Mike's local job centre saved from closure
Mike lives in the New Forest, a rural area where public transport is poor, expensive and infrequent and many people find it difficult to get to their local job centre or access other services.
Proposed closure of rural job centres would undermine rural communities
Our local Waterside CAB was alarmed to read about ‘Government plans to axe job centres across the area’ in their local paper. A leaked document reported plans to close nearly all of the Job Centres in the New Forest and replace them with one centralised Jobcentre Plus office. It was quickly established that this was part of the Government’s planned rationalisation and reorganisation of the Department for Work and Pensions’ agencies.
The Prime Minister had outlined plans for 225 Jobcentre Plus offices to be opened by Spring 2003 as part of a strategy to provide a better public service for staff, clients and employers. The idea of better and more customer focused service to benefit claimants in the New Forest was welcomed. But the CAB was concerned that closing local offices would actually make it harder for people to access the service, in an area where people already faced problems getting to use the services of the Jobcentres due to the distances and cost of travel.
Meanwhile, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ had issued its own guidance on locating rural services. Policy makers were encouraged to assess the rural impact when making decisions that affect the provision of rural services. They should be aware that the cost of gaining access to public services is a particular issue for residents of rural areas, and this is especially the case for those who rely on public transport. ‘The loss of local service outlets can undermine rural community life. The closure of one service can also weaken other services in the same community or reduce demand for a local bus service’. So said Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, Minister for Rural Affairs introducing The way ahead for rural services: a good practice guide for locating rural services published in September 2002.
Our local bureau campaigned to keep the job centre open
Waterside CAB swung into action, writing to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for the Department of Work & Pensions, and other interested Ministers and MPs pointing out the potential problems of Job Centre closures in a rural area. The proposals displayed a fundamental lack of understanding of the problems faced by people on unemployment and other welfare benefits, particularly in rural areas. The closing of local Job Centres would not benefit the majority of claimants, who would be less able to access the services and would discriminate against the most disadvantaged people, causing them increased hardship and further social exclusion. People who were claiming benefits might be forced to spend a large proportion of their weekly income on travelling to facilitate their claims, and this would not help lift them out of poverty.
Leading a local campaign
Waterside CAB led a very successful campaign to stir up local interest and gather support from MPs, Councillors and the public. Local papers reported the CAB initiative in detail, highlighting the potential problems. Letters from the CAB to local MPs prompted them to protest to the Government and table parliamentary questions. Local Councillors added their voice to the growing protest and wrote to the Prime Minister.
The bureau also took up the issue with the District Manager of the Hampshire Jobcentre plus, asking for information and detailing their concerns about the proposals. A further detailed examination of the proposals was promised.
Four offices at four locations in the New Forest were retained. The CAB was delighted – but is continuing to press Jobcentre Plus managers to ensure that all the offices can deliver a full service to local people.