Jobcentre Plus

– in Westminster Hall at 4:45 pm on 7th July 2015.

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Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn 4:45 pm, 7th July 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered reform of Jobcentre Plus.

It is once again an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. It is good to see you back in your place. This is the first time we have been in a debate together since you were re-elected, on which I congratulate you.

Since the early 1970s, we have tried 34 different schemes in an effort to get long-term and young unemployed people back to work, at a cost to the country of more than £13 billion. Each scheme has had varying results, but in the main has failed. Welfare dependency and long-term joblessness continue to scar our society. That is not just a failure of policy, but a moral failure. Joblessness damages families for generations. It sets people and groups against each other. It divides people into tribes with no common purpose. William Beveridge said:

“Unemployment is like a headache or a high temperature—unpleasant and exhausting but not carrying in itself any explanation of its cause.”

From the youth training scheme to the new deal for young people, and now the Work programme, multiple schemes have not tackled the causes of unemployment. Long-term joblessness remains stubbornly high, at over 32% of the unemployment rate. No real effort has been made to reverse decades of long-term unemployment or welfare dependency. Our attitude, across this House, needs to change. We cannot accept that long-term unemployment is here to stay or that people will waste their lives on welfare. People should never accept that they will have to lower their ambitions to go into low-paid, insecure jobs. Our welfare system has to be a ladder to success, not a way of life. It is not attitudes that must be shifted; we can deliver change only if the right processes are in place.

The first port of call for any jobseeker is Jobcentre Plus. Jobcentre Plus should exist to get people back into work. Despite claims over the weekend that Jobcentre Plus has helped 100,000 people into work, it still has a record of failure. Policy Exchange research, as outlined in its report “Joined Up Welfare: The next steps for personalisation”, found that only 36% of JSA claimants found a job within six months of claiming benefits and kept it over a seven to eight-month period. Others did not find employment or cycled in and out of work. Only one in five people sent to colleges to increase their vocational training ended up in employment. That research is underlined by Ofsted, which found that in some examples the success rate of Jobcentre Plus schemes is as low as 1%.

The Policy Exchange report identified the root causes of the problem, which is that the design of our employment services has two main issues: the signposting of services does not occur from identifiable points and the delivery of services is nowhere near specialised enough. Policy Exchange could not have been clearer:

“The dominance of Jobcentre Plus on employment support services prevents the development of more specialist providers and personalised welfare services.”

Policy Exchange concluded that Jobcentre Plus is not fit for purpose. Given my experience as a constituency MP over the past five years, I tend to agree. It does not reflect the modern job market, where employees no longer stay in the same job for life—it is more like less than a decade, and falling. It also does not reflect globalisation, whereby people have multiple careers in their lifetime. It is not suited to supporting, helping and retraining people, as necessary.

If someone were to ask for help now, Jobcentre Plus would direct them to the Universal Jobmatch site. The good jobcentres would offer to help people with their CV, but in effect someone would have to wait for six months before a jobcentre really started to help them. Jobcentres are not even attractive places to visit. For far too many people, they are the places they go to be sanctioned; furniture is nailed to the floor and there is a security guard at the front door. Beyond that, the system’s one-size-fits-all model does not reflect the individual needs of jobseekers or understand what employers are looking for.

The situation is even worse for young people. We all know the stories about the Work programme, whereby people with degrees were forced to leave volunteering programmes that would help their future to work in jobs that would not. Some progress has been made, especially in south-east Wales with the work coach delivery model, which provides a single “work coach” for a jobseeker’s entire period of unemployment. However, it seems that much of this activity is too little, too late. Even now, people are getting just a maximum of 20 minutes with a single person—20 minutes to help someone to begin a life-changing process. It is all part of another attempt to make a broken system function just a little bit better.

It is time to change the entire system. Doing anything less would mean that long-term unemployment was not being tackled, and we would create yet another generation of people dependent on welfare. That would fail not only the young people who cannot get a job, their families who often have to support them and the long-term unemployed who are stuck on welfare and want nothing more than to work; it would fail our entire country.

The Prince’s Trust calculates that the cost of youth unemployment to the nation is £10 million a day. To put that into context, that amounts to more each year than the combined budgets for the Cabinet Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Change will cause pain in many areas, but the decisions that secure long-term, sustainable employment for everyone in our country are worth the short-term hurt that would be caused. It will require a generational effort, but we must start now. The first stage is to abolish Jobcentre Plus.

Jobcentre Plus must be replaced with an agency that exists to contract charities and private recruitment companies to provide a service based firmly in the communities of the long-term unemployed. That service would ensure that there is localised, individualised and specialist support for jobseekers, delivered by groups with a proven track record of success in their locality.

As the Policy Exchange report identified, it would be more effective for funding to flow to different providers, following the individual jobseeker to the service provider best able to get them into work, rather than funding remaining static in one organisation, as it is now with Jobcentre Plus. If someone loses their job on Friday, they should expect to have a personalised discussion with a jobsearch expert by Monday about what employers in the area are looking for, what they want to achieve, what barriers are stopping them from achieving their goal and how they can get the skills that they need and that employers want.

The providers must work hand in hand with local employers. They must know the skills that employers need, the jobs that need to be filled and how candidates can be successful. Once these things have been identified, the local providers should work with jobseekers to get them the skills that employers want, rather than forcing them into jobs through sanctions.

This is not a matter of right versus left; it is simply a matter of following what works. The OECD’s 2010 report, “Off to a Good Start”, found that countries such as Australia, which have moved from a “work first” approach to a “train/learn first” approach, achieved much greater progress in helping people out of work into sustainable, long-term employment. The same report highlighted that

“A move towards early and selective intervention…helps to avoid the build-up of a large pool of youth at risk of becoming long-term unemployed”.

It is by partnering with the people providing jobs, determining what they need and then delivering it that we will tackle long-term unemployment.

A similar model has worked before. In the 1960s, Bobby Kennedy, the New York Senator and presidential candidate, pioneered a community development corporation in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. That organisation succeeded in turning Bedford-Stuyvesant from one of the poorest areas of New York into one of the most desirable places to live in New York. The CDC is a not-for-profit, community-based corporation that is free from central Government control. It provides a localised and personalised service, and supplements employment programmes with economic development activities and community development. It is driven by a board made up of established local business leaders, charities and—most importantly—local residents, who are brought together in partnership by government to harness the best of private enterprise and the best of social action, with the clear aim of creating and expanding locally owned businesses, and providing residents with the training they need to work in those companies.

The CDC designates each local entrepreneur with a single contract person, who is given full responsibility for helping them to establish and grow their new business, creating growth, jobs and prosperity for the entire community. The CDC contract-holder provides a range of services, including providing guidance in gaining funding, negotiating with banks, finding the best location, and selecting the right equipment, staff and resources. In effect, it provides the services that an entrepreneur needs to start their company and make it a success.

Once the company opens its doors, the CDC increases its efforts. It will be the responsibility of the contract-holder to make that company a success, so that it adds to the economic prosperity of the community. These new companies will be good for communities and for reducing unemployment. The CDCs will support entrepreneurs and help to grow companies, which will create new employment opportunities.

The CDC model has worked before, but it must be updated for the modern world. Employment service providers must bring about a system targeted purely at need and demand. We should use this form of partnership and competition to deliver the jobs that we need for the future.

However, as with all things, there is an elephant in the room. Anyone who has worked in business—especially in small and medium-sized enterprises, as I did in my days at a bookmaker—knows that taking on a new employee is a risk, especially one who has been long-term unemployed. I can understand why firms often choose not to do so. That is where the Government must step in and encourage companies to employ the long-term unemployed. The Government are large enough to take the risk away from companies. We can give employers tax breaks for taking on the long-term unemployed. Yes, there will be a cost, but doing nothing has a greater cost; there is a greater cost in allowing joblessness and welfare dependency to continue.

That is why we must be clear to people. The Government will play their part, creating the new jobs and helping the jobless to get the skills they need to fill them, but jobseekers must play their part as well. As the philosopher John Rawls has said, in a just society

“all citizens are to do their part in society’s co-operative work.”

For me, that means that no-one can be allowed to have a life on welfare. I support the Government’s welfare cap—work must always pay more than benefits. However, for far too long sanctions on jobseekers have had exactly the opposite effect to the one we want. Often through no fault of their own, and in many cases because of the faults of Jobcentre Plus, people are being sanctioned, which traps them in a cycle where they cannot find work and cannot receive the support they need.

In the last Parliament, a Work and Pensions Committee report, “Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley review”, found that at present the sanctions regime does not achieve its aims, and that often all sanctions achieve is harming vulnerable people and causing financial hardship, further trapping the jobless in welfare dependency.

The solution illustrates how, more than any other problem, the issue can be solved only by using both the left and the right. The Policy Exchange report called for the creation of “citizen support centres”, operating separately but alongside employment support providers. These centres would act as the primary and central hub for accessing Government services, including all benefits. That would make the process of receiving payments distinct from receiving help into work.

However, that is not enough. What is also needed was identified in the Institute for Public Policy Research report, “It’s All About You: Citizen-centred welfare”, and it is welfare responsibility contracts. They are legally binding contracts between jobseekers and the Government that outline in plain terms what is expected of jobseekers, what sanctions they will face if they do not fulfil their obligations, the Government’s responsibility to them and the responsibility that they have to the Government and society.

I will end by restating a simple fact. This issue is not about Labour or Tory; it is not about left versus right; and it is not about political advantage. It is about doing what works. In the past 40 years, welfare dependency has been allowed to become a way of life in many of our communities. Joblessness has become the norm for too many families. Low pay, insecure jobs and the lack of a future have been allowed to become part and parcel of people’s lives. Poverty of money and ambition are all too often just facts of life now. No Government of any hue have managed to solve this. Simply put, we have failed our country and our constituents. We have tried the same thing over and over: ineffective training programmes, irrelevant to the real needs of business; sanctions for those who cannot get jobs; and subsidies for low pay through tax credits. We have tried time and again to reform jobcentres, but to no avail.

We need a new approach built around partnership between Government, charities, private enterprise and local residents, in which the individual needs of the jobless and of businesses are properly catered for, in which we harness the right structures and right techniques to create new jobs for the unemployed at a local level and in which support from Government is matched by responsibility from the jobless. We have no future as a country if these problems continue to exist. Communities across the country such as the one I represent have no future when unemployment and poverty are a fact of life.

Let me be clear. It is our duty in this place to get Britain back to work. This is the only future our country has: one in which we work our way out of poverty, out of low pay and off welfare dependency. The great American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that to govern:

“demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.”

We have tried the current method of getting people back into work for the past 40 years. It has failed. It is time to try another.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour, Neath 5:01 pm, 7th July 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Evans on securing this important debate.

Job seeking is often a stressful, unpredictable journey that is usually travelled alone. Losing a job is difficult, not only for the individual, but often for their families as well. The search for work—perhaps following redundancy, or however a job is lost—is never easy, and although for most people it is over within six months, many are left to endure cycles of short-term work and long periods of unemployment.

Jobcentre Plus has remained the single biggest gateway into the world of work for generations, with jobseekers culturally bound to the process of examining the jobs board at their local job centre, or dole office as it used to be known. However, research shows that although 75% of people claiming jobseekers allowance gain employment within six months, only about half of claimants leaving JSA are still in work eight months later.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Labour, Torfaen

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Evans on securing this important debate.

My hon. Friend Christina Rees sets out powerfully the statistical case relating to Jobcentre Plus. Does she agree that there has been a problem with the Government’s rhetoric, which is exacerbating the position of the unemployed, because rather than accepting that unemployment is a difficult time in a person’s life, people have been stigmatised as shirkers? That has made the atmosphere around Jobcentre Plus far more difficult than it needs to be.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour, Neath

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I agree. The rhetoric often binds people in cultural divisions.

The process simply is not working. The world has changed since the inception of the jobcentre and, indeed, Jobcentre Plus. To be fair, the Department for Work and Pensions has implemented changes that take account of the increasingly digital way in which people access services and information. Its aim of “digital by default” ways to sign on is a clear move to base its services in the computer-centric world where many people exist.

However, the Welsh Government’s “National Survey for Wales 2013-14” confirmed that 21% of the Welsh adult population aged 18 or over does not regularly use the internet. In the local authority area of Neath Port Talbot, where my constituency is situated, that figure is almost 41%. Although 82% of people use the internet for email and 74% for general browsing, only 17% used it to look for work. Youth unemployment in Neath Port Talbot in May 2013 was 9.7%, compared with 9.0% in Wales and 7.8% for the UK as a whole, and 2% of young people had been out of work for more than six months. As those statistics suggest, there is a great need for good quality job search, support and advice in Neath, and other constituencies like it.

I wish to highlight two examples of how community-based organisations have improved the job prospects and quality of life for people in my constituency of Neath. One is in a community suburb of Neath town centre, called Neath East, and the other is in a small village called Banwen, at the top of the Dulais valley. The people of Neath East came together to try to regenerate their area, first establishing the Melincryddan Community Conference, known as MCC, and later joining forces to create the Neath East Communities First partnership. This partnership has sought, and continues to seek, the views and participation of community members in deciding on actions to regenerate the area.

One of the first needs identified was provision of advice to be available locally, which led directly to the provision of Melin advice centre. Initial consultations revealed that many claimants were being turned away from Neath Jobcentre Plus, as they lacked the necessary IT skills and/or access to fulfil the three basic criteria of day one conditionality—compiling a CV and having an email address and a Universal Jobmatch registration—and the staff at the jobcentre did not have the time to assist them.

The MCC/Communities First partnership put staff in the jobcentre to provide a two-phase approach, with funding secured in 2014 from the Jobcentre Plus flexible support grant. First, it helped claimants with the immediate task of meeting their conditionality requirements, ensuring that they navigated the systems properly and were armed with the requisite documents. Secondly, it directed claimants to its own advice centre for more tailored, in-depth advice that aimed to secure them better long-term employment prospects.

The Melin centre offers a range of services and facilities, including adult learning classes, welfare rights advice, and employment search and support. It also delivers a range of health and wellbeing activities, employing more than 15 members of staff. It is now working with between 50 and 130 people each month, all seeking support to meet the day one conditionality criteria.

MCC has succeeded in helping people in Neath East to gain employment opportunities by helping them to navigate the systems properly. That has vastly improved the services being offered by Jobcentre Plus and is therefore improving the quality of life for those in the community.

The Dove Workshop in Banwen was formed during the 1984-85 miners’ strike as a response to the need for the community to come together and share skills and solidarity. Led by women, for women, the organisation began as a way of offering adult education and skills training, so that local women were better equipped to find work during the year-long strike that saw their partners and fathers out of work and on the picket line. Although the strike came to an end, Dove Workshop did not. Instead, it grew in strength, scale and scope, working not only with women, but with all parts of the community, providing education and a range of services and projects. It has acted as a union for the community during times when not everyone worked, and it recognises that those who are working work in disparate sectors, industries and places.

Dove now employs 30 people in a community where jobs are rare. It continually supports its staff to undertake training and further education, providing a number of services associated with learning, offering opportunities for volunteering, work experience, IT drop-in services, employment support, CV writing, and much more. One project delivered by Dove is “Building Livelihoods and Strengthening Communities”, funded by the Big Lottery Fund in partnership with Oxfam Cymru. This project, together with Dove’s own advice service, works to support local people in their pursuit of good quality, sustainable employment.

As with MCC, for many years Jobcentre Plus in Neath has sent many jobseekers to Dove because Jobcentre Plus staff were unable to assist them directly, as they lacked the time and resources to do so. Dove also applied for the Jobcentre Plus flexible support grant, but was unfortunately denied funding. However, Dove has never turned away someone seeking help, and it continues to provide advice today. To me, Jobcentre Plus is a conveyor belt whose purpose seems to be to offer unemployed people the prospect of six months’ work. However, MCC and Dove cater to an individual’s needs, ambitions and quality of life, so that they can fulfil their potential and make a meaningful contribution to the community.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Fair Work and Employment) 5:10 pm, 7th July 2015

It is a pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate Chris Evans on securing this important debate on a matter that we discussed at some length recently in our discussions on the Scotland Bill. I speak as the Scottish National party spokesperson on fair work and employment, and this issue is close to my heart. I will come on to that point later.

It would be fair to say that Jobcentre Plus and related employment support programmes have at times been seen as unfit for purpose, and that has been said by Members on the Opposition Benches today. Many aspects of the system have had a damaging impact on people looking for work. The SNP wants to see the full devolution of welfare powers and the Jobcentre Plus network to enable the Scottish Parliament to create a fairer system of welfare and employment support. Recent statistics show that nearly 150,000 sanctions were applied in Scotland between the end of 2012 and September 2014, affecting nearly 85,000 individuals, including nearly 3,000 disabled people. We have said that we should be getting people off benefits and into work, but how can making them hungry and unable to pay bills and increasing their debt support them in finding a job?

Professor David Webster has highlighted the fact that the number of sanctions resulting from the Work programme has been considerably higher than the number of people obtaining jobs from the Work programme. In Scotland, 46,265 sanctions were applied between June 2011 and March 2014 because claimants failed to participate in the Work programme. In the same period, 26,740 job outcomes resulted from the Work programme.

Moving on to sanctions and conditionalities, the UK Government have reformed Jobcentre Plus in recent years as part of their welfare and employment support reform programme. As we have acknowledged, there is no doubt that those working in jobcentres are doing their best, but one of the most pernicious aspects of the Government’s changes has been the intensification of the welfare sanctions and conditionality regime. Under the Government’s welfare regime, jobseekers are monitored on the jobs they apply for. If they fail to apply for enough vacancies, they are faced with sanctions, whether those are reductions or suspension.

Christina Rees made reference to the digital aspects of the system. Scotland, like many parts of the UK, has many rural areas. It is often a challenge for people to get online to access the system to apply for jobs. If a jobseeker voluntarily leaves work or refuses a notified vacancy, the first sanction period can be up to 13 weeks, the second up to 26 weeks and the third up to three years. The Work programme, which took effect in 2011, is mandatory for all jobseekers who have been out of work for more than nine months and requires jobseekers to take unpaid work experience, often in poor-quality opportunities such as retail. Those who fail to comply with certain conditions are often sanctioned.

The sanctions and conditionality regime, which is administered by the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus, has had a particularly worrying impact on poverty and inequality in Scotland, and it is fair to say that the powers being devolved will not give us the opportunity to intervene early. We tabled a proposal on that for the House’s consideration, but sadly we were defeated. Child poverty organisations have warned that by 2020 an additional 100,000 children in Scotland could be living in relative poverty after housing costs because of UK Government welfare reforms, and those estimates do not yet factor in the additional £12 billion of cuts to the annual welfare budget that we will no doubt hear about extensively in tomorrow’s Budget and the debates on it.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

The hon. Lady talks with passion about the impact of sanctions, but does she agree that the whole business of claiming JSA is based on a contract signed by the benefit seeker and Jobcentre Plus? It is a commitment on both sides. Jobcentre Plus rarely uses sanctions. They are used only as a last resort. It is a stick and carrot approach. The reducing level of unemployment across the country shows that the approach is working effectively. Does she agree?

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Fair Work and Employment)

I am afraid I do not. I have a number of examples, and I will happily cite one that comes from Citizens Advice Scotland. An east of Scotland citizens advice bureau reports that a client was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment that he missed because he was on a forklift training course. He was advised by the jobcentre to attend after he finished his course, but was sanctioned for not coming on his normal signing-on day. The client was married with a young child and required a food parcel to feed his family.

Sadly, the stream of people coming through my constituency office door has not indicated that the job programmes are working. We want full devolution to Scotland so that we can have Scottish answers to Scottish questions on some of these matters. I have no doubt that there may be areas where sanctioning is working, but there seems to be a consensus that modernisation is required. A Poverty Alliance report in February 2015 found that action to increase state benefits, end the punitive sanctions regime, address in-work poverty, raise the minimum wage and promote the living wage that will ultimately have the biggest impact on stemming the growth of food poverty in Scotland.

The Scottish Government have done a lot to mitigate some aspects of the UK Government regime, and they continue to do what they can with the resources they have to alleviate the impact of welfare reform and cuts. Current and planned Scottish Government funding will result in an investment of around £296 million over the period 2013-14 to 2015-16. The Scottish Government are also providing £33 million in funding for the Scottish welfare fund in 2015-16 to mitigate the impact of benefits reform. We will have to see what we can do on the further cuts. They are also providing local authorities with £35 million in 2015-16 to allow them to top up discretionary housing payments to meet the estimated £44.8 million required to compensate for the cost of the bedroom tax.

The proposals in the Scotland Bill to allow the Scottish Government to top up reserved benefits are welcome, but Scotland is expected to mitigate the impact of welfare cuts from a budget that is being cut year on year. Scotland must have full control of working-age benefits to create a fairer system that provides adequate support for those who need it.

We have done a huge amount on the living wage—we are halfway towards our target of having 500 private companies paying it. We reached the 250 mark two weeks ago with a nursery just outside my constituency in West Lothian. However, the Scotland Bill as it stands restricts the devolution of employment support programmes to those for long-term unemployed and disabled people. That would prevent the Scottish Government from providing effective early intervention for those recently out of work and from joining up employment support services with previously devolved services, such as skills and education. The Smith commission report stated:

The Scottish Parliament will have all powers over support for unemployed people through the employment programmes currently contracted by DWP (which are presently delivered mainly, but not exclusively, through the Work Programme and Work Choice) on expiry of the current commercial arrangements.”

We must intervene early, and we must have the powers to do that so that we can effectively help people out of benefits and into work. Roseanna Cunningham, the Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training, has said:

The Work Programme as it stands is not fit for a modern Scotland but there may be aspects of the current system that do work for individuals and organizations and we want to hear those views too. Professor Alan McGregor and members of the advisory group will play a key role in drawing in views from all areas of the country in as many sectors as possible.”

The Scottish Government will have responsibility for the Work programme and the Work Choice programme within two years. They have set up an advisory group so that we can work on that.

The Smith commission’s recommendations went further than the Scotland Bill’s limitations on employment support, and the SNP wants to go further yet and devolve the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland to Holyrood. That would deliver the complete and coherent devolution of welfare-to-work functions, ensuring co-ordinated support for those out of work. Having responsibility for universal credit sanctions and conditions would also empower the Scottish Parliament to ensure a more effective, supportive and socially just approach to getting people into work. With those powers in Scotland’s hands, we could rectify the failings of the jobcentre network and the damaging changes to welfare and employment support that are harming so many in Scotland.

I want to finish by explaining why this subject is so close to my heart. I recently employed a young man called Marcus Woods who had worked passionately behind the scenes on my campaign. He had been out of work for some time and gave his time to my campaign free of charge, with great dignity and passion. I recently employed him full time. I am proud to have taken someone who had been on benefits and long-term unemployed out of unemployment and into work. I have seen with my own eyes how the opportunity to be involved in the democratic process in Scotland has inspired someone to come into full-time employment.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Evans on securing this debate.

Jobcentre Plus performs a crucial public service, and I put on record my thanks to the staff who are coping with immense changes to the welfare system. Many Jobcentre Plus staff are doing an excellent job in demanding circumstances and are dedicated to improving the lives of the people they serve. Nevertheless, as we have heard clearly this afternoon, there are undoubtedly concerns about service quality, claimant experience and outcomes. There are also questions about staff morale and whether Jobcentre Plus has the resources and capacity it needs.

The major reforms with which Jobcentre Plus staff are grappling—such as universal credit and Universal Jobmatch—have been beset by systems problems, resulting in poor service to claimants and major delays. Although more people are moving into employment and Ministers like to claim that welfare reforms are the reason, people are not moving into work and out of poverty, and in any event there is considerable dispute about the contribution of welfare reforms to the rising employment rate.

Last year, the then Work and Pensions Committee carried out a review of Jobcentre Plus that looked at some of the major challenges it faces and how it is coping with them. The Committee made a number of suggestions for improvements, on which I hope the Minister will be able to update us today. Perhaps I can start with universal credit, which Ministers have claimed will transform the prospects of those who are out of work. The project is in total disarray. Today, some 65,000 people are on universal credit; when it was first introduced, we were told that 1 million people would be on it by April 2014. That is less than 1%—

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I accept your ruling on that, Mr Williams, but universal credit has of course been argued to be the tool by which Jobcentre Plus will be able to move people into employment. Clearly, if the universal credit programme is way behind in the number of claimants it is supporting, it cannot be fulfilling its function and Jobcentre Plus cannot be taking advantage of it in order to move people into work. The problem with universal credit is that it is shrouded in secrecy. We have not seen the business case that would show us whether it is indeed going to be an effective tool for Jobcentre Plus staff to use to fulfil their role of supporting people into work.

My right hon. Friend Stephen Timms has recently written to the Secretary of State with some questions, and I want to ask the Minister the same ones. Will she ask the National Audit Office to publish quarterly progress reports on universal credit, to be laid before Parliament, and will she publish the full business case and plan? Will she also explain how Jobcentre Plus staff are being supported with the roll-out of universal credit?

As we have heard, Jobcentre Plus has the important role of supporting people into employment and, if they are further from the labour market—perhaps they have been out of work for a long time—routing them on to more specialist support programmes. There are a whole range of interventions under the “Get Britain Working” banner, and for the long-term unemployed there is the opportunity to be routed on to the Work programme or, for some disabled people, the Work Choice programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn was right to observe that those programmes have not often performed well for jobseekers and those experiencing long-term or youth unemployment—particularly long-term youth unemployment.

That is why Labour proposed a compulsory jobs guarantee so that every young person who was unemployed for more than a year would be guaranteed a job, education or training, or the opportunity to undertake proper work experience. That would be modelled on the future jobs fund that we introduced in 2008, or the more successful programme in Wales, which, as my hon. Friend highlighted, draws on factors that make for a successful labour market programme: it is commissioned locally; it involves local authorities, specialist local organisations and, crucially, local employers; and it is designed around the needs of the local labour market.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Fair Work and Employment)

The hon. Lady mentions working together and programmes that have worked both throughout the UK and in devolved areas; will she join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s Opportunities for All scheme? The Scottish Government have worked with local authorities, and it has been a huge success, with more than 90% of young people going on to positive destinations. In my own county, West Lothian, that proportion is over 96%. Perhaps, with the Minister, we can have cross-party discussions on the potential to incorporate the various programmes that have been mentioned today into Jobcentre Plus in the short term. That way, we could see how to achieve future success.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I note what the hon. Lady says. She highlights the importance of devolving to a local footprint—although perhaps not to one as small as a local authority area in all cases—that can properly recognise the players in and needs of the local labour market. She is right that Ministers should be working with all authorities, local, regional and national, as well as with Members, to look at which programmes have been successful and what can be learned. It is clear that for many people the Work programme has not been successful.

Last year’s Work and Pensions Committee report on Jobcentre Plus highlighted some significant difficulties with expertise in the needs of people who experience worklessness. It highlighted a particular lack of experience in relation to lone parents, and the need for related training. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on that. Will she also tell us what is happening with lone parent flexibilities? How are Jobcentre Plus staff applying them?

Will the Minister say something about the disabled people who are being routed by Jobcentre Plus on to the Work Choice programme? The programme was intended for the most severely disabled people who are furthest from the labour market, but increasingly it seems to be used for those who are likely to be able to get into work quite quickly and easily. Mencap in Trafford told me recently that as a Work Choice contractor, it was being measured on getting people work-ready within 13 weeks, and that it was unable to get outcome payments for those with whom it would need to work for a much longer period.

The Select Committee also raised doubts about the flexible support fund. The workings of that fund, referred to by my hon. Friend Christina Rees, are opaque. We cannot see what the money is being spent on and we cannot see who is receiving it. Will the Minister say, for example, whether it is being used to help lone parents with childcare costs? Will she begin to make proper information available to Parliament about the use of the flexible support fund?

My right hon. Friend Frank Field identified problems with Universal Jobmatch in 2014. He highlighted duplicate jobs, fraudulent scams and posts advertising jobs at the other end of the country. The Select Committee highlighted an overemphasis on Universal Jobmatch as a tool to monitor compliance with conditionality, which it said should be secondary to helping claimants find a job, with Universal Jobmatch enabling more time to be spent on advice and support.

What help is being offered to jobseekers and employers to make the best use of Universal Jobmatch? Can the Minister say that scams and duplicates have now been eliminated and that claimants are not being penalised if they do not apply for jobs that are unsuitable or miles away? Do the Government intend to continue with Universal Jobmatch when the contract is up for renewal next year?

My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn and a number of other hon. Members mentioned conditionality and sanctions at Jobcentre Plus, which are an area of big concern. Labour Members are not against a conditional system for benefits, nor are we against sanctions that are fair, proportionate and transparent, or come with appropriate safeguards. Rates of sanctioning, however, remain high. Ministers were caught out only this week by the UK Statistics Authority in a letter to Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, accusing them of presenting figures in a way that is not supported by rigorous statistical analysis.

We have repeated anecdotal reports of irrational and unreasonable decisions. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Jobcentre Plus is measured on getting people not only into sustained employment, but off flow—so sanctioning people and driving them to cease claiming benefits altogether, because to do so is too difficult and awkward. As a result, we are measuring the wrong thing. I strongly support last year’s call by the Select Committee to move from a measure of those going off flow to one of sustained employment.

Everything points to an oppressive culture. We still have reports of informal sanctioning targets in some Jobcentre Plus offices, which Labour is absolutely opposed to. I hope that the Minister will be clear today and deny the existence of all targets, formal or informal, once and for all, across the whole network, or say that she will be taking steps to stamp them out.

Jobcentre Plus has a vital role in supporting people to look for work, find work and get the financial support that they need. For many years it performed extremely effectively, but now it is under huge pressure and is fraying at the seams. I am interested to hear from the Minister her vision for the future of Jobcentre Plus—for the claimants and its staff. At present it is translating into a poor experience for too many claimants and poor value for money when it fails to get people into sustained work.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) 5:31 pm, 7th July 2015

I congratulate Chris Evans on securing the debate and I pay tribute to many of his remarks. He rightly stated that Jobcentre Plus is important and nothing to do with left or right on the political spectrum. The debate is about people; it should not be about structures or institutions, although I will come on to speak about the jobcentres and various programmes and partnerships.

Importantly, the debate is about many of the bigger societal issues to do with unemployment and about the challenges that we face as a society in all our communities, given what unemployment and the spiral of worklessness mean for individuals and families. That was the focus of our welfare reforms in the previous Parliament under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as it will be of this Government’s agenda. We are on the side of working families and individuals, and we aspire to achieve full employment and, rightly, to do more to support those individuals who are furthest away from the labour market. Those are the individuals on whom we must concentrate Government resources, to help and train them and to secure real opportunities for them.

I thank everyone who has contributed to this important debate, which has covered a range of significant employment issues, including support to help people in work. In my view, work helps to transform people’s lives, which is about the wider world consisting of individuals as well as of society.

Jobcentre Plus, however, is the core theme of today’s debate. Labour Members will not be surprised that I will categorically disagree with claims that Jobcentre Plus is not fit for purpose. Like Kate Green, I pay tribute to everyone who works in our jobcentres and in Jobcentre Plus. Every day up and down the country our advisers work with individuals, local authorities and local organisations in the community to support and help people not only to come off benefits in the long term, but—importantly—to get access to the labour market. We want to help them on the journey to secure long-term employment.

Every day our work coaches conduct nearly 100,000 interviews across a network of more than 7,000 jobcentres. They work closely with local employers—as is right and proper—which I have seen for myself in my constituency. If I remember rightly, back in 2010 in Witham, I too was almost critical, because my perception was that jobcentres did not have enough of a locus in the local employment market and were not making enough connections with local employers. That has now changed, and I have seen that for myself in the jobcentres I have visited. I can speak with some conviction about the Witham jobcentre, which now works with local employers.

Importantly, our jobcentres and work coaches have a clear understanding of the local labour market. They know where the skills shortages are and who the training providers in their community are. They provide the guiding role to support claimants who come to them in search of local employment opportunities. Therefore, I take issue with the overall assertion that Jobcentre Plus is not fit for purpose. It is doing a good job and we should pause for a minute and recognise that we now have one of the highest employment rates in the developed world and the second lowest unemployment in the European Union. That has been achieved through our network of jobcentres, obviously, but also through rightly focusing on support and assistance to people who need that to access the labour market. That has been achieved, yes, through the wider economic reforms of the Government, but also by creating the right economic conditions for businesses to grow and thrive. It is important for sustainable businesses to employ people, to sustain employment and to invest in people, jobs and economic growth. Jobcentre Plus also has a vital role in all our local communities.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Fair Work and Employment)

I am sure that everyone in the Chamber and across the political divide pays tribute to the work of people in the jobcentres. However, we are discussing their expertise and increasing their powers, as the Minister rightly said. What is her response to my example of twice the number of people in the Work programme being sanctioned as are actually getting work through it? Surely that statistic suggests that such programmes are not working.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

We touched on this during debate on the Scotland Bill last week and I told the hon. Lady that if she wants to bring me the evidence of such cases, I will look into them myself. I have also said that to her party colleagues—bring me the cases and I will intervene personally, look into them in more detail and see what can be done. I want to come on to the Work programme as well.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

It is important. We want to ensure that we are doing the right thing for individuals and supporting them, because the issue is not only one of institutions, processes and structures, although they are there for a reason.

I will highlight a couple of points about Jobcentre Plus. There has been some criticism of it, but the National Audit Office reported that it responded well to the challenge of the recession from 2008 onwards and the recovery. The OECD stated:

The UK experience suggests that merging the public employment service and benefit agency has improved employment outcomes”.

Furthermore, Jobcentre Plus has added £5.5 billion to UK GDP since its introduction. In the previous Parliament, the Work and Pensions Committee commented that Jobcentre Plus has performed “effectively” and “is cost-effective”. Last year, Jobcentre Plus achieved or exceeded every one of its labour market performance measures. That is important.

Jobcentre Plus is a high-volume national organisation, and so not every experience will be perfect. That is a fact of life with such an organisation—not everything will be right. We monitor performance and have service standards, but more can always be done to improve quality and professionalism. We are conscious of how we can improve services, and improvements are based on feedback that we receive. I experience that personally when I visit jobcentres.

I turn now to the issue of partnership. The Government cannot achieve our objectives on employment on our own. We can do so only by working in partnership with others in the private and voluntary sectors, at national, regional and local levels. I have touched briefly on my own experiences going out and about to jobcentres, and I have seen that partnership work in action. I know about the partnership work taking place in the constituency of the hon. Member for Islwyn—we see it in case studies and he will be fully aware of it—and I pay tribute to all the community-based and local organisations in his constituency. One is Groundwork’s Routes 2 Life, which provides work experience and skills training for over-50s—again, this issue does not just affect young people but runs across the age range. It is relevant to the fuller working lives agenda, as well as how we can support those young people who may face challenges when trying to get a foot in the labour market because they do not have the right work experience or CV. Borough councils are involved as well. Across Wales, there are plenty of great examples of partnership, and they should be developed further.

Importantly—this is always a challenge for central Government in my view—this is a question of integration: how we join up working, and how that joined-up approach delivers results. We need the right outcomes, not just for the structures and systems but for individuals. I am also clear that I want more local authorities, in particular, to work more closely with voluntary sector, charity and other community and labour market partners.

On a national level, there is much more integration. Following the general election, my party has committed to achieving full employment, with more focus on young people getting the support they need. We have also made a commitment to help more women get work and to support more individuals with disabilities getting into work. We can do that only by working across Government. That is right and proper, and we will use every lever at the disposal of central Government to integrate our services and support everyone across the age range, as well as young people and people with disability or health issues.

On devolution, there is, for example, the Manchester devolution deal for the combined authority. Projects in central London are working with local authorities, and—together with Glasgow City Council—we will launch a programme to support employment and support allowance claimants in finding and remaining in employment. That is the right way forward. We should devolve to our communities, and the Government support that agenda.

I am pleased to say that there is greater partnership integration with the Work programme, including getting people access to apprenticeship opportunities, and there is more to do on that. We want a more constructive joint-working approach to ensure that, for example, claimants in Wales are able to access the full range of support that they need. That includes projects funded through the European social fund, which are targeted at particular disadvantaged communities; naturally, we want to do more to support them.

The Work programme aims to support claimants at risk of long-term unemployment. It has been successful and, to date, has supported over 400,000 long-term unemployed people in getting back into work. As a result, we have been able to get more people back into work and support people through very challenging circumstances.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The Work programme has been improving after a shaky start, but it is still not performing well for disabled people. Will the Minister tell us how she intends to improve performance for disabled people and answer my question about the role of the Work Choice programme in that?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Absolutely. I will. My point is that the Work programme has been successful—it has been one of the most successful employment programmes in the United Kingdom’s history. At the end of the day, that should be welcomed and supported by all of us.

The Government are clear that we want to support more individuals with disability into work. A lot of work is being done with Work programme contractors and providers to concentrate more resources and investment in that area. If I may just share an anecdote, last week I sat down with Work programme providers to look at what has been working and some of the successes and strengths of the Work programme, and how we can address some of the real challenges for individuals with disabilities. That is the right thing to do, and we should all be focusing on that. We should also look at what support and interventions we can put in place not just for individuals with disability but for other individuals who are further away from the labour market—for example, those with health conditions.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Am I right in thinking that there will at some point, probably before the end of the year, be a review of some of the criteria for selection for contractors for the Work programme? I believe that the current contracts come to an end at the beginning of 2017, so there is an opportunity for all Members—and for Select Committees, all-party groups, and so on—to chip in ideas for the Government to consider over the next few months.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend is right. We can never stand still on this issue and it is important that we learn the lessons as we go forward. On that basis, I would welcome Members’ views.

To conclude, Mr Williams—