Friday, 17 July 2009

Unemployed in Hackney - the lull before the storm

I was made redundant in June and signed on at the Jobcentre Plus on Mare Street last week. It was not an unpleasant experience.

The only disconcerting thing about it was that the unemployed seemed to be outnumbered by Jobcentre staff. There was a friendly gang to usher me in and two members of staff sitting behind every desk.

The silent observant ones, I was told, were the new recruits getting their training. There seemed to be a lot them.

As luck would have it, Derek Harvey, External Relations Manager for Jobcentre Plus across East London, was at the Overview and Scrutiny Board meeting on Thursday (16 July) and I asked him why there were so many new staff at the Jobcentre Plus.

Yes, a daft question, but I thought there was a chance that there might be a happy answer as Derek had just delivered the only real good news to the O&S board – that Hackney’s job seekers allowance (JSA) claimant count had fallen for the first time since September.

(Office of National Statistics Regional Monthly Data - July 2009 show the number of claimants has dropped across the borough from 9350 in May to 9308 in June. The biggest fall is in Hackney South and Shoreditch down from 5296 in May to 5190 in June. The figures were still on the rise in Hackney North, up from 4,081 in May to 4,118 in June. It sounded vaguely optimisic – it was presented as vaguely optimistic.)

So when Derek left the meeting I ran after him to ask if he really thought the news was good and, if so, why Jobcentre Plus had so many new faces. All he could say was that Jobcentre Plus was “gearing up to handle greater volumes” and that I should ask Jobcentre Plus’s press office for details of recruitment in Hackney.

Unfortunately the Jobcentre press office couldn’t provide those figures. Considering the borough’s claimant count fell by just 42 in June, it might have been interesting to see if Jobcentre recruitment helped keep the numbers down (although the new people might well not be from Hackney).

The national figures are pretty interesting though – apologies if everyone knows them already. In November last year Jobcentre Plus was given cash to recruit 6000 new staff and in April it was given cash to recruit another 10,000 - that’s 16,000 jobs.

So far, since the November 2008 cash injection, Jobcentre Plus has employed 9,000 new staff leaving room for another 7,000.

The press officer I spoke to said that, so far, there had been no problems with providing a decent service and that the time it was taking to process claims was within targets.

It seemed fair to ask how bad things might get. But I was told that no one at the Department of Work and Pensions was into the forecasting game – apparently it's none of their business, not even a guess was allowed. We both became a little embarrassed when I kept asking how the government had come up with this 16,000 figure for new staff.

I was too thick to see that there are other ways of doing this - it had something to do with the state of the economy, not how many people might lose their jobs.

Luckily a few economists have had a go at this forecasting lark and none of them were optimistic.

For Hackney though, the hope is that the new Jobcentre recruits will be twiddling their thumbs til I drop in again on Wednesday.

Will Hackney return to 17% unemployment?

Hackney had the biggest rises in employment – should we expect the biggest falls? Socialist candidate says yes.

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