David Blanchflower was the man on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee who correctly predicted that the official figure for unemployment in the UK would reach 2 million when it did. He now says that rising jobless figures have "the taste of something horrible" and he "could easily see unemployment reaching 4 million."
As this forecast seems perfectly possible there will soon be lots of people being put through the indignities of Labour's New Deal scheme, introduced in 1998. If you're under 25 and have been claiming for more than 6 months, or over 25 and claiming for more than 18 months, you can be put on the New Deal, which at some point leads to a 26 week (if under 25) or 13 week (if over 25) period with a "training provider".
Technically speaking you're no longer signing on as you're supposedly on a ‘course', and, therefore, not included in the unemployment statistics. Figures from a year ago show that 1.25 million under-25s have been on New Deal provisions: 890,000 once, 250,000 twice and nearly 80,000 three times. As for future prospects, while there are, at the moment, officially 150,000 long term unemployed (out of work for more than 12 months), very conservative estimates suggest that this is likely to increase by 300 to 400% over the next three years. So, one way or another, there's a reasonable chance that one day you too will end up on an "Intensive Activity Period option" - just like I am at the moment.
Pressure, threats ... but good company
The reason you go on the "programme" is because your Job Seekers Allowance and any other benefits are under threat if you don't. Right from the start it's emphasised that if you miss sessions, or your time keeping is poor, or any other misdemeanour, you could get "exited" from the "programme", which would mean losing benefits.
You are supposed to have an "individually tailored programme to help you back into work." In reality, you are told that during your 30 hours a week you will apply for 5 jobs a day and get 2 interviews a week. In a period of rising unemployment it's a bit of puzzle how this is going to work out. In the 12 Inner London boroughs there are officially 4,000 vacancies but 71,000 claimants. In places like Hackney, Oldham, Redcar and Lewisham the ratio of jobless to vacancies (using the official figures) is about 30 to 1. It's easy to see how hundreds are often chasing one job, but hard to see how we're all going to get an interview.
The facilities for "Job Search Activities" are limited. There are about 150 of us here, but only 100 computers, most of which have been disabled of all but the most basic functions. The only phones are on the desks of "advisers". This means that a lot of people spend all the day, all the week, just reading the paper, listening to music or chatting with fellow inmates. On Friday there's a bit of excitement as we queue for 45 minutes for the £2.90 we can claim for travel expenses. Sometimes you find something funny online, like the post that was mistakenly advertised at "£19k per hour." Also, a lot of us haven't got over the novelty of Google's Street View yet.
The good thing about the experience is that we're an interesting crowd; everyone has their own story. There is a guy who is retiring in 6 weeks time, but has been told to do as much of the 13 weeks of the "programme" as he can. They even want him to do a 4-week placement for "work experience." There's a man who was taken off a horticulture course so he can sit around here all day doing nothing. A man who just wants to stack shelves won't be helped by the notice on the wall listing websites like woolworthscareers.co.uk. A Nigerian woman, in between searching for jobs, finds out where the Anglo-Saxons came from. A musician works out that King Tubby and Bob Marley were both born on a Tuesday. I'm here sitting writing an article, pleased at having worked out that the Tohono O'odham were called Papago by the Spanish.
At some point you have to do a four week placement, where you work for free in the hope that you might get an up-to-date reference. If you're looking for office work they'll send you to a warehouse. If you're a painter/decorator you'll get sent to a charity shop. In fact a lot of people go to charity shops; next time you're in one you'd do well to remember that the staff aren't necessarily there out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they'll lose their benefits if they aren't.
And after our 13 or 26 weeks is over we'll go back to the Job Centre and make a ‘new' claim. We're no longer part of the long-term unemployed because we've been in detention for 3 or 6 months, when, of course, we didn't count as being unemployed at all.