Ronnie Cowan MP
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this debate.
In Inverclyde, we currently have two jobcentres: one in Greenock and another in Port Glasgow. Following the UK Government’s consultation, it was determined that the Port Glasgow jobcentre would close, while the Greenock office would be moved to an as yet undetermined location. I believe that this decision is short-sighted and sympathise with the views of staff at the Port Glasgow jobcentre, who have expressed understandable concerns regarding the impact of this change on their clients.
The Minister should know that Inverclyde has some of the worst levels of social deprivation in the UK. Some 26% of children in Inverclyde grow up in poverty; one in 10 lives in severe poverty; youth unemployment is more than double the UK rate; and the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance or required to find work on universal credit is double the rate in the UK as a whole.
It might be thought that such a set of circumstances would prompt the Government to grant additional support to the area. Instead, the UK Government’s response has been to cut benefits and halve the number of jobcentres in my constituency. A report issued by the Scottish Government found that Inverclyde will experience one of the most significant falls in welfare spending of any Scottish local authority relative to the size of its working-age population. By 2021, this will amount to an overall cut of £15 million—the equivalent of £298 per working-age adult.
Given the challenges that Inverclyde faces, I think it would be appropriate for the Minister to visit my constituency. That is why I wrote to him on 14 June and extended an invitation to meet not only me, but the jobcentre management to discuss the impact of the proposed closure on my constituents. And yes, I am still waiting for a reply. A ministerial visit would also be an opportunity for the UK Government to provide some much-needed assurances regarding the long-term future of the Greenock office and the vital service that it offers. I can see the Minister looking quizzically at me. Is he questioning what I am saying?
The Minister for Employment (Damien Hinds)
Ronnie Cowan MP
Okay. Is the proposed closure of the Port Glasgow jobcentre about providing a better service for users? No, of course it is not. In the words of the Public and Commercial Services Union, the UK Government are “abandoning the unemployed” at a time when many people on lower incomes are facing uncertain futures with respect to their employment.
Danielle Rowley MP (Intervention)
On the issue of uncertain futures, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the closure of jobcentres such as mine in Dalkeith will affect women affected by the Pensions Act 2011, dealing the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—a double blow, which is unacceptable? Does he join me in wondering where those women will go to find the apprenticeships that Government Members suggest that they find?
Ronnie Cowan MP
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. It is the classic double whammy that people are put into an impossible situation by the Government and then look for support from them and find that it has been taken away. As we all know, the apprenticeship scheme is just an aberration at the moment.
Unfortunately, all levels of poverty are rising. In-work poverty is on the rise, yet the Minister continues to argue that jobcentre mergers are needed to ensure that the welfare state
“works for those who need it and those who pay for it.”
That kind of irresponsible language detracts from the reality that those who need the service and those who pay for it are in fact the same people. Ultimately, the whole of society benefits if poverty and inequality are reduced. Jobcentres are supposed to be part of the solution.
Aside from the £1 billion deal with the Democratic Unionist party, the UK Government have made the case over the past seven years that drastic public spending cuts are a financial necessity. The plan to close jobcentres across the UK is part of a wider plan to sell £4.5 billion-worth of Government land and property by 2021. While it is easy to cut services and demonstrate savings made in the short term, it not so easy to quantify and predict the long-term impact of those changes.
Hannah Bardell MP (Intervention)
On the matter of property and quantifying decisions, does my hon. Friend agree that the decision to close an HMRC office in my Livingston constituency and an area of West Lothian that is significantly cheaper, and to move it to Edinburgh city centre in a record long-term contract of 20 to 25 years, is just sheer stupidity on the Government’s part and clearly a waste of public money?
Ronnie Cowan MP
I absolutely agree, and could not have put it better myself.
The UK Government have simply not made a convincing case that the proposed closures will benefit clients or society as a whole. Jobcentre staff have contacted me to say that the impact of the closures on disabled people has not been properly assessed. The Scottish Government have indicated that the closures are likely to push many vulnerable people into crisis. Will the Minister meet me in Inverclyde and show that the UK Government are actually listening to those concerns? We are about to set off into recess. I assure the Minister that I will clear my diary and cancel my holidays, and will be there whatever day he wishes to come and visit Inverclyde.