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Unfortunately, the sequence of events that I have to relate tonight strongly suggests that for some of the people on Blackpool’s Workstep scheme those supportive words have not been lived up to. Blackpool council initiated a process at the end of April this year that led to five months of pressure, anxiety and uncertainty for the people concerned and their families and friends.

At that time, Blackpool had 30 people on the Workstep scheme, of whom 11 held contracts with Blackpool council but were placed with host employers. A number of the Workstep employees had been in long-term employment with host employers—hard-working and dedicated to the jobs they were doing, which provided them with self-esteem and financial stability. However, suddenly, without prior warning or consultation, those people were told that Blackpool council had reviewed Workstep scheme. The 11 who were contractually employed by Blackpool council but who—in the rather cold words of the note that was issued to them by the social care department—

were told, along with their employers, that the council would no longer support the scheme as previously operated. As a result, I was contacted by family and representatives of two of the people affected, who were my constituents, and subsequently by an employer in my constituency of a third person. All those people had been left concerned and bewildered by not only what had been proposed, but the manner in which it had been presented.

The “Changes to Workstep—Employee Information” document, which was read to one of my constituents at a meeting organised by Blackpool council’s adult social care department on 22 May, said:

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The note to employers gave a similar financial reason for changing the scheme but added that

I am not going to name in this House tonight the individuals about whom I was contacted—they have been put through enough pressure by these events—but it is worth quoting what one of them said about these notes at a subsequent meeting between him, his family and advisers, the host employer and officials of Blackpool’s social care department to discuss the situation. They said:

In the wake of those concerns and complaints, I wrote on 20 May to Steve Pullan, the executive director for adult social care at Blackpool council, who had initiated the process to alter the position of these Workstep employees, asking him why the council proposed to terminate their contracts. What had further disturbed me since being made aware of the proposals was that conversations between my Westminster office and the contract provision delivery team of the Minister’s own Department had confirmed that despite the funding provided to Blackpool council for the Workstep scheme by the Department—some £400 a month per employee—the council did not consult the Department’s officials or, as far as I am aware, Jobcentre Plus, before acting unilaterally. Nor did it discuss the possibility of transitional arrangements to ease the stress and turbulence with which these employees were now threatened.

I asked about the motivation for acting now, given that the Department had not altered its national funding or criteria, and the next national review of Workstep was not due until late 2009. The letter that I received back from Mr. Pullan did not address the financial issue but said instead, rather disingenuously, that as the Workstep contract

He admitted:

but said that since Workstep was designed to encourage progression and as

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My two constituents have worked with their host employers for about 20 years each—indeed the original placements were made via Lancashire county council, from which Blackpool council inherited responsibility for their contracts when the Blackpool authority became a unitary one 10 years ago. Why, therefore, had Blackpool council waited until now to decide that it needed to be moved on to encourage progression? It is perhaps not surprising that when comparing the reasons given in the notice that the adult and social care department issued with those given to me by Mr. Pullan in his reply to me, the relative of one of those affected said in an e-mail to him that

What is equally puzzling is that, only five days after I had received my letter from Mr. Pullan, an e-mail sent by another council official to the employer, who had also queried the reasons and timing for the changes, said that

The employer challenged the council about why

The official replied that

The council has continued to deny any financial motives for its actions, and, indeed, at a meeting with me last week Mr. Pullan again sought to insist that his junior officials had misunderstood the situation in their written explanations—but to do so not once but twice, in writing, looks at the very least, to echo Lady Bracknell, like carelessness.

My meeting with Mr. Pullan came only after four months and two further letters from me both to Mr. Pullan and to Councillor Lily Henderson, the cabinet member with responsibility for his department’s administration of Workstep, in which I questioned whether the council’s actions were not against the spirit and possibly the letter both of equality and disability legislation, and also the Government’s partnership with local authorities on Workstep. As well as being very slow to respond to direct questions from me and representatives of my constituents, the council has been evasive as well as insensitive in not appreciating how it has turned the lives of vulnerable people upside down more than a year in advance of a national review—as well as running the risk that because host employers had been placed under an unreasonable deadline, these people would end up redundant and demoralised.

The fact that these issues have dragged on over the summer has exacerbated the situation. I have discovered that the assessments that were supposed to take place for employees to access their potential for progression were, at least in some cases, never properly carried out. I am disappointed that, despite both Councillor Henderson and Steve Pullan being made aware of the human impact of this situation, they failed to act urgently to relieve it.

I have known one of my affected constituents and his family for 10 years. At the end of July, I visited him and his elderly mother in their home, where she was increasingly
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house-bound and where he had taken on increasing caring responsibilities. It was clear that they were both very upset and stressed at the threat to his job, and a note sent from the council’s own occupational health doctor to the host employer over the summer confirmed that. Sadly, on 1 September, my constituent’s mother died and since then he has been on sick leave. He is keen to return to work, but his doctor has advised against it at present. On 25 September, two women representatives of Blackpool council called on him and told him that the

The money saved by Blackpool council by abandoning its contractual obligations and top-up funding would, as Mr. Pullan has admitted to me, be comparatively meagre—probably less than £30,000 if enacted for all 11 employees. After all, the overwhelming proportion of the money comes not from the council but from employers, and the Government. Blackpool council is Conservative controlled, but I am pleased to report that my constituents’ cases have been robustly supported by their individual councillors from both sides of the council, and I pay tribute to the strong advocacy by Labour councillor Fred Jackson and Conservative councillor Jim Holdsworth. I appreciate also the involvement of the council’s chief executive, Steve Weaver, in trying to achieve closure on some of these issues. But even now the situation remains uncertain and not properly resolved.

Mr. Pullan tells me that seven of the 11 individuals have now been transferred to host employers, but of course their salaries and terms and conditions are not guaranteed to be the same as they were. Of the other four, the gentleman who lost his mother is still at risk of redundancy. In one case, the council appears to have reversed its position and guaranteed employment until 2009, but whether that will be via the existing contract or by transfer to the host employer is still not clear. My office was told by the employer in my constituency that his employee was made redundant by the council, paid redundancy money and then re-employed by the host employer. When I raised this at my meeting with Mr. Pullan, he was unaware of the situation and I am now waiting for clarification.

After all the inconsistencies and unequal outcomes that Blackpool council has produced, the decisions still appear to have been taken without any consultation with the Government or its agencies. In addition, the upheaval on which Mr. Pullan embarked and in which Councillor Henderson colluded ignored the overall context in which local authorities as providers of Workstep are obliged to operate in return for being funded by the Government.

The Minister’s predecessor—my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), to whom I pay tribute for her commitment and advocacy as Minister with responsibility for disabled people—made that very clear in her letter to me in July after I had discussed Blackpool council’s proposed action with her. She said that there was

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that the recent consultation document on the Government’s welfare to work strategy talks clearly about empowering people with disability, listening to people with disability and supporting people with disability in getting into work and while they are in work? Does he agree that in this instance our local authority has failed to do any of that and that it owes an explanation to the individuals concerned in the cases that he has outlined and to the Government?

Mr. Marsden: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend on those points. Sadly, I am afraid that the way in which Mr. Pullan and Councillor Henderson have proceeded has caused these sorts of problems.

The Government have made their commitment to the principles of Workstep and any continuing successor programmes beyond 2009 clear, both in the letter I received from the former Minister and in comments made in the House of Lords on 21 July by the Department for Work and Pensions Minister, the noble Lord McKenzie of Luton. Blackpool council should also now make that commitment as well as giving an undertaking to make sure that progression, assessment and support issues for disabled people with supportive employment are properly and professionally handled in future. At a time when the ruling Conservative cabinet of Blackpool council is keen to be seen to be promoting new equality initiatives, it should do no less if it aspires to be taken seriously about supporting disabled people. That might be some compensation for those who have been put through the wringer by the way in which Blackpool council has mishandled its stewardship of the Workstep scheme for the people it held under contract, to whom it owed a duty of care.

10.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), who was ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). She echoed some of the concerns that he set out this evening on behalf of his constituents. I am grateful for the way in which he has presented his case. He has referred to correspondence with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). The whole House will agree that she did a fantastic job as Minister responsible for disabled people. She has rightly won warm applause from stakeholders and colleagues and from our party.

Before I come to the detail of the case involving Blackpool council and my hon. Friends’ constituents, let me say a few words about Workstep and our determination to build further on the contribution the programme makes to the lives of those it helps. As a result of Workstep, our programme of supported employment, some 17,000 people are taking part in paid work Without the programme, those people would be unlikely to be able to work. They would have to resort to benefits, and would be denied the chance to make a contribution and to achieve the satisfaction of receiving their wage for the job in return for work.

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The Government believe that paid work is the best route out of poverty, and the best route to social and economic inclusion. We need all our partners across the board—local authorities, voluntary sector organisations and many other agencies—to deliver the programme. It cannot be delivered without them, and we rely on their co-operation and partnership.

In July, we published our ambitious plans for welfare reform. These plans are all about making better use of the human resources at our disposal and ensuring that no one is written off. Despite the economic downturn, we remain determined to head for an 80 per cent. employment rate, and to reduce social exclusion by improving employment prospects for people facing the greatest challenge. We will not achieve that goal unless we help greater numbers of sick and disabled people to fulfil what I believe is their ambition—that is, paid employment. We need to have in place a modern framework of flexible support.

Earlier this year, we consulted on proposals to reform the specialist disability employment services, including Workstep. Our proposals received strong support from the 450 people and organisations who responded. I referred earlier to the welfare reform Green Paper entitled “No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility”, which was published in July this year. It promised that the Department would implement these reforms. The Green Paper also said that the Department would expand its supported employment budget—by amounts yet to be decided—and proposed that disabled people who could be helped effectively through more mainstream employment programmes, such as our new deals, wherever possible should use this support rather than specialist provision.

We propose to enhance the role of the disability employment advisers in Jobcentre Plus to help to ensure that support is targeted toward those who need it, and that disabled people get the right support package to help them achieve their employment goals. Our aim is to move away from the current separate programmes, including the job introduction scheme, work preparation and Workstep, and towards a new, more flexible and less prescriptive programme that can be tailored more easily to the individual needs of disabled people and that is more focused on job entries.

That approach will help us to move away from “one size fits all” and towards a more flexible approach that recognises the very individual needs of every person. This is in line with our welfare reform approach to offer more flexible and personalised support. The programme will be delivered in partnership with organisations from the public, private and third sectors, and will cover pre-employment support right through to job retention and longer-term supported employment. We expect to publish the DWP’s response to the public consultation later in the year.

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