The "vast majority" of staff affected by the DWP's office closure programme will be given the chance to relocate, minister Caroline Nokes has said, as MPs from across the political spectrum urged the department to rethink its plans.
The work and pensions department last week confirmed that more than 130 Jobcentre and back office sites have been earmarked for closure as the ministry presses ahead with its Spending Review 2015 pledge to shrink its estate by 20%.
According to the DWP, 78 of the Jobcentres in line to be closed will be merged with larger centres, while new sites will open in 50 locations – although many of those will be co-located with existing council services.
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The DWP says the programme will save £180m a year over the next decade, but the Public and Commercial Services union has vowed to "vigorously" oppose the programme, which it says will lead to unemployed claimants having to travel further to receive vital support.
The plans were the subject of an urgent question in the House of Commons on Monday, with Scottish National Party MP Ronnie Cowan – whose Inverclyde constituency will be affected by the proposed closures – saying that reducing the DWP's footprint would have "a profound impact on thousands of people desperately seeking work and the support to which they are entitled".
"This should be far more than a spreadsheet exercise," he said.
"I would ask the minister to put people first. Many Jobcentre staff work hard to build good working relationships with the service users. They are aware of specific issues and needs."
Nokes told MPs that the decision to shrink the DWP estate, which comes ahead of a series of contract renewals, had been prompted both by rising employment rates and the increasing use of the internet by claimants.
"The rollout of Universal Credit and our reforms of Jobcentre plus have increased the number of digital interactions claimants now have with us," she said.
"Eight out of 10 claims for Jobseekers' allowance are now made online and 99.6% of applicants for Universal Credit full service submitted their claim online.
"This has resulted in the DWP buildings being used much less. Twenty percent of the DWP estate is currently under-utilised."
Nokes said the savings generated by the office closure programme would be used to fund a recruitment drive to hire "2,500 new work coaches", bolstering the numbers of frontline advisers who are tasked with helping claimants find work as well as setting conditions for the ongoing receipt of benefits.
"Of course, DWP staff will be consulted about these changes and the vast majority will have the option to relocate or will be offered alternative roles," the minister vowed.
"For any vulnerable claimants that may be affected, we will put in place robust procedures, such as offering home visits or maintaining a claim by post to make sure they get the support they need."
But the proposals were also questioned by Conservative MPs, with Shipley's Philip Davies urging the DWP to "look again" and Calder Valley's Craig Whittaker warning that plans to relocate his local Jobcentre would be "a disaster to those longterm unemployed that rely on it for job advice and training".
Labour's Margaret Greenwood meanwhile questioned the DWP's claim that online services could act as a substitute for ace-to-face contact with an adviser.
"The government's hope seems to be that Universal Credit claims will be made and managed online," she said.
"But many people are not confident using IT and they may not have access to a PC, laptop or tablet.
"What provision will be made for claimants who have difficulty using PCs and the internet in those areas where a job centre is earmarked for closure?
"These plans are simply not thought through and will have a damaging impact on the way that vital employment support is provided. The government should think again."
The stormy political reaction to the DWP's announcement echoes that faced by HM Revenue and Customs when it announced its own office closure programme in 2015. The tax authority is part-way through a move from 170 offices to just 13 regional sites, a plan that has provoked sharp criticism from MPs in affected constituencies.