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Mr. Dalyell: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Caplin: I am afraid that I cannot.

Mr. Dalyell rose—

Mr. Caplin: I am sorry, but I really do not have the time.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall mentioned continuous attitude surveys, and I can assure him that we take them very seriously. As he knows, the publication of much of such information was an initiative of the Government and the MOD.
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The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made a very interesting point about service education; indeed, I believe that he asked a related question of the Department for Education and Skills in the House this morning.

Mr. Cameron: We did not reach it.

Mr. Caplin: I am sorry about that, and I shall certainly investigate further the hon. Gentleman's point about service education.

I had hoped that the hon. Member for Blaby would give us some detail on the Conservatives' spending plans, which have been roundly trashed in all quarters, but he chose not to do so.

Mr. Robathan rose—

Mr. Caplin: Interestingly, the hon. Member for Banbury talked about the Defence Logistics Organisation. If I have understood the Conservatives' review document properly, they want to merge the DLO and the Defence Procurement Agency. I do not know what that would do to the site at Bicester, which is in his constituency. The merger is meant to save £900 million, and as such contributes to the Conservatives' overall proposed defence savings. However, the two organisations are already being streamlined and reformed. They consist of essential military and civilian staff who work together very closely. Realistically, to make savings on that scale the Conservatives would be forced to make some £900 million of cuts in vital logistics and procurement. That would weaken our defence capabilities and lead to massive job cuts in British industry. It is clear that the sums have not been thought through properly—[Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State says, they are back-of-a-fag-packet calculations.

I want to make two final points. Much has been said about the tour interval and the restructuring of regiments. We take the tour interval issue very seriously. Tour intervals of less than 24 months are undesirable but have proved necessary, as the House knows. That is particularly true for some units. The ending of the arms plot and the other restructuring that we are undertaking in all three services—but particularly in the Army—over the next three years will better balance the enabled forces and help us to attain sensible and enduring tour intervals of 24 months. I hope that that answers the point made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South.

This is a time of considerable change and transition for the Ministry of Defence. We have in place a comprehensive and cohesive programme of change that is designed to make defence more efficient and able to meet future challenges. At the centre of these changes are our people. We owe a considerable debt to our people, and for my part, I want to pay tribute to those men and women of the armed forces currently engaged in dangerous and serious undertakings in Iraq and throughout the world. At the same time, we should also recognise the sacrifices made by families and friends, and in the case of our reserve forces, employers, who support our people in their endeavours.
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Worktrack Programme

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Prentice.]

6 pm

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to raise the proposed closure of the Worktrack programme in Northern Ireland.

In the budget for the Province announced by the Minister with responsibility for finance and personnel in late autumn last year, a major reduction in funding of Worktrack was announced for 2005–06, and no funding thereafter, which means its complete closure.

Worktrack is unique to Northern Ireland and allows people classified as long-term unemployed the opportunity to get back into full-time employment. It provides paid employment, often with commercial employers, for six months and, crucially, it targets the economically inactive, many of whom are returners to work, and those not eligible for the new deal programme.

People in my constituency who have participated in the scheme have told me about how the programme helped to restore their self-esteem and dignity and gave them a real chance to go out and once again earn a wage. It has given many people out of work for extended periods the chance to train on the job. For many, the best place to gain employment skills is in employment. Many of those participants have started paying tax and national insurance contributions once again. The programme is popular, and in my view, it was working, with 50 per cent. of participants placed in sustainable employment.

The programme is delivered in Northern Ireland by almost 20 lead providers, supported by a significant number of secondary providers throughout the Province. As I understand it, there are 27 contracts over a three-year period, representing every council area in Northern Ireland and running through to September 2006.

As a result of the announcement on the programme, more than 1,200 participants per year will be deprived of the chance to take the first step back into the labour market under the scheme. In addition, 200 permanent core jobs will be lost. The loss to the Northern Ireland economy is estimated at some £300,000 per week, which comes to half the cost of running the scheme. The loss to the social economy of Northern Ireland should also be taken into account, and the consequent loss of community resources, skills and capacity building.

I know from my experience in this area, of which the Minister will be well aware, the importance that the Government attach to building community capacity in deprived areas of Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast, and particularly in my constituency in north Belfast, where a dedicated community action unit has been set up by the Government. One of its main tasks is to build community capacity in areas where it is underdeveloped or non-existent.

The Government should be aware that the lack of consultation with providers before the decision was announced has done real damage to relations between the voluntary sector, the community and the Government. Given that there was little or no criticism
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of the way in which the programme was working—quite the reverse—the announcement came as a bolt out of the blue. Many people were taken by surprise at the Minister's announcement both in relation to this and the learndirect programme. The Government should explain why the decision was made with blatant disregard for the process of consultation.

In my own area, Community Aid 2000 is the Worktrack lead provider for north Belfast, east Belfast and Newtonabbey, and has 177 people on placement. Between October 2003 and November 2004, 347 people, well over half of whom were women, started on the programme. Since 1999, it has assisted 600 people back into work. The contracts held by Community Aid 2000 are used to assist people in the most difficult and challenging areas, with some of the worst deprivation and unemployment in the Province. It works with secondary partners in many of those communities. Many of those partners and other community groups have made representations to me, as they are concerned and angry about the decision to end the Worktrack programme. In addition, small businesses have been affected, and the Northern Ireland branch of the Federation of Small Businesses has expressed concern that people in Northern Ireland generally have been let down by the Government. In a press release of 16 November 2004, it says that the closure and other cuts in training schemes will have a negative impact on small businesses, which make huge investments in their infrastructure and staffing to enable them to offer a quality training provision. The federation fears that jobs will be lost because of the announcement and is worried about the fact that there was no consultation with providers before the decision. Only the other day, it relayed its concern and anger at the announcement about axing learndirect as well.

We are told that the reason for closing Worktrack is that unemployment in the Province has fallen significantly in recent years and that provisions such as the new deal and training for work will still be available for people who are unemployed or economically inactive. According to the Northern Ireland labour market statistics for August last year, however, more than 550,000 people are economically inactive, of whom 9 per cent. or 50,000 want to work but do not satisfy the availability or job search criteria to be classified as unemployed. Worktrack is the only wage-based programme to target those people. Just before Christmas, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), who has responsibility for employment and learning, said:

I fully understand the problems arising from a finite budget on which there are competing demands, but I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) would outline those competing demands and explain what criteria were applied in assessing the allocation of resources for training and skills provision in Northern Ireland.
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The announcement of Worktrack's closure appears to be at variance with other aspects of Government policy. For instance, the skills strategy for Northern Ireland, which was announced just four days after the Worktrack announcement, suggests that it is Government policy to prioritise engagement with the economically inactive in Northern Ireland. The strategy says that, although unemployment is at a record low, that masks a high proportion of people who are long-term unemployed. Three out of 10 adults of working age in Northern Ireland are outside the labour market altogether and are not adding to economic productivity.

The neighbourhood renewal strategy identifies areas in Northern Ireland for special assistance, where many of Worktrack's secondary providers are already operating and where the scheme is operating very successfully. The draft economic vision report states:

What we see emerging from the strategies and papers that the Government themselves have produced is that, while we have historically low unemployment, much of what remains is stubborn long-term unemployment, and the low unemployment tends to mask high economic inactivity and low levels of qualifications. Many of those who are unemployed or economically inactive lack skills and are at some distance from the labour market.

I find it odd—indeed, it is contrary to some of the objectives that they have set out in their strategies and papers—that the Government should be pointing to those issues, but deciding to close down a programme whose purpose is to tackle some of the underlying problems. I simply do not understand the rationale, and neither do the providers, the people who are participating in the programme or small businesses. It can only be a question of saving money, but as we have already indicated, the amount involved is relatively low, but it has produced enormous impacts in meeting the needs of people in highly deprived areas.

In the area covered by Community Aid 2000, there is no existing provision for providing an employment option to people outside jobseeker's allowance other than Worktrack. The new deal is concerned with those on the unemployment register and training for work is a benefit-plus training programme.

The fact is that Worktrack or something very similar will still be needed in Northern Ireland, and we need to know today what the Government propose to do. The Minister needs to address whether what is proposed is the right and sensible option. People who are economically inactive or on benefits other than jobseeker's allowance are being deprived of a proven and effective route back to work. Thus far, we have heard nothing from the Government apart from some vague comments about competing demands and suggestions that employment is now in relatively good shape across the Province, although Belfast, North has the third highest unemployment of any constituency in the Province. We need some more detail from the Minister about what is going to happen. There have been some hints from the Minister with responsibility
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for employment and learning about further and higher education programmes. Can we have more details on this matter?

As the Minister will know, there is cross-party opposition in Northern Ireland to the announcement that has been made. As far as I am aware, all the major political parties in Northern Ireland have expressed concern and opposed it. The Government should take note of that opposition. As the Minister may be aware, the Government were defeated just a few moments ago in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee on top-up variable fees in Northern Ireland. There was major cross-party opposition from Northern Ireland on that issue—all the parties expressed their opposition.

I hope that the Government will look afresh at this issue and spell out in detail what they intend to do. They cannot simply close the programme and not replace it with something similar. Why not leave in place a programme that has been effective, successful and popular, and let the providers get on with the excellent job that they have been doing?

6.14 pm

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