Welfare to work: The interview - Money, detail, good intentions: but ca n the job be done?

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The Government hopes to reduce social security costs by taking people off welfare and putting them into jobs. Here we examine that plan from the front line.

So this is it, the big one, the jewel. And very glittery it looks, too. This is the start of the Government's pounds 3.5bn welfare-to-work strategy. Two weeks ago the first 12 New Deal schemes rolled out their carpets to 18-24-year-olds who've been claiming benefits for at least six months.

The Brixton Hill New Deal offices are state of the art, the nation's launching showcase. The best Employment Service staff competed for these prized jobs, moved up a grade and retrained. The office is the smartest in the country, elegant and friendly,with 12 pounds 7,000 touch-screen computers for job-seekers to see what's on offer. Gone are the fly-blown boards with their cards usually out of date, the good jobs long filled before they're removed. So who's been coming in so far? Not quite what you might expect.

The letters went out: "I am delighted to be your New Deal personal adviser. It will be my job to help you make the most of what the New Deal has to offer and to help you find the job you want to do." This one was signed by adviser Arun Arul, only in the Employment Service six months, enthusiastic, well-briefed and with an impressive cornucopia of work, training and problem- solving offers.

He knows nothing about his clients before they turn up for their hour- long appointments - so both start with a clean slate. First of the day is Simon who arrives hesitantly, unsure what to expect, nicely dressed, with a vague air. Arun starts with an encouraging spiel but Simon looks dubious. Simon's opening gambit is to point out that he's only one month from his 25th birthday, so does he really have to do this? If he had happened to get his letter a month later, he'd have been too old. Yes, he does, because he's 24 now and he won't be dropped off it on his birthday. He nods a bit glumly at what he seems to think is his bad luck not his good fortune.

Ahead lies a possible four-month "Gateway" period - a time to assess clients and to try to find them an ordinary job first of all. Arun will try to find Simon the right job (not, he promises, any old job) and if he can't, then Simon can take a course of his own choosing, to be bought in from anywhere. Or he might be offered a subsidised job in a field that interests him, or otherwise he'll work as a volunteer on a Lambeth project. No, not clearing canals or shovelling rubbish, but maybe, for instance, repairing computers for the voluntary sector.

Simon is an artist who has never had a job. He's done a two-year fine arts foundation course, a three-year fine arts degree course and a year and a half on the dole. He is, he explains, a "site-specific installation artist", currently working on a basement room project, a work of art to be viewed through a small window. Arun does not blench. (It turns out they get a lot of these.) For Arun is trained to work with the grain of his new clients.

They agree an action plan for the next two weeks, when Simon will come back again. He's already on a part-time Multi-Media Authoring course and hopes to have an interactive CD showcasing young artists soon to send round to prospective employers. They agree the list of publications where he should seek artistic work, and he agrees also to seek work as an exhibitions co-ordinator or in design and advertising. Simon explains he also does voluntary work for a Brixton arts project, lecturing younger artists on how to get on in the arts world, which seems a bit odd. Yes, he can stay on his present course. No, he won't be forced off it to take a job he doesn't want. Arun explains that at the end of the Gateway, they might find him a work placement with an exhibitions organiser to get him valuable experience. Simon leaves with two possible, but frankly unlikely jobs from the computer to apply for: both want someone with at least five years' experience.

What does Simon think of the encounter? He's very pleasantly surprised, genuinely. In his 18 months signing on, no one has ever had a proper conversation with him. "They never dealt with me as a person before." Nor has anyone ever seriously tried to prod him towards a more attainable goal. He likes Arun and believes he will help.

What does Arun think? Softly, softly, over the months, he thinks he will steer him towards something he could do and would like to do and he hopes it won't be yet another course. What does he think of the fact Simon hasn't ever worked? Arun purses his lips and rolls his eyes, "Look, I'm a concert- standard guitar player, but I didn't sit about for ever hoping. What am I now? A civil servant." Others say the same. No one, they say, ever started out in life with an ambition to work in the Employment Service, but here they are and it's not bad. Everyone has to knuckle down in the end - but they sincerely hope they will find everyone something they actually want to do.

Already a cry has gone up that the New Deal will destroy bright young artists surviving in their garrets on benefits, but it's mad to think the benefits system ought to be an arts funder. Nurturing and sponsoring carefully chosen artistic talent is for the Arts Council or Lottery grants, not benefit officers.

The Brixton case load in these first two weeks has been surprising - and it's a far cry from the popular image of New Deal clients. Mandie Whiteman, at the next door desk, has worked here for 11 years and says she reckons it's pretty typical of her experience of that age group - mainly those with useless degrees, or, at the other extreme, the illiterate non-starters. However, Brixton these days is a cool young people's haven and may not be typical of the rest of Lambeth. (One-third of Lambeth's putative clients have a criminal conviction, for instance, and Lambeth's notorious education system has failed more than almost anywhere else.)

But going through Mandie's list of her first 14 unemployed clients, arriving quite randomly and unselected, there are: three out-of-work actors, one man with an avionics degree, one not-quite-fully-trained architect, one man with a chemistry degree trying to be a science journalist, a would- be arts administrator and one illustrator - all with many years of education behind them. Then there's a plumber with training but no experience, two women with low-grade IT qualifications, one unqualified, very dirty man wanting to work in catering who was promptly packed off on a hygiene course, one labourer who wanted a demolition job but there'd been none here for six months and one complete illiterate who gladly went straight on to a one-year New Deal education course.

Mandie's first client that day was Edward, a 22-year-old actor from the Brit School in Croydon, the performing arts academy set up by Paul McCartney. Mandie gets a lot of actors. She looks up what's in the computer for them and a long list pops up - all party entertainers with Pizza Hut or Ronald McDonald clown party organisers. No, not for one minute does she suggest he might do that, even part-time. Nor does she suggest that resting actors often do evening bar and restaurant work, while waiting for auditions. For this starts out as the gentle service, all carrot and no stick until much further down the line. She does suggest that if nothing comes up, then perhaps he might like a course in television and theatre production, or even that, as they have a contract with the National Theatre, there might be a subsidised job there for a while. He is very impressed.

Now there is only one message that they want to send out on to the streets of Brixton: this is opportunity, this is good, we are here for you. Overcoming the deep-seated "Not another scheme!" cynicism is their biggest obstacle. They want the word on the street to bring people flocking in, for even most of those who don't quite qualify can usually be accommodated, since the rules are surprisingly flexible.

Of course, none of this tells us yet how it will really work in the end. Even a slight downturn in the macro-economy would sweep away any success figures. But now, in its first flush, there are some very good options and offers from every kind of Lambeth employer, in the most unlikely and interesting jobs. It's far too early to say if those places will quickly be filled, leaving only the work placements no one wants. Or to know what it will cost per success story. It will certainly raise questions - such as, why are so many people taking dubiously useful degrees? Why does the rest of the employment service fail so badly? And, the really important one - does any of this really make any significant difference to the big employment picture, to crime or to the ultimate quality of people's lives?

The manager is waiting anxiously to discover how his outcome performance will be assessed - as yet undecided. He prays it won't be on crude measures of bums in jobs, which he says will destroy the project's whole ethos, pressuring staff into slotting the wrong people into the wrong work. He wants subtle outcome measurements, awarding points for improved employability, whatever the economic climate.

But no scheme has ever begun with so much money, attention to detail or with such wholeheartedly good intent - and I've seen the introduction of a good many. No scheme has ever harnessed so many local interests, bringing together the probation service, voluntary agencies, employers, local MPs and Lambeth Council's chief executive on to its very active management board. No scheme has ever tried so hard to please its clients. I'll be going back in a few months to see if it still gleams as brightly everywhere else as it does now in this first showcase office.

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