2 October 2006
Citizens Advice has issued a statement confirming revelations, first made by Benefits and Work, that it is involved in a Pathways to Work bid with the Shaw Trust.
The organisation claims that its involvement will be 'beneficial' to claimants and dismisses the project as being 'relatively small scale'. Astonishingly, Citizens Advice is confident that it will still be seen as 'independent' even by claimants who believe they have been unfairly treated under the compulsory Pathways project.
Failure to respond
Citizens Advice released their statement to Rightsnet on 22nd September. This was only after our second article on the subject, Citizens Advice secret partner revealed published on 19th September, had correctly exposed their partnership with Shaw Trust and the precise role they were being asked to play. Citizens Advice, ignoring this, complain that our initial story Citizens Advice applies to help cut disabled benefits published on 29th August 'contains significant and numerous factual errors' and 'appeared without prior comment or input from Citizens Advice.'
What the statement does not go on to disclose, however, is that both Citizens Advice and the statement's author Ben McGurry, Financial Inclusion Partnership Manager, failed to respond to any of Benefits and Work's requests for them to comment on the issue.
Citizens Advice's statement says that their 'in principle commitment' to provide 'independent money and welfare benefits advice' has been made:
'. . . on the understanding that we will be subcontracted only to provide independent advice to those service users who wish it and will not be involved in any capacity in the sanctions processes involved here.'
Many observers, however, will question the extent to which it is possible for Citizens Advice to take money for helping to deliver Pathways but deny any responsibility for the sanctions that are a vital part of its functioning.
Citizens advice also claim that the provision of their service is what claimants want:
'It would seem likely that service users will wish to seek independent advice on the issues raised by their engagement with the Pathways to Work programme, particularly to evaluate whether they are likely to be better or worse off financially as well as whether they have been treated fairly by the benefits process.'
Whilst there is no question that claimant's want and need independent advice, there is a big question as to whether they will believe they are getting it from advisors paid for by the DWP.
In addition, Citizens Advice explain that the project is 'relatively small scale equivalent to employing eight full time equivalent paid advisers'. Perhaps it is the project's relative insignificance that has led to the organisation's complete lack of urgency in considering the ethics of their involvement:
'The next stage of the competition is expected to develop over the next few months and we need to decide in more detail whether to proceed with this, in the event that Shaw Trust are invited to continue. We expect a view to taken (sic) on this having regard to fit with the aims, policies and principles of the Service and our Corporate Strategy, and other considerations such as capability to deliver and consistency with our social policy work.'
Trust me, I'm an advisor
Citizens Advice's statement, clearly made with great reluctance only after the whole story had emerged, leaves many questions unanswered.
Why, for example, did Citizens Advice not consult with its own member bureaux, let alone the wider community of 'service users' before agreeing 'in principle' to be part of the compulsory Pathways project?
Why are Citizens Advice content to wait until they are sure the project will go ahead before looking at whether it is ethical to have agreed to be involved?
Why should the DWP, via the Shaw Trust, be able to purchase preferential treatment for the claimants it chooses when so many others are desperate for independent advice?
But there is a bigger question still. The disabled claimant who first alerted Benefits and Work to this story told us:
"I find that the increasing enthusiasm of the third sector to provide services previously carried out by the state rather disturbing. Rather than being independent of government it seems that the third sector is becoming the third arm of government . . . there will eventually be no-one to turn to for independent advice, representation or assistance."
So, the biggest question of all is: will claimants still trust Citizens Advice Bureaux once they discover that some of them get money from the DWP? Unfortunately, by the time we have the answer, it may be too late to do anything about it.