Wales is `test bed' for dole office cuts

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By Tony Heath

Wales is being used as a test bed to reduce the social security budget, it was claimed yesterday after proposals to cut the number of Benefits Agency offices in the principality from 34 to 20 were made public.

The reductions are outlined in an agency document circulated last week to trade unions representing 3,000 staff, 700 of whom would lose their jobs by the time the run-down is completed in a little over two years' time.

A number of offices under threat serve rural areas and their closure would hit the elderly and sickness benefit claimants over much of the Welsh countryside. The axe is poised over both offices on Anglesey. Potential claimants living in Holyhead, where the unemployment rate is 12.9 per cent, would have to travel 25 miles to Bangor across the Menai Straits to seek assistance.

The South Wales valleys, one of the most deprived areas in Britain, would also lose out from the closure proposals.

Three telephone contact points are proposed - at Porthmadog in North Wales, Blackwood in the south and Swansea. The theory is that claimants would ring up and be given an appointment to visit their nearest office.

Although the Social Security Secretary, Peter Lilley, announced earlier this year that the agency would be required to cut its costs by 25 per cent, the scale of the proposed surgery shocked opposition politicians and unions.

There were walk-outs on Friday afternoon at a number of agency offices, and union officials are meeting to consider balloting their members on industrial action.

The Shadow Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, is to demand a Commons statement from Mr Lilley. He said: "Tens of thousands would find their access to benefits reduced. There was no public consultation before this proposal was put to staff. The effects will be catastrophic. It is a cynical attempt to reduce a vital service and hence lower the take up of benefits, cutting the social security bill."

Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Wigley MP described the cuts as outrageous. "We are seeing the full effects of the removal of direct parliamentary control over Wales's social security services."