Page last updated at 21:00 GMT, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 22:00 UK

Jobcentres 'failing unemployed'

By Katy Johnstone
Face the Facts, Radio 4

Frontline staff at Jobcentre Plus have been forced to cut interview times to cope with an increase in benefit claimants, a BBC investigation has learnt.

Inside a Jobcentre Plus
In some branches interview times for the unemployed have been cut in half

The government agency is failing to meet its targets for getting people back into employment, and is often failing to offer the personalised service the government has promised to the newly unemployed.

With 1.5m people now claiming Jobseeker's Allowance, nearly twice as many people are now registered at one of about 750 Jobcentre Plus offices in England, Scotland and Wales than there were at the start of the recession.

The number of people out of work in the UK has risen to its highest level since 1995.

Unemployment increased by 220,000 to 2,435,000 in the three months to June, taking the jobless rate to 7.8%.

At Jobcentre Plus, the newly jobless meet their own personal adviser, who plays a crucial role in helping them back to work, and also administers benefits.

But personal advisers are dealing with a huge increase in claimants - in the North West for example, Face the Facts found there were now about 300 claimants per adviser.

The Institute of Public Policy Research said the average initial interview has now been reduced in some places from 40 minutes to 20.

For a fortnightly signing-on session, which is also seen as an opportunity to discuss job search progress, interview times are as short as four minutes, leading to widespread concern.

'Personal service'

Face the Facts began its investigation after Ruth Owen, the chief operating officer for Jobcentre Plus, appeared on Radio 4's You and Yours in June 2009.

Inside a Jobcentre Plus
Jobcentre Plus has been failing to hit its targets for getting people back to work

She was adamant it was an efficient and comprehensive service for all types of unemployed people - including the new influx of white collar professionals entering the jobs market.

There were promises it was a professional and personal service for all.

But following that interview we were contacted by listeners such as Mary, (not her real name), who's in her 50s and lives in the West Country.

She lost her job as a qualified practitioner in the legal profession in January, and was experiencing a very different service.

"It's certainly not a personal service - you don't see the same adviser when you go in.

"The first time I sat in front of an adviser I could see she hadn't a clue what to say to me. I told her I'd updated my CV. She knew there was nothing she could do for me."

Mary said she felt like she was on a timed treadmill - the jobcentre was doing nothing more than collecting her signature.

Figures we obtained from a Jobcentre Plus managers' update for May show it is indeed achieving its targets on processing benefits, but not on getting people back to work.

We've had members coming to us saying they find themselves going home crying
Tom Penn, PCS Union

That figure was 13% under target, despite a Jobcentre Plus boast which says there are 10,000 new jobs advertised every day.

And meeting targets, keeping abreast of new initiatives and trying to see even more people is taking a heavy toll of frontline staff.

Tom Penn from the Public and Commercial Services Union used to be a personal adviser.

He confirmed they no longer had the flexibility to offer clients the time they needed, and that some were feeling the pressure.

"We've had members coming to us saying they find themselves going home crying - we've had people sitting in the car park outside the office, scared to go in.

"People unable to leave their home first thing in the morning, because they're so stressed about going in, that they feel they may go off sick, they just can't take anymore."

New recruits

The government has promised to recruit 16,000 more Jobcentre Plus staff and has already started this process.

Jobcentre Plus exterior
Thousands of new staff are being recruited says the government

However, finding out how many more are playing the crucial role of personal adviser proved difficult to confirm.

Face the Facts obtained some figures for the 12 months up to February - they showed the number of personal advisers had grown by 376 to around 9500.

To put this in context, in the same period, there were an additional 641,000 Jobseeker's Allowance claimants.

When the Department for Work and Pensions was asked for more up-to-date information, it told Face the Facts that by April there were around 9900 personal advisers.

The Employment Minister Jim Knight said the agency was "working towards" providing a better service for higher skilled workers by using external recruitment agencies and specialist consultants.

Face the Facts, Jobcentre Plus: Not Working, is on Radio 4 on Thursday 13 August at 1230 BST and is repeated on Sunday 16 August at 2100 BST.

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