Select Committee on Work and Pensions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 office—one 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 assaults, including;

    —  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 of sickness.

    —  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.

    —  Hardship payments.

    —  Lost instruments of payment (lost Giros).

  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 these circumstances.


  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 counselling.

  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

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 20 March 2002