29 July 2004

In the course of pleading for ever closer ties with the DWP and Inland Revenue, David Harker, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, has claimed that the controversial Glasgow DLA pilot - in which out-of-date incapacity benefit medical reports of ‘variable’ quality are used in preference to evidence from claimants - is the result of the DWP and Citizens Advice working together. At the same time, Mr Harker expressed ‘enormous pleasure’ at receiving an award from a multinational business which is profiting from the Glasgow DLA pilot and which also profits from helping the DWP identify alleged benefits frauds – many of whom turn to their local CAB for help.

Glasgow pilot
Since November 2002, claimants in the Glasgow area have been used as guinea pigs for a new claims system (See Unspun article: BOGOF! Old IB medicals reused for new DLA decisions. 29 July 2004). Claimants who ring up for a DLA claim pack are asked a series of questions. Based on their answers, they are then sent a much shorter claim pack. Instead of the current 20 pages provided to give evidence about difficulties with everyday activities the pack has a maximum of 4, one for each question the caller gave the 'right' answer to.

Amongst the criticisms of the pilot are concerns that:
· the short form gives claimants very little space in which to explain their difficulties;
· decision makers choose not to telephone claimants for more details because they are unwilling to accept their evidence;
· instead decision makers are using two year old incapacity benefit reports, which they admit are of ‘variable’ quality, to make decisions about DLA claims, although the two benefits are very different;
· the claims system appears to discriminate against claimants with mental health conditions, a suspicion supported by the a considerable fall in lower rate mobility awards for which the DWP will offer no explanation;
· the percentage of successful claims appears to be significantly lower under the pilot than nationally:
· the percentage of appeals has almost halved under the new system, even though the majority of people who appeal a DLA decision are successful.

Corporate amnesia
If even half the criticisms are true, you might expect national disability and advice agency representatives to be protesting loudly. David Harker, for example, may not be Ming the Merciless when it comes to tackling the DWP, but he’s still a man who gets thing done. After all, he’s already helped Citizens Advice to secure £20 million of our taxes to set up CASE, a system for keeping all CAB client case records online and allowing Citizens Advice ‘to use CASE and e-government services to capture hard data, and provide feedback to Government’. This allows the confidential case records from The high-tech project has been carried out with the help of ‘strategic partners’ Hewlett Packard and LogicaCMG.

What’s more, he is now pushing hard for CABs to have an unprecedentedly close relationship with government departments, even allowing them direct access to client’s claims in their newly proposed role as ‘government intermediaries for e-services’. In fact, so keen is Mr Harker for closer ties that he positively pleaded with the audience at the Government Computing conference in June of this year: “If you are from a government department wanting to develop a successful e-services project in the area of public services, please talk to us”.

Mr Harker is rather less keen, however, to plead the case of claimants who might be losing out under the Glasgow pilot system. Indeed, Mr Harker seems to believe that the Glasgow DLA pilot itself is really all about improving “e-services” and that it is the influence of Citizens Advice which has brought it about. In the same speech he told his audience:

“Some parts of government are already talking to us. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions is developing transactional services for disability benefits. The current application process for disability living allowance includes a 40 page form – clearly not suitable for an online service. The DWP recognise this and are working with us to develop a shorter form, based on a pilot telephone service which reduces the size of the form the claimant receives based on their responses to questions”.

Mr Harker appears to be missing several important points here – not least that if you have to ring someone up and be interviewed before having a paper form put in the post to you it’s probably not, in the strictest most technical sense of the term, an ‘online service’ at all. He also seems to have forgotten that Citizens Advice is just one of ten voluntary sector organisations which sit on the Modern Services Working Group, where limited information about the Glasgow pilot is handed down by the DWP and requests for changes and further information remain unmet. If this really is Citizens Advices idea of ‘working with’ government, there must be some very happy faces at the DWP.

Three clicks to heaven
Not, we should add, that Mr Harker is afraid to criticise the government when it comes to really important things. In his speech he listed a range of problems with government services on the internet, such as the fact that it takes nine mouse clicks to reach the Carers Allowance claim form on the DWP website.

A visit to the Citizens Advice website at www.adviceguide.org.uk is a very different experience. The site is largely government funded and is ‘the main public information service of Citizens Advice’. It aims to ‘empower people by providing them with the information they need to solve their own problems and to signpost them to appropriate advice when necessary’.

By far the commonest problems people seek information and support with, both online and in person at advice agencies, are difficulties with benefits, particularly appeals. Benefits law is extremely complex and deadlines connected with appeals are tight: as little as 14 days for some matters. But thanks to the considerable expertise, staunchly independent advice and skilled representation provided by CABs, the majority of those who get help from their local bureau win their tribunals.

Visitors to the Citizens Advice website can also get information about appeals, and not in any sluggardly nine clicks either. Instead, just two clicks from the home page will take you to a page entitled Benefits and tax credit appeals, which contains the following text:

“This information applies to England, Wales and Scotland. You can find information on this subject in a leaflet called: If you think our decision is wrong which is available from your local social security office or on the website: www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/dwp/2003/gl24_apr.pdf”

And that’s it: from government funded national advice provider to government published booklet in just three mouse clicks. Not a word of independent information to ‘empower’ visitors, no warning about deadlines, not even a ‘signpost’ to point visitors towards their local CAB, with whose help they will have a much better chance of winning their appeal. Instead, just a link to information about appeals from the very government department you’re appealing against.

But then, perhaps Citizens Advice are just demonstrating their huge potential as a trustworthy ‘government intermediary’’.

It’s worth noting, if you are thinking of appealing against a tax credit decision, that the leaflet listed above is actually the wrong one. And you really do need the right one, because the time limit for appeals against tax credit decisions is different to the one for benefits decisions. You can find information on tax credit appeals in a leaflet called: How to appeal against a tax credit decision or award, which is available from your local Inland Revenue office or from: https://www.inlandrevenue.gov.uk/pdfs/wtc_ap.pdf

Oh, and that’s last year’s edition of If you think our decision is wrong, you’ll find the current one at: https://www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/dwp/2004/gl24_apr.pdf

I wonder, could this website possibly belong to the same Citizens Advice which recently produced a joint report with the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm) entitled ‘Better connected: advice for citizens’. The report examined government websites looking at how easy it was for users to find the information they needed and use the services provided. Not surprisingly it found that ‘government websites have some way to go before they will be able to fulfil citizens' needs for information and services’. Perhaps a tad self-servingly, the report also concluded that there was a significant potential role for voluntary sector intermediaries in helping citizens access government online services. The report is available for the hugely accessible price of £95 a copy from Socitm. Socitm will also carry out a detailed assessment of your website in order to ‘help you see your website the way that the outside world sees it’ for a mere £1,950.

Hmm . . . any small change left from that £20 million, David?

(I know, you could undoubtedly pick numerous holes in the Benefits and Work website. But then, our acceptance speech for awards from big business is still gathering dust on the mantelpiece, right next to the taxpayers’ cheque for £20 million we haven’t yet got round to cashing).

Anything you say will be . . .
Interestingly, in the same June speech, in relation to Citizens Advice’s £20 million IT project, Mr Harker said that “It was an enormous pleasure to have our success recognised in last night’s BT Syntegra Innovation Awards, where we were the winner in the government to citizen category”. The awards were made at ‘a gala dinner on the Thames in London’ which would have been attended by Lord Filkin, Parliamentary under secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, if he hadn’t been ‘called away at the last moment on urgent parliamentary business’.

Coincidentally, there is one big business to which the DWP has paid large amounts of taxpayers’ cash for consultancy services in connection with the Glasgow DLA pilot. This has included payments for help developing a computerised decision making system. That company is . . . well, oddly enough, it’s BT Syntegra.

BT Syntegra says that it “helps organisations transform the way that they operate by applying business knowledge and technology”. For the last seven years its main contract with the DWP has been for the development and management of the DWP’s fraud detection systems. BT Syntegra claims their systems have resulted in over 167,000 referrals to Counter Fraud Investigation Services in the last year alone and have led to millions of pounds of overpaid benefits being recovered.

Mr Harker clearly sees nothing inappropriate about Citizens Advice collaborating with the DWP and BT Syntegra on a pilot project which may result in many DLA claimants not having their voices heard and not receiving benefits to which they are genuinely entitled. Nor about Citizens Advice being so enormously pleased to receive an award from a company which makes money from tracking down potential overpayments and fraud. Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to detect and prevent fraud. But bear in mind that local CABs help thousands of clients every year who have been wrongly accused of fraud or who are being wrongly pressured into repaying overpayments which were due to errors by the DWP. Many of those clients are people with serious mental or physical health conditions and people who do not have English as their first language. They are the kind of people who desperately need their advisers to be entirely independent advocates against an increasingly computerised, complex and implacable benefits system. Not the strategic partners and intermediaries of the organisations which are pursuing them unfairly in the first place.

The BT Syntegra award, it should be noted, was for “effective service delivery or interaction with citizens”. It’s also worth noting that the Office of Government Commerce lists eleven strategically important suppliers of IT to the government, three of these are: BT Syntegra, LogicaCMG and Hewlett Packard.

Mr Harker’s vision of the future, it seems, is one in which Citizens Advice, big business and central government grow ever more entwined in collaborative, computerised interaction with citizens. The Citizens Advice IT project, for example, was chaired by Ian Alexander, then Finance Director and now Deputy Chairman at the John Lewis Partnership. And, in relation to his crusade for Citizens Advice to collaborate as ‘government intermediaries’, Mr Harker also talks in business terms:

“And the business case? The case for change is clear – a win-win of improved customer service to citizens who are amongst the most disadvantaged, combined with efficiency savings across major high spending government departments. This is an election winner for any government . . .”

So, now you know. Whether you’re a civil servant seeking debt advice from a CAB because you’re about to be made redundant due to efficiency savings, or a DLA claimant appealing against a decision based on an out-of-date, computer generated medical report, don’t you be glum: as Mr Harker says, this is a “win-win” business . . . umm . . . just not for you, citizen.

Response from Citizens Advice 24.08.04

I'd be happy to discuss what we are actually doing.

We think it would help advisers if they could get secure online access to their clients' claims details, decisions, payment information and so forth. We have been discussing this with DWP. Discussions with DCS have been about asking advisers views on the shorter DLA forms, which are going to be used to develop online applications for DLA and AA. We haven't formally been given any of the results from the Glasgow pilots, and I would expect advisers to have views that DCS should take into account. We previously arranged for DCS to do roadshow presentations to advisers on medical examinations, and there was no shortage of forthright criticism.

There is no agreement yet about whether CAB can act as intermediaries for any govt e-services, but we are trying to ensure that there is a role for advisers in shaping the development of the services so that they genuinely meet the needs of clients and advisers, and do not just offer a worse service. The drive for efficiency savings means that government is looking at potential intermediaries as a way of withdrawing some services, but this is clearly at odds with the CAB service role in providing independent advice.

John Wheatley
e-Government Policy Strategist
Citizens Advice

Please note: nothing in this piece is intended to reflect upon local Citizens Advice Bureaux, as opposed to the national body, now confusingly renamed Citizens Advice. Volunteers and paid staff at local bureaux deserve nothing but respect for their dedicated, independent and genuinely effective ‘interaction with citizens’ – for which, oddly enough, they don’t seem to qualify for any big business awards.

Read about BT Syntegra’s fraud busting activities

Read David Harker’s speech on successful IT project management


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