Benefits offices to face pounds 200m cutback

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The Independent Online
Social security offices are to close and staff are to lose their jobs as part of a pounds 200m programme of cuts to be announced shortly by the Benefits Agency.

Documents leaked to the Independent reveal the full impact of the introduction of the Jobseeker's Allowance and the drive against benefit fraud on the agency, which each year pays out benefits of pounds 75bn.

The documents show that small offices, which specialise in dealing with claimant inquiries rather than processing applications, will be shut. Freeline, the agency freephone service which deals with 2.5 million claimants' inquiries annually will be scrapped, and out-of-hours emergency services abolished.

The agency, according to the documents, will be divided into 13 areas, instead of the present 20, and local customer surveys will be ended. Claimants will no longer receive "money advice", telling them how to manage their finances, and their appeals procedure will be simplified.

The cuts will also slash 50 per cent from budgets for district information officers, and management and personnel budgets will be heavily cut.

Peter Mathison, chief executive of the agency, will tell staff that the aim is to secure savings of pounds 200m in the current financial year. While the administration budget for 1996-97, at pounds 2.58bn, is pounds 101m higher than that of the previous financial year, the cost of introducing the new Jobseeker's Allowance and the Security and Control Programme - the fraud crackdown - is put at pounds 397m.

Above and beyond that net reduction, staff will be told, the agency is committed to "a 25-per-cent improvement" in productivity by 1988-89.

In his briefing note for managers, ahead of the announcements, Mr Mathison writes: "This will mean that all services will have to be examined - nothing will be exempt."

Claimants with queries will have to start paying for their phone calls, but the fraud hotline, for members of the public informing on people they suspect of claiming benefit fraudulently, will be continued.

In a "questions and answers" briefing document, managers are told to respond to queries on why the fraud hotline is being kept, yet benefit information via Freeline is being stopped, with the answer: "Fraud hotline is a specific and successful part of our Security programme aimed at reducing the levels of fraud and making savings in benefit expenditure."

Another briefing note for managers warns, "there must be a question over small offices where alternative services are available within reasonable distance".

The questions and answers document instructs managers to deny that the much-trumpeted "One Stop" service has been abandoned, "rather we are looking for better ways to deliver it . . . We aim to build on the achievements and principles of the One Stop project in the future development of customer service", it says.

Final decisions on which offices will shut and on the number of jobs to go have not yet been taken. "Obviously, with a 25-per-cent productivity improvement we will have fewer jobs in the long term," says one of the briefing notes.

If asked if the cuts will mean that staff in Department of Social Security offices will come under pressure and "will affect both the quality of work and attitude to customers", managers are instructed to say the overall aim is to simplify processes involved in handling claims. "Benefits of [the cuts] will be improved customer service and reduced pressure on staff."