A member of PCS Independent Left who is active in DWP writes about the need to use the COVID-19 crisis to challenge cuts and closures.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that there is very little slack in the DWP and its ability to respond to such crises is thrown into sharp relief. This isn’t any wonder when you consider that the department’s budget has been cut from £9.1 billion in 2009-10 to £6.1 billion in 2019-20.
Also the flexible nature of the UK economy, zero hours contracts, millions of workers categorized as self-employed, precarious work etc, has meant employers have dodged their responsibilities to pay their employees sick pay and endangered all of us by forcing people that do not need to go to work, to go, otherwise they may have no money to feed themselves and their families.
Almost an extra 1 million claims to Universal Credit were made in the first two weeks of the crisis. Normally 4,000 claims are made each day. DWP has started to recruit in order to deal with the claims. We are told that staffing will be increased by roughly 10%. East London is one of the areas that has been given permission to go first at it has seen the greatest impact in terms of claims and staff going off.
DWP has recently closed the Balham Processing centre which housed 228 staff.
These staff could have helped process the outstanding claims. Management are pressing ahead with the closure of the Stratford, Hackney and Watford processing centres, meaning there will be no Universal Credit processing centres in London.
Management are proposing to site the new staff in Jobcentres, despite the fact that PCS has raised concerns about overcrowding and social distancing, and they are refusing to post new staff to benefit centres, where there is more space. The reason for this? They are still planning to go ahead with the closures so if they put new staff in the centres and then close them, that is more staff they will have to re-deploy or pay redundancy.
London regional officials have raised this matter with the DWP Group office only to be told it has already been raised with the employer. We are not told what the employers’ response is and members have not been informed that this has been raised. This is an issue PCS needs to go on the offensive about. When DWP and the Government tell us we are key workers, they are right. The case for more service centres to cope precisely with this sort of an emergency will be a very easy one to make post-crisis.