26 July 2007
A Nottingham City Council welfare rights worker who posted about the decision on Rightsnet was dismissed.
Rightsnet itself was given just hours to remove the same postings or face High Court action. One manager allegedly described the decision in an email to staff as 'horrific'. Workers at the City Council were warned not to discuss the decision in public. Within 24 hours of revealing that we were to publish an article about it, Benefits and Work received correspondence - in triplicate - threatening the use of 'necessary force' against us, which might include injunctive action, damages and costs.
So what is the decision that Nottingham City Council appears so reluctant to have discussed, could it be happening elsewhere and should you be concerned?
In September 2006 Nottingham City Council changed its management structure, with the result that the Welfare Rights Service was now managed by the Housing Benefit Department. This may seem like a small matter, but in the resulting furore a welfare rights worker was dismissed and a joint grievance was submitted by members of Unison claiming that the change would affect their ability to advocate for their clients and would mean that the service was no longer seen as impartial.
The primary concern of staff was that Housing Benefit not only pay out - or refuse to pay out - housing benefit but also seek its recovery where they consider it has been overpaid. Thus, the people who seek to get benefits back off claimants and the advisors who try to help them claim benefits, or resist recovery, have become part of the same department. How, staff asked, could they threaten their own management with judicial review if they believed Housing Benefit staff were behaving unreasonably? And how could clients be certain that information they gave in confidence would not be seen by the other side? In the joint grievance document obtained by Benefits and Work, one member of staff is even quoted as saying:
" I have loads of really personal information about Mrs K. What if [the new manager] wants to look at her file? Can she insist? I'm going to have to keep the key safe - I know Mrs K trusted me with that information and I'm really upset now. I feel like I have betrayed her trust."
The idea that advice staff feel it necessary to hide the key to the filing cabinet from their manager is one that would deeply disturb most claimants. Another staff member asserted:
"I haven't told Mr X about what's happened. If he finds out he won't want to see me. He's had a terrible time with Housing Benefit - he nearly lost his home. If he finds out about this, we won't see him again.'
Again, the notion that advisors would try to keep the reality of their management structure secret from their clients is one that is unlikely to inspire confidence in claimants. Not, it appeared that workers had any choice, as the grievance also claimed that staff 'have received veiled threats and [have been] told not to speak about the decision'. It also asked 'why the Authority would wish to keep the takeover a secret if it believes that the decision is the right one.'
However, the six page grievance was dismissed in its entirety by Nottingham City Council, who concluded that ' the whole case was based on the wrongly perceived inevitability of adversarial conflict'. In reality, welfare rights workers and claimants around the country have to deal on a daily basis with overstretched, badly trained and intransigent housing benefit staff. The idea that these disputes do not frequently involve 'adversarial conflict', but can be settled in a friendly air of co-operation and partnership is one most claimants would regard with incredulity.
Meanwhile, one member of staff, workplace Unison Steward Sarah Roy, had posted messages between 14 and 18 September on Rightsnet, the discussion forum site used by welfare rights workers. The postings voiced her concerns and outrage about the decision and asked for suggestions of ways to challenge it. However, when Nottingham City Council discovered the posts on 20 September they contacted both London Advice Services Alliance and Sarah Roy claiming that the posts were defamatory and set a deadline of 4.00pm for them to be removed. Failure to do so would result, the Council stated, in an emergency injunction being sought through the High Court. The letter warned:
'I trust that you will appreciate the cost consequences that this course of action will produce which we will seek from both named Defendants.'
Rightsnet removed the thread and no further mention of the matter has appeared in either the discussion forums or the News pages.
Following this, the City Council commenced disciplinary proceedings against Ms Roy which resulted in a finding that Ms Roy had published 'reputationally damaging views and ridiculed, with some contempt, both your employer and your managers'. Ms Roy was accordingly dismissed without notice for gross misconduct.
At the same time, one manager is alleged to have sent an email to staff on 21 September, a copy of which has been seen by Benefits and Work, in which they claimed that they were "still finding it difficult to type the words "being taken over by Housing Benefit'" and that staff anxieties 'are shared by all the management team'. However, they warn that in spite of what had appeared on the internet 'the matter should not be discussed in public at this time' and that staff who 'chose to disobey' should get advice first.
The joint grievance by staff also claims that one manager 'has recently left, telling the team that his reason for leaving was due to his inability to continue to work under the line management of the Housing Benefit office and be able to effectively function in his role as manager of a team whose members primary purpose is to advocate for benefits claimants in the city'
In a further email shown to Benefits and Work and dated 22 September, a manager refers to the decision as 'horrific' but advises 'don't say anything more to anyone anywhere.'
Not over yet
It is undoubtedly the case that informed and independent benefits advice is becoming ever harder to obtain. So it is a matter of vital public interest when even the appearance of independence of a service is called into question. This is especially the case if an official view is forming that welfare rights work should be wholly co-operative rather than adversarial. Because if that view is taken then why offer independent advice at all? Aren't local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions best placed to help claimants solve disputes, rather than relying on an outmoded and costly concept of independent advisors who are so much more likely to resort to unnecessary threats of judicial review or other legal action?
The truth is that this is a matter which needs to be discussed in public and Nottingham City Council's apparent reluctance to deal openly with it is likely to result in 'reputationally damaging' publicity both for them and their welfare rights service for some considerable time to come.
For example, this month a local councillor has been asking detailed questions in committee about the decision and appears determined to get answers. In addition, Sarah Roy is awaiting a date for her employment tribunal claim against the City Council, an event which is very likely to interest the local press.
Meanwhile, Benefits and Work will wait to see whether the Council's Litigation Section has seen the light and embraced their Housing colleagues zen-like belief that 'The inevitability of adversarial conflict is based merely on wrong perceptions, Grasshopper.' Or whether, as their intimidatory letters threaten, they will be quick to use 'necessary force' to attempt to silence this one, small, still independent voice.
(Nottingham City Council were invited to give their views, but did not respond).