Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:49 pm on 1st May 2014.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, Mr Betts. Well done to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs for its report, and to its Chair for presenting the report.
Unemployment in Blaenau Gwent remains stubbornly high. In March, adult unemployment was 8% and youth unemployment was 11.8%, nearly double the Wales average of 6.4%. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have become only too familiar with the hapless track record of the Department for Work and Pensions in recent months. It has botched the introduction of the new personal independence payment and the management of its flagship universal credit system has been wasteful, with at least £140 million written off. When the Public Accounts Committee reviewed the Work programme last year, we found extremely poor performance. Only 3.6% of people referred to it moved off benefit and into work—less than a third of the Department’s target. None of the providers managed to meet their minimum performance targets: the best provider moved just 5% of people off benefit and into work, while the worst managed a miserly 2%.
The Public Accounts Committee found that the Work programme was failing young people in particular. The Welsh Affairs Committee has said the Work programme’s success in helping those with the most severe barriers to employment has “yet to be proven.” I therefore hope that the DWP will look seriously at how we can help young people and those with complex needs in a valleys employment market where jobs are scarce.
To be fair, the Welsh Affairs Committee is
“broadly encouraged that the Work programme’s performance has been improving over time, both in Wales and Great Britain.”
Although I understand that this is a difficult agenda, given that the programme’s first year performance was actually worse than the Department’s own expectations, the only way is up, is it not?
To give a tangible example, one employer contacted me with concerns about his Work programme employee. The employer had spoken to the employee’s Work programme adviser regarding help with the cost of travel to work and of work clothing and equipment. The employer understood that four weeks of travel costs and full work equipment costs would be met. In the event, the travel costs were capped at £50 per week and the work equipment costs were capped at £300, although the total cost was £450.
The employer was clear: the Work programme provider failed to give accurate and unambiguous advice to its client. The employer thinks the Work programme provider is preventing a young man from moving forward in his line of work and hindering his future work. I share that view. It is living in cloud cuckoo land to expect the young unemployed to pay up front for the tools they may need for a placement.
The Welsh Affairs Committee found that both Working Links Wales and Rehab JobFit were near the bottom of performance tables when compared with the other 38 providers across Great Britain. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at how their performance can be improved to meet the needs of the unemployed in Wales, as the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee said.
The Work programme will not anyway work in isolation. Other important measures are needed in the eastern valleys of south Wales. Our train infrastructure needs electrifying. Good public service jobs need to be based in the borough of Blaenau Gwent, and educational attainment must be improved in the round. We know that the Work programme in Wales is failing to deliver, so tackling long-term unemployment will be a top priority for the next Labour Government. As we know from the 1980s, long-term unemployment has a scarring effect on individuals and communities. It damages our economy and society, and builds up long-term costs for the taxpayer. Before those things happen, the Government must do better.