This October will see the introduction of pilot job search schemes, where unemployed benefit claimants will be required to carry out 35 hours of supervised job searches every week. From next month, claimants will be expected to sign an attendance register at a local Job Centre provider at nine in the morning and search for jobs until 5pm, for five days a week, for three months. If they fail to do so, they will face sanctions, with the first sanction resulting in the loss of one month’s worth of benefits, and the second sanction culminating in the withdrawal of three months’ money.
The scheme will start being rolled out in early October in East Anglia, West Yorkshire, Surrey and Sussex, Mercia and the Black Country, and will run until March next year. However, if the programme is a success, the DWP say it may become nationwide. With a total of 6,000 claimants being selected to take part, these “chosen ones” will be selected by two criteria: the first batch will be aged between 18-24 and have been claiming for 20-24 weeks, while the second group will be over 25 and have been claiming for 33-37 weeks. They will only be selected if their job adviser thinks they will benefit from the extra support to find work. A spokesperson from the DWP said: “It’s right that we ask claimants to do everything they can to look for work in return for their benefits, and this pilot is looking at how we provide that extra support to those whose lack of job-hunting skills is preventing them from finding a job”.
These unlucky few will pass their days writing CVs and cover letters, perfecting interview techniques, developing “transferable” job skills and, of course, searching for jobs. But what happens when these days turn into weeks and these weeks turn into months? Surely there are only so many times a person can rewrite their CV? While it is undoubtedly valuable for claimants to gain support with their job skills, do these skills really take a quarter of a year to perfect? One can’t help but wonder whether cooping people up indoors to redraft cover letter after cover letter is the most efficient use of time.
After the job skills are taken care of, the scheme turns into little more than a supervised job search, which not only feels patronising but also somewhat Orwellian. Job searching is stressful at the best of times, without being trapped behind a desk in the same room with the same people from nine to five. Treating unemployment as a full-time job feels more than counterproductive, it feels punitive.
Peter Robson, a former social worker who has been claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance since he was laid off at the beginning of the year could be one of those who is affected by the scheme. Robson is appalled at the prospect: “First off, I can’t think how you’d be forced to sit in one of those centres all day long, apart from anything else it would be unbelievably boring and ineffective. Tension would no doubt rise too”. Like many people located in rural regions, Robson, who lives six miles out of Bradford, says he would struggle to travel to the daily sessions. “I can barely afford to run my car as it is, so I’d definitely have to break into my savings to afford the petrol to drive into Bradford. But what happens to the people who don’t have any savings, let alone a car? There are only two buses a day here. Some people simply won’t be able to get there and will be sanctioned as a result”.
In many of the places where the scheme is being rolled out, the problem lies in a lack of jobs rather than a lack of job seeking. For example, in Bradford, the unemployment rate is 4.5 per cent, virtually double the national figure. Despite the fact that claimants are busy searching for jobs, it is nearly twice as difficult to find a job in Bradford than the rest of Britain. While this work scheme might create extra applications, it cannot magically generate extra job vacancies. What is the point in perfecting your interview technique for three months, if there are no interviews out there to get? If the problem is a deficit of jobs, schemes like these can become a waste of human effort and public money.
Robson argues that these pilot schemes are “setting people up to fail because logistical factors will stop people from making every session”. The mandatory nature of the scheme means that it will fail to take being ill or problems with childcare or transport into account. In turn, increasing numbers of claimants are likely to be sanctioned and have their benefits removed. Claimants can have their benefits cut for a number of reasons, including arriving late or missing an interview, failure to participate in a work programme or leaving a job or programme without good reason. Nationally, the number of claimants being sanctioned has risen steadily since October 2012 when the DWP instituted a tougher policy on sanctions. The new rules increased the minimum duration of a sanction from a week to a month and the maximum sanction to three years. For example, in the last three months of 2013, 227,629 people were sanctioned – 69,600 more people than in the equivalent quarter in 2012. Job Centre staff have already begun handing out factsheets to claimants but we will have to wait until October to see how the programme pans out.