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Citizens Advice applies to help cut disabled benefits

29 August 2006
Benefits and Work has obtained documents showing that Citizens Advice is bidding to become a Pathways to Work Provider.

If the bid is successful, it is likely that from 2007 incapacity benefit claimants will obliged to attend their local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for a series of five work focused interviews. Failure to attend the interviews and take part to the satisfaction of staff will lead to cuts in disabled claimants' benefits. CAB staff may also be expected to arrange condition management therapy for claimants.

Citizens Advice is one of around 200 organisations which have completed a highly detailed questionnaire as the first stage towards becoming Pathways to Work provider. Those two hundred will now be whittled down to a shortlist of around 75 organisations which will be invited to bid to carry out the Pathways to Work programme in the following areas from October 2007:

Greater Manchester East & West
Cardiff & Vale/South East Wales
Forth Valley, Fife, Tayside
North Wales & Powys
Black Country
City and East London
Birmingham and Solihull
West Yorkshire
Edinburgh, Lothian & Borders
Cornwall & Devon
Central London
Lincolnshire and Rutland
Lambeth, Southwark and Wandsworth

Citizens Advice has indicated that it wishes to be considered for contracts in every area. More than one provider will be awarded a contract in each area, to ensure that there is competition between providers and keep costs down.

One of the requirements that bidders have to agree to is that they will "Manage and monitor compliance with the mandatory regime and assist Jobcentre Plus with the sanctions process". In other words, where claimants fail to turn up for, or fail to take part in, interviews or fail to complete a satisfactory action plan, Citizens Advice would have a responsibility to tell their local Jobcentre Plus who will then cut the claimant's benefits.

If a claimant is unhappy with the cut in benefits they will have a right of appeal. However, the agency that they would normally turn to for help in pursuing an appeal - their local CAB - will be unable to assist them if they are already providing evidence and support to the other side.

In addition, CAB staff may be responsible for arranging Condition Management for claimants, which could consist of such things as pain management or cognitive behavioural therapy.

This would not be the first time that Citizens Advice have sought closer ties with the DWP. Back in 2004 Benefits and Work revealed that David Harker OBE, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, was pushing for the organisation to have a role as "government intermediaries" for electronic services In fact, so keen was Mr Harker OBE that he positively pleaded with the audience at the Government Computing conference in June 2004:

"If you are from a government department wanting to develop a successful e-services project in the area of public services, please talk to us".

This plea followed on from Citizens Advice having successfully secured £20 million in government funding to set up CASE, a system for keeping all CAB client case records online and allowing Citizens Advice 'to use CASE and e-government services to capture hard data, and provide feedback to Government'. Making his pitch for closer collaboration between Citizens Advice and the DWP, Mr Harker OBE told the same conference in 2004:

"And the business case? The case for change is clear - a win-win of improved customer service to citizens who are amongst the most disadvantaged, combined with efficiency savings across major high spending government departments. This is an election winner for any government . . ."

There are two big questions about the Citizens Advice bid. The first is who they are working with: their bid is to act as sub-contactor to another, unnamed organisation. We can be reasonably sure, we hope, that it is not a private sector company such as Capita Health solutions, who have also expressed an interest. But then who is it? (We have asked Citizens Advice and will let you know if we get an answer).

The second is how will they get local Citizens Advice Bureaux - each an independent charity in its own right - to come on board. Any government funds under a Pathways contract would be likely to go to Citizens Advice via the main contractor, who would then be responsible for distributing it to individual bureaux. What Citizens Advice do not yet know, we suspect, is whether CAB's really are prepared to sell off their reputation for independence and impartiality.