Pay, staffing and office closures
The October meeting of the group executive committee agreed a campaign on pay, staffing and office closures. During September and October GEC members covered the length and breadth of the country holding members pay meetings. The 2019 offer from DWP was overwhelmingly rejected by the membership, and they were clear that the department must go back to the Treasury and demand more money, if we are to properly address the increasingly serious issue of low pay in DWP. In particular the below inflation rises received by the vast majority of staff were seen as a pay cut in real terms; and those AOs who opted out of the employee deal and now found themselves paid below the AA spot rate, coupled with the reality hundreds of DWP staff will need to receive an uplift in April in order to be paid the National Living Wage, were angry that the DWP had reneged on their commitment to review the ED rates of pay, despite the rise in inflation.
It is clear that we need to begin work now to put pressure on DWP to address the issue of low pay in DWP and to get them to address the many anomalies that have been created by Employee Deal. It was also clear from those meetings that lack of staff has become a real issue. Similarly we are getting nearer to the date when DWP will start to make final decisions on the sites that were deemed “transitional” as part of the people and locations programme. DWP cannot afford to lose the staff who work in those locations, and those locations cannot afford to lose the jobs that DWP provides. It is clear, reinforced by the current situation with Balham, that closing these sites will result in inability to offer alternative work and the very real threat of compulsory redundancy.
20,000 more staff for 2020
In October DWP’s overall staffing figure dipped below 80,000 for the first time ever. While the high-point for staffing in the department was during the financial crisis, so there is some explanation as to why DWP now has fewer staff, at that high-point there were over 130,000 people working for DWP. The reduction in workload does not justify a reduction of over 50,000!. In addition, DWP is currently being resourced on the basis that it is implementing a major benefit reform, in the shape of Universal Credit, which means that the ultimate goal is for DWP to operate on an even lower staffing figure.
It is clear that there are backlogs in nearly all areas of DWP, with all parts of legacy benefit processing, retirement provision, CMG and Universal Credit reporting significant pressures. Frontline staff in jobcentres report that many corners are being cut, and that there is evidence of significant out of grade working as a result of incorrect staffing levels. No branches reported on any business areas where things were on an even keel.
Before the GEC last met we had already asked branches to provide us with estimates of how many more staff they believed were needed in order for our members to be able to deliver a decent service to the people who rely on DWP. From the feedback we received we were able to use the information to calculate an overall staffing demand to put to the employer. The consultation with branches told us that we would need around 20,000 extra staff. As a result we have written to DWP to demand that they recruit an extra 20,000 staff, reminding them of their responsibility to both its workforce and the millions of vulnerable members of society who need its services.
DWP responded by confirming that they were planning to recruit an additional 2100 staff, but were not in a position to commit to anything further. They also indicated that they would have a better idea of their future ability to recruit by January 2020. Whilst any extra staff are to be welcomed, all of the proposed recruits will be Fixed Term Appointments, the total figure is barely over 1/10th of the number we believe are really needed and they do not even make up for the number of staff that have left DWP during 2019.
There have been significant staffing problems in some Universal Credit sites throughout 2019, and the GEC whole-heartedly supported strike action when members in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Stockport voted to do something about their lot. However, the issues were isolated and the same pressures were not being felt in all UC service centres. While management made very little concessions in these three sites, they did make significant moves, agreeing to recruit over 60 extra staff, when members in Derby service centre held car park meetings and indicated a willingness to also be balloted. We believe that the pressures in Universal Credit are not going away, and will only get worse. We also believe that many of the issues are shared by our members delivering UC in jobcentres. A joint meeting of the Universal Credit and work services advisory committees was called for 17 December (and should be taking place as this edition goes to print). That meeting will discuss how the staffing campaign is taken forward across the UC part of DWP.
We will be building on our campaign in the new-year, liaising with the PCS campaigns and communications department and putting our case to the PCS Parliamentary Group once the newly elected parliament is in place. We will provide members with regular updates.
When DWP announced the People and Locations Programme in 2017 it was clear that the issue that would have the most significant impact on the largest number of PCS members was that of the sites that DWP deemed to be “transitional”. There are over 40 “transitional” sites, most of which are medium to large processing locations. The department’s stated position was that these were sites, for which they had no strategic long-term plans, and the majority were given a potential closure date of 2021, with the remainder potentially closing in 2023. More recently DWP have confirmed that they do intend to proceed with the closure of these sites.
Many of these sites are in locations where there will be no redeployment opportunities within a reasonable distance, neither in DWP nor within, the ever shrinking, wider Civil Service. This means that many of our members face the prospect of losing their job if DWP succeed in pushing through their plans to close these sites.
PCS campaigned against the office closures that were proposed in the first part of the people and locations programme, and there were some notable successes, particularly in stopping the immediate closure of Barrow and Bishop Auckland. However, both these sites were only given temporary reprieves and were reclassified as “transitional” and are no under threat again. The GEC believe that we need to build a campaign to defend these sites and to save our members jobs. We have now called a meeting of reps from all of these sites, which will take place in early January, and we will build a campaign based on the views we get from that meeting.
The benefit centre in Balham is one that was on the list of “transitional” sites. Earlier this year the landlord announced that it was ending the lease on the building, effectively forcing DWP to bring forward the closure and leave the building by the end of March 2020. This gave a perfect example of what we will be up against if DWP plough ahead with their wider plans.
PCS argued that DWP should have moved all of the work and all of the staff into alternative civil service premises in the local area. Regrettably DWP refused to do this, citing their long term plan to move all DWP processing work out of London. This is a matter of great concern, not just for the members at Balham but also for members working at the other processing sites in the London area at Hackney, Stratford and Watford. All of these sites are badged as transition sites with lease breaks in 2021 to 2023.
Instead of keeping the work at Balham in London, DWP ran a voluntary redundancy exercise. This followed on from a voluntary exit scheme run at Balham in the summer. The vast majority of the staff remaining at Balham accepted voluntary redundancy. However some of these said that their preference was to be redeployed if possible before their notice period ends on 31 December 2019.
There are also a small number of staff who did not accept voluntary redundancy. As a result they are now at risk of compulsory redundancy though, at the time of writing, they have not been issued with formal six month notice of compulsory redundancy.
PCS has made clear to management our complete opposition to the use of compulsory redundancies in DWP. There are currently just 8 staff at risk of compulsory redundancy at Balham and the idea that a job cannot be found in the London area, either in DWP or in another department, to allow these staff to stay working in the civil service is hard to believe. Staff in DWP are already over-worked and it makes no sense for DWP to force any member of staff to leave when there is s much work for them to do.
PCS has been working hard to ensure that redeployment opportunities are found for those that want them. We have had some successes and a number of staff from Balham have been successfully redeployed. However while there are still any members that want to continue to work in the civil service PCS will continue to do everything we can to ensure that they are all redeployed and avoid compulsory redundancies.
The future of processing work in London
The closure of Balham is just the latest step in DWP’s long-term aim of moving alL processing work out of the capital. Those with long enough memories will remember the Moody review back in the late 1980s, which was used by the then DSS to begin a process of relocating benefit processing work out of London.
Very few processing sites remained in London by the time of the people and locations programme, but DWP chose to close the Wembley Benefit Centre as part of the first round of closures in that programme. DWP has made it clear that it now plans to only carry out work in London that has to be done in London. This statement does not particularly stand up to scrutiny, as there is much of the work carried out in Caxton House that could be carried out elsewhere, but DWP have confirmed that it has no plans to move work from that office. Similarly, they have also given a commitment to keeping the work that is currently carried out in Ilford in that location. However, what it has made clear to PCS is that benefit centres in Stratford and Hackney, along with the one in Watford (which DWP deem to be in London, for the purposes of these plans) will close in the near future.
Members in Balham were balloted for strike action, but we were unable to achieve the 50% turnout, needed under current anti-trade union laws, in order to take action. Despite this we will continue to work with our DWP London region in its campaign to save processing work in the capital. Members in Stratford have recently indicated a willingness to take action when they were temporarily moved on to Brexit work. Car park meetings were held and demands put to management around working conditions and pay, as there was a potential pot of money available to reward staff for carrying out Brexit-related work that DWP was not attempting to access. However, due to there being very little actual demand for the work that our members had been assigned to, DWP did not provide support to Brexit and the staff returned to their normal roles. We now want to build on the work being done to take forward a campaign to keep processing work in the London region. Again in January GEC officers will be meeting with reps from London, and reps from our Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire branch (who represent our members in Watford).
Your GEC is committed to building a campaign, involving as many members as possible, to get the staffing levels we need and to defend our workplaces from the threat of closure.