The DWP has announced today that it intends to follow the Prime Minister’s roadmap, and will fully re-open Jobcentres to the public.
The message DWP has posted on the Intranet says “As society, the economy and the high street begin to open up again over the coming weeks, from Monday 12 April we will return to normal working hours (Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm and Saturday’s for those jobcentres who open then) in our jobcentres across the UK.”. This is linked to the “Plan for Jobs” which they are saying includes “embedding an intensive regime of face-to-face activity particularly focused on our 18 to 24-year-old priority group.” They also go on to say that it is their belief that “we know – from our many years’ experience of delivering a world class welfare system – that for customers the positive routine of visiting a jobcentre regularly supports the behaviours necessary for them to thrive in work. Ultimately, for many of our customers, face-to-face interactions are the most effective way of helping them into work and removing the barriers to employment.”
DWP have also stated that, again from 12 April 2021, they will reintroduce face-to-face interviews under caution and National Insurance Number (NINO) activity, on a phased basis.
It is clear that this will mean a largescale increase in members having to return to office based working, as well as the increased risk of much more face to face contact with customers.
Ignoring the experience of the last 12 months
Over the course of the pandemic, many members have, in increasing numbers, been able to deliver an excellent service to DWP’s customers whilst working from home. Face to face contact has been limited to only the most vulnerable who cannot access the Department’s services in any other way. DWP have learnt that work that they believed for years could only be delivered face to face has been able to be carried out, and to a high standard, both over the phone and in other virtual ways. The Prime Minister himself has praised the work of DWP staff over the course of the pandemic and the DWP have declared the work of staff using technology to contact customers has been successful. Despite this, it now seems to believe that the unemployed will only “behave” appropriately, if they are forced to attend a Jobcentre on a regular basis so they can be spoken to in person.
DWP continue to boldly state that their offices are “covid secure”. PCS does not accept this. The constant flow of business continuity announcements indicating office closures would suggest otherwise.
We acknowledge that much work has been done to improve health and safety in DWP workplaces, but many of those improvements are down to the work that PCS has done with DWP. We have worked with the Department to achieve a safe working environment for our members, and DWP offices have been made safer due to the hard work and diligence of our health and safety reps and negotiators. However, no matter how many measures are introduced there will always be an element of danger inherent in both working in, and travelling to, an office.
One of the key safety measures during the pandemic has been working from home. Something that PCS have fought for since the beginning of the pandemic. We have welcomed the continuing increase in numbers of staff who have had working from home facilitated and strongly believe this to be the safest way of working until the pandemic is much more under control.
Despite this, DWP are now stating that “Those colleagues in front of house service delivery roles will largely be workplace based – to serve our customers – but will remain enabled to work remotely when agreed with their line manager.” This means we will inevitably see more Work Coaches being asked to come in to the office. The announcement also says that “In future, back of house service delivery and corporate roles will be able to work in a more hybrid way (spending some time in the office and some time working elsewhere each week).”
Whilst the announcement indicates that some working from home, particularly blended working, will continue, it also makes clear that certain parameters will exist, citing the application of the following principles:
- Time spent working in the office will be driven by business needs, the type of work we are doing and outcomes;
- Face to face time together is important to the wellbeing of us as individuals and teams;
- We must ensure that there is always a sufficient number of colleagues and the right role mix on site to ensure we can operate safely;
- Hybrid working arrangements (spending some time in the office and some time working elsewhere) will be voluntary, always subject to agreement with leaders.
All of this again indicates that being able to work from home will become less of an option than it is now, and only an option some of the time.
DWP renege on their commitment to Work Coach Empowerment
When DWP first announced last summer, naively believing that the worst of the pandemic was behind us, that they intended to increase operating hours and bring more people back in to Jobcentres, our members, quite rightly, reacted angrily. We held a consultative ballot, where the vast majority of those affected indicated a willingness to take action if DWP did not back down. Due to the concessions gained by the union feedback from our members and branch reps was that we did not need to progress to a full statutory ballot at that time.
A key concession was the empowerment of Work Coaches to decide exactly how they would interact with their customers. In a bizarre use of language DWP have announced that “Work Coaches will be empowered to book mandatory face-to-face appointments again and decide which of their customers to see in person with a strong focus on new claimants and young people.” Rather than remaining “empowered” to decide the best method of dealing with a customer, this sounds very much like they are actually being “instructed” to start concentrating on certain groups of customers and to do so face to face. DWP go on to say they are “Increasing the access to jobcentres for those who need us helps us make use of every tool we have available to get people back into work quickly and effectively.”
This is obviously a very concerning development. The pandemic is far from over, and with vaccine delays, new variants and the general unpredictability of something of this nature, the likes of which none of us have ever experienced, there are huge risks attached to easing restrictions too quickly and too soon. The Prime Minister stated that, in easing lockdown restrictions, the Government would follow “the data not dates”. DWP reiterated to the Trade Unions that they too would follow the same principal, however, this announcement to ramp up activity in Jobcentres from 12 April is the exact like the opposite.
Whilst this is not a return to business as usual, it will see DWP operating in a way that it has not done during any time in the last twelve months, and will increase the potential risks for our members. Although, there is not, as yet, any indication that DWP will be asking all customers to revert to face to face interactions, this is still a huge ramping up of customer activity within Jobcentres and other operational areas. With the massive increase in the numbers claiming benefits since the start of the pandemic, necessitating the opening of new “pop-up Jobcentres”, which will continue at a rapid rate throughout the year, DWP may well find that it is actually quite quickly calling more people into Jobcentres after 12 April this year than it was before March 2020.
The GEC officers meet tomorrow (19 March) to discuss this issue, and we have a full GEC scheduled for next Wednesday. We will also be calling a national virtual meeting of reps, and virtual regionalised members meetings to discuss our response to these developments.
PCS will continue to negotiate with the Department to understand the full implications of the Permanent Secretary’s announcement but will oppose these attempts to increase footfall in our Jobcentres by any means necessary. Further, more detailed communications, will follow in response to the announcement’s impact on specific job roles and the approach required for members and representatives to health and safety.