Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:53 pm on 1st May 2014.
I am pleased to contribute to the part of the debate I intended to speak in. It is a pleasure to follow Nick Smith, who is my colleague on the Public Accounts Committee. I acknowledge that the report that we produced on the Work programme was disappointing, but it is fair to say that in that report we acknowledged that it was early days for the programme.
I am encouraged by my recent meetings with providers working for the Work programme, and the statistics show that performances are now significantly improved. Most importantly, the figures will show that the value for money being derived for the taxpayer is significantly better than under those programmes superseded by the Work programme. As we move forward, we have a success story on our hands. It is delivering both for people who need support and for the taxpayer, by delivering jobs at a lower cost.
I turn now to the report by the Welsh Affairs Committee. It is a genuinely constructive report that highlights some of our concerns at the time of writing. The performance of the Work programme in Wales has improved since the report was published—certainly, the figures from my own constituency indicate that—and we are now working against a background of a much stronger employment situation in Wales. We have seen unemployment fall. It is fair to say that the unemployment rate in Wales is now lower than the average for the UK, and I welcome that. In my own constituency, unemployment has fallen significantly and is well below the figure that we inherited in 2010. There is good news on employment.
My specific experience of the Work programme is of a committed work force working for Work programme providers in my patch, who are attempting to make sure that they give full support to individuals who want to get back into the workplace. One example I can offer is of a young lady from the village of Llanfairfechan in my constituency, who had her transport costs paid for the first month of employment, to allow her to work, and also had costs paid to allow her to go to an interview—indeed, the provider supplied the young lady in question with a new outfit for the interview. She was successful and is now working in continued employment. I can certainly offer examples—I accept they are anecdotes—from my own constituency that are different from the examples I have heard from other parts of Wales and are generally very positive.
The Minister visited Merit Motors, an employer in my constituency that has taken on not one, not two, but three individuals on the Work programme, and has described them as the best prepared individuals they had ever had the pleasure of working with. Those individuals are three young lads between the age of 18 and 24, who are now working in Llandudno Junction as a result of the support they have had from the Work programme and of the willingness of a local employer to take a chance on young employees.
I should also say that we cannot leave the whole issue to the Work programme. MPs should become active on this issue. I have written to all employers in my constituency not just to raise the prospect of the support available to employ people through the Work programme but to highlight the support available to employ young people. I have even highlighted the programmes available from the Welsh Government. As a local MP, I want to see increased employment and employment opportunities in my patch. I take very seriously my responsibility to work with providers, employers and the unemployed to make sure those employment opportunities are there.
Indeed, I would recommend that all hon. Members in Wales hold job fairs. I did. We got the local paper involved, and had pictures of people on the front page of the Weekly News under the headline “We want to work”, dispelling the myth that the unemployed do not want to work. The story I want to put out is that we have people who want to work and we have a support structure in place to make sure that they have the opportunity to. The Work programme is part of that success.
I do not want to be negative, but I have to reiterate the concerns expressed by the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee about the way in which the Work programme interacts with Government programmes in Wales financed by the European social fund. We highlighted that in a report agreed unanimously on a cross-party basis, but I have not seen any progress since then. Unfortunately, the issue is becoming more and more problematic. On a recent visit to a charity in my constituency, I was told categorically that they were now having difficulty recruiting people because individuals were being referred from the jobcentre to the Work programme and then were not being referred back to the charity because it was partially funded from ESF funding. That is a huge problem.
That charity highlighted another issue, which I think is shameful. Work programme representatives take the view that we need to make sure that youth offenders and prisoners are put on the Work programme before they leave prison. That is a fantastic initiative—we are trying to make sure that those people do not end up not having a support structure when they leave prison. But, lo and behold, if they go on to a Work programme provided in Wales and it is highlighted that they need numeracy or literacy support, there is no such support available in the Welsh context because of decisions taken by the Welsh European Funding Office.
Frankly, the situation is unacceptable. We are damaging the prospects of individuals, whether they be former prisoners, youth offenders or people who need support to get back into the workplace, simply because we are failing to knock heads together and get some common sense from the Welsh European Funding Office.
When asked about this issue by Nia Griffith during our inquiry, the then Minister, my hon. Friend Mr Hoban, made it clear that the problem was primarily in Cardiff bay. I have seen no evidence to contradict that, yet a year after the publication of the report we are still seeing Work programme providers in Wales underperforming, mainly because they do not have the support structure in place in the rest of the United Kingdom.
If anything comes out of the debate today, it should be a strong message from all members of the Welsh Affairs Committee and all Welsh Members of Parliament that the Welsh Government need to work with, not against, the Work programme to serve the unemployed of Wales.