If you ever want to see the welfare state failing, simply pop along to your local Jobcentre Plus. These are meant to be places that deliver people into the labour market. That should be a happy endeavour. Yet, instead, it’s all dreariness under the ceiling tiles. Security guards usher jobseekers from one spot to another. Some end up at a Jobpoint terminal, which tend to have those touchscreens that you jab, jab, jab… and nothing happens. Some go into meetings with an adviser, only to re-emerge just five minutes later. Some are told to come back another time.
It’s a disheartening setup that’s rendered more disheartening by the statistics behind it. According to estimates made by Policy Exchange, just 36 per cent of jobseekers find work within six months of claiming benefits, and then sustain that work for at least another seven or eight months. Which leaves a whole lot of people in Jobcentres who either aren’t getting jobs or are only keeping them for a short time. Turns out that jabbing at a Jobpoint screen doesn’t do much good.
These failings have come about for various reasons. Looking back at the New Labour years, it could be said that too much attention was paid to Jobcentres. Tony Blair and his ministers decided to merge the old Employment Service and the Benefits Agency to form one big conglomerate service for both returning jobseekers into work and administering to their benefits. This was the Jobcentre Plus, and it’s struggled with this dual role ever since. “Hello, please sign on for your benefits here,” says Adviser Jekyll. “Now get off them as quickly as possible because I’ve got jobs targets to meet!” interjects Adviser Hyde.
But now, in the post-Labour years, the problem is actually a deficit of attention. In a functioning system, politicians would be lionising Jobcentres and their staff – much as they lionise the NHS – for being the first defence against the sickness of unemployment. As it is, the back-to-work advisers are paid less than the national average salary, and are given little incentive to enjoy or improve their labour. It’s the sort of malady that spreads. Many employers don’t bother advertising in Jobcentres, as they don’t want to be swamped with candidates who have been sent on to them by a few unthinking mouse-clicks.
In some ways, it’s understandable that the Conservatives have ignored the Jobcentres. Iain Duncan Smith’s main concern has been those so far removed from the workplace that they require special help. These are the people who are pushed on to the Work Programme, with its smorgasbord of “alternative providers” and “tailored solutions”. These are the people for whom the Universal Credit was really designed. They are described as the hard-to-reach, and have been prioritised precisely because they are hard to reach. Others will have an easier time finding a job.
Besides, isn’t economic growth the best mass employment policy? The Jobcentre queues have shrunk like George Osborne’s waistline.
But, as any fule no, economies don’t keep growing forever. It would be foolish to neglect the Jobcentres when – in the Chancellor’s weary words – the sun is shining, only to see them collapse under the next spot of rain. Especially as, even now, they are a drag on so many people’s lives. According to a Centre for Social Justice report from 2013, even those jobseekers who end up on the Work Programme suffer from the Jobcentres’ inadequacies:
“Most people are normally referred to the Work Programme after nine to 12 months with Jobcentre Plus, yet [we were] told that a quarter of those referred still have no up-to-date CV.”
Thankfully, the Jobcentres aren’t entirely forgotten in Westminster. There’s this CSJ report and the Policy Exchange one I mentioned earlier, both of which propose various reforms, including breaking up the state’s monopoly with competition from the private and voluntary sectors. Yet this isn’t a subject that has MPs roaring in the Commons. Perhaps it lacks the grand-sweepingness of overhauling the benefits system, or the vote-winningness of the NHS in general.
It isn’t alone in this regard. Jobcentres are just one component of the unreformed state that lies hidden beneath the redesigned websites and Academies and Clinical Commissioning Groups that are always in plain sight. Prisons, which I’ve tried to write a bit about, are another. So too, as The Spectator’s Mary Wakefield has shown, is the ambulance service. There will be more. In fact, if you can think of any, please mention them in the comments section. It will be useful to know the boundaries of this dismal land.
Then comes the task of reforming it. This is the opportunity – no, duty – created by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. Five, ten, fifteen more years of power aren’t anything if that power isn’t used for good. The Tory leadership should get cracking.