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In these uncertain times, that statement is more true than ever. We must decide whose side we are on. Are we on the side of the many or the few? Are we on the side of those whose default setting is to believe that unemployment is a price worth paying, or of those who believe that it saps the lifeblood of society and is a scourge to our communities?

Like the rest of the UK, Sedgefield went through that pain barrier in the 1980s. At the time, a total of 1.3 million people in this country had been out of work for 12 months or more—40 per cent. of all those on the dole. There were 5,500 people out of work in Sedgefield, and the unemployment rate in County Durham was just under 20 per cent. As I said, 40 per cent. of all those on the dole had been unemployed for 12 months or more. That was certainly the proportion in Sedgefield, although in some areas it was as high as 42 per cent. In my constituency, a total of 1,679 had been out of work for more than 12 months. Today, even as we are in the process of going into a global economic downturn, long-term unemployment in the area is 3.6 per cent. Only 65 people in Sedgefield have been out of work for more than 12 months.

There is a reason for that, which takes me back to my main point. We need a Government who are on the side of the many, and who are proactive in how they deal with the welfare state. In the 1980s, whole communities were shut down and left to their own devices. The then Government saw fit to disguise the numbers out of work by moving people on to other benefits. In fact, staff at Department of Health and Social Security offices were employed to do just that, and millions of people ended up on incapacity benefit.

Mr. Bone: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with interest, but does he not think that times have changed in the past 12 months? Unemployment in
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his constituency has risen by 94 per cent. in the past year, so we are talking about times that are different from what they were even 12 months ago.

Phil Wilson: We are, but the Government are in a position to help us get through the difficult times ahead—unlike the previous Administration, who just left people to their own devices as they closed down whole communities. The difference between now and then is that this Government are not prepared to do that.

The Opposition say that they agree with parts of the Bill, but that consensus will be shown to amount to nothing when their mask slips and we find out that they believe that the role of capital markets is to make money out of the misery of others. However, the default setting of this Government is to help others: we do not pass by on the other side, but as I have said and shown, the Opposition’s default setting is to do just that.

The Government’s commitment is proved when we look at Jobcentre Plus, about which the National Audit Office report of February last year said:

Some 86 per cent. of those surveyed by the Department for Work and Pensions who use Jobcentre Plus were very satisfied or fairly satisfied with the services that it provided. I am particularly impressed by its role with regard to the rapid response services that it provides and takes part in.

I want to explain what happened in the case of Electrolux. It is in the neighbouring constituency of Bishop Auckland, but a lot of my constituents have worked there. Jobcentre Plus was involved in the redundancy situation there from day one. It attended meetings with partner organisations and senior human resources managers, and rapid response services were deployed there. A resource centre was set up. Jobcentre Plus supported and attended two on-site job recruitment events, gave individual advice to the work force and gave redundancy presentations to management and trade union representatives.

As a result of the involvement of Jobcentre Plus from day one, 75 per cent. of the 450 people who were made redundant got jobs or went into early retirement soon after that. That is a great example of how Jobcentre Plus works. We Labour Members believe that the unemployed are people, not just statistics, and that every time a worker loses their job, it is a personal tragedy.

Mr. David Anderson: Is not the reality that in the 1980s, unemployment was part and parcel of direct Government policy? The Government saw unemployment as a price worth paying to get the economy moving.

Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Times have changed, but in 2009, the Government are preparing working people for difficult times ahead, and we should be proud of what they are doing. I want to raise a problem that I come across in the constituency,
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the region and around the country. It concerns the treatment that Jobcentre Plus receives from some administrators, and from some companies that go into administration, having gone bust. It seems that some administrators are not giving Jobcentre Plus the immediate access that it requires if it is to talk to employees who face redundancy on the first possible day. I want to give a couple of examples of what is happening.

In one case in which 100 employees faced redundancy, staff were not even able to get on site to clear their personal effects when the administrators came in, as the gates were locked. Jobcentre Plus tried on numerous occasions to speak with the relevant administrator. It took approximately four calls before anyone would confirm that they were dealing with the company. Jobcentre Plus could not be of assistance as by then the work force had all gone home. The 100 people who faced redundancy were therefore not able to get access to Jobcentre Plus from day one.

In another case in my constituency, Jobcentre Plus received information that a company might lose a lot of employees—a total of 175. The redundancy manager for the local Jobcentre Plus tried to get in touch with the administrators, but they continually got through to voicemail, and their messages remained unanswered. When they eventually got through, a series of phone calls took place, but the administrators did not want a Jobcentre Plus presentation on site, with redundancy information packs, in case it inflamed the situation.

At the beginning of January, Jobcentre Plus redundancy managers were on standby to go down to the factory. After several calls to the administrators, the Jobcentre Plus manager was informed that a meeting had already taken place at 8 o’clock, and 175 staff had been made redundant, the majority of whom had left the site. When the Jobcentre Plus manager went to the site, he was able to see between 15 and 20 people only. Redundancy information packs were issued to those people, but the remaining 100-odd people were not even given access to what was on offer from Jobcentre Plus. That is a problem for Jobcentre Plus, and for people who face unemployment when companies go bust and enter administration.

I understand that there is nothing in statute to say that administrators have to give access to Jobcentre Plus. Under law, they do not have to get in touch with Jobcentre Plus in such situations. I understand that it is the role of the administrators to sort out problems with creditors; that obviously needs to be done. However, I would have thought that 175 people facing redundancy and their families need to be dealt with from day one. As we know, the sooner Jobcentre Plus gets access to people facing unemployment, the greater their chances of a quick return to the labour market.

I call on the Government to take the matter seriously and to speak to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and to the Insolvency Service, if necessary, to make sure that companies going into administration are able to contact Jobcentre Plus so that such a situation does not arise in future. If a change in the law is necessary, possibly by means of the Bill, we make such a change. It is a personal tragedy for anyone who ends up out of work because of such activity. I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that in his winding-up speech.

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8.40 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I shall not repeat the many excellent points that hon. Members have made, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and for Kingswood (Roger Berry) in their remarks about disability and the need for a clear differentiation between fiscal measures and what the Bill sets out to do.

I firmly believe that the Bill goes in the right direction, and that rights and responsibilities are the way forward. We should all pull our weight. If we ask anybody around the country, that is the usual answer that we will get. People should be usefully occupied, whether in paid employment or in caring roles. We should make sure that we give proper support to those who need it.

We need to be careful that people do not muddle up what the Bill seeks to do with the difficulties that we face in the economy and the fact that some people will, unfortunately, lose their jobs. We know that when we talk about conditionality, we are not talking about the sort of people who are desperately anxious to get back to work and who will do everything possible to find further employment if they are unlucky enough to lose their jobs in the current economic circumstances.

There has been considerable misinformation about the situation of single parents. We are not talking about 14-hour factory shifts for people with very young children. Although there are some well-organised, capable and fortunate single parents who know what they want to do and how to organise their lives, we know that a significant number of single parents come from difficult and inadequate backgrounds and need all the support they can get.

For those young people—often they are young—it is a matter of basic skills such as parenting, reading, writing, numeracy and IT skills and confidence, which we take for granted. They need those skills both in order to help their children develop better—speech development, for example—and in order to better their own prospects as their children grow up. Everybody would agree that the support now being made available is the right sort of support. Proper child care and proper help can do an enormous amount to build confidence among young parents who find themselves at the margin of society.

The proposed measures have essentially been a pilot up till now. We must make certain that when the Bill rolls that out across the country, we have the necessary staffing levels and trained staff ready in our jobcentres. It is an extremely difficult job. Very often staff in jobcentres are faced with tremendous frustrations, depression and difficulties from their clients, and sometimes even clients who do everything they can to be awkward. It is important that we provide support and, if necessary, increase staff numbers if we want to carry out these programmes and possibly cope with other unemployment difficulties.

We should make certain that we support employers. I have seen employers bending over backwards to help to find work and provide support for people who find it difficult to get themselves to work in the morning—employers who have been very patient and who have succeeded in getting people back into work, although one would not have thought they would manage to do
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so. But we all know that although many people are able and willing to help themselves, there are a few who play the system. We must do something about that.

When I talk to groups of young people, they invariably tell me that everybody should pull their weight. Sometimes they think that I am completely mad, because I talk to them about being shipwrecked on a treasure island. They say, “You have come to talk to us about politics.” I ask them what they would do, how they would organise themselves, what rules they would make up and how they would sort out food and shelter. They always say, “Everybody should pull their weight. Everybody should do something.” When I ask them what they would do about a poor, unfortunate man who has lost his legs in the shipwreck, they say, “We will feed him, but perhaps he can sit by the fire and do the cooking.” They have the idea in their minds that everyone should contribute. When I ask them about a lazy, idle, selfish person who does not want to help or who wants to finish early—this relates to the points raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason)—they say that there should be no free ride and no food. Their suggested sanctions are far tougher and far less tolerant than the conditionality in this Bill. They make it clear that if people can, they should.

We all know that 99 per cent. of people do not need conditionality, but we also know that a few people play the system again and again. We all know about those people, because our constituents tell us about them, and there must come a time when the whistle is blown on them.

John Mason: Will the hon. Lady accept that if we have a welfare system, some people will abuse it? Ultimately, the only way to stop the abuse is to do away with the welfare system.

Nia Griffith: I disagree. As a former teacher in large comprehensive schools, I know that the majority behave, and we deal with the ones who do not. There is no way that we can deny the majority the rights and benefits that they deserve.

The Bill is not an island; it is part of a range of measures that we have implemented. The carrot is just as important as the stick, if not more so. One of the most important things that we have done is introduce the national minimum wage, which we have regularly raised. Making work pay is undoubtedly a tremendous incentive. Of course, it matters that people get more if they work than if they do not work.

One issue with the minimum wage is the lower rate for 18 to 21-year-olds—it is about £1 less than the full adult rate. We need to consider what we can do with our 18-year-olds, who are legally adults. Perhaps we are not giving them as much of an incentive as we should to get off to a good start in work. We are doing an excellent job with the entitlement to training, skills or work-based learning until the age of 18. We need to go on from that and consider raising the minimum wage for 18 to 21-year-olds, so that it matches the adult rate and young people have yet more incentive to get into work to start with and not to get into the bad habit of thinking that they can get away with sitting on benefits, which unfortunately happens in some communities where expectation is low.

The Bill is clear about dealing with people as individuals and providing an enormous amount of support, but
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sometimes we forget how people have ended up in their situation. We need to think carefully about mental health at work. In the ’80s and ’90s, there was a fierce competitive spirit that involved no leeway anywhere in any workplace and no patience with anybody who was not going to deliver 120 per cent. That approach often led to breakdowns and an atmosphere in which people felt persecuted rather than appreciated and where workplace bullying was rife.

A culture of unrealistic expectations or punitive management practices can lead to a range of stress-related illnesses, both physical and mental, which can lead diligent employees to be forced to give up work. We need to encourage and require employers and managers to pay greater heed to the physical and mental health of their employees, to look out for early signs of problems, to provide support and flexibility to pre-empt deterioration and to help to keep people in work rather than driving people out, which can engender feelings of failure and guilt. All the good work that we are doing with this Bill would be supported by the workplace being friendly to people before disaster strikes and they are overwhelmed by certain difficulties. The principle behind the Bill is that in developing people’s potential we should look at what they can do, and the same is true in the workplace. We need to be sensitive to what people can do, and to when we might be pushing them too far.

I reiterate some of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) about a plethora of providers plaguing people to attend interviews. Unfortunately, I have witnessed how in some of the pilot schemes some of the private providers have sent out some rather unprofessional material and pestered people. Luckily, the manager of the jobcentre concerned put things right and sorted things out for the people involved, but we need to be wary: any use of private providers needs careful monitoring. We are using public money to pay those providers and we need to make sure that the money is not going only into profit, that corners are not cut and that individuals are not poorly served.

We need to make sure that such providers understand the principles of what we are doing in respect of individual care and support, that they really do tailor the packages and that they are not looking for quick profits by taking the easiest cases and leaving the more difficult issues. Furthermore, we need to be absolutely certain that we train people properly and ensure that those offering to provide services have the same types of training that we would expect for our own employees.

Having said that, I should say that the Bill is very welcome. We need to think flexibly about how it can be made to work and about not only how we do things, but what exactly we hope to achieve and how we make the outcomes sustainable. It should not be a matter only of getting people back into work, but of keeping them there, and helping them make progress in their work from then on.

8.51 pm

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): In common with others, I welcome the Bill, which develops the concept of rights and responsibilities. I see it as another in the series of welfare reform Bills,
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introduced by the Government, that seeks to move the welfare system from being a safety net that trapped more people than it rescued to being a proactive and personal support system that will enable people to move from one job to another, or from long-term unemployment into a profession with appropriate skills, so that they can flourish.

That is important for the individuals concerned, but above all for the economy. Obviously, any successful economy has to maximise the talents of its population. Above all, the much-talked-about credit crunch and economic downturn, far from providing an excuse for not introducing the measures, actually highlight their relevance better than ever before. Obviously, when more people are becoming unemployed, strengthening the model designed to move them from unemployment into work is more relevant.

During the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s the Conservative Governments failed to do that. That led to a situation that I saw clearly in my constituency: even when there was an economic upturn, unemployment was still higher than average because a large residual number of people were still in the welfare system, not having been trained to get the jobs that had been created. In my constituency, skills shortages and job vacancies were allied to higher unemployment. I see the Bill as essential to preventing that from happening in future.

Mr. Bone: If I follow the hon. Gentleman’s logic, I have to ask why unemployment in his constituency is higher now than in 1997.

Mr. Bailey: I am not going to bandy figures around with the hon. Gentleman, but I can say that unemployment in the 1980s and early 1990s was a lot higher than it was in 1997 and is in the current situation. Also, the number of people on welfare benefits was considerably higher than the national average.

It is obvious, as was noted by the chambers of commerce, that this is the point where we should be introducing systems to train people for when the upturn takes place. That is a message that is also coming through to me from local business men. It is not only a matter of national benefit, but important for the individual. The health benefits of having people in employment are self-evident, as is clear from the contribution made to the debate by Dame Carol Black. People denied work will tend to become introverted and lack social confidence, and there are related physiological conditions that go with that. This impacts on the health service, people’s well-being and the national economy.

Above all, it is essential to take children out of poverty. Obviously, the income that comes with a job is an essential part of that strategy, but over and above that there is the change in aspirations that comes for children who grow up in a house where there is a breadwinner—somebody who is succeeding. That considerably affects children’s confidence and aspirations; without it, they are more likely to grow up with fewer aspirations and perhaps accept a life on the dole as their future.

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