Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Sir Robert Devereux has sought to reassure MPs about the DWP's looming programme of Jobcentre closures, amid signs that the plans could face stiff political opposition.
The DWP confirmed last month that it is to close more than 130 Jobcentre and back office sites as part of efforts to cut the size of its estate by 20%. The programme will include merging smaller Jobcentres with larger sites, and co-locating some offices with existing local authority services.
But the plans were the subject of a stormy debate in the House of Commons last week, with MPs from across the political spectrum, including Conservatives, warning that they risked reducing access to vital employment services.
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Scottish National Party MP Ronnie Cowan – whose Inverclyde constituency will be affected by the proposed closures – took the opportunity to press the DWP's top official on the closure programme during a heading of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Responding, Devereux pointed out that the DWP's current estates contracts, which are set to expire shortly, had been signed when the department – which now has around 83,000 full-time staff – had been far larger in size.
"When I first came to the department in the mid-90s we had 165,000 staff and a contract that had already been running for buildings for ten years," he explained.
"That contract runs out now and we think that by having fewer buildings, which we've just announced, we will save on average £180m every single year for a decade – that's £1.8bn to you and me."
The DWP chief said the move to shutter Jobcentres and back office sites was "not about losing any staff", echoing minister Caroline Nokes' vow last week that the "vast majority" of DWP employees will be given the option to relocate or take on alternative roles.
"I'm not intending to lose staff in this process," Devereux told the committee. "I'm simply trying to make sure I've got the right amount of carpets to accommodate staff, and to have the right amount of front-facing retail presence."
He added: "We're not in the business of trying to make life more difficult for anybody. But you know, you can't sit on an estate that's too big and not do something about it.
"We have a chance to do it now as the 20 year contract runs out. It's a perfectly rational thing to do and ministers are aware of it, I've done a lot of the detail on it. I've stood in the offices in Scotland, some of which are closing, and explained the position and colleagues understand that too."
Figures published last week by the Cabinet Office show that the Department for Work and Pensions remains the government ministry with the largest estate, holding some 1.5 million sqm of office space.