The proposals announced last week put thousands of jobs at risk and would mean unemployed people having to travel further to get help getting back to work.
They would mean that by March 2018:
- Closure of 78 of 714 jobcentres in England, Scotland and Wales, with work and staff transferring to the nearest office
- Another 80 jobcentres to be co-located in local authority buildings
- Closure of one fifth of the DWP’s 150 non-frontline offices, including benefit processing sites and call centres, with a further 40 only guaranteed to stay open for another three to five years.
During a Commons debate of an urgent question on the subject yesterday (30 January) tabled by Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP), many MPs highlighted their concerns about the potentially devastating impact of the plans on their communities and jobseekers in their areas to welfare delivery minister Caroline Nokes.
Ronnie Cowan said the plans would "have a profound impact on thousands of people desperately seeking work and the support to which they are entitled."
He called the distinct lack of consultation with communities "an insult" and said that it is "an utter disgrace and it could push vulnerable people further into crisis, what with the added travel distance and cost placed upon individuals, many of whom have little or no readily available funds to pay for that commute."
He sought assurances from the minister and asked her to "put people first".
"This should be far more than a spreadsheet exercise... Many Jobcentre Plus staff work hard to build good working relationships with service users, and they are aware of specific issues and needs."
He called on the government to halt the implementation of the plans until a full equality impact assessment has been conducted and a full consultation of all sites has taken place.
The minister said the DWP staff would be consulted on the changes and the vast majority would have the option to relocate or be offered alternative roles. She said vulnerable people could be offered home visits or the opportunity to claim by post.
Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker (Con) asked whether those who have put forward the proposals have visited places such as the Calder Valley to understand the demographics and geography, or have they just "sat in their offices in Whitehall using Google Maps?"
Fellow Tory Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) highlighted the fact that his constituents in Edgworth will have to travel for over an hour to get to Blackburn if we close the Darwen jobcentre.
"They are supremely hardworking and supremely successful, and anyone who thinks they can get from Darwen to Blackburn in 23 minutes is living in la-la land," he said.
Chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, SNP) said she was "extremely worried that closing jobcentres will make employment even less accessible to disabled claimants."
Hollowing out services
Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter (Lab) said plans to close the busiest jobcentre in his main town centre on top of the closure of courts, post offices and police stations, and a similar plight in many other constituencies amounted to the "hollowing out of vital public services from our towns and cities."
Lib Dem Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) asked as numerous forecasts suggest that the effects of Brexit might reverse or stagnate the decline in unemployment if the government had made an assessment of the ability to scale up support in the already overstretched Jobcentre Pluses if, as many expect, unemployment begins to increase in the future if the cuts go ahead.
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness, Lab/Co-op) highlighted the work of the industrial injuries team in Barrow whose experience and expertise has helped to take the claimant handling time for one of the nation’s most complex benefits down from 175 days to 33 days, meaning that some of the most vulnerable people in the country, with terminal conditions such as asbestosis, have been able to receive their benefit before they died. He feared that if that expertise "is dissipated when a new team comes in, the waiting times will go back up and many people will die before they receive their benefit."
A number of MPs wanted to know if claimants would be compensated for having to find the extra money to travel to sign on as the closures would impose huge additional travel costs on those who can least afford them