I visited the manager and team at Biggleswade Jobcentre Plus recently.
Unemployment figures are low in North East Bedfordshire and have dropped markedly over the last five years. In May 2010 JSA claimants were 1,702, compared to last month’s 684. And the number of new jobs notified to the office in January, let alone the hundreds available within a few miles radius, totalled 458.
But whilst that is dramatic and good, it is not the most profound change that I want to write about. I first began visiting benefit offices many years ago, and for a time in the mid 1990s was the Minister responsible for what was then the Benefits Agency.
People may remember offices with solid physical barriers between customers and benefit staff, whose role was to check information and sign a bit of paper. There was little relationship with those who were looking for work, and it was of little consequence if someone stayed in receipt of benefit for ages or got a job - it was all the same to the system.
I recall PM John Major wanting to do something about all this, and, with his team, driving change in how people looking for work were treated.
Coming into a Jobcentre Plus now is a world of difference. There are no physical barriers. The team in the centre have a commitment not to the system, but to those they are working with and for. There is a wish to get people back to work, not because it clears a pile of paper, but because, if there are no reasons why someone should not be in work, that is likely to be the best thing for them and those who depend on them. I met those responsible for young people, older people, those with disabilities, and those who could talk about some of the more difficult things such as sanctions.
Where mistakes had occurred, they wanted to put them right, and make sure people were getting the right advice and support.
So behind the statistics there has been a remarkable change, and the teams in these offices are changing people’s lives for the better.