Harman plans one-stop shops for unemployed

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Some social security offices will be sold off in a merger with High Street JobCentres, saving the taxpayer up to pounds 100m, under plans by Harriet Harman, Labour's social security spokeswoman, to introduce "one-stop shops" for the unemployed.

The plans fit in with the "simpler and smarter" government promised yesterday by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and Ms Harman claims they could transform help for the unemployed to get back into work with a saving for the taxpayer.

Ms Harman, who has yet to announce the details, estimates that there could be a saving of pounds 50m a year on administration costs, with a one-off saving of pounds 50m on the sale of unwanted social security offices or JobCentres. "It's not just about saving money. It's about improving the service to the customer."

Under the changes, which have the backing of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, which deal with the problems, claimants would be able to obtain help with their job search at the same time as they applied for their weekly benefits. The one-stop shops, using computer technology, could also advise on the availability of childcare facilities to enable mothers to seek work, and it could be used for the payment of housing benefit which is currently handled by local authorities. A tougher complaints procedure for customers would be introduced to reinforce the improvements.

"The starting point has to be refocused so that for people of working age, the emphasis will be on getting them off benefit and into work. You have to focus the service to getting smaller, but smarter, government," said Ms Harman.

It would end the duplication of queues, which Ms Harman found in Derby, where claimants have to queue for their benefit in one office, before going into the JobCentre next door to queue again for vacancies. That waste of time and resources, she believes, is repeated across Britain, and is hindering claimants from finding work. Streamlining the delivery of help for claimants and those seeking work could also help to cut fraud.