19 September 2006
Benefits and Work has learnt from a reliable source that Citizens Advice has formed a secret alliance with leading job brokers Shaw Trust.
The partnership is part of an attempt to win government funding to carry out compulsory interviews with sick and disabled claimants.
This combined bid for the multi-million pound Pathways to Work contract, by the UK's largest advice provider and the country's leading job brokers, looks certain to go through to the next round of the competition this month. However, many Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) staff and volunteers are dismayed at the prospect of this once staunchly independent organisation working for the DWP.
Last month we revealed that Citizens Advice had put in a bid to become a Pathways to Work provider as part of a consortium (See: Citizens Advice applies to help cut disabled benefits 29.08.06.) In Pathways areas incapacity benefit claimants are obliged to attend a series of five work focused interviews. Failure to attend the interviews and take part to the satisfaction of staff leads to cuts in disabled claimants' benefits. When the new Employment and Support Allowance is introduced Pathways providers may also be involved in enforcing work related activities and making decisions themselves about cutting claimant's benefits.
At the time of last month's article, one of the questions we posed, but were unable to get answered, was who are Citizens Advice working with? We now believe that the answer is that they are to be a junior partner in a consortium led by the Shaw Trust. Shaw Trust has been in existence for 24 years and now delivers one third of the government's Job Broking programme under the New Deal for the Disabled.
Although Citizens Advice have still not responded to any of our requests for information, we can now reveal that the planned collaboration with Shaw Trust would involve staff from CABx providing welfare benefits and money advice sessions in Shaw Trust offices to Pathways claimants. Whilst it is clearly good news that claimants will receive knowledgeable advice as part of the project, and that compulsory interviews are not to be carried out in CAB offices, staff and volunteers we have spoken to have expressed anger and dismay at the proposals.
There is particular anger at the fact that Citizens Advice, without consulting its members, appears to be planning such a major break from the tradition of independence of the service. There is a strong feeling that if Citizens Advice takes DWP money for being part of a team that carries out compulsory interviews on claimants and assists with sanctioning their benefits, then it will no longer be able to claim to be either independent of the government or wholly on the side of the citizen. This may affect both the readiness of claimants to trust CABx in the future and their willingness to join the service as volunteers.
CABx staff also expressed concern about the issue of client confidentiality. If interviews are carried out as part of the Pathways programme, will any information disclosed by the claimant be confidential to the CAB or will it be shared with other consortium members or even with the DWP? And what will happen if a claimant wishes to challenge a decision to cut their benefits under Pathways - will they end up seeking representation from a local CAB which was part of the team that cut their benefits in the first place?
There is a further cause for concern that is probably not yet known to most CAB staff.
In June 2005 Shaw Trust's Board of Trustees gained a prestigious new member: Professor Mansel Aylward CB. The Professor's name will be familiar to many Benefits and Work members as the former DWP Chief Scientist who now runs UnumProvident's Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University. (See MPs misled? Stress, depression and ME cured? 26.07.05 ) The main aim of the Centre appears to be to persuade GPs to sign fewer patients off sick.
Professor Aylward CB also played a major role in setting up the Pathways to work project and is one of the authors of the now largely discredited Disability Handbook used by DWP Decision makers. Many CAB Welfare Rights Workers will be deeply perturbed at the prospect of working as part of a team that includes Professor Aylward.
Disability activists, meanwhile, are having to face the reality that challenging the sanctions regime and compulsory work related activities embedded in the proposed Employment and Support Allowance- which many voluntary sector bodies such as MIND and the British Council of Disabled People do not support - has now been made very much more difficult. The DWP will be able to point to Citizens Advice and argue that if such a strong advocate of claimant's rights is willing to help impose compulsory activities and benefits sanctions, then the measures must be reasonable.
Benefits and Work contacted Citizens Advice's press office a week ago seeking confirmation of this story. We have had no response. Nonetheless, we believe its time for Citizens Advice to come clean and explain exactly what it's up to. Their staff, volunteers and clients all have a stake in the future of their local CABx. They have a right to be consulted about such a dramatic shift in the relationship between Citizens Advice and the state machinery it's supposed to help keep in check.