Fears waiting times for disability benefits will increase if Barrow centre closure gets green light
FEARS terminally ill people in south Cumbria may die waiting for their disability benefits have been raised after an office was put at risk of closure.
Barrow and Furness MP John Woodcock has warned that if the expertise of the industrial injuries team based at Phoenix House in Barrow is lost then the consequences for people in need could be hugely detrimental.
Civil servants at the Stephen Street building are at risk of losing their jobs as part of a reorganisation of the estates owned by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Around 80 DWP employees are based at Phoenix House, including benefits processing staff, fraud investigating officers and home visitors.
The plans, which are out for consultation, involve scrapping Phoenix House and moving the jobs from Barrow and would mean experienced DWP staff having to move or lose their jobs.
Mr Woodcock raised the issue in a meeting with employment minister Damian Hinds on Monday (30/01) and then in the House of Commons chamber with minister Caroline Noakes, asking the DWP to keep the workforce in Barrow.
Speaking after the debate, Mr Woodcock said: "The staff in the industrial injuries team in Barrow do an amazing job and it was be madness to discard their expertise in this way.
"Ministers insisted that they would not allow the situation to arise where we go back to previous situation with terminally ill people dying while waiting for their benefits, but that is the risk if they don’t find a way to keep the expert workforce.
"I have met with staff from Phoenix House and it is clear how worried and confused they are about this process.
"The DWP need to step back, listen to their own staff, and reconsider this damaging and senseless proposals."
Mr Woodcock pointed out that Barrow staff had managed to cut the administration time for complex and vulnerable claimants from 175 days to 33 days and that reduction has meant people with terminal conditions such as asbestosis have been able to receive their benefit before they died.
Both ministers stressed that the consultation was still ongoing, with Ms Noakes saying Mr Woodcock had made a "really important point" and that they would be "listening to DWP staff".
What's proposed for Cumbria sites
The government has revealed plans to shut one in 10 Jobcentres in England, Scotland and Wales as well as close 27 back office buildings and co-locate around 50 offices in local authority or community venues.
Barrow (Centre for Health and Disability Assessments and back office) - Phoenix House, Stephen Street - DIVEST
Barrow (Jobcentre) - Craven House, Michaelson Road - RETAIN
Carlisle (Centre for Health and Disability Assessments) - Unit 2, Suite B, Carlyes Court, St Marys Gate - RETAIN
Carlisle (Jobcentre) - Broadacre House, Lowther Street - RETAIN
Carlisle (Jobcentre) - Carlisle Civic Centre, Rickergate - RETAIN
Carlisle (Jobcentre) - Stocklund House, Castle Street - DIVEST
Kendal (Jobcentre) - Kentmere House, Blackhall Road - RETAIN
Maryport (Jobcentre) - Ground Floor, Hillside Estate Office, Ellenfoot Drive - RETAIN
Penrith (Jobcentre) - Friargate - DIVEST
Penrith (Jobcentre) - The Foyer, Old London Road - CO-LOCATION
Whitehaven (Jobcentre) - The Copeland Centre, Catherine Street - RETAIN
Workington (Centre for Health and Disability Assessments) - Central Square - RETAIN
Workington (Jobcentre) - Simon House, Vulcans Lane - RETAIN