This article by Ruth Hunt appeared in the Morning Star and is re-posted here with permission.
Ruth F Hunt is a freelance journalist and an author.
With austerity wreaking havoc in the lives of Britain’s most vulnerable, it is now more important than ever that the remaining advice centres are not simply able to provide comprehensive advice — but also challenge the government, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and their contractors when it is clear their policies, such as universal credit, are harming claimants.
As Rosalind Burgin of Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) says, “It is vital that services like ours are properly funded, but this cannot mean giving away our independence.
“A key role of the voluntary sector is to be independent of government and political parties in order for us to hold them to account. We must be able to amplify the voices of people who come to us.”
This independence is crucial, so when Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland received funding from the government in order for them to provide advice on universal credit, many wondered whether strings were attached.
“It is vital that services like ours are properly funded, but this cannot mean giving away our independence.” – GMLC
This was because only a few hours after the funding was announced at the Tory Party conference in 2018, Citizens Advice refused to comment about four universal credit-related deaths at a fringe event.
Sterling work by freedom of information (FOI) expert John Slater and John Pring of Disability News Service has now revealed that this funding was conditional on a gagging clause — where they cannot take any actions which unfairly bring or are likely to bring the DWP name or reputation into disrepute.
Often in communities, the only advice centres still standing are Citizens Advice Bureaus (CAB) — so what does this mean for claimants?
Slater argued that such gagging clauses could in effect mean claimants who go to get advice are dealing with the DWP by proxy. He also expressed concern as to whether, in time, sensitive information could pass from CAB to the DWP.
Twitter activist @imajsaclaimant said: “Campaigners always suspected there was a gagging clause. So, learning it’s true through FOI is no real surprise, but it is very disappointing, and many will be dismayed.
“When you see the human rights abuses [against] claimants every day in the newspapers, it feels like they have signed a deal with the devil. It could mean some people in need stop using CA because they are afraid of the relationship with the DWP.
“This contract could also make local CAB managers extremely cautious, interpreting the clause to mean they can say nothing at all.
“With so many advice centres now no longer operating, CAB branches are an important part of the community, so if they are gagged into not sharing what they have learnt, it’s not just damaging to local people, it’s a further blow to democracy and freedom.”
The DWP and its contractors have form when it comes to silencing dissenters.
For example, giving a well-known activist a job to improve the service delivery, but also ensuring that voice is lost.
Contractors working for the DWP have also given some well-known charities contracts under the Work and Health programme, which had gagging clauses to not bring the department into “disrepute.”
These included organisations such as Leonard Cheshire, Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Shaw Trust and others.
Burgin said: “The voluntary advice sector in particular must be able to assure people who we work with that our advice is not conditional on the attitudes of state funders (local or national) — as these may often be the agencies who have deprived them of their benefits, housing or other rights.”
It is for this reason GMLC has made a stand. Burgin revealed that in 2017 it was approached by the local jobcentre.
“They asked if we could provide facilities and support for universal credit applications. Our response was clear: the government cannot rely on the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces.
“For example, if universal credit is so convoluted and ineffective that those who implement it ask charities for help, then it should not have been implemented at all.
“Our role is to publicly challenge the injustices of this government’s welfare regime, not to implement something that is fundamentally against the interests of the people we are supporting.”
When Tom Brake MP asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about gagging clauses and whether this was with “the intention of stopping any criticism of ministers of this department” the response was very interesting.
They said: “In contracts used across government, including at the Department for Work and Pensions, there are clauses that vary in different forms.
“Typically these clauses require the supplier to ensure that neither it, nor any of its affiliates, bring the authority into disrepute by engaging in any act or omission which is reasonably likely to diminish the trust that the public places in the authority, regardless of whether or not such act or omission is related to the supplier’s obligations under said agreement.
“These clauses do not prevent the contracting bodies from making statements critical of government policy or politicians, and certainly do not prevent whistle-blowing (as this would be unlawful).
“They are designed to protect government, to ensure that contractors adhere to good working practices and do not engage in activities that will bring the authority into disrepute or otherwise harm the confidence of the public in government.”
What constitutes “engaging in activities that will bring the authority into disrepute” is key.
If it’s interpreted as not publicly criticising the DWP, through tweets, posts, talking to journalists, or any other campaigning, then this silence can help them push through controversial policies, ultimately impacting on vulnerable people, as well as free speech.
“This is why independence is so important,” Burgin said. “It is not the role of the voluntary sector to help them introduce inhumane attacks on benefit claimants or to help the government legitimise the hostile environment against claimants and migrants.”