A national advice charity signed a £21 million contract which included a “gagging clause” that prevented it bringing the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “unfairly” into “disrepute”, an official document has finally confirmed.
Citizens Advice signed the Help to Claim contract last year, extending its agreement with DWP to provide support to people making a new claim for universal credit by another year.
But the charity refused to say at the time whether the grant agreement included a gagging clause that could prevent it speaking out on social security issues.
DWP resisted a freedom of information request to see the agreement last February but following a complaint by Disability News Service (DNS) to the information commissioner, it has now backed down and released the document.
It shows that Citizens Advice agreed not to take any actions that “unfairly bring or are likely to unfairly bring [DWP’s] name or reputation and/or [DWP] into disrepute”.
Citizens Advice was unable this week to point to any concerns it had raised publicly about the safety of universal credit since it signed the contract extension in January 2022.
Dr Jay Watts, a disabled activist and consultant clinical psychologist, said the confirmation of the gagging clause was “a devastating blow that will greatly impact claimants’ faith in Citizens Advice”.
She said: “No doubt the senior leaders and trustees will have convinced themselves they can sign the DWP’s gagging clause, and maintain an ethical position, their speech largely unaltered.
“But this is simply not how human psychology works.
“We don’t bite the hand that feeds us. We become, like it or not, more cautious either not speaking out, or doing so only with caveats or a dampened message.
“The government may welcome a muffled Citizens Advice, but this is a tragedy for claimants who desperately need strong and vocal organizations that can unapologetically confront and challenge the government’s cruel and inhumane policies that make life unbearable for so many.”
And a spokesperson for Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Citizens Advice continue to fail to see how their role is compromised by allying with the DWP.
“We know we cannot expect them to speak out on abuse and deaths caused by the DWP as long as they are gagged, so are they for citizens or are they part of government?”
The document again highlights the ongoing concerns over charities that sign lucrative DWP contracts that contain gagging clauses but still claim to represent and speak on behalf of disabled people and other benefit claimants.
When the government announced that Citizens Advice (CA) had signed its first three-year contract with DWP, at the 2018 Conservative party conference in Birmingham, disabled activists warned that it would put the independence of the charity at risk, with Watts saying CA had “sold out to the DWP for £51 million after 79 years of independence”.
Just hours after the funding was announced, CA added to those concerns when it refused to criticise DWP at a party conference fringe event over four deaths that had been linked to universal credit, with the charity’s comments about the UC roll-out appearing to contrast with much stronger criticism from fellow panellists.
A Citizens Advice spokesperson said this week: “Our priority has always been to support people who come to us for help and it still is.
“We’ve given advice on universal credit, and a huge range of other issues, throughout the cost-of-living crisis.
“And we use our frontline insights to continue to campaign for changes to the benefits system, ensuring it works better for people we help.
“Nothing in the Help to Claim grant agreement prevents us from continuing to raise our evidence publicly about universal credit.”
This week, DNS passed Citizens Advice a DWP document – released last month in response to another freedom of information request – which shows a series of deaths were linked by the department’s own civil servants to flaws in the universal credit system between September 2020 and November 2022.
Recommendations made in these secret reviews include a reference to messages on the online journal of a claimant not being replied to “in a timeous manner”; another to a failure to respond correctly to a claimant’s journal message; a reference to “the importance of checking system notes prior to sending journal messages”; and the inappropriate use of “No Reply Needed” markings made by DWP staff in response to online journal messages from UC claimants.
All these claimants whose cases were being reviewed will have died, although no further details of their deaths are known.
Citizens Advice made no reference to these concerns in its response this week.
Last year, DNS reported how a disabled woman left traumatised by the daily demands of the universal credit system took her own life just four days after being told she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach.
In October, DWP admitted repeatedly breaching the Equality Act, after a disabled man was left needing hospital treatment three times for suicidal thoughts caused by months of failures by universal credit advisers and jobcentres.
DNS also reported on claimants who raised other safeguarding concerns about the universal credit system last year.
They included a disabled woman who spent 37 years living in mental health institutions and hostels, including time sleeping in doorways, who feared the flawed universal credit system would cause her to be evicted from her flat back onto the streets.
Another disabled woman who had fled a violent relationship described how she was left without any income after DWP refused to ease demands placed on her by its “abusive” universal credit system, and then stopped her payments.
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