The vast majority of directly-employed civil servants continue to work from home, but despite the worsening situation with the pandemic, bosses in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) still want to keep job centres open for face-to-face meetings with benefit claimants. We support limited opening for vulnerable claimants who need additional support, but as a general rule we want contact to be remote. Forcing claimants into job centres puts both the claimants themselves and DWP workers at risk.
We’re also fighting for the withdrawal of “conditionality”, under which claimants are sanctioned if they don’t meet certain targets. DWP want our members to quiz claimants on how many job applications they’re making, and potentially withdraw their benefits depending on the answer. That’s morally wrong at any time, but it’s particularly unreasonable in current conditions.
The DVLA call centre in Swansea is another site where there’s an isolated “back-to-the-workplace” drive from management, which we’re also organising to resist. In HMRC, the employer is looking to enlist volunteers from as far afield as Glasgow to temporarily relocate to the Kent coast to work on Brexit-related jobs. We oppose that; it’s simply not supportable from an infection control perspective.
In many sites, outsourced workers are treated as second-class citizens and forced to come into work even though the buildings they “service”, as cleaners, security staff, etc., are essentially empty. In many places there are agreements to reduce the numbers coming into the workplace, with no loss of pay for those remaining at home; those agreements need to be strengthened and expanded.
Our National Executive Committee next meets on 21 January. Among other things, it will discuss perspectives for a national campaign on civil service pay. By the time of that meeting, we may have received an expected department-specific pay offer from bosses in HMRC. That might offer a pay increase, but we’re expecting it to be a “cost neutral” offer, meaning any pay rise will be “paid for” by cuts to conditions elsewhere. If the offer is cost neutral in this way, then it is difficult how it can be supported, as it would mean one set of members paying for another set of members’ pay increases.
Also, an HMRC-only settlement would also take a significant section of our membership out of any national pay campaign. So, the union faces difficult decisions.
• John Moloney is assistant general secretary of the civil service workers’ union PCS (personal capacity)