Signing on goes online but pressure to get job stays

Keeping jobseekers out of job centres to reduce pressure on stretched staff will not lessen pressure on claimants to find work

“Jobless offered a longer lie-in.”

That is how the Daily Star covered the news that unemployed claimants may soon be able to “sign on” by phone instead of making the fortnightly trip to the job centre. The newspaper sees this as another example of how cushy life is for benefit claimants.

In their view, “claimants will only have to attend a job centre every three months to qualify for Jobseekers’ Allowance” which conveniently ignores the raft of sanctions, conditions and penalties that job seekers face for not “actively seeking work”.

Given that claimants of contribution-based JSA can now make their initial claim for that benefit on-line too (via the Daily Star must be frothing at the mouth at how easy claiming is nowadays.

Oh for the days of the bleak Labour Exchange and those quaint Northerners practising Full Monty dance routines while queuing for hours to sign on and then being ritually humiliated by a clerk wearing a superior smirk.

But of course, the reality is very different. And the motive for keeping the unemployed out of the job centres is as much to do with reducing the pressure on an over-stretched service as it is about, at last, job centres offering a modern 21st century service that doesn’t treat all benefit claimants as potential fraudsters.

In that respect, they are aping the behaviour of high street banks in the 1990s, which dismantled the branch structure – “clicks not bricks”. It seems we are moving into an era of virtual claiming.

The Department for Work and Pensions is involved in an “orientation” exercise, designed to “discourage people from using job centres but ensuring that people who do drop in are able to access the information or services they need online, on a free phone in the office or in a printed information product”, according to a document that was recently discussed with claimants’ representatives. Note that there is no mention of being seen by a job centre official.

In discussing “preferred orientation routes”, the DWP is quite honest about what it sees as avoidable contact. “We do not want to encourage people to enter jobcentres to look for jobs, general enquiries or information about other DWP products” – phone, internet and leaflets are to be the main methods of customer contact.

Apart, of course, from the face-to-face interviews needed to police a benefit system that is becoming more heavily reliant than ever on conditionality and meeting ever stricter benefit criteria.

You have to ask about the value of the fortnightly signing on ritual. It’s largely a relic from the old days, when the only contact most unemployed people had with the dole office was the weekly visit, with the giro coming two days later.

Part of the aim, of course, was to make life difficult for the unemployed who were suspected of working on the side – so at least for one day a week they had to leave their cash-in-hand jobs and sign on, or so the theory went.

Nowadays, jobseekers are supposed to look online for job opportunities, and job centres use text messages to keep in touch.

There is a vast array of New Deal schemes, training and re-training programmes, mandatory and optional work-focused interviews, jobseeker agreements, basic skills assessments and assorted paraphernalia, all geared towards getting unemployed people off benefits and into work.

Fortnightly signing on is almost an irrelevance when set against this panoply of measures that the job centre has in place.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. If you have a question e-mail

This article is published in the 24 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Virtual signing-on does not mean jobless can stay in bed

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