THE STREATHAM STRIKER No 2
The following article appeared in the Wandsworth Borough News on 14th September 01:
A strike by benefit office workers in Wandsworth and Balham is likely to go nationwide over the next few weeks as the dispute over staff safety concerns gains momentum.
Proposals by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to amalgamate job centres and benefit offices this autumn include plans to remove protective screens for staff.
DWP officials maintain that the screens have been shown to create a hostile environment which is not conducive to new plans encouraging the public to build up a one-to-one relationship with a personal careers advisor at the centre.
But the proposals have prompted angry strike action among benefit workers across Wandsworth, Balham and North London, who claim that their physical safety could be threatened if the screens are phased out.
Meanwhile, residents waiting for social security payments are concerned at the lack of information available on alternative payout venues while the offices are closed.
The DWPs Jobcentre Plus scheme will merge the role of job centres and benefit agencies to enable the public to receive individual careers advice and guidance at the same time as collecting social security payments.
One of the main principals of the new scheme is to introduce personal careers advisors to encourage more personal contact between members of the public and members of staff.
A spokesman for the DWP described the changes As necessary and explained: Under the new scheme, personal careers advisors will be assigned to each individual to offer detailed guidance on how people can get back into the job market.
Research in Glasgow and Australia has shown that aggression is reduced with more personal contact and one-to-one relationships with advisors. But screens act as a barrier to this kind of communication by creating a hostile environment.
Of course staff safety is of paramount importance and we would certainly maintain some screened areas in all our centres, but fewer than are in place at the moment.
Contingency plans have been made for the payout of emergency benefits while the strike continues, he concluded.
But, quoting disturbing statistics which suggest that attacks on benefit workers have doubled to 5,000 in the last year, benefit agency staff are adamant that the screens must remain.
Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) spokesman, Jim Hanson, said: Our main concern is to minimise any risk of attacks on our members which can be serious, especially in some cases when clients are told they are not entitled to benefit for any reason.
A short time ago there was a serious assault where a police officer got stabbed at a benefit centre in Croydon and, most recently, a member of staff at a centre in Wakefield was attacked with a hammer.
We want to make sure staff can work behind protective screens as potential assaults can be completely unpredictable.
The ongoing talks between DWP officials and unionists are expected to continue for some time with unionists predicting that the strike among workers will go nationwide over the next three weeks.
Residents who have had difficulty finding out about contingency plans during the strike, maintained that more communication was necessary.
This strike could cause a lot of hardship in the area, commented one Roehampton resident and pensioner.
My grand-daughter has no money coming in at the moment and with the benefit appeals agency closed as well, theres no other outlet for her to get her job seekers allowance.
My wife and I are helping fund her at the moment but thats difficult because were both pensioners.
But you cant compromise on safety and the agency staff should be supported in their campaign.
London Transport has a well publicised campaign against attacks on staff and so should the benefits agencies, he concluded.
Anyone who is having difficulties finding out about contingency plans for benefit payouts should telephone their benefit agency.
Debate about how to deal with Rachel Lomax's attitude resulted in the following posting on another site "Throw her in a pond. If she floats, burn the witch." You may find this a bit radical.
But if you want to drop her an email, congratulating her on her compassion towards her more junior civil servants, I'm sure she'd be delighted to hear from you. Please use a web based (hotmail) account if you intend to be abusive. And do it often.
Most of the text of Streatham Striker No 2 - mailed out to all our strikers and shortly available from the pickets.
firstname.lastname@example.org (Streatham Strike Centre)
CLOSER TO HOME - ASSAULT AT PUTNEY ESJ
An assault that left a member of staff unconscious took place in Putney Jobcentre last Tuesday 11th September.
A Jobseeker who had recently signed unemployed after a short period of work had been told the previous week that he was not entitled to a payment of JSA until the following Friday (14th) which he seemed to have accepted.
However, he turned up yesterday at Putney ESJ angrily demanding payment, which was refused - he was again told hed have to wait until Friday. He was allowed to speak to Social Fund on the phone regarding a crisis loan.
Having spoken to Social Fund and received an adverse decision, he made to leave the office. As he did so he picked up a fire extinguisher and hurled it at the member of staff. The extinguisher hit him, and was followed up by a punch in the face, the combined effect being to knock out the member of staff for about 2 minutes.
The member was taken to hospital by ambulance feeling sick, dizzy, concussed and in pain and will be off work for some time.
His assailant left the premises and is being sought by the police who will charge him with ABH when they apprehend him. ESJ staff know who he is.
Staff and management at the ESJ are justifiably shaken by this latest incident.
The strike was not to blame - his claim to benefit had been timeously dealt with and the decisions he received were correct.
Of course, had Balham or Wandsworth BO been open to give him the adverse Social Fund decision, it would have been delivered from behind a screen. Also, the screened BA offices do not have fire extinguishers in the Public Waiting areas, as they are not meant for public use - previous BA experience is that fire extinguishers usually bounce off screens.
A Security Guard was attacked with a hammer by a jobseeker in Wakefield ESJ last week. This customer also destroyed £10,000 of computers on the staff desks.
Dont you find it odd that the Government should raise the vigilance states in the offices to amber in anticipation of possible terrorist activity, yet remains blind to the actual threat to staff on their doorstep.
NEWS FROM THE PICKET LINES
On a warming note, it seems that management made a small miscalculation in the number of blacklegs it has been able to bus in. We are informed that of the block booking of 100 rooms at the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury, less than 30 are being occupied. The minibus dropped off only 8 management blacklegs (Thursday) at Balham.
Balham picket was visited on Wednesday by a delegation from Battersea and Wandsworth TUC, who offered support and made a donation to the Branch hardship fund. They are also lobbying the local papers to increase coverage of the dispute.
No problems on the picket lines explaining the dispute to members of the public. They are generally supportive. One Roehampton pensioner, who has been affected by the strike is quoted in the Wandsworth Borough News (14/09/01) as saying; You cant compromise on safety and the agency staff should be supported in their campaign.
Most trades deliveries are also respecting the picket lines, although management is resorting to picking up the mail from the sorting offices later in the day. Post opening-has been centralised at Balham and privatised, but it is not in the contract for the private company to fetch the mail.
All BA offices remain closed to the public except for the handful of emergency payments being made from Balham by appointment - these are arranged by phone, with the claimant being given a time to arrive, ring the bell and whisper his/her password to the security guard who then lets them in (provided they get the password right!).
At Streatham, large numbers of managers have been standing outside the office cheering and applauding strikebreakers as they cross picket lines. Quite why they should adopt such a childish and provocative attitude we are at a loss to understand, and find it bizarre that staff in senior positions are permitted by their even more senior managers to behave in this manner.
Balham Picket recently noticed a couple of foxes in the car park, prompting one wag to suggest they were waiting for a number of rats known to be in the building.
The 26 bullet point Management Propaganda (Volume 1 ???) posted to the home addresses of all BA & ES staff in Brent and Streatham areas.
Commentary is in white text
This is the first of the weekly newsletters we will be sending you during the period of industrial action. To ensure that all of you, whether in work or not, receive the information, we are sending it to your home address. We know where you live.
We will, through this route, keep you up-to-date with vacancies, developments in BA, ES and Jobcentre Plus and in your local offices, and the latest on the dispute. We'll tell you all about the crummy jobs in JCP that we have no immediate prospect of filling, unless we run another promotion board and post the promotees to JCP.
The following update from Streatham has been provided by Dave Ashdown, the Delivery Manager.
- All control measures and systems identified on the local risk assessment are being implemented. Approval has been given for thirty-three CCTV cameras. We like cameras, staff like screens. What we need now is an Art Director. Let's make sure we capture their best profile as the fire extinguishers sail through the air towards them.
- The building work is progressing and is on schedule. The Contact Centre furniture has been installed and the telephony equipment has arrived. Hope they make sure it's all securely bolted down - but then again, there won't be any need for that in our new caring environment, will there?
- Additionally, the screened area is almost complete and the ground floor should be completed by 12 September. Ah yes, the screened "area", that worst of both worlds scenario; it won't take long for the punters to work out the reasons for being sent to a screened area, and learn to take it out on the "advisor" sending them there. The role of the advisor is therefore to include being a "crash test dummy" for the purpose of "fine tuning" the working environment.
- One hundred and seventy nine days of Jobcentre Plus training has so far been delivered and this includes most of the foundation training. With a full training course of 13 weeks almost 3 staff are now ready. Of course, this doesn't include the additional training recommended by the Tavistock Institute (see below).
- All staff on site have seen the virtual tour video which has been received extremely positively and has reminded everyone what we are aiming for. They have also had a tour of the premises. Will all staff who took part please return the special rose tinted virual reality spectacles.
- Process walkthroughs are currently been(?) arranged for all Pathfinder staff. Blinkers will be provided.
- We have an external communications plan, which includes a marketing strategy for contacting our partners about the exciting new developments in Streatham. When it gets heavy, we ring the police and ambulance service with whom we have negotiated a Service Level Agreement - we only have to dial 9 three times and they respond.
The following update from Brent has been provided by Melanie Howell, Pathfinder Manager.
- All control measures and systems identified on the local risk assessments are being implemented. We choose to ignore the fact that these RAs were not signed off by the local TU safety reps.
- Additional CCTV cameras are being placed in each site. We must see if we can fit more cameras than Streatham - everyone deserves their 15 minutes of fame.
- Building work is ongoing. Wembley staff moved to the ground floor over, the weekend of the 8/9 September and all the other sites will be decanting in the coming week, so as to allow the second phase to begin. It may sound like gobbledegook, but our astrologers tell us it's deeply meaningful.
- The Contact Centre furniture has been delivered and is being installed. Where's the phones? Streatham has phones! We must have phones too! We can't deploy the alternative security strategy without them.
- Training is ongoing, with most staff attending foundation training over the next few weeks. Staff attending the New Beginnings training have returned impressed and are looking forward to Jobcentre Plus with enthusiasm. SOUNDBITE © LEIGH LEWIS 2001
A number of staff have seen the Virtual Tour video, and appreciated the chance to see how the new areas will look. The video will be shown to the remaining staff within the next week. If they can be persuaded to stay awake long enough and wear the special specs.
- We are going ahead with completion of the vacant HEO/MPB3 posts, an advert will be going out on 11/09/01 for these. We have also completed an external exercise for AO/PB8 and EO/MPB6 staff and are in the process of posting these staff to vacant posts within the cluster. Frankly, we're surprised people aren't queueing up for these wonderful posts, but never mind; JCP means we can force those malingering Incapacity claimants into taking the jobs.
Considerable evidence exists on the impact of removing screens in a number of organisations here and abroad. The picture which emerges is a remarkably consistent one. As long as you don't let the facts clutter up a good yarn.
The Tavistock Institute has carried out research with both ES and BA staff regarding the removal of screens they have found that: -
- There is a need to support staff in avoiding behaviour that contributed to violent incidents and to defuse aggression. It noted that screens produced "damaging effects on communication" but it was also the communication skills and friendliness' and ability to match adviser behaviour to client need that were seen to help to defuse aggression. You're all going to be behavioural psychologists as well as dole clerks. We can't train you for that. Get another job if you can't cope. Goodbye.
- BA advisers located in jobcentres attending post JSA focus groups perceived that without the screen the relationship with customers was friendlier. They felt they were more accessible and could see the jobseekers in a much shorter time. BA employees located in jobcentres said they were willing to see jobseekers on the front-line if there is a need. Many of the BA employees located in jobcentres felt that their relationship with the customer was less violent. LESS violent - see, we've done our research.
In the early 1980s Glasgow's Housing Department produced plans for a radical change of which removal of screens was one part. Staff were extremely concerned at the time. The changes, however, went ahead. The report concluded that in the event there seemed to be little concern among staff in these offices about the risk of assault or threatening behaviour. Panic buttons are provided in all the refurbished offices, but they have never been used. OK so the research is 20 years old, but we truly believe that delivering a complex benefits system nationwide is on a par with sorting out local HB queries.
Australia's public employment service, Centrelink, has modernised most of its offices with the purpose of providing open plan areas which included the removal of security screens. The House of Commons Education and Employment Committee noted its report on active labour market policies in Australia that their experience had been a positive one and that the number of incidents of aggression had greatly declined. Although this is mainly due extremely deep desks so that the claimant can't get at the member of staff, and did I mention the presence of armed security guards?
Earlier this week, the PCS gave official notification that they would be balloting members on industrial action in the 15 remaining (and we know what we're talking about) Pathfinder sites across the UK. In a responding letter to staff, BA and ES Field Directors have made the following points:
- First we are not asking people in BA to do the job they do now but without the screens. We are not "taking down the screens". What we are doing is to use our totally redesigned Jobcentre Plus offices to offer people at the start of their claim a completely new and vastly better service. Only as part of that will we be undertaking a very limited amount of benefit work in an unscreened environment; We emphasise the words "very limited amount of benefit", which is what you'll be telling the claimants they're entitled to.
- Second, all the benefit processing work which is currently carried out away from the customer will still be carried out away from the customer. If you are being told that you will be doing this work in the future face to face with the customer, you are being deliberately misled. We know the union reps aren't telling you this, but fake rebuttals look good on paper.
- Third, no one in the pathfinders has been asked to move to work in an unscreened environment if they do not want to, you are being deliberately misled; Pathfinder is a working name for 50 pilot offices, and when the pilot is deemed to be a success, we'll call it something else and apply different rules.
- Fourth, every one of our new offices will have a range of alternative security measures. When it gets heavy, we ring the police and ambulance service with whom we have negotiated a Service Level Agreement - we only have to dial 9 three times and they respond.
- Fifth, every pathfinder area will still have a separate screened area for those interviews that cannot safely be carried out without screens. For example, no Social Fund crisis loan interviews will take place in open plan.' SOUNDBITE © LEIGH LEWIS 2001
The following excerpt from Managers Bulletin no. 2/01 provides details of specific measures which are being taken to ensure staff safety in Pathfinder offices.
- All Jobcentre Plus offices have been risk-assessed and carefully designed to protect staff. Leigh Lewis, Chief Executive, has personally guaranteed that all recommendations arising from the risk-assessments will be implemented in full. SOUNDBITE © LEIGH LEWIS 2001
- A full range of security measures will be deployed as appropriate to local offices such as security guards, CCTV, office layout, training etc. We like "etc.". It makes us look knowledgable when we use Latin abbreviations to obscure our ignorance.
- Security guards (Bouncers) will work with floor managers and receptionists at all times. The front of house team (see - just like the movies) will work to ensure that people's needs are identified quickly, individual support provided and an environment established where inappropriate behaviour will be clearly seen as unacceptable and dealt with as such. Using the aforementioned alternative security strategy.
- Screened areas will still be available for handling customers where that is necessary. The great majority of benefit processing work will still take place remotely from customers, for example through the telephone contact centres and in the existing benefit sections in offices. SOUNDBITE © LEIGH LEWIS 2001
- All staff working in face to face contact with the public in a Pathfinder office will have training to equip them with the necessary expertise to identify and diffuse (?) difficult situations.
- Dealing with benefit services in unscreened areas is not new to us. We have successfully delivered a range of benefits and personal adviser support from ONE sites with BA, ES and local authority staff. Although we concede that successful delivery does not necessarily mean safe delivery.