Scandal of the £51 million bung to Citizens Advice to prop up Universal Credit via a secret pact with the DWP

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With regards the Citizens Advice* £51 million ‘help to claim’ Universal Credit grant from the DWP there are serious concerns about how it damages public trust in the need for truly independent advice and guidance. For many, especially social security claimants, services delivered and funded by the DWP are fundamentally tainted by association to so many “grotesque government policies” and avoidable deaths.

MPs have also said the DWP Universal Support plans are “Woefully inadequate” and this grant does little more than help a few people claim Universal Credit and does not address it’s inherent design flaws, it just helps impose the misery that is Universal Credit on Citizens Advice service users, through this £51,000,000 bribe.

Citizens Advice provides help to large numbers of those punished by Universal Credit: with disabled people and families losing thousands of pounds by claiming UC, vast rises in debt and visits to foodbanks, rent arrears, evictions, survival crime, 5 week delays in first payments and the horror of it’s inbuilt benefit sanctions and excessive conditionality.

One example of excessive conditionality, is the compulsory work search expectation of 35 hours per week for unemployed Universal Credit claimants, introduced by the Tory and LibDem coalition. Even Universal Credit workers on low income can be required to undertake work search, so if working for 16 hours on minimum wage they would be required to spend 19 hours seeking more or better paid work.

Whereas the average time spent on work search was apparently “eight minutes a day“, so the Tories and LibDems thought 300 minutes a day, 7 days to be OK. This expectation includes inescapable digital workhouse monitoring through the DWP ‘find a job‘ (previously Jobmatch) websites and the Universal Credit account.

“U.S. devotes about 41 minutes to job search on weekdays…12 minutes in the average European country… American job seekers search about 29 minutes more per weekday than European job seeker” [ emphasis added ]
IZA – ‘Job Search and Unemployment Insurance: New Evidence from Time Use Data August 2008‘ – Published in Journal of Public Economics, 2010, 94 (3-4), 298-307

How much money will a new Universal Credit claimant lose if they cannot book a ‘help to claim’ appointment if Citizens Advice does not have capacity to deliver the ‘support’, or there will be a long delay? Or in situations when no local Citizens Advice exists, like in Ealing or in Liverpool Central as the service was “terminated” by Citizens Advice. Adding to the 137 branches that have vanished since 2004, 100 of which since the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.

Against this background, does Citizens Advice campaign and advocate for Universal Credit to be stopped and abolished?

No, it decides to act as a mere duplicitous adjunct of the DWP and even agrees to a mealymouthed gagging grant clause that prevents them from being ‘unfair‘ to the DWP. As if ‘fairness‘ is a guiding principle of the DWP.

Besides the unacceptable gagging clause why did Citizens Advice agree to keep its ‘help to claim’ proposals and DWP negotitations secret and not engage with claimant led organisations and activists, let alone the advice and guidance sector on the best ways to support UC claimants and challenge the gross iniquity that is Universal Credit?

Did Citizens Advice even ask local Citizens Advice services, which are all “independent charities“, whether they wanted to or had suitable expertise or premises to deliver on the grant requirements? Maybe like Liverpool Central Citizens Advice termination, other branches may consider going fully and truly independent of Citizens Advice, let alone the DWP shilling?

“We have had a great deal of interest in our work and progress due to termination, indeed a number CABx have been in touch to explore how we achieved or results and to learn from us”
Liverpool Community AdviceAnnual report 2016/17 – accessed 14/8/19

For critical insights and comments from advice workers, check out the rightsnet forum thread ‘Citizens Advice to provide Universal Support from April 2019‘, some extracts below.

“The amount being provided by the government cannot come close to allowing Citizens Advice to expand into the bigger and better premises, to purchase and install the numbers of new computers and IT networks and to train and employ the numbers of new staff required to properly deliver Universal Support without this significantly impacting on Citizens Advice’s ability to do what it is supposed to be there for – delivering free and independent advice to the public. So leaving aside issues of independence, impartiality and conflict of interest, this inevitably means that CA is going to be less available to provide advice…

This new contract just adds to the gradual watering down of CA – you do not need an adviser to deliver US…

Magic up more interview rooms?…

…local CA pilot project is offering 5 appts a week for face to face UC claim support…

Finally, to what extent did Citizens Advice consult individual CABX before agreeing to take such a huge wad of money?”
RightsNet: ‘Citizens Advice to provide Universal Support from April 2019‘ – October 1st 2018

This all makes it easy to conclude that Citizens Advice does not believe in full transparency and accountability in the procurement and provision of government funded public services.

For some time Citizens Advice has been drifting away from its apparent independence to closer alignment to government agendas hostile to its service users (the public), one expression of this drift was its 2015 ‘Responsive welfare: local, digital and intelligent‘ proposals, which put forward many absurdities like benefit rates to be decided on a local basis.

“We [Citizens Advice] warmly welcome DWP’s efforts to move towards modernised ways of claiming benefits online which are driven by an understanding of what people need from Government, and which save money. The Universal Credit Digital Project passing its alpha review assessment is particularly welcome.
[ emphasis added ]
Responsive welfare: local, digital and intelligent‘ – Citizens Advice – January 2015

Especially absurd as digital-by-default Universal Credit is not responsive to peoples actual needs and realities. It is more like a kafkaesque nightmare to control and sacrifice lives to the goal of a hyper neoliberal economy that ensures continued institutionalised precarity for millions of socially and economically disadvantaged.

“Political choices made in the rush to ‘digital by default’ benefits, such as universal credit, have eroded people’s rights” [ emphasis added ]
Guardian: ‘How Britain’s welfare state has been taken over by shadowy tech consultants‘ – 27 Jun 2019

In Citizens Advice’s ‘Responsive welfare‘ it says benefit rates should be varied according to locality and implies people living on a meagre “£72.40” a week Jobseeker’s Allowance in Blackburn need less money to live on than those in Islington. In essence, Citizens Advice is calling for the Welfare State to be dismantled further and replaced by social security being conditional upon the ideological vagaries of a localised market economy. This idea also suggests that areas and postcodes in Islington, with high levels of deprivation, should get a rate based on the average person’s wealth in Islington?

“the means test is an assessment of a household’s need for financial support to facilitate a basic standard of living. Because the reality of that need differs around the country, it is illogical that benefit rates do not. A weekly Jobseeker’s Allowance payment of £72.40 goes substantially further in Blackburn than it does in Islington.” [ emphasis added ]
Responsive welfare: local, digital and intelligent‘ – Citizens Advice – January 2015

Citizens Advice needs to ask itself questions about the logic of why the UK provision of social security payments are some of the meanest, compared to other countries. For instance Jobseeker’s Allowance for our nearest neighbour Ireland is currently €203.00/£187.50 a week and £130 a week in New Zealand.

On the “means test” “to facilitate a basic standard of living” how far does this meanness go? Who decides on what is “a basic standard of living”, Citizens Advice or your local party political Council bureaucrat?

“Isle of Wight council offered a 62-year-old homeless woman a voucher to buy a tent.”
Guardian: ‘‘Local welfare’ schemes in England on brink of collapse‘ – October 14th 2018

How does this ‘standard’ fit in with benefit sanctions and means tested DWP Hardship Funds (recoverable loans) for those sanctioned? Or should the rates be pegged at those provided to people seeking asylum from persecution?

“You’ll get £37.75
Asylum support‘ – gov.uk – accessed 14/8/19

DWP determination letters often contain the statement: “how much the law says you need to live on“, seems like Citizens Advice want to introduce a 21st century localised Poor Law, or ‘Dickensianworkhouse‘ delivered within your own home through the Orwellian digital – surveillancepanopticon that is Universal Credit.

“…to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens, rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity in an age of deep and rapid transformation brought about by automation, zero-hour contracts and rapidly growing inequality.” [emphasis added]
Human Rights Council: ‘Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights‘ (pdf) – July 12th 2019

citizensadvicelaw.png

Some further questions being pursued via the Freedom of Information Act is how this dodgy underhand multi million grant came about? Did the DWP approach Citizens Advice on an unsolicited basis and who decided the remit and scope of the UC ‘Universal Support’ service? And why does the DWP not include any references to accessibility, disability and equality obligations in the grant?

It took the DWP 9 months to release the full copy of the grant, after a complaint to the Information Commissioner, even though they had originally claimed DWP and Citizens Advice Commercial Interests trumped the public right to know how public money is used. But at least it did not take 4.5 years to get the information, as was the case in the landmark forced-labour workfare ruling, by the Court of Appeal. [see footnote]

In summary, this £51M grant damages trust and brings the whole Advice and Guidance sector into disrepute and reinforces the belief that, like Charity and Third Sector collusion and contracts with the DWP Health and Work Programme, Citizens Advice is now also part of a Shadow State that uses its Commercial Interests to become the governments puppet.

“Citizens Advice cannot now be considered impartial as there is Govt money involved. They have kissed the Devil’s backside, and I suspect will come to regret it.”
RightsNet: ‘Citizens Advice to provide Universal Support from April 2019‘ – October 1st 2018

On a final note, this grant means Citizens Advice is now part of the basic investigate transparency toolbox to uncover financial scandals which is to always:

follow the money

Acknowledgement: This item came about about after a discussion with John Pring of the Disability News Service and his follow up article: ‘Citizens Advice signed gagging clause in return for share of £51m from DWP‘ of August 15th 2019. In this article, Dr Jay Watts highlights how people will still approach Citizens Advice, but this “pact with the devil” will influence its capacity ‘not to bite the hand that fed‘ it £51 million.

*£39 million for Citizens Advice (279057) and £12 million for Citizens Advice Scotland (SC016637), herein referred to under the doppelgänger term ‘Citizens Advice’.

Published 16/8/19 3pm

Footnote

“The Court of Appeal’s judgment in Department for Work and Pensions v Information Commissioner and Zola [2016] EWCA Civ 758 (‘Zola’) provides an authoritative restatement of key freedom of information principles of relevance to businesses, campaigners and anyone with an interest in information rights.” [emphasis added ]
Bindmans: ‘FOIA and commercial interests: lessons from Zola‘ – 08 September 2016

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