Channel 4 last night broadcast a documentary in its Dispatches strand which, despite its ostensibly pro-jobseeker slant, should offend every unemployed person in Britain, as well as fans of objectivity and worthwhile investigation. ‘Tricks of the Dole Cheats’ was notable for portraying neither tricks nor cheats.
Instead, an opening voiceover claimed the programme would put Jobcentre Plus to the test, and proceeded to do just this, albeit in a rather haphazard way. In examining the cases of two jobseekers and one person who had previously worked as a Jobcentre Plus adviser, rather than commissioning or quoting research in to the experiences of a larger number, it undermined its premise through a lack of compelling evidence and rigour in the investigation.
The adviser provided particularly poor evidence; the Jobcentre Plus Chief Operating Officer, Ruth Owen, assured us in interview that all advisers receive a minimum of 10 days of training in supporting jobseekers in to work, but the adviser had no recollection of this. There is a case to make that frontline staff are poorly trained, but a greater case that they simply do not have enough time to fulfil all of the work required by their remit, particularly since 10,000 have lost their jobs in the last two years. Advisers’ fear of redundancy is another issue Dispatches failed to touch on, although this is likely to be a key factor in staff motivation and the service they provide.
Similarly, picking two obviously fully engaged and seemingly well educated jobseekers and presenting their experiences as typical is not representative; one of the issues for those on JSA is that they do not all get the same level of service at the Jobcentre, with different Jobseeker’s Agreements in use and each appointment dependent on the mood of their all-powerful adviser.
The Department for Work and Pensions press office tweeted some counter-arguments during the show to try to minimise the damage being done to its reputation, but the general Twitter response was consistently anti-Jobcentre Plus. A number of tweets took the show’s title as their theme, presumably having not watched it and seen the disconnect between title and content, enjoying the opportunity to bash the unemployed.
Attracting this crowd was presumably the point of the title, so congratulations Dispatches. Perhaps this idea can become common currency for other programme makers: if you want to attract viewers and have flexible principles why not just call your documentary Coronation Street or Olympics Closing Ceremony?
The programme was a missed opportunity, with a few good points undermined by shallow stunts. Setting up a high street recruitment consultancy to show that their professionals were better at advising on careers than the Jobcentre next door only shows the well-established principle that making more time and higher paid and more expert staff available to jobseekers tends to improve their employability.
No solutions were offered to the issues uncovered, another missed opportunity. Back in the early-nineties I had a temp job as a Job Broker in a Jobcentre, helping unemployed people (the jobseeker terminology came in much later) to apply for the work advertised there. Employment support was separated from signing on, and this made clients much more responsive as they knew advisers had no power to withdraw their benefits and were therefore only there to help. It may be time to go back to a separation of the benefit policing role and job support role.
Behind the offensive title of this documentary and the greater problems of Jobcentre Plus’s service to jobseekers there lies an erosion of the relationships between employed and unemployed people. Given the low level of benefit fraud in this country the disproportionate reporting of it by newspapers drives a wedge between the two sides; a simple example of this is that a respected documentary series like Dispatches feels it needs to misrepresent the contents of its programme to gain an audience.
But Jobcentre Plus is a branch of the civil service and implements the directives of government, and successive governments have pandered to the atmosphere of distrust of benefit recipients by tightening rules. The result of this is where we are now; a Jobcentre system that, as shown by Dispatches, sees its policing role as being more important than its support role.
Given the value of work in a person’s life, surely not even the most rabid of those who believe that unemployed people are typically lazy or feckless would want to actively prevent jobseekers from getting work? This might mean they need to start telling their newspapers through emails, letters and comments under articles that they disapprove of these attacks, and reject the use of discriminatory language like ‘scrounger’ and ‘sponger’. Governments would in turn be less likely to crack the whip with Jobcentre Plus and produce the kind of tough regulations they currently believe the majority of voters want.
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