The Government is to launch a multi million-pound drive to tackle white collar unemployment as the toll of job losses among professionals, executives and managers mounts.
In an interview with The Independent, James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, revealed a change in policy under which 350,000 people who have no recent experience of looking for work will receive special help at Jobcentres.
From next month, professionals who sign on will get one-to-one meetings with a personal adviser, attend group sessions for similar jobless people at new-style "job clubs", given help to brush up their job-hunting skills and receive advice on changing careers. The Government will pay specialist recruitment agencies, including Reed, to help people seeking executive posts.
Mr Purnell denied that the £40m scheme would mean channelling taxpayers' money to the better-off and away from those more likely to take low-paid jobs. Although some Labour MPs representing working-class areas are pressing for more action to help Labour's "core voters", MPs in "Middle Britain" seats won in Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997 fear a backlash from constituents as they lose their jobs.
Unemployment is set to pass the two million mark next week and ministers are bracing themselves for a sharp rise for at least three months. The number of professionals and managers receiving Jobseeker's Allowance almost doubled from 53,000 to 98,000 in the 12 months to January. Although they make up less than 8 per cent of all claimants, the proportion is rising.
Mr Purnell said: "We want to make sure everyone looking for work has the skills and confidence they need to find a suitable job as quickly as possible. That is why we are going to give newly unemployed people who need it access to specialist help."
He said bankers, lawyers and architects could be among those to benefit. "I don't expect board members of banks will necessarily be the first in the queue. But counter staff and others working in financial services have been affected," he said.
He stressed that the £40m fund would also be open to blue-collar workers who lost their jobs for the first time in years. "No one will be getting help that is denied to other people," he said.
Denying that Britain was in a "white-collar recession", Mr Purnell said: "In previous recessions, certain regions or sectors were particularly badly hit. This recession is different; it is very evenly spread across all regions and sectors. The service is personalised for the individual. The welfare state is there for everyone, whatever their background. People have paid their taxes."
Mr Purnell said professionals who had received big pay-offs could obtain advice from Jobcentres without drawing benefits. He said they should not worry about the stigma of going to Jobcentres. "They have come a long way from The Full Monty image of staff behind screens and long queues," he said. "People have booked appointments and it is more like a bank than a social security office."
The Government's aim is to get people back to work as soon as possible. "When people start to give up and lose contact with the job market, it becomes really difficult to help them back to work. Their skills can be out of date, they have a hole in their CV and they lose confidence," he said.
Mr Purnell appeared to be at odds with Harriet Harman, the Leader of the Commons, who is warning that women could be more affected by the recession than men. "It is not correct to say that women have lost more jobs than men have," he said. "Female employment is flat, male employment is down." He said many women were returning to work part-time as family budgets become stretched.
Ms Harman told the BBC's Politics Show yesterday that women were more worried about their recession than men – not only about their own jobs, but those of their husband and grown-up children. She said the picture for men and women was different in different regions. "It is not a competition; we just have to keep a close eye. Women's jobs are important too."
The Government will spend a further £13m on specialist counselling for depression and anxiety among people who lose their jobs.
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