THE government has still not decided the fate of Jobcentres in Scotland’s biggest city almost two months after a consultation closed, it has emerged.
It provoked outcry from opponents, with critics claiming the city was being used as testing ground for a wider closure programme.
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Public pressure led the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to put three of the closures out to consultation to determine their fate. The three – Bridgeton, Castlemilk and Maryhill – were chosen due their distance from other centres, and the consultation closed at the end of January.
When Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green was questioned on the subject by a joint meeting of Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee and Holyrood’s Social Security Committee yesterday, he revealed officials still have not ruled on their future.
He said: “We have yet to come to a final conclusion. If I can ask everyone to be patient for a short time. The idea that Glasgow is being treated differently is simply factually wrong.”
Critics hit out at the potential loss of 50 per cent of the city’s Jobcentre estate, when other parts of the UK are facing a 20 per cent loss.
One in ten sites across Britain will go as part of efforts to cut £180 million from the department’s spend on offices. The change will affect another 16 Scottish centres, affecting areas including Port Glasgow, Benbecula, Grangemouth and Alexandria.
The DWP says the programme is in response to the growth in online services and will result in better value for the taxpayer.
Staff from all affected Glasgow branches, including those in Anniesland and Langside, have been told their jobs will relocate to other offices, with no redundancies expected.
Yesterday Green said the city would still be better served than “other cities with comparable populations around the country, including Bristol and Leeds”.
Meanwhile, when pressed on the prospects for about 80 workers at a DWP administration centre set to close in Cumnock, East Ayrshire, he said: “We are not looking for any compulsory redundancies in this. We want staff to move around if they want to. We have a huge footprint all over the place. We’ll still have more than 80 centres in Scotland at the end of this process. This is not a way of cutting jobs. As a department, we are recruiting at the moment.”
Green said some of the £180m annual saving could be used to employ more work coaches, including some who could visit disabled people at home.
However, Scotland’s Social Security Secretary Angela Constance said the public must be asked about how the cuts will impact on them before the changes take place.
The pair were called before the committees to discuss the devolution of welfare powers, with all 13 areas to transfer by next month.
The wide-ranging session covered areas including the benefits cap, the bedroom tax and the switch to Universal Credit, which replaces several benefits.
Concerns were raised about the build up of substantial rent arrears by recipients in the Highlands, one of the first areas where Universal Credit has gone live.
The committees heard that average arrears hit £900 in the region after the switch happened, taking recipients from weekly to monthly benefits.
Delays in the system have also seen many applicants wait six weeks for their first payment.
Constance said: “We are deeply concerned about some of the implications of the roll-out of Universal Credit. If I had to pick my number one concern, it would be the six-week period. I can’t understand why there is a six-week wait to process an application. It is just not right. It’s the type of situation that will push people into poverty. It will have an impact on rent arrears.”
Green said the delays were “certainly not” caused by a lack of staff, explaining: “One of the points about Universal Credit is that it seeks to replace as far as possible the sort of financial life that people have if they’re in work.
“Most people are paid monthly. For the first payment, there needs to be a period where the application is validated. That’s why it may well go a bit beyond a month.”
Green said his department was learning from issues raised in the first phases of the roll-out.
He said some of the arrears may come as a result of the shift from weekly to monthly payments, impacting on landlords who receive one rent cheque instead of the four they have come to expect.
The minister predicted that arrears levels would reduce within “three or four months” as people adjusted to the shift.