Catch '96: they're going to stop your dole because you want to train

The new Jobseeker's Allowance could kill off 80,000 ambitions, writes Vanessa Thorpe
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The Independent Online
Kelly Johnson is unemployed and wants to study. Yet fundamental changes in the benefits system this week will make this virtually unworkable for the 21-year-old hairdressing student, and for at least 80,000 jobless people like her.

As she takes another afternoon off college to chase up a missing giro cheque, things already seem difficult to manage. It will get worse. From tomorrow, there will be tighter restrictions on payments to people out of work, which will to a large extent rule out serious education as an option for them. The reason is the new Jobseeker's Allowance, which replaces Unemployment Benefit (and also the lowest of the safety nets, Income Support).

The change of name is important: the Government intends to signal a change of role. To receive benefit, unemployed people like Kelly must become Jobseekers: they must actively and continually look for work, sign a detailed agreement to do so, and then prove that they are doing it. The proving is the problem. The questions printed on the new Jobseeker's Agreement ask claimants how many employers they will write to every week; how many they will phone; how many they will visit; how many times they will contact the Jobcentre; what newspapers and trade papers they will look in for jobs, and how often they will look.

It asks them if they are willing to start work immediately, within 24 hours or within 48 hours; whether they are willing to work any days and any hours; and which days and which hours.

Inappropriate answers will likely mean an end to payments. Such strictures stop anyone who is unemployed from honestly committing to, say, a two- year course of part-time study.

Clara Donnelly, of the Unemployment Unit, puts it starkly: "The Government says that there has always been an insistence on readiness for work, but there is a huge change of emphasis. They are stepping up measures so it will be much more difficult for a student on benefit to stay on a course. Unsuitable jobs will be offered to part-time students more and more often as a test of whether they are really available for work."

In theory, the Government is right behind people like Kelly. Determined to do better than simply living off the state at her parents' home in Essex, she came to London for proper training. But she has found it difficult to steer her way through benefit restrictions.

"After I was called for a Restart interview the other week, I was offered a full-time job at pounds 3.05 an hour doing shift work at McDonalds," she says. "I told them I didn't really want it because of my college course and they said I would have to accept the next full-time job that came up."

The part-time student's problems will be compounded by a second cutback being brought in tomorrow: the number of hours an unemployed person can study each week without being deemed a full-time student, and thus losing benefit, is being reduced from 21 to 16.

Known as Regulation 11, this is likely to loom large over both students and teachers this term. The heads of further education colleges fear the introduction of both changes in tandem will cause a drastic drop in the number of adults signing up for study, something which will in turn put a sizeable chunk of their own state funding in jeopardy.

In February last year the changes were presented as a simplification of the rules, an ironing out of a few anomalies: but, with an anxious eye on adult enrolments this week, the principal of Tower Hamlets College in East London, Annette Zera, says the changes are an example of government hypocrisy.

"After all, Britain lags well behind its neighbours with the size of its skilled workforce, and that's where the jobs are. There is a real demand for skills, but the number of jobs available for people with absolutely no training has gone right down."

In the past, adults have made up more than half of the 6,000 students at her college, and more than 40 per cent arrive with no qualifications. "Now there's a danger that the people we can help will run away from us. We will lose a minimum of 100 to 300 students through this."

In May 1995, Gillian Shephard called for 60 per cent of the workforce to have either vocational qualifications or two A-levels, by the year 2000.

But while the education and employment secretary was waving these ambitious targets for adult education around with one hand, opponents claim she was quietly knocking away all financial support with the other.

"What is behind it all, I think, is that the Treasury is running scared." says Ms Zera. "If there ever was any freedom both to claim benefit and train, they believe they would be talking about billions and billions of pounds." Ms Zera says it looks as if an apparently contradictory Government stance is a nattempt to prevent the benefit system from becoming a backdoor form of student grant.

Her college staff have spent the summer shrinking and tailoring their courses to fit in with the 16-hour requirement. "We have cut all our classes, but when you are talking about adult students, with no achievements, they really need the maximum in tutorial support. You have got to remember what a risk an adult takes by coming back into education."

Students enrolling at the college are given a list of charitable trusts to write to asking for donations. Only about 10 students a year have any success with such charities.

This autumn students who cannot live with their own families could also be plagued with accommodation problems. Housing-benefit rules are being tightened up tomorrow so that single people under 25 will only be able to claim for what is considered a fair market rent in their area. Rural unemployed will lose their right to sign on by post and will have to go to their nearest job centre every fortnight.

Like Kelly Johnson, a growing body of part-time students could well find the benefits of vocational training are hard to keep in mind.