HC Deb 12 November 2001 vol 374 cc567-8
16. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

If he will make a statement on the progress of the Jobcentre Plus pathfinder pilot scheme. [11697]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown)

The first 49 Jobcentre Plus offices opened on 22 October, providing for the first time a fully integrated employment and benefit service. First reactions from both individual customers and employers have been overwhelmingly positive. We plan to extend this integration progressively nationwide, beginning later next year.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I visited the first stage of the Jobcentre Plus pathfinder in my constituency of Bridgend, and it appears to provide an excellent service. However, a number of staff, especially Benefits Agency staff, remain concerned about the safety issues that will arise when the project is rolled out across the whole work and pensions estate, so to speak, and there is impending strike action. What efforts are being made to get everybody around the table to discuss what I believe are the quite small changes that will be necessary to make the majority of staff happy about the new environment in which they have been asked to work?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having visited the Jobcentre Plus office servicing his constituency. I urge all Members of the House to visit one of the new jobcentre plus sites if they can. As my hon. Friend has said, they are very attractive and provide an excellent working environment for delivering the service. That is an excellent working environment for our clients as well as for our employees.

I regret that some of our employees have taken industrial action, and I believe that the reasons underpinning it are misplaced. Of course, the Government would like to bring the industrial dispute to a conclusion with a consensus and get a return to work. However, the Government will not resile from the underpinning principle of providing the majority of Jobcentre Plus services in an unscreened environment.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

What degree of uniformity has there been for risk assessments for various Benefits Agency offices? It has been put to me by staff in Jobcentre Plus offices that risk assessments seem to vary widely between different offices. Does the Minister agree that there is a huge difference between the American offices, where there are no screens and the guards are armed, and those in the United Kingdom where that is not the case?

Mr. Brown

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that we will not be introducing armed guards into the offices. We see no need for doing that. He is right that the risk assessments vary, although not as widely as he suggests. The reason is that individual circumstances in various parts of the country vary, and each risk assessment is tailored to local circumstances.