Dave Semple, PCS branch secretary Wigan (personal capacity)
On Thursday 17 March, 43 offices across the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were told that they are due to close.
Of these 43, thirteen sites have been told that the work they currently undertake is not going to be moved to an office nearby. This means that without a major union campaign to stop the office closures and defend jobs, redundancies are almost certain.
The remaining 30 sites have been told that their work will move to somewhere nearby. Senior managers making the announcements across DWP made reassuring noises to avoid upsetting staff. But activists think this is misleading.
How ‘nearby’ are they? Many staff could be faced with expensive, difficult and lengthy journeys. For those with carer responsibilities a move of office could destroy ‘work life’ balance and in some cases a move might prove impossible. And where there are offices close by to move both work and people to, there are questions about how much actual space is available.
I attended Chorlton Service Centre where over 400 staff are based. These workers were told they are being transferred to Anchorage House, Salford Quay, or Millennium House, Stockport. These offices are relatively close by, but this could still mean at least an extra hour a day travel. The DWP plans suggest those sites will also have to absorb staff from other closing offices, such as Oldham Jobcentre and Service Centre.
When directly asked if Stockport and Salford Quay has enough space to take all of the staff that DWP plans to move there, senior managers could not give a clear answer.
In the office where I am the union rep, Makerfield Service Centre, just outside Wigan, staff were told that the back-of-house staff from St Helen’s (about 100 staff) and a number of staff from Warrington Pension Centre (around 250 staff) would be moved to Makerfield. This is on top of 220 vacancies advertised by DWP for external recruits.
Obvious concerns about space have been raised with managers overseeing this proposed move – but there are other problems. Many of the staff who work at St Helen’s come from the Liverpool side of St Helen’s, and it is entirely possible that they will be outside of reasonable travel time to Makerfield, forcing them into expensive commutes or redundancy.
This picture is replicated around the UK, covering 1,100 staff in the 13 offices where redundancies are most likely, and around 7,000 is the remaining 30. Also at extra risk now are temporary staff in or near the affected sites, who may be treated by DWP as easy victims, let go at the end of their contracts in June, to free up space for future staff moves.
PCS DWP leadership failure – time for a change
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union leadership in DWP group had advance warning of the closures. The union’s Group Executive Committee (GEC) met on 15 March to discuss a list of closures provided by the employer, but shamefully the Left Unity GEC leadership did not arrange support for the affected sites and did not prepare branches for the announcement.
They also did not issue a clear call to oppose all the office closures and redundancies. They gave no lead whatsoever. The message should be absolutely clear: no office closures, and defend jobs, with no redundancies.
A campaign of opposition to the closures should bring out the impact of these closures, such as on local services; on those with caring responsibilities, most likely to be women, who could find the changes unsuitable and be forced to leave; and the increased pollution from the extra travel. The GEC credentials are woeful on these issues, yet again highlighted by the radio silence on these key impacts.
Walsall Service Centre, a major Universal Credit site that took industrial action in 2019 over workloads, was one of the 30 sites told that their office would close, and their site would move to Wolverhampton. No GEC member contacted the branch to support them, ahead of the announcement, to prepare them to mobilise members for what will be a tough battle.
Senior officers of the union’s GEC told reps that the GEC was “behind members” – it isn’t clear what exactly this means beyond words – but as reps affected by the announcement responded, the role of the GEC is not to hide behind members, but to lead from the front. There was simply no evidence of that when the announcements were made.
At the Group Executive Committee meeting, Socialist Party members and other socialist activists in the Broad Left Network who hold a small number of elected posts among the leadership of the union, were told about the proposed closures. They immediately proposed a major campaign, including a group-wide ballot. The majority voted this down.
Prior to the GEC meeting on 15 March and the announcements on 17 March, there are already parts of DWP facing redundancies, about which the current leadership of the union has done precious little. With closures announced in Cosham and staff already listed as unassigned in south east Wales, the lack of a serious union response is shocking.
Members across the union will already know that in February, when DWP announced that potentially thousands of Fixed Term Appointments (FTAs) would be let go at the end of their contracts in June 2022, the union’s leadership “cautiously welcomed” this news. This left ordinary branches like mine, with sister branches in Greater Manchester, to fight alone.
This is why Socialist Party members, and other socialist union reps in the Broad Left Network, are standing against the current Left Unity majority in the 2022 union elections. Left Unity holds the overwhelming majority, with over 30 posts, on the Group Executive Committee. They have failed members on safety, on pay and now on jobs and offices.
Build a DWP-wide campaign to fight for pay, jobs and offices
Despite the attempt by senior managers in many parts of the country to put the best possible spin on the 43 closure announcements, no union rep should put any faith in the department on the matter of jobs and offices. Unfortunately, given their record to date it would also be a mistake to put faith in the current GEC leadership. This is why there needs to be a change of leadership ,through electing the Broad Left Network in the April/May Group elections.
This is necessary following the GEC “cautiously welcoming” redundancies among the FTAs just because the Permanent Secretary managed to wrap it up with a nice email to all staff.
It is also necessary following last week’s office closures announcements. Senior union officers engaged in secret negotiations with the employer and neglected to prepare a serious member-led response. And regarding those closure announcements, the GEC reacted, rather than acted. Far better if they had worked with branches to call car park meetings and Zoom meetings across DWP on the day of the announcement, to seek a mandate for a group-wide ballot to escalate our battles over pay, permanency, staffing and now defending jobs, offices, equality and working conditions.
A group-wide ballot is precisely what we need
We must learn the lessons of 2017. Rightly or wrongly – and it must be noted that the demographics in the department have shifted considerably through massive recruitment since then – many offices reported there was no mood for action in 2017. The GEC, rather than attempt to build the mood, simply sat back and let individual offices strike on their own.
This approach mirrors what happened at roughly the same time in the Revenue and Customs Group within PCS, when HMRC moved towards office closures and a “hub structure”. The result of the failure to link up campaigns beyond individual sites was that many sites closed, both in DWP and in HMRC. The bigger the action, the better chance of victory.
We know what the straight route to a victory is – it is an all-members’ ballot across DWP that takes in the issues members care about. Everything we are battling with DWP over, comes back to one issue: money. Every member – no matter their area of work or grade – has a vested interest in forcing DWP to cough up for a major settlement on pay, jobs and offices.
For those members not in offices that are directly threatened right now, drawing a line here can secure an agreement as to how the 2028 Jobcentre review, announced by DWP, will proceed. If DWP is left to its own devices, this second round of closures, following the 2017 announcements, is not the end, it is just a new phase.
If thousands of jobs are cut, the burden of that work falls on anyone who is left – with work just moved around by managerial command, regardless of what current caseloads are and what staff can cope with. This has been the case at Makerfield recently, where 20,000 additional cases have simply been moved from Blackpool.
For all of us – no matter where we are based – the spiralling cost of living, including energy bills that have doubled and are likely to increase further, means a settlement on pay is needed. Linking our pay to a fight on staffing is really important, as DWP will try to argue that our pay must be held down if we want to make people permanent or avoid redundancies. We must not accept this.
Immediate work must be done now to build the confidence and consciousness of members and mount a serious campaign to defeat these proposals: to meet, discuss and vote on the proposal for a group-wide ballot taking in pay, permanency, jobs and offices.
If branches unite behind a serious programme of work to cut through the deliberately anesthetising vagueness of DWP’s official pronouncements, we can win members to a clear plan of action and take the first steps towards a decisive victory.