Labour MP David Lammy and right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange have both expressed deep concerns that Jobcentres are failing to help people find work. Policy Exchange have produced a report called “Joined Up Welfare: The next steps for personalisation”, which proposes that the service provided by Jobcentres should be opened up to market competition, and that claimants should be allocated “caseholders” to “coordinate specialist support suited to that person’s unique needs.” Lammy, meanwhile, writes that Jobcentres are no longer "fit for purpose". The “one-size-fit-all national system doesn’t reflect the varying and specific needs of individuals,” he argues; “the unique nature of each case of unemployment means services must be personalised and responsive to individual needs.” He too favours “a network of regulated charities and private sector organisations” to administer this model of personalised welfare provision.
The similarity of these pronouncements, coming from supposedly different political perspectives, demonstrates how one-dimensional ‘debates’ about welfare have become (Lammy even cites the Policy Exchange report approvingly). In their enthusiasm to propose dynamic new forms of support for ‘jobseekers’, both overlook a fact which is obvious to anyone who has actually had to sign on in recent years: people don’t go to Jobcentres to look for work. Jobs, or rather fragments or episodes of work, are found elsewhere, usually online or through agencies after days or weeks or months of copying and pasting and clicking and scrolling and phoning. People go to Jobcentres to get the welfare benefits they're entitled to, and which they need to live on.
Immense ideological resources have been invested in obscuring this fact, through the invention of a range of contrived interactions, most of which are thinly disguised surveillance exercises. Once inside the Jobcentre, recipients of ‘Jobseeker’s Allowance’ are required to prove their eligibility by producing evidence of job searches (often involving the spam-filled Universal Jobmatch website), made to undergo “work-focused interviews” and attend compulsory workshops on CV-writing, motivation or self-esteem. None of these contribute anything in practical terms, but all serve to wrap the basic transaction between claimant and state authority in an imaginary relationship of rehabilitation or moral instruction, as if to administer financial support without these strings attached would be somehow flagrantly irresponsible.
So, the personalisation of welfare is already well under way. Under its oppressive regime unemployment is presented as an internal fault in the individual, either a deception - you’re not really unemployed, you’re not really looking for work - or a negative attitude or deficit in employability, rather than an external economic fact. In his article, Labour MP Lammy lists examples of reasons for becoming unemployed as “health issues”, “confidence problems” and “a lack of training and skills.” But not a lack of jobs.
This is the context in which reports of politicians and think-tanks about “specialist support” and “specific needs of individuals” must be interpreted. They are falling over each other to express their concerns that Jobcentres aren't helping people - especially young people - not out of any bid to rebuild the true social purpose of welfare or revive the spirit of the Labour Exchange but because, having systematically stigmatised the unemployed and whipped up public resentment and ignorance through the language of ‘welfare dependence’ and ‘something for nothing’, the Labour and Conservative parties are now racing to be the first to push the detonator in front of the cameras. These statements are the latest mystifications of the reality of work and non-work, providing a convenient opening for further outsourcing to the private welfare-to-work industry with its humiliation programmes and obstacle courses of appointments and activities, where the economic causes of unemployment and necessity of benefits are forgotten amid the scramble to offer lucrative guidance to 'customers' in return for public funds.
There is another glaring gap in this official talk of personalised welfare support: while claimants have to attend Jobcentres to claim benefit, the duty of Jobcentre advisers is now to do everything in their power to stop people getting that benefit. Advisors are no longer able to offer worthwhile work opportunities, as the few such opportunities that exist rarely reach the doors of the Jobcentre and are hugely over-applied for. It is not a coincidence that the web of Jobcentre rules has expanded as the same time that the labour market has dissolved into low-paid temporary and zero-hours drudgery. The goal of ‘getting people off benefits’ has been detached from the goal of finding sustainable work and is now predominantly a matter of intimidation and statistical chicanery.
Conspicuously absent from the MP’s hand-wringing elegy and the Policy Exchange plan is any mention of benefit sanctions, an issue which to anyone in close proximity to the reality of ‘welfare reform’ looms far larger than any PR waffle on what sort of “support” should be offered. Benefit sanctions are at their highest rate since the introduction of JSA and still rising, even as the official unemployment figures fall. 874,850 sanctions were imposed (5.1% of claimants) from September 2012 to September 2013 (rising to 6% in the last 3 months); and this before the introduction in October 2013 of the ‘Claimant Commitment’ requiring 35 hours per week of job searching. Targets for sanctions achieved by Jobcentre staff are widely reported, although officially denied.
In July last year, eight days after his JSA was sanctioned, 59-year-old David Clapson died from complications of diabetes. Mr Clapson was found at home “a short distance from a pile of printed CVs.” He could not afford electricity and the coroner found that his stomach was empty when he died. A response to his family from a DWP official stated that “the correct procedures were followed for the administration of benefit.”
This is the kind of personalised tyranny which routinely operates in Jobcentres today: “little trip wires" designed to snare claimants and exploit vulnerabilities, regardless of the consequences, and thereby to reduce the official jobless figures, if not through actual work then through workfare, sanctions, destitution and death. As long as they are processed correctly, all outcomes are statistically the same.
In perpetrating such atrocities the Jobcentre has indeed lost any social purpose it may once have had, and as such it should be abolished in its current form. This is not however the reason for the objections of the politicians and think-tanks; for all their ideas for personalised support, they will not be drawn on the details of individual cases, even though such cases are the logical conclusion of their rhetoric. The aim in re-branding Jobcentres as remedial services based on individual responsibility and employability is to eliminate all consideration of the general economic necessity of welfare, along with the structural fact of unemployment under capitalism. Just as unemployment becomes a personal rather than a social issue, deaths from sanctions or institutionalised bullying are viewed as personal tragedies for which the organisations involved cannot be held responsible, even when they have engineered them.
Jobcentres haven't 'failed' in their aim to help people find work, because that is not their real aim. Their function is to act not as a support but as a deterrent. Everything from the bureaucratic minefield of claiming to the inquisitions of advisors and the atmosphere of humiliation is designed to make you feel like a) you’ve done something wrong to get here; and b) you would rather be anywhere else. This is not an accident or a case of bad management, it’s a deliberate policy.
These same themes are played out in party-political pseudo-debates regarding the workfare schemes ostensibly set up to help unemployed people. The Work Programme hasn't 'failed' to get people into work, because its function isn't to help people get into work. The ‘Help to Work’ scheme is not designed to help people into work. The function of these schemes is to artificially reduce the official unemployment rate, firstly by discouraging claims through stigma and fear, and then by creating pretexts for sanctions and conscripting people into workfare, erasing them from the statistics and giving corporations a supply of free labour into the bargain. On these terms, far from failing, the schemes have been extremely successful.
Of course Jobcentres will soon disappear into the morass of virtual employability hubs and remedial training providers. The relentless torrent of dole stigma emanating from both government and opposition and amplified by media have turned the Jobcentre into the post-Fordist equivalent of the asylum on the hill that prompts ordinary ‘hard-working’, Reality TV watching people to shudder as they walk past, thinking it full of Hogarthian caricatures rather than people just like themselves only even worse off.
A vision of a truly joined-up welfare state would be the complete opposite of the market- and target-driven machinery of blame proposed by the political authorities, and would aim to ease the anxiety and despair of unemployment, rather than add to it. An unemployment benefit office – freed from the misnomer ‘Jobcentre’ - would invite claimants to register, sign on without fear of sanctions or coercion, and leave, without any compulsory support or stupefying activities or jobseeker’s agreements. Better still, depersonalise the process entirely: put the whole thing online and make claiming benefit a matter of one click, whereby the money is sent straight to your account, without human contact and without conditions, until you find a job worth doing. In an era of permanent insecurity, this is the only sort of welfare system which would really help individuals and society.