BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 12:31 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The job centre at 100


The changing face of job centres

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

One of Winston Churchill's lesser-known achievements is the setting up of labour exchanges, more recently known as job centres, 100 years ago. They are almost unrecognisable from those days, but how do these changes reflect evolving social attitudes?

Before 1910, the jobless had to hang around outside the factory or shipyards, relying on rumour and hearsay to find work. Or if they were really desperate, head to the workhouse.

Daily Mirror, Feb 2 1910
Dawn of a new era in job seeking - the launch of the Labour Exchange in 1910

But that all changed when as part of a series of reforms tackling poverty, 62 labour exchanges opened their doors on 1 February of that year.

Unemployment was rising at the beginning of the 20th Century and the ill-fated Boer War had engendered a crisis of confidence in the health of Britain's workforce.

Winston Churchill, appointed as President of the Board of Trade in 1908 when he was a Liberal MP, was given the task of solving the problem.

He immediately started drafting a new social programme that included Labour Exchanges and unemployment insurance.

WHY IN 1910?
A study by Seebohm Rowntree had found previously undiscovered levels of poverty
Two-thirds of Boer War recruits had been unfit to join up
There were fears that Germany, with a more advanced welfare state, was overtaking Britain
The newly founded Labour Party was attracting working class votes
Trade unionism was gaining in strength so there were fears that unrest could stoke communism

The groundwork had been done by a young William Beveridge, whose report on deprivation decades later led to the founding of the modern welfare state.

The exchanges were set up in offices, factories, shops, chapels and other locations, evident from the queues of people, some as young as 11, snaking down the street.

They were painted green and contained separate rooms for men, women, employers and children. At the Shoreditch office in London, vacancies on the first day included a piano regulator and picture frame gilder. In nearby Camberwell, and in an era when sexual discrimination in the workplace wasn't even a consideration, there was a job for a "girl confectioner's packer".

"The initial scheme was part of a particularly radical, free-thinking element of the Liberal Party," says Derek Fraser, author of The Evolution of the British Welfare State.

"Lloyd George and Churchill were rivals for the leadership of the radical wing of the party. This was one plank in a broad social policy trying to deal with the consequences of industrialisation."

Conscription agencies

They were also trying to outflank the infant Labour Party, and reach out to ordinary working people, says Mr Fraser, a professor of history at the University of Teesside.

Rebranded in the early 70s and sited, for convenience, on High Streets

"Beveridge had identified the fluidity of the labour market and the intervals between periods of employment that labour exchanges could help to plug."

What was important was that they were removed from the workhouses set up under the 19th Century Poor Laws, which were so stigmatised that people only went to them when in extreme distress.

"Labour exchanges had a different set of values, that did not describe people as deserving or undeserving - if you paid your national insurance then you got benefits."

But the first exchanges had little impact because unemployment was falling in the build-up to war, says social historian Noel Whiteside, and the unions were controlling the skilled jobs.

"The exchanges were left with the unskilled end of the labour market. If employers were looking for skilled workers they didn't turn to labour exchanges."

But war itself gave them a relevance that had been unanticipated - in both the World Wars I and II the labour exchanges became agencies for military conscription, she says. They registered the men who were heading off to fight, and regulated the women who replaced them.

Orange and black

And in peace time, post 1918, they took on a deeply unpopular role - testing people for their suitability for work. Labour Exchange staff would even inspect the family home to assess the family income.

Jobcentre 'library'
A Jobcentre 'library' - the idea was to make the centres less intimidating

It was the early 70s, when, after years of growing prosperity, Britain's economy began to waver and unemployment started to creep up, that the Labour Exchange became the subjected of a major rebranding exercise. In 1973, they were renamed Jobcentres and began cropping up on High Streets, complete with a highly conspicuous orange and black decor.

But the more user-friendly appearance couldn't pacify a growing hostility in some quarters towards Jobcentres and the belief they were a sticking plaster on the open wound of growing unemployment.

"The new branding dates from the 1970s but because of high unemployment [in the 1980s] of three million, there was a lot of hostility about welfare dependency and the thought that people could get a job if they picked themselves up. It was still stigmatised.

Barry Burton
"At the Portsmouth office there was a separate section for women," says Barry Burton, pictured now and in the 1960s. "Offices were smoky, smelly and very crowded as there were no appointments and unemployment was high.

Barry Burton in the 1960s
"A normal pay day consisted of a long queue to sign followed by another long queue to receive any benefit payments. Could be well over an hour in total per person so personal hygiene or lack of was noticeable particular on a hot day.

"Big high wooden old fashion counters greeted those receiving benefits, which separated customers from staff. No vacancies on display-employment officers kept them all on a card in a desk drawer and would choose which ones to offer clients."

"The design of public buildings can tell you a lot about their function. From the austere, bleak, almost Soviet-style buildings, in some cases complete with fences between officers and clients because of fear of physical assault, people were viewed as morally suspect for claiming benefits."

Alan Bleasdale's TV series The Boys From The Blackstuff, in which protagonist Yosser Hughes immortalised the phrase "Gissa job", reinforced this image. But in the past 15 to 20 years, says Mr Fraser, they have become open, modern offices that look more like banks; places with a professional and user-friendly service. The centres have also been combined with benefits offices to create the brand Jobcentre Plus.

Advent of carpets

When "unemployment benefit" was itself rebranded into the less judgmental JobSeeker's Allowance, the rehabilitation was complete.

Jobcentre Plus
The glossy, Jobcentre Plus branding familiar today

Barry Burton, 64, followed in his father's footsteps when he began working in the Portsmouth Labour Exchange in 1966. He has witnessed the changing face of job centres first hand.

"There were no job adverts, so people had to ask officers if there was a vacancy in their preferred field. If you had an open mind about what you wanted to do you were disadvantaged," recalls Mr Burton.

"It's a nice place to come into now. The offices were very scruffy and poorly decorated and when carpets and modern furniture were introduced there were concerns that clients would damage them, but the reaction was favourable and this encouraged further improvements in making jobcentres more attractive.

"In the 70s, they started to make a real effort in appearances and better clients started to come in. Some were already in work and wanted a new job, so we had late night openings and Saturday mornings. The places looked more appealing to people. The cards came out too, so people could browse for jobs."

Mr Burton found his role rewarding, but not without its difficulties.

"It's difficult when you really want to help people and you can't always produce the job they want, but it's very satisfying when you do that, and sometimes they come back to say thank you."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

As someone who become an unwilling frequent visitor to Jobcentre Plus due to the recent climate I found this arcticle very interesting. In future Id like to see Jobcentres offering; proper career advice, guidance on benefits and filling out forms and a good range of back-to-work schemes.
Dave, Huddersfield, UK

A "professional and user-friendly service" Really? Perhaps too professional - given how many people they have to deal with it's all too easy for staff to treat jobseekers as numbers rather than real people. Little actual help was given to me except to destroy any ambitions I had as a new graduate. The trip to the jobcentre to sign on was the most depressing time of the week while I was unemployed three years ago.
Lois, York

I worked in the Benefits Agency before it was merged with the Jobcentre to become Jobcentre Plus, but I transferred to another civil service department before the open-plan office was implemented because I just wasn't comfortable with it. The Benefits Agency receptionists had to call the police out at least on a weekly basis; on one occasion armed police had to be called. Open-plan works for job searching but not for when giving bad news to the 1% of benefit customers who are potentially violent. I still believe the two should not have been put together, and tales from a friend of the family who has worked in Jobcentre Plus since the early pilots just reinforce I made the right move.
Michaela, Runcorn, UK

How is jobseekers' allowance the less judgemental version? It tells you that if and only if you're not feckless and idle, you will be patronisingly granted pocket money. Unemployment benefit, on the other hand, is exactly what it says on the tin - I was out of work for a year, and one of the reasons I never went near a jobcentre was the humiliating name of the funding I would have to sign up to.
Charlie Grove, London

When I joined the Jobcentre Service in 1978 it was a key part of a combined service dealing with the majority of vacancies in the country. We had two specialist services; the Professional and Executive Recruitment, which charged for its services, while the Occupational Guidance Unit provided specialist advice to people who had either been longer term unemployed or who simply were uncertain what area their skills were suitable for.
In common with many other government departments, we suffered a series of re-organisations, in our case bringing us closer or further away from others working in the area of employment, unemployment and training. We had a wide mixture of people we were trying to help, including some referred from the Benefit Offices. I've almost lost count of how many different iterations of departmental names and responsibilities we went through in the 10 years or so that I worked in jobcentes, but it included the Manpower Services Commission, Employment Services Agency and Employment Division.
Iain, Beds

They were universally known (in Liverpool anyway) as Joke Centres as during the Thatcher era the jobs didn't exist.
Richard, Liverpool

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