The vast majority of the 700-plus Jobcentre redundancies announced this week by the Department for Work and Pensions will be back-office roles, secretary of state David Gauke has told parliament.
Answering an urgent question about DWP’s latest update on its estates rationalisation programme yesterday, Gauke sought to reassure MPs that the quality of service provided to the unemployed by the programme – under which more than 70 Jobcentres will close – would improve.
However his redundancies answer added weight to predictions from the PCS union that compulsory job losses will be inevitable as back-office roles move to new regional hubs.
Gauke said “only a small minority” of the 750 redundancies were likely to be among frontline Jobcentre staff.
“We are probably looking at a range of 80 to 100 or so – I do not want to be too precise about that, but that is the maximum we are looking at, and we hope to be able to bring it down,” he said.
“The fact is that the reforms take account of the changes in the welfare system resulting from the rolling out of the Universal Credit full service.
“It is absolutely right that we make use of the fact that it is the end of a contract and take the opportunity to find savings.
“We can find savings in the DWP’s estate and, at the same time, provide modern, up-to-date Jobcentres that provide the service that is needed.”
Gauke insisted that the number of Jobcentre staff would increase as the changes took effect, and that DWP was actively recruiting in many areas, with “work coaches” an area of growth.
DWP is targeting annual savings of £140m over the next decade, starting from the end of its current PRIME estates PFI deal with Telereal Trillium, under which it rents hundreds of properties.
On Wednesday, Gauke announced that six sites originally proposed for closure in January had been granted a reprieve, but further locations that had originally been expected to remain open have now been earmarked to shut.
MPs taking part in the debate expressed concerns that benefits claimants whose current Jobcentres closed would be subject to new sanctions if unreliable public transport connections made them late for their signing-on slots at the new centres they were allocated.
Gauke said people looking for jobs were expected to spend 35 hours a week doing so, meaning that longer travel times to new Jobcentres should not be an issue, but he said DWP would look at “any mitigating factors” when people missed appointments.
So far, staff at the closure-threatened Sheffield Eastern Avenue Jobcentre have been the strongest opponents of DWP’s estates plans, with a series of strike action taken last month and a further week of protest due later this month.
Gauke insisted that closing the centre was the right move.
“The number of Jobcentres in Sheffield is being reduced from seven to six, but in the context of that city that is the right move so that we have got six properly functioning, fully utilised centres rather than more,” he said.
Some 13 DWP premises still have a question mark hanging over their future as part of the estates programme. Wednesday’s announcement said negotiations with landlords were ongoing.