Whitehall focus DWP job cuts affecting services, says union

8 Dec 05
The Department for Work and Pensions this week conceded that its modernisation review has damaged services increasing the prospect of up to 100,000 staff taking strike action in January.

09 December 2005

The Department for Work and Pensions this week conceded that its modernisation review has damaged services – increasing the prospect of up to 100,000 staff taking strike action in January.

But DWP officials dismissed claims by Whitehall's Public and Commercial Services trade union that 30,000 planned job cuts are responsible for the service disruption across benefits offices in recent months.

DWP sources this week told Public Finance that other reforms, notably staff retraining under the Customer Management System initiative to overhaul IT systems 'had a short-term impact on the ability to process benefits'. CMS was set up in 2004 to improve the payment of new and repeat benefit claims.

Staff at the DWP's JobcentrePlus offices answered just 59% of calls to the agency's telephone service during the June-September period, against an 'industry standard' of 90% – missing 1 million calls in the process and leaving thousands of claimants facing extended waits for funds.

The PCS claimed that was 'firm evidence' that the 14,500 job cuts already overseen by mandarins since 2004 have, contrary to ministers' claims, hindered the ability to deliver key services. The DWP must shed 15,500 more posts to meet its headcount reduction target outlined in Sir Peter Gershon's efficiency review.

The PCS this week balloted DWP staff over a potential national two-day strike in January, claiming that the job cuts were also placing 'unacceptable' pressures on remaining staff.

A PCS spokesman said: 'We are not calling on the DWP to scrap all the job cut plans. We simply want the department to freeze the planned cuts and review the situation amid growing evidence that services to vulnerable people are not being delivered effectively.'

General secretary Mark Serwotka said Jobseeker's Allowance claimants were now waiting eight weeks before they received their first payments, compared with a previous average of 12 days.

Figures sent to PF indicate that just 50% of JobcentrePlus customers receive an appointment date within three days of using the service, against a DWP target of 80%. Around 26% of customers wait between four and six days simply to receive an interview appointment, against a target of just 10%.

Some regional offices have fared even worse. The PCS spokesman said the situation in Sheffield, for example, was so bad that the Salvation Army had been handing out food packages to claimants who had not received payments.

Explaining the poor CMS performance over the summer, a DWP spokeswoman said: 'JobcentrePlus is now operating at a call answer rate of 93%. The reason for the short-term [summer] performance… has been attributed to the inevitable

changeover period when staff have new training requirements and must familiarise themselves with a new system.'

The DWP claimed the PCS was aware of the subsequent performance improvement. Officials said they were 'surprised' that the union had decided to ballot members over strikes, following a series of 'productive' recent talks.

'Strike action will help no-one, particularly the vulnerable customers we serve,' the spokeswoman said.

Pay-offs to Acas staff are 'in breach of Treasury guidance'

Sir John Bourn, the head of the National Audit Office, has slated the government's conciliation and arbitration service for making unauthorised severance payments to six public servants.

Bourn this week qualified his opinion on the regularity of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service's 2004/05 annual accounts following the discovery of a total of £56,000 paid to staff who had had their contracts terminated as part of a rationalisation plan. The payments breached Treasury guidance on settlements.

Bourn is required to provide his opinion on whether expenditure at government bodies has been undertaken in the way intended by Parliament.

Despite providing an unqualified opinion on the truth and fairness of Acas's submission, he has refused to approve their regularity.

The NAO discovered that four Acas officials received payments to settle employment tribunal cases involving claims of unfair dismissal and 'other breaches of employment law'. One was paid in respect of an early retirement case involving unused annual leave.

A final pay-off, perhaps the most controversial, was made to an employee who, 'as an alternative to dismissal, was allowed to resign with a settlement as part of a compromise agreement'.

The payments were not approved in advance by the Treasury, as required.

Treasury officials later also refused to grant retrospective approval.

'Acas have assured me they understand the requirements for Treasury approval and that no such payments will be made in future unless appropriate approvals have been sought and granted,' Bourn said.


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