Supplementary memorandum submitted by
the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) (OP 19A)
1. The Public and Commercial Services Union
(PCS) submitted written evidence to the Committee in November,
which was supplemented by oral evidence in December. This supplementary
memorandum aims to set out the latest position concerning Jobcentre
Plus, in particular the current state of negotiations between
PCS and Jobcentre Plus management and information regarding a
violent incident in Harlsden Jobcentre Plus officeone of
the first Jobcentre Plus offices.
2. PCS is the largest civil service trade
union with a combined membership of 80,000 members in the Benefits
Agency and the Employment Service. Many of these members will
be transferring to the new Jobcentre Plus organisation as it comes
on line over the next three years.
3. PCS has given a cautious welcome to Jobcentre
Plus. We believe that the vision of bringing disparate services
together, coupled with significant public funding, is both positive
and to be welcomed. However, we have concerns about the way this
is done and its impact on both claimants and staff.
4. The union is currently in a prolonged
dispute with Jobcentre Plus management over the decision to deliver
Jobcentre Plus services in a "predominantly unscreened"
environment. PCS's proposed solution recognises much of the work
carried out in Jobcentre Plus will be delivered in an unscreened
environment, which we believe can meet the ministerial vision.
5. From the outset PCS has been particularly
concerned about the stance taken by Jobcentre Plus management,
which has now culminated in them breaking off further talks about
our current proposals to solve the dispute. We have therefore
been left no alternative but to call in the Advisory, Conciliation
and Arbitration Service (ACAS) to try and break the stalemate.
Management has repeatedly dismissed the genuine concerns of staff
over safety and stonewalled concerted attempts by PCS to find
a workable solution.
6. There was no consultation with the union
or staff about delivering Jobcentre Plus services in a "predominantly
unscreened" environment before the decision was taken. Since
then the management have taken an intransigent attitude to resolving
the legitimate concerns PCS members have for their safety when
dealing with potentially violent clients, for example, those with
mental health, drug and alcohol problems who have a propensity
for violence and individuals who have a record of being violent
in the past when faced with situations where the denial of benefits
or hardship claims may lead to violence.
7. The official figures for incidents and
assaults on staff in both the Benefits Agency and the Employment
Service in recent years has been on a steady upward trend. In
the Benefits Agency statistics show that even with screens in
place there are already over three violent incidents a week and
there were over 5,000 incidents in the last year alone.
8. Whilst the presence of screens in Benefits
Agency offices means that it is less likely for staff to be actually
assaulted the position in Employment Service offices, which are
unscreened, is quite different. In the period since September
2001 there have been at least 15 serious incidents in which members
of staff have been assaulted, often with weapons, and most resulting
in hospital treatment. A growing number of assaults are taking
place on security guards as well as ordinary members of staff.
9. The following data has been drawn from
official reports provided by management in the Benefits Agency
and Employment Service. (It is worth noting when reading these
statistics that both Employment Service and Benefits Agency management
acknowledge there is a widespread level of under-reporting.)
10. In the Benefits Agency;
In 2000 (the last year we have data
for) there were 5,049 reported incidents, in comparison with 2,455
in 1999, over 100 per cent increase;
3,122 (61 per cent) of the incidents
in 2000 involved female employees;
3,137 (62 per cent) of the incidents
occurred in a screened environment, therefore preventing injury
to staff; and
2,290 (45 per cent) of the incidents
occurred at reception points.
11. In the Employment Service;
Management's report of "serious
assaults" since November 2000 highlighted that were 40 serious
16 involving weapons (5 knives, 1
iron bar, 2 petrol, 6 PC monitors, 1 chair and 1 firearm); and
7 actual assaults, including punching
and head butts.
The number of working days lost in
the Employment Service for the quarter ending March 2001 for the
reason Accident/Injury/Assault was 5,978, involving 768 spells
In the quarter ending March 2001
1,003 incidents were reported, of these 507 were attempted or
actual physical assault and 496 were verbal abuse.
12. Jobcentre Plus will offer some changed
arrangements for those making initial claims including mandatory
interviews and improved help. However, for the vast bulk of long
term clients the arrangements will remain the same. In particular
arrangements for the payment of Social Fund remain the same.
13. Social Fund payments include:
Social Fund Alignment payments.
Lost instruments of payment (lost
Statistics show these activities still present
a substantial threat to staff and as a result of the industrial
action management have agreed that these activities are sufficiently
hazardous that they need to be conducted in a screened environment.
14. However, the current arrangements mean
that there is only one office with screened provision in each
Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder cluster. In some areas (for example
Devon and West Yorkshire) this can entail a journey of 15 miles
or more, often on uncertain public transport. PCS members' experience
shows simply telling people who are prone to violence that they
have to attend another office can lead to an attack. This position
can be made worse if clients are being informed of this at 3.30
pm on a Friday afternoon where there is no possibility of them
getting to another office that day. In our view there needs to
be screened provision in all Jobcentre Plus offices to cater for
15. It is currently management's position
that reception work should be carried out in a totally open plan
and unscreened environment. Given the number of categories of
clients who present a real risk of violence as outlined above
this makes no sense.
16. The vast majority of incidents in the
Benefits Agency currently take place at reception points. These
vary from threats of violence, being spat at, to the use of weapons.
Since those people who everybody agrees should be seen in a screened
environment must first come through the unscreened and unprotected
reception point this puts the staff working on these jobs at unique
risk. The logic of the arrangements is that an enhanced level
of protection needs to be offered to these staff. The current
arrangements are an open invitation to assault, injury or in extreme
circumstances death. Again PCS believe this initial reception
work should be delivered in a screened environment.
Violent incident at Harlsden Jobcentre Plus
17. Harlsden Jobcentre Plus was one of the
first of the Pathfinder Jobcentre Plus offices to open. Last Friday,
18 January 2002, there was a serious violent incident on the second
floor involving a claimant who had been refused a personal issue
giro. The claimant produced a chain with a ball on the end and
started to smash computers. Panicked members of the public ran
to the stairs in order to escape the violent incident, with one
woman falling the being trampled in the crush. The two security
guards who were meant to be patrolling the floor were not present
during the incident.
18. The police were sent for and arrived
after 10 minutes and management were forced to evacuate the building.
Although the building re-opened later that day the second floor
remained closed off and staff who witnessed the incident were
sent home and told they need not attend work on Monday if they
did not wish. Those who did attend work on Monday were offered
19. As a Jobcentre Plus office the protective
screens in Harlesden have been completely removed. In PCS's view
this attack vindicates PCS's decision to strike over the issue
of safety in the new Jobcentre Plus offices. The attack raises
serious questions about the safety of PCS members working in unscreened
Jobcentre Plus offices, particularly as management have insisted
the new open plan environment would minimise the number of such
attacks. Had the reception point been screened a claimant carrying
such a weapon would never have been able to enter the office,
or proceed to the second floor.
20. There is a view that the service the
government wants to provide can only be undertaken in an unscreened
environment. PCS believes for reasons of safety that this is not
the case, as demonstrated by the fact that a number of interactions
outlined above will be undertaken in a screened environment.
21. PCS recognise that the vast majority
of the public never act in a violent manner towards staff. We
also welcome the long overdue expenditure on modernising the benefits
systems particularly the extra spending on information technology
and on modernising and brightening up offices. However, new equipment
and more modern offices are no substitute for proper security
and protection for staff doing a job, which can at times be both
difficult and unpleasant.
22. The current changes being introduced
to Jobcentre Plus represent the start of a process, which hopefully
will provide a better service to claimants over time. However,
improvements in this area depend heavily on the efforts of front
line staff that are generally junior grade civil servants. They
will not feel able to provide the best possible service if they
are constantly worried about their physical safety.
23. There is a certain irony in Jobcentre
Plus seeking to move to an unscreened environment at the same
time that companies like Sainsburys are starting to install screens
at their check out points as a result of assaults on staff. We
believe Jobcentre Plus management urgently need to re-think their
approach to staff safety, re-enter talks with PCS and give staff
safety a much higher priority than it currently receives.
21 January 2002