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Mike Wood: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on the closure of the offices in my constituency, which will affect many of his constituents. Does he agree that the success of the surge and rapid response team at the Waterfront demonstrates exactly the kind of modern capabilities that would add so much to delivering universal credit, and that the redeployment should be reconsidered, whether with DWP or with other bodies, to make use of the existing staff and skills at the Waterfront?
Ian Austin Labour, Dudley North
The hon. Gentleman is completely right. I will make that point later. These are highly skilled, highly trained staff, who are very experienced in dealing with complex benefits. No better group of people could be employed for the introduction of universal credit. That is the case we are making to Ministers tonight and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is here to do so, too. I very much hope that Ministers will listen to and consider the argument over the next few weeks.
That is a really important point, because for staff in Merry Hill the closure will present grave difficulties. A high proportion of them have caring responsibilities which would make the journey to Birmingham impossible; I have spoken to mothers in exactly that position. A number of the staff came from offices that closed in the 1990s, and the journeys would make such a move impossible or impractical for them. The recent closure of the office in Walsall left more than half the staff without jobs, and the closure in Worcester is affecting nine out of 10 staff, who now face voluntary or compulsory redundancy; the majority of those staff have caring responsibilities.
HMRC insists that 90% of staff will have a job in the centres, despite the fact that all the closures so far have resulted in much higher job losses. The loss of these skilled and hard-working staff is very risky and it contradicts recommendations made by Committees of this House, which have called for a halt to the office closure process. Staff in Merry Hill believe that the DWP explanation that it has sufficient staff for universal credit to work properly flies in the face of all the current information we have about this complex new benefit’s introduction, as we heard a moment ago. Staff who work there are highly skilled: they have dealt with tax credits work since those were introduced, and they are helping with the changeover to UC from tax credits already. They were also stunned that the DWP vacancies were not even considered when the announcement was originally made.
Another point that I know will be of interest to Mike Wood is that the office is in the middle of a recently announced enterprise zone, DY5, and the roles undertaken by HMRC staff completely fit into the Government’s vision for this enterprise zone. This brings me to my final point, which is about unemployment in Dudley.
Mike Wood: I shall keep my comments very brief. As the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) has said, these proposals are particular and differ from many of the wider reorganisation proposals for HMRC. Some very specific plans were put in place—the workforce at HMRC in Merry Hill were consulted and told that staff would be transferred from the tax credits team to the Department for Work and Pensions to work on universal credit delivery. That was thought to be the position two months ago, but suddenly, out of the blue, the proposals changed. It came as a shock to HMRC staff based at the Waterfront and to their representatives—both those in the trade union movement and their elected representatives.
The hon. Gentleman set out some very good reasons why the Government should look again at how we can maintain and retain both the staff and the facilities at the Waterfront. The skills provided there are absolutely first class and would be a credit to any part of the civil service that could make use of them. As I mentioned earlier, the surge and rapid response team that has been operating out of the Waterfront—originally from HMRC and the passport service—has shown the adaptability of the teams that are based there. There is no doubt that the tax credit team could similarly transfer and provide a fantastic service, whether it is in conjunction with DWP, other parts of HMRC or Her Majesty’s Treasury.
The Waterfront is a growth area. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the DY5 enterprise zone that many of us worked so hard to secure. On top of that, we have the new tram links connecting to that enterprise zone, which—I almost said coincidentally, but it is almost tragically—is due to open at almost exactly the time when these jobs are scheduled to be taken away from the Waterfront.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to look again at both the content of these proposals and the timetable for them, to see whether the Government are doing absolutely everything they can to find the right way to make full use of the fantastic talent that we have at HMRC at the Waterfront, to give employees the certainty that they need, to retain the skills and experience that we need in the civil service, and to set an awful lot of minds at rest in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Dudley North.