In Britain, the New Deal is New Labour's main scheme for reducing unemployment figures. Perhaps more than any of their other works, it epitomises the New Labour approach: Vaguely well-intentioned, neatly packaged yet ill-defined, bureaucratic, full of buzz words and quite clearly designed to tackle the problem at the symptom level.

After six months on Jobseeker's Allowance - the Tories' replacement for the old Unemployment Benefit, designed to get people off the dole by making their life as unpleasant as possible - an unemployed person qualifies for the New Deal. This has several immediate and less immediate consequences: First of all, you will be assigned a New Deal Personal Adviser. At your first New Deal interview, they will fill in a bunch of forms for you to sign and explain roughly what the New Deal entails: An initial, mandatory two-week course to remind you what a CV is, how to write application letters and so on; a renewed pressure to visit the Job Centre every week and apply for at least two jobs there however inappropriate they may seem; a Jobs Subsidy Voucher to show to potential employers to make sure they know about the £2,310 subsidy they could get from employing someone on New Deal, if they jump through the correct hoops.

Once on New Deal, you also qualify for an extremely useful 'New Deal Travelcard', which entitles you to child-rate fares on almost all public transport in London, and some of the public transport in other parts of the country; most significantly, it also allows you to get half-price tickets on Britain's ludicrously over-priced trains. My impression is that most New Deal Advisors will fail to mention this; it is well worth pulling them up on it if so.

There are various subtly different forms of the New Deal depending on age and so on, each with advantages and disadvantages - New Deal for Young People, New Deal 25+, New Deal 50+. There are also special arrangements for parents, for the disabled, for musicians and probably various other groups of people. My personal experiences of New Deal, and therefore what I write here, obviously reflect my age at the time (24) and location (Holloway).

If you still don't have a job after ten to twelve weeks you qualify for 'New Deal Options', where your 'Options', unsurprisingly perhaps, amount to choosing between three or four things that you probably don't much want to do. Specifically, you can take an NVQ - a National Vocational Qualification - in any of various subjects; or you can enter a 'start your own business' scheme; or you can go and work nine to five in a charity shop until you find something better. I was unable to extract any further options from either my New Deal Adviser or the official New Deal web site, but apparently it is also possible to join something called the Environment Task Force; perhaps there are still other options that they prefer to keep quiet about.

The New Deal Gateway To Work Course

'You've got to get out of this idea that your life is yours to just, you know, enjoy all the time.'

If you can imagine the sort of course they would make people attend after six months on the dole to make them better job seekers, that is exactly what the initial two-week course is like: Shades of the nightmare jobseekers' course from The League of Gentlemen, but less extreme. When I attended, it became clear very quickly that the people running it didn't have anything like two weeks' worth of actual material to deliver, so the days were heavily padded out with frequent fag breaks, 'brainteasers' and 'group exercises'. On the second day, for instance, we were divided into groups and asked to rank fifteen items in terms of their importance for survival in a desert; moderately interesting, but its relevance to finding a job in Britain was not immediately obvious - something to do with team skills, I think.

'Every little step builds confidence. Doesn't it?'

The course was held mainly in an irregularly-shaped room with grubby grey-pink walls featuring inspirational posters proclaiming 'We've been successful - so can you!' with lists of people who had passed through the place and the kinds of success they'd found - junior hair stylist, admin assistant, restaurant attendant and so on. On the first day we were told firmly that we were to be there at 9.30 every day and that '9.30 does not mean 10.30. It does not even mean 9.35.' On the second day, none of the trainers turned up until quarter past ten. I wrote this while I was waiting:

It's 9:45, but the New Deal people haven't come in to start the lesson, or whatever you call it, that officially should have begun quarter of an hour ago.
   People sit doodling, or filling in crosswords, or staring blankly into space, sipping coffee because there is no tea. I'll bring my own tomorrow, if I remember.
   Many of the seats remain unoccupied, and I wonder if this means that people are just too dispirited to turn up, and will lose their benefits as a consequence.

   At five to ten a few more people have filed in. The Ethiopian former policeman has finished his crossword and flips through the sports pages, then he starts doodling too.
   A couple of people strike up conversations about smoking weed, and what we did here yesterday, and what it was like being a raddock in Ethiopia.
   One of the instructors, or whatever they are, comes in, sits down, says a few words to yesterday's lippy latecomer, leaves again.

   The feeling of boredom, remarkably, intensifies. It's not clear why we haven't started yet. Possibly this will make us better job-seekers. About half the people in the room go outside for a fag.

   At quarter past ten one of the women comes in at last, divides us into two groups, and leaves with the other group. A few of the guys left behind chat about what it was like when their women had kids, then the conversation turns to the World Trade Center and suicide bombing.

   Finally she comes in and starts talking about CVs, asks everyone if they have CVs and what they think they're for, before informing us that the purpose of a CV is to get you an interview.
   Then she asks us what we think are the most important things to put on it: Name, address, Qualifications, experience, attributes, interests. That sort of thing. References.
   She writes '
Profile' up on the board and tells us it's the most important part of a CV. She explains that she means an ad-style paragraph summing up your qualifications and so on, and recommends not writing it in the first person.

   I learn that the girl sitting next to me has been told not to do the A Levels she needs to get on a nursing degree, although they would have fallen within the sixteen hour a week limit for education on the dole, and to come here for two weeks instead.

   The impatient guy with the criminal conviction and no intention to look for work and no belief that he could find it if he did ends up leaving; he was sick of the vaguely patronising attitude of the instructor, and she was sick of him making snarky comments.

I don't want to come down too harshly on the course; in all fairness, I expected worse. The advice on CV writing and so on was certainly helpful for many of those attending, and perhaps even me; and the one-day courses on first aid and health and safety at work provided certificates and potentially useful knowledge, some of which may even stick with me. The main problem, besides the course not having enough content to fill its allocated time, is the one size fits all approach. It probably goes without saying that one course is never really going to be a very good fit for everyone when you throw twenty or so of the long-term unemployed together at random, ranging from those who can't get work because of their criminal records, to those who aren't getting work because they're training one day a week as accountants, to those with good degrees trying to break into difficult marketplaces, and so on.

'This guy's got too many interests, he's not gonna have time to work.'
All in all, I am ambivalent about the whole New Deal thing. It has certainly achieved its main aim of reducing unemployment figures, particularly amongst the young; it is hard to gauge to what extent this represents a genuine increase in gainful employment, and how much of it might be down to its effectively massaging the numbers and coercing people into jobs and training programmes which are basically inappropriate. It seems fair to expect, though, that the official figures reflect at least some degree of real improvement over the old system. On paper at least, this looks more or less like a success for New Labour - even if it might not feel like that to very many of the people actively involved with it.

Based mainly on personal experiences, with supplemental information from the New Deal web site: