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Down And Out At The Job Centre

Adventures In The Netherworld Of (Un)employment

by Michael Newland


I thank all those who unintentionally played their part in generating this little ‘web book’. They helped to make up the rich Dickensian cast of characters anyone having the misfortune to use Job Centres is likely to meet. As they say, only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

1. “You should write a book about it”
2. Down and out at the Job Centre
3. A rich cast of characters
4. Training for a changing world
5. “We’re from the government and we’re here to help”
6. You’ve got the job!
7. Ten years hard labour exchange
8. Closer to the edge
9. The deeper waters
10. What has gone wrong?
11. What’s needed

1. “You should write a book about it”

Most people will probably never in their working lives visit a Job Centre looking for work.

Many of you, dear readers, probably think that the government’s employment offices are somewhat similar to private employment agencies. Plenty of advertising puff, often some sharp practice, but in the end there to get people into work or they won’t get paid. The private firm's limitation is the sort of people their customers will take for a fee.

Job Centre jobs are likely to be at the bottom end of the market, but generally genuine, or why would people bother to advertise? If you’re stuck and not getting anywhere with newspaper advertisements and private agencies, then, at least a slightly worse paid job may be there for you through the government’s employment agency. A safety net, in fact, when the rent needs paying and you are forced to lower your sights.

I wish it were so. But often it’s not, and the press which one might have thought would have regularly covered the matter seldom does so. This is something of a surprise since there’s a story with all the right ingredients for popular journalism - exposure of government incompetence and duplicity, jobs with wages no one could live on, and the chance to read about the employment misfortunes of others on the train home with the wages cheque au poche - and so on.

As a Job Centre manager once said to me: “The only people who could afford to do our jobs are teenagers living at home, and people on pensions”. Not a great exaggeration where the jobs which really are available are concerned.

I’ve often told people about what it’s really like to use a Job Centre. Some respond with disbelief, thinking one is putting the worst complexion on things for one’s own reasons.

But others say: “You should write a book about it”.

Perhaps a book would provide comfort to others who want to work for a living but have little opportunity except through the portals of their local state service. Many of them may imagine that their discouraging experiences are unusual, and that bad luck has dogged their particular endeavours.

Books about the netherworld of employment, and the unemployed, are uncommon but all the more needed for it. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, about low-paid jobs in the US, is a little classic. And, of course, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and Robert Tressell's immortal Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

But a book which caught my eye some years ago in WH Smith, and persuaded me that something might be written about Job Centres, was a little hardback called Management Mole.

John Mole was a investment banker who took jobs at the bottom of the British private agency pile to see what it was like, and write about it. As with Barbara Ehrenreich, he was not forced into it, but went downmarket as an experiment.

Some of us have not had the luxury of choice.

Now the point about writing is to get a message across, and possibly make some money. It’s nice to see yourself in print in what is called a book or magazine, but the world has changed since the web became near universal.

Nearly everyone who has tried to get a book published can tell of endless frustration at the hands of publishers, and most can tell of little profit at the end of it. Often the material has to be spun out to book length when it really does not merit it. So why bother putting yourself through angst when most of the world can be reached through the web for years to come? Anyone who is interested can read what you say for nothing. You are not dependent on a publisher believing there is cash in what you want to say.

Almost the entire edifice of hands-on government employment policy in Britain depends on Job Centres for its functioning. When a government announces that some sector of the population is going to be assisted or persuaded into work - for example the army of those on sickness benefits who have essentially been parked there to lower the unemployment figures - it is not going to happen by magic. It is the Job Centres which are at the sharp end of the task. If they are not much good then the policy government announced is not going to be much good.

But, as with making use of most public services, those in power do not use Job Centres to gain employment. I expect their lips would curl at the thought. The likely result is easy to predict.

If it has been like it has for me then it’s likely the same for many others who have been forced to rely on the state’s employment service to any extent.

2. Down and out at the Job Centre

I first visited a Job Centre when I was approaching fifty.

I’d decided to change careers some years before, and study accountancy. I’d survived thirty years as a builder without killing myself, and decided I was not going to stretch my luck into my fifties. When I started, it was up thirty foot ladders with a ladle of molten lead in one hand.

Like everyone else in a risky trade, I had my lucky escapes.

Walking onto a staircase in the dark which no one had told me had been removed in the hour since I last descended it. Falling off the scaffold in a stair well, but managing to catch hold of the handrail a story down. Then there was the boiler flue which a helpful neighbour to my customer had filled with sand to stop the fumes in his garden. The customer did not know that the Grim Reaper’s bony arm was reaching in his direction. He’d not used his heating during the summer, and suggested warming the place up a bit.

If you feel a bit tired, think! Is it carbon monoxide?

They say carbon monoxide corpses have a healthy-looking rosy hue to their skins….

If you don’t get killed, trying to do physical work for a living after fifty runs a severe risk of physical disablement. I’ve met too many people with wrecked knees or backs who went on too long because they had no other trade to fall back on.

So, when I was in my early forties, I went off to evening classes, and studied accounts.

“If you can pass the professional exams you’ll never be unemployed even if you have to work for the gas board” said the trainer. It’s 1986 and that’s probably true - or it was at the time.

Years later, I remember an earlier occasion I was told something of the sort about a job.

Before leaving school, I went on a week’s course down the mines. They were looking for keen lads to join the Coal Board as engineers and managers. The trainer told us: “Coal mining is a job for life”. It’s 1961, and that’s probably true - at the time.

Five years after starting classes, when I’m near fifty, I’ve got a degree and a professional qualification. Now all I need is a job. I take advice from the other students, and a lecturer, who recommend a particular and very large and well-known employment agency. I pick a branch from the telephone book and walk in. It does not take long. A pleasant man tells me that the upper age limit to work is 35.

“It’s unlikely you’ll work again” he says with a smile. He adds that he expects to lose his job soon since he’s 39.

But it’s the dark days of the massive recession which followed Britain’s joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and the Lawson boom. I don’t expect things to be easy. I reason with myself that I’m only looking for one job not the approval of the entire world.

I soon take up what I don’t realise at the time is my main new career - visiting Job Centres.

3. A rich cast of characters

Remember those Victorian engravings illustrating novels and so on? The precursors of film posters in which the various characters float in a panorama, some in the foreground, some in the distance.

That’s my mental image of looking for work through the Job Centres. But, in the film posters, some clean-cut people occupy the foreground, with the more villainous in middle distance, and often their followers rampage on the skyline.

In my mental image, a cast of none too savoury people are at the front with yet more in the middle. The very few people you’d trust to watch your case on a station while you fetch the tea appear only at the sides and quite small, as befits their roles as bit-part players.

Who to put in and who to leave out when so many odd situations present themselves to the lucky ‘job seeker’ with the full weight of government authority behind his job search?


The office is in a smart new building on the outskirts of the City of London. Like many such buildings these days, it’s filled with umpteen firms who rent little offices. But, to put a gloss on each little enterprise in the eyes of the world, there is a grand conference room where visitors can be welcomed without knowing about the cramped quarters which are all the firms can in reality afford.

Period houses were built like that with an arch at the end of the hallway. Few people appreciate that the arch was there to hide a curtain rail. With the curtain drawn visitors could be ushered into the front parlour never seeing the squalor behind the curtain.

Mr Haig and Mr Curtis ask me into the conference room.

They’ve got my CV in front of them. They ask some rather inconsequential questions but then suddenly toss a googly. Have I been to prison they ask? I think perhaps they are concerned that someone from the Job Centre might steal the petty cash. It is the very grand City after all where ‘one’s word is one’s bond’.

Mr Haig then ventures that the firm has millions a year in turnover but no adequate books. It’s some sort of financial operation. And it’s been in business several years. Is the question about prison to see whether they’ve found the ‘right person for the job’?

Now I may draw a tentative conclusion about what sort of people I’m dealing with, but you can be wrong and the job seeker must give things a chance. So I let the remark about going to prison pass by without a hissy fit.

The partners ask me upstairs to the office. It’s one small room with a lad of about eighteen at a desk. He’s introduced as Mr Curtis’s son who is on ‘work experience’. It looks as though there are no paid staff at all.

The next day I get a call. Can I start the next morning? But there is one small matter which was not mentioned at the job interview - the wages. The advertisement in the Job Centre did not say. Of course, no firm should be allowed to advertise without stating the wages, but this is the Job Centre not a professional employment service.

So I ask what the wages are.

“Why don’t you just start and we can discuss it later” says Mr Haig.

“We’re a happy family here so we’ll sort it out later”.

I’ve already met one member of the happy family who is working for nothing. I tell them I want to know the wages before I start. He won’t say. I give up in the end and put the telephone down.

Later in the day, Mr Curtis rings.

He can’t understand the problem and why I have not agreed to start the next day. The hell he can’t.

I tell him about the leading case in contract law where the judge ruled that it is not the job of the courts to fill in the terms of a contract where the parties have been too lazy to agree them. I’m teasing now. He knows perfectly well that if no wages are agreed there is no contract and they are not obliged to pay anything. They are trying to get someone for nothing, and have used a Job Centre expecting to find someone who will accommodate them whether he intends to or not.

Eventually, Mr Curtis grudgingly tells me about the wages they have no intention of paying. But by now I know what variety of animal I’m dealing with. A contract may be a contract but, without evidence, it’s unenforcible. I want it in writing.

“Send me an e-mail saying what the wages are and I’ll be there tomorrow” I tell Mr Curtis.

No e-mail ever arrives. I won’t be hearing from them again.

One of the staff in the Job Centre’s telephone enquiry service once said to me: “There are some genuine jobs in our lists”. Well, there must be some!


Martin Michaels has what is called an ‘office suite’ off King's Road.

No shared conference room here. A whole floor of an 18th century building is all his. He is running a dealing business in something or other, so he tells me. The sky is the limit.

The advertisement said the job was twenty hours a week. No wages given. On the telephone he’s told me it’s eight to ten hours a week. The advertisement was a lie to get people to apply.

I tell him that‘s of no help to me. No problem. He can make the hours longer. What is the minimum I could do - hours and wages? He’s there to help like the government Job Centre.

At the interview, a piece of paper is pressed into my hand. They have calculated that if I reduce my wages to two-thirds of what I asked for (already below the market rate) they will gain twice as much as I lose owing to the nature of the tax system. It’s all there on paper carefully calculated by experts! They will gain about £20 a week. The sky is definitely the limit with this firm.

The idea of working for cash while signing-on is also suggested as something I might consider. Now anyone considering doing this should understand the hazards. If you don't get paid you can't exactly go to court! In fact there is nothing you can do short of serious crime, as firms of a certain kind understand very well.

I ring the Job Centre manager and point out that the advertisement is fake, and the suggestion about working for cash.

“What do you expect me to do about it” she says.

Well, stopping people like it advertising at public expense would seem a good idea to me.

A month later I get an e-mail. It’s a job offer! The twenty hours per week are now twelve (if it's not another tale), and they are to be spread over four days. The happy worker will not earn enough over a week to keep a mouse going (if paid at all). I don’t reply. Another e-mail arrives expressing surprise at the lack of interest.

Months later the job is still being advertised. It’s now 15 hours a week. The wages again are not mentioned.


Downmarket in Tower Hamlets. It’s one of those areas partly redeveloped in the 1990s. A horrible mix of new buildings, and odds and bobs of old ones. The character of the old area has been destroyed, and there is not even the gloss of a spanking new one where everything matches.

A run-down building with a bell and name on the door. The only good thing is that it’s a stone’s throw from the river. I have visions of watching Old Father Thames go by, and dreaming of Sir Francis Drake sailing the Golden Hind back from afar, as I eat my lunch during the summer.

Ed greets me and asks me to sit down. He tells me something about his firm, and casually mentions that he also owns an airline with some other partners. I nod seriously. I expect he tells women about his yacht.

He explains that he’s not only got the business mentioned in the advertisement but another as well which he runs from the office. He tried running it in the ordinary way but the other building firms were so much cheaper that he’s been forced to operate by the same methods to compete. Illegal immigrants are the answer to the staff problem.

“Have a chat with Moira” he says.

“She’s been doing the books but she’s leaving”.

Moira, I guess, is his mother. She has a certain air of Irene Handl in ‘Two Way Stretch’, who chided her son for not making a respectable effort to go ‘over the wall’ of the prison he’s in. She asks whether I know how to do what she calls ‘wrinkles’ with Sage accounts.

I leave at a suitable point when conversation is exhausted, politely shaking hands with everyone.

Another day, another dodgy little firm looking for a patsy who can be blamed if the Inland Revenue or VAT inspector starts poking in his big nose. The insulting supposition is, of course, that if you come from a Job Centre you are in the business of fiddling other people’s taxes for a pittance.

I tell a local trader I know about it.

“It’s bad enough fiddling your own tax” he says “Let alone being asked to fiddle someone else’s”.


I’m given an address in Bloomsbury. When I get there I think I’ve been given the wrong address. It’s a shop which appears to be empty and abandoned in a hurry. The floor is piled with junk when one looks through the windows. Perhaps the firm is just moving in?

A woman appears from a staircase to the basement. There’s a rather run-down office down under with three people in it. The job, I’m told, is doing the books for a chain of shops.

Each day, an envelope of papers arrives from each shop about its takings. My job is to write them up in an old-fashioned cash book. There are some till rolls among the stuff. But about a quarter of the takings are not included in the amounts going through the till but listed separately. Now how is the proprietor going to have any notion of how much is really being taken when it’s not put through a till? He’s not there to check.

Now it is easy to sniff a funny here. There is only one reason for not putting takings through the till in a shop. And you don’t need to be an accountant to work it out. Even the staff can work it out. What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander when cash is available. And the shop has been dressed to appear abandoned in case unwelcome visitors appear.

The second day I arrive at work to hear that the manager of one of the shops has disappeared. He was supposed to pay each day’s takings into the bank. He’s had the brilliant idea of not banking the takings for a week and then taking the accumulated cash with him. The proprietor appears for the first time. He distinctly reminds me of the well-known car dealer Arthur Daley.

And I can work out that my job is doing the figures for the money being taken by the shops. Any trouble with the authorities and the finger will be pointed at me.

I ask the girl who appears to manage the office what happened to the last person who did my job. She was Filipino and left after becoming ‘upset’. No wages paid is my guess.

4. Training for a changing world

Training! The key to success. The newspapers are full of such messages.

We’re in a skill-based economy. You get nowhere without skills. But I like learning things. I’ve just spent five years doing exams so show me a course and I’m your man.

Getting a job is a skill in itself, and advice is welcome.

The Job Centre advertises a week’s course on seeking work. Since the entire economy is in the pits, there is only so much a course can contribute but at least they are trying.

There are two trainers. Decent well-meaning folk without the pinched look you often get with front-line staff in Job Centres. A friend told me that he’d known someone who worked in a Job Centre. The keenest job seekers were the staff themselves.

Our teachers seem reasonably content with their lot. The course is quite practical.

I chum up with Pete who is about forty, intelligent and sharp, and was made redundant a year or two ago. Perfectly employable one would have thought. But he can’t get a job.

Pete and I knock up a running joke about taking jobs as crash test dummies. The requirement is to do the full range of tests. Whiplash, side, and front impact.

Few of the others on the course speak English well, and most seem uninterested. The impression one gets is that they’ve been press ganged by Job Centres trying to show they are doing something for them.

Being systematic about looking for work is a good idea, the trainers point out. And they throw in a little motivational stuff. We have to write a list of the disadvantages in being unemployed. I suggest ‘the deleterious effects of daytime TV’. This goes down well as a suggestion not heard on previous courses.

But all the training in job search is no good if there are no jobs, or firms won’t take on people over 35 and you are over 35.

And the training course assumes genuine employers, and real jobs. Advice on the realities, and the signs of what to avoid when looking for work through Job Centres, would be as helpful.

You cannot take anything for granted with Job Centre jobs.

The advertisement says ‘25 hours a week’? Does that mean that the job provides 25 hours of work each week? In many cases it means a ‘general idea’, a ‘possibility’ or a ‘target’. There are no guaranteed hours at all! The fortunate job seeker has no idea whatsoever whether he will work from one week to the next. The firms simply want someone to be available in case they are needed. The advertisement does not tell you that, and the Job Centre neither knows nor cares. In fact, there is no ‘job’ in any normal sense at all!

None of this is covered on the training course.

5. We’re from the government and we’re here to help

One of the regular features of life at the Job Centre is the ‘interview’.

No, not the interviews with employers. The interviews ordained by the government to make sure everything is being done properly. Billed as ‘helping you back into work’, they are nothing of the sort. A highly stylised ritual.

The job of the interviewer is supposedly to provide skilled help with getting a job. Most of the people who do these jobs appear to have been hired because of their lack of knowledge, or even any interest in employment. One seemed better suited to be on the door of a club than working in HR as flexed his muscles meaningfully.

Being interviewed by them is like, one imagines, being quizzed by a third-rate and crooked policeman. Poorly veiled attempts to make out that one has done something wrong dot the conversation. Words are twisted in an amateurish way. The mildly sneering and disbelieving manner often employed, after the initial friendly greeting, is something of a Job Centre art form.

Demoralising the workers and making them feel guilty seems to be the objective. Even if you cannot think of anything you have done wrong, a vague impression is given that unspecified charges are being prepared. One gets the impression that some smirking occurs privately. People with useless jobs despise those they deal with.

But two essential rites of passage must be passed through at each interview. These are intended to cover the organisation if any challenge is made as to the quality of the assistance provided to the unemployed. It’s obvious that the interviewers have been told on a training course what boxes must be ticked as to the components of the interview.

A suggestion must be made as to how the claimant can better find work. The usual one is to ask whether the job seeker has tried advertisements in newspapers. Never thought of that. Lucky to be able to enjoy such advice from experts.

But it’s the close of interview which really tells.

The interviewer scans the employment records. Have you applied for this one? The subject must always be sent away with a job to apply for selected by trained human resources personnel who know how to match applicants with jobs.


Del suggests a job in a shop.

I read the description. The job is for a shop boy. A very low-paid assistant to the shop assistants. The sort of person one imagines as 16, just left school, and sent on his way, whistling, to deliver Mrs Smith’s pound of kippers.

“Don’t drop them mind”.

“Yes guv’nor”.

So I send off my CV showing me to be 60 and with now two degrees and a professional qualification.

Unsurprisingly, I get no reply from the employer who must wonder why I applied. Most employers will conclude that people taken on whose skills and experience are grossly mismatched with the job will soon be looking elsewhere.

Another wasted postage stamp.


It seems to have escaped some people's attention that our economy is based on specialisation. If a skilled person takes an unskilled job then the economy is deprived of the use of those skills. But we are supposed to have a skills shortage! Further, there is an excess of the unskilled and no need, in principal, to press the skilled into doing unskilled jobs to obtain bodies.

But the interview has been correctly conducted according to the rules, and all the right things done to assist the claimant and by him. Another good job by Job Centre staff.

While this sort of charade is inflicted on people who want to work for a living, the Audit Commission has refused to approve the social security accounts for the past many years because of fraud.

When ineptitude reaches a certain pitch, what might otherwise be regarded as an accident ceases to be an accident and becomes manslaughter.

Many of the interviews are cancelled when you arrive.

“Bloggs is not here today. We’ll have to re-book the interview”.

At the second attempt, on one occasion, I see someone with a name I can barely pronounce. He’s a quarter of an hour late. Other staff have to be sent to locate him. The impression he gives is that he’ll do as little as possible to get the wages. I can't entirely blame him. But he urges the need to be keen and positive on the unemployed. I would not dream of employing him if I were looking for staff. He’s got bone idle written all over him. Or maybe the system has ground him down.

One particular interview was an important day for me.

The Government had recognised the problems many people face in getting jobs and started a special scheme to help. I have visions of getting a job through the New Deal.

The advisor tells me that the scheme is ‘client led’. This, she explains, means “We don’t help you to get a job”.

Well, at least there are going to be some jobs set aside for New Dealers only. I find two I can do in the next two years. I'm told I can't apply for either. One is for refugees, and the other under-25s only.

A Labour MP says on TV that stories about immigrants being given any priority are myths. So I write to him about the job I can’t apply for but refugees can. No reply. Now if you are thinking that the job paid the minimum wage you would be wrong. It was an accounts job for a publisher and paid £14k. Not for a humble unemployed Briton like me though.


A telephone call at home from someone at the Job Centre who does not speak English too well. The message asks whether I knew that I could stop signing on and still enjoy the benefits I’m entitled to now I’ve reached 60?

Yes I did. It’s called fiddling the unemployment figures.

I go in to the Job Centre and speak to Shez. She tells me that when people reach sixty they have to stop signing on. Not true. I asked a direct question as to whether I had to stop registering as unemployed.

I won’t have to be ‘hassled’ by Job Centre staff any more, she says. An interesting comment on the nature of Job Centres. She’ll give me a booklet explaining it all. The booklet has no relevance whatsoever to stopping signing on, or to our conversation. She’s just picked up any old piece of paper.

I might as well give up looking for work, Shez tells me, because firms "don't want to know" about people who are over 60. But the law will soon be changed to prevent them doing this legally. In fact, she's just heard that Labour is bringing forward the new rules by a year in their enthusiasm to help. Untrue.

I know what they are up to, and I’m not helping the corrupt Labour government to fiddle the figures. And they’ve tried to trick me into it. I'm sure they try this strategem on everyone when they reach sixty. Can't be much fun for the staff who are ordered to do it. Telling someone that their working life is over against their wishes is a lesser version of informing someone that they've got terminal cancer.

Read the Number Ten web site and you get a different tale. The Government is committed to getting people into work whatever their ages.

I write to the manager asking why they are employing such tactics. After a second letter, I get an evasive reply.


As David Willetts has pointed out, Job Centre managers are under huge pressure to remove people from the unemployment figures. If every Job Centre in the country can dispose of one or two persons down the oubliette a week, a very satisfactory announcement can be made by the minister each month about ‘falling unemployment’.

Concerning the work of the official oubliette, we must not omit mentioning one of the most nefarious and cynical practices used by Job Centres to maintain the illusion of jobs for all. A practice which now seems thankfully to have largely been dropped - the ‘work trial’.

The idea was that the unemployed should work unpaid. But fair-minded employers would be impressed if their unpaid staff were diligent in carrying out their duties, and, in conscience, start to pay them. Why anyone would wish to pay staff when they can get them for nothing with official approval is a question best not asked.

One of the Job Centre staff told me that an unfortunate client had worked filling shelves in a supermarket for six months unpaid, and never been given a paid job. When he had the effrontery to ask for wages he was sacked.

But, of course, he no doubt disappeared from the unemployment figures for six months.


Some time during the 1990s, I read in the Job Centre about 'volunteering'. This is represented as a more sophisticated version of the 'work trial', with an organised system for working free to lead to actual paid employment. The hook is that the free work is for charities, so the participant can enjoy a warm glow of personal satisfaction about doing good even if there is nothing to rattle in his wallet.

I go to a place off Oxford Street which appears to be paid for with government money. What isn't! They give the impression of being very busy sending out people to work in all manner of charities.

I ask how long you have to volunteer for in order to become eligible to work for actual money. From the reaction of mild disapproval, this is a 'how long is a piece of string' question not asked in polite circles. You can't get even an indication. We're here to care not to consume.

They send me to an address in the City for an interview.

It's a charity working in the Third World with a yoghurt knitter name. There are several English staff who appear to be immensely happy with their lot. Then there are umpteen people, who appear to be immigrants, mooching about with their heads down. The body language spells misery. I figure that the 'happies' are on huge salaries, and read the Guardian because they feel others' pain. The 'sads' are 'volunteers'.

The director, who has an even bigger smile of satisfaction that the other 'happies', tells me that the job is doing the books. She leaves me alone with Ahmed from Iraq, who is leaving, to discuss the details.

He's got a giant cash book he's filled in neatly. I ask him how long he's been there. Five years. All the time as a volunteer? Yes, but he's off for a paid job elsewhere now.

So volunteering leads to paid work? Well if you wait five years it might. Reminds me of some sick version of Monopoly where you work for naught for five years rather than going to jail.

The top 'happy' returns and we have another chat. She says that the building we are in was once the London headquarters of an African colonial business empire. Lots of cash made on the backs of the natives, I expect. Still is - by some.


We’re from the government and we’re here to help…..

6.‘You’ve got the job!’

I’ve only ever been offered one full-time job in ten years of looking for work in Job Centres. Is it my fault? I don’t think so because I’ve met too many other people past about forty in the same position.

“Plenty of work for those who want it” say the cynics. In the narrowest sense that’s true. Offer to work for a penny a day and you’ll get offers! But the point of work is to support life at the least. The wages are of some importance, and that is where the ‘plenty of work’ saloon bar theorists go wrong.

The correct question should be “Do you want to work for a living?”. That is a very different matter from “Do you want to work?”.


Peter and Sanji run a small accountancy firm. Neither are fully qualified but the office looks professional, and they seem to know what they are doing and to try hard.

You can usually tell the moment you walk into a job interview whether you’ve got the job. If the employers seem anxious to approve of what you say it usually means they are stuck for your skills. In their minds, the decision was made before you even arrived.

I think I’ve fallen on my feet. It’s the late 1990s and the job market has picked up after the doldrums of the big recession. The firm’s work is regular, and seems normal. The usual small shops, plumbers and so on, as clients wanting their tax done.

Once a week, a blousy middle-aged women appears in the office who is treated like royalty. Most small firms of any kind are heavily dependent on one or two key customers. Mrs Bell runs a hotel, they tell me. I get to do her books. It’s really a DSS hostel called a hotel but it seems honest work. I rib one of the bosses about his visits to pick up the paperwork. He’s been drinking cocktails in the palm court. Very lucrative client, I’m told, so take it seriously. Seems odd for the type of job.


Tel is a new client. He runs a wholesalers in a run-down area notorious for mugging. He does not want his paperwork taken off the premises so I’m dispatched with a laptop to go to the office and try to organise a mound of paperwork into books for his overdue accounts. Walking through the streets from the tube I feel I’ve got a sign on my back: ‘Laptop computer worth a lot. Please mug me’.

The premises are a run-down building under threat of demolition for a big redevelopment. One huge room is full of junk, with just a little clear spot with a desk to work on. The weather’s boiling so I open a window. Part of the frame falls off in my hand. The tenons have rotted, but since the building is coming down what does it matter? I wedge it together and get working. An hour or two later the client appears. He closes the window. If I open it again he’ll have to charge my firm £400.

It’s all clear now. The guy is what is called in the building industry a ‘knocker’. He’ll use any excuse to complain he’s not been served properly. That’s why he does not want the records taken off the premises. They could be held hostage.


Several months pass peacefully and the wages are paid on time. You can’t take anything for granted with Job Centre work.

Then one day I arrive at work to be told that Mrs Bell has been arrested. Arrested? For running a hotel?

The Curse of Job Centres has struck. No job advertised is ever with any firm which is entirely legitimate and respectable. Or so it seems most of the time.

The firm told me about Mrs Bell’s hotel. What they did not tell was that she also ran a chain of brothels. Mrs Bell, it emerges, is a Cynthia Payne persona well-known in the brothel business and to the police. Obviously my broader education has been lacking because I’d never heard of her. The firm has been doing the accounts for her massage parlours which conceal a vast black economy brothel business. It appears she has advertised her firm’s services in the police newspaper.

The big accounts fees were for a reason.

I’ve just spent five years struggling through accountancy exams, and I did not bargain with being mixed up with this sort of thing. I give in my notice. We agree I’ll leave straight away. A big relief. I expected the press at the door before long asking anyone leaving why they are working running brothels.

Why do they do it? The accountants knew perfectly well that the massage parlours were brothels, and that the accounts they were producing were a tissue of lies even if they had not been told so directly. They were not naive. But they took a chance for the big fees.

The case of Mrs Bell has sharp echos of a fellow professional who operated a chain of brothels in Chelsea during the 1880s. Mrs Jeffries, or the ‘Empress of Vice‘ as the papers called her, seemed to enjoy the favourable gaze of the authorities much as a brothel madam might presume to do from being able to advertise in the police newspaper. Even the Home Secretary refused to act against Mrs Jeffries.

But, against both ladies, eventually official action arrived - but with varying results. At Mrs Jeffries’ trial, the reluctance to act by the police was soon explained. No less than the Prince of Wales was in the frame as a customer at Old Church Street, and it turned out that the King of the Belgians had contributed £800 to the establishment in a month. Mrs Jeffries was fined only £200.

A year later, I hear that Mrs Bell has been sentenced to pay a £2 million fine, or serve five years in prison. Being able to advertise in the police newspaper did not it seem offer quite the same legal privilege as entertaining royalty. Even in today’s money £2 million is very great deal more than £200 in the 1880s.


I’ve got a Saturday accounts job as well. From the Job Centre again. From no job to two jobs a few months ago. A double falling on the feet.

But the day after I leave the brothel accountants the Curse of Job Centres strikes again.

Jamie has a building business, whose books I do on Saturdays. He told me a while back that he’d been “done” by the Inland Revenue for £40,000 in back tax, interest and penalties. He now says he’s short of money, and asks would I fiddle his VAT return by £3000. I point out that VAT fraud is a criminal offence.

“If you are working for me you should do what I want even if it’s illegal” he says.

There’s no answer to that, as Morecambe and Wise used to say. I leave never to return.


I apply for a job as an inspector for a firm doing repairs for housing associations The firm seems legitimate. They often do! The pay is good. I know what’s required and it’s full time. I’d not intended to return to the old trade but this is inspection not crawling round on your knees all day.

Ed, the boss, is there when I arrive to start.

“Can you answer the phone” he says, and disappears into a glass fronted office.

The phone soon rings. A voice says “Where’s our money”. Ed waves through his window. Pretend I’m not here is the sign language. He knew who would be calling. There is the same sort of performance a couple more times during the next hour.

Is this a firm that never pays the bills, or a one-off dispute? Would I get my wages? Unpaid bills spell despair among all with an interest as much as going to your bank and being told it's run out of cash.

A lady soon arrives who appears to be the boss’s wife. Smartly-dressed and smooth. She remarks that the employer is a ‘bit of a so and so’. Why is she telling me that when I’ve just started working there?

She soon casually mentions that the last person to have had my job as office manager had lunch at one and was paid dot dot. Office manager? I applied for a job as a building work checker at near double the wages. It’s a switcheroo job. After a month, they would have tried to tell me I had misunderstood what job and salary I’d taken up.

I make my excuses, and say I’m going to lunch. I have to think that the lady was kindly tipping me off.

The woman in the Job Centre does not seem surprised.

“They let it slip” she says.

It’s not clear whether she’s come across this firm herself but she’s certainly come across the trick. Some firms of this dubious type advertise over and over again

When I suggest to another member of the staff, Gita, that people like this should not be allowed to advertise she says: “No advertisement is ever removed unless the employer murders the applicant”. Not quite right. There is something called 'suspending an advertisement'. It's back a couple of days later.

I say to Gita that I can barely recall coming across a single genuine job in a Job Centre. She found one herself, she tells me. Her job in the Job Centre. An extension of the saying concerning Job Centre courses that the only people who get jobs from them are the people running the courses.

So firms can put a pack of lies in their advertisements, try to cheat job seekers and carry on regardless. Welcome to the wonderful Kafka world of the Job Centre.


For the first and only time - after many years of posting mainly unanswered letters - I’m asked to an interview through a newspaper advertisement.

The job is part-time, but the firm seems regular. Employer polite and seems keen. He says he can’t get anyone to stay so things look promising. The work is doing annual accounts so it figures he might have difficulty getting anyone with the knowledge willing to work part-time.

I get the job.

For the first time in nearly ten years I’m working for a reputable firm. It’s like a world away from the sort of thing you suffer with those benighted Job Centre ‘opportunities’. I hope to be able to stay.

The wages are not huge because it’s part-time. But the New Deal means I have a chance to get some of my taxes back. £40 a week for a year tax-free is better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick.

I have to sign a form agreeing to pay the money back if the hours are less than sixteen on average. And even if it’s not the employee’s fault.

Some months later, the work dries up. I’m short on hours two months running. The employer tells me it’s not his problem. He’d agreed sixteen hours and gave me no warning he was running out of work. But I’m now in the position of having worked less than sixteen hours a week on average. I’m faced with a bill from the Job Centre for £1000 in repayment of the New Deal money. Not much of a reward for working. No wonder some people don’t bother.

Rab C. Nesbit - Job Centre cynicism polished up - said that his son had the right attitude to work. He prepared himself mentally for redundancy before starting the job. He had a point.

The Curse of Job Centres has struck again.

Some stiff negotiation, and the employer agrees to make up the missing hours and I’ll leave at the end of the month.

7. Ten years hard labour exchange

A philosophical attitude is essential for the keen job seeker.

Whatever the frustrations of travelling round to firms in search of work, the peculiar nature of Job Centre jobs does at least provide a frisson of interest about what bizarre circumstance you will meet with next.


A pleasant young woman telephones to ask me to an interview.

I’m there on time. It's one thing you can do right whoever you are. A nicely historic bit of Clerkenwell close by where my ancestor made clocks. And a few yards from where some of those who signed Charles 1’s death warrant were tried. The building is yet another smart new affair split into small units for a range of firms.

I ring the door bell. The woman who has telephoned says “I’ll come down”.

She’ll come down? They don’t want applicants coming into the building! But when I go after a job it’s a two way street. I want to know who I’m dealing with, and especially from long experience of Job Centres. It looks like a wild goose chase already.

Carole says that we’ll have to go to a conference centre across the road. So my firm cannot seemingly use the conference room in their building. They all have one these days.

The firm writes software. I’ve checked their web site before leaving home. My guess is that they do it on the kitchen table, and don’t even have premises beyond a corner of someone else’s office as an accommodation address. That’s why I’m not let in the building.

Carole says that the finance director she mentions in a run-down of the firm is a made-up title to make the firm look more substantial than it really is. This confirms my view that the office is an accommodation.

She’ll let me know in a few days about the job. She’s got my CV passed on by the Job Centre.

A week later an e-mail arrives.

She’s sorry I wasted my time but the boss had not told her the job was already filled. There would be no point in saying such a thing if it weren’t true. At the interview, it turned out that the Job Centre had taken nearly a month to send on my CV.

The afternoon outing to the firm was not unpleasant. Nice area. Sometimes with Job Centre jobs there is no one at the premises at all when you call. At least someone was there.


You cannot presume, however, that you will even be asked to the firm’s office when you apply for a job through your local Job Centre. Do they even have one?

One job I applied for was advertised as regular work in the City of London. It looked like a job in one of those faceless city firms which do something concerned with ‘finance’. But when I applied, I was asked to meet the employer in a café in Bromley! Why does he not want me to see where he operates from?

But the best of the ‘let’s meet in a café’ bunch was Steve Fitt.

His office is at home, he says, but he’d rather not meet there. He’s a solicitor and wants his books and VAT returns done. How about Starbucks?

Now, in my view, people like this should not be bothered with. But in the spirit of making a genuine effort to get work I suggest he visits my home to discuss the matter.

The evening before his visit Steve e-mails me to say he’ll be round tomorrow morning. But he’s now going to march into my home and load his accounts and software on my PC, and attach some kind of card reader. I’ve never met him and have no real idea who he is. What is his game exactly?

He says the job is ‘self-employed’. In which case, it’s no job at all merely the possibility of a bit of occasional work of unknown duration. My guess is that his VAT return needs doing, and it’s to be done unpaid as a part of the ‘job interview’.

I mail him to say forget it. He ignores the e-mail and turns up anyway. Happily I’m not in. I tell him home truths by e-mail about VAT returns being a legal responsibility. People want to know who they are dealing with, and negotiate any job in the normal way. He does not reply. But I’ve not wasted much time finding out that there was no job, and it’s another story to add to my stock


But it’s difficult to be philosophical all the time.

I apply for a job which is not badly paid, and seems to be regular work connected with a huge rail project.

Months later, I get a call from an employment agency in Leeds. I don’t remember applying for any agency jobs. Let alone in Leeds. It’s the rail job. The advertisement did not make clear it was an agency.

Later in the day a man rings. This is beginning to look promising.

He says there is a desperate shortage of people with qualifications like mine. Getting warm! So can I apply for the job? No.

He explains that if I’ve been out of work eighteen months he can’t put me forward for the job because the client would not want to know. I suggest asking the client. No he can’t do that. He knows what the client would say.

Now I can see it from the client’s viewpoint. I’d guess that from the scale of employment agency fees he’s got to pay about two thousand pounds to be sent someone. He expects to get a person who’s well-qualified, and with a reassuring work record.

But I applied for the job through a Job Centre where I’m supposedly sent out for free. Unknown to me when I apply, I’m caught up in the agency game where many of those perfectly capable and qualified are not even given the opportunity for the employer to see their CVs. The cry from the agency will no doubt be our old friend ‘We can’t get the staff’.

I feel in need of vomiting.

I apply for another job through the Job Centre. This time it’s clear that it’s an agency.

The woman tells me on the telephone they that want someone younger. She appreciates the position because she’s over 50 and working on the New Deal. So she’s been excluded on the basis of age and is now doing the same thing herself to other people.

I ask what the agency will do when it’s illegal to exclude people on the basis of their ages after 2006. Lie is what she basically says.

Reputable firm!

I've got a page from the Evening Standard I found under some lino during my building days. You never know when these things will come in useful.

The first lady manager of a Labour Exchange in Britain, Miss Rees from Fulham, says that the war has taught employers an important lesson. Women are not finished at 40. It's dated October 24 1944.....


Another day, another outing.

The leasing firm is in Battersea. The employer seems interested and will let me know.

He rings some days later saying he’d like me to meet the current incumbent, who is leaving, and spend a little time familiarising myself with the firm’s accounts. But she works somewhere miles away in Hertfordshire where she hires a corner of a local accountant’s office. Would I travel there to see her? He’ll pay the fare. The moolah is not actually proffered. And he’ll not be there himself.

Now I admit I’m taken in. It’s a little unreasonable to expect someone to do this before they are on the payroll, but it sounds plausible. And in the famous words of Max Miller: “I try, I do”.

A long train ride into Hertfordshire and I arrive at the firm. I greet the lady who’s leaving. She has her PC turned on.

I say: “OK let’s have look at the books. Perhaps the trial balance first”.

She brings it up as a ‘thumbnail’ on the screen. Is this a test of some kind?

I say I can’t read the screen as a thumbnail. Would she like to bring the figures up full screen?

“No I can’t show you the accounts” she says.

So what am I doing there? Why the charade with the PC?

Another woman appears with a copy of my CV, and who seems to work for the firm of accountants. I’ve not given them my CV, but I see a glimmer of light. The story about looking over the books was a lie to induce me to visit the accountants where a job interview can be sprung on me.

But why do such a thing? If I’d been asked to go to an interview with the firm’s accountants I’d probably have agreed anyway. But how can you work for someone who tricks you before you’ve even started?

I’m polite but never hear from the employer again. My guess is that the accountants knew that if the Battersea firm did not get anyone to do the job they would get the work at a vastly greater fee than the lady leaving is being paid. The firm has weekly PAYE so they can’t leave the books for a year.

If that’s true, the lady who was ‘leaving’ would no doubt continue to do the job but now for more money. Everyone apart from me is trying to outsmart someone else.

Can you think of a better explanation for these strange carryings-on?

Only at the Job Centre - unless you know better!

8. Closer to the edge

Who was the entertainer one of whose catch phrases was "The bells, the bells"? A reference I think to Charles Laughton's hammy performance as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Sometimes warning bells threaten to split your ear drums when negotiating the many hazards involved in Job Centre job seeking. These jobs deserve a special place in our story.


The vacancy appears on the face of it to be a basic bookkeeping job with a company I've never heard of. I think of Sha and Tray shuffling invoices and talking about makeup and their latest boy friends to relieve the monotony. I'm way overqualified but it costs nothing to apply.

A lady rings from the firm who talks in a slightly overfamiliar manner about how the job would be very suitable for me. Since I've never met her I wonder about it and what might lie behind this unusual approach.

She asks me to ring the next day. I'm then told that she's out on 'assignment'.

What sort of firm sends accounts people out on 'assignments' apart from practices and it's not one of those? I begin to become curious. I do a search on the web. The firm turns out to be a private detective agency. But it's not a one-man gumshoe operation like in 1930s American films with a down-on-his-luck ex-cop taking beatings and being leaned on by the heat. This one boasts umpteen former top detectives. I recognise one of the names. Almost as familiar as Jack Regan in its day.

Now this firm specialises in company investigations. That spells fraud and fraud spells accounts. But why would a firm like it be hiring from a Job Centre? Confidentiality is, to say the least of it, make or break for a firm like this. And it's a substantial operation so the fee for a private employment agency providing well-referenced staff can hardly be a consideration.

Several more inconsequential telephone calls and nothing further happens. I don't hear from them again. I think hard what might be the explanation for this perplexing affair. The only plausible explanation I can think of is that the work was somewhere close to the edge and someone from a Job Centre might be thought stupid enough to become involved.

How do the general run of detective agencies get information on people you or I cannot get? Not by being Sherlock Holmes reborn two centuries later. They have informers inside various organisations to look things up for them. Easy if you have the contacts but not exactly a mark of scrupulousness.

I think I'm well off that the negotiations dry up.


Another, on the face of it, standard part-time bookkeeping job so many hours a week. But this one is better paid - if you can believe the advertisement. From the firm's name it looks like an outfit which sub-contracts one branch of building work - probably on big developments. A small office somewhere where the paperwork is done, and a site hut at the coal face.

A man rings from a mobile phone. Would I come to an interview on a site they are working on? It's just about where Peter The Great did some ship building. Odd. Surely the books are not being done on the site. Why am I not asked to the firm's offices? Perhaps they are too small to have a formal one and do it at home.

My quick guesses about the firm are razor sharp except for one thing. It is indeed a subcontractor working on a big block of ghastly 1960s council flats being refurbished for the private market. I remember I've seen it advertised in the Sunday paper property sections.

The interview is in a site hut. A man works down with me a list of items the applicant will need to do. The alarm bells go off when he says that one of the jobs is to check that his staff are working legally. Now London is jammed with foreign building workers, and there is no official system for checking these things properly as close followers of immigration matters in the newspapers like myself know.

But firms can be prosecuted for employing illegal labour. The official reason there are few prosecutions is that firms claim they had no idea that staff were illegal. But I'm being asked to become involved in making myself responsible for establishing whether papers are in order. How would I check such things? Only a former Home Office immigration person would have a hope in hell of detecting fake passports and work permits. I would not know a genuine work permit from a fake turned out on a word processor if you bashed me around the ears with either.

I tell the man I don't know how to check this kind of paperwork and he'll have to teach me. I don't think that's the right answer!

But now the plot begins to thicken like adding flour to a sauce. And this firm has no shortage of sauce. The man asks whether I can provide a fully equipped office to do his work in. The one thing I missed was assuming the firm had an office of sorts. Their office is to be my home! But what was advertised was an employment for so many hours a week. Turn up and get the wages cheque. No mention of providing premises and equipment!

The package is now clear. The big boy wants an outside firm to do his accounts - as and when required - but does not want to pay one of those thousands of small accounts firms, who advertise in newspapers, to do the job at commercial rates. He wants the service while only paying wages of the sort you get by turning up at someone else's premises where you have no real responsibility and are just a cog in the wheel.

Better yet, if there is any immigration problem, our hero - in his clever plan - can refer officials elsewhere.

"We had a man checking things sir. Look, we can give you his address officer."

A Chinese gentleman was wandering round the perimeter of the building site when I arrived. He asked me where the firm was. I thought he must be another applicant. I was trying to find the way in myself at the time. Eventually, I found a small door in a hoarding which led to the site huts. I would never have seen it unless I'd had experience of building sites.

When I come out he's gone.

9. The deeper waters

Thirty years ago most jobs were regular. Most people expected to stay in jobs for decades. The need for a system of matching people with jobs, and providing an easy way of advertising them, was far smaller than it is today.

Then came the theory of the ‘flexible work force’. In my opinion, a system with a grossly inflated reputation which is due for re-grading. The idea that, in a skills based economy, people can be slotted in and out like printed circuit boards was sold to business no doubt at considerable profit to some management gurus.

But anyone who has worked in a real business knows that real life is not like that. Real enterprises are a maze of details specific to them. Until someone has learnt the ropes they are not going to be particularly efficient. There may be a tiny gain from doing things this way but a lot of anxiety as well. As an economist put it to me: “A point on growth and everyone’s miserable”.

But business fashion being what it is, few are going to march against the tide, and risk derision.

So the workforce, whether they like it or not, are often going to find themselves regularly on the move and in need of a service to mix and match them with jobs. The fact that many employment rights only kick in after a year also means that a lot of employers who describe their positions as ‘permanent’ are really only offering eleven months work (if one is lucky).

Levels of unemployment are also far greater than decades ago. There are no longer jobs on every corner as in the Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s. And many of the jobs there are exist in a twilight world of semi-legality.

This is not only because of the fragmentation created by ‘flexibility’ in which here today gone tomorrow staff are not organised to press any demand for legitimacy.

The twilight nature of much work has been vastly worsened by immigration, the lack of underlying dynamism in the economy, and the degree of regulation which encourages flight from legitimacy.

As economics teaches us, today’s profits come from those investing for tomorrow. The post-war period was a period of vigorous investment. Now many firms no longer have confidence in the future. The result is another serious temptation to move away from legitimate operation.

What all of this means is that the stress and difficulty of trying to work is a considerable disincentive to doing so. It’s all too easy to decide that work is for horses and another form of work is far easier - working the system. Some of those who have chosen that route in life have scoffed at me for bothering with jobs. They have a point.

Now there is a real problem here which is particularly prevalent with Job Centres.

JK Galbraith joked that the view of wages taken by the better-off is that they need higher wages to incentivise them. But the worse-off should have their wages lowered to encourage them to work harder. They will have to in order to maintain their living standards.

The Job Centre system is largely concerned with pushing people into jobs where the pay is inadequate to incentivise anyone.

And immigration has encouraged many employers - at least in London - to have unrealistic expectations as to how low wages can go. The Job Centres have no concern with the level of wages, excepting that the hourly rate should not fall below the legal minimum wage. But in a world of part-time jobs and temporary jobs, the wages people have to live on are as much affected by the hours as by the hourly wages. Pay a man the full legal minimum an hour a week and he still cannot live on it.

It’s very easy to say of the reluctant faced with wages too low to make it worth bothering: “We’ll whip them back to work”.

But in the real world, you cannot run an effective and civilised economy unless your staff are motivated. Slavery is not an efficient system in a modern economy unless those forced into labour are reasonably willing hands - unlikely - or they can be continuously monitored. A skill-based economy is generally not like that. Picking fruit in a field is one the last things left where monitoring can be taken to the limits needed.

The economist Professor Robin Marris pointed out some years ago that the modern view taken of how to assess social welfare is that one condition is better than another if everyone feels themselves better-off, or at least as well-off.

But a large part of the work of Job Centres is in placing people into jobs in which they would assess themselves as worse off than on benefits taking everything into account.

The writer on the world of work, Charles Handy, noticed that what is called 'work' actually embraces two entirely different kinds of activity. Some work is absorbing, interesting, well-paid and rewarding. Some is brain-numbing, soul-destroying and badly paid. Two different words are really needed.

Placing people into work where they feel themselves worse off is not a scenario which is really viable in a modern economy, and it’s led to vast hidden unemployment on various benefits let alone those on the proverbial ‘dole’ for long periods.

One solution to the consequent labour problem chosen by government has been immigration. But this keeps wages down. A problem in the first place. It means accepting a vast unused resource among the existing work force which will likely be permanent even if the state chips at the difficulty occasionally with ‘initiatives’ which make good sound bites but little else.

A modern economy cannot really whip people into work, but this is not an issue being seriously faced.

The need for employment agencies has expanded enormously. But the government service lags far behind the needs of an economy in which the word ‘job’ almost has an entirely different meaning in a present world where there is little job security offered to workers.

But those many millions not on the tightrope of regular recent employment at good rates have little suitable help when they need it most.

10. What has gone wrong?

The film director Michael Winner is said to have goaded extras, who did not shift at the speed required, with the taunt: “Are you from the Job Centre”.

Why do Job Centres have a reputation among employers for being suppliers of people who are not a lot of good? If they think they are unlikely to obtain staff as good as they require then why do they use them?

Since Job Centres are at the bottom of the pecking order for jobs, and also function as benefit offices, it’s not entirely unreasonable that firms should think it likely that they will be shunned by people with good and regular work records.

But advertising is free in a Job Centre. The fees charged by private agencies are often horrendous, and newspaper advertisements are not cheap. As job seekers quickly find out, firms are lured by the fact that it’s free but, at the same time, often regard anyone who applies for their job through a Job Centre as likely to be useless. So applicants often find themselves regarded with ill-concealed contempt.

Worse, the fact that it’s free encourages an army of people to advertise who are simply abusing the system. Worse yet, the sheer lack of professionalism in the way Job Centres operate creates an ethos, not difficult to detect by employers, that this is not a serious affair.


The job is in Camberwell. The Job Centre man rings the firm.

“They want you to go to an interview” he says with some enthusiasm.

A promising situation it seems!

But the firm has not even asked my name. Now why would a firm want to call a person to interview for a skilled job before seeing a CV or even asking their name? If you are applying for a job you want to know that the firm has already assessed you as generally suitable before you go to see them.

Why do they do it? I don’t know - perhaps some internal political game - but this sort of amateur hour nonsense is a regular event in Job Centres. Decline to pursue the matter and you risk being accused of a lack of enthusiasm in seeking work.


I told one firm of this kind I’d like them to see a CV first, and then if they were interested I’d go to see them. This did not seem to please. The lady on the telephone said they’d hired three people in short order to do the job, and sacked them all. Dismissal is being mentioned even before the interview. Encouraging!

I faxed a CV but mercifully never heard from them again

The employers are torn between greed in wanting to avoid paying a fee to fill their job, and a reluctance to believe anything much good about anyone who arrives on their doorstep free. It’s a most unhappy blend of feelings on the part of employers, which is inevitably inflicted on the unfortunate applicants in some degree or other.

Adding bad luck to misfortune, the Job Centres themselves are not really employment agencies but a tacked-on afterthought to the benefit system. When government officials press those claiming benefits to get work they are able to point to specific jobs which the unemployed can apply for, and , in theory, check whether they have done so.

But, as anyone who has ever claimed benefits knows, this is largely a ritual so that Job Centres can tell the government they are ensuring that the unemployed are actually trying to get work. Ministers can tell anyone who wants to listen that the government provides a full service to the unemployed. But there is virtually no way of ensuring that claimants are matched with jobs which are viable for them, or for the employer. No one even cares. As with nearly all civil service activities, it’s making the paperwork look good which counts.

Add to the pot ministers’ anxieties that they should be able to claim that they are providing plenty of opportunities for people to work - 'Job Centre vacancies up 8% so far this year Minister tells press' - and you have the second big ingredient for what is substantially a sham of an employment service.

The Job Centres’ priority is that as many advertisements should appear as possible, and as many claimants should apply as possible. It does not matter whether the advertisements are genuine or not, let alone whether job seekers apply for jobs for which they are suited, or qualified, and have much hope of obtaining. We met earlier on Gita, who said that no advertisement is ever removed unless the employer murders the applicant. No one cares if the job really even exists. You can apply for anything simply by saying you can do it.

A very large proportion of the jobs advertised in Job Centres are bogus in a range of ways.

Many are simply a pack of lies. The real job bears no resemblance to the advertisement. Some do not exist at all, but are advertising scams for unviable or struggling private agencies. Some expect people to apply when neither the wages nor the hours are given. Some are simply placed by firms with no intention of paying any wages.

Many of the more attractive jobs, apparently with well-known companies, invite surprise that they would be filled through a Job Centre. The same often applies to government work. Mostly they are not being filled in any such way! The job is already filled but company rules say everything must be advertised. It costs nothing to do so through a Job Centre so it’s the obvious choice for managers who are simply going through a routine.

I once attended an interview at the Inland Revenue advertised in Job Centres. A bored team of interviewers made it obvious that no one was going to get any job. But the Job Centres, commanded by government to tell the unemployed that there are plenty of opportunities and no excuse for unemployment, are not going to own up to the pretence!

Some advertisements are intended to offer comfort to overworked staff who might otherwise quit. Help is on the way. Except that it's not. Or not for as long as possible. If a firm can delay even a month or two in hiring an extra person it may save £1000 each moon. For a small firm run by a sole proprietor that is £1000 more earned each month simply by placing a free advertisement and spending an hour on a couple of charade interviews. Think about it! Far more profitable than working.

The unemployed could spend a demoralising lifetime travelling to interview for these jobs and never get work. Perhaps the most disreputable aspect, and terrible indictment of the Job Centre system, is that it is in the interests of Job Centre managers that the unemployed should be ground down in just such a way.

All that concerns the local Job Centre is to get the unemployed off their lists. The government wants to announce monthly falls in the numbers of unemployed. How this is achieved is very much secondary. Many of those signing-on have little chance of work for a range of reasons. From the Job Centre manager’s point of view, it may be far easier to remove them from the list of the unemployed by their registering as sick than to get them a job.

With careers at stake, whatever will encourage the jobless to fall ill with perhaps depression, or a feigning of it in the face of the futility of trying to get work, is not going to be rejected. For the unemployed to chase jobs which don’t exist or are already filled is unfortunately a positive thing for the system. A lamentable comment on the famous ‘joined up government’.

11. What’s needed

The current Job Centre system is an expensive to feed dinosaur which is far more effective in demoralising the unemployed than getting them into work

At times, you feel you have been inducted into a subtle form of psychological torture intended to break your spirit. A modern version of the workhouse, but with the innovation that the unemployed are told in a variety of pamphlets that the system wants to help them to build their confidence!

The employment service should be separated from the benefit offices, and run from different premises. People looking for work do not need the image of a dole claimant in the eyes of employers.

The job service should be run on the same lines as the private agencies. They are very far from perfect, but do have a direct incentive to get people into jobs since they will earn no money at all if they don’t. Where the current Job Centres are concerned, the main impetus is to show that those claiming benefits are ‘looking for work’ defined in a way which means little in practical terms.

Applicants should be matched to jobs and employers as the private agencies do - but with one vital difference to which we will come - the basic requirements to be considered employable.

A little psychology is needed to encourage employers to take seriously applicants from the government job service. It’s an unfortunate fact of human nature that if something is free people tend to think it sub-standard.

Job Centres are barred by law from charging for their services. This needs to be changed. Many government agencies charge a fee for their services.

A small charge to employers - even £25 - would make a crucial difference to the way employers view the unemployed, and go some way to putting off the worst of the chancers whose presence in what purports to be a public employment service is a public scandal.

Anyone who has been able to compare the attitude of firms at interviews - depending on whether one comes from the free Job Centre or from a newspaper advertisement costing even £30 - will have experienced the dramatic difference. You are taken far more seriously and treated with more respect.

But if the government Employment Service is to operate like private employment agencies then why have one at all? Why not simply close the government Employment Service and leave the unemployed to look for work through private firms?

The problem with this is two-fold.

Employers pay the private agencies huge fees, and feel entitled to be fussy as to whom they will accept.

In general, the private agencies will not put forward people for jobs who are either older, or have been unemployed for some while. They know that their clients will not take such people, and will lose confidence in the agency.

“You expect us to pay £2000 for a man of 55 who has been jobless for two years and has no references”.

But these are the very people who will have fallen through the net of regular employment, and need particular help.

So for many unemployed people, the private agencies have a barrier in respect of fees, and one in respect of work histories.

The fact of the matter is that there is not a single employment market embracing all the unemployed. There are the readily employable - under 35, two references, solid work record - and the rest who might be on a different planet in so far as they have any hope of being taken on in the mainstream employment market. As with 'work', two separate words for the two groups might clarify the realities.

When Japanese firms want to rid themselves of staff it’s said that they place them in front of a window with nothing to do. The ‘window men’ soon become demoralised and accept their fate. Much easier than an interview! Perhaps we might divide the unemployed into ‘primes’ and ‘windowites’.

The gulf between the two classes of the unemployed is largely unknown to the great mainstream of workers, who have little notion that they are on a tightrope, and that falling off has severe consequences.

If the private agencies would waive their huge fees, or charge a token amount, then some employers might be tempted towards some 'windowites' whose position in the labour market may be because of circumstances not a lack of real employability. Become unemployed for a while and you largely cease to be classified as a viable worker. Economists call it labour market 'hysteresis'.

But the private firms cannot waive fees or they would be out of business!

Either the state must pay the private agency fees if they take on those more difficult to place into work, or the government must continue to provide its own agency where the fees are nil or a token amount. The money spent on the New Deal might be better spent paying agency fees.

Or perhaps a combination of both approaches.

A decently run state employment service with token fees could be of real service to the economy. Without the huge fees charged by the private agencies, the more mainstream employers might be persuaded over a period to use it. People who are more difficult to place would not be excluded so easily on grounds that no one will pay a big fee to hire them.

But the present policy is an endless rearrangement of the sadly deficient Job Centre system.

Every now and then it’s reorganised with new desks, ‘plus’ added to the title, and so on. But the basic workings remain unchanged, and entirely inadequate for the sort of economy we now have.

There is little but frustration on offer for the unemployed, and little job satisfaction for the staff.

Copyright Michael Newland 2005

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