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Mr. Hain: We are embarking on a more radical approach to employment generation and enabling people to move into work—I am glad that my right hon. Friend welcomes that—for the very reasons that he gives. I know that he has been concerned about the issue, and the local employer partnerships will be concentrated on getting long-term benefit claimants into work. The focus is not those people who come out of a job, go on to benefits for a short time and then go back into work, but those who have been out of work for a long time. That is one reason why we will require
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lone parents to seek work once their child reaches the age of seven: the longer lone parents are out of work, the more difficult it is to create the environment in which they can return to work. We will work closely with everybody and I welcome any views that my right hon. Friend wishes to express.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I also welcome the Government’s attempt to tackle the hard edge of the unemployment problem. It appears that two approaches will be adopted. The first is the emphasis on the private sector in providing skills, guaranteeing interviews and, indeed, guaranteeing 250,000 jobs. Is the Secretary of State assured that the private sector has the capacity to do that, and that the capacity is located at the hard edge and in the same places as the bulk of those affected? Secondly, given the public commitment to a flexible new deal approach and the wrap-around care provision, what public resources will be devoted to that?

The Secretary of State will know that Northern Ireland is one of the areas with a big problem with long-term unemployment. What plans does he have for discussions with the Minister for Social Development and the Minister for Employment and Learning to ensure that some of these ideas are passed on?

Mr. Hain: We would be happy to discuss those matters. When I was responsible for the area, I was well aware of the points that he raises, although—as the hon. Gentleman will know—Northern Ireland now has more jobs and lower levels of unemployment than ever before, and is well on the way to being where it should be as a successfully performing area. I would be happy to work with the Ministers he mentions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about capacity in the private sector. When my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Prime Minister met large employers at No. 10 this morning, it was noticeable that they were keen to engage. Many, if not all, of them are already engaged, but they are keen to reach out because they have a large number of vacancies. They include—I do not know the detail, but I know that they are keen to help in Northern Ireland as well—Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury, which all see huge opportunities.

As for flexible child care and other support mechanisms, it will be for the devolved Executive to deliver, but we want to work closely with them and co-operate in whatever way we can.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I welcome the new personalised service that my right hon. Friend has mentioned and his reassurances that the system developed out of the Green Paper will be applied sensitively and flexibly. Will he therefore consider the special circumstances of lone parents with a child or children with disability? As their children get older, the accessibility of child care and other support mechanisms is much worse. Indeed, as those children move into adulthood, even lone parents who have been in work find that they can no longer work because the support services simply are not available. Will my right hon. Friend consider their special needs?

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Mr. Hain: I will happily do so, and I am keen to work with my hon. Friend, who heads the every disabled child matters group. I hope that she will give us the benefit of her ideas. The system will be geared to individual needs and will be very personalised. We must recognise that for everyone family life is just as important as working life. This is not about focusing on getting a job, but about the idea that getting a job will help to strengthen family life. That will need to be individually tailored and individual needs will be taken into account. The proposals are about choice and independence. For most lone parents, the opportunity of a decently paid job is a liberating experience, because the state is then no longer responsible for them. They are responsible for themselves and have the dignity and opportunity to offer support to their children that come with that.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The Secretary of State talked earlier about getting more staff to the front line, and I agree with the need to do so. However, in my constituency, his Department is making two members of staff compulsorily redundant in the small job centre in Campbeltown, and three more jobs are threatened, which would almost halve the number of staff. Does he not realise that local staff possess local knowledge, which is important when giving advice and support to local people? Instead of centralising the service in big call centres such as Clydebank, the Government should keep the work locally. Will the Secretary of State alter the policy of shifting jobs from small towns such as Campbeltown to big call centres such as Clydebank?

Mr. Hain: There is a distinction between call centre work and front line delivery in Jobcentre Plus offices. As I said earlier, we have tried to get more resources to the front line, where staff with local knowledge are very important. That will remain a key part of what we are trying to do.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What functions currently provided by Jobcentre Plus will move to the private and third sectors? How will the commissioning work, and will the contracts be published?

Mr. Hain: I was able to provide some reassurance on those points to Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, when I talked to him about our plans. There will be more intensive work for Jobcentre Plus staff in the first 12 months. It is in the nature of the shift from being on passive benefits such as income support or incapacity benefit to being on active, work-based benefit that more activity by Jobcentre Plus staff will be needed. After 12 months, depending on how the provision is delivered—by the public sector, the private sector, including Jobcentre Plus in principle, or the voluntary sector—there will be an impact. However, I expect that it will balance out in terms of staff. We will have to work out the contracts, but we want to ensure that they are results-based and sustainable.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I was delighted recently to be able to show Lord McKenzie the partnership work between the retail sector and the further education sector in my constituency, and the
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impact that that has had on employment. I commend that work to my right hon. Friend. Will he ensure that he gets his own Department in order and that family-friendly policies prevail within it?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend had better tell me exactly what he means by that. The Department should practise what it preaches and I think that we have a proud record of delivery in recent years. On the partnership between retail and further education, the latter has an important role to play, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills will identify shortly, especially in forging close links with local businesses. In my experience, the FE colleges that perform most successfully have an organic relationship with the local business community.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): While most of the Green Paper will be about getting people who are out of work into work, I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State say that there would be a focus on job retention, which is extremely important for those with mental health problems. We make it doubly difficult for them because they get help only when falling out of their existing job, and finding a new job causes extra stress and anxiety. What is his thinking on how we can improve job retention, especially for people who have had mental health problems?

Mr. Hain: I welcome what my hon. Friend says, and she makes a very important point that illustrates the step change that we will need to make. New challenges will be faced by the extra layers of people to whom we want to offer the chance to work. Sainsbury is one of the companies with which we are working in partnership, and it has put in a lot of work, with Mencap, on employing people with mental health problems. It intends to pilot one of our local employment partnership programmes though recruitment for online grocery jobs in London within the M25. Sainsbury’s chief executive talked about that at No. 10 this morning, and the company’s participation will help us to encourage employers to recognise that people who claim incapacity benefit because of stress or similar problems are able to work. They can be helped to overcome their problems if they are given the opportunity to work, but job retention is important, and they must be given support in that respect as well.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I welcome many elements of the statement and the Green Paper, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend will accept that many hon. Members in the Chamber today share my difficulty with the idea of a lone parent of a 12-year-old child being taken off income support. Many parents will welcome the opportunity to work, but the problem has less to do with seeking jobs or the stigma associated with not having a job, than with the fact that there is a lack of wraparound child care that is affordable and of high quality. That is especially awkward in the summer months when the schools are on holiday, as child care that is normally needed only before or after school has to be available all day. People who work in supermarkets suffer most of all, as the flexible hours that they work mean that they often finish at 8 or 10 o’clock in the evening, and it cannot be expected that those hours will all be worked only by people who do not have children.
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Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the first box to be ticked in the personalised care catalogue will be the availability of high-quality, affordable and wraparound care? The second box to be ticked can then be a person’s suitability for work.

Mr. Hain: I shall welcome my hon. Friend’s detailed comments on the Green Paper, but it makes clear that the availability of suitable child care is an essential component. We cannot expect lone parents who have to care for children to take a job unless that care is available. Such care will be increasingly available over the next few years, and should be universally available when we come to consider bringing the age of the child down to seven. We would not expect parents with children aged seven to accept a job unless it was certain that the proper child care was available locally, and that they had access to the support that they need. That support must be affordable, as people in that situation cannot always get jobs that are well paid, although we hope that they will be able to do so in the future. If parents do not get affordable support, we will not be able to give them the opportunities that they want.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are serious about tackling child poverty, we should look not only at the quantity of people whom we move from welfare into work, but also at the quality of the jobs that they go to? If we force people to take unskilled, insecure and low-paid jobs, we will tend to entrench families in poverty. In contrast, we should give people with slightly older children a breathing space so that they can go into full-time education without adversely affecting their benefits. In the longer term, that will be a much more sustainable and sensible solution.

Mr. Hain: I know of my hon. Friend’s work with the Child Poverty Action Group, and I welcome her expertise and commitment in responding to the Green Paper. She is right that the question is one of quality as well as quantity. There would be no point in making lone parents enter an insecure world of work, and no benefit would accrue if they were to find themselves in the twilight world of temporary and agency work, as
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that lacks the security that they need. People in that situation would not feel that they were offering themselves or their children any future, and we must make sure that the problem identified by my hon. Friend is resolved.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): I do not seek a referendum on this matter. The Government’s record in this regard is generally excellent, but I hope that they will recognise that, as other hon. Members have noted, some stubbornly difficult areas of high unemployment remain. In my constituency, which covers Govan and Pollok, more jobs are about to be created than there are unemployed people, but the danger is that the jobs will be filled by people from more prosperous areas, or by migrants. Will the Secretary of State join me in calling for my area to be made a zero unemployment zone? Jobcentre Plus staff should be tasked with working to that end, so that the jobs are not filled with people from outside. Will he also co-operate with the Scottish Parliament and Glasgow city council to achieve zero unemployment in the parts of the city that I have mentioned? Thank you!

Mr. Hain: I thank my hon. Friend. We are very happy to work with Glasgow city council and other local authorities across the country. That is one reason why I have made that option available after 12 months, rather than simply sticking with job providers in the private or voluntary sectors. Many councils want to get involved, and they have the sort of ideas and expertise that will assist us in our aims. However, it is precisely to avoid the problem that my hon. Friend describes—of more jobs being available than there are people on the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count—that we are getting local employers involved in the local employment partnerships. The priority of such employers is to employ local people, as they are more likely to be long-term rather than short-term employees. Turnover rates are often very high in the retail sector, for example, but they can be reduced if local people are involved, and especially the ones who are desperate to work but have previously not had the opportunity. Local employment partnerships provide a key answer to the important question posed by my hon. Friend.

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World-Class Skills

1.36 pm

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement on delivering world-class skills in England. Natural resources, a big labour force and a dose of inspiration used to be all that was required for countries to succeed economically. Today, it is the skills of our people that matter most. We have achieved much since 1997, with 2.6 million more people in jobs, more than 1.7 million adults with literacy and numeracy qualifications and record numbers in our universities, but there is still huge challenge ahead.

At present, in the OECD, we are 18th for low skills, 20th for intermediate skills and 11th for high skills. To be competitive in a global economy, to reach 80 per cent. participation in employment and to offer new opportunities to people in work, we must do better.

Today, the Government are publishing the document “World Class Skills”. It sets out how, with individuals and employers, we will bring about a skills revolution and close the gap between where we are now and where we need to be in 2020. Our ambition is to ensure that this country becomes a world leader in skills by 2020. That means being in the top quartile of OECD countries—the premier league for skills.

The targets that Lord Leitch recommended, and which we have accepted, are hugely ambitious. We want 95 per cent. of adults to achieve functional literacy and numeracy by 2020, and our aim is to have more than 1.1 million more people achieving that over the next three years. We also want more than 90 per cent. of adults to be qualified to at least level 2 by 2020, with one and a half million more adults achieving a full level 2 for the first time over three years. Another objective is to shift the balance of intermediate skills from level 2 to level 3, with half a million more people reaching that standard over three years. We want to have more than 40 per cent. of adults qualified to level 4 and above by 2020, with 1.25 million more by the end of the comprehensive spending review period.

Enhancing all our skills so much, so rapidly, will take more than the effective use of public and private money, more than changes in the way in which we organise and deliver training, and more than our overhaul of qualifications so that all employers rate them and individuals feel they are worth striving for. It will take a culture change in attitudes towards training and skills. The result will be that in the years to come, when somebody complains that they are in a dead-end job, their best friend will ask what they are doing to improve their skills. Alternatively, when employers express frustration at the skills of their employees, others will ask what they are doing to train them.

As individuals and employers accept greater responsibility for improving their skills, they must know that we in Government accept our responsibility to support them. “World Class Skills” sets out how we will meet our responsibility. We must ensure that the rising generation starts working life with higher qualifications and higher skills. We will introduce legislation to raise the participation age to 18. We will boost the number of apprentices in England, meaning that all suitably qualified young people
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will have access to an apprenticeship, and we will introduce a new entitlement to free training for those aged 19 to 25, in order to help more people in that target group achieve their first full level 3 qualification.

Seventy per cent. of the work force of 2020 have already left compulsory-age education. That is why the focus of “World Class Skills” is on adults. Our proposals are based on clear principles. First, we must ensure that employers are at the heart of the skills system. Improved skills improve productivity and competitiveness, but training must be tailored to employers’ needs, delivered in ways that support their businesses, and offer qualifications in which they have confidence.

The creation of a demand-led system of skills is our single most fundamental reform. We will make “train to gain” a much broader service that will help employers of all sizes and in all sectors to improve the skills of all their employees. We will put employers at the head of the skills system. Working with the devolved Administrations, we will create a new UK commission for employment and skills, and strengthen the employer voice at the heart of the system. We will reform the remit of sector skills councils to make them more sharply focused on raising employer ambition and investment in skills at all levels. Employers will have the key role in reforming vocational qualifications to ensure that they generate economically valuable skills. It will be easier for employers’ in-house training programmes to be accredited. More higher education institutions will collaborate with employers to develop programmes and delivery methods that meet their higher-level skills needs.

Secondly, individuals must also get training that is tailored to their needs. New skills accounts will give individuals greater ownership and choice over their learning, motivating them to gain skills and achieve qualifications, enter work and progress in employment. Moving from a poor job with few prospects to a better job can be as hard as moving from unemployment into work for the first time, so we will back skills accounts with a new universal adult careers service in England. Working in partnership with Jobcentre Plus, the careers service will be able to advise on training and skills, and help overcome other barriers to ambition, such as sorting out child care. We will legislate to give adults a new legal right to access free basic literacy and numeracy programmes and training, leading to their first full level 2 qualification.

Thirdly, we will work in partnership with employers and employees. We will step up the drive to encourage employers, large and small, to sign the skills pledge to benefit their staff. Companies that sign the skills pledge make a public commitment to support their employees to become more skilled and better qualified. We will support them through “train to gain”. We recognise that the encouragement of a colleague may often be the single most influential factor in persuading someone to improve their skills. So we will encourage trade unions in the important part they have to play in achieving our skills ambitions, through union learning representatives—currently 18,000 strong—and by building on the achievements of the new union-sponsored training programme, unionlearn.

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