank the many MPs who raised at Westminster the issue that we are discussing. I think that two debates were held there and some of those MPs are in the gallery. I also thank the Glasgow Evening Times for running an excellent campaign against the jobcentre closures.
I am convener of the Social Security Committee. On 15 December, we held a session in which we took evidence from Neil Couling and Denise Horsfall. During that session, the jobcentre closures, which had just been announced, came up. I will read some extracts from the Official Report of that meeting, which will give a flavour of what was said. As Johann Lamont said, the exercise is absolutely nothing to do with people; it is a budgetary exercise to save money.
Prior to that committee meeting, we visited the jobcentre in Musselburgh. As the convener of the committee, I raised that in my first questions. I said:
“Even though we visited only two weeks ago, we were not aware of the jobcentre closures. That cannot just have been decided two weeks ago or last week; it has to have been on the agenda for a number of months ... We were given no indication of the closures while we were visiting the jobcentres.”
I asked about Glasgow specifically, and I pointed out that
“an awful lot of work”
“gone on in the background”
previously to come to that decision. I asked why we were not made aware of that as a committee that was looking at social services and the new bill that was coming forward. Denise Horsfall said:
“I will happily come in about Glasgow specifically. In answer to the convener, I will say yes, we did not talk about the closures. When we met I referred to the fact that we were looking at the estate, but I certainly was not specific. It was not in my gift to be specific at that stage; I had no authority to talk to you about it. My authority came on the day of release.”
She went on to say that systems such as Google Maps and Traveline had been used but admitted that
“that is not the same as getting on and off a bus.”
When I asked about the timescales and why we had not been told when the closures would happen, Ms Horsfall said:
“without a doubt, you are absolutely right, convener—they did not just drop out of fresh air. There was a discussion about what seemed to be acceptable and available for the city of Glasgow—what the best use of the estate was and how we were going to deliver the services. Those proposals then went to a consultation period with landlords.”—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 15 December 2016; c 4, 9, 5, 9, 10.]
The proposals did not go out to consultation with the public, the Parliament or elected members. Most important of all, they did not go out to consultation with the people who use the services; they went out to consultation with the landlords. That makes it clear that the decision had nothing at all to do with getting people into work and helping people. How could the DWP think that people who are disabled and folk who are on the breadline might be able to take two or three buses or walk to get to a jobcentre? The DWP did not bother about them. All it cared about was the cost for the estate.
Adam Tomkins—I do not know whether he intends to elaborate on this—asked in committee why a deal could not be done, given that, for example, the landlord of Castlemilk jobcentre said that he would drop his rates, but the DWP did not bother to say anything about that. From the evidence that we were given, it is possible to come to only one conclusion—that people were not considered at all because it was felt that they did not matter. The feeling was that vulnerable people, disabled people, single families and young kids did not matter; all that mattered was money. Therefore, we must ensure that the jobcentres in question are saved.13:17
I sincerely thank Bob Doris for bringing this important debate to the chamber and pay tribute to the broad support that exists for this concern. It is refreshing—and significant—that the issue is one that brings together the Scottish Government’s supporters and its critics. It is not one on which members divide along constitutional lines—it has united political activists from a number of parties, politicians at local, national and UK levels and a wide range of organisations and other services that work in people’s communities.
People are responding with astonishment and anger to the proposal, and I am very pleased that, as Sandra White said, the Evening Times has been drawing public attention to the issue through its work.
For me, the starting point on such an issue is a desire for a fundamentally different kind of welfare system—a different kind of social security system. Not just in recent years through the work of the Tory Government but for decades the social security system has been changing from a system that is supposed to be about providing security for people into one that is designed to bully people into low-paid work. The kind of social security system that I would want to see would make some services available online or over the phone—that obviously has benefits—but the most important thing that it must do is have people working with people to support them to overcome the very serious barriers that they face to re-entering work, to finding appropriate work or to making work work for them and their life circumstances, and that means having services in local communities. We need to have in those services people who know about the local community, its transport links, the kind of work that is available and the kind of issues that members of that community face.
It is absolutely vital to have those local services protected. Even if the level of demand reduces—and we should want it to reduce—the local nature of such services is critical to ensuring that the service is effective. The letter from Damian Hinds that we have all seen, which sets out the proposed closures, ends with the phrase:
“Three of the proposed site closures ... may lead to longer journey times for some claimants”.
It is absolutely inevitable that they will lead to unacceptable journey times and costs. Even for those people who qualify for a jobcentre travel discount card and manage to get access to that, the reduced rate of a single trip across city zones—many of the people impacted by the cuts will be crossing the First Bus zones in Glasgow—is £2, so a great many of those people will still find themselves having to buy an all-day ticket, which is £4.50.
It is not good enough to say, as Annie Wells did, that if someone gets a job it might involve just as much travel, so people should be willing to travel to work and to a jobcentre. A job pays a wage, but going to the jobcentre does not. It is outrageous to imagine that people can bear those costs.
As members know, like others, I want to encourage people to walk and cycle around our city, but even I would think twice before tackling the hill up to Castlemilk on my bike. James Dornan mentioned walking as an option. Some of my Green Party colleagues, activists and candidates and I organised a walk from the Bridgeton jobcentre to Shettleston—that walk took nearly an hour. That does not take into account the barriers faced by people with reduced mobility, disability or other commitments, such as family care.
There are two inevitable consequences of the changes. First, more people will miss appointments, get sanctioned as a result, and so not get the support and services that they need. Secondly, more people will be forced deeper into poverty by having to bear the additional travel cost burden.
The Scottish Conservatives are due some credit for turning up today and I pay tribute to them for that. However, they should come here with an opinion. They have an absolutely privileged position in the debate because if they add their support to the cross-party support for concern on the issue, we have the ability to tell the UK Government to change its position. To have complete cross-party consensus on the issue, the Scottish Conservatives need to add their support and I urge them to do so as soon as possible.13:22
I, too, congratulate Mr Doris on securing this important debate. The proposed closure of jobcentres in Glasgow, whilst in itself a reserved matter, is an issue that the Scottish Parliament should be debating and I am glad that we have the opportunity to debate this important issue for Mr Doris’s constituents today.
My position mirrors that of my colleague Annie Wells: given the nuances, I will not condemn the proposals, but nor will I condone them or the process that is currently being followed. Across the United Kingdom, the Department for Work and Pensions has committed to reducing the size of its estate by 20 per cent—a decision that was taken due to changing circumstances and the facts as they are on the ground today. That comes near the end of a costly 20-year private finance initiative contract, signed by the Labour Government, for the upkeep of many DWP offices. Recent figures show that, across the UK, the reduction in numbers of claimants and the system changes have resulted in the DWP using only 25 per cent of the space that it pays for under the PFI contract.
We must note that the claimant count across the UK has dropped from 1.5 million in 2010 to around 800,000 today. In Glasgow, in that same time frame, the claimant count has almost halved. In Glasgow East, it has dropped by 47 per cent in less than seven years. However, that means that over 13,000 people still need the vital services that jobcentres provide. The concern that has been demonstrated across the chamber about what the proposed closures could mean for those people and about the whole process must be recognised by the DWP as it continues its consultation.
A review is being undertaken. The proposals seek to bring together smaller, less busy jobcentres into larger existing sites, thereby reducing the DWP’s rents and freeing up services with a view to delivering a higher quality of service for benefit claimants.
The UK Government has made a pledge—it is one that I whole-heartedly endorse—that no DWP staff will be made redundant because of the changes. If anything, the DWP workforce looks set to grow in Scotland. Indeed, 122 new work coaches were recruited just last year.
However, as Annie Wells has said and will make clear in her submission to the DWP consultation, for those with long-term health conditions or disabilities, much more effort is needed to ensure that service users are not adversely affected by any of the proposed changes.
We must not lose sight of the uncertainty and trauma that are caused by being made unemployed. I do not doubt the worry for people when they read that their local jobcentre is to be closed. It is down to us—their elected representatives—to assure them that they are not being abandoned and to ensure that the changes, if they happen, are acceptable and result in better delivery of services for those who need them.
I urge all who are here today or watching at home who have concerns about the proposals to submit them to the consultation. It is only by working together, across parties, in the interests of constituents, that we will find a solution that works for everyone and that we can truly create a jobcentre service that is fit for the 21st century—one that will deliver real results for the people of Scotland.13:26
I thank Bob Doris for bringing this important debate to the chamber and Stewart McDonald for co-ordinating the letter, which has support from all the parties except the Tory Party. I would be interested to hear from the Tories who represent Glasgow on what terms they would have signed a letter of solidarity with the rest of the MSPs who represent the city. I am also pleased that the Evening Times is backing the campaign.
From what I have read so far, there has been a complete lack of analysis of Glasgow’s requirements. To me, that is an attack on the city of Glasgow, and as far as I am concerned, such an attack should lead to all of Glasgow’s representatives fighting its corner.
One in 10 adults in Glasgow has never had a job. In Parkhead and Dalmarnock, six out of 10 families are lone-parent families. Glasgow is home to some of the most deprived communities, yet we face seven closures, which represents 50 per cent of Glasgow’s jobcentres. It appears that Glasgow has been singled out for unfair treatment. One in four people still has no access to the internet.
Are the proposals part of a wider plan? As we know, the DWP is already moving to universal credit, which is a system that is quickly becoming discredited, from what I heard this morning. The city is certainly not ready to make that transition. Unemployment is still at 7.7 per cent. Jobcentres are a lifeline for people in cities such as Glasgow who are seeking work.
Like others, I would have some respect for the consultation—I suppose—if there was some analysis, but there are complete contradictions in what we have heard. I will come on to the ministerial letter, but there has been no real analysis of how people will get to the new arrangements. The DWP does not even know the numbers of people who are using the jobcentres. I do not know how the consultation was even allowed out of the door.
What we know, as the member will surely accept, is that the claimant count in Glasgow has fallen by 44 per cent in the past seven years. It is down to 13,500. That is still too high, but it is a significant reduction. Is it not rational, given a 44 per cent decline in the claimant count, to think about the number of jobcentres that a city such as Glasgow continues to need?
If that is the Tories’ position and argument in this debate, they do not understand the city of Glasgow. The member is not taking into account any of the characteristics of the city that I am describing. The city is not ready. In previous debates I have heard the Tory position about getting people back to work. Jobcentres are a lifeline for people. The strategy is a very poor one if that is what it is based on.
We are not even clear why the closures are happening. Are they part of a bigger plan? As Adam Tomkins knows, the Social Security Committee learned that they seem to be part of a wider review of the estate. I want to get to the letter from the Minister for Employment, which is worth reading out, but I was about to make the point that at least there is one area of solidarity, in that the committee members worked together to call on the DWP to extend the consultation to 31 January, whereas it would previously have closed in the week after Christmas, so we have some time.
I encourage people to respond to the consultation by writing to Etta Wright at the Laurieston jobcentre in Glasgow. It is really important to do that, and I believe that it will be possible to save some of the jobcentres. That is why I look to members on the Tory benches: if they really want to save some of the jobcentres from closure, they need to work more closely with the other parties. The justification that we have been given by the Minister for Employment is that the proposal
“will provide an estate that’s right for the city”.
There is nothing about it that is “right for the city”. The letter says:
“I would like to reassure you that the reduction in sites in Glasgow is in line with our overall plan to reduce the total amount of space we occupy ... The number of Jobcentres proposed for closure reflects the preponderance of smaller jobcentres in Glasgow.”
I am sorry, but it is not an issue of floor space; it is about the needs and requirements of unemployed people.
Many of us have talked about the practicalities. We have heard many times the spurious reasons for which sanctions are applied, one of which is that individual claimants can be sanctioned if they are late for an appointment. There is much more likelihood of people being late for their appointment under the proposals. When the DWP considered distances between jobcentres, it found that the estimated walking times are 30 minutes between Bridgeton and Shettleston and 45 minutes between Castlemilk and Newlands. By the DWP’s own admission, those walking times exceed the agreement that it had in 2011 that the time would be a maximum of 20 minutes. I ask those in other parties to join us: let us fight together and at least save some of the city of Glasgow’s jobcentres.13:32
I, too, thank Bob Doris for securing the debate, and I thank him and the members who signed the motion for affording us the opportunity to debate the issue.
Jobcentres play an important role in supporting people who are seeking work. They are also an important point of contact for local businesses that are looking to recruit and for local and national initiatives that seek to support people into work, as well as encouraging growth and opportunity for all. It is widely accepted that having meaningful employment in a fair work environment that pays a living wage has a positive impact on health and wellbeing.
Yesterday in the chamber, we debated a Conservative motion on health inequalities. Nothing demonstrates the glaring divergence from the Tories’ sham concern about health inequality more than the UK Government’s actions on welfare and benefits. The outrageous decision to close half the jobcentres in the Glasgow region, including the Cambuslang jobcentre in my constituency, is just another example of the disregard that the Tories show to the vulnerable in our society.
As we have heard, the announcement was made without prior consultation. There was no consultation with elected members, local communities, service users or DWP unions or employees. Following answers in the House of Commons to questions from Margaret Ferrier MP and Angus Robertson MP, it became clear that the Tory Secretary of State for Scotland was also kept in the dark on what the DWP was up to.
I grew up in Rutherglen, in my constituency, and I have been fortunate enough to work in my constituency. I have seen Rutherglen and Glasgow suffer from heavy levels of joblessness as traditional industry collapsed in Scotland in the 1980s. The transition from the industrial past has been tough on constituencies such as mine. Manufacturing jobs, which numbered in the thousands only a few decades ago and guaranteed jobs for people in Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Blantyre, now number in the hundreds. That story is familiar to many communities across Scotland, but it is especially relevant in Glasgow, where joblessness, lower incomes and historical underinvestment in public services have come together to contribute to high unemployment levels and high underemployment levels.
To cut 20 per cent of jobcentres in Scotland in the current climate—with the plummeting pound, uncertainty on access to markets and potential tariffs on Scotland-made goods—would be bad enough, but to close half the jobcentres in the Glasgow region smacks of an overreach that is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, which has already been referred to. It is just another example of the Westminster Tories’ disregard for Scotland and especially for the unemployed and underemployed in our communities.
If Glasgow’s jobless can be hammered with no resistance, with nearly 70,000 people affected, the Conservative Government will be emboldened to roll out further cuts to essential services. That is at the heart of the matter; it is not just about jobcentre closures but about a sustained campaign of defunding all public services and transferring provision, when it is profitable, to the private sector. This is happening while Glasgow has a 7.7 per cent unemployment rate, which is 2.3 per cent higher than the UK average.
The jobcentres are not round the corner from each other; they are services that are located in distinct local communities that have specific catchment areas. For example, in the area of Halfway in Cambuslang, the walk to the nearest jobcentre will increase from 30 minutes to more than an hour. That is what the jobcentre closures completely disregard—the local impact on communities and the people who are caught up in the situation.
DWP staff are being advised not to process appeals, and sanctions are a real and present threat to ordinary people. The hour-long walk from Halfway suddenly seems more stressful when being five minutes late could have a devastating impact on the benefits that are received. At best, decreasing access will result in more stress for people who are in a vulnerable position, but at worst, it will result in hunger and homelessness. In fact, given the planned closures, the DWP should be loosening the sanctions regime to ensure that people who are moving to a different jobcentre are not punished for having difficulty in getting to their appointments on time.
We should be maintaining the services that we already have. In areas of greater need, we should be looking at how to develop services, not cutting them. As my colleague Bob Doris highlighted in his motion, we need a social security system with
“dignity and respect at its heart”,
not one that imposes such closures on the most vulnerable in our society.13:37
I warmly and genuinely thank Bob Doris for bringing this important debate to the chamber. It is appropriate that we will have spent a full hour discussing the matter. I also thank the minister, Jamie Hepburn, for the commendably open and transparent way in which he has kept Glasgow representatives from across the political spectrum informed of his communications with the DWP. I am afraid to say that the contrast between the openness of the Scottish Government and the lack of transparency on the part of the DWP is quite marked in this instance.
On the day that Annie Wells and I discovered that the proposals were on the table, we wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and we received a response on the following day—8 December. That correspondence is in the public domain because it has been released under freedom of information rules. We expressed a number of concerns about the process and substance of the consultation, some of which I still have and some of which have been resolved.
It is important to understand the context in which this is happening. There are two elements to it. The first is that there is an all-party agreement at Westminster, which includes the SNP, that the future of Jobcentre Plus needs to be different from its past. The nature of the employment market and of the work that jobcentres undertake is changing.
For example, it is increasingly important to the work of jobcentres for them to have the facility and space to act as hubs for local employers, so that employers can seek to hire employees at those jobcentres. That is 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, the all-party House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee said:
“The future of Jobcentre Plus (JCP) 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.”
All of that said, although I do not always agree with Patrick Harvie, I was taken with the way in which he expressed the important point that, even if the nature of the demand is changing, it remains important that the demand is met locally. I am taken with that point and I will relay it to the secretary of state.
Mr Tomkins referred to the idea of the provision for those seeking employment changing and to the need for reform. The Smith commission suggested the idea of jobcentres co-locating with Skills Development Scotland, skills shops and citizens advice bureaux to provide a tailored service. Maryhill would be a prime location for such a co-located service. Does the member agree that Jobcentre Plus and the DWP should halt the closure of the Maryhill centre and explore that proposal dynamically with all partners?
I am all in favour of exploring options for co-location, and that is one of the issues that the minister has written to the secretary of state about. That is incredibly important. I want there to be more joined-up working between the UK Government and the Scottish Government on the delivery of employability services and our social security system. That is one of the directions in which the Smith commission moved, and I was pleased to see that.
It is important to understand what is not happening—specifically, that includes a number of the things that Clare Haughey wrongly said were happening. This is about enhancing services, not cutting them. It is about improving claimant access to more employers. The proposals are for a reduction in floor space only—I say that not to diminish their importance but to help people to understand exactly what is happening. All staff and services will be relocated and no job losses are planned. As Liam Kerr said, the number of work coaches in Scotland is going up—122 work coaches were hired by the DWP in Scotland between April and September last year, notwithstanding the fact that there are fewer claimants than there have been since the 1970s.
I have some on-going concerns. I am concerned that the consultation that we have for the Bridgeton, Castlemilk and Maryhill jobcentres is not being extended to the other five jobcentres. I have raised that concern with the secretary of state, and I will happily—well, not exactly happily—do so again. Like my fellow members of the Social Security Committee Pauline McNeill and Sandra White—who is the convener of that committee—I was concerned about the truncated timescale for the consultation on Bridgeton, Castlemilk and Maryhill, and I was pleased that the committee was able to bring to bear cross-party pressure on officials to have the consultation period extended.
On Monday, I visited Partick jobcentre, which is in Sandra White’s constituency and is one of the largest jobcentres in Glasgow. I asked staff and managers there about the DWP’s plans. One of the things that are happening in that part of Glasgow is that Anniesland jobcentre is to be closed, with its work being rolled into that of Partick jobcentre.
The staff and managers at Partick assured me that their jobcentre has ample capacity to absorb the additional work from Anniesland. They also told me that Anniesland was working at only one third of capacity. I asked how they knew that, because I knew that how we measure jobcentre capacity has been challenged in the House of Commons, and they said, “Well, it’s 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—the other two thirds are being leased out to other Government departments. That illustrates the magnitude of what we are talking about.
We are talking about redesigning jobcentres to be more effective for a city such as Glasgow rather than cutting services. If we held that in our minds, perhaps we would understand the proposals a bit more clearly.13:43
I join others in thanking Bob Doris for bringing this debate to the chamber. I also thank the members who have contributed to the debate and those who have stayed behind to watch it.
In particular, I thank Conservative members who have stayed behind. I could not help but notice that they were out in force today—I counted more than 20 Conservative representatives at the start of the debate, although there are rather fewer than that now, as some have sloped off. That is quite unusual for a members’ business debate and I cannot think why they stayed in such numbers. I agree with Patrick Harvie that it would have been good to have heard rather more opinion coming from their benches—to be fair, I acknowledge that we heard a bit more from Adam Tomkins. However, in the absence of such, it is incumbent on the massed ranks of Conservatives who stayed here today to have at least brought their ears with them so that, having listened to what was said, they can take back a clear message to their party representatives in government at Westminster and can express the opinions that they have heard in the Scottish Parliament.
I welcome, too, the Glasgow MPs in the public gallery, who have been undertaking a range of activity in Westminster to bring the issue to the fore, as have most of the elected representatives of the city of Glasgow in the Scottish Parliament.
Concern has been expressed in the debate about the impact on communities and individuals. In parliamentary discourse, we often use the term “individual” when we actually mean a person—we are talking about people; we are talking about our neighbours, friends and family and those who live and work around us. Any one of us might need support from the social security system from time to time. I share the concern that the closures will make accessing support much harder in the city of Glasgow, a city that I am proud to have been born and raised in.
Given the point that Mr Tomkins made about the estate, if that is an issue—he gave the example of the Anniesland jobcentre, which is occupying only one storey—is the Scottish Government in a position to talk to the DWP about other buildings that could be used?
I was planning to come to that issue a little later, but I will come to it now. The decision to close particular jobcentres in Glasgow seems to be driven by the fact that lease arrangements for particular buildings are coming to an end. First, that is a peculiar way in which to determine where a jobcentre is to be located. It would be rather better to see what the community needs. Secondly, Pauline McNeill correctly makes the point that underoccupancy of a building is a secondary consideration in deciding to close a particular jobcentre. The point that we are making, which again I hope is heard clearly, is not about the particular buildings that jobcentres are in; it is about the communities that they are located in. A number of members have made the sensible and apposite point that there are great benefits in seeking co-location of services. We have a range of offices through Skills Development Scotland, and Glasgow City Council has a range of offices for its social work department, for example, where there could be co-location.
To summarise my response to Pauline McNeill’s point, the Government will always be pleased—that might not be the right word in this instance, given the subject matter, but we will be willing—to engage in dialogue with the UK Government and the DWP about such matters. Indeed, earlier today, I had a meeting with Damian Hinds, the Minister of State for Employment. I should say that it was fairly constructive—although, of course, words are always easy. I am clear that we need to continue dialogue in that regard.
I am also clear that we need to continue dialogue on the clear commitment that was made in the Smith commission process about a greater role for the Scottish Government in the management of Jobcentre Plus. As Mr Tomkins will know because he was on the Smith commission, paragraph 58 of the commission’s report sets that out and talks about a greater emphasis on the Scottish Government having greater responsibility, jointly with the UK Government, in relation to Jobcentre Plus.
I make that point not just to make a constitutional flag in the sand-type argument; I make it for the practical reason that if we had had such a process in place, the Scottish Government and everyone else would not, I presume, have found out about the closures through the pages of the Daily Record. We might have had some prior warning, which would have allowed us to raise our concerns, make the offer to co-locate and perhaps influence a change in mindset. We could also have raised the real concerns that I have about the potential negative impact on the coming devolution of the employment programme. We will rely heavily on Jobcentre Plus as a conduit for referrals to the programme, so we could see another negative impact in that regard.
Today, however, we debate the significant negative impact on people on the ground. We have heard clearly that those individuals—or people, I should say, to go back to the more correct terminology that I used earlier—will be faced with increased travel costs and travel time to engage with their newly designated jobcentre. As Mr Doris knows, Maryhill is an area of Glasgow that I know well, and the jobcentre will be almost 4 miles away in Springburn. Mr Doris is right to raise concerns about the increased pressure on Springburn jobcentre, as we already know that Springburn has the highest volume in the city of customers claiming jobseekers allowance and universal credit. There will be a clear negative impact.
The Government has expressed over a long period our concern about the UK Government’s particular form of conditionality and its sanctions regime. I am concerned that the changes will lead to an increased number of sanctions in the city of Glasgow. I wrote to Damian Green, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, on that matter and he wrote back to me saying that there will be no change in policy for the individuals affected. However, that fundamentally misses the point. The issue is not the change in policy for those individuals; it is about the change in circumstances. By the very nature of the changes, people will have to travel much further to access services, so of course people will arrive late for and miss appointments and we know that, in many cases, that can lead to their being sanctioned.
I could say much more about the issue, but let me be very clear—if it is not clear already—that the Scottish Government’s preference would have been for us to have been rather better engaged in the process so that we could have raised our concerns. We are concerned that the closures are only the first raft of such closures for Scotland, although we are not clear where others might be and when they might be announced. It is likely, therefore, that we will come back to debate the same subject matter again.
I ask Conservative members to take the message back to the UK Government and I assure members that when the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, the Minister for Social Security and I meet Damian Green at next month’s meeting of the joint ministerial working group on welfare, we will discuss the matter.13:52 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—