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Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey used her Conservative Party conference speech to announce that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are to fund Citizens Advice to provide Universal Support from 2019. Universal Support provides advice and assistance to help claimants manage their Universal Credit claim and offers other services like budgeting advice and IT training.
Ms McVey’s announcement that Citizens Advice (England and Wales) and Citizens Advice Scotland will receive a total of £51 million has caused widespread upset amongst many in the welfare community. The worry is that this new contract will limit the agency’s ability to push the DWP when they let down claimants.
In her speech McVey said of the deal
“This brand new partnership with Citizens Advice will ensure everyone, and in particular the most vulnerable claimants, get the best possible support with their claim that is consistently administered throughout the country.
Citizens Advice are an independent and trusted organisation, who will support people as we continue the successful rollout of Universal Credit.”
Her sudden concern for vulnerable claimants may be due to the steady stream of bad press her department has been receiving. Be it the rise of foodbank use or the 70,000 Motability cars being taken from disabled claimants weekly, there’s always something highlighting her failure to protect those most in need.
Chief Executive of Citizens Advice in England and Wales Gillian Guy responded to the deal
“We offer independent and confidential advice to millions of people every year, and have already helped nearly 150,000 people with Universal Credit. We’ve seen first-hand what can happen when people struggle to make a claim and their payments are delayed.
“We welcome the opportunity to provide even more people with the help they need with Universal Credit, and deliver a consistent service through the Citizens Advice network across England and Wales.”
“Delivering this service will give us even greater insight into the Universal Credit system. We’ll continue to share our evidence with the government to help make sure Universal Credit works for everyone.”
“We’ll continue to share our evidence with the government.” It’s this line that worries people the most. Claimants and campaigners are worried that Citizens Advice will report too much back to the DWP. Whilst Universal Support is meant to be voluntary, failure to follow the direction of your Work Coach can result in a sanction.
For example, if you tell your Work Coach that you will attend something but end up not going, you will be breaking your claimant commitment. You then face a possible sanction.
For Citizens Advice to receive their funding it’s not much to expect that they will have to report who does and doesn’t attend appointments. Therefore they could be responsible for claimants facing a sanction.
Nearly all government contracts contain clauses that the contractor cannot bring the department they work for into disrepute. Commonly known as a gagging clause. Now Disability News Service (DNS) appear to have confirmed this.
John Pring of DNS asked a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson if such a clause existed in the case of Citizens Advice. The response although not definitive leaves little doubt that Citizens Advice are bound by such a clause.
“Such paragraphs are typical in DWP grants.
“The grant sets out the relationship with DWP and its grant recipients so that both parties understand how to interact with each other.
“The wording is intended to protect the best interests of both the department and the stakeholders we work with, and it does not stop individuals from acting as whistle-blowers under the provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, nor from raising any concerns directly with the department.”
Citizens Advice face a backlash
Can’t believe the Citizens Advice Bureau has sold out to the DWP for £51 million after 79 years of independence. It is near impossible to bite the hand that feeds – as we have seen with so many charities – so a clever way to mute criticism of #UniversalCredit.
— Dr Jay Watts (@Shrink_at_Large) October 2, 2018
No sooner had McVey had announced the partnership, Citizens Advice began to face a fierce backlash across social media. Many campaigners felt betrayed by the agency, myself included. While I am full of praise for the work they have done for people in the past, I am very concerned about the future.
My concern is how they will separate their DWP work from their advocacy work. Also as staff are mostly non paid volunteers where is the £51 million going?
— Welfare Scotland (@welfarescotland) October 1, 2018
Welfare Scotland a not for profit organisation who “campaign for the development of a system which puts the needs of claimants and carers at its centre and a system which fully engages with claimants and carers through the design, implementation and the continual review of welfare service provision.”
Their chair Rob McDowell released a strongly worded statement (seen above) condemning the move. I could list many more examples but instead you can click here to read through all posts related to Citizens Advice on Twitter.
People come out to defend the agency
It would be unfair to say that everyone was critical of the deal. It seems that this subject has split opinion even amongst those who usually agree with each other.
After I tweeted my disaprovsal of the deal I received many replies defending the agency. People were keen to point out that CA are impartial and staff would never risk a claimant being sanctioned. While I agree that there will be staff that won’t report back to the DWP, can we really believe that every single advisor will do this?
Many also pointed out that this would drive people away from seeking help. I cannot argue with this point as I have seen evidence that this is the case. I would still always advise that people seek help when navigating the welfare system no matter the agency providing the service.
While it may stop people from using Citizens Advice does this mean that we should all fall into line with Esther McVey and stay silent? Yes it’s a delicate topic but that shouldn’t mean that we can’t speak out against it.
I will be watching closely to see what comes out of this deal.
UPDATE AUGUST 9TH 2019
Following a ruling by The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have been forced to release the full contract between themselves and Citizens Advice.
Thanks go to Frank Zola for this.
The main takeaway is that there IS an effective gagging clause on Citizens Advice.
Section 34, 2.8 (b) states they cannot bring the Authority’s [DWP] name into disrepute.
This means they cannot criticize the DWP without risking their £34 million contract.
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