Page last updated at 08:53 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

Pledge Watch: Mobile job centres

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing new initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...

Job centre
Job centres have become more hi-tech in recent years

Six years ago Gordon Brown declared war on "unemployability".

In a speech in Birmingham the then chancellor promised a "street-by-street, estate-by-estate" effort to bring the long-term jobless into work.

Part of this would involve mobile job centres touring unemployment blackspots, alerting people to the vacancies and offering advice.

Mr Brown drew attention to Tottenham, in North London, where there were 3,500 men were out of work, alongside more than 4,000 registered vacancies.

'Destructive culture'

He told the government's Urban Summit on 1 November 2002: "This will be an onslaught against the unacceptable culture of worklessness that grew up in some of our communities in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"Because we must break the destructive culture that 'no one around here works', we will extend access to the help available through the New Deal in those areas.

"But in exchange we will expect the unemployed to take up the jobs that are available."

If you have a vehicle that pulls up in your area, which could have a level of stigma attached - a bit like a soup kitchen - people tend not to go into it
Andrew George, Lib Dem MP

Conservative work and pensions spokesman David Willetts dismissed the whole series of announcements as "one more bogus crackdown on the workshy".

However, the "street-by-street" attack on the benefits culture was all over the press.

Mobile job centres had already been tried in high-unemployment areas of eastern Germany, shortly after the reunification of the country in 1990.

But did they ever take to roads across England?

It seems not.

When asked about mobile job centres by the BBC, a Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman did not offer a specific comment on them.

She said: "Action Teams and Ethnic Minority Outreach initiatives were set up in 2002 and together achieved their key goal of helping over 150,000 people in some of our most deprived communities to move into work.

"Having achieved this we wanted to further direct our cash to help those most in need and so we replaced Action Teams with a new scheme called the Deprived Areas Fund, which pinpoints areas of deprivation and provides help and support to those communities."

'Full potential'

The 65m Deprived Areas Fund was announced by the then Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton in June last year.

Mr Hutton, coincidentally speaking in Birmingham like Mr Brown had five years earlier, said: "We need to develop the right framework to encourage and reward investment and improved performance.

"And we should draw on the full potential of private and voluntary providers - especially the expertise of local organisations to innovate and develop solutions tailored to their local area."

There appears to have been no mention of men and women in vans travelling to estates, disseminating advice and alerting people to job vacancies.

Mobile job centres have been largely forgotten.

The Public and Commercial Services Union argues that the plan was never likely to work anyway.

The important thing is to get trained staff to people and advise theme
Keith Wylie, PCS union

It says the scheme was never viable after the government announced in 2004 that it intended to cut 30,000 staff in job centres and benefits offices by 2008.

The union's work and pensions spokesman, Keith Wylie, said: "Unemployment can be patchy, both by region and by locations within regions.

"It can be high on one estate and much lower on the next. I don't think the government ever really did much about using mobile job centres to target problem areas.

"Their policy did the opposite. They made it a priority to axe small job centres and concentrate services in larger offices. Without the smaller centres it is harder for people to access the jobs.

"The important thing is to get trained staff to people and advise them. With the cuts, job centre employees are under huge strain. We could have three million people unemployed by Christmas, so the need for something is even huger now."

Supermarket screens

Job centres nowadays use touch-screen computers, rather than cards on boards, to guide people towards vacancies.

Under its "outreach" efforts, the government has installed terminals in other public buildings, such as libraries and supermarkets.

Mr Wylie said: "It is important to get to people. The problem is that some of the poorest people, who come from a home without a computer, have problems with the level of IT literacy needed to operate the screens.

"What they need, if they are using these devices, is someone with them who is trained to help."

Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George, who has campaigned against the closure of job centres in his St Ives seat in Cornwall, is not convinced that mobile job centres in vans could ever have worked.

Post offices

He said: "If you have a vehicle that pulls up in your area, which could have a level of stigma attached - a bit like a soup kitchen - people tend not to go into it even if the service provided is something they need.

"They prefer to go somewhere more anonymous. Rather than send in vans, there should be more use made of post offices to provide these kinds of services.

"I think that the government wanted to sound like something proactive and important was happening, but that this hadn't been terribly well thought through."

There is some good news for advocates of mobile job centres, though, albeit a little further from home.

A scheme has been set up to deal with regional unemployment variations in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.

For work-seekers wanting a mobile job centre to pull up outside their house, getting on a bike - or a plane - and moving 3,500 miles east is probably the best bet.

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