Before the election, I promised to spend four weeks a year working in local public services and businesses. Last summer, I spent a week at Mayday (now Croydon University) Hospital; in the autumn, I spent a week at Benson Primary School; earlier this year, I spent a week with Marks & Spencer's; and this week I spent some time at Croydon JobCentre Plus on Dingwall Road.
I was hugely impressed with the staff I met. It is not an easy job striking the right balance between pushing those who for one reason or another aren't doing enough to find work and providing help and advice to those who are doing their best in a difficult job market.
As an agency, JobCentre Plus are making some major changes, which I think should make a big difference. Previously, people didn't tend to get in depth support from an adviser until they had been out of work for 13 weeks. In future, they will be assessed when they first make their claim and if there are issues which are likely to make it harder for them to find work - a lack of basic skills, English as a second language, drug or mental health problems - they will receive help straight away. The new Work Programme will provide individualised help for those who have been out of work for a year or more and the organisations providing that programme will get paid based on their success in getting people back into work.
The other thing that is worth stressing is that there were very few claimants who fitted the stereotype portrayed in some newspapers of people milking the system. There certainly were people who weren't actively seeking work but generally this was the result of underlying health problems, not laziness, and most of the people I met desperately wanted to get a job.
All in all, a really useful two days. A big thank you to all the members of staff and members of the public who allowed me to sit in on their discussions.