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Monday, 24 April 2017

Terra firma benefits services closures leave the economically vulnerable more firmly in the lurch

Face-to-face benefits delivery service cuts have been going on for decades, Dude Swheatie of Kwug argues.

Jobcentre closures creates winners and losers, says Dude Swheatie
I would describe Honorary KUWG member Kate Belgrave as a 'benefits touring' blogger. Her latest blog post is DWP: "Closing jobcentres will improve the service."(1) Maybe those in the DWP and their allies in 'think tank' ReformUK who advocate 'digital jobcentres' (2) — and 'digital courts and tribunals and a lot else besides (3) — ought to go in for such 'benefits tourism' themselves, where they would meet users of terra firma [solid earth] jobcentres for themselves?

(Incidentally, Theresa May has described ReformUK as "the country's leading think tank on public service reform."(4) I am reminded of the saying, "With friends like that, who needs enemies?")

Clay Cross Jobcentre in Derbyshire that Kate writes about in her latest blog post (5) is by no means the only one facing closure and there are closer threatened jobcentres for Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group regulars. In January 2017 the Brent & Kilburn Times reported:
Jobcentres in Wembley, Kilburn and Neasden facing closure (6)
.... The sites in Olympic House in Wembley, Cambridge Avenue in Kilburn and Chancel house in Neasden, are facing the axe with workers facing redundancy or being relocated to other jobcentres.
The Department for Work and Pensions say the sites are being underused as four out of five claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance and 99 per cent of applicants for Universal Credit submit claims online.

Jobcentres and benefit centres are covered by old building contracts which are now coming up for renewal after 20 years.

Some smaller jobcentres will be merged with larger ones, and others will be co-located with local government premises.

The closures, which union officials say will affect one in 10 job centres in Great Britain, are predicted to save the DWP £180million over the next 10 years,
the Brent & Kilburn Times reported.

What's behind all this?

Let us have a look at that DWP assertion:
The Department for Work and Pensions say the sites are being underused as four out of five claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance and 99 per cent of applicants for Universal Credit submit claims online.
Is 'digital by default' online claiming a matter of 'service user choice'? In June 2014 Elizabeth Rust reported in The Guardian:

When the UK goes 'digital by default', who will be left behind?

UK government services are going digital, yet often the people who need them are not able to access them. [17% of service users are left behind.](8)
I had a decades long history of claiming Unemployment Benefit and later Jobseekers Allowance before I ever claimed the disability benefit Employment & Support Allowance (Support Group) status. So with hindsight I am able to see how this move toward 'service user not seen and regarded as fully human' has crept in over the decades. In the early 1990's while our news services were focused on Russian bread queues, Department of Social Security offices were done away with and replaced by remote control offices. Claims offices for LB Brent jobcentre users were transferred to Belfast, and those for LB Camden jobcentre users were transferred to Glasgow, and chaos happened as claim forms got lost in the post. My old DSS office at Archway is now being developed as a block of flats by 'Exclusive Living' under that incidental piece of privatising public land.

I remember the 'death throes' of that building as a DSS office in 1991 even while the remote control offices were being introduced. Upon making a new claim for Unemployment Benefit I was kept waiting 12 weeks even then while my claim form had reportedly 'got lost in the post'. When I did force myself to visit that building after several weeks of waiting, I was told by my peers that I was not the only one trapped in that system melt-down, and that the previous day the building had got so overheated that it was closed down for health and safety purposes. (The windows of that building as a DSS office were never opened, reportedly so that claimants did not get the temptation to throw themselves out of one.) And it took me more than one day's visit to secure an emergency hardship payment.

(While the second place country for viewings of Kwug Blog in the past month have been from Russia — with the USA in first place — it is ironic that at that time the UK's corporate news media were strongly focused on bread queues in Moscow to the exclusion of such problems closer to home.)

Jobcentre workers have been like the supermarket 'checkout' persons inducting service users into 'self-service' operations that threaten their own jobs

In July 2006, Hertfordshire County Council Head of Money Advice reported in a then-regular column in Community Care magazine:
Jobcentre Plus wrong to deny use of paper forms(9)
Currently the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) apparently insists all benefit claims should be made over the phone or internet.

In the past couple of years, both the pensions service and the Jobcentre Plus network have moved towards a system of teleclaiming. This is despite the evidence that many pensioners find making claims over the telephone difficult. Working-age claimants of benefits, such as income support, incapacity benefit and jobseekers allowance, have fared even worse, as at least pensioners had an alternative when claiming pension credit, because paper claim forms for that benefit are still reasonably widely available.

Jobcentre Plus staff at local level, however, were giving out a clear message that paper claim forms for the benefits they administer no longer existed – and even if claimants were determined enough to get hold of a copy, it wouldn’t do them any good because the local Jobcentre would refuse to accept it.

Thankfully, common sense (and a clearer understanding of the law relating to benefit claims) has prevailed. The DWP realised that Jobcentre Plus staff were acting unlawfully in refusing to allow benefit claims to be made on paper claim forms. As a result, guidance has been sent out to all Jobcentre Plus managers, in the May edition of its Managers Update. It is worth printing the Clerical Claims Process – Standard Operating Model guidance in full, in case you come across any problems with your local office.
“Customers should always be encouraged to make new and repeat claims via the contact centres where possible. However, regulations give the customer the choice on how they make their claim and this means we must not refuse clerical claim forms...."
What happened to the telephone application process? It became oversubscribed, as Gary Vaux had reported in Community Care in February 2006:(10)
Pick up that phone!
In early November 2005, the newly appointed chief executive of Jobcentre Plus, Lesley Strathie, admitted to a House of Commons select committee that Jobcentre Plus was “failing badly” and had  a “huge, huge journey to make” in relation to meeting customer service targets for its contact centres.

Yet, by mid-December, Strathie felt she was able to announce in the foreword to its annual report that Jobcentre Plus  delivered excellent progress against a challenging set of objectives.

Strathie said the department was expected to achieve or exceed five of its six performance targets for the year, despite staff reductions of 5,000 in the year to March 2005.

When two such apparently contradictory statements are made within just a few weeks of each other, it’s difficult to see where facts end and spin starts....

How do you solve a problem like benefits helpline meltdown?

In November 2006 Community Care magazine reported:
Jobcentre Plus: Poor service continues(11)
Earlier this month, MPs slammed Jobcentre Plus for leaving 21 million phone calls unanswered in 2004-5. Despite government claims of improvements, stories of poor service continue to mount, argues Neil Bateman
Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is the arm of the Department for Work and Pensions that administers benefits and job search activities  or people under 60. It was set up in 2001 as a key part of the government’s welfare-to-work reforms, the aim being that people could obtain advice and help on benefits and job-seeking under one roof.

Since the announcement in 2005 that DWP had to lose 30,000 staff over three years, on top of other spending cuts in the department, concern has been growing in the social care and welfare rights fields about the deteriorating standards of service provided by JCP. There has been concern about the effect on vulnerable customers, particularly care leavers, those with sensory impairments and people with mental health needs who have greatest difficulty with the JCP one-size-fits-all approach to customer service.

Welfare rights advisers and social care specialists identify problems with JCP, including:
  • Delays in processing claims and changes of circumstances – six weeks is common – leaving people destitute.
  • Communications between different parts of JCP “not being received”.
  • Huge difficulty accessing JCP by phone.
  • JCP staff insisting that all benefit claims are made by phone, when the law does not state this.
  • Frequent refusals to communicate with third parties (despite the DWP’s good new policy on this).
  • JCP staff making basic errors in advice to claimants and when assessing their claims.
  • Inflexibility in how people are dealt with caused by JCP’s use of scripts for telephone enquiries and deficiencies in the content of the scripts.
  • Resistance by local JCP managers to consultation and dialogue with stakeholders.
There are exceptions to this, but the feedback was generally negative with many examples cited....
What's 21 million calls in terms of the scale of the problem? Well, in 2004/05, it amounted to 44% of all incoming calls to the JCP call-centre system.(12) Quite a big problem, in other words. And as Neil Bateman pointed out in that November 2006 article:
Paying for JCP’s failures
It is not just benefit claimants who are affected. There is strong evidence that advice agencies and social care agencies are also picking up the cost of JCP’s failures. Citizens Advice said workloads had increased as a direct result of problems and there was evidence that social services departments were often baling out people with no money because of JCP’s failure to deliver benefits on time or to make interim payments – there were even cases of people sent by JCP to social services for money.

Much time is also being spent arguing with JCP staff that they can indeed allow people to make paper benefit claims rather than having to phone a call centre – even in cases involving people in hospital receiving chemotherapy, those with serious mental health problems, people whose first language is not English or those who are deaf....(13)
I asked in this section heading, 'How do you solve a problem like benefits helpline meltdown?' The DWP's covert agenda answer is that you don't solve that problem, you demonise the claimants by way of 'public information campaigns' such as 'Targeting benefit thieves' that were prevalent at the time.

A later, telephone oriented twist on demonising claimants was the introduction of the sceptre of 'Voice Risk Analysis' screening of claimants. Gary Vaux reported in Community Care in May 2008:

Voice risk analysis makes claiming benefits more stressful(14)

The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that it is pushing ahead with the introduction of voice risk analysis (VRA) in another 15 local authority housing benefit teams. But VRA is not a lie detector it’s simply a machine that measures changes in a person’s voice patterns, indicating “stress”. That in turn alerts the benefit official to probe deeper into the claim.

When used on President Clinton’s famous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” statement, a VRA machine recorded a “high risk” reading.
It’s already used by some insurance companies (Esure, Halifax and Provident among others) and no one condones benefit fraud so it must therefore be a good thing, right? Well – maybe not.

The advice sector is concerned that VRA is being trialled despite there being little evidence so far as to its effectiveness in comparison with more traditional methods of fraud detection. The research into its impact in the first seven local authorities to use it isn’t even due to be finished until August.

We also don’t know what effect it will have on genuine claimants – the “if they’re honest, they’ve nothing to worry about” line of argument misses the point. The fact that every call and every claimant may ultimately have to be screened in this way, with the assumption that you might be accused of being fraudulent on the say-so of suspect technology is enough to deter many genuine claimants. This is especially true of those who find claiming benefits stressful enough already....
Back in 2006 while I was regularly ringing the so-called Jobseekers Allowance 'helpline' I was under a great deal of stress. Working more than 16 hours in just one week over the Christmas 2005/New Year 2006 period as a part time care worker doing 'cover duties' for regular staff on vacation while submitting part-time earnings forms at my fortnightly signing on sessions at the jobcentre, I got screwed as Jobseekers Allowance wrongly claimed that I no longer qualified for the JSA benefit. (15)

Even in those days I would have long pauses while the helpline level bureucrat I spoke to referred to their line manager or supervisor and I was somewhat fortunate to be a landline user rather than on pay-as-you-go mobile phone tariff to a Universal Credit helpline. I would have longed for the comparative comforts of face-to-face help at the Archway 'Goulag'!

Now, as a Camden Council report has revealed, Universal Credit claimants are suffering not only long waits for benefits, but also rip-off pay-as-you-go mobile phone tariffs:
Universal Credit: Claimants 'stealing food' to cope with benefit delays (16)

.... The Department for Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit helpline set up to advise claimants on the progress of their claim is providing an unacceptable service. Telephone calls can cost up to 55p a minute [£33 per hour!] from pay-as-you-go mobile phones, which are commonly used by people with lower incomes. Wait times to speak with an adviser can be very long – one claimant in Camden has reported that their phone bill for a month was over £140, used almost entirely on calls to the DWP.
Now consider this: is not the telecomms industry complicit in this theft from economically vulnerable benefit claimants? There is enormous potential for industry to benefit from the real 'benefit theft' which is denying benefit claimants their entitlements and making life harder for workers as there is a fine line between what this Government calls 'incentivising' work but is really making people so desperate that they will settle for anything.

Might plummeting 'takeup' of benefit entitlements be one of Jobcentre Plus' real goals?

Maybe you ought to raise these points with candidates in the forthcoming 8 June General Election if you are a UK voter?

Link references

  1. http://www.katebelgrave.com/2017/04/dwp-closing-your-jobcentre-will-improve-the-service-people-who-use-the-jobcentre-no-it-wont/
  2. http://www.reform.uk/publication/the-future-of-public-services-digital-jobcentres/
  3. http://www.reform.uk/publication/the-future-of-public-services/
  4. http://www.reform.uk/
  5. http://www.katebelgrave.com/2017/04/dwp-closing-your-jobcentre-will-improve-the-service-people-who-use-the-jobcentre-no-it-wont/
  6. http://www.kilburntimes.co.uk/news/jobcentres-in-wembley-kilburn-and-neasden-facing-closure-1-4864912
  7. ibid.
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/23/when-the-uk-goes-digital-by-default-who-will-be-left-behind 
  9. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/07/20/jobcentre-plus-wrong-to-deny-use-of-paper-forms/
  10. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/02/16/pick-up-that-phone/  
  11. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/11/16/jobcentre-plus-poor-service-continues/ 
  12. https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmpubacc/1034/1034.pdf See p7 of 64 on the online viewing, p3 of the printed copy
  13. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/11/16/jobcentre-plus-poor-service-continues/
  14. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2008/05/22/voice-risk-analysis-makes-claiming-benefits-more-stressful/
  15. For more on the background to this case, see http://kilburnunemployed.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/benefit-claimants-require-firmer-safegards-not-tougher-sanctions.html 
  16. http://camdennewjournal.com/article/universal-credit-claimants-stealing-food-to-eat-due-to-benefit-delays

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