|On November 12th the following exchange took place in the House of Commons. It is copied from Hansard, which reports verbatim all Parliamentary business.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Secretary of State rightly identified the problem of attacks on staff. He will be aware that such attacks have doubled in the past few years and that there were 5,100 last year. He mentioned the introduction of closed circuit television cameras; he will also be aware of trade unions' concern. What practical steps can he take in addition to introducing screens so that that growing trend diminishes?
Mr. Darling: Since the hon. Gentleman raised that, perhaps I should make the position clear concerning the number of assaults. The figure of 5,000 that he quoted includes verbal assaults, in which someone perhaps uses words that we would not use in the House; that can sometimes happen--[Laughter.] More seriously, last year there were just over 160 physical assaults. Of course, that is 160 too many; however, when quoting the figure of 5,000 care has to be taken to disaggregate verbal assaults from physical assaults.
Another point is that some of our staff--those doing home visits, for example--are used to dealing with clients away from the general security of the office. That said, as I told the House a few moments ago, I take the security of staff seriously. Frankly, in the past, we did not do enough; we allowed the public areas in some benefits offices to be turned over to people who fought with one another, dealt drugs and did all sorts of things that created an atmosphere and environment in which trouble was likely.
I am committed to carrying out a safety assessment in every Jobcentre Plus office, which may involve CCTV and having security staff ready to intervene. However, the whole reform will result in a better and safer environment. Finally, the test of all that is that nearly every single Jobcentre Plus office is open, despite the strike. Nearly every member of our staff who will be working with the public in those predominantly unscreened environments is at work. To a large extent, the people on strike, on the picket line, will not be seeing members of the public.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): We condemn the industrial action currently being taken over Jobcentre Plus. Will the Secretary of State continue to bear in mind what is being asked of staff, who will now have to deal with benefits and provide employment advice, and sometimes, as the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) says, deal with challenging people and be exposed to verbal assaults? Will he also bear in mind that those on the receiving end of verbal assaults are predominantly female workers? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the views of Mr. Nick Burkitt of the Institute of Public Policy Research, who says that advisers might find themselves having to
"find a job for someone who hasn't worked in 10 years; understand a benefits system with a rule book the size of a phone directory; be sensitive to the needs of local businesses and be able to defend themselves against a client with a skinful of Special Brew"?
Does the Secretary of State agree that safety must be paramount? He said that, but will he see that every reasonable precaution is taken, that the number of staff available to help with incidents involving advisers is sufficient, and that advisers are not exposed to the risk of physical or verbal assault?
Mr. Darling: As I said a few moments ago, great importance must be attached to maintaining the safety of our staff and the public. That is one of the reasons that we are engaging security staff, who have instructions to intervene in the event of any difficulty. It has been known for members of the public to be attacked. The hon. Gentleman's second point relates to training. Yes, we are making sure that our staff have sufficient training. If he goes to one of the Jobcentre Plus offices--he may be one of the hon. Members who have been to such an office--he will know that one of the things that the staff like doing is being able to advise on benefits and on how to get into jobs at the same time.
Finally, it is the Government's policy, with which I take it that the Opposition agree, to give help to people who up till now got no help in getting into work, and to get them into work. That means that there must be a single gateway to the benefits system. The old distinction between people who signed on as unemployed, and those who signed on for benefit and got no help or assistance, must stop. That is the rationale underpinning Jobcentre Plus, which is why we will make sure that all our offices are converted to Jobcentre Plus over the next few years.
This is disturbing. Alistair Darling is a Scottish Advocate by trade, a barrister in other words, and he of all people should be aware of the law relating to assault, and attempts to demean death threats and threats of physical violence towards our staff ill become a man of his position. Curiously, the Conservatives appear to have more interest in our welfare than our own Labour Minister.
Mr Darling, there is nothing funny about ignoring our safety.
ANOTHER INCIDENT, Mr DARLING
On 23rd November a claimant went in to Birkenhead benefits office and threatened to shoot staff. He was carrying what looked to everyone like a real gun.
Police were called, and some time later the man, still in the office, was tackled by armed police who threatened to shoot unless the gun was dropped.
Birkenhead BA is only a few miles down the road from the Wallasey Pathfinder office. Birkenhead BA office still has screens - bullet proof screens - as this kind of incident has happened before in benefit offices which is why until this year all risk assessments specified one inch thick bullet proof glass for counter screens.
So this time the staff were terrified, but safe. Imagine the same incident in an unscreened Pathfinder office. Imagine the genuine fear and panic as staff with no protection face an armed maniac.
MAKERFIELD BENEFIT CENTRE
Congratulations to Makerfield members who joined in the strike action this week with 99% of their balloted members taking action. You will recall that they were asked to scab on our dispute and refused.
Their local MP, Pensions Minister Ian McCartney, dismisses fears over the removal of safety screens, yet his own office where he sees members of the public has had one fitted, as have many other MPs surgeries. He denies that he is being hypocritical.
CURRENT TOTAL RAISED FOR
CHILDREN IN NEED IS NOW £1600
If you have not yet honoured your pledges, please do so.