[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:56 am on 13th March 2012.

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Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire 11:56 am, 13th March 2012

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I shall leave it hanging, so that the Minister can pluck it at the appropriate moment. All I would say is that the service industry is an enormous part of the economy. We all want to see growth in manufacturing, but services are a huge part of the economy in many of our constituencies. Getting work experience in that area is absolutely valuable in its own right.

The bemused e-mails that I have been receiving from my constituents say something along these lines. “I understand that the programme is voluntary. There are some advantages to the individual in taking part, but if, after a period of time—not on the first day but after a week or so—they just cease to turn up to work for no good reasons, there are adverse consequences.” It is called a work experience programme—I do not know about you, Mr Crausby, but that sounds an awful lot like an experience of work. I pay tribute to the firms that have taken part in the programme, particularly those that have stood firm and not given in. However, I also understand the nervousness of some of the firms that have issued statements expressing concerns.

We all welcome the new media campaigns with which we are pleased to communicate on a regular basis. As politicians, we also know that they are not always all that they purport to be. I am probably unusual on the Conservative Benches in being a Guardian reader. Perhaps I was the only Member present who was a little bemused, or amused, to read the helpful clarification in The Guardian that this right to work campaign was not run by a bunch of lefties because it contained not only the Socialist Workers party, but members of UK Uncut and the Occupy protest movement. I understand the nervousness of firms with quarterly results to deliver and daily revenues to monitor. We need a debate about how some of these campaigning organisations work and about their proper role in society.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

I can say from my long political experience that if views that might be deemed extremist do not strike a chord with the public, they will simply sink. If some of the criticisms of this initiative, which have been raised in this House previously, had had no resonance with the public—

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. All credit to those organisations for creating a splash over the issue. However, I am afraid that they have done it by misleading the public and saying that young people are being forced into slave labour when that is absolutely not the case. This relates to what I was saying about the Opposition—I do not include the small number of Labour Members who have come here today. When their leader had an opportunity to debunk that theory and to put the record straight, he failed to do so. It was a great shame that we did not hear such a view from Labour, the party of work.

I know that we are short of time, but I should like to broaden my contribution to include work experience at school. Whenever employers give evidence on the Education Committee, on which I sit, they predictably complain about qualifications not doing what they say on the tin and about young people not being work ready. Work readiness is sometimes called employability skills, soft skills or, when the terminological obfuscation gets extreme, transferable non-cognitive skills. Essentially, what it means is all the stuff about dealing with other people—turning up to work on time, knowing the right way to dress, empathy with the customer, smiling and pride in a job well done. All those things can be partly developed through work experience. When we ask employers if the situation is getting worse, they often say that it is. We cannot demonstrate that it is getting worse. It may be just not getting better, but we are in the business of economic growth. To achieve economic growth, we need such things to be improving year on year.

We need a debate about the role and quality of work experience in schools. It may be that the two-week block in years 10 or 11 is an important part of that, but it does not seem to be doing the full job. With the rise in the participation age, I wonder whether moving the bulk of work experience into the sixth form might be more appropriate. It may well be that there is a role for both. I also hope that we can consider other ways of augmenting and bolstering that work experience. Perhaps we can have a more formal assessment of that young person’s performance in work experience that can count towards their future job prospects.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I suggest that we bring in that introduction to work experience at the options stage, when children at 14 and 15 are choosing their options for GCSEs, which usually indicate what career they might be going into.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

I absolutely see that point. That is why I said that there could be a role for both. Even at the options stage, there is only an opportunity to see one employer, so it will not give a full range of career choices. We certainly need more firms to step up to the plate for school-age work experience. There are many myths about health and safety compliance and Criminal Records Bureau checks and so on. I hope the Government will turn their attention to encouraging more and more quality employers to get on board with that programme and offer more opportunities to young people.

There is a particular area in which school-age work experience can deliver huge benefits to our country. I am talking about work in the public sector, particularly in teaching. The Education Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into what makes a great teacher. One of the recurring themes is that everybody knows what a great teacher is because they have had one. They know it when they see it, but it is very difficult to predict in advance who is going to make a great teacher unless they are seen teaching. I hope we can encourage young people who are interested in teaching, particularly from the sixth form, to do teaching placements of one or two weeks in a school. By working alongside a QTS teacher, they will be able to develop their skills and decide whether teaching is right for them. Furthermore, qualified teachers will be able to assess whether they are well suited to the job.

Photo of Graham Evans Graham Evans Conservative, Weaver Vale

Just this morning, I visited the charity City Year, which enables young people to volunteer for one year to work, unpaid, in local schools—Hackney schools in this particular instance. Some 86% of students who volunteer get a job after, largely as teachers.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

That is a fascinating scheme. I am not familiar with it, but I will certainly look it up. As it transpires, that was the end of my remarks, so I will stop.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

I want to call the two Front-Benchers at 12.10 pm, so I would appreciate a very short contribution from Graham Evans.

Photo of Graham Evans Graham Evans Conservative, Weaver Vale 12:07 pm, 13th March 2012

I will crack on with my very short contribution. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this very interesting debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing it. He is a hard-working advocate for his constituents and deserves considerable credit for his work. Like his good self, I have a young family, so we both have a vested interest in this topic. I know first hand the importance of experiencing the world of work. I grew up on a council estate in Poynton and left my local state school with few qualifications. My first job was stacking shelves in the local Co-op. I went on to get a job working on nimrods at BAE Systems at Woodford. I was able to study at night school and build a successful career in manufacturing. Tom Blenkinsop talked about opportunities in manufacturing. Under Labour, between 1997 and 2010, the number of people employed in manufacturing halved. In 1997, manufacturing’s contribution to GDP was 22%. In 2010, it was 12%.

It is a great honour to represent the people of Weaver Vale. That would not have been possible if I had not been able to get my first experience of work. We all know how vital work experience is for young people. The previous Labour Government acknowledged that and used it as part of their new deal. The evidence is even clearer now. Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions tell us that 50% of all participants on work experience schemes move off benefits within three months. Obviously, work experience schemes can be a key weapon in the fight against youth unemployment, but why is that fight so important?

As I have said in recent debates on apprenticeships, there is a significant correlation between the eastern expansion of the European Union and the increase in youth unemployment from 2004 onwards. Despite repeated warnings from the Conservative Opposition at that time, the Labour Government decided against having transitional immigration controls. The impact on youth unemployment has been dramatic.

If someone wants to understand why youth unemployment has become such a problem, they should put themselves in the shoes of a prospective employer. Are prospective employers going to pick a school leaver with zero work experience or training ahead of a 30-something migrant who has extensive work experience? Would they take on the risk, costs and effort to train young people who are lacking any sort of work experience, and who therefore have no way of demonstrating that they are reliable, instead of older migrants who are already trained and have a CV demonstrating a strong work ethic? So it is screamingly obvious why work experience schemes can help to tackle youth unemployment, and I am delighted that the Government recognise that and are spending £1 billion on the youth contract to create incentives for employers to create an extra 250,000 work experience places during the next three years.

Given some of the utter nonsense that has been spouted in recent weeks about these work experience schemes, it is important to remember that they are voluntary. Furthermore, people have an opportunity to try out the scheme first before giving a commitment. In addition, it is absolutely ridiculous to assert that businesses are exploiting young people and getting free labour. There are significant costs for businesses that are taking part: to arrange the placements, to train the people, to mentor them and to provide equipment and uniforms. Businesses that take part should be applauded, not attacked. So all Members should get behind the Work Experience scheme and the Government’s—

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. I ask the Member to wind up quickly.

Photo of Graham Evans Graham Evans Conservative, Weaver Vale

I will finish quickly. A record 440,000 apprenticeships have been created this year alone. There has been £150 million of capital spending to support improved technical and vocational education. There are ambitions for at least 24 new colleges by 2014 and, of course, there are the fantastic education reforms. The future competiveness of our economy depends on these initiatives.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 12:11 pm, 13th March 2012

I am grateful to you, Mr Crausby, for giving me this opportunity to speak. I also thank Mr Jones, who has done us a great service by securing a debate on this very important topic.

The Government have got themselves into an extraordinary muddle over work experience. Labour supports work experience. It can be invaluable in reconnecting people with the labour market; it has been a part of labour market intervention since the 1970s; and it was a key feature of the success of the new deal. Unfortunately, however, the Government have got themselves into a terrible mess.

On 29 February, the Minister—in an attempt to extricate himself from that mess—announced a U-turn and that the “Work Experience” scheme was to be fully voluntary. Previously, he had said that it was a voluntary scheme; I suppose that his announcement on 29 February means that it really will be voluntary. However, his problem is that the letters that Jobcentre Plus staff sent out to claimants said something quite different. He was memorably confronted on “Channel 4 News” with a letter that had been sent out to somebody who was being told about a placement on a “Work Experience” scheme; Brandon Lewis quite rightly said that there are other schemes, but in this case the placement was part of a “Work Experience” scheme. The letter said:

“You have been referred to the following Opportunity: retail assistant…If you cannot attend for any reason or if you stop claiming Jobseekers Allowance please contact this Jobcentre immediately. If without a good reason you fail to start, fail to go when expected or stop going...any future payments of Jobseekers Allowance could cease to be payable or could be payable at a lower rate.”

There is no point in claiming that the scheme is voluntary if Jobcentre Plus staff—staff in the Minister’s job centres—are telling people precisely the opposite.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Has it crossed the right hon. Gentleman’s mind that nobody would receive a letter unless they had volunteered?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Let me tell him what I suspect is the source of the confusion. It arises from the decision maker’s guide, which any Member of the House can read on the website for the Department for Work and Pensions. That guide says:

JSA may not be payable or it may be payable at a reduced rate to claimants who are entitled to JSA and have...after being notified by an Employment Officer of a place on a Work Experience scheme, refused without good cause or failed to apply for it or to accept it when offered, or...neglected to avail themselves of a reasonable opportunity of a place on Work Experience.”

A Jobcentre Plus adviser who is doing their job and looking at the official guidance discovers that that is what the guidance is—a clear description of a mandatory scheme.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Jobcentre Plus staff have been so confused and have contradicted what the Minister has said. Of course, as we know, a number of businesses also lost confidence in the scheme. But the muddle goes even further, because the DWP’s provider guidance for the Work programme says:

“Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience, you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated”.

The DWP was saying that until a few weeks ago, but that particular statement has now been deleted from the guidance on the website.

Therefore I want to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, now that there are no sanctions in work experience other than for gross misconduct, will he amend the decision maker’s guide? Secondly, how will he ensure that the policy is now implemented in line with what he has announced? Thirdly, what has changed in the legal position so that work experience no longer has to be mandated to “avoid”—to quote the guidance that was on his Department’s website—the national minimum wage rules?

The “Work Experience” scheme is too valuable to let this muddle continue. And as we have already heard in the debate, there are other schemes apart from the “Work Experience” scheme. In fact, Inclusion says that there are seven different current work experience schemes, which may be part of the reason for the muddle. At the time that some claimants are starting on the “Work Experience” scheme, others start on mandatory work activity, which was the scheme referred to by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth. That may well be another source of the confusion. As the name of the mandatory work activity scheme suggests, it is not voluntary. It is designed for people who are a long way from the labour market and who have no experience of work or the work ethic. Placements are for a similar period to those in the “Work Experience” scheme, and they are sourced through private welfare-to-work providers. The total value of the contracts for mandatory work activity is £32 million. I have repeatedly asked the Minister to tell the House what the average cost of such a placement is, and various other details. He has repeatedly refused to answer those questions, claiming that it is “Commercial in Confidence” although heaven knows why.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Conservative, Nuneaton

The right hon. Gentleman has talked a lot about “confusion”, but from where I sit in Westminster Hall today I am extremely confused about the position of his party in relation to the Government’s work experience programme. On the one hand he says that he supports work experience, but on the other he seems to be coming up with all sorts of “confusion” in his argument to try to get away from supporting that programme. Does his party support the current Government’s work experience programme and will he commit to supporting those employers that are doing a fantastic job in giving our young people this type of opportunity?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I very strongly support work experience and I strongly support the contribution of employers. However, what I regret and deprecate is the extraordinary muddle and confusion that the Government’s handling of the “Work Experience” scheme and the six other similar schemes has created.

On mandatory—[ Interruption. ] Time is running out and I want to give the Minister every chance to respond to these points, so let me just tell the House about one of my constituents. She was put on to mandatory work activity. She was not a long way from the labour market; indeed, after I inquired about her, she received a phone call to say that she should never have been put on mandatory work activity in the first place. The letter that was sent to her initially was a classic of incomprehensibility; I sent a copy of it to the Minister. It instructed her, a resident of east London, to go to an obscure Sheffield postcode, and it said that if she had any queries she should ring telephone number 000. Her placement was at a charity shop. When she arrived, there were 14 other people on mandatory work activity who had also been sent to the same charity shop to help out. There was nowhere near enough work to go round, although presumably all 15 of those people attracted a payment to the provider from the Minister’s Department.

Experiences such as that will not help anybody into work. I ask the Minister: what checks is he making on placements to mandatory work activity? In fact, does he know if his Department is being ripped off on a large scale, as the example that I just gave suggests? Also, why does he insist on secrecy about all of this, when the openness that is being promoted by the Cabinet Office would help to resolve all these problems? This Minister has some form on this. He has been officially rebuked for misusing statistics—I think more than any other Member of the House—including on three separate occasions since he has been a Minister. That is a pretty extraordinary record.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

On a point of order, Mr Crausby. Is it in order to make allegations about another Member without giving details? I am certainly not aware of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised. He has made quite a serious comment about another Member. I have no knowledge of any such occasions since I have become a Minister.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the three occasions are all on the UK Statistics Authority’s website: first, data relating to the flexible new deal; secondly, data relating to worklessness statistics; and thirdly, data about benefit claims on the part of immigrants. The first and third of those were widely publicised at the time. I have the letter on the second in front of me. The Minister publishes statistics that he thinks advance his partisan case, but he refuses to publish straightforward, routine data that certainly should be in the public domain.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Further to that point of order, Mr Crausby. Since becoming a Minister I have not received, to the best of my knowledge, any communication from the UK Statistics Authority questioning any statistics that I have published. I want to place that on the record and ask whether it is in order for a shadow Minister to make an allegation of that kind.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

That is not a point of order.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I will gladly copy the letter from the UK Statistics Authority website for the Minister.

Work experience should have been straightforward and uncontroversial. It is valuable and we need more of it. Instead, we have had U-turns, public relations fiascos and even street protests. The Minister needs to clear up the confusion at Jobcentre Plus, level with us about mandatory work activity and embrace at last the open data initiative that was conceived by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, Mr Maude, so that everybody can judge for themselves the effectiveness of the schemes.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 12:21 pm, 13th March 2012

We have just heard a clear example of why the Opposition have yet to adapt to opposition. In long years of opposition, we learned that there are times when one should simply accept that what the Government are doing is right. I am sorry to hear Stephen Timms, for whom I normally have a high regard, misrepresenting the situation around any letters or communications that the Department has received from the UK Statistics Authority. I am also sorry that he is dancing on a sixpence to try to oppose something that he should support.

Mr Crausby, if you had told me three months ago that we would be dealing with protests against the work experience scheme, given all the difficult decisions that we are taking in the Department for Work and Pensions, I would have thought you were mad. Among all those difficult decisions, this is a positive programme that is designed to help. It is innocuous. It does what it says on the tin. It started as a result of a complaint that I personally received from the mother of a young woman who said, “My daughter has arranged a month’s work experience for herself and been told she will lose her benefits if she carries out that experience.” I regarded that as unacceptable, so we started to use the teams of people we have in Jobcentre Plus to look for opportunities for young people to do work experience, precisely because of the issues raised by my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis. It is all well and good if someone comes from a prosperous background, but not everyone does. Helping young people find work experience opportunities is enormously important.

I will deal straight away with the issue raised by Sheila Gilmore. I am afraid she needs to look herself in the mirror and ask the question about being a job snob. The row came about because of a computer error, which published an internal bulletin about a work experience placement at Tesco. Had it been Airbus, this would never have been a story, and the hon. Lady would not be complaining today. I commend Airbus for joining our scheme, along with many other manufacturers.

About 12 months ago, I met an older, former unemployed worker at an Asda store in Birmingham. He said: “I came here after years of unemployment. I got a job at the bottom level of the scale. A few months later, I was running a department with a staff of 20.” The job of running a high street retail branch—a big supermarket—can be a job that oversees a large staff in a business turning over tens of millions of pounds a year. In a large company such as Tesco, there are a vast range of opportunities in IT, HR, logistics, or community outreach. There was magnificent community work at Asda in my own constituency. There are all kinds of opportunities for someone to go in at the bottom and work their way up.

Let me explain to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East how the scheme works. Our advisers sit down with young people and talk about different career options. They ask them about the sectors that interest them, and find them—if we can—a placement in one of their preferred sectors. It is their choice. We listen to them and try to find the opportunity. Unfortunately, we cannot find opportunities for all the young people, because the scheme is over-subscribed. That is the nature of what we are trying to do. We expect them to turn up, if they have taken a placement from someone else; we expect them to fulfil the placement if they stay beyond the first week’s grace; and we expect them to behave themselves. It is the lightest-touch conditionality anywhere in the welfare system. We have listened to the employers—given all the brouhaha—and accepted that we would remove the attendance requirement. We still have sanctions in place for things such as racism in the workplace, theft in the workplace and abusive behaviour towards customers or fellow co-workers. Only about 200 out of 34,000 participants have been sanctioned.

The scheme was and will continue to be a voluntary scheme that is positive and beneficial. Some of the coverage—particularly the BBC’s—and wilful attempts to mislead were disgraceful. My hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin is absolutely right. The way in which this was covered was nothing short of disgraceful. The scheme is aimed at the under-24s. Putting people in their 40s on the TV was nonsensical and extremely poor-quality journalism. However, a small number of older people do get work experience placements: for example, long-term carers and people who have been out of the workplace for long periods for whom such experience is beneficial.

The right hon. Member for East Ham raised a variety of questions about letters and so forth. Of course, someone does not get a letter about the scheme unless they have volunteered to be on it. It is as simple and straightforward as that. I will tell the House a simple story, which was fed back to me by one of our Jobcentre Plus teams a couple of weeks ago. They were briefing a group of young people about the work experience scheme and opportunities. One of them—a young woman—said, “I don’t wanna do that. It’s slave labour.” Our staff said that they did not have to do or say anything at all, because the rest of the group turned on her and told her in no uncertain terms how important the opportunity was to them and how important it was that they all took part. By the time they had finished discussing it as a group, she was going to take part, too. There was no mandation from us, but mandation from her peers.

The scheme is positive. It is not about retailing. The tragic aspect to the debate is the absurd discussion about whether we should be helping young people get work experience places—of course we should. There should be no doubt about that. We are still not hearing, especially from the right hon. Member for East Ham, “This is a good scheme that we will back publicly. It is the right thing to do. We will continue it if we get back into Government.” All we hear is cavilling about this and that detail. Let us stand up and say, “We have a problem with youth unemployment. We need to do something about it. We will do something. We will all work together.” Every single one of us in this House, whether it is the right hon. Gentleman, me or any other Member here, could do a power of good for this scheme, Mr Crausby. Indeed, you could yourself, sir, in your constituency. We can talk to local employers and say, “Get involved.” This is a real way to help young people. It makes a difference. It is great. They go on into employment and many of them look back and say that it is the best thing that ever happened to them.

We do have mandatory programmes. The mandatory work activity programme gives our Jobcentre Plus advisers the discretion to refer someone whom they believe is struggling, not pulling their weight or having real difficulty in their work search to a month’s full-time activity. We do not mandate to go and work for private companies—they would not take it even if we did. The same is true of the Work programme. We cannot send people against their wishes to work for a big retailer.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will not, because I have very little time.

Mandation in our system will apply to community benefit schemes and to nothing else. We are absolutely clear about that. It is the same for the Work programme. The work experience scheme is a good scheme, which must and will continue. It will now grow, because more people are coming forward to help—after all the publicity, ironically. The protesters are plain wrong. They are misguided. It is a tragedy that they are supported by the unions and Labour MPs, but we will not listen to them. We will listen to the young people who say, “This is the best thing that could happen to us.”