On 29 June, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced that it was re-introducing benefit conditionality, or sanctions, from 1 July. Conditionality was suspended at the start of lockdown for all claimants as it wasn’t practical to look for work. This also meant that staff could be redeployed on processing the millions of new Universal Credit claims.
Secretary of State (and arch right-winger) Therese Coffey announced her intention that 14 Jobcentres would open on 2 July. As it happens only one opened, Marylebone. That was going to open come what may so Coffey could get her photo op and the DWP could produce a sinister propaganda video.
The health and safety officer of the DWP London region PCS [civil service workers’ union] attended the Marylebone site risk assessment the day before, along with the PCS branch secretary. Both have extensive health and safety experience.
They both said they could not sign off the risk assessment because of inadequate control measures, mostly around cleaning of devices used by members of the public, PPE, and control measures for BAME staff.
Like many corporate organisations, DWP have attempted to appropriate the Black Lives Matter campaign. They tell us they are in listening mode when they could say that BAME staff can shield, just like they do with staff that have health issues that make them extremely vulnerable.
Nationally PCS has been unable to sign off the national risk assessment due to its inadequacies and the undue haste of the consultation process, which could be measured in hours rather than days. A Zoom call was held for all DWP reps, and 225 joined.
National lay negotiators and the Full Time Officer who is head of bargaining explained that the Union will back any member, or groups of members, who wish to withdraw themselves from serious and imminent danger. They did not go as far as to encourage action.
As we go to press we do not yet know how many members will withdraw themselves from the workplace. This is a structure test for the union.
Like the rest of the movement, our structures are not in the best of shape at the moment. We can have all the legal rights in the world but they are no good if we can’t enforce those rights through collective action.
As for sanctions, a DWP select committee report published in November 2018 described them as “at worst counter-productive”. Sanctions increase the hostility between the individual and the DWP. There is very little evidence that sanctions make individuals more likely to get a job, or move closer to the labour market to use the Government’s parlance. They should be abandoned.
Leaving aside moral arguments, they should be dropped on the basis of efficacy. That is unlikely to happen because they are there for ideological reasons. It’s your fault you haven’t got a job!
The question then posed is how do we get rid of them. Some have argued that PCS should have a policy to encourage members not to implement them. That would probably constitute industrial action and require a ballot.
PCS has recently had three national ballots, two of them statutory, on the issue of pay. We have been unable get over the 50% threshold. That was not because we have had national leaders or a bureaucracy trying to stop a strike. The National Executive and HQ officers wanted strikes to happen.
As I’ve said above, the PCS structures are in a dire position at the moment. They need re-building. Some of us have been arguing for years that many in the leadership in denial about where we are organisationally as a union.