Should unemployed people celebrate the end of jobcentres?

Tue, 22/07/2014 - 12:05 -- nick

The publication of yesterday's report into the future of jobcentres has promised to shake up a system that seems to have more problems than positives.

'Joined up Welfare', written by Policy Exchange, a thinktank close to the Conservative party, criticises jobcentres for their poor record on getting people into long term work with only a third benefitting.

It recommends a radical overhaul, turning the current offices into co-ops and having them compete with private sector companies and charities to win employment support contracts.

Policy Exchange recognises the problem that many unemployed people have multiple barriers to entering work, and wants a new system that turns a rump of jobcentres into referral agencies using the best of local support services.

It won't surprise many Tory party watchers that privatisation and competition are the prescriptions, and that the government is likely to make this idea policy if it wins the next election.

Defending the current jobcentre service is not a route to popularity among unemployed people, but this new system may not provide the improvement that is so badly needed.

It may seem ridiculous given its recent failures to do so, but a working civil service is meant to act as a counterweight to government, challenging and limiting its more outrageous policies and ensuring the country doesn't suffer too much from mad-eyed idealists.

It is always hard to know how things might be under different circumstances, but it is highly possible that this new competitive employment support system might actually be worse.

For evidence look at the work programme; run almost entirely by private sector providers competing with each other, it hands out more sanctions than jobcentres and has a very patchy record of getting people into work.

The real issue isn't whether those delivering the service are from charities, private companies or the public sector.

It is that the wrong kind of leadership will mess things up time and time again.

The government is so busy demonising the unemployed, so busy weaving its stories about their fecklessness, laziness and lack of morals, that it is a legitimate question to ask whether it really wants a back to work service that, well, works.

It could be seen that, the fewer people who actually get jobs through this support, the easier it is to pretend that all unemployed people are lazy good-for-nothings who have nothing to offer.

It has had some success with this fiction; when surveyed, British people wildly overestimate the level of fraud among benefit claimants and hold broadly negative attitudes on much of the welfare system.

It has been said that politics at its most cynical is about the creation and vanquishing of false enemies.

The government has focused great energy on pushing the unemployed as an 'enemy within', trying desperately to detract attention from the bankers who caused the economic crisis and consequent increase in unemployment and, entirely coincidentally, bankroll the Tory party.

Many UK citizens have been fooled by this approach, and see harsh treatment of workless people as fitting punishment for bad behaviour.

Unlike many unemployed people, we don't primarily blame jobcentres themselves for the mistreatment they hand out.

Numerous whistleblowers have told newspapers and MPs of the financial incentives they are given to sanction people, and that they are likely to be disciplined if they miss targets.

These directives can only come from the top, and that means the Conservative-led government, despite its denials that it engages in this sharp practice.

Freed from any constraint provided by the civil service, including the fact that it is more unionised than average, this situation may well get worse with the ending of the jobcentre service.

Those operating purely through a contractual relationship will be forced to do whatever the coalition tells them to, including massively increased sanctioning, denial of access to appeals and damaging financial incentives, or someone else will.

League tables showing the most successful in helping people into work may become league tables of the most successful in getting people off benefits, and it is easier to sanction someone than to find them a job.

We may look back at jobcentres as comparative lambs when the wolves of competition are unleashed.