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Citizens Advice and DWP to become "information sharing" partners

27 September 2007
Citizens Advice and the DWP have announced a new 'partnership agreement' between the two organisations which will allow Citizens Advice to contribute to the 'development and delivery' of Jobcentre Plus services.

The news comes shortly after it was revealed that the DWP are to install computers in Citizens Advice Bureaux giving access to all claimants confidential DWP records. This will only happen once DWP concerns about CAB 'internal processes' and high staff turnover have been dealt with, however.

Vulnerable people
Announcing the agreement at the Citizens Advice annual conference on 25 September, chief executive David Harker proclaimed:

"This partnership agreement is about putting vulnerable people at the heart of everything that both we and Jobcentre Plus do. Our staff are in regular contact with Jobcentre Plus staff and we want to improve the way people are given help, both through bureaux and in Jobcentre Plus offices."

Details of what the partnership will involve are still sketchy, but it will include "regular meetings and updates and information sharing." Jobcentre Plus have also indicated that this is intended to be just the first stage of growing co-operation between the two organisations.

Meanwhile, evidence of the growing closeness between the agencies has was revealed with the news that secure computers are to be installed in Citizens Advice Bureaux which will allow advisers to have access to claimants DWP records. The move is intended to speed up advice provision and advisers will be expected to ask permission from individual claimants before looking at their records. If successful the scheme could be extended to other national charities who work with disabled people.

However, posters to disability discussion forums appear to be angry with what they consider to be a breach of their data protection rights, as confidential information about their claims will now be accessible to agencies other than the DWP.

There is also likely to be alarm amongst CAB staff at the revelation in Headstar 's E-government Bulletin that the DWP want to be able to influence unspecified 'internal processes' in bureaux and also want an alleged staff turnover of 20% reduced.

Whilst high staff turnover in most organisations is generally a negative sign, in advice bureaux which use volunteers it can actually be very positive. This is because it may be due to unemployed volunteers developing skills and self-confidence as a result of the often excellent training and support provided by bureaux and moving into skilled paid work.

Unfortunately, one of the most effective ways of reducing high volunteer turnover is to avoid recruiting working age volunteers unless they can offer some assurance, such as a partner with a very high income, that they are unlikely to seek paid employment.

Strange time
The DWP are currently introducing routine lie detector tests for claimants, hiring questionable private sector companies to 'help' disabled people back into work and introducing much harsher tests for eligibility for new incapacity related benefits. To many observers this must seem a strange time for an independent advice provider to announce closer links with the DWP. To some it may even seem to be the act of an agency which is more interested in protecting its income than its reputation for independence.

We asked Citizens Advice for their comments on the data protection issue and also for details of what consultation they undertook with individual bureaux and with disabled claimants before agreeing to have DWP computers installed. We also asked what influence the DWP will have on future recruitment and retention policies for staff and volunteers at individual bureaux.

We received no response.