The decision by DWP to reintroduce mandatory face-to-face interviews in Jobcentres from 12 April 2021 in England and Wales, and from 26 April 2021 in Scotland, has been met with disbelief by many Work Coaches. The claim of a “Slow and Steady” approach of returning to face-to-face activity, that DWP repeatedly made to the union in discussions, lies in tatters as we now see a sprint, with DWP instructing our members to return to their Jobcentres and conduct mandatory face-to-face interviews with all 18-24-year old claimants. While the number of face-to-face interviews differs around the country, with some Work Coaches to carry out five and others up to fifteen per day, the direction the department is going in is clear to everyone…they want business as usual as soon as possible.
Despite PCS members already taking part in a consultative ballot over their safety, this latest DWP decision to introduce mandatory face-to-face interviews has been made without proper consultation with PCS. In fact, the only discussion on this development was in the afternoon of the day Work Coaches were told to come back to their office. At that meeting, PCS negotiators robustly challenged senior DWP managers and repeatedly demanded that they pause what they are doing and take a step back to consider the potential consequences of their actions. The point was forcibly made that Jobcentres around the country are still closing on a daily basis due to “Covid-19 related issues” – in fact, Wigan Jobcentre closed recently for a circuit break after 14 members of staff tested positive for the virus. This has resulted in the Health and Safety Executive visiting that office.
Furthermore, the return to face-to-face activity has gone ahead without PCS agreeing the Jobcentre Customer Facing Risk Assessment (JCFRA). Additionally, many Work Coaches have reported that they have been asked to carry out face-to-face interviews despite not having completed the Keeping Safe 1 and 2 mandatory training. Further Jobcentres have closed in areas where there has been a worrying increase in positive cases due to the Indian variant. PCS have been inundated with calls from concerned members in places such a Blackburn, Bolton and Glasgow with the Indian variant seeing a 70% increase in positive cases over the past few days. DWP’s actions are provocative, not just to the union negotiators, but to our membership.
Incredibly, the department continue to say Jobcentres are “Covid secure” as all the necessary steps have been taken to assure this. This is plainly nonsense, the pandemic hasn’t gone anywhere and the majority of our members and the public have not yet received their first vaccination, let alone both. The very fact Jobcentres are still closing proves our point they are not “Covid secure”. The members at Wigan Jobcentre and at others were members have tested positive would also dispute the department’s claims.
In addition to the return to face-to-face interviews in Jobcentres, PCS have also been pressing the employer on Work Coach empowerment and the use of Video Calling. As a result of a strong mandate, where almost 80% of those who voted in a consultative ballot last August said they would take strike action, DWP agreed important concessions. One of those was Work Coach empowerment. This granted our members the autonomy to decide how they interacted with the claimant, by phone, digitally or face-to-face. This important concession was well received by Work Coaches and prevented many PCS branches from requesting to be included in a statutory ballot last Autumn.
As a result of this agreement Work Coaches have only been seeing the most vulnerable claimants face to face, however now, with the department conceding that they are not getting the outcomes they want from the government’s Kickstart initiative, Work Coaches are now expected to carry out mandatory face to face interviews for 18-24-year olds, with them now saying that Trust, Empower, Deliver means that Work Coaches should meet the needs of the claimant with these interviews lasting a bit longer if need be. You cannot see this as anything other than DWP renaging on the agreement as, put simply, you can have no autonomy if the ask is mandatory.
PCS members who are Work Coaches are rightly angry about this, and to further fan the flames, management have now advised PCS that Video Calling is no longer voluntary and have removed any mention of this from the guidance.
PCS negotiators have strongly made the case that Video Calling is not safe for members and the union have issued a number of bulletins advising Work Coaches not to participate. The very fact that the department have admitted that they cannot mitigate against the risks of screen shots and unauthorised recording taking place backs the union’s position on this.
In the same way the department’s decisions increase the risk to our members in Jobcentres, including facilties and security staff, it must be remembered that the implications reach much further. Social interaction must be seen as the biggest single contributing factor to increases in infection rates throughout the pandemic. It must therefore logically follow that by asking workers and benefit claimants to travel to our offices, interact and mix with others while they attend, and then travel back, not only increases the risk within our workplaces, but to the public transport they will use and the families and communities they return to.
It is also clear that the number of claimants not making their unnecessary appointments, raises the spectre of conditionality and sanctions once more. The union pushed hard at the beginning of the pandemic to have all Labour Market (LM) activity removed from the system, and did reach agreement for an initial suspension of conditionality and sanctions, and a subsequent low rate of LM activity.
The union has now received reports from members that they are once more coming under pressure from managers to refer claimants who “fail to attend” their appointment to a decision maker about their benefit claim. Left Unity and PCS have a longstanding opposition to the sanctions regime and we have to call out this move, by both government and DWP, to ramp up this pernicious activity in the midst of a global pandemic, for what is – morally bankrupt and destructive.
To potentially force the public, including millions that have never used the benefits system before, to effectively choose between staying safe or becoming destitute cannot get any lower and is as far removed from the actions of a civilised government and society as you could get. The most vulnerable, that have needed our help and will continue to do so until we have a full recovery from this pandemic, cannot and should not be left to pay the price for this government’s mishandling of the economy during the crisis, anymore than our members should with their pay freeze.
Members must vote YES to send a clear message to DWP
In light of these latest developments, the PCS DWP Group have extended the consultative ballot on the issue of safety in Jobcentres; the ballot now closing at noon on Wednesday 2 June 2021.
This gives the union’s members an ideal opportunity to tell DWP that they are not happy with the rush to business as usual and the threats to their safety, and they will not accept it. A big YES vote in this ballot, telling the department and government, that members are prepared to take strike action to protect themselves, their families and the public, will not only give PCS negotiators a clear and decisive mandate it will also give confidence to our members in other groups and the wider movement that we can make a stand and protect ourselves when employers play Russian Roulette with our health, with our lives.
A wider campaign
In addition to the ballot we must maximise our political and activist campaigning. A number of MPs have already written to the Secretary of State seeking answers to the issues covered in this article and an Early Day Motion has been tabled in Parliament, both following PCS intervention, while our members have been completing an e-action generating responses to from the Permanent Secretary.
The union must, and will, build on this and work alongside claimant organisations – such as DPAC, Unite Community and Unemployed Workers Combine – to highlight the reality about to be faced by millions and the risk DWP’s actions are bringing to communities.
PCS members have provided an excellent service throughout the pandemic, ensuring they were there for the most vulnerable in society, prioritising payments and support when it’s been needed the most. There is no reason why this cannot continue until vaccine has been fully rolled out and we have seen a sustained period of low infection and deaths.
PCS are urging all Jobcentre staff to vote yes in the consultative ballot and send the strongest message possible to the Government and DWP, but if they don’t listen we must be prepared to take action to defend ourselves and those we provide vital services to.
Martin Cavanagh and Ian Pope