Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


23 JULY 2007

  Q20  Michael Jabez Foster: Who is going to do this? You talk about the Local Employment Partnership managers and it is unclear in the Green Paper whether you are going to be recruiting them from Jobcentre Plus or whether it is going to be from the private sector. How is that going to work?

  Caroline Flint: Our idea is that it is going to be from Jobcentre Plus. They will act as a lynchpin, working with a range of employers and stakeholders locally but at this local level they will be holding this together, as well as what we can do at a national level and what we hope we can achieve at a regional level through other organisations like the RDAs to support this initiative and increase the numbers of employers taking part and firming up the number of jobs available.

  Q21  Michael Jabez Foster: Will the continuing support be essentially through Jobcentre Plus or will that involve private sector partners?

  Mr Sharples: In the first instance Jobcentre Plus. This is really a development of the continuing work the Jobcentre Plus does with employers, taking vacancies, talking to them about how to prepare people for filling those vacancies. It is a development of that. Of course we have a number of partners providing employment services through the different New Deal programmes and other programmes and where we can make links between those programmes and these employers we will be trying to do that. It would be crazy to have partnerships with local employers and then exclude the private sector employment service providers from accessing those vacancies. That would not be the case at all.

  Caroline Flint: At the breakfast meeting we had the other week with the Prime Minister, as well as Peter Hain we also had John Denham. Part of making these Local Employment Partnerships work is how we can better align the skills agenda in terms of what employers need but also what happens when someone enters into work as well. Some of the areas we will be developing over the next couple of months will be our work between Jobcentres Plus and the Learning and Skills Councils in terms of things like Train to Gain, the in-work support, and looking at how we can get a better element of both the employment side and the skills side together to get the best possible outcomes.

  Q22  Mrs Humble: May I ask you one or two questions on the lone parent section in the Green Paper and start off with the part of it which is perhaps the most controversial, namely asking parents to move from Income Support onto JSA when their youngest child is seven? There is some logic in 12, because moving to big school is seen as a momentous step for children and even those who think there can be problems with identifying suitable child care for secondary age children might see that at least there is some logic in picking the first year they are in secondary school. What research have you done to pick on seven-year-olds?

  Caroline Flint: A number of factors. Firstly, in terms not only of the European level but the international level, the evidence would suggest that our system in relation to lone parents has the least number of conditions in it compared with other countries. Many other countries have work tests which operate, in some cases, at the age of one, at three, five, six. Our present situation at 16 is completely out of kilter with a number of other countries which are trying to address these issues. That is where we fit. Certainly Lisa Harker in her report suggested that, given other support, child care, flexible working and what have you, it would not be a bad thing to introduce more conditionality, partly as a way of getting engagement. I mentioned earlier that we are just not getting the numbers coming through as we should be presently through the New Deal for Lone Parents, given the resources in there, given the training which has been provided for those advisers for New Deal for Lone Parents, to warrant that sort of programme in itself. The second point is around our aspirations in relation to child poverty. If we are really going to make inroads in supporting children out of poverty, we have to do something more about the number of households where there is no work at all and children are present. Certainly, if you look at the numbers of lone parents whose youngest child is 12—as has been said many lone parents already work when their child is over the age of 12—the figures on that are quite small but when you actually go down to the age of seven the numbers are higher. We have to think about how we engage with a larger number of lone parents in order to support them into work. Part of the way to do that is to think about reducing it incrementally to a lower age. There is the international evidence that we are out of kilter with a lot of support programmes around lone parents and the point at which conditionality is part of that support, but also, in terms of our ambitions to tackle child poverty and meet our full-employment provision, we will not really do that unless we have policies which are about engagement in a much more upfront way whilst recognising that with that conditionality there comes a responsibility on us to recognise how we support. The proposals are asking those lone parents in these circumstances to look for work; that is what we are seeking here. It sounds like common sense but all the evidence shows that if people are not looking for work, they are not going to find work. That is just the reality. What we do find, even amongst our inactive work groups, lone parents being one of them, is that when they are engaged and start looking for work many doors open up in a way that currently many are not coming forward to take advantage of.

  Q23  Mrs Humble: May I press you a little further on the research? It is not enough just to say that some other countries do it at younger ages and therefore we have to because there are lots of other questions to be asked in that context. What support systems are in place in other countries? If we are comparing ourselves to many northern European countries, they have a much more extensive range of available child care provision so that parents of much younger children can access it. Secondly, there are questions to be asked about the success of any such programme. Does it actually work for the parents and if it does work, does it work at the level of them taking up fulltime employment or part-time employment? In making these international comparisons have you drilled a bit further down to ask those sorts of questions and others to see whether we are comparing like with like and whether it will be practicable for us to proceed?

  Caroline Flint: There is no one system in any other country where conditionality exists which it is easy to say we can just take and implant it here. Before I was a Member of Parliament I was chair of a national child care organisation. I was involved for a number of years in the campaign against attacks on workplace nurseries. Whilst I would not say that we are at the ultimate point in terms of child care provision, we should not sell ourselves short on what is available and what is possible and what is coming down the road. By 2010—and this is not just down to DWP but other government departments and also local authorities—the expectation is that all secondary and all primary schools will offer wrap-around activities and care from eight until six, including through most weeks of the year. That would cover the summer holidays and what have you. There is a duty on local authorities to look at how they assure sufficient accessible child care at a local level. With the development of other services in terms of children's centres we know that child care has a real opportunity to expand. We also know that for many lone parents—and we have got more lone parents into work—where we can get the support right, part of that support is making sure all the other in-work benefits are understood, because that is a factor here. I was reading through a document on child care and often there does seem to be a perception about what does not exist as opposed to what does exist. I have to say that it is only when you get engagement that you suddenly find that there is more locally. I am not trying to say that there are no difficulties; certain areas, London in particular, have particular factors which need to be addressed. Clearly people will be asking questions as part of the consultation about the in-work benefits and premiums and what-have-you for the child care element, support, for example, in London where it is more expensive. I really do think we should at least open up our eyes to some of the opportunities which we know exist and are far away from what existed 10 or 15 years ago. Unless we have something which somehow forces this issue, we will end up constantly saying it is too difficult, we cannot do this. I met a woman the other week and she had got support through Jobcentre Plus. She had not worked for 10 years; she was seeing opportunities she had never seen before. She came in as part of a voluntary programme and I asked why we had not got to her five years earlier. Essentially if we do not do something more for more women—and they are mainly women—whose children are of primary school age and secondary school age to get them into work, part-time work in and of itself, the problems down the road in terms of poverty will be incredibly hard to overcome.

  Q24  Mrs Humble: As the chair of the all-party child care group in this place—

  Caroline Flint: Which I have to say I founded.

  Q25 Mrs Humble: I remember it well. I very much welcome the huge improvements which have taken place over the past 10 years and also, through last year's Child Care Act, the new statutory requirement upon local authorities to have sufficient child care available for working parents. But—there is always a "but" I can only be nice for a certain amount of time—even though the Child Care Act does also specifically refer to families with children with disability, there are real concerns amongst those families about how these proposed changes will affect them. Even though there has been a big increase in the availability of child care and wrap-around care in mainstream schools, for families with disabilities there are still huge problems. It is much more difficult to have wrap-around care in a special school, because children travel far and wide to a special school and the transport arrangements mean that they cannot arrive early and stay late. How do you think what you have on offer here will actually apply to those families? Are you as optimistic for them as you are for the rest of the lone parents whose children do not have disabilities?

  Caroline Flint: I would very much hope that whatever type of parent you are, whether you are a parent of a disabled child or not ... Actually parents of disabled children often want to work as much as the next parent but there are all sorts of barriers in the way of that happening, because clearly, as you have outlined, the child care which is available is not suitable. I know that parents of disabled children have raised with me in the past having child care in their own home for which they could use the child care element of the tax credits. That was something which was being looked at by Government because your own home has the facilities you need and it might make it easier. That would apply to shift workers as well in many respects. I think two things. First of all, when someone walks through the door and sits down for their interview, how much are we going to have a process whereby we can really understand that individual's need and recognise the flexibilities needed within that? The Secretary of State has said and I have said that we cannot from Whitehall know exactly what is available in different parts of the country. That would be part of the work which would happen at local level. So when the jobseeker's agreement, which is part of the jobseeker process, takes place what would be looked at is what is available locally, what is possible here. That is what I am interested in: what is possible here? For some parents with disabled children those children may be in a special school or they may be in a mainstream school and therefore the opportunity to work within those hours and the flexibility within that—and we have provided a right to ask for flexible working up to the age of 18 for a parent of a disabled child—may provide some opportunities which have not been thought about before. We are really interested in hearing people's views on this because it is about treating someone as an individual and looking at the whole family, which is going to play an important part in whether it works or not. I have to say that it should also create a situation where locally in the different partnerships, particularly the local authorities I would hope, it would be an opportunity to raise the profile of some of the different needs of different families in the community, maybe in a way that has not been achieved before. When you actually have people in front of you for whom there may not be sufficient child care support, in particular for children with disabilities, then that becomes a talking point with our partners locally, the local authority particularly, about how they are going to address this and what could they do to improve the situation. I do not think that conversation happens as much as it should, because often we say we will not worry about a group because we think they do not want to work and that is not always the case. For some parents of disabled children the issues of work will present greater difficulties but it is about having that conversation and what the parent wants to get out of it and how we can fit around that.

  Q26  Mrs Humble: At the risk of labouring this point, may I just ask, when the invitation is sent out to a lone parent and especially one whose child is disabled, that it be done in a sensitive manner and the appointment then is also conducted with sensitivity? Sadly DWP do not have a good record of sending out sensitively worded letters. Some of them are rather abrupt and it can cause huge worry. Just a simple request of you: please handle this with some sensitivity.

  Caroline Flint: Yes, I totally agree with you. I can think of other scenarios as well where someone has just lost their partner or the relationship has broken up in difficult if not traumatic circumstances where sensitivity is going to be very important. I should be very interested in exploring with the Committee and other stakeholders what sort of form such letters and communications might take so we can try to get this right. I was looking at some other letters in the Department the other day which my predecessor Jim Murphy had a look at which had been informed by what some stakeholders had said. At the point where we are trying to discuss the formalities of this I would be very open to people providing some input to that.

  Mr Sharples: Another reason for being particularly sensitive and careful about communications is that the lone parent of a more severely disabled child may in fact be able to stay on Income Support. If their child receives the higher levels of Disability Living Allowance, the care component, they can qualify for Carer's Allowance which in turn can allow them to stay on Income Support. Parents of more severely disabled children will not be affected by this age change.

  Mrs Humble: There is even an issue there about parents being aware of their entitlement to DLA. I welcome that aspect of the Green Paper, but there is a take-up point, that some parents even now do not understand their entitlement. You are going to need to do something about that.

  Q27  Chairman: A very quick anecdote on sensitivity which I know is true. Couple; man buries a hatchet in his wife's shoulder; he gets arrested and goes to jail; she is in hospital. A letter comes from the Jobcentre because he has not signed on. Eldest child of about 16 gives it back to the postman saying he does not live there any more because he is in jail. They send a letter to his partner saying they understand the claimant no longer lives at the address therefore there is no money and she might need to make a claim. This was front page news. It was not an isolated incident. So sometimes they do press the wrong button without thinking.

  Caroline Flint: I agree.

  Q28  Mrs Humble: I want finally to talk about your comments in the Green Paper about wanting to learn from the Australian model, where parents with the youngest child over six are only obliged to accept an offer of employment which makes them financially better off than on benefit. A couple of questions linked to that. As the Committee have travelled around and visited Jobcentre Plus offices we have been surprised at how few claimants are offered a Better Off Calculation—something around 20%. We have asked questions about why that does not happen earlier in their claims so that they have a much clearer idea about whether they will be better off in work rather than on benefit. The second issue is that in evidence the Committee have received to earlier inquiries there is one group who are not better off: lone parents who take up part-time work and who then find themselves above income limits to get free school meals, travel to school even. There are all sorts of hidden costs in going back to work. Earlier you said parents of a child with a disability could work during those part-time school hours, but they could be caught in that trap of not being better off. Are you going to increase the number of better-off calculations so lone parents do have a much clearer idea whether they are going to be better off. If you are anticipating that some lone parents will only be working part time, how many of them will really be better off?

  Caroline Flint: A good question. I was looking at the weekend at some of the Better Off Calculations. It has improved but it is still relatively low. That is something I want to have a closer look at. One of the things about selling this—for want of a better phrase—to lone parents and others is whether it is worth their while. Being in work has to be better than being on benefits. You are right that it is complicated, not so much because of the in-work benefits, because you can work that out, but some of the other add-on stuff you factor in when you have a family. You made the point about free school meals and so forth. I would be interested in responses to the consultation on that. It is something we want to work through because it would be not very helpful if, having gone through all this, we could not show that someone was actually on the road to a better standard of living, certainly better than anything they could have just relying on benefits. I will take that away. Some of these issues are about engagement early on. I was reading a child care briefing over the weekend and often there seemed to be a perception about what was not there rather than what was there but also, on working the financial calculations out, most people, even any of us if we were in the same situation, would find quite hard and not as clear as it might be as an incentive for us to make that leap.

  Mr Sharples: It is really important that we get much better at providing the information quickly for people. At the moment it is a slightly clunky process which involves you sitting down, going through quite a long discussion with the personal adviser to get the calculation. What we would like to move towards is a position where you can just answer a few questions on screen yourself, possibly do it at home on the Internet and to get the calculation instantly as to how much better off you would be in different circumstances.

  Q29  Mrs Humble: Except it becomes very complicated for the claimant because it is not just looking at benefits and tax credits, it is also asking how much the school meals actually cost, how much the school uniform actually costs. There are costs which your officer in the DWP may be unaware of because he or she is simply looking at a computer screen which lists those benefits and perhaps tax credits as well.

  Caroline Flint: And activities for children and things like this. Often if you are in receipt of a Jobseeker's Allowance or something you will get free activities at your local leisure centre and discounts and things like that. How do we work our way to making work pay?

  Mr Sharples: There is also the plus side as well that sometimes people are not aware of the tax credits they could claim if they moved into a job or the fact that they could go on receiving housing benefit even when they are in work.

  Chairman: Often Jobcentre Plus staff are not aware of that either. You cannot make it simpler when you have things like maintenance being disregarded in work credits and all these add-ons.

  Q30  Harry Cohen: I should like to raise with you a number of questions regarding employment policy for ethnic minorities. I notice in the Green Paper there is a splendid picture of an ethnic minority woman on the front cover, several of black youths but not a particularly great deal of what there is in there is about ethnic minorities. We heard from an earlier report that there was a 15% gap in the employment rates between BME communities and white individuals. Indeed in the report on page 27 it says that overall many ethnic minorities " ... are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white people and one and a half times more likely than the overall working age population to be economically inactive. The employment rates for some groups are exceptionally low: the employment rates for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are only 27.6% and 26.4% respectively". In that Green Paper you say that the Government " ... needs to ensure that all programmes continue to deliver higher employment outcomes irrespective of ethnicity". Is that not really masking what has been a shift in policy? The DWP had a specific programme, a successful one actually, the Ethnic Minority Outreach programme but it has got rid of it and put it into these general programmes, the Deprived Areas Fund and city strategies. It has gone from a specific programme to a more general approach and there has been research about New Deal, about the switch which says that when you go for a general approach it is less successful than when there is this specificity. So the switch to genuine employment is unlikely to work unless the Government ensure that there is something specific within these new programmes for BME. Are you planning anything like that?

  Caroline Flint: I hope I can reassure you and the Committee that we have not lost sight by any means of the particular difficulties ethnic minorities face in terms of opportunities for employment and within ethnic minorities particular groups, Pakistani men and women and Bangladeshi men and women. It is quite stark in terms of how far behind they are in terms of access to work. Two things. The Deprived Areas Fund, which is a fund which does allow Jobcentre managers to have more flexibility over the use of that fund in partnership with others, is a way in which, at a much more local level, you can look at your employment statistics and your unemployment statistics and see who is active and who is not active and use that to target in a way we are not nationally best placed to do. The City Strategy also allows flexibility and the Deprived Areas Fund could be put into the pot for City Strategies and because it is led by a consortium of partners it has other pots of money which come together to use for specific needs, for certain needs. For example, the Birmingham pathfinder is developing a target to narrow the employment rate gap between ethnic minorities and the city region average. In west London they are developing plans to improve accessibility to services and they have a particularly dedicated funding pot to improve outreach towards ethnic minority women. In east London they are focusing on child poverty, but within that child poverty group those ethnic minority families are particularly present in terms of where they are in terms of being in poverty. That is happening there and the Liverpool pathfinder is also looking at their ability to measure progress on ethnic minority employment. What we have asked is that where City Strategy pathfinder areas have significant ethnic minority populations, local ethnic minority targets be developed. They may be different in one pathfinder area and another but they will be particularly localised and looking at who has the least access to the labour market and least support there. The other side of what we have raised in the Green Paper too is how we can better engage with couples and particularly by inviting in the non-working partner or the person who is dependent on the main benefit claimant on Jobseeker's Allowance. I believe in many respects, not entirely, that that will allow us an opportunity to reach women in particular from Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, to engage with them in a way we have not really had the vehicle or the mechanism to do in the past. I was very pleased that in my first week in this job we had an event which was part of our contribution to the social exclusion agenda across Government, a seminar where the people taking part were people who were receiving benefits in one form or another. At that event were several women from within the Asian community who spoke to me about wanting there to be much closer links to them and routes for them to access the sort of services they might want. On that level, whether it is in DWP or across Government, we need to be very clear that when we are dealing with ethnic minority organisations we make sure we are reaching women as well as men. That is something we have to think about across Government and create the sort of environment where particularly women can come forward. Opportunities to learn English are not something only our Department are looking at but across Government because if we are talking about employability, whatever form that employment takes, English language is obviously important.

  Q31  Harry Cohen: I agree with that; there was a lot in there and I am grateful for that answer. Before I come on to some of those point, may I come back to this specific point? By getting rid of the Ethnic Minority Outreach programme or absorbing it in the other programmes are you not spreading the pot more thinly and why can we not just have that Birmingham approach? If it is covering most of the wards where the ethnic minorities are, why can we not have that Birmingham approach in all of them, saying that they should have as a priority to close the employment gap between ethnic minorities and the rest of the community?

  Caroline Flint: That is partly why we are asking for them to develop these local delivery targets. In a way those partnerships at a local level are both empowered and also expected to take more responsibility for the delivery outcome locally. This week I am going to be chairing the ethnic minority task force and I am listening as well, coming into the Department. I do think that part of what we really have to focus on here, whether it is at a national level or a regional local level, is having a much clearer sense of who is not active in the job market, work out why that is and if there is no good reason that they should not be active and other barriers of discrimination are in the way, what the challenge is for us to bear down on and do something different. It is also making sense often of lots of different projects, lots of different programmes, which may not be in and of themselves producing the outcomes we want. I am interested in our contractual process now that we have moved that to the centre in DWP. I am hoping that Adam and his team of people are going to have a much closer look at what outcomes we want. I am very keen that, where contracts are provided, which already exists in one form or another at the moment, even when they are to a prime contractor with sub-contracting under that, we create the situation where we do not have a preferred situation where the people who are easiest find employment, are the ones who are the beneficiaries. What I want to look at is how we make sure, whether it is people from ethnic minority communities, particularly those who are most distant from the opportunities we think are present, whether it is others, that we find a way that the contract can have rigour and be paid on outcomes and is mindful of those particular needs in those communities. I should say as well that as part of the work with the Local Employment Partnerships I would hope part of the scoping would include who within a community from an ethnic minority is not currently getting access to the job market locally and how the Local Employment Partnerships will look at that alongside lone parents, alongside those with disabilities. Let us not forget you could be a lone parent from an ethnic minority and have a disability.

  Q32  Harry Cohen: I hope that means there will be monitoring to ensure that the outcomes come about. May I move you on to page 51 of the Green Paper where it says "Employer discrimination is a major factor in explaining employment disadvantage for ethnic minorities"? What are you going to do about employer discrimination?

  Caroline Flint: As the next line says " ... the Chancellor commissioned the Business Commission on Race Equality in the Workplace ... to look at how best" we move forward on this. I am taking different advice at the moment about how we might move forward in this particular area. It is not just the DWP. It is a cross-government responsibility to tackle, whether it is in the private sector or the public sector, where those from different ethnic groups are getting the chance to get work and progress within work. Part of the move forward, the single equalities agenda, again across Government, is how we can better engage with employers on these issues. It does seem something that most employers should be mindful of, that they could have fantastic workplaces where the nearest local community does not reflect the people who work in the building up the road or what have you. That is something we need to work on.

  Q33  Harry Cohen: Let me try to bowl you a soft ball in relation to this aspect and ask you not to rule out, to tell us that you will not rule out the Government coming back after this consultation about employer discrimination. Do not rule out perhaps legislating for a private duty not to discriminate, as there is in the public sector and report about that. You mentioned the new single equalities agenda, do not to rule out the new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights being able to investigate employers who have a bad record on discrimination.

  Caroline Flint: I am very happy to look further into that and use the summer recess to make myself assured about where we are on this and what more is possible. I have to say again that it is an across-government issue which we need to address because part of it is what happens in our schools in terms of the opportunities for young boys and girls from different ethnic backgrounds to get the most out of schools so they can leave schools with the potential to take up training or education or work opportunities.

  Q34  Harry Cohen: You mentioned contracts and I want to ask you about that. Page 61 of the Green Paper says " ... there is real value to be gained by simplifying and rationalising our existing set of contracts over time and by taking a more strategic approach to the commissioning of employment programmes". Later on the seventh point is "How do we ensure that the outcome of our commissioning strategy is a narrowing of the gap between individuals, groups and localities and the average?". That only refers to the contracts you put out for employment programmes. You said a lot of these things run across Government. What about Government procurement contracts generally and indeed the sub-contracts which flow from the Government contracts? Is there not a role here at least for the Government to apply pressure through their buying policy to close this gap and get more ethnic minority people in?

  Caroline Flint: It is worthwhile looking across Government at what we can do. As a health minister I knew that in the NHS we were very keen, as part of the corporate responsibility of NHS organisations, that as well as sustainability in the way they ran their organisations they look at sustainability in drawing from the local community for its workforce, which was an area I led on at the Department of Health. Yes, I am interested in looking at this area and what more we can do. We are certainly discussing where we can go on this. I did in another job work for the contract compliance unit at GLC many years ago so I have a little bit of background in that particular area.

  Q35  Harry Cohen: That is very good to bring those skills to bear.

  Mr Sharples: The Government are consulting at the moment on the basis for the single equality legislation and issues about procurement are being considered as part of that consultation.

  Q36  Harry Cohen: May I raise the point about the Bangladeshi and the Pakistani women, which you were absolutely right to raise, and focus on the need for action? The EOC report pointed out that they were ahead of their cohort of the younger age coming out of school in terms of qualifications and eagerness to work and it all fell back from the mid-20s onwards. I mentioned this to a Bangladeshi organisation and they said it was about husbands and babies at that point. There is an argument to be had about what stage a woman wants to have husbands and babies but if they are going to go at that stage then there need to be routes back into work when they are ready to come into work. Indeed a lot of these communities have quite traditional family cultures, so if we want to get them into work surely the incentives have to be much greater to encourage them into work in that way. My last point on this is that we still have a very macho work culture with the longest working hours in Europe. It is surely not easy for a woman after having a family to get back into the workplace. Is this something you are thinking of working on?

  Caroline Flint: First of all we need to make sure that, for example—I am not saying this is not happening but we just need to reassure ourselves that it is happening—where Jobcentres Plus are working in partnership with local authorities and others that they are in touch and not just in touch but they develop a relationship with some of the organisations in which a number of these women are often very well represented just to make sure on that. We are mindful that engagement with community organisations is about reaching women as well as men and they are not always the same organisations. Certainly when I have had the opportunity to meet with groups which represent Pakistani or Bangladeshi women and others for that matter, what I have always found is a real interest in services which are available locally and some very valid questions about why they have problems accessing some of these services. It is fair to say—I would not say it was exclusively this issue—that often within some groups there are concerns about what form child care will take. What values are being espoused? Does it fit in culturally with expectations? I have to say that often in groups there is a sense that child care is something you do within the family; you do not go outside the family. There are some real issues to address there. I was struck the other week, watching something on television about SureStart and children's centres. The very best SureStart and children's centres are the ones which have an active outreach policy in terms of what they do. There was one example of a SureStart centre where they had actively gone to recruit from within the local community and a young Muslim woman came as a volunteer and ended up working in SureStart. She was able then to provide part of the bridge to other women in that community. I am not saying it is that easy but I do think that those are some of the things we should be thinking about. It is not that there is no desire for the sort of services that are offered to everyone else. It is just that some people are not sure about them, are worried whether they are in tune with their sense of family and cultural belief and it is a better way to have a conversation. What you cannot do is develop those services unless you are actually talking directly to the women concerned in those communities and finding a way to do that. It is not because people do not want; sometimes it is quite intimidating, you are not quite sure and also there are other possible barriers there that women in all sorts of family situations might face in terms of being active. The other side of it as well is that we have high rates of women in this country doing part-time work. It is not about full time as the exclusive model for working. Given the work we have been doing on flexible working arrangements and what have you and some of the flexible working arrangements which do exist more than they have done before, it would be very sad if the problem was that people did not know it existed and therefore were not able to take advantage. Some of this is a real work in progress and we just have to be bold about being willing to engage in a much more proactive way.

  Q37  Harry Cohen: That was a very thoughtful answer and I appreciate it. You again mentioned English. Earlier this year the Government got itself into a bit of a muddle when on the one hand your predecessors were talking about benefit penalties for ethnic minorities who did not learn English when they were given the opportunity and then the Government started to mess around a little bit with another department with ESOL packages and cutting back on them a bit. I think the subsequent package after representations was certainly better. May I ask you where we are with the idea of benefit penalties in relation to ethnic minorities who do not take up English? I note for example that there is going to be a consultation generally on the Bangladeshi and Pakistani women issue later in the year. Is this something you would expect to fall into that?

  Caroline Flint: My immediate reaction to it is first of all whether we do accept that there is a need for someone in receipt of Jobseeker's Allowance who is actively looking for work to be able to speak English. Probably most of us would agree; yes. That is the first premise. If we agree that then that is good. Secondly then is what to do to support someone to acquire that skill to speak English. The third thing is if someone says they are just not going to learn that skill. These are really difficult questions but they need answers. If you start with the first question and we all accept that you are then faced with someone who turns round and says they are going to make themselves unemployable by not learning English, I would hope that where we need to get this right first and foremost is in how we support the person to learn English. This is one of the areas I am hoping to have a more detailed look at in terms of what we are offering at the point where someone needs to learn English or improve their English and how that fits with our colleagues in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to make sure we have got that right. Certainly it would be something I would be interested to look at through our City Strategy areas, how they are looking at this and prioritising this in their consortium of work. To be honest, I think there is a crunch point if, all things being equal, support is given and it is available. If someone chooses not to learn English they are effectively putting themselves in a situation where it is very hard to imagine that in most jobs they would be able to get employment. That is something we have to deal with as best as possible in a proactive engagement way. We need to think about someone who excludes themselves from the labour market by doing that and we do not apply some sanctions and at the same time someone does something else to exclude themselves from the labour market and we do apply some sanctions. It is a complex area but it is about people's ability to be employed and take part. I have to say that if you cannot speak English—and I am not getting into the level at which that should be—it is not just about employment it is all sorts of other things which affect your ability to take part in your community: conversations with the teacher at your child's school; using your GP; accessing health services. This is something where it is very important for people to achieve equality and to be liberated.

  Q38  Chairman: That was a perfect answer. I want to move on quickly to Leitch as it impacts on the Department, because we had the statement on the same day. One thing which was announced was this universal careers service which apparently is going to link closely with the employment service. How will that link in with and add value to the personal adviser service or is it too early to say?

  Caroline Flint: At the moment the idea is that where it is still practicable the adult careers service will be co-located in Jobcentre Plus offices. Jobcentre Plus then identify jobseekers who have basic skills or employability needs and the adult careers service will be able to be on hand to provide a more in-depth assessment of their skill needs. One of the things we are looking at as part of the flexible New Deal is having some sort of skills check early on to identify some obvious gaps that that engagement hopefully can address and then, later down the road at about six months, at the gateway process, when there is a more intensive, refreshed skills analysis, the careers service might play a role in that. I met with David Lammy last week just to have an initial talk-through of some of the work which could be better aligned between Jobcentre Plus and the Learning and Skills Council in terms of pulling some of these issues together and trying to see where we can, across our two departments, be on the same page in relation to pre-work skills training, what is appropriate, in-work skills training, where qualifications fit into that and where other skills training, which may not have a paper qualification but is just as important at that point, can be better aligned and we can all be singing from the same hymn sheet.

  Q39  Chairman: That neatly takes me onto the next question. The Green Paper had this wonderful phrase "no wrong door approach" to careers advice. Given the different priorities of learning providers as against employment providers, there is a conflict there depending on which door the individual actually knocks on. They might get some good advice but it might not be the best advice. The Department is particularly interested in getting jobseekers into work so how are you going to manage that?

  Mr Sharples: If you have access to the report that was published by DIUS, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, on the same day as our report, on page 34 of that report there is a diagram which shows the flow through the system for a typical benefit claimant. It explains the sequence which we envisage here which is that the benefit claimant would come in and as part of their first work-focused interview would have a very light touch assessment made by the employment adviser on their skills needs. Some would then be referred to the specialist skills assessment undertaken by the careers service, but they would then come back for a discussion with the employment adviser about how best to build their skills needs and their training into their back-to-work plan. At the heart of this approach is the idea that skills cannot be separated from the employment advice and the steer back into work. It has been a bit of a problem with skills provision in the past that sometimes people have been diverted away from job search into perhaps lengthy training courses which had not actually helped them get back into work. This approach, which really knits together almost for the first time the employment side and the skills side is really designed to address that issue and make sure the skills provision for jobseekers is very much focused on helping them to get skills which will allow them to fill vacancies which we know exist in the local labour market.

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