Can the DWP’s newest feminist recruit give the ” shambolic” ministry a more people friendly face?

Elizabeth Fairburn,(right) now the Department for Work and Pensions new customer experience director

Last week I watched the polite questioning by MPs of the top officials from the Department of Work and Pensions about their latest published accounts – which I have already lambasted in a blog here.

At this hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee – see this link – once again Peter Schofield, the permanent secretary – had to apologise to the nation’s pensioners for the ministry’s failure to rectify the underpayment of pensions to hundreds of thousands of pensioners, some who may still have to wait until 2024 to get their money. He promised 1000 more staff -having started with just 100 people – to sort out this scandal.

Once again – it is the 34th year in a row – the top officials had failed to balance the books – because of benefit fraud and error reaching record levels. Again it was promised that this will be sorted – we shall see whether this is really true next year.

Peter Schofield, DWP permanent secretary

But the most interesting aspect of the hearing was a new face on the block. She is Elizabeth Fairburn, who is the customer experience director at the DWP. She has been recruited from Direct Line Insurance as the head of claims response – where she deals with insurance claims from customers. She is quite obviously not a career civil servant unlike Peter Schofield, her boss whose cv shows, apart from a secondment to 3i, is a mandarin to his fingertips.

What is even more interesting she is a firm campaigner for women. She recently gave an interview to mark International Women’s Day this year with Gatenby Sanderson, a head hunting agency recruiting executives for the public sector ( recent appointments included the chief executive officer of the National Cancer Research Institute and the people’s director for the London Fire Brigade).

I have reproduced it at the top of this blog. As well as talking about her career, she is committed to equal pay for women, proper career paths for women who return to work after looking after children and most importantly women having real self belief in themselves and not being put down by men. She also is a coach for women to believe in themselves.

Can Elizabeth Fairburn do anything for claimants and pensioners?

But can she do anything for the millions of claimants and pensioners who have to endure using the DWP? She admits in the interview that she knew little about the working of the organisation.

At the hearing she made some interesting comments. She told MPs:

:”We are mapping out the plans and trying to piece things together. It is a big Department, and I am trying to get my head around a lot of things. I can see some real opportunities in how we could use different approaches to map out the journey from a customer’s point of view, which would help us as the civil service understand what that looks like and therefore where we can make improvements. Peter [‘Schofield] has already referenced the work that we are doing on digital and automation, which is a real opportunity, but we cannot automate processes that are clunky or difficult. We have got to review those, simplify them and then make them available on a digital solution to encourage customers to “engage with us.

On communicating with pensioners, particularly those owed money she told MPs:

“I have a team within customer experience who are continually looking at the communications that we send to customers to make sure that they are simple. Obviously, we are reliant on listening and learning techniques, such as what we see through complaints, to identify where to look. When we see those things, we can simplify the processes, and potentially the communications to customers, to help them with that and keep them updated.”

On stopping people’s benefits she said she had a team of 36 people checking the vulnerability of people before they did this:

“They are there proactively to support the wider DWP in identifying and signposting support for our customers with the most complex needs. In the example you were just talking about, my team work closely with Bozena’s [Bozena Hillyer in charge of counter fraud and compliance] team and, when there is a difficult decision to make about stopping someone’s benefit because of potential fraud, my team are there to support the frontline to say, “Have you considered X, Y or Z to ensure that we are doing the right things for our customers and making the right decisions?”

Egregious frightening letter from the DWP to a pensioner

Can she make a difference? As this blog has shown some of the communications have been egregious. Like the one I featured last August to pensioner Rosie Brocklehurst when the department was conducting a pension review which said: ““If you fail to be available for this review and do not contact me, your entitlement to State Pension may be in doubt and your payments may be stopped.”

This was , of course, totally untrue – the department can’t stop anybody’s pension.

So at the moment the jury will be out on how successful Elizabeth Fairburn will be in changing the culture. But I will be watching to see if this determined woman from Leeds can make a difference or not. Her Linked In self description describes her as “A passionate, energetic and inspiring people leader, renowned for the ability to champion change and transformation especially in underperforming teams or functions with a need for significant cultural revolution. “

Watch this space to see if this is true for the DWP.

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On Byline Times: The reactionary world of Therese Coffey, the new £154,000 a year secretary of state for work and pensions

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Therese Coffey in relaxed mood: Pic Credit: Daily Mail reproduced on Twitter

Boris Johnson has appointed one of the most hard line and divisive women to replace Amber Rudd as secretary for state for work and pensions. The new secretary of state’s voting record reveals a tranche of reactionary views likely to be offensive to gays, women, pensioners and non smokers.   She would also like millions of Europeans who live in the UK to have no right to stay here.

 Cigar smoking Therese Coffey, MP for Suffolk, Coastal, would like to lift the ban on smoking in public places, bring back limitless betting odds on addictive gambling machines and is an opponent of gay marriage. Her voting record is recorded on Theyworkforyou.com

The full story is on Byline Times here.

Bonuses for Universal Credit bosses as record benefit errors and fraud revealed at the Department for Work and Pensions

The annual report that reveals the damning failures of the ministry to keep a grip on benefit and error fraud and the high pay and pensions of the people running the Universal Credit programme

Benefit error and fraud has reached record levels at the Department for Work and Pensions and it is going to get worse, according to its own figures released in its annual report for the last financial year.

 For the 30th year running the National Audit Office has qualified the ministry’s £86.6 billion benefit accounts because it considers them to be inaccurate

The most damning section of the report is on Universal Credit – whose current and previous directors – have just received bonus payments up to £15,000 each for their work.

The full story is on byline here.

The £5 billion pay out to people who shouldn’t have received it

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Department for Work and Pensions – £3.5 billion of overpayments detected by auditors

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Here is a strange paradox. The government has imposed a tough and to many people unfair benefits and  tax credits regime which has squeezed the poorest – both the unemployed and those in work.

Yet this summer accountants have revealed that HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions has paid out £5 billion to people on benefits and low incomes who should not have received it. And they predict that even more will receive these payments next year. I have written about this in Tribune magazine this week.

The disclosure comes in the annual audit of both departments by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, who have qualified the accounts of both departments – as not being a true and accurate description of public spending.

According to the NAO report: “HMRC estimates that the overall level of error and fraud that resulted in overpayments in Tax Credits in 2015-16 increased to 5.5% of Tax Credits expenditure (from 4.8% in 2014-15)

“HMRC estimates that the overall level of error and fraud resulting in underpayments in Tax Credits in 2015-16 remained at 0.7% of Tax Credits expenditure (0.7% in 2014-15). This equates to overpayments of £1.57 billion and underpayments of £210 million.

“HMRC has told us that it believes the level of error and fraud in Tax Credits will increase further when measured for 2016-17. Two main factors have been identified that will lead to this increase: the introduction of the ‘Commercial with a view to a profit’ self-employment test for those who are self-employed and the impact of the Concentrix contract. The impact of these factors on error and fraud levels will not be measured until June 2018, and so the estimate of error and fraud in 2015-16 remains the most up-to-date indication available of error and fraud in Tax Credits expenditure for 2016-17.”

Concentrix were sacked by the department after a privatisation programme went wrong – and they were not up to the job.

Worse are the figures for DWP.

The  NAO’s findings are: “Excluding State Pension, overpayments are at the highest levels since 2009-10, while underpayments are at the highest recorded levels.”

Overpayments amount to £3.4bn, excluding the state pension, an increase of £400 million while underpayments are £1.5bn In percentage terms this amount to an increase to 4.1 per cent of all overpayments and 1.9 per cent of all underpayments.

The report says: “Amongst benefits measured annually for fraud and error, Employment Support Allowance and Housing Benefit overpayments are at the highest recorded levels, and Jobseeker’s Allowance overpayments have returned to the highest levels since 2010-11.

The NAO questions some of the techniques used by the DWP to calculate fraud – saying it assumes that when people don’t get back to the department for a re-assessment that they have been fraudulently claiming. This may not be the case. Also, information is out of date.

“The absence of up-to-date information on error rates in large benefit streams creates a risk that the department is not targeting its fraud and error interventions effectively,” the report says. “For example, Disability Living Allowance, which accounted for £11.5 billion of expenditure in 2016-17, has not been measured for fraud and error since 2004-05.”

All this points to some serious mismanagement by the ministries – which have been squeezed by successive coalition and Tory governments. But it doesn’t mean that those at the top have suffered. I shall return to some interesting findings in their annual reports.

Spending Review: Caveat Emptor- Buyer Beware

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Today the Chancellor, George Osborne, launched the autumn spending review.

From the statement you might guess that he has climbed down over welfare spending cuts by abolishing his plan to cut tax credits, climbed down over big cuts to police budgets and acted to save the mental health budget and save the NHS from further cuts. All terribly good news along with more money for defence equipment, the security services, already announced.

But if you look at the figures he still planning  the same  huge level of cuts  but apparently with no pain.

For a start we are going to have no changes to the tax credits – yet there is going to be a change to the new universal credit which will replace a whole series of benefits. So the government will still be cutting the welfare bill by £12 billion. No details yet but it will be sneaked through when the figures are announced much later, hitting another group. And he is proposing to sell 20 per cent of the Department of work and Pensions estate- selling off  Jobcentres and benefit offices.

The NHS is getting more money but will have to make £22 billion of efficiency savings and provide a 7 day a week service. How? No details.

The police may not get their budget cut but the budget is not protected against inflation which is expected to start rising – so there is a hidden cuts inside this announcement.

And  the government claimed it had protected the science budget – but within hours engineers were announcing that a major demonstration project into carbon capture – which could save some coal fired power stations from closure – had been cancelled.

And both the extra money for defence and spending by HM Revenue and Customs – on equipment and tackling tax evasion- is going to be financed by axing thousands of civilian jobs in defence and closing down almost all local tax offices.

And while there is a £600m fund for mental health inside the NHS many voluntary organisations looking after the mentally ill and handicapped will be hit by the huge cut in local government funding.

There is more privatisation on the way – the rest of air traffic control, ordnance Survey and the Land Registry.

So what looks like a series of good announcements are often little more than smoke and mirrors. And in this budget it will depend more than most on the small print hidden in government announcements. Journalists are often fooled into first believing the initial message only to find it starts to unravel over the next few weeks when the policy bites. This is a Caveat Emptor Spending Review- buyer beware.