John’s thoughts on the British Gas call centre closure

This morning John Denham was on the BBC Radio Solent Breakfast Show with Steve Harris, to talk about the news of 500 job losses at the British Gas call centre in St Mary’s, Southampton.  British Gas yesterday announced they will close the call centre, resulting in hundreds of job losses in the city.

Here’s a transcript of this morning’s interview:

Steve Harris: Listening to all of that is the Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, John Denham. Morning, John.

John Denham: Good morning.

Steve Harris:  Do you think more could have been done to keep British Gas in Southampton?

John Denham:  Well, this seems to have come right out the blue. And I don’t think British Gas have seemed to have sat down with anybody in advance to talk about options, so it’s a huge blow as you’ve heard from everyone you’ve talked to there. I think we’ve just got to do everything now to throw support to the staff.

During the consultation period we get the chance to challenge the company’s business case, but at the same time people are going to be losing their jobs at a time when it’s really difficult to find other ones, so we need to get a special taskforce in there to give as much personal support to staff as possible.  I would look to the employer – British Gas – to take the first responsibility to say ‘we’re going to be helping people with retraining, with job searching, with deciding what to with their careers’.

Steve Harris:  That’s something that was done when the Ford factory closed down a couple of years back.

John Denham:  We lost 500 jobs at Fords, a very similar number – and it was an awful experience – but actually because all the different agencies came together, and we had the Regional Development Agency then which has now been scrapped, a lot of people were helped to take the next stage in their careers, and exactly the same thing should happen now. We shouldn’t think that ‘one’s a big factory, one’s a call centre; the factory’s more important than the call centre’ – all the people who are losing their jobs or now threatened with it deserve the same level of support.

Steve Harris:  How successful was that approach with Fords? How many people do you manage to find, or did they manage to find, new jobs?

John Denham: I don’t have statistics but what was interesting, as you met people a year or two later, it was perfectly true that a lot of people hadn’t managed to replace the sort of earnings they’d had at Fords but a lot of people had been helped to get back into training, to re-skill, to go into other businesses. Now that was also at a time of real difficulty in the economy, so it can make a difference, it’s not going to work for everybody, we shouldn’t pretend that it is, but we need that.

The call centre in Southampton was particularly important because of the hours people work and the flexible working patterns – it was very, very important for people who have families, children and caring responsibilities who can’t necessarily simply go into a 9 to 5 job because they’re working around other people, and they’re going to need particular help to get whatever jobs that can be found out there.

Steve Harris:  With the situation with Ford was that that is a factory which is quite well unionised and presumably a call centre like this won’t be quite so unionised.

John Denham:  Perhaps because British Gas goes years back now to the days when it was publicly owned, it has got a union – Unison, I think, is the major union there – so people will have that voice and I know they’re already getting involved in this saying that they are going to fight for the best support for people locally and they’re also going to at a national level look at whether they can challenge the company’s decision.

You see I think one of the things which is going to strike people this morning around the region, who are not directly involved in this, is that the fuel companies are making huge profits.  Most people are paying over the odds for their fuel bills because it’s so complicated to work out what the right tariff is. A lot of people are going to look at this and say ‘well, 500 people are going to lose their jobs but is that going to end up as a more efficient company which benefits the consumers or is this simply going to expand the bottom line of British Gas’.

Steve Harris:  What news, what’s the word on Southampton this morning, John? We’re looking at figures with 6,000 people unemployed in the city – the Echo this morning saying that means there is one person for every – sorry that’s one vacancy for every 5 people, 6 people, out of work.  It’s not a particularly sunny picture.

John Denham: It’s very, very difficult indeed, and you know it’s actually young people that are bearing the brunt of this.  The number of young people in my constituency who’ve been out of work for more than 6 months has gone up from about 85 a year ago to 255 today.  These are young people who can’t go to an employer by-and-large and say ‘at least I’ve got 20 years work experience behind me’.

So when you get this number of people coming into the labour market, these are people with a good work record, they’ve got something to show to employers, but of course this hits everybody else who’s also looking for a job who will find it even harder to compete for the jobs that are out there.

Steve Harris:  Ok, John, it’s good to talk to you this morning – Southampton Itchen MP, John Denham there, Labour MP of course.

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