Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 267)

WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2006

MS FRANCES PARRY, MR GRAHAM HOYLE AND MR KEITH WYLIE

  Q260  Harry Cohen: A very brief question. It could be a long answer, but we have not got the time so a very brief answer. What extra information is needed for a fair comparison between the performance of Jobcentre Plus and the private and voluntary sector organisations in the same sort of areas? Do you think that we need extra information to make those fair comparisons?

  Ms Parry: I think the amount of input that is being put into that individual, the level of expertise that is being put in, how many outsourced services have been utilised for that individual, we can all learn from these activities. This is the kind of data that is just not available. People have been coming along for their half-hourly interviews and going away again. What is going into those half-hourly interviews? What is working, what is not working? It is sharing and disseminating that information. I am convinced that there is a lot of good practice going on, but it is not being shared.

  Mr Wylie: From our point of view, we are not in competition with the voluntary sector. We have different roles. We think it is important that we work in partnership with the voluntary sector. Much of the work done by the smaller, locally based charities we simply could not do as Jobcentre Plus as an organisation. Equally, we believe that the work that we do and the employment adviser role, financial adviser, even the benefit decision-maker role are roles that only we can do and only we should be doing. The voluntary sector, in many cases, quite honestly, would not want to be doing some of those jobs, but the area where we do find it more difficult is where the private sector are providing adviser services, and I think there is very little evidence to support an argument that says that the private sector do it better than we did. We believe that we did it better.

  Q261  Justine Greening: I want to finish off by talking a little bit about the City Strategy. We have talked about some of the questions that I have a little bit already around some of the co-ordination and the training providers, but overall do you think that the City Strategy is going to be something that will work, especially in terms of all the different providers. We have talked quite a lot about the need for working partnerships; you have got the Jobcentre Plus, the training providers, the voluntary sector, the Learning and Skills Council. Do you think the City Strategy will manage to knit those people together and do you think employers are going to be included enough as those strategies are being developed now? Perhaps if I can start with Keith.

  Mr Wylie: The City Strategy is something we have not been heavily involved in, but we have always supported the idea of joined up government, of joined up service delivery and of making sure that the best service possible is provided at the most local level possible. When we come to see how the City Strategy develops, I think somebody said earlier this morning, it is a bit too early to call it yet, but it is a view that we would probably agree with. The only concern that we do have is with the increased move towards centralisation of benefits advice, of benefit processing. With more call centres being set up in Jobcentre Plus, with Employer Direct being centralised into call centres, there is a danger that we will lose the local labour market knowledge that our Jobcentre Plus managers and Jobcentre Plus advisers currently have, because it will be drawn away into these centralised call centres and processing centres. I think that one of the dangers to the City Strategy is quite simply that the expertise that Jobcentre Plus has on the ground is drawn away from the local offices and centralised.

  Q262  Justine Greening: Do you think that the Train to Gain initiative that is happening is going to fit well with some of the training that Jobcentre Plus points people towards getting? Do you think there is any conflict between those different efforts?

  Mr Wylie: I do not think there needs to be a conflict. I think that the very good work that is being done by the Learning and Skills Councils should be joined up with the very good work that our members are doing, trying to ensure that people are trained to get into employment and then trained after being in employment to improve their employment prospects. Lone parent gas fitters is a good example of that. That is something that Jobcentre Plus initiated and it was done on a local basis with a great deal of success for those particular clients.

  Ms Parry: I have to say that I have learnt more about the City Strategy today than I have done in a long time, and I think that is rather a shame. Again, I come back to it, this is the kind of good practice, lessons to be learned that we should be sharing, and my personal concern is that we are going to have things going very well somewhere and failing somewhere else.

  Q263  Justine Greening: It will all be done in a bit of a bubble?

  Ms Parry: A bit of a bubble, yes, absolutely. So there is a bit of a concern there. ERSA is concerned that there was very little consultation around City Strategy before it suddenly happened. It suddenly happened quite quickly.

  Q264  Justine Greening: What was the impact of that lack of consultation?

  Ms Parry: The lack of consultation means that we have been rather in the dark about how we can help. We would very much like to be in the position where we could compete to run a Cities Strategy ourselves. We think the private and voluntary sector would be up for that. We think that is a model that would have been very interesting, from the data collected. Our real concern here is that the piloting period here must be properly evaluated and this information must be shared.

  Q265  Justine Greening: Do you think we may draw conclusions too soon in the strategy? Is that your concern about the pilot?

  Ms Parry: We might draw them too soon and we might not have looked at all the data we should be looking at to draw those conclusions. I think that is the issue.

  Mr Hoyle: I think there is a potential tension between national policy and any kind of local strategy. I think it is very important that we understand that there needs to be a very clear national approach, a national policy, a national strategy, which determines what it is we are trying to do, and then, by all means, have City Strategies. There is regional city, there are all kinds of models that could work. They have clearly got to be focused on how we are going to deliver that here on a collaborative basis and city strategies are perfectly capable of doing that. I think there are other policies around that to decide whether you go to cities, or regions, or whatever, but the key is, whichever route we take, we need to make sure that there is a national policy strategy which is understood which confirms what we are trying to do here with this particular client group, and then every locality is focused on that. What we do not want are different strategies at different targets, different approaches that do not marry up with each other, and that is going to be particularly difficult for the large training providers who operate in different places. I think there is a tension there that can be avoided.

  Q266  Justine Greening: So you may end with lots of hybrids because different parts of the country may have totally different employment needs and you are saying that national training providers will provide some—

  Mr Hoyle: That will certainly give some problems, yes, that is absolutely the case, but I would still support local delivery strategies within a national policy, and if that is what everyone wants, then that is fine. What tends to happen is that local delivery strategies start to impact and modify national policies and the national policies come under threat, and that is when it all starts to fall down; so I think you have got to be very disciplined on that.

  Q267  Justine Greening: In another inquiry we did there was some evidence that part of the problem for training providers locally was the funding mechanism. It is quite short-term and does not allow people to plan ahead. Is that something that in your experience you would say is a problem that also needs to be sorted out if the City Strategy is going to be successful?

  Mr Hoyle: If you are going to expect the independent private and voluntary sectors to get involved and jointly invest in any project, and you do want and need their investment—we have not talked about that this morning—they are prepared to invest alongside public funding here. What they need, however, is an environment which gives them a sensible level of security. Obviously, funding levels is one, but security of a contract has a tremendous impact. Year on year contracts where it could all disappear is not a recipe for investment. The other thing is quality. You have got to withdraw contracts if the quality is not right, and I am very hawkish on that, but, basically, you would get the independent sector prepared to invest and play the long game if they believe it is a fair system.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. It has been a challenging session. I hope you make friends outside!






 
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