CHRIS SMART lives in Springfield, a village in Fife on the east coast of Scotland. He suffers from chronic sciatica and is unable to work, and has lived on incapacity benefit for the past two years.
Chris is one of millions of vulnerable people who rely on a local social security office to sort out their benefits claims. But he won’t be able to do that under Gordon Brown’s plans to axe 104,000 civil service workers.
“I’d definitely encourage people to support the striking PCS union members,” says Chris. “If I have any query of any kind, I can go to the office that deals with my claim in Kirkcaldy. But when the office closes I’ll be restricted to this call centre.”
It’s not just the office in Kirkcaldy that’s shutting up shop. Every social security office in Fife is closing, to be replaced with a mass processing centre in Coatbridge, some 40 miles away.
Brian Nairn works on the frontline at Kircaldy social security office. He is also a PCS branch secretary in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in Fife, as well as being the union’s DWP Scottish regional organiser.
“We deal with the most vulnerable people in society,” he says. “Lone parents, the sick, the disabled, drug addicts, people with serious mental disorders—these are the people being directed to a phone line.”
The people of the town are angry, he says, once they find out that Brown plans to do away with their vital frontline services.
Nobody has bothered officially informing Kirkcaldy’s residents of the plans for social security provision, says Brian, let alone consult them over the changes:
“We’ve asked management at the Scottish level to hold meetings to tell the public what’s happening. They have refused—they know they’ll get the flak.
“The PCS has been talking to the local press, explaining how services will be decimated. That’s the only way the public know about what’s happening.”
The union is planning a demonstration against the social security closures in Kirkcaldy on Saturday 20 November. Activists plan to step up their campaign by leafletting the town centre.
Kirkcaldy’s social security workers have had first-hand experience of what happens when face to face contact is replaced with an anonymous computerised call centre.
“It’s happened to pensions already,” says Brian. “People are given a phone number for a pensions centre up in Dundee. No disrespect to the people who work there, but that’s not a service.”
The frustration can be heartbreaking, he adds. “Pensioners come into the office expecting to find out what benefits they can get. But we have to tell them to phone this number up instead.
“We see the disappointment on their faces on a daily basis.”
Access to phones is another issue. Many disabled people have problems using phones.
And then there’s the cost—a 20-minute call to the 0845 number can cost £4 from a pay as you go mobile.
More ominously, Brian notes how the mass call centre approach to delivering benefits erases any kind of personal responsibility for individual cases:
“If someone phones up our office they get the person who deals with their case.
“But in a call centre whoever picks up the call deals with the query. Nobody has ownership of the customer.”
Maureen Closs lives in Kirkcaldy and works for the Child Poverty Action Group. “If nobody takes personal responsibility for the claim it will just go round the houses,” she warns.
“When you’re on a really low income you’re feeling pretty powerless in terms of your place in society.
“If no one is prepared to take responsibility to help you get what’s justly yours, how would you feel?
“They’re taking frontline services away from the poorest in society. These families are going to go from poverty to destitution.”
Chris Smart echoes these concerns: “When I went on incapacity, letters went back and forth for weeks. I don’t want to go through that again with a call centre.”
He also senses a wider political agenda: “Blair said last week that he wants to reduce the number of incapacity benefit claimants by a million. I cannot see him getting that unless he just cuts back.
“People are entitled to these benefits—people who want to work but cannot do so. The new system places everything on the individual person—everything’s down to you, you, you.”
Once proud mining town now in the doldrums
Ian Waddell has lived in Kirkcaldy for 20 years and works in the town’s social security office, now threatened with closure. He spoke to Socialist Worker about Kirkcaldy’s past, present and future.
‘Kirkcaldy’s historical basis was in linoleum manufacturing. But all that closed down years ago, with the exception of one factory. We also had a mining industry until the pit closures.
Nothing has really replaced those jobs. The industrial estates now house small light engineering factories, virtually all of them non-unionised.
There’s also a Sky call centre in Dunfermline, plus retail parks, service industries...
Meanwhile Kirkcaldy has become a dormitory town for Edinburgh. Housing has expanded visibly in the past ten years, as rising house prices in Edinburgh push families out here. But the town is still in the doldrums.
Unemployment is higher than average here. Fife has four or five deprivation areas, or “regeneration areas” as they’ve called them.
The old jobs were highly skilled, and the people they employed have had difficulty getting new work. Many ex-miners still aren’t working. Many are unable to work and have to live on incapacity benefit.
The public sector is a major employer in this town. We expect over 200 social services jobs to go in Kirkcaldy. If you cut that many people out, how do you deliver those vital services?
This is Gordon Brown’s home town, and it will become part of his constituency at the next general election. He says he’s trying to get other work in. If Brown’s got any clout, let’s see him use it.’