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Welfare to Work (City Strategies)

11 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I would like to begin by thanking the Minister and his officials for their assistance. We are working together very closely on welfare to work strategies and shall continue to do so. One Nottingham—the local strategic partnership—sees employment and skills as a key dimension of our attack on underachievement and deprivation in our city, and has made that a high priority. Partners across our city are working hard to reconnect the nine poorest wards with the new opportunities that Nottingham’s economic expansion has created.

Our employment and skills partnership includes Jobcentre Plus, the Learning and Skills Council, business, the voluntary sector and the city council. In July 2006, One Nottingham became the first—and only—local strategic partnership to win a welfare to work city strategy, which is run by our employment and skills board and has brought nearly £3 million of new investment into the city to help to get people back into work. That is matched by the employment and skills projects, which remain the largest spending item of the One Nottingham budget. We have not simply arrived at the conclusion that job creation, skills and employment are important in our city, but led the way by ensuring that the biggest spending in our admittedly rather meagre budget is on skills and employment.

The council leader, Jon Collins, and I, as chair of the local strategic partnership, have agreed four worklessness indicators in our local area agreement, which again underlines our commitment to this policy area. Progress is being made. Nottingham now has the fifth highest gross value added for residents in England outside London—£24,600 in 2005—and, in 2006, there were 8,500 more jobs in the city than in 2001, which represents an increase of 4.7 per cent. compared with a figure of 3 per cent. for England as a whole. That is a good record. We have begun the long-term process of changing our local economy from one dependent on low-skill and low-paid jobs to one dependent on higher paid, knowledge-based occupations. Again, progress is being made.

Nottingham now has a higher percentage of knowledge-based jobs than England as a whole—58 per cent. against 52 per cent. Between 2001 and 2006, the knowledge sector grew by 12.3 per cent. in Nottingham, compared with 7.6 per cent. in England as a whole. Of course, those are just statistics, but they indicate that, compared with the rest of the country, Nottingham has set out its stall and is already producing significant results. We are also well ahead in our city strategy target to reduce the numbers on working-age benefits. Nearly three quarters of the reduction came from supporting lone parents back into work. We are not picking off the easy groups, but we have a long-term strategy. However, if the improvements are to be sustainable, our long-term rate of improvement might actually have to slow down.

To deliver that change, Nottingham created one of the first employment and skills boards, which is now well established as a place in which all local partners can work constructively to tackle difficult problems. That has been successfully coupled to a robust local delivery mechanism known as “making the connection”, which has been adopted as a model of good practice in
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the regional economic strategy and elsewhere. It led to the establishment of a number of new, innovative programmes, some of which were funded by One Nottingham—my local strategic partnership. Some of our early successes include the introduction of learning champions, who are individuals from local communities who inspire others in those communities to take up training opportunities and to find work. They can be found in shopping parades, supermarkets and local markets. So far, they have engaged nearly 10,000 across the city.

Another early success has been the next step into work scheme, which provides careers guidance and helps people to apply for jobs. So far, some 2,000 people have been supported, 710 of whom have moved into jobs. Another success has been the work of partners such as Apricot Training Management Ltd, Enable, New college Nottingham and the training framework for care management, which collectively have helped nearly 1,000 people to achieve their first qualification. Nearly 200 of those helped on their journey back into work were lone parents, and more than 50 per cent. were from black and ethnic minority communities. Again, that is innovative, creative, interesting and original assistance, owing not least to the One Nottingham influence.

A small amount of money and a little magic dust helped that innovation to take place, which has since been supported fundamentally by the Department for Work and Pensions through the city strategy. So far, I think that we have done well. It has been a tremendous advantage to have the DWP completely engaged in what we have been doing. Working together—locally and nationally—we have managed to achieve a great deal. However, we are greedy in Nottingham and would like to achieve much more and to deepen and strengthen the existing effective partnership with the Department.

The city strategy programme is about more than just our small but perfectly formed projects. One Nottingham’s funding is the tip of the iceberg. The making the connection programme as a whole has seen more than 15,000 people and worked with 350 employers to help more than 975 long-term benefit claimants back to work. However, we are not complacent and know that our work in Nottingham must move to a different order of magnitude if we are to get thousands, rather than hundreds, into sustainable employment, which means that we must work effectively with local and national partners.

On a more personal point, those of us who work in this field must seek to simplify the plethora of titles and jargon if we are to communicate with the public and claimants, rather than with fellow professionals. Few would know that pathfinders, welfare to work programmes and city strategies are actually the same. The welfare to work plan does what it says on the tin. Perhaps the Minister and his officials will pay attention to the plea from me and colleagues who work tremendously hard in this field about trying to put this in plain language to connect with those whom we are trying to serve.

On a weightier point, I would like to put on the record my thanks to the Department, both at ministerial and official level, for such positive and encouraging advice and interaction, which we now need to take further. As part of the city strategy pathfinders network,
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we welcome that dialogue with the DWP and other Departments, which enables Nottingham to progress our ambitions, and with other city strategy pathfinders, from which we have been able to learn.

What are our next steps? We have some to take with the Department and our local partners, but others must be taken within the broader context of what we are trying to do in Nottingham as a whole. Last Monday, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), supported by a video message from the Prime Minister, launched Nottingham as the UK’s first early intervention city. The objective is to break the cycle of intergenerational underachievement—no more sticking plasters, no more little schemes, no more thousands of pounds here and there—and to get to the heart of the intergenerational cycle that often dooms people to a life on benefits. It becomes intergenerational in that there is the thought, “We are not going to be in work. We do not get the assistance that we need. We do not have the aspiration to break out of that intergenerational cycle.” In Nottingham, we have set ourselves the task of cracking through that cycle and starting a virtuous cycle, rather than a vicious cycle, in which people aspire to get into work, to do well at school, and to get qualifications, skills and a job.

That is easy to say, but difficult to do. We need to give space to people in Nottingham to ensure that they are not targeted into oblivion in the short term, but supported as they take a long-term view. That means that we can build on success rather than merely tick boxes this time next year. Like our partners in children’s services, health, crime and drug services, neighbourhoods and communities, and housing, our skills and employment partners know that it is far too late for them to operate with failed 16-year-olds. It is essential that we get in much earlier to ensure that the required social and emotional skills are in young people for an effective work-ready 16-year-old. Those skills need to be laid down before the age of three and polished through good parenting and schooling.

In Nottingham, we have targeted a package of proposals at those in the zero-to-18 age range. The proposals include the family-nurse partnership, and the SEAL—social and emotional aspects of learning—programme in every primary school. We are helping teenagers to understand relationship building and the significance of social relations so that they can make the best of themselves and their excellent schooling. That will ensure that we tackle the problems well before they have even happened. At the end of the day, no one will know that they might have happened. At the moment, all we do is swat the mosquitoes instead of draining the swamp.

Skills and employment partners know more than any of our other partners that this is about not just working with an ever-replenishing stock of “hard to employ”, but cutting off the supply much earlier in the life cycle. In employment terms, that means building aspirations, developing enterprise, and improving support for people who want to use work as the way out of poverty for them and their children. Employment and skills will contribute more policy proposals to our early intervention package. The package reads across from employment and skills into health, and crime and drugs. I will relay one or two of those ideas as my speech develops.

We have already had some success in harnessing the support of the regional development agency through our close connections with Greater Nottingham Partnership
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and the support of the business community. We have some 75 employers joining us in our fit for work programme. Our next step is to maximise working on health, crime and drugs, children and families, and housing. Other partnerships and agencies are jointly planning to deliver more integrated and cost-effective solutions. We all have our plans in different silos. The local area agreement allows us to start pulling that together and to drive forward partnership activity that complements, in this case, employment and skills policy. For example, we are working with the local health partnership to enable GPs and health colleagues to recognise that, for many patients, work is the best prescription for achieving an aspiration to work. Working with our crime and drugs partners will also help. As city police commander Beebe said:

Many of us have used the catchphrase, “The best crime prevention measure is a decent job.” Our crime and drugs partners understand that as much as our employment partners. Derek Stewart, the chair of our crime and drugs partnership, has underlined the potential for improving the wraparound assistance that helps ex-offenders and problematic drug users so that more of them can get back into work.

This morning, I received an e-mail from the probation service in Nottinghamshire. It told me that through the Offender Learning and Skills Service, the European social fund and Jobcentre Plus projects, work placements that would be invaluable in assisting offenders’ return to work have to be turned down because attending the placement would contravene benefit regulations, which would mean that the offender would lose their rights to benefits. A paper is on the way to the Secretary of State setting out those issues and asking for dispensation, so that a pilot scheme can be trialled in Nottinghamshire to allow an offender to accept unpaid work placements without benefit sanctions. Those bright and constructive ideas, which Ministers and officials can assess to see whether they work, are emerging from my challenge to our partners to help address unemployment and skills. The sign has not gone up saying, “That is nothing to do with us; we deal with crime and drugs.” Our partners are reaching across to say, “We have an idea about that.”

We are working with our housing partnership and our arm’s length management organisation, Nottingham City Homes. We can provide skills and employment components to isolated 16-year-old single mums who require supportive housing. One might not think that that is an employment issue. However, if we can help those single mums by supporting them to live in a decent place and by reassuring them that their child will be cared for effectively by themselves or carers, they become available for employment and training opportunities. Again, we see that read across to a housing partnership. Next week, I hope to take the matter forward when the chair of my housing partnership and I visit officials from the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Obviously, there is a read across and we will keep DWP colleagues informed of our impact there.

We are working with our children’s partnership to tackle child poverty and to beef up our 16 to 19-year-old agenda. Therefore, a web of assistance and support—
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through partnerships with crime and drugs, housing, and children’s services—is being installed to help our employment and skills partnership. It is overarched by the mission of One Nottingham—prevention, pre-emption and early intervention—to make a reality of our drive to become an early intervention city so that problems can be eliminated and reduced at source, rather than massive public expenditure being used to tackle the symptoms much later, much more ineffectively and much more expensively. If there was a reshuffle coming up, I would like to see my hon. Friend the Minister on his way to the Treasury. If that happened, he could base the next comprehensive spending review on the theme of early intervention. I would like to see a three-year package that fundamentally changes the way in which public expenditure is used so that we can tackle the problems rather than just calm some of the symptoms.

Whitehall is following our lead, and might follow even further. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will join us in Nottingham to see some of the things that we have achieved and, hopefully, to keynote a conference on 5 June, in which he can outline some of the next steps that the Department and ourselves can take in the coming years. Above all, we require his support to continue to break down any remaining silos or obstacles that hold back an effective city strategy. However, to do that well locally, we require national clarity about the post-Leitch and post-Freud settlement. We can adapt any strategy and make it work, providing that we know what it is, and there are a number of ways in which we would like to influence what it is.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that the Secretary of State comes to Nottingham armed with responses to a number of issues that we have presented via the city strategy learning network. It has produced a rather lengthy document—necessarily so—entitled “Request for further enabling measures”. I do not know whether the Minister has seen it yet; I first saw it only about half an hour ago, so I shall forgive him if he does not have it at his fingertips. From a cursory glance through it, it strikes me as entirely constructive and positive. It contains a number of specific and sometimes technical points that will cut away some of the things that practitioners are finding difficult to deal with when helping people get back to work, which we would all like to see happen as expeditiously as possible.

There is a great deal in the document, including about leadership, how to align targets and how to improve employer engagement. There are also a couple of things that I wish to address specifically. The first is accountability, scrutiny and commissioning. We need to know whether those responsible for city strategies will continue to deliver programmes themselves, or whether they will loosely oversee private and voluntary primary providers. We can operate either system, or both, but some clarity will allow us to work more effectively, should we be requested to engage more strongly with private sector or voluntary providers.

Nottingham’s city strategy partners are particularly keen to see movement on the request for enabling measures on local scrutiny, accountability and commissioning. We feel that our employment and skills board already fulfils some of the necessary functions, including aligning funding in the city strategy commissioning prospectuses, but a more formal role would be welcome.

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Through our opportunities as a pathfinder, we have been able to influence local partners to engage more effectively in DWP commissioning. Forthcoming European social fund activity will be delivered by a new and innovative private-voluntary sector partnership, and we are keen to take up further opportunities to influence the DWP’s future commissioning activity in our area. We are also interested in exploring options with the DWP for joint commissioning as equal partners, and particularly how we can add value to larger DWP programmes through our local discretionary resources.

Another matter on which further work is necessary is data sharing. That applies particularly to our efforts to create an early intervention city. We would like proper data tracking of families, from the point at which unborn children are at risk of falling into a cycle of underachievement. We could start tracking through the midwife, then through the health visitor, the primary teacher and Sure Start and children’s centres, to get intervention to a young person at the earliest appropriate moment. The golden rule is that the earlier the intervention, the more effective and cheaper it is. When tackling drug abuse, for example, if we can get effective parenting skills to a mother and effective drug education to her child for £2,000 a head, that will save £200,000 a year on often forlorn efforts at rehabilitation, which has a very poor sustainability rate, at the age of 18. Little expenditure can be more effective if it takes place earlier.

Similarly, data sharing enables public, private and voluntary sector organisations to intervene early. That is why it is fundamental to what we are doing and to the employment and skills part of what our broader partnership is intended to do. We would welcome greater opportunities to use the collective authority and accountability of the employment and skills board to analyse the performance of providers of mainstream and discretionary provision locally and, crucially, to enable us to customise provision to provide a better fit with local need. To achieve that, it is crucial that the DWP and the LSC sign up to much more effective data and performance sharing.

The Minister would be surprised if I concluded my remarks without mentioning the 16-hour rule, and I shall not disappoint him. The current lack of flexibility in that rule is critical to our ability to respond effectively to employers’ needs. Making the connection partners are working with employers to develop training packages and secure guaranteed interviews, but they often find that they cannot deliver to the employers’ time scale, as training has to be extended over many weeks to work around the 16-hour rule.

A good example of the impact of the rule is our current work with E.ON and Working Links. We hope to deliver a significant making the connections package to ensure that we move as many priority group customers as possible into the 400-plus jobs that are being created. Flexibility in the 16-hour rule would enable our response to be much more effective and more relevant to such a major Nottingham employer and to our communities. We would be interested in engaging in more detail with the DWP and Her Majesty’s Treasury on reducing the unintended job-destroying consequences of the rule.

Of course, we would want any relaxation of the rule to be clearly linked to specific employer-led pre-recruitment activity, with guaranteed interviews and sustainable
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outputs. We do want not a way around the 16-hour rule that would allow thousands of students to claim; rather, we want to finesse the application of the rule so that it can do the job that I know the Department wants it to do. The devil is in the detail, and we believe that we can help the Department to work through that detail and make the rule more effective.

Much of our partnership’s work is on community engagement and raising aspirations. We see that as critical to being able to turn up the pace of addressing worklessness in our most disadvantaged communities, and we would welcome a cross-departmental making work pay forum to examine some of the practical barriers to people going back to work. The remit of that group must go further and consider attitudinal barriers and perceptions.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister knows that I am not attempting to claim that mine is a typical English constituency—far from it. We have the highest number of teenage pregnancies of any constituency in the UK and the fewest young people going to university, so it is clearly unusual. The ridiculously tight boundary that has been drawn around the city of Nottingham also makes it unusual, since its statistics are not leavened by figures for any suburbs, rural areas or green space. The area is tightly bounded around the inner city, with its problems, and the outer-city estates that I represent, with theirs. That makes a mockery of Nottingham’s position: it is always low in league tables merely because we do not have a nice, comfortable band around Greater Nottingham that would put the city in the middle of most league tables, as we would wish. I hope that this is not a sore point, Mr. Martlew, but that is apart from Nottingham Forest being at the top of the league table that our local clubs share. My apologies for mentioning that.

Anecdotal evidence from our local communities and from our focus groups with clients suggests that misconceptions about the working tax credit and other in-work incentives may be another barrier to people going back to work. The Government’s pledge to deliver a “better off in work” guarantee is welcome, but further work on perceptions, which can sometimes be pervasive and damaging to local confidence, could be the forum’s key role. That would enable us to be locally sensitive, particularly in areas of chronic underachievement or deprivation such as the one that I represent. The One Nottingham organisation and our skills board also hope that the forum, in which we would be delighted to participate, would be able to take a longer-term view of welfare to work initiatives, and not least of the intergenerational scope of early intervention, to prevent problems from recurring.

I have spoken at some length, but I had anticipated that other hon. Members would join me—perhaps they are still travelling back after the bank holiday. I know that the Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokesmen want to speak and that the Minister will reply, but I will continue for a few minutes, if that is in order Mr. Martlew, because I want to use the time effectively and put one or two other matters on the record.

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