Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on the Department for Work and Pensions offices in Merthyr Tydfil.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing this important debate.
The level of employment in the United Kingdom is at a record high. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the employment rate is 70.1%—an increase of 7 percentage points since 2010. That trend has been replicated across Wales as a whole, where the employment rate has increased by 5.8 percentage points since 2010, and now stands at 73%. I know that all hon. Members will welcome those jobs figures.
It may be helpful if I explain the background to the changes in the DWP estate, which have led to this issue. In March 2018, the 20-year contract covering the majority of the DWP’s current estate of more than 900 sites came to an end, which gave us a significant opportunity to re-evaluate what we need from our estate, taking into account the impact of universal credit, the increased use of online services and the improving employment rates. It is therefore right that we reconfigure our Jobcentre estate and make jobcentres fit for the 21st century. This is not about reducing services; it is about taking the opportunity to stop spending money on empty space, so we can spend more on supporting those in need.
In July 2017, we announced our plans for the majority of sites in the DWP estate. As part of that, we announced that five sites in south Wales, all with a focus on back-of-house activities, including Merthyr Tydfil, would be moving to a new single strategic processing site from 2021. As the hon. Gentleman outlined, the current office in Merthyr Tydfil is a mixed site, with a customer-facing Jobcentre and a back-of-house processing function. I can confirm our intention is to keep the current site in Merthyr Tydfil for the next three years. Thereafter we will transfer the back-of-house staff to our new consolidated site for back-of-house operations, which, as the hon. Gentleman noted, we recently formally confirmed will be in Treforest.
Will the Minister confirm what conversations he has had with the Welsh Government about the closure of those centres and the moving of the office to another site?
I will talk about the Welsh Government in a moment.
By choosing Treforest, we will be securing quality jobs for the next generation in an area that still lags in terms of employment rates. The hon. Lady talked about the Welsh Government, and the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney talked about following the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government recently set out their “Our Valleys, Our Future” strategy. Their ambition is to see more public sector jobs relocated to the south Wales valleys, and we believe our investment in Treforest demonstrates our commitment to that. The announcement of the move to Treforest was welcomed by Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council.
Does the Minister recognise that the Welsh Assembly’s “Our Valleys, Our Future” strategy is about bringing new jobs to the south Wales valleys, not relocating jobs from existing communities, thus decimating the economies of those town centres?
Of course, the Welsh Government’s Welsh Revenue Authority has also chosen to base itself in Treforest. The DWP’s site is able to house 1,700 jobs, which is more than the number of people who are moving, so there is the potential to locate more new jobs at that site in the future. I know hon. Members are keen on that, and of course I support it.
Will the Minister answer my initial question? What conversations has he had with Welsh Government Ministers about this move?
I have been in post for a number of months, and I personally have not had a direct conversation with my Welsh counterparts, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady after this debate to set out the conversations that have been had with the Welsh Government. As I say, with this move we are supporting the strategy that the Welsh Government have set out for additional jobs in the valleys.
Does the Minister accept that those jobs are being moved from the heads of the valleys area—the north—to the south towards Cardiff? It is the area around Merthyr, and further east towards Tredegar, Ebbw Vale and Brynmawr, where jobs are needed most.
When we make changes to the estate, of course we have to take into account the impact on jobs, but new jobs in other areas will be created as a result, and it must be balanced with the savings we will get as a result of the reconfiguration of the DWP estate. That money will be ploughed back into helping those most in need.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me continue for a little while.
In arriving at Treforest as the new site, we conducted a comprehensive postcode mapping exercise of the home locations of all potentially affected DWP colleagues. I have a set of figures for how long it will take individuals located in the five sites to reach Treforest by public transport. The latest personal travel report published by the Welsh Government—I think it is from 2013—set out that eight out of 10 journeys to work are by car. The proportion has remained broadly unchanged for 10 years. The timings I have been given suggest that the journey times will be about 20 to 25 minutes in most cases—perhaps less.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. Has he actually been to the south Wales valleys?
Certainly not during my time as a Minister in this role.
There is a train station at the edge of the estate, where the new site will be. We understand that the Welsh Government have ambitious plans to enhance the transport links throughout south Wales, and that they will further improve access to Treforest, which is one of their key priority areas for the south Wales metro. We will work closely with colleagues in the Welsh Government and the local council on those transport solutions.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney said that there is insufficient parking space at Treforest. The DWP has made provision for substantial car parking on site to complement the park-and-ride development led by the Welsh Government.
Based on current estimates, moving our back-of-house functions to Treforest will impact about 239 DWP staff in Merthyr Tydfil. As part of the move, we want to maximise the retention of DWP colleagues, along with their valuable skills and experience. To do that, we will consult fully with colleagues and trade unions and have one-to-one conversations with staff to understand the personal impact of any changes on them.
Has the DWP made any objective assessment of the impact that moving people out of a number of communities will have on those communities?
The question was asked in terms of the staff who will be required to move, as I said, although we did do a postcode mapping exercise. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney also asked about the impact on claimants, but a jobcentre will continue to be located in Merthyr Tydfil—I confirm that again.
We shall seek to redeploy any staff, wherever possible, who are unable to move to the new location. We are also prepared to pay colleagues’ excess travel costs for up to three years to assist their transition. When it comes to the front-of-house staff, as I said, I reassure Members that we are committed to retaining a jobcentre in Merthyr Tydfil, so in terms of the impact on claimants, it should be minimal, because there will still be a jobcentre there. We are looking for alternative premises, and we want to be in the new location by the end of March 2021.
The Minister mentioned the discussions with staff and the impact assessments for those staff. Will he give us more information as to when those impact assessments are likely to take place? As I said, it would have been advantageous to the Department for that to have been done before the final decision was made—a case of the proverbial stable door being bolted after the horse has gone. Will he give us some indication of when the assessments are likely to take place?
We are talking about a move three years from now so, clearly, informal conversations will start now—that would be natural—and staff will be evaluating where they want to be located. We expect the formal process, however, to start nine months before the actual move. The reason for that is simple: individual circumstances may change during the period leading up to a move, so we want to deal with people and their circumstances in real time.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of equality impact assessments, and I confirm that we have been mindful of our equalities duties throughout the process. The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) asked me whether I had visited any of the sites. I said that I had not. I confirm that I have visited Newport jobcentre but not any of the back-office sites due to be relocated to Treforest.
The move from the existing site at Merthyr Tydfil will be a change for the Department and for our claimants and staff. By choosing Treforest, however, the DWP is making a long-term commitment to providing quality jobs in an area of need. In securing the site on a 25-year lease, we shall provide job security for our staff. We are also committed, as I said, to retaining a jobcentre in Merthyr Tydfil itself.