Chris Stephens – 2022 Speech on DWP Office Closures

The speech made by Chris Stephens, the SNP MP for Glasgow South West, in the House of Commons on 23 June 2022.

I want to raise the issue of Department for Work and Pensions office closures. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in particular my role as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe you have made representations on behalf of your constituents who are employed in the Department for Work and Pensions. This issue affects DWP staff across these islands. The PCS is the largest trade union in the civil service, representing 180,000 members, with workers throughout the civil service and Government agencies, including 50,000 members employed by the DWP. They are concerned, as hon. Members across the House are, about the DWP’s announcement of 17 March 2022 that more than 40 of its processing sites are to close, which we believe has the potential of putting more than 3,000 jobs at risk of redundancy.

There are three categories of processing site closures. The first is where the site is closing and the work will not be consolidated anywhere in the vicinity. I understand there are 13 sites in that category. The second category is where the site is closing but work will be consolidated into an office that the DWP has deemed is within the vicinity, which I understand is 28 sites. The third category is sites that were originally announced as transitional, which will be retained in the short to medium term but will remain badged as transitional. That is eight sites.

Despite the initial assurances given by Department Ministers at an urgent question I secured, the real concern is that we were told that the closures would not impact frontline services, but a further announcement, on 30 March, was for the closure of five jobcentres. That is very concerning and seems to be the latest push by the DWP to implement its network design strategy, which will put jobs and services at serious risk, and there is concern that the latest announcements could signal further jobcentre closures.

The PCS parliamentary group is clear that, following the previous closures under the people and locations programme, these closures will have a devastating impact on the services that staff provide and the local communities where the offices are based. They are a serious threat to DWP staff jobs.

On 17 March, when the original announcement was made, there were 1,118 staff in processing sites that will close without the work being consolidated within the vicinity and 7,341 staff in sites where the work is being consolidated into other offices. The speed at which the Department is operating and has moved to issue “at risk of redundancy” letters to staff across 25 of the 43 sites vindicates the concerns that many of us have that jobs will be lost as a result of the closures.

While some of the sites in the second category are seeing work moving into buildings that are very close by—the Falkirk and Preston sites, for example—other offices that the DWP has classed as being in the vicinity, and so plans to move staff to, are actually some considerable distance away. That includes the proposal to move the Doncaster office to Sheffield, which you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, is 22 miles away. In many of the offices, one-to-one meetings have taken place with members of staff and it is clear that many will not be able to move; it is therefore certain that many DWP staff will be faced with the very real prospect of redundancy.

There are two processing sites in Wales due for closure from a previous round of closures, where staff have also been confirmed as at risk of redundancy as part of the 16 June announcement. That is because there are more than 120 staff based across the two sites who are unable to make the long journey to the proposed new office. The offices are closing in two tranches. On 16 June, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that, of the 29 sites in the first tranche, at 25 sites a total of 903 staff were at risk of redundancy. We believe that at the remaining 14 sites, which are due to be closed on a slightly slower timeline, similar numbers of staff are likely to be at risk of redundancy.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Stephens

No Adjournment debate would be complete without an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Jim Shannon

Adjournment debates do not usually come this early in the day, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you and I know, but none the less we are very pleased, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on coming forward with it. He is assiduous when it comes to these issues, and I thank him for that. I think the whole House should thank him for it, by the way.

Coming from a rural constituency, with intermittent public transport as well as an intermittent internet and mobile service, I know that centralisation or closure of services is never a good suggestion for people in isolated areas. I know the hon. Gentleman is referring to towns, but does he agree and will he call on the Minister to consider, where this is possible, the suggestion of having satellite offices in rural areas such as where I live as well as in the centralised urban areas he has mentioned?

Chris Stephens

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because I have family members in his constituency, as he knows, so I am well aware of his constituency. He raises a very important point about satellite offices, but there is also homeworking. We were told that homeworking was a suggestion, but it seems now that the Government want to force people away from working at home into offices—only the Government are now closing these offices, so there do seem to be some mixed messages from the Government. I do thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a very important point, and I hope the Minister will respond to it.

On 16 June, a voluntary redundancy scheme was offered to those staff at the 25 sites identified as being at risk of redundancy. Most of these closures are based on plans originally drawn up in 2016 and announced in 2017, and they are seriously out of date. The sites chosen for closure have, according to the Department, been selected after not just looking at the condition and suitability of buildings, but considering the potential impact of taking work out of locations that score more highly for economic deprivation.

However, many of these closures do not seem to make a lot of sense if their impact on the local economy has been taken into account. Many of these closures are in areas of economic deprivation that can hardly afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs. For example, 29 of the 41 processing sites are in constituencies that have higher than the national average claimant rates, and 18 of the 33 England office closures are in constituencies rated in the top 100 most deprived constituencies in the country. I do not call that levelling up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) has done a survey of businesses near the Springburn site, which is earmarked for closure. It makes interesting reading, and I will take a moment to mention what has been identified in that community impact assessment. There are many businesses that staff at the Springburn site use. The off-sales, where people may perhaps buy a bottle of wine before they go home for the evening, and the Chinese restaurant next door, have concerns about the closure of that office.

The local florist is very concerned because the staff use that service, the local pharmacy has concerns about the closure and the local butcher has made representations about the closure of the Springburn office. That is the very real impact, just in Springburn alone, that such office closures will have on the local economy. It seems—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the overriding reason for many of these closures is that the Department for Work and Pensions has itself let the buildings in which it is located fall into major disrepair.

Let me now turn to concerns about the lack of opportunities to redeploy staff. When offices have been closing, Ministers have sought to reassure Members that staff will be redeployed elsewhere in the DWP or in other Departments whenever possible. However, the potential for redeployment elsewhere in the civil service has become less likely following the Government’s announcement on 13 May, through the press and without consultation with staff or trade unions, of their plan to cut 91,000 civil service jobs. The DWP’s decision not to make permanent thousands of staff on fixed-term appointments will, I believe, have come as a blow to staff as well as service delivery.

Under the recent permanency exercise for 12,000 work coaches who joined the Department on fixed-term contracts, only 9,300 have been offered permanent posts. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us whether those who are not among the 9,300 will be offered permanent employment in the DWP. Not all the posts have been offered to staff in their preferred workplaces, so they face making significant journeys if they want to continue their employment with the DWP.

The current position is that 1,400 full-time equivalent staff are on a waiting list but are being told that their contracts will end on 30 June 2022. Other FTEs have not been put on the waiting list and have been selected out of the process, despite having joined the DWP on the basis of fair and open competition. If this position does not change, it will lead to significant shortfalls in staff in jobcentres and DWP offices, which face staff reductions of up to 5,000. That will lead to increased workloads, place greater pressure on existing staff, and have a detrimental impact on the services that the public receive from the DWP. We believe that it makes no sense to threaten experienced staff with redundancies when the Department needs more staff, not fewer, to deal with higher workloads. If these closures and job cuts are allowed to go ahead, we will face the absurd prospect of staff being made redundant in one area while new staff are recruited in another to do the same job. That would be both costly and inefficient.

There is also the issue of the buildings. I understand that the Department aims to rationalise its estate, taking into account matters such as hybrid working, making offices fit for the future, and considering the green agenda as it reviews existing offices. I am told that all offices will be looked at, including jobcentres, and that the Department wants to ensure that everyone is working in an office that is of good quality.

The employers seem to believe that much of the DWP’s existing estate is no longer fit for purpose. They will seek to leave sites that are no longer suitable and relocate in new premises in the vicinity where they want to maintain a presence, overhauling some sites and closing others where they believe the DWP no longer needs to be located. They also seem to believe that having fewer, bigger buildings is a more efficient way of running the Department, although, as we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), that will not necessarily always be the case.

However, many of the processing sites are based in buildings from which the DWP will still operate. For example, jobcentres remain in the same location in Doncaster, a site that could easily accommodate the 300-plus staff that the DWP considers to be the minimum number to make a building viable. It will not be possible to sub-let parts of the buildings that it will be vacating, so we question the sense in making experienced staff redundant only for the part of the empty office space that they have vacated to—potentially—become unused. One such example is the Gloucester jobcentre at Cedar House, where only one part of one floor is being vacated and more than 40 staff who are unable to move to Worcester have now been identified as being at risk of redundancy.

The Department and Ministers have claimed that the estate programme is in support of the Government’s commitments on sustainability and net zero carbon. However, these plans are likely to lead to staff having to travel further to work as a result, which in turn would lead to more carbon emissions. No doubt the hon. Member for Strangford would agree with that, given his earlier intervention. It is also worth considering that the DWP is not totally vacating many of the buildings in question but has not said whether it plans to invest in making these buildings more energy-efficient in future. There is little evidence that the DWP is doing anything to improve the rest of its estate. Much of the remaining estate is similarly unsuitable and unsustainable. We also have concerns that not all the buildings the DWP proposes to move staff to will be able to accommodate the numbers.

That brings me to the issue of equality impact assessments. The restrictions on the equality impact assessments have been lifted by the Department and they are now available in the House of Commons Library. However, there are concerns that the equality impact assessments have identified that there will be groups disadvantaged by the closures but said very little about what is being done to mitigate those impacts. The assessments were produced before the one-to-one interviews were conducted with staff facing closure of their offices. It is likely that this process would further confirm the impact on people with protected characteristics.

Women form a significant majority of the DWP’s workforce, on some sites constituting over 75%. There are no tangible mitigations offered in these documents that are likely to compensate for the clear detriment that women face from this office closure programme. People with disabilities, particularly if they impair their ability to travel to work, are likely to face disproportionate impact from office closures as they will have to travel, in some cases by making significant journeys, further to work.

The DWP aims to mitigate the impact on disabled staff by exploring reasonable adjustments and flexible working arrangements. However, this is unlikely to provide sufficient mitigation as the Department is currently not prepared to fully embrace working from home as a redundancy avoidance. I am sure that people in Strangford and other rural parts of these islands have benefited, and Departments have benefited, from staff working from home, particularly those in the DWP, where there was a huge increase in the number of universal credit claimants, for example. DWP staff should be congratulated on the work that they did during that period and should not now have to face their offices being closed and the prospect of redundancy.

In some sites—for example, Hackney—there is a high percentage of staff from ethnic minority backgrounds. The proposed solution inevitably means longer travel at greater expense if they are able to relocate, which is a clear detriment for those impacted. In Blackburn, 36% of staff have been identified as being ethnic minority. Despite this, the DWP’s analysis is that there is no evidence to suggest that they will be negatively impacted. We believe that that analysis is flawed. There are high proportions of part-time workers, who are more likely to be carers, in many of these sites. Again, there is little by way of mitigation offered to those workers.

We are aware that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the permanent secretary invited a limited number of staff to attend a meeting on 26 May 2022 that they addressed with a presentation of the departmental plan for 2022-25. Once again, the DWP and Ministers have gone to staff without proper engagement with the trade unions. I would suggest that there should be full and proper consultation with the trade unions on the detail of a plan that has huge implications for trade union members, DWP staff and the public they serve. The plan identifies a cut in funding for staffing resources while at the same time introducing more work. It suggests a 12% cut in funding for staff over the three-year period. It also suggests a 16% increase in payments for universal credit, legacy benefits and pensions. This can only mean more work for less staff.

We want to see the Department take a realistic approach to a likely surge in demand for services as the impact of the war in Ukraine and the fall-out from the pandemic devastate the economy. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer many of the points that have been raised on this office closure programme and the concerns that we have for DWP staff, who deliver a great service. I hope that she will be able to confirm that there are no redundancies for those staff.