Yesterday I led a Westminster Hall debate on the closure of the Department for Work and Pensions Office in Merthyr Tydfil. In my speech, I said:
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed closure of DWP offices in Merthyr Tydfil.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. Early in 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that it intended to close many of its offices, sites, and jobcentres across the UK. About 250 staff work in the DWP office in Merthyr Tydfil town centre, and they clearly make a contribution to spending in the community and our town centre. The office is well established and is close to the town centre, so our local economy would really notice the loss of this large workplace.
Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen, Lab): I have a very similar situation in Cwmbran town centre, as Cwmbran pension centre makes that type of contribution. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is economically illiterate to take such jobs out of local economies across the valleys?
Gerald Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree with his point, and will comment on that further in the course of my contribution.
Job opportunities for local people would be limited if the DWP pulls out of Merthyr Tydfil. Such a proposal goes against what I believe the Government should be doing: helping to support local communities, the local economy and local jobs. The proposed move could mean services being more difficult to access for claimants and hundreds of jobs being moved out of deprived communities, where every job counts. In 2008, the Welsh Government moved several of their Departments out of Cardiff and located one of their regional offices in Merthyr Tydfil, bringing secure jobs to the town and supporting the local economy. The UK Government would do well to follow the Welsh Government’s example in that and, if I may say, many other areas.
If the closure goes ahead, the potential loss of jobs and incomes in the town would have a huge impact on Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding communities across the heads of the valleys.
Wayne David (Caerphilly, Lab): A number of towns throughout south Wales will be affected similarly to Merthyr Tydfil. I refer in particular to Caerphilly, where the local authority has told me that retailers and businesses will be hit badly if the DWP moves its office out of Caerphilly to Treforest.
Gerald Jones: I agree with my hon. Friend. His point, similar to that made by other colleagues, highlights the fact that many towns across the south Wales valleys are in a similar position. Their local economies are supported by such jobs, and any move to remove them would be detrimental.
Jessica Morden (Newport East, Lab): My hon. Friend talks about the valleys. Does he agree that Newport is also affected? We are very proud of the civil service jobs we have in Newport; there are hundreds at Sovereign House, the DWP office. Does my hon. Friend agree that in a drive to centralise the Government are overlooking the importance of local jobs and local expertise from local people? That would be lost, given the travel difficulties that people are experiencing getting to Treforest.
Gerald Jones: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I see Newport as part of the south Wales economic area. Job losses in that community would have a similar effect there as they do in other areas across south Wales.
Nick Thomas-Symonds: To highlight the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), I have constituents who commute to Sovereign House in Newport who will now face disrupted travel from having to go so much further to Treforest, rather than down the road to Newport.
Gerald Jones: Again, my hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I will come on to some of the travel pressures that I have recently experienced myself.
As I said, the closure would have an impact on the surrounding communities across the heads of the valleys —an area trying its best to regenerate itself amid ongoing austerity pressures, which have created a difficult financial situation for our area.
Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North, Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In my constituency, in Gabalfa, the DWP office is set to close. Does he agree that such job losses take away something very valuable from our local communities? There is a lack of understanding from the Government on the transport challenges that will be faced by my constituents and many other people across the south Wales valleys.
Gerald Jones: The geography of south Wales is quite unique and daily people have to navigate the transport difficulties to which my hon. Friends have alluded on a daily basis. There are huge difficulties in access across valleys and from parts of south Wales to others and the transport links need to be addressed.
If the closures go ahead, they will decimate the economies of town centres across south-east Wales—town centres that are already struggling to cope. The DWP is planning to relocate staff to a site that, until last week, was known only as “north of Cardiff”. Last week, we had confirmation that it has signed a lease for a site on Treforest industrial estate. It was probably the worst-kept secret, but anyway it has now been confirmed.
In January, I and my Welsh Assembly colleague, Dawn Bowden AM, along with members of the PCS union, undertook an early morning journey on public transport to the proposed new site. It proved that to get to the new location by public transport will, for some existing employees, involve travel by train and bus, and walking a distance through a poorly lit industrial estate, which will undoubtedly be a major challenge in the winter months. The journey took all of two hours.
The site has poor access from the nearest train station along a narrow road with no pavement and my understanding is that it will have 1,700 full-time equivalent roles, but initial observations show that the car parking provision would be limited. There is a clear expectation that members of staff will travel by public transport, but it is also clear that many would find it extremely difficult to make that daily journey by public transport. Some members of staff already commute long distances to get to their workplace in Merthyr Tydfil as a result of previous DWP workforce reorganisations. Having to travel even further would, in many cases, cause hardship.
The construction of a brand new building with a view to lowering costs seems a little confused. In many communities across south-east Wales, there is an opportunity to look at existing buildings, which would undoubtedly have a competitive financial case and retain jobs and viable office space in town centres. Alternatively, if a large employer such as the DWP pulls out of town centres, buildings such as the former tax office in Merthyr Tydfil, which closed nearly a decade ago, will remain empty and become dilapidated over time, often becoming a blight on the local community and impacting heavily on the wider public purse in the medium to long term.
UK Government offices are currently based in a number of towns in south Wales, supporting local jobs and economies. I am bound to highlight the opportunities that exist in Merthyr Tydfil. The option of retaining current jobs and having an enhanced presence is more than worthy of consideration. The current DWP office in Merthyr Tydfil is well-established and the staff turnover rate is low. Many employees have worked in that location for a long time and are committed to providing a good service to the public, and the local jobs market means that vacancies in Merthyr Tydfil are filled quickly and applicants remain in jobs. The DWP office is modern and has space for additional staff. Traffic congestion coming into Merthyr Tydfil at peak times is minimal in comparison with larger towns and cities and would mean that staff and customers would gain easy access, whether for employment or accessing the service.
I hope the Minister will comment on the concerns I have raised. Has the DWP yet undertaken an equality impact assessment regarding members of staff? DWP announced the proposed closure of Merthyr Tydfil benefit centre along with others in the south Wales area, yet, to date, local, district and senior managers state that equality impact assessments have not been completed or even commissioned. I received a letter in July last year from the then Minister for Employment, stating that an equality analysis was due to take place, so I would be extremely disappointed and annoyed if, after nearly 12 months, that had not happened. I cannot understand how the decision to close a site that provides quality jobs in such a deprived area of south Wales can be made without an equality impact assessment being carried out and its findings being considered. Surely carrying out an impact assessment on such a move is an essential first step.
An announcement was recently made that staff on fixed-term appointments in Merthyr Tydfil benefits centre will not have their contracts renewed, meaning that there will be at least 40 fewer staff by the end of the year. Yet the work will still need to be processed. Staff at the centre are concerned that current workloads will be exported to other sites, some possibly outside of Wales. They are concerned that something is being kept from them. Does the DWP have plans to close the site earlier than originally announced?
Carolyn Harris (Swansea East, Lab): Just last week, Virgin Media announced its intention to close a flagship site in my constituency of Swansea East, with the potential loss of 770 jobs. Jobcentre Plus will be the first port of call for all of those people who will be seeking new opportunities. Does my hon. Friend agree that any attempt to minimise local access to Jobcentre Plus can only add to the fear and frustration of those vulnerable people, who are already very fearful for their futures?
Gerald Jones: I wholeheartedly agree. My hon. Friend’s point reinforces the point about having access to quality jobs and services in local communities.
The plans for the Merthyr Tydfil office have caused real concern in my community. The workforce are clearly concerned. The local and regional branches of the PCS union have raised objections. I and a number of Parliamentary colleagues from across south-east Wales have raised concerns. My Welsh Assembly colleague Dawn Bowden and many of her Welsh Assembly colleagues have raised concerns. Local traders and employers in the town are also concerned.
Although the Minister may ignore some of those concerns, I feel sure that he would not wish to ignore the concerns of the newest Conservative Association in the UK, the Merthyr and Rhymney Conservative Association, which stated in March that it also objects to the relocation of those jobs. I understand that the association has written to the Minister to raise its objections:
“Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney Conservatives are against this move as we believe the 200 jobs should be kept locally and not moved down the valley. We believe this would have a negative impact on workers by increasing commuting times and adding extra travel costs which would impact their cost of living.”
The deputy chairman for membership also said,
“I believe the proposed move of the DWP office to Treforest will have a detrimental effect on the current 200 strong workforce. I am a strong believer in the idea that local jobs should be for local people hence why we have contacted the minister in a bid to get him to re-think this decision which could potentially have a wide impact on the wider economy.”
Perhaps the Minister will share his response and confirm whether he agrees with his Conservative colleagues.
I have serious concerns that such huge changes for staff and customers are being taken forward at a time when universal credit is about to be rolled out in the area. Universal credit has proved to be challenging in many other areas. For the staff to be worried about their future while dealing with a major policy change is not a constructive or a timely mix.
Will the Minister confirm whether an equality analysis has been carried out regarding Merthyr Tydfil benefit centre? The DWP prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive employer and has many disabled and vulnerable workers. As we know, the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 requires public authorities, including Government Departments such as DWP, to consider the potential impact on people with protected characteristics when making policy decisions and delivering services. The PCS union has been vocal in demanding that a full equality impact assessment and health and safety review be carried out.
Why is the DWP ignoring the Government’s green policy, which is trying to reduce the number of cars on the road, by relocating service centres to an industrial estate with poor public transport links? Why is the DWP ignoring the Welsh Government and the TUC’s “Better jobs in local areas” campaign by relocating away from local communities to centralised locations in cities or remote industrial areas?
Finally, why is the DWP suddenly not renewing the contracts of staff on fixed-term contracts, leaving sections decimated and unable to function? Is it planning to close the site earlier than announced? I would be grateful for the Minister’s answers to those queries in the hope that he can quell some of the concern, anxiety and growing anger about the decision, which does nothing to support local town centres and economies, or to protect local jobs.