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July’s welfare reform Green Paper demonstrated our commitment to providing support for sick and disabled
7 Oct 2008 : Column 256
people to take up and keep paid work. That is part of our philosophy of putting money into support instead of benefits. The Green Paper contained a commitment to doubling the access to work budget for 2013-14. That will enable us to expand the reach of the programme, enabling us to reassure employers, benefits claimants and people seeking help to retain their jobs, that support will be available to all those who need it. We estimate that that will expand the programme’s capacity to around 48,000 by 2013-14. I am keen to explore how we can make access to work more responsive to the needs of customers with fluctuating conditions, including mental health conditions.

I turn now to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South. As I said earlier, I understand the concerns of customers on this scheme. While the DWP of course wants to encourage as many people as possible to secure contracts with their host employers, we have not insisted that they do this for all customers or by any set date. I hope that that is very clear.

Even when we introduce our reforms, we accept that some customers will require long-term support, and that this might not always be provided by a host employer. My Department can continue to provide funding in respect of those customers who remain on the books of the provider, although we will expect that every effort will be made to find host employers. We need to strike the right balance between incentives for customers to have contracts with host employers that improve their work experiences in the long term and longer-term support with providers for those who need time to acquire the skills and experience that employers want.

I am pleased to tell the House that of the original 11 Workstep customers my hon. Friend reported as having no contract with a host employer, seven now have such a contract. All seven customers are still being supported by the Workstep programme, under the existing Workstep contract held by his local authority—Blackpool council. The four who do not are still employed by Blackpool council, which I understand is continuing its efforts to obtain contracts with host employers.

The Workstep programme contracts with 172 providers, of whom 120 are local authorities. The Department has not been made aware of any other local authority that is taking action similar to that of Blackpool council in relation to their Workstep contracts. I said earlier that we rely on the partnership of the people and organisations with whom we place the contracts, so I say to Blackpool and any other local authority with concerns about particular people on the scheme that they should pick up the phone. They should contact us. That is the way to resolve concerns and problems. Let us work in partnership—I am sure that Blackpool council talks a great deal about that in its community. I do not seek to blame; I simply say to Blackpool or any other council, “Pick up the phone and we will resolve the issues”.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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