State of flux

Agencies are merging, sprouting and mutating.
Gary Vaux provides a guide to the new structures.

Have you caught up with the fact that the
Department of Social Security has been abolished? Since the summer
it has been replaced by the Department for Work and Pensions

In addition, the Benefits Agency (BA)and the
Employment Service will disappear in April 2002. All claimants of a
working age, whichever benefit they claim, will be dealt with by a
new organisation called Job Centre Plus.

Widows, carers and people who are sick or
disabled will, with a few exceptions, have to face a “work-focused”
interview at the local job centre before getting benefit. The
compulsory interviews will be repeated at intervals throughout the

The new organisation is already in place in 50
pathfinder offices across the country. And there have been
difficulties already. In some areas, BA staff have taken industrial
action over the issue of staff security. Most BA offices have
screens separating claimants and staff, unlike most job centres. As
the new organisation hopes to resemble the better class of job
centre, the hope of the DWP was that the new offices will also be
“unscreened”. There is considerable staff opposition to this.

People over pension age will be dealt with by
the Pensions Service from April 2003. This organisation will
administer retirement pensions and income support (and pension
credits from October 2003, which will replace income support for
pensioners). It won’t handle attendance allowance claims however,
which will be dealt with by a separate organisation, which will
also deal with disability living allowance.

The Pensions Service will be largely based on
call-centre principles in that it is expected that most of its
business will be conducted by phone or letter. Local services will
be provided by Pensions Service staff in “outposted” offices, such
as community centres, libraries and social services buildings.

The new structure has implications for social
work clients. Will the service offered by the new organisations
meet the needs of our clients: disabled people who need benefits
advice as well as employment guidance, for example? Will the focus
on employment mean a poorer service for people who will never
realistically work? Will pensioners be comfortable with the new
phone-based arrangements?

Job Centre Plus local office managers have
already been strongly urged by their line management in the DWP to
get involved in local strategic partnerships, joint improvement
plans (for example, on welfare to work for disabled people) and so
on, which should lead to greater strategic consultation.

On the other hand, the DWP recently launched a
revised, shorter claim form for income support for pensioners but
then failed to ensure that enough copies were actually available in
local offices for people to use. In Leicestershire, the BA is
piloting a new outreach service, based on computerised touch-screen
information booths in post offices – but failed to check the
content, so that the information was out of date in places and
wrong benefit rates were given.

Clearly, there is still development work to

Gary Vaux is head of
money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He regrets that he is unable
to answer queries in person, either by post or by telephone. If you
have a question to be answered in Welfare Rights please write to
him c/o Community Care.

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