Youth Obligation

Petition - Closure of Finedon Health Centre – in the House of Commons at 2:42 pm on 26 October 2018.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham 2:44, 26 October 2018

Over the course of the past year, I have tabled a number of parliamentary questions about the Government’s youth obligation support programme, which was introduced in April last year, and the answers to those questions have contained remarkably little information. I am delighted to see the Minister in his place, and I hope he will take this opportunity to provide the House with some more information to allow us to make at least an initial assessment of whether the programme is proving effective. At the very least, will he confirm to the House that such information will be forthcoming in the near future?

Just over two decades ago, I became the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Andrew Smith, who was the first holder of the post of Minister for Employment after the 1997 general election. We introduced the new deal for young people, which was a radical departure in state labour market intervention, and it has profoundly influenced all the programmes since.

By the way, as the youth obligation is the only current labour market programme for young people and is available only in areas where universal credit has been rolled out, there have been since April 2017—for the first time in two decades—parts of the country where there is no programme at all for young people. With universal credit being rolled out for new claims to every jobcentre by the end of the year, as I understand it, will the Minister confirm that we will again have a programme for young people in every part of the country by the end of the year?

Young people are still at a distinct disadvantage in the labour market. According to this month’s labour market statistics, the unemployment rate among 16 to 24-year-olds is 10.8%, compared with an overall rate of 4% for those aged 16 and over. The unemployment rate among young people has consistently been two and a half to three times the overall rate for quite a long time. Of course the employment rate—the overall rate and the youth rate—is much lower than the peaks we saw five or six years ago, but the introduction of the youth obligation is an acknowledgement, rightly, that youth unemployment remains too high.

More than one in 10 young people are out of work and looking for a job, when they ought to be building the skills to secure for themselves a lifetime of employment and in a position to contribute to the economy. There is also of course a disastrously large number of young people outside the system altogether—not in education, employment or training at all. The Government are therefore absolutely right to focus effort on young unemployed people.

The question is whether the current programme is any good. From the answers given by the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Employment, the Government appear not to know whether it is any good, and indeed they appear not to have very much interest in finding out. I therefore hope that the Minister will be able to dispel that impression when he responds to this debate.

The only information provided in answers to my questions so far was in those from April and May, when I was told that, from when the youth obligation started in April 2017 to this February, 24,600 people had started on the programme and 9,300 were still on it. Is the Minister able to provide the House today, after another six months, with an update on those figures? As far as I know, there are no figures in the public domain other than those in the answer I received at that time. The obvious and important question is: what has become of the 15,300 who started on the programme and then left it? I asked a series of questions about this—for example, how many of them had gone on to an apprenticeship—and in reply to each the Minister’s colleague said that he did not know and that it would be disproportionately expensive to find out.

It is now 10 years since I was a Minister in the Department, but I cannot believe that the Department has forgotten the importance it attached at that time to evidence about effectiveness. Indeed, if the Minister is doubtful about the value of such data, he should read some of the speeches that the current Secretary of State made about the Work programme when she was the Minister responsible for employment. The Work Programme, for all its many faults, generated a great deal of valuable, published performance data. I understand that Ministers intend to publish comparable data for the Work and Health programme in due course, in some detail and with reasonable regularity, although I also understand that publication of that data has been delayed. It would be puzzling if Ministers really do not intend to gather, still less publish, evaluation data on the youth obligation.

On 26 April I asked how many of those supported through the youth obligation had gone on to various destinations. The Minister for Employment replied on 1 May in a written answer, stating:

“It is not possible to say how many of them have subsequently gone on to (a) an apprenticeship (b) a traineeship and (c) a work placement without checking individual records, which would incur disproportionate cost.”

I asked how many young people had stopped receiving benefits since beginning the youth obligation, and an answer from 1 May stated:

DWP does not hold this information as part of any centralised management information process. To answer this would require checking individual records at each Jobcentre, which would incur disproportionate cost.”

I tabled more questions on 6 September, and on 11 September the Minister for Employment replied, more encouragingly:

“The information requested is not currently readily available, however the Department does monitor requests we receive for new statistics and consider whether we can produce and release analysis that will helpfully inform public debate. The Department is therefore looking at this issue with a view to seeing what statistics could be produced on a regular basis.”

I hope that the Minister will provide us with an update on the Department’s thinking on the matter.

Although the Department is not able to say how the youth obligation is going, others have started to provide valuable information about the effectiveness of the programme. Their findings so far are not encouraging, and I want to quote this afternoon from two pieces of research. Centrepoint, drawing on funding from the Trust for London, commissioned the University of Warwick to evaluate the extent to which the youth obligation supports disadvantaged young people into employment, education or training. The researchers undertook longitudinal research in London and Manchester, including a survey of 80 youth obligation participants. Centrepoint has compiled interim findings, with a final report due to be published in spring. Those interim findings concluded that only around half of those who started the youth obligation programme remained on it for the whole six-month period. That was not generally because the participants found work or entered training; instead, there were three key reasons for withdrawing from the programme.

First, 45% of London participants and 40% of Manchester participants left the programme because of continuing, pre-existing difficulties in their lives, such as homelessness, drug or alcohol problems, or mental health issues. Secondly, 45% of London participants and 57% of Manchester participants left because they ran into a specific problem, and afterwards—through fear, embarrassment or uncertainty about their continued status on the programme—did not go back. Thirdly, 10% of London participants and 3% of Manchester participants left because they did not like the programme. That included two participants with learning difficulties who found the activities they were asked to engage in impossible without support, which they said they were not offered.

Research found that the most positive aspect of the programme was the initial engagement, and nearly two thirds of participants thought that making an individual plan that identified their interests and the support they wanted was helpful. Beyond that the focus was on practical mechanisms for identifying and applying for jobs, such as how to write a CV and use websites. In the experience of those who took part, there appeared to be little acknowledgement of whether the participant was ready to find work, or of the specific barriers that many participants faced or how to mitigate them. For example, one participant with low qualifications commented:

“They just tell you how to make a CV. Then they tell you to make it a different way.

Like every day, that’s all we did”.

Most participants were happy with their work coach, but there did not seem to be much substantive personalisation. Participants rarely noted that they had been offered access to particular activities or services to meet their specific aspirations, or additional or specialised support to address their more complex needs. Despite the complex needs of quite a number of the participants, referrals outside Jobcentre Plus were rare. In interviews, participants noted that they thought their work coach did not have time to discuss issues not directly related to looking for work.

A significant group of participants held very negative views about Jobcentre Plus and expected to be treated poorly. This made them less likely to disclose issues that were hindering their ability to work, such as worsening mental health or addiction issues. It also resulted in some participants viewing reasonable advice from the Jobcentre very negatively. In both London and Manchester, the sanction rate for those on the youth obligation was higher than for the comparator group claiming benefits in a non-youth obligation area. Some 36% of London youth obligation participants were sanctioned at some point in the past year, compared with 24% in non-youth obligation areas.

The second piece of research I want to draw on has been published today by the Young Women’s Trust. It is brand new and I appreciate that the Minister and his officials may well not yet have had a chance to consider it. However, it too is a useful and informative piece of work. The research surveyed over 700 young Jobcentre Plus users in the UK over three years. It conducted interviews with staff in 13 jobcentres across three London boroughs and conducted focus group interviews with 28 young people aged between 18 to 25 who were living across 10 different London boroughs. It concluded that the youth obligation is misunderstood by Jobcentre Plus staff and is patchy in its implementation. Young people’s employment outcomes are not recorded and there is little plan for support beyond six months. Only a third of young women and two fifths of men surveyed felt they were getting personalised support from their work coach. Some 21% of black, Asian and minority ethnic jobseekers said they were treated unfairly by Jobcentre Plus staff, compared with 15% of white jobseekers.

One youth obligation manager described their package for young people as intense specialist support for six months, which I think is what Ministers intended. Another manager, however, explained that over the course of six months they

“have two workshops where young people can learn how to write a good CV and meet providers”.

That appeared to be it. Managers in all the boroughs studied acknowledged that they do not monitor referrals and that there is no effective monitoring system in place, as the Minister’s difficulty in answering my parliamentary questions also illustrates. The policy, as I understand it, is that after six months on the programme, if young people do not have a job they should go on to a mandated apprenticeship or voluntary work experience. That is not happening in practice, according to the published research. In a small survey of voluntary sector service providers who work in youth employability and training, 79% were completely unaware of the youth obligation scheme, including a fair number of those who work with their local Jobcentre Plus on a weekly or monthly basis.

The report presents the positive conclusion that there has been a 17% increase in the number of users saying that the jobcentre helped to motivate them in their job search since 2016.

However, it also reports that of the young women using Jobcentre Plus over the last three years, 52% have ranked their experiences as humiliating and 65% as stressful and that 63% have felt ashamed to go to the jobcentre.

It is clear from both pieces of research that the programme is not going well. I understand that one of the problems for the Department is that the universal credit IT system does not provide the basic information that would allow an assessment of how the programme is doing—information that was routinely provided under the older systems. I recognise that providing evaluation data may well not be the top priority among the current difficulties with the universal credit IT system, which I have been following closely for the last eight years, but I am sure the Minister will agree that it needs to be fixed.

I am encouraged that the Minister’s colleague told me in his written answer last month that the Department is considering what statistics could be produced on a regular basis, and so I want to finish by suggesting what some of the statistics ought to be. I would hope they could be produced at least on a half-yearly or perhaps on a quarterly basis—statistics on the Work programme were published quarterly.

We need to know how many people have gone on to the youth obligation in the latest period and how many have left it, and how many were on the programme at the beginning of the period and at the end. It would also be helpful to know something about the age, geographic spread and gender of participants. For those who have left the programme, the crucial information we need is where they have gone: how many have gone on to an apprenticeship, in line with the policy intent; how many have gone on to a traineeship or work placement; how many have gone into education or training; how many have got a job; and how many have stopped claiming benefit but not started work or training. Finally, what is the sanction rate for those on the programme?

I welcome the fact that, as I understand it, by the end of this year we will again have a nationwide labour market support programme for unemployed young people, but we need to know how effective it is. At risk of teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, I make the obvious point that that requires at least basic data to be recorded, collected centrally and published. At the moment, none of that is being done for this programme. I hope the Minister can provide some reassurance that it will soon start being done, for the Department’s benefit and the benefit of us all.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:02, 26 October 2018

I congratulate Stephen Timms on securing this debate. I have been asked to respond because the Minister for Employment sadly cannot be here.

Everyone on the Government Benches acknowledges that the right hon. Gentleman should be on the Opposition Front Bench, given his massive experience at the Department for Work and Pensions, and I welcome this opportunity both to debate this matter and to discuss in the more detail the subject of youth employment, which I think motivates every single Member of Parliament. We all want to improve the life chances of those whom we represent.

Nationally, the employment rate for 18 to 24-year-olds not in full-time education is 77%, which is up eight percentage points from 69% in 2010, and only 4.3% of young people aged 16 to 24 are unemployed or not in full-time education, which is a fall of 350,000 since 2010. Moreover, the national unemployment rate for this age group is 10.8%, as the right hon. Gentleman set out, which is a record low. It is worth commenting briefly that the decrease in youth unemployment is markedly better than that in the EU. When one compares our record low youth unemployment rate with that in Spain, at 34%, Italy, at 32%, France, at 21%, and Greece, at 39%, one realises that there has genuinely been a transformation, and one that I believe is among the driving successes of this Government. We all accept, I believe—I think the right hon. Gentleman accepts this—that the single biggest driver of social mobility and improvement of life chances is work, and the reality is that the universal credit programme and the Government reforms since 2010 are helping to create an employment revolution in this country, which is a massive improvement on the old system.

The statistics reflect a real achievement, but while this is worth celebrating we must not be complacent. That is why the Government have introduced a wide range of support for younger people. The principle of support for young people is well known to the right hon. Gentleman; it has dated back through many different Governments and generations, and has been developed by the DWP in collaboration with a variety of organisations. We recognise that providing early targeted help at the start of a young person’s adult life helps them secure work and avoid unemployment. It is in that context that we introduced the youth obligation support programme.

The programme is for people aged 18 to 21 who make a new claim in a UC full service jobcentre. It is worth understanding how this programme came into being, and I will briefly outline that. We believe it takes the best types of support that previous individual evaluations have shown to work and puts them together in a single programme. The support starts with the intensive activity period. In 2016 the Department published an evaluation of this approach by the Institute for Employment Studies. It reported that it had an immediate positive behavioural effect on participants. It increased their confidence, and meant they engaged in a wider range of job search activities and made job applications to a higher standard. Earlier this year the Work and Pensions Committee recognised in its youth employment report of 2018 that the Department had conducted a good quality trial of intensive activity. It said that the intensive activity element of the youth obligation should help young people overcome key barriers to work. We believe it encourages young people to think more broadly about their skills and job goals, and identify any training they may need.

An example that applies to both the programme under discussion and the traditional model for younger people are sector-based work academies, which last for up to six weeks and include work experience, some bespoke training and a guaranteed interview for a real apprenticeship or other job. The Department published a quantitative impact assessment in 2016 that showed that young people who took part in this type of support spent on average considerably more days in employment and considerably fewer days on benefit than those who did not take part, and I know it had some success in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency of East Ham, particularly utilising the work of his local colleges.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham

I am grateful for the way the hon. Gentleman is answering my questions. Does he have any information about how many participants on the youth obligation programme had the opportunity of the sector-based work academy to which he refers?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am going to come to the specific points the right hon. Gentleman raises on numbers and data, but let me make a quick point before returning to my speech. We are in utter agreement that data and statistics are needed on a long-term basis—no one is disputing that—and he will know from his knowledge of the DWP that it likes to focus on long-term figures. However, I am not in a position to give individual numbers in answer to that specific question.

However, the right hon. Gentleman surely accepts that sector-based work academies, which occur in many different types of profession but in particular teaching, retail, hospitality, transport and logistics, social care, manufacturing and engineering, are one of the most successful innovations that apply to all young people whether on the YOSP or the traditional support provided by jobcentres.

In addition, there are traineeships. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have visited a multitude of jobcentres. In the last year, I have been from Hastings and Chichester in the south to Banff in northern Scotland, from Basildon to Blackpool last Friday, to Birmingham and Lambeth in London, and in the last four years I have hosted a jobs fair in Hexham and worked with my jobcentre, and I have seen the impact of traineeships, which are another part of the YOSP that are utterly key. I must mention Release Potential in my constituency, which provides these traineeships for younger people on an ongoing basis up and down the country, and I have seen their success.

The right hon. Gentleman will realise that this programme began only in April 2017 and that it is still being rolled out around the country. More than 500 jobcentres are now offering this support, but some started only this week. I accept that others started in April 2017, but I believe that the programme still has to be rolled out to 22 jobcentres before completion takes place at the end of this year. In his own area, jobcentres have strong links to Barking and Dagenham College, and there is also specialist guidance on training, apprenticeships, the Prince’s Trust, the movement to work programme, the construction skills programme and English language classes.

I want to address a couple of points that the right hon. Gentleman raised. I take on board his suggestions, which have been noted, on statistical evaluations and pathways. He will understand that the Department takes these matters very seriously, and I will ensure that they are taken back to the Minister for Employment. As I have said, the programme is still being rolled out, and the automated management information process is still being developed as we speak. He raised the matter of young people in particular, and there is one point on which I want to push back. He said that the was no other programme for young people, but he will surely know that the Department is committed to providing targeted support for all young people, including those who are still claiming jobseeker’s allowance or claiming through the universal credit live service. The traditional JSA includes basic skills training, traineeships and support funded through organisations such as the Prince’s Trust. There are also opportunities involving sector-based work academy placements for those individuals. It would therefore be wrong to suggest that there is no other programme over and above the youth obligation support programme.

I repeat that we collect information on each individual claimant, but there is not at this stage an aggregated assessment of the kind that the Department traditionally produces. However, the right hon. Gentleman will under- stand that this programme started only in April 2017, that it has not finished being rolled out, and that in some jobcentres it started only in the last week. With respect, therefore, I would say to him that we believe the programme is becoming more mature every day, that we are continuing to test and learn, and that we are holding workshops with work coaches to get their insight into what works well and into the local barriers that 18 to 21-year-olds can face in the labour market. We are also collating and sharing good practice, and we will obviously take on board the reports that he has outlined today, including the one that came out just this morning. We are genuinely committed to ensuring that any 18 to 21-year-old, whether they are from East Ham or Hexham, Carlisle or Cardiff, has the ability to work towards securing an income, to develop their skills and to improve their life chances. After all, that is what this is all about.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.