Jobcentre staff `put at risk' by open-plan move

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The Independent Online
Security screens will be scrapped when the controversial new Jobseekers' Allowance is introduced in the autumn, producing widespread fear among officials of attacks from disgruntled claimants.

Staff of the Benefits Agency are so concerned about being asked to issue the allowance from open-plan Jobcentres, instead of the more secure Social Security offices that they now use, that they have begun a wave of strikes.

Their union, the Civil and Public Services Association, has staged week- long stoppages in London, Leicester, Nottingham and Brighton, and a national ballot will be held from 20 June for a series of two-day strikes.

Security screens were introduced to Social Security offices in the Seventies, after a spate of attacks on officers by claimants led to a demand for physical protection.

The CPSA represents most of the 30,000 front-line Benefit Agency staff, who interview unemployed and cash-strapped claimants seeking Government handouts.

London branch officer Roy Lewis said that cans and bottles have been hurled at the screens in his area.

Mr Lewis added that staff also regularly faced a barrage of verbal abuse, as well as threats from claimants that they would wait outside for officers and beat them up when they left work.

"Staff are very worried about the whole issue," said Mr Lewis. "They are not employed to have punch-ups with members of the public."

A Government spokeswoman insisted that the concerns of Benefits Agency staff were being addressed, with a risk assessment being carried out in every Jobcentre. She said: "The agency takes the health and safety of its staff very seriously. The creation of an open-plan environment has been a positive step forward in reducing tensions and frustrations.

"The Jobseekers' Allowance will provide an opportunity for a job seeker to be seen for both labour market and benefit queries in the same office."

But the Government will still have to work hard to quell discontent about the move to Jobcentres. The number of assaults on Employment Service staff increased from 161 in 1990, when their offices went open-plan, to 265 in 1994.

Chris Kirk, Benefit Agency Civil and Public Services Association national officer, said: "The Government wants to use unscreened Job Centres because they like the open-plan environment. That's all fine and dandy, but the Jobseekers' Allowance is going to bring situations where our members will be at risk because of the frustrations of benefits being chopped.

"Many people don't understand the benefits system. Most sign on and expect money, but they are not always eligible. They get angry and take it out on the person delivering the message.

"Claimants feel that they have already been kicked in the teeth, if they have lost their jobs. The last place they want to be is in an office signing on. They want a job. There's a potential for sparks."

The dispute has been confused by the fact that Unemployment Benefit is already administered from Jobcentres. This also will be replaced by the Jobseekers' Allowance.

But the CPSA said that there are fewer arguments with claimants for Unemployment Benefit, because it is not means-tested, unlike Income Support, which can be reduced if claimants have savings.