Jobs go on-line to those out in the sticks

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The Independent Online
AMID the fields of the Border Country, Allan Watson stands on the roadside every fortnight, trying to hitch a lift to the dole office.

The country air does nothing to help his financial plight and leaves the unemployed factory worker cut off from potential sources of work.

But his prospects could be dramatically improved by a new government plan to create a network of virtual job centres across the countryside and give new hope to the rural unemployed.

Mr Watson's 10- mile journey from the small Cumbrian market town of Brampton to sign on at the benefits office in Carlisle city centre costs pounds 3.25 for a return ticket. By the end of the fortnight, the fare is usually beyond him.

For Mr Watson, 50, the opportunity to sign on in his home town, as well as have on-line access to newly available vacancies, would transform his job chances.

In the meantime he continues to hitch-hike. "I might get a lift but I'm often dropped a mile from where I want to be and end up having to walk in the rain," he says.

Although some jobs are advertised locally on a noticeboard in Brampton, he finds they tend to have been given already to job-seekers living in Carlisle.

"I think they should put them on the Internet so that everyone has an equal chance," he says.

Last week David Clark, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told the Independent on Sunday that he was backing a scheme to set up hi-tech sites in outlying areas to give people direct access to job information and public services.

In the spring the Genesis Project will be launched in Cumbria as a pilot scheme for the whole country. As well as providing job-centre information it will detail child-care facilities, housing information and other services.

The units, which will also give access to the Internet and offer video- conferencing and e-mail facilities, will in time be available at hundreds of locations throughout Cumbria.

"This is an outstanding example of the application of IT in rural areas," says Mr Clark, who chairs the ministerial working party looking into best practice in local government. "We want to make sure that we can get job vacancies advertised, and in the longer term I would like to see the screen being used to help people sign on."

Eric Martlew, the Carlisle MP who has been closely involved with the pounds 36.5m county council-run project, says: "The idea that people have to travel up to 20 miles to sign on is a nonsense. We need to give people in rural districts as much opportunity for finding out about vacancies as people in urban areas."

In Nottinghamshire a similar scheme was launched last month to help those from former pit villages looking for work. The Virtual Village scheme aims to make job and training information and details of other public services available from computer terminals set up in village halls.

The problem of rural unemployment has alarmed MPs who called last week in the Commons for the setting up of a new Department of Rural Affairs.

Action with Communities in Rural England says that in some outlying areas public transport still amounts to a single bus per week. One study in rural Suffolk found that almost one-third of adults did not have a driving licence.

Craig Johnston, secretary of the Anti-Poverty Forum in Carlisle, says that many country people are desperate for better communications. "All right, it's lovely scenery when you open the curtains and overlook the Lakeland hills. But if you've not got a job you are miles from the places where they are going to tell you about vacancies."

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