by Matthew Thompson, Stockport DWP PCS Branch Secretary (personal capacity)
You might think that people claiming benefits would want to be able to speak to someone in a local office about their case. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) however claims that claimants now prefer to deal with call centres and fill out forms online.
The drive to centralise benefit processing in a small number of large workplaces stems from the need to cut 30,000 jobs by 2008 as part of Gordon Brown’s plan to reduce the number of civil servants by 100,000. What then has been the response of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) which represents those in administrative grades facing the sharpest cuts?
PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka and other union officials recently appeared before the DWP Select Committee. Their evidence provides an insight into how they see the union’s current Jobs, Rights and Services campaign.
In response to a question about whether PCS opposes the move from local offices open to the public to the call centre model, they say that while they were against it at the start they have now accepted it and are now only arguing for adequate staffing. They go on to say that they welcome the replacement of “clerical, relatively boring and repetitive work” in local offices with IT-based systems in the new centres.
There are a number of issues with this. Even if the new IT worked properly (and no one claims it does), the union should be arguing that the automation of processes leads to a shorter working week and the redeployment of surplus staff rather than job cuts. The logic of centralisation to reduce costs is also (as leaked DWP documents make clear) that benefit processing work is handed to the private sector who will then offshore it.
What then is the union fighting for in its current industrial action against DWP? Amongst its list of often vague demands (an end to unreasonable targets, adequate staffing) two clear ones can be identified: no compulsory redundancies and defence of the mobility rules which stop management moving more administrative grades more than an hour by public transport from home.
However management have already cut 15,000 of the 30,000 jobs they are looking to lose without compulsory redundancies or changing the mobility rules – by transferring staff, often women with child care responsibilities, to the limit of their current mobility so that they then resign; introducing a recruitment ban so those who leave aren’t replaced; and stepping up the sacking of sick; and disabled staff (now averaging 64 every month).
The union is actually appealing to management to “pause” the job cuts programme while the new call-centre model is introduced given that they are ahead of their target to lose 30,000 staff by 2008.
If PCS is to raise its sights from a managed rundown of staff to a fight for jobs and local services, it will have to look at action that seriously disrupts the employer, in particular targeting the new centralised workplaces, rather than token two-day national protest strikes. And the union’s Socialist Party-dominated “left leadership” will only do that if activists in the branches exert enough pressure on them to make sure they do.