[un-allotted half day] — Unemployment

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:17 pm on 14th December 2011.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 5:17 pm, 14th December 2011

The Minister should take that up with the Office for National Statistics.

Last month the Government finally recognised that they had to do something and announced the youth contract, but they have not made up their minds about the details. There appears to be some haggling with the Chancellor about how it will work, and it is clear that the Government’s providers have no idea how they are supposed to be delivering it from next April. A year after the Deputy Prime Minister said—so he tells us—that something needed to be done, there has still been no action.

Although we do not know the details, we can say one thing for sure: it was folly to scrap the future jobs programme and allow youth unemployment to rocket. As was recognised by my right hon. Friend Mr Barron, my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), and, indeed, John Glen, a generation of young people will bear the scars of that folly throughout their working lives because Ministers were asleep at the wheel. All along, we were assured that the solution would be in the Work programme—that it would solve all the problems—but the truth is that the programme was rushed and inadequately planned. As we pointed out at the time, there needed to be a plan for transition from the previous programmes to the new one, but there was no such plan.

So how has the Work programme fared? As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston pointed out, Ministers have gone to extraordinary lengths to block the publication of data about what it is achieving. I am told that officials have threatened Work programme providers that if they publish any figures, they will lose their contracts. I well understand the concern of the provider in the constituency of my hon. Friend Fiona O'Donnell who said, “I should not show you this, because if I do I may lose the contract.”

Absurdly, the Minister of State claims that the purpose of the ban was to meet the requirements of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority. As we have been reminded, he has some form with the authority. However, its chairman wrote to me last week:

“The Statistics Authority has not been consulted on whether it would be appropriate for Work Programme providers to publish their own performance data.”

It was the Minister's decision to hush things up, not that of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority. As I told the Minister yesterday in Committee, the same organisations published their performance data in the flexible new deal, under the same United Kingdom Statistics Authority rules. They actually want to tell people what is going on and what is happening. The Minister must lift the ban.

According to the foreword to the White Paper “Open Public Services”, signed by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the days when they used to agree with each other,

“it is only by publishing data on how public services do their jobs that we can wrest power out of the hands of highly paid officials and give it back to the people.”

How true that is, but in this case the Minister is resolute: they shall not know.

As it happens, it is possible to glimpse how the programme has been going by looking at the number of people coming off benefit each month. It is no surprise that the number plummeted in May, when the flexible new deal ended. The fact that it continued to be low as the Work programme got going should also have been no surprise, because that always happens. If we compare the months after May with the same period last year, we see that poor Work programme performance resulted in an estimated 86,000 people who should have obtained work not obtaining it. That is probably a permanent unemployment rise. The damage will be with us for years.

Incidentally, to deliver that worse performance, the Government had to pay out millions. I have heard that they had to pay tens of millions in penalty charges for early termination of flexible new deal contracts. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us how many millions of pounds the Government had to pay to prevent those 86,000 people from obtaining jobs.

The Government told us that the Work programme would enlist an army of voluntary organisations to give specialist help. To begin with, we were told that 508 voluntary sector organisations would be involved. By August, the number had fallen to 423. I met a group of them last month—superb organisations such as St Mungo’s, with a great track record in helping homeless people into work. They had agreements with three different prime providers in London. How many people had been referred to them for help under the Work programme in the six months since it started? None—not a single person. Dyslexia Action has Work programme agreements in six different areas. How many referrals has it received in the six months since June? I checked with it yesterday. None; not a single person; nobody at all. These are good organisations. They tooled up and acted in good faith on what the Minister said. He led them up the garden path; he has not delivered. The Merlin standards that he said would safeguard them have proved completely worthless.

Others who have had referrals told us that relationships in the Work programme are terrible. Prime providers are not talking to sub-contractors; jobcentres are not talking to prime providers; and as was rightly said earlier, there are persistent rumours of serious financial problems ahead in the new year. Can the Minister who is winding up tell us what contingency plan he has for the eventuality of a Work programme provider failure? The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has indicated that he is relaxed about that eventuality. What will the Department do if it occurs?

It is clear that we need a new approach. We have spoken about the alternative five-point plan, which my hon. Friend Geraint Davies was right to underline. That, at last, would give us a chance, and it is a chance we desperately need.