On Thursday 17th March DWP announced their intention to close 41 offices, following a previous decision in 2017 that declared many of these workplaces “transitional” and at risk of closure.
Despite this threat hanging over our members for the best part of 5 years, the announcements last Thursday still came as a huge shock to those on the receiving end of this devastating news and left a number of long standing PCS members in tears.
There is simply no justification for these closures, which are based on an out of date and failed strategy of the DWP Executive Team.
During the early months of the pandemic and throughout 2020 the department, despite the outstanding efforts of our members and other DWP colleagues, struggled to deal with the economic fallout from the greatest public health crisis in generations. Large scale overtime and a myriad of easements in the benefits process helped deliver record levels of payments with 3 million new claims processed and fast tracked. It was Left Unity negotiators who pressed DWP to suspend conditionality and sanctions during those crucial early months to aid that recovery, while still demanding even more was done. It was painfully obvious to many of us that the strategy of office closures from 2017 had left a gaping hole in the DWP estate that would stretch capacity to the limit in the event of a national crisis. If proof were needed, that came in the form of the Covid19 pandemic as we saw DWP clammering to purchase hundreds of temporary sites to fill the void left by their own office closure programme three years earlier.
The Left Unity leadership in the group have been quick to point out the dangers of the employer blindly rushing ahead with a further plan of closures at a time when the need for DWPs services and their ability to support some of the most vulnerable in society, is still to be fully tested. A closure programme, that will once again make the DWP more vulnerable in its ability to deal with an economic crisis, but also a programme that places vital public services, members jobs and local economies in serious danger.
Political ideology placed ahead of members and the public
These office closures and the risk to our members jobs are a classic example of political ideology being placed above service delivery. How else can the employer explain recruitment in the hundreds to process mounting workloads, while at the same time risking the loss of thousands of years of combined experience of those facing redundancy due to these closures?
Many of the staff affected by last Thursday’s announcements have dedicated decades to public service, and during the bleak and challenging times of the past two years have delivered like never before. Our members lauded and applauded without proper reward, and now thanked for their loyal service with an uncertain, even precarious, future.
Their crime? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, their offices deemed surplus to requirement, not due to reducing or stagnating workloads, but because the ideology of the Government’s Estates strategy is to centralise work into a number of larger premises in fewer towns and cities. No thought or care has been given to the danger this poses to the livelihoods of our members, their families or to local businesses.
Members need a strong union response – not sectarian electioneering
In the 30 plus years I’ve worked in this department in its various guises, the threat posed by these office closures to our members jobs and the services they provide, is as serious as I can recall.
The Left Unity-led leadership on the DWP Group Executive Committee has laid out clearly our opposition to this attack on members jobs and launched a campaign against all of the closures.
It is therefore disappointing – though sadly no longer surprising – that just when we need unity and to work together to win this campaign, the most recent article from the Socialist Party seeks to sow division within the group and fabricates a narrative aimed at undermining the elected leadership in DWP.
Accusations that the Left Unity dominated leadership has failed to make clear our opposition to these proposals, or that the group officers have hidden behind members devastated by these proposed closures rather than provide the leadership necessary, is contemptible. Seeking to create division and disillusionment are tactics more commonly associated with opponents of the trade union movement, including those that have infiltrated organisations such as ours in the past. We cannot allow those same tactics to creep into our group or union, now or at any time in the future.
We must fight to stop these closures and defend jobs
The GEC of the 15th March unanimously agreed 12 recommendations to launch our campaign against the closures. All three political factions represented on the GEC were present at the meeting, including members of the SP, and the paper and all of the recommendations contained within it were fully supported.
While it is an unfortunate reality that the GEC could not be present at all 41 sites, we ensured a GEC physical presence at the sites that carry the greatest risk of redundancy; attempts were also made to alert as many other branches as possible ahead of the announcement.
The GEC is committed to continued support to all branches following the announcements themselves, and in a members briefing issued minutes after the embargo was lifted last Thursday committed to “[…] campaigning against all closures, organising an online meeting of all DWP branches […], asking branches to take soundings on member’s willingness to take industrial action, and for the GEC to provide ongoing support to all branches with a closure site.”
As the announcements were made, we immediately began our parliamentary campaign and will be issuing press releases, we will be doing all we can to resist the closure of these offices.
In the week since the announcement, our campaign has received good media coverage and generated a large amount of political interest. PCS reps and members have been contacting and meeting with MPs and the e-action that has been launched in the last day or so must be used to increase the pressure on Therese Coffey and the Government to reverse these plans.
Next week, the group lead a parliamentary briefing, followed by a meeting of all DWP branches next Thursday (31st March).
We have made a good start to the campaign but I have no doubt that we must agitate for, and build towards, an industrial response if we are to win and prevent thousands of job losses.
Members’ livelihoods, vital public services and local economies will be saved or lost depending on how successful we are in the weeks and months ahead, and are at stake in the here and now; but this may well be the tip of the iceberg and a much broader review of DWP offices, including Jobcentres, cannot be ruled out in the not too distant future.
Many might say the future of social security provision in this country is ultimately being decided here and I would agree. We owe it to our forebears, as well as the society of tomorrow, to do everything in our power to defend it.
PCS Group President
(in a personal capacity)