Nick Thomas-Symonds MP intervened in a debate on July 19 2017. Mr Thomas-Symonds MP asked the Employment Minister, Mr Damian Hinds MP, whether he can confirm “whether any assessment has been undertaken of the effect on the Torfaen economy of the removal of those jobs from Cwmbran? If one has been, is he willing to share it with me?”

Please see below the exchange between Mr Thomas-Symonds MP and Mr Damian Hinds MP.

 

The Minister for Employment (Damian Hinds)

That is something we share, Mr Bailey. It is a delight to see you in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing this important debate about the closure of Sovereign House—an office of the Department for Work and Pensions—in his constituency. I thank him for his powerful words about the contribution made by the civil servants who work in Newport and elsewhere.

The Government are committed to building a country that works for everyone. We seek to protect the most vulnerable while supporting everyone to fulfil their potential and play their full part in society. That includes reforming the welfare system to make work pay, and examining our assets to ensure we are deploying our resources effectively.

As colleagues know, the private finance initiative contract with Telereal Trillium expires in March 2018. That gives us the opportunity—in fact, the imperative—to review which offices we will need in the future and how our estate will be managed. We have sought to deliver value for the taxpayer and make best use of the space available, while continuing to provide vital support to claimants and pursuing our reform agenda. In January, we announced proposals to rationalise the DWP estate. Those proposals encompassed most of our Jobcentre Plus offices and processing centres.

Nick Thomas-Symonds

My Torfaen constituency is adjacent to the two Newport constituencies. As the Minister is aware, there is a proposal to relocate the jobs that are currently at the Cwmbran pension centre down to Treforest. Can the Minister confirm whether any assessment has been undertaken of the effect on the Torfaen economy of the removal of those jobs from Cwmbran? If one has been, is he willing to share it with me?

​Damian Hinds

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will come on in due course to the rationale for creating the new facility, which, as he said, will be at a site in the Treforest area, and the effect on the five places whose staff will feed into it, including Newport.

The announcement on 5 July finalised the plans to rationalise the DWP estate, which include merging some smaller and underutilised jobcentres, moving some to new buildings or shared Government premises, and creating larger strategic back-office sites. The changes will enable the Department to offer a more efficient service while delivering value for the taxpayer, and will save more than £140 million a year over the next 10 years.

Eight out of 10 claims for jobseeker’s allowance, and 99% of applications for universal credit full service, are now made online. That, together with the lower unemployment rates, means that there are fewer face-to-face initial meetings, and that some of the space is under-utilised. Our plans reflect how customers interact with the Department today. The changes are not about a reduction in frontline jobcentre staff. On the contrary, jobcentres are actively recruiting staff. The changes are being made in consultation with DWP employees and the trade unions. That will help preserve the important local knowledge and community understanding held by our staff, with customer service being maintained.

We plan to maintain the vast majority of jobcentres in Wales. Three are merging into nearby sites. Upon consultation, the moves have been received positively by some staff, who will join larger teams in which they can gain new skills and experiences. I believe that in itself will result in better service for customers. We want our back-office operations to reflect the Government’s hub strategy, which aims to consolidate the delivery sites of departmental functions. However, in Wales in particular, we considered it important to retain offices away from Cardiff to preserve and grow employment in places where it is needed. It is worth mentioning that we are also growing our back-office presence at our Swansea site, which will grow to around 460 people, and at Bridgend, where our staff will eventually total around 350. All in all, our back-of-house processing presence in Wales will increase by about 20%.

Of course, the change of most significance to the hon. Member for Newport West is the opening of the large DWP office in the Treforest area, just south-east of Pontypridd, in 2020-21. That strategically placed site will enable us to merge functions from five nearby smaller processing centres, including Sovereign House in his constituency. We intend to expand services at the new site and eventually grow it to around 1,600 staff, boosting employment in the area. The building will be a modern, digitally enabled working environment.

I understand that the relocation and consolidation of offices in south Wales will cause some disruption to staff. To maximise the number of staff at those five offices who could transfer to the new site, we studied their home postcodes to help determine that site’s location. We were determined to retain staff who had built careers with us and minimise the loss of their valuable experience and expertise.

Nick Thomas-Symonds

When that postcode analysis was done, was analysis also done of the public transport options between those postcodes and the new centre?

Damian Hinds

Yes, looking at both car transport and public transport opportunities was of course part of the analysis when these changes were evaluated.

The Treforest area borders some of the most deprived areas in Wales, and choosing it supports the aim of the Welsh Government’s valleys taskforce of creating “better jobs closer to home”, which the hon. Member for Newport West cited. I met the Welsh Government’s Minister for Skills and Science last week to discuss our plans and how we will support our staff through these changes.

In March this year, there were 212 staff at Sovereign House and only about 50% of the building was in use. As I mentioned, we assessed the distance that staff would travel to work at the proposed new site. Newport is 21 miles, or a 26-minute drive, from Treforest. There is also a bus, which takes around an hour and 11 minutes. Of course, journey times will differ depending on where staff live in relation to the site.

From 2021, we will start to move staff to the new site. We want to retain Newport colleagues, along with their skills and experience, and we have deliberately chosen to phase the moves so that people have time to make decisions about their futures. We are also prepared to pay staff members’ excess travel costs for up to three years to assist their transition. Along with other Departments, the DWP will continue to be a significant employer in the area, and I expect the skills and experience of people who work at Sovereign House to be in demand. These changes to back-of-house sites will have no effect on claimants in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, as the jobcentre there will remain open.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would go into detail about the rationale for the new site, including the financial rationale. Our strategy for the new service centre in the Treforest area is to bring colleagues together at a single location, resulting in better use of space, increased efficiency in how we work, and greater opportunities for staff development and progression. However, there is also a financial rationale. Fitting out a bespoke new right-size property is better value than refurbishing our existing older properties. Although that is not necessarily universally true for all buildings, the sites in this region are particularly old.

Refurbishing older sites can have quite a high cost, as it generally entails substantial infrastructure requirements, which might include installing more lifts, air conditioning, heating, lighting, and cabling and other technology to increase bandwidth for digital services and call centres. Although we have not acquired specific refurbishment quotes for the buildings in question, industry benchmarks suggest that refurbishing all our existing buildings would cost between 50% and 100% more in fit-out than setting up a new building. Of course, such refurbishment is also disruptive both to our work and to staff. We would need to vacate a property for six to eight months and incur the cost of moving and of temporary space for that period, or move within a building multiple times to free up floors for refurbishment.

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