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Action Teams (Middlesbrough)

4.15 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I record my sincere thanks to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate. I have been trying to secure a debate for three or four months, and I am glad finally to have done so.

I want to speak on an issue that is important to the estates that make up half of my Middlesbrough constituency. The actions plans are important to delivering the Government's programme of getting people off welfare and into work. A key part of such a programme, which has to be based on specialist work, is building confidence and giving self-esteem back to the families and communities that have suffered a history of unemployment. That approach has a particular relevance to communities such as those that I represent in Middlesbrough.

I remember in the 1980s and 1990s knocking on doors in south Middlesbrough, a part of my constituency that suffered massive unemployment. It was a shock to the system to knock on every other door and find that no one was working, that everyone was unemployed. Whole families were jobless. We waited for a Labour Government. I am happy to say that, thanks to the present Government, we are now in a much better situation—it has completely changed. In my constituency, unemployment has dropped by 50 per cent. since 1997, and employment on Teesside is very different from what it was. Youth joblessness has more or less gone. Once upon a time, many left school on the Friday and signed on at the labour exchange on the Monday. I am happy to say that those days have gone.

The policies that my colleagues and I in the Labour party championed have finally been implemented, and we are now seeing success, but the sheer impact of the dark years of the past still linger among those who lost valuable work skills during that time. As a result, intensive work is still needed in particular areas and social groups.

Middlesbrough council has always been active in developing welfare for work and intermediate labour market schemes. Many of them are targeted on particular communities and estates in the town. One initiative was the setting up of the action team for jobs project. The programme is now five years old, and it is managed locally by Working Links. It was originally offered a contract by the Department for Work and Pensions worth some £1.4 million a year. The contract is now in its third which runs from April 2004 to an extended expiry date of October 2006.

The action team targets most of Middlesbrough's wards, including Coulby Newham, Hemlington, Marton, Ladgate, Nunthorpe, Park End, Stainton and Thornton, all of which I represent. Resident participation in the scheme is voluntary, and the majority of clients are accessed through outreach in a range of community venues such as shops, post offices, libraries and Sure Start centres. An estimated 30 per cent. of clients are incapacity benefit claimants, and more than 40 per cent. are ex-offenders.

Project support is tailor-made to individual needs, and there is no limit on the length of time that the action team may support an individual. The longest time an
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individual has been with the action team is 20 months. Consultants work with clients to alleviate barriers to employment by paying for site safety passports, driving lessons, specialist training, new clothing for interviews and travel costs. The Working Links action team for jobs currently employs in Middlesbrough eight case consultants, who recruit participants on to the programme and work one to one with clients, and a job search consultant, who works intensively with job-ready clients to place them into their desired appointments. Of the 1,214 clients involved with the action team across Middlesbrough, 554 were placed into employment—the target was 380 for the year—of whom 62 per cent. sustained full-time employment. That is an incredible record.

I want to focus on a project in my constituency: Hemlington Works. As the name suggests, the project is geared towards helping jobless people in Hemlington, south Middlesbrough. The project helps people who face barriers such as economic and social isolation, low-skill levels, lack of work experience and low self-esteem and confidence. I had the honour of opening the Hemlington Works centre in April 2004. The project is a multi-agency partnership, funded by Jobcentre Plus and Middlesbrough council, which provides support through a range of providers to people seeking work in the Hemlington, Coulby Newham, and Stainton and Thornton areas. The main partners are Middlesbrough council, which provides the management; Working Links, which engages with incapacity benefit and income support claimants; and Jobcentre Plus, which provides advisors on disability and for lone parents. Other agencies that offer support include Connexions, the Shaw Trust, Pertemps, the Prince's Trust, Reed in Partnership and Community Campus.

The project helps local residents to improve their chances of gaining employment. It is a working partnership that provides specialist knowledge to people of the estate, and offers a consistent and high-quality service to local men and women. So far, 150 of the 525 clients involved with the project have found sustainable employment beyond 13 weeks. That is a credible performance considering that the area bore the brunt of the devastation of the '80s and early '90s, and has high indices of illness and incapacity benefit claims.

Hemlington Works is funded until March 2008. If the action team for jobs element goes in October, the project will carry on with the support of the council and other providers, but the Working Links action team is the key provider of work with income support clients and, crucially, incapacity benefit claimants. That is a key factor, given the new drive for people claiming that benefit to be diverted back into work, which is a priority for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government. The loss of that service would be detrimental to employment and training provision as a whole, as only intensive, localised, personal and flexible support can work with such hard to reach and often alienated groups.

4.24 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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4.33 pm

On resuming—

Dr. Kumar : As I was saying, areas such as Hemlington have received much help from the Government over the years, and that has been warmly welcomed by local people and by Middlesbrough council, but much of the funding comes as a part of a cocktail—that is, it comes from a variety of sources, including local authorities, national Government, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, and the voluntary and community sectors. All parties to that funding have their own priorities and programmes and a recurring problem is that the different funding agencies often have different cut-off dates.

I appreciate that the DWP, with other Departments, emphasises to project managers the importance of having good exit strategies, but I have to tell the Minister that in the context of a three-year programme, that can mean that local organisations are expected to prepare to wind up in an orderly fashion just as they are beginning to produce good results in the community. That is a feature common to many social regeneration programmes and it has been identified as a key weakness by many independent observers and social analysts.

A recent study on urban regeneration programmes in England and Scotland by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an organisation that I admire, said that many local initiatives championed by sponsoring Ministries had a

The foundation also argued that capacity-building in local communities was a long-term process, and that although physical regeneration programmes can be accelerated, work with people and communities affected by a history of unemployment needed time.

Finally, I have a concern about people working on the action team for jobs programme. Their contract has been extended until October. They are dedicated staff, and they have given a lot of their valuable time to make things work, but they need reassurances as much as their clients do. I am concerned that if no long-term extension to the programme is granted, they will seek employment elsewhere in the private or public sectors and in consequence bring the project to a premature end. They have done sterling work with a community that values that work, and with individuals and families who have clearly benefited personally from their intervention.

I hope that the Minister will take on board what I have said. I hope that she will reassure me that the need to keep the programme is recognised, and that she will give support to the action team for jobs in Middlesbrough, because many of my constituents strongly believe that it has done valuable work. It is thanks to the Labour Government that we have been able to achieve so much success.

4.37 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge) : I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing the debate. I know
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of his concerns about the action team because he wrote to me recently about it. He works extremely hard and diligently in representing the interests of his constituents in Westminster, and I congratulate him on that, too.

I agree entirely with the tribute that my hon. Friend paid to the work of action teams, both in his constituency and more widely. The action teams were a pilot programme that we started in 2000, and there are now 64 action teams around the country. They are focused in areas of particular deprivation and worklessness, and their strength is that they can engage in more innovative ways of reaching people, so that they can start discussing the possibilities of work with people who may not have sought that as an option for themselves. They can then work through and tackle the barriers that individuals face and help them into work.

Through the action teams across the country, nearly 160,000 people have successfully been supported back into work. Some teams are run by Jobcentre Plus and some by private and voluntary sector providers, including Working Links, which is one of our key providers. We have looked at the performance of private and voluntary sector providers. It may interest my hon. Friend to hear that in the particular set of interventions that we are talking about, Jobcentre Plus teams tend to do better than some private and voluntary sector providers; that certainly interested me. Jobcentre Plus teams tend to be better at reaching out to those who are very distant from the labour market, whereas in an outcome-based contract, the private and voluntary sectors tend, on the whole, to go for those who are easier to reach, so that they can hit their target.

That leaves us with a challenge as we think about the next phase of the work. On the whole, the action teams have been extremely successful. In the year up to February 2006—not the whole year, just 11 months—the action team in Middlesbrough outperformed its targets. It achieved 477 job entries against a target of 380. Its target for reaching those people who are distant from the labour market and would not be reached through the new deal programmes was 266. In fact, the action team reached 356 people. It is a good record, and I congratulate the action team on its work.

We must set the context in which we are considering the future. When we established action teams, there was little activity or active labour market intervention with people other than those on the traditional new deal schemes, such as jobseeker's allowance. So the new deal for young people and the new deal 25-plus were up and running, and we were beginning to experiment with a new deal for lone parents, but there was little intervention with the incapacity benefit group and with the broader income support group, and there was no intervention with those who were not claiming any benefits but who were, nevertheless, out of work. Therefore, it was in that context that we established the action teams.

Since the establishment of the action teams, we have created Jobcentre Plus, bringing together in one place the processes to claim benefit and the initial and continuing advice to support people back to work. It is an innovative second phase of our welfare reform programme. As this round of the action team programme comes to an end, we are thinking about the future in the context of a changed environment, with Jobcentre Plus starting to engage in a much more active
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way with people with whom, in the past, it would not have engaged. That includes people on income support, those who claim incapacity benefit, and those who do not work but do not claim any benefits.

The second change, of which my hon. Friend will be well aware, involves the proposals and propositions contained in the welfare reform Green Paper. Through pathways to work, which, by October, will be up and running in about one third of the country, we are beginning to engage actively with incapacity benefit claimants in the early stages of their lives on that benefit. It is one of the most effective labour market interventions attempted throughout the developed world to deal with that group of people who face incredible barriers and huge challenges in trying to return to the workplace. Through pathways to work, we have successfully ensured that 8 per cent. more people than ever before have come off incapacity benefit during the first six months of their lives on that benefit. This is a new innovative engagement with people on incapacity benefit that did not exist when action teams were first created.

As my hon. Friend will know, we have plans to ensure that pathways to work are offered across the country by 2008. We have reprioritised our departmental budget and have secured an additional £360 million to ensure that it can be offered to all new incapacity benefit claimants by 2008. Much of the work carried out initially by action teams will be encompassed by pathways to work. We have also decided that the next phase of the roll-out of pathways to work will not be done through Jobcentre Plus but through private and voluntary providers. It is such ground-breaking public policy that we want lots of innovation and the greater flexibility that the private and voluntary sector enjoy, which is not always present in statutory agencies. The private and voluntary sector is often better placed to get multi-agency working, which my hon. Friend talked about, on the ground. We want to experiment and to keep trying to discover what works so that we can build on that best practice as we roll out services to our clients who are on incapacity benefit.

I have had long discussions with Working Links and have absolutely no doubt that it will be active in the new market that we are creating to provide the services for people in local communities. There will be opportunities for Working Links to carry on doing much of the work it has been engaged in to date in places such as Middlesbrough and elsewhere. I had a meeting yesterday with Working Links in Wales about its work. It is very much action-team led at present, but it will develop in the broader context.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take my next important point back to his constituency. There is a concept in the welfare reform Green Paper which is incredibly important in tackling worklessness in the   much more constrained fiscal environment of the coming years. Throughout the country, under the Labour Government, there have been many new programmes and innovations involving training and    skills deficits, worklessness and community regeneration in which access to a job is a vital and central ingredient.

The £100 million a year that goes into Bradford, for example, to tackle worklessness comes from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Learning and
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Skills Council through the Department for Education and Skills, local authorities, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister via the inner-city regeneration programmes, Europe and the regional development agencies. There is a huge range of funding streams, many of them targeted at the same group of people. As my hon. Friend rightly said, they have different time frames and slightly different objectives, but they are all trying to do the same thing.

What is proposed in the welfare reform Green Paper will bring the separate funding agencies, the funding streams and the partners together as a consortium in a locality, starting in cities where worklessness is one of the most challenging problems. We will set them very simple outcome targets and shift away from a process-driven endeavour to an outcome-driven effort. I hope that they will then decide either to pool their budgets or at the very least align them and work together to achieve the objectives, which will give much greater flexibility.

We have negotiated with the Treasury what is quite a breakthrough in the way in which we run the public finances: an agreement in principle—we have to work through the detail of it—that if a city or a locality is effective in getting more people into work and therefore cutting the benefit bill, some of the savings that the Government get can be reinvested in the city through further services. That will give Middlesbrough and other parts of the country a framework in which they can operate in a creative way, responsive to their local circumstances. It will enable them to tackle the very long-term and difficult worklessness that my hon. Friend, like most hon. Members, faces in his constituency.

Jobcentre Plus, the welfare reform Green Paper, pathways to work and the city strategy are informing how we look forward. At the same time, we are looking carefully at the lessons we have learned from the action teams, and we are taking things forward. For example, we know that outreach work is particularly important in respect of certain groups who might be very distant from the labour market—there might be cultural boundaries or third-generation worklessness in families, or there might be issues to do with low skills levels or poor English. Individuals face a range of barriers, and outreach is a key way of trying to start that initial engagement, which draws people into appropriate programmes to bring them closer to the workplace. We have understood that.

Something else we have understood is the power of discretionary funding. My hon. Friend described the way it is used in Middlesbrough. Traditionally, many of the new deal programmes have been very process-driven. If we can get more discretion into the way in which we operate, we can build services around the needs of the individual in a much more direct and beneficial manner, and therefore get more effect for the money we spend, and help more people who are coming into work through that. We will take on board those lessons as we move forward.

We will continue to have an area-based approach, which is what the action team for jobs was all about. That clearly makes sense. We hope that that will grow
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through the city strategy, but until that strategy is in place across the country, we will take and pull together the money that went on the action teams for jobs and money that has been used for ethnic minority outreach work, for example, and for the working neighbourhood pilots—another area-based pilot that has been taking place across the country.

What we are thinking of then doing—my hon. Friend can reflect on this and write to me if he feels it makes sense in respect of his constituency—is leaving it to Jobcentre Plus at district level to determine how best to allocate those resources. We will concentrate the resources, probably on the 1,000 most deprived wards in the country, but we will leave the decision on how best to use that money to the Jobcentre Plus district manager.

In some instances—this may be the case in Middlesbrough—the decision might be made to continue the work of the action team for jobs work which my hon. Friend believes is so effective. I hope that district managers will properly consult local representatives and other stakeholders, but allowing that discretion at local level is the beginning of the decentralisation in the use of resources that I want to see. That is the most effective way to have an impact, particularly in an environment of tight financial constraints.

The sum that we are talking about is probably in the region of £90 million over the two-year period. The resources are generous; we are not cutting the programme. We will just try to learn lessons, decentralise decision making, and then leave things for the local district managers to decide. What happens in Middlesbrough will not be my decision; it will be the district manager's decision. He is closer to the ground, and he will make more effective decisions.

I hope my hon. Friend agrees that what matters is not the programme itself; it is the work that that programme undertook. We want to maintain that and to learn from where it has been effective. It has been more effective in some areas than in others. We need to engage with those areas where it has been effective.

The aim in respect of this very difficult group of people who have never really thought about work before is to reach out to them and to bring them into the labour market so that they can enhance their lives and contribute to the local and national economies. That is groundbreaking. Letting many flowers bloom in different areas is a good way of moving forward.

We are determined to tackle worklessness. I know that that also underpins my hon. Friend's concerns about what happens in his area. We also want to ensure that, through the use of our resources, we provide greater opportunity for all. The right to work is as important as many other civil rights that we have all been pursuing in our various guises throughout our working lives. Work gives one not only the wherewithal to sustain oneself and one's family, but a network of friends. It also ensures that within a community and a circle, a person has status and purpose. That gives them a sense of value and contributes to the strong community that we know makes for a better Britain.
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