Two charities that will receive £51 million in government funding to provide advice and support to claimants of universal credit (UC) signed gagging clauses that prevent them bringing the Department for Work and Pensions “unfairly” into “disrepute”.
Both Citizens Advice (CA) and Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) signed grant agreements with Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – worth a total of £51 million – that include the same clause.
By signing the documents, it means they cannot take “any actions which unfairly bring or are likely to unfairly bring [DWP’s] name or reputation and/or [DWP] into disrepute”.
It comes a year after Disability News Service revealed how several disability charities had signed contracts under the government’s Work and Health Programme that included clauses promising not to bring DWP into disrepute.
He told Disability News Service (DNS) that the grant “does little more than help some people claim universal credit and not address its inherent flaws, it just helps impose UC misery on its service users, through this £51,000,000 bribe.
“Citizens Advice provides help to large numbers of those punished by universal credit, such as disabled people and families who have ended up losing thousands of pounds by claiming UC, vast rises in debt, rent arrears, evictions, survival crime, five week delays in first payments and the horror of its inbuilt benefit sanctions and excessive conditionality.
“Against this background, does Citizens Advice campaign and advocate for universal credit to be stopped and abolished?
“No, it decides to act as a mere duplicitous adjunct of the DWP and even agrees to a grant gagging clause that prevents them from being critical of the DWP.”
He questioned why CA had kept its negotiations over the grant secret, rather than engaging with activists and claimant-led organisations, and the advice and guidance sector, on the best ways to support UC claimants and challenge the “iniquity” of UC.
He added: “This Citizens Advice grant damages trust in advice and guidance and reinforces the belief that, like charity and third sector collusion and contracts with the DWP Health and Work Programme, it is now part of a shadow state with commercial interests.”
Dr Jay Watts, an activist who raised concerns about the grant when it was announced at last October’s Tory party conference, said: “First of all, I need to make it clear that I think it is important people feel they can still approach Citizens Advice Bureaux which operate independently of head office and provide a vital service in desperate times.
“Having said that, many people will feel that CA has made a pact with the devil in accepting money from the government within the context of a contractual arrangement that limits their capacity to speak out against the policies which produce much of the despair they are tasked to help with.
“It is simply bad psychology to argue that dissent on government policies which cause such human rights violations won’t be muted at best by the inherent and often unconscious desire not to bite the hand that feeds.”
Rick Burgess, of Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts, another who raised concerns last October, said: “This gagging clause will cause utter dismay to people, and to those CA staff who see their executive leadership betraying their very ethos.
“At a time when the DWP is engaged in massive and ongoing human rights abuse, for the supposed Citizens Advice organisation to be tied into a legal and financial relationship with the abusers is catastrophic for CA’s integrity and for people who need defending from the DWP, and for open democratic oversight of government policies.
“It’s a bribe to stay silent.”
Disabled activists raised serious concerns last October about whether the DWP funding would put the independence of CA and CAS 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 had 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 criticisms from fellow panellists.
This week, CA confirmed that the agreement with DWP included the “disrepute” clause, but said that all of its “public advocacy work” was “based on evidence and would not be categorised as ‘unfair’” and so the clause “does not affect Citizens Advice’s ability to publicly criticise DWP”.
A CA spokesperson said the decision not to speak out at last year’s Tory party conference fringe event was not because of the “disrepute” clause.
She added: “We agreed to the clause in the agreement because it does not stop us from speaking out – all of our public advocacy work is based on evidence and would not be categorised as ‘unfair’.”
Gillian Guy, CA’s chief executive, said in a statement: “There is nothing in the grant agreement that prevents us from raising our evidence publicly about the impact universal credit is having on the people who come to us for help.
“Since we signed the grant agreement and have been delivering the service, we’ve published significant pieces of policy work highlighting where improvements can be made to the universal credit system. We will continue to do so.
“Citizens Advice is, and always will be, totally independent from government.”
CAS has declined to confirm that its agreement contained a “disrepute” clause, and that it could potentially affect its public criticism of DWP, and it has also declined to explain why it accepted the clause in the agreement.
But Derek Mitchell, chief executive of CAS, said in a statement: “Citizens Advice Scotland has not, nor would we ever, sign an agreement which would prevent us speaking out on behalf of people we represent.
“Nothing in this grant agreement stops us from raising concerns about the impact universal credit is having on the people who turn to us for help.
“Universal credit has been one of our major public advocacy issues and we have highlighted concerns around the five week waiting time, the deductions from universal credit which result from advance loans and the digital first aspect negatively impacting claimants.
“We highlighted these concerns as a result of robust analysis of the evidence from our client base across Scotland, which is how we deliver advocacy.
“We will continue to use that evidence base to campaign for a better system for the people we help, and we will always do so independent of government.”
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