Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 79-85)



Andrew Selous

  79. May I probe you a little further on your comments about transitional arrangements? I do not quite understand the point you are making there. It would either seem to me that there is a very small minority of one per cent of claimants out there who are potentially violent and who do from time to time harm your members in a way that none of us would want. I cannot see why they are going to go away and not be a problem. Over time I do not quite understand the point you are making that it is all happening in one go, therefore it is not acceptable. Either you are saying there is an ongoing risk and your members need to be protected from this silent one per cent or you think that problem is effectively dealt with and is not such a problem. I do not quite understand the distinction you are making.

  (Mr Churchard) I was trying to respond in a positive way to the question from your colleague and to say that it may well be, who knows because we have not got there yet, that down the track the combined effect of the investment in the local offices plus the variety of other security measures we are seeing may mean that staff will feel much more comfortable about delivering services in an environment which is less screened than it was. The point I am trying to make is that we are moving very quickly from a situation where people have an environment where clients have to go through a screened reception at the beginning and then, depending on the type of client and the type of transaction, there may be a screened transaction between the member of staff and member of the public. That is just happening like that. If the trials were to be proper trials, is my point, then we would have had a much wider variety of different types of screening and different types of layout offered than are actually being offered. The only exception to having totally unscreened reception is one office where there was the prospect of trialing a pop-up screen arrangement. It has been an area where Eddie has been specialising.
  (Mr Spence) One of the difficulties we have in all of this is that we have a dispute and the reason we have that is because members feel very strongly about their concerns around safety, otherwise we would not have a dispute. To some extent we feel that the view is that the view of our members is one of just wanting security screens to deal with every transaction undertaken in Jobcentre Plus offices and that is far from the truth. The reality is that we have tried to go in some detail to talk about where we believed there was a need for security screening, the different types of transactions where that would be sensible, the different types of clients, because some people are known to be potentially violent people, therefore they would tend to be dealt with in a screened environment. It is also the case that we believe, not everywhere but in some offices, particularly where you have a significant amount of benefit related customer traffic, there is a need for some form of screening, whether it be pop-up, drop-down, or whatever, at the reception point. Our view is very much that it is horses for courses. We want to have an environment that our members feel safe in, depending on the clients they see, whereas we seem to be faced with a one-size-fits-all approach and that does not really work.

  80. This is an important debate and if there is anything we can do to prevent a strike by establishing what your precise concerns are, it would be very helpful if you told us now what the things are which would make this resolvable, the precise demands you have which would make this resolvable which are outstanding. I understand there was an agreement which went to your National Disputes Committee which was acceptable, but which was then rejected by the Executive. Can you tell us your specific requirements?
  (Mr Spence) A number of points but one of the key ones is the one Alan raised with regard to screening at reception points. Not every reception point in every Jobcentre Plus office but certainly those offices where we believe that the customer traffic and the nature of the customer traffic and the types of transactions, particularly benefit related ones, where sanctions may be imposed, are where a screened environment is necessary at the reception point. That is an area where we actually identified in our discussions—I do not want to go into too much detail—a number of offices, more than the one on offer, round about a dozen, where we believed that different types of screening options at reception points could and should be tested in order to inform where we went after this Pathfinder, which at the end of the day is a pilot exercise into a roll-out nationally towards the end of next year. That was one point. We also had concerns about the fact that if it was accepted by the employer, which it is, that certain transactions must be dealt with in a screened environment, and it is also recognised that a number of the offices do not have screened environments; how do you manage people from an unscreened environment into a screened environment in another office when the employer and ourselves both agree that transaction needs to be dealt with in a screened environment? There were some customer management arrangements to ensure staff safety which were not dealt with. We made specific proposals on 13 November about them and have not had a response to them yet. We also want more agreement on what we do about risk assessment. We have some serious concerns there. We have been trying to engage in a tripartite discussion with HSE about the concerns we have with the generic risk assessment on which all the local risk assessments are based and yet for the last three weeks the employer has refused to discuss that with us.

  81. What I find mystifying is that these are fairly small things which it seems to me could be worked out through the Pathfinder process; they are mostly process issues and issues about specific offices. You said in your evidence that these may be transitional problems, that you did not have any evidence that there were greater problems in ONE offices than in other areas nor in Employment Service offices than in other areas, there is little difference between you and the management and in the end this may be a safer environment through the injection of the other measures. What I do not understand is how such a small difference can be leading to something which can potentially be a widespread national strike, other than perhaps the fact that it is a politically motivated strike in the sense that the General Secretary, in his election literature said that he did not believe the Union should enter partnership agreements; the employer is not their partner. He also said that there was a mood to fight if a clear lead was given. I should be grateful if you could assure me that it is not a politically motivated strike.

Mrs Joan Humble

  82. In a new area which has been proposed here, why go back a step to the old system and have a screen? Is there not a danger that once a screen goes into the new system it will never go back down again? Secondly, I am a little concerned with one or two of the remarks Eddie made about horses for courses. I remember many, many years ago working for DSS when it was the DHSS and working on the contributory side and the office was divided: supplementary benefit/contributory benefit. It was deserving and undeserving poor. It was the good guys who might have had accidents, pensioners and NI contributions and people who were scroungers. Surely what this whole pilot is about, and what this whole new system, the ONE service and Jobcentre Plus, is about is treating people as individuals and treating them all with dignity regardless of what benefit they are coming in to claim, or whether they are seeking advice on employment. Surely they should all be treated the same. I do not want to see separate arrangements for one group of people, who can then be stigmatised by another group of people. How can we accommodate the underlying principles of the ONE service and indeed the new Jobcentre Plus, whilst at the same time reassure you and your staff who have genuine concerns? Although it was 20-odd years ago, I remember people coming in and shouting at me over the counter, so we do need to reassure staff, but how can we maintain that new philosophy?

  (Mr Spence) We must have been in the DHSS around the same time. There was a mind set, and indeed the training probably contributed to it, which did look on people as scroungers and was about denying people benefit rather than giving them benefit. As a trade union we have put a lot of time and effort into things like benefit take-up campaigns with local authorities to try to make sure we do provide a service. At the heart of it—and I make this point quite a lot—is that the vast majority of them do the job they do because they do want to provide a service to the public; that is why they do it. They want to feel safe while they are doing it and they recognise that there are some risks and the evidence is that there are risks and there are assaults and so on. It is about us being able to merge those two things together. We do support the concept of Jobcentre Plus and bringing it together, the issue of people being able to go to one place, that people can be talked to. We do not want the vast majority of people to be seen in a screened environment where there is no recognised potential safety issue— you are talking about some of the most junior civil service staff dealing with many of these issues. We want to ensure that where there are those potential safety problems, people are safeguarded against them. The vast majority of transactions and work would be dealt with in an unscreened environment. We have no difficulty with that. There is no article of faith on our side which says we must have screens and there must be that many of them. The way through it is by agreement and testing out something which is not exactly what the BA has now, but something different which looks perhaps at some reception screening options in areas where we have identified concerns. For example, the Harlesden office, which is a difficult area for our members to work in, is an area where we believe there should be a screening option; Greenock is another area. We were not saying that all 57 need to have these options; we were offering a range of ideas which we felt would allow us, once the Pathfinders are going through, to say what works and what does not. We would still be there and still moving to the idea of Jobcentre Plus dealing with the majority of people and transactions in an unscreened environment, while providing arrangements and safeguards to ensure our members felt, where they believed it necessary, that they worked in a safe environment. The reception point is an issue because the statistics the management provided show that around 45 per cent of the incidents and assaults occur at reception points. We have not said we want the whole of the front of the office screened. Essentially what we have said is that we believe there should be safety measures at a point where we know there is a risk in certain offices where there is high customer traffic. We should be the first to say, "You have had that there for the last six months, nothing has happened, staff do not think it is of much use". We have not developed this dispute out of the blue: it is because members have concerns. To some extent we are prepared to move in a direction some of our members still would not be happy with, but the vast bulk would be in terms of trying to get an agreed way forward.
  (Mr Churchard) It is important we say, perhaps ironically in view of the question, that one of the questions between ourselves and Jobcentre Plus management is that we want a partnership agreement, we asked for a partnership agreement and they will not give us one. On your comment about the General Secretary Elect of the PCS, he is not here to defend himself, so I shall do my best. He, like myself and all the officers here, work to the policy of the Union and the policy of the National Executive Committee and our policy is that we want partnership agreements and specifically we have asked for a partnership agreement with Jobcentre Plus in the same way that we now have one with DSS and previous to that we had one with BA. That is one of the issues between us.


  83. I am sitting here listening to this and everyone has agreed with the concept and we have seen it in action and it is brilliant when it works and is working well. The danger is that the whole concept is going to be dragged down and prejudiced by this, what I consider to be an important but a second order issue which relates to staff safety and you have to be concerned about that. Is there not a danger that the whole concept will be prejudiced if we are not careful?

  (Mr Churchard) I very much hope not because we are very much supportive of the concept; I do not think I can emphasise that too much. I have said and I believe that there are not that many differences between us. They are not that great and I hope they can be resolved. The problem we have at the moment specifically is that we are not talking. We are asking for meetings and not getting them. Out of that frustration is the situation we are in.

  84. That is an unfortunately negative note on which to end. This is an important report for us and we have some work to do on it yet and it is important we get it right because the long-term future of the quality of service our claimants get depends on the Government and us and everybody getting it right. What would your closing advice be to us as a Committee in terms of what you think we should concentrate on in drawing up this report, to try to signpost some of the things in terms of implementation that we think the Government should look again at? Would you choose these safety issues or would it be some of the private sector issues? What would be the key thing you would want to leave us with as an idea we should concentrate on to get things better for you in the course of this piece of work we are doing?
  (Mr Churchard) May I mention three things? We have covered the safety one. On the private sector one Keith has made our position clear. The other thing is to focus on the frustrations which staff feel in terms of things which are stopping them delivering the service as it might be delivered, particularly IT but also training and things like that, which are causing a lot of frustration and leading to targets not being met.

Andrew Selous

  85. We have figures in front of us which show quite a significant increase in the number of assaults in BA and ES between 1999 and 2000 and the notes seem to suggest that is because of a campaign to encourage your staff to report incidents. I should like your comments on that if you think that wholly accounts for it. We did hear on our visit some comments that there was sometimes pressure from management that incidents should not be reported. So we have heard both sides of that one. Secondly, can you give me your views, please, on the adequacy of floor walkers and panic buttons and those sorts of measures to try to prevent incidents in a non-screened environment? Are you satisfied with the current proposals in that area?

  (Mr Wylie) On the number of incidents, we did have a campaign, initially in the DSS and latterly in the Employment Service encouraging members to report incidents because the anecdotal evidence we had from members and from representatives was that there was a massive amount of under-reporting, particularly of verbal abuse against Benefits Agency staff, through screens but also what some people would describe as minor physical assaults against Employment Service staff in Jobcentres. We had a poster campaign to remind people to fill out the appropriate form IF1. That may well have led to more people reporting more incidents, but the core of the problem is the number of incidents, not the number of reports. Our view is that the number of incidents is significantly too high.
  (Mr Spence) On the panic buttons, we see both panic buttons and CCTV, and it has to be CCTV which has someone monitoring it now and again, instead of being stuck in a back room, which it tends to be in some places such as Harlesden when we looked at the plans for that. There needs to be a range of measures.

  Chairman: We shall stop there. May I say thank you gentlemen, that has been very useful? You obviously put a lot of work into the evidence and we shall give it very careful consideration. It has been very useful and valuable having your appearance here this afternoon. Thank you very much for your attendance. The Committee stands adjourned.

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