Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/417/4752
Civil service strike ballot:
Defending jobs, services and rights
OVER 90,000 PCS members in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will be balloted in December. This is part of the union's campaign against attacks on jobs, services and rights resulting from the so-called "modernisation" programme.
John McInally, PCS National Executive Committee and DWP Group Assistant Secretary, personal capacity
This programme is a key element of New Labour's neo-liberal agenda - they argue that society can no longer afford a welfare state of the type won by workers' struggle in the post-war period.
All governments in the past 35 years have wanted to drastically reduce welfare and other types of social provision, whilst workers want to see genuine improvement and expansion.
The cuts programme in DWP is the biggest and harshest in the public sector, with a projected loss of 30,000 jobs. It is based on the "remote processing" of benefits, pensions etc. This means the centralisation of processes, call centres, office closures and massive job cuts.
New technology is being bought from the private sector. And the prime aim of the programme is to fit the delivery of services within the capacity and capability of the technology and operating systems rather than being based on the needs of our clients, the most vulnerable people in society.
Privatisation of these services is the aim. Management documents show they intend to move toward privatising core functions like labour market advising in the not too distant future.
PCS's left-led DWP Group Executive Committee (GEC) has repeatedly warned ministers and management that to proceed on the basis of untried and untested technology and operating systems while pressing ahead with job cuts and office closures would inevitably lead to service delivery failure. This could affect millions of people and take years to rectify.
To some extent ministers have recognised this - they have diverted resources from other parts of the DWP budget for a recovery plan to prevent complete meltdown in the Child Support Agency.
Management are in denial about the chaos in DWP. But service users, benefit claimants, pensioners etc, are facing increasing exclusion from vital services as a result of conscious policy, for example the bizarrely entitled "reducing footfall" strategy. This may also be because the technology is inadequate, simply does not work, is not fit for purpose or of insufficient capacity.
Some call centres are only answering ten percent of calls. Although we are told to call our users "customers" they are not contacting call centres to order some product but to gain access to vital services, including benefits and pensions.
Backlogs are increasing, as are waiting times for benefit payments and enquiries. IT and communications failures are resulting in crisis management with "emergency" contingencies now commonplace, as is reversion to clerical working. Pressure of work, lack of training and bad planning have resulted in an increase in the error rate. Assaults on staff have increased by 62% in the last year and the type of assaults are getting increasingly serious.
If this wasn't bad enough, the cuts programme is accompanied by an unprecedented attack on terms, conditions and rights, just as PCS predicted it would.
Rather than tackling the root cause of workplace absence, management prefer to harass and intimidate staff through the misuse of "managing attendance" procedures which are being openly used to weed out those who do not easily fit into the new regime.
Rather than work constructively with PCS to tackle issues arising from the avoidance of redundancy measures, management want to scrap current mobility rules so they can make staff work even further away from where they live. Access to flexible and part-time working is becoming more restricted as workloads increase.
The DWP job cuts strategy is the biggest and most extensive in the public sector. It is the most harsh and extensive in the civil service but it is in trouble, as predicted by the left leadership of PCS.
Proceeding with cuts on this scale with untried and untested technology and without proper planning, is resulting in operational difficulty and service delivery failure on a potentially massive scale. Even a small increase in unemployment could test capacity to breaking point.
The GEC has campaigned hard, working with branches and members. There have been some notable successes, including securing important Avoidance of Redundancy agreements and stopping the closures of offices.
Public meetings and demonstrations have been held throughout Britain. Two excellent lobbies of Parliament and much more, including a tremendous DWP turnout on the national civil service strike on 5 November 2004.
The GEC is demanding:
- A moratorium (or halt) to the job cuts. A guarantee of no compulsory redundancy agreement. Proper staffing levels with additional staffing to be deployed where and when required, on the basis of operational need. The removal of failing IT systems and full consultation over future systems.
Management to address the causes of workplace absence, not attack the victims. An end to harassment of staff who are sick through automatic eight-day warnings. No worsening of mobility rules and full rights to flexible and part-time working.
- Free access to all DWP services. An end to the obsession of achieving "targets" at the expense of good service delivery.
These demands are reasonable and achievable and are necessary, if we are to get DWP working again.
Management are not prepared to give concessions that would form the basis of a negotiated settlement. In recent talks they have made it clear they will not move on the key question of headcount flexibility. PCS believes there must be a halt to the cuts while a serious review of the service delivery problems in DWP tales place. If not - to paraphrase a New Labour song - things can only get worse.
PCS wants a negotiated settlement but is not prepared to stand aside and see these damaging cuts in jobs, services and rights continue unchallenged. The willingness of PCS members to take industrial action forced a reversal of plans to attack pension rights.
Management could settle this dispute by engaging seriously with PCS and reaching a settlement that would be in the interests of members, the public and DWP management themselves.
The ballot is due to begin at the start of December and if no settlement is reached the action will begin with a two-day group-wide strike, discontinuous action and an overtime ban. London members recently voted for action in a separate ballot but will now be part of the group-wide ballot.
Maximum unity is now required as we move into the first major ballot of the largest group in the civil service. All activists must work as hard as they can to ensure a big YES for action and a strong turnout to give PCS the strongest possible mandate to win our campaign.
NAO admits system is too complex
THE NATIONAL Audit Office has just declared that Britain's benefit system is too complex. The constant changes to the system have made it difficult to grasp and vulnerable to error.
They recommend that the system should be simplified but they don't say how this can be done at the same time as cutting 30,000 jobs.
In The Socialist 24 November 2005: