Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:42 pm on 1st May 2014.
I will make my remarks as short as I can. This is a far less controversial issue than the changes to under-occupancy policy. Clearly, all of us want as many people as possible to be in employment, and all of us support the Government in introducing schemes to help those who face significant challenges in finding work and who have been out of work for a long time. This Government have introduced a scheme that basically builds on work done by the previous Government. One thing that we could not do in the report was make comparisons with the previous scheme, because this one is run differently. None the less, it is fair to say that the previous scheme had not been working as well as all Members of Parliament wanted. I do not allocate any particular blame for that; in fact, we did not even look at that issue.
The current Work programme offers consolidated support for numerous people, including those with significant problems getting into the workplace. It differs from previous schemes in that it was designed to allow the providers greater freedom to choose how best to support unemployed people without prescription from the Government. It also differed in how payments were made; they were paid out after people had been put into work for a given period.
One problem that we highlighted, though, was that Wales seemed to be doing far worse than other areas of the United Kingdom. At the time of the report in 2013, we had the lowest success rate in the UK. We found that 10.8% of people referred to the Work programme in Wales found sustained employment, against an average of 12.8% across the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Department for Work and Pensions prefers to consider eligible referrals—in other words, the proportion of people who have been on the Work programme for at least 13 to 26 weeks, long enough to have achieved sustained employment. Using that measure, 14.7% of people on the Work programme in Wales found sustained employment. Although that is higher as a proportion, it is still lower than anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
We identified that performance was improving over time both in Wales and in the rest of the United Kingdom, and there have been changes since the report was published. I have been given updated figures that take us up to December 2013, showing that in Wales, 15.1% of Work programme participants have now found sustained employment—a good increase on 10.8%. Again, however, those proportions reflect in what is going on in the rest of the United Kingdom, and Wales is still the lowest-performing region in the United Kingdom.
Why should that be? During our inquiry, we heard a range of reasons. We heard that Wales has fewer jobs, especially permanent and full-time jobs. It has a skills shortage, and there are challenges relating to the rural nature of Wales—transport, for instance. It was suggested that the two providers operating in Wales need to raise their game a little, and it seems that they have performed poorly relative to other operators in the rest of the United Kingdom. I am aware that the Minister keeps a close eye on the issue; I believe that she has terminated one contract already in Yorkshire, and others have been put on an enhanced performance regime, whatever that means. I suspect that it means she is keeping an even closer eye on them than she otherwise would.
However, I do not want to lay all the blame on Welsh providers, because the people at the ones I visited with other Committee members—in Pontypridd, for example—seemed to be working hard to help get people into employment. One worrying thing that we heard from a number of people was the difficulty caused by a decision by the Welsh Government’s European Funding Office that Work programme participants in Wales cannot access training courses that receive funding from the European social fund, due to the view that that would constitute double funding. It is a little complicated, but we basically have a situation in Wales that is different from the situation in England, where customers are able to access Skills Agency funding programmes that are part-funded by the ESF.
As far as I or any of us can see, officials in England and Wales have both considered the issue and come up with different rules on the legality of funding job creation schemes and training using ESF money. Of course, it has been done in a way more beneficial to people in England than in Wales. Again, we did not want to allocate blame for that, but we urged the Minister to work with the Welsh Assembly Government to overcome the problem. Hopefully she will update us on any discussions that she has had.
We were also slightly concerned about the outcomes for lone parents. The statistics suggest that 11.8% of lone parents found sustained work through the Work programme, compared with the British average of 15.3%. The latest statistics show an improvement in that respect. In Wales, 15.3% of lone parents are now securing sustained employment, compared with 11.8% at the time of the report, but there is still a gap between that and the British average, which is now 18.6%. Although we are not the lowest-performing area in that respect, we are below the British average and far behind some of the best-performing areas of Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset, where 24.2% of lone parents secure sustained employment.
We also heard that there was an absence of personalised support on the Work programme for lone parents, nearly all of whom are women, and that some providers failed to recognise lone parents’ care responsibilities. We are grateful for the responses that we have had from the Minister and the Department so far, and we hope that the good news, which has come along in slightly small increments until now, will continue, because things seem to be going in the right direction.