A whistleblowing Jobcentre manager has told former Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain that the removal of helpline phones for the use of claimants will cause serious difficulties for the most vulnerable people in Britain.
The manager contacted Mr Hain after he expressed concern in the Western Mail and then the House of Commons about the planned removal of phones from the Jobcentre serving his Neath constituents. It emerged that the move was part of a nationwide strategy approved by current Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
In an email to Mr Hain the Jobcentre manager, who has asked not to be identified, stated: “I have grave concerns about the upcoming ‘digitilisation’ of [my Jobcentre].
“In essence, this means the removal of all the free phones for customers to contact the benefit centres when they have problems with their money.
“We currently have [a number of] phones which are used constantly throughout the day. The calls could be about [a range of benefits for the unemployed, the disabled and the low paid]. All of these numbers are [premium rate] 0845 numbers, and customers would prefer to spend time and money to come down to the Jobcentre, as the cost of 0845 numbers can be very expensive. And remember, the reason for these calls is ‘I haven’t received my money’.”
The manager says the line being used by the Department for Work and Pensions to placate claimants and politicians is that staff will be available locally to help people access benefit centres by computer, and if necessary to phone the relevant centre. However, says the manager, there has been no staffing increase to cope with this.
“On many days there is only one or two staff available to deal with benefit enquiries for vulnerable customers,” says the manager. “This will not increase, and therefore we will have two staff expected to deal with 200 to 300 enquiries per day. Each one takes at the least five minutes, so you can see it just doesn’t add up. The assumption is that people will phone from home, but what seems to be being ignored is that they can’t afford to. I feel this is going to lead to problems… and put vulnerable customers in a very difficult position.”
Mr Hain said: “This insider blows the gaff on claims that this whole procedure is about modernisation. It shows that cost-cutting has got to such a manic level that people will simply be prevented from accessing the kind of advice and assistance they need to get and are entitled to.
“The benefits system is a nightmarish one of complexity and ambiguity. If you deprive claimants of person-to-person contact and force everyone to go online, it’s a recipe for disaster. There are fewer and fewer staff to deal even with those claimants able to go online, while there are many especially older clients who are not.”
“This proves what I have felt for a long time – that it’s all about cuts and absolutely nothing to do with creating a better or fairer system. The consequence will be increased misery, with people finding it more difficult to get their benefits restored when they have been cut off as a result of some error. These changes are dictated by adherence to a tick-box culture, and take no account of the human element.”
A DWP spokesman said: “We have adequate staff to deal with the level of enquiries we receive at our Jobcentres and, as part of our changes, we’re making sure claimants have more information up front, which reduces their need to get in touch with us for more general information during their claim.
“The DWP does not earn any revenue from 0845 numbers, and we have already made a commitment to introduce 03 numbers, which may be less expensive under certain phone contracts. We work hard to identify vulnerable people using Jobcentre facilities, so they can be offered the most appropriate form of help and, if required, we can look to resolve their enquiry through a face-to-face appointment at one of our offices.”
by Martin Shipton on ‘Wales Online’, 24th Feb 2014: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/jobcentre-whistleblower-warns-helplines-chaos-6736999