Jobcentre Plus - a once only chance

The Employment Service and Benefits Agency are no more. In their place is the new agency for all claimants of working age, Jobcentre Plus. In putting a work focus back at the heart of the Social Security system, the Government has effected the most fundamental reform of Britainís welfare system since the Beveridge reforms of the late 1940s.

Since the 1970s - when the long grim growth in mass unemployment started - the social security system became disconnected from the world of work. It no longer insured individuals against risks inherent in the labour market but kept millions of recipients on minimal subsistence levels of income maintenance.

Although the social security system paid out money, it offered no support. It asked people to complete forms, but never seriously asked how it could help them regain economic independence. It delivered services either at its organisational convenience or on the whim of Government Ministers. During the Tory years, neither the Benefits Agency nor the Employment Service dug deep to find out what the customers really needed. The BA kept its millions of claimants trapped in a state of passive dependency whilst the ES was primarily tasked with bringing down the headline unemployment numbers - by fair means or foul. It demanded frantic jobsearch activity from people it judged to be job-ready whilst quietly transferring hundreds of thousands onto "inactive" benefits.

A generation later, the social security system supports 5 million people of working age - over half of whom want to work, while only a fifth are offered services that come close to meeting their aspirations.

Thatís why it is essential that Jobcentre Plus is a dramatically different agency to its predecessors. It must provide tailored services that meet the individual needs of its customers - whether they are people claiming benefits or employers.

Yet the development of Jobcentre Plus has been slow and difficult. ONE pilots introduced in mid 1999 were followed by the incremental launch of Jobcentre Plus along with its associated Work-Focused Interview sites. Strikes launched last year, in opposition to open-plan offices, disrupted the rollout.

To the relief of the Government, it would appear that the PCS - the civil service union behind the actions - has climbed down. Thankfully the management has studiously eschewed any triumphalism. Jobcentre Plus is a customer-oriented service and this requires a very different mindset for workers - and their unions - who are accustomed to old-style dole offices or social security fortresses. No employee should be exposed to danger in a Government workplace. But safety at work is not helped by treating all claimants as if they are a threat.

The experience of staff in Jobcentre Plus has been very encouraging. With the new agency has come new ways of working, increased flexibility, closer attention to employer requirements, a clearer understanding of client needs, more innovation and better working with partner organisations.

The focus must remain on the task in hand. In the early days with the ONE pilots too much of the face to face discussion was taken up with the technicalities of benefit payment issues with insufficient time and attention given to helping people into, or closer to, work.

As a result of this experience, the Jobcentre Plus process has been re-engineered to make sure that a claimantís financial concerns are resolved early on in their interviews. Still, many staff will then need to tread very carefully as they introduce clients to the possibility of employment and begin to identify the barriers to work. They will also need more effective assessment tools and a better understanding of how to deal with complex situations and individuals with very complicated lives.

April 2nd was less a launch date than the beginning of a process, which will take several years to complete, of properly extending the service across the whole country. Fully established offices will only become operational as and when they are converted to the new open-plan designs and are equipped and refurbished.

The need to push on with this reform is critical. Many thousands of practitioners, policy makers and staff have visited the 50 or so pathfinder offices and seem to be universally impressed. Hundreds of thousands of clients have made benefit claims, undergone job placement services and other help through the pathfinders - and the evidence shows improved job entry and retention rates.

Jobcentre Plus represents a step-change in the delivery of Britainís social security safety net. Getting it right can only be done once - and we have a once in a generation opportunity to create such a service. We need to get it right.