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I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his comments. I agree wholeheartedly, but what can we in Dudley do if the council does not go for the
opportunities? Where will we be when Wolverhampton and the surrounding authorities get their money and continue developing as they already are? What prospects are there for children like my son and his friends and for my former teaching colleagues? In my vision, the prospects seem horrendous. I wonder what could happen, should the council not go for it. That is the true worry.
Jim Knight: I am sure that, as a parent, my hon. Friend is not alone in being worried about the schools that she wants to send her children to and in worrying about how they will prosper if schools in neighbouring authorities have taken advantage of investment and it feels as though the schools in Dudley have not taken that opportunity because of decisions taken by the leadership of the council. Parents have a choice of schools; that has been an important driver in improving the standards of education over the past 12 years. The leadership of the council needs to be mindful of the fears that my hon. Friend has expressed as a champion for Dudley schools and as a local parent.
I will encourage the council and do everything that I can to work with it to help it make the right decision, which in my view is to invest now in childrens education and in creating the best possible learning environment to raise their aspirations and make them want to achieve for themselves and for the Dudley community. BSF represents a real opportunity for pupils, teachers, and families in Dudley. As I have said, we will continue to work with the council to ensure a swift and satisfactory solution.
Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Mr. Illsley, I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting time for this debate on an issue that is of great importance to my constituents and, I am sure, to other people in the highlands and islands.
I have great pleasure in seeing the Minister in her place. I look forward to her replying to some of the issues that I shall raise. I hope she will not regard what I say as in any way unhelpful, but will view it as potentially a way forward to help meet some of the current problems at a cost that is not disproportionate.
Jobcentre Plus currently has an important role to play in the recession we are in. I express my support and admiration for the many dedicated staff who work in Jobcentre Plus in Inverness, offering a full range of services, including work-focused interviews, back to work support and so on. I acknowledge the commitment of its local management in trying to ensure, as best it can, that Jobcentre Plus plays a role in meeting some of the economic needs of the area.
A major business, a fish processing company called Strathaird, announced that it will be closing its factory in Inverness with the loss of more than 300 jobs. Jobcentre Plus is very much to the fore among local agencies working together to ensure that people who work there have the best possible support to give them the best chance of finding alternative employment.
Clearly, the economic problems facing the country and the highlands are growing, and unemployment is rising rapidly. According to the monthly highlands and islands economic report produced by local economist Tony Mackay, in November unemployment rose by 820 in the highlands and islands, which is more than double the figure for the same month last year. November is a time when seasonal employees tend to become unemployed, but the figures suggest that there is a greater factor, and announcements since then, including that by Strathaird, suggest that there are many more problems to come in the local economy in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and the rest of the highlands compared with what we have seen so far.
There have been substantial problems in the construction sector and many other businesses, not least seasonal businesses, which have seen significant job losses. The broader current economic and financial problems are exacerbated in the highlands because it is a region of particularly low pay. According to Mr. Mackays analysis, which is borne out by the official figures, the highlands have one of the lowest average rates of pay of anywhere in Scotland and the United Kingdom. Those economic problems are not being helped by the Scottish Government, whose substantial cuts in funding for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, amounting to almost £100 million over three years at the very time when the country is facing a recession, are grossly economically irresponsible, as is the slowing down of important infrastructure projects, particularly the construction of affordable housing, and transport projects. That will only exacerbate rather than ameliorate the wider economic problems.
The highlands and islands have benefited from European structural funding, and I hope that the Government will take advantage of the exchange rate opportunity. The
Minister and I have had various debates about exchange rate issues and the euro over many years before either of us became members of the House. The falling pound provides an opportunity for the value of European structural funding to increase quickly, and bringing forward projects to boost employmenther Department should have a role in thatwould be a good use of additional funding that would be free and of great benefit in my area. I want to press the Minister on two key issues: delivery of benefits to people who have recently become unemployed, and changes to ensure that the delivery of back to work support is as effective as it can be, not just in the highlands and islands, but throughout the country.
The telephone network and the increasingly centralised benefit delivery centres throughout the UK seem to me, from local experience, to be struggling to cope with the rapid and substantial increase in benefit claims from people who have lost their jobs. The telephone service nationally is insufficient, and in 2008, Jobcentre Plus call centres dropped more than 2 million calls. In both June and November, more than 300,000 calls were dropped, and in seven of 12 months, more than 10 per cent. of calls were dropped. Evidence, not least anecdotal evidence from constituents, suggests that the Clydebank call centredespite being hundreds of miles away, it now processes the benefit claims for all my constituents in the highlandsis having significant problems. It has been reported to meI hope that the Minister will confirm the accuracy of this factthat the call centre has only 20 lines to deal with all the queries from people in the highlands. I have still not had a response to a named day question that I expected to be answered a couple of weeks ago, asking for the number of calls being dropped, broken down by individual benefit delivery centres, so as to get to the bottom of that point about Clydebank. My constituents experience suggests that those problems are real.
The Minister may know that the charity, Blythswood Care, operates a food bank in Inverness, and it is a sad state of affairs when charities must operate food banks to provide food parcels for people in the most severe hardship. The charity recorded and analysed the reasons for every person coming through its doors, and reported that 28 per cent. of those who access that important service do so because they have been left short of money due to delays in processing their benefit claims. Any delay is problematic, but long delays that leave people in particular hardship or for people who have experienced a sudden drop in income due to unemployment are even more severe.
Examples have been brought to my attention of constituents who have been forced to hitch-hike to Inverness to sort out their benefits because they do not have enough money to pay for the travel. Some travel claims are reimbursedfor example, for work-focused interviewsbut people who want to make claims or to make their fortnightly trips to check up on available jobs have found the cost of travel difficult to afford without reimbursement. One constituent, Mr. Meredith, who came to see me in early January, had not been paid for a claim for jobseekers allowance in mid-November. After my office intervened, it was dealt with, and I am grateful for the speed with which that was done, but the
experience is not unique to that one constituent. I should be grateful if the Minister will say what steps she intends to take to ensure that benefit delivery centres in general, but particularly that in Clydebank, have appropriate resources and personnel to deal with what is likely to be a continuing, substantial increase in demand for its services during the coming year. It is important that the Government plan ahead for that, and do not simply respond to demand as it arises. Over the past two or three months, the response has not been good enough, and I would welcome the Ministers comments.
The second issue that I want to raise is the way in which Jobcentre Plus delivers its vital back to work support. Having visited and, indeed, opened the new Jobcentre Plus building in Inverness, I have seen at first hand the work that Jobcentre Plus staff do with work-focused interviews, and their interventions for lone parents and claimants for incapacity benefit and other benefits. They often link up with locally based organisations in the voluntary and private sectors. There is real effectiveness, and those interventions often make a difference. Sometimes, they do not, and there may be problems with claimants on two generic programmes rather than with individually tailored support. None the less, it is important to ensure that people have access as quickly and as locally as possible to that assistance.
My observation is that our effective local staff in Inverness will, if not now, over the next few months, face severe constraints with resources, both in the number of people dealing with an increasing flow of claimants, and with space. Obviously, the closure of JobcentresI shall return to the Jobcentre estateand the rationalisation of buildings took place during good economic times. I shall propose a way of dealing with that problem in harsher economic times.
The Minister knows that on several occasions I have raised the specific issue of the closure of the Jobcentre in Nairn and the great difficulties that that caused for claimants there. It is interesting that the Inverness Jobcentre Plus had only three more staffmy information is that that was a 5 per cent. increasein December 2008 compared with September 2007. It now has 61 staff instead of 58, despite unemployment rising by more than 50 per cent. in the constituency.
My figures go back only to September 2007, but that does not suggest a staffing-up to deal with the increase in demand for services at Jobcentre Plus. In the country as a whole, front-line staff numbers have fallen from about 76,000 to a little under 64,000. I know that plans are afoot to increase the number of staff. None the less, the fact that the number of work-focused interview advisers has fallen in the past couple of years means that there has to be a degree of speed in getting the new staff in place to help to deliver those services.
I observe that the problem has not been helped by the closure of Jobcentre Pluses throughout the country. In the past five years, 454 jobcentres38 per cent. of the totalhave closed. In 2008, 54 closed, in 2007 it was 49 and in 2006 it was 157. In Scotland, the number of Jobcentre Pluses has been reduced from 150 to 99 in the past five years. On current unemployment figuressadly, they are rising so quickly that it is hard to keep trackthere is now only one Jobcentre Plus for every 2,580 people on the jobseekers allowance register. It is expected that figures out tomorrow will show another rise in unemploymentit will possibly even break the 2 million mark for the first time in many years.
I welcome the Governments announcement of a suspension of future closures of Jobcentre Plus, but I observe, particularly from my local experience in Nairn, that much of the damage has already been done. Although it is right to close the door on further closures, the Government must look much more directly at ways in which they can provide jobcentre services in communities, towns and villages that have been affected by closures, as well as potentially finding a way effectively and reasonably cheaply to make those services available to people in other communities that have been blighted by unemployment and that may not have had a jobcentre in the past.
I shall propose some ideas on how jobcentre services could be made more accessible throughout the UK. Given the number of closures, there is clearly a shortage of potentially appropriate facilities. It must be the caseperhaps the Minister can update me on thisthat the Department will forecast space constraints becoming an issue, in some parts of the country at least, in the not-too-distant future. I know from previously having been Work and Pensions spokesman for my party that there have been very good pilots locating Jobcentre Plus services or advisers either from Jobcentre Plus or from private and voluntary organisations in other institutionsfor example, at GP practices. I visited one such initiative in Camden in north London, which had proved very successful in helping people who had been distant from services before to access the services. What I am talking about now is not people who have been distant from the servicesnot necessarily hard-to-reach peoplebut simply dealing with the volume of people that sadly we are likely to see.
I hope that the Minister will consider seriously the proposal to allow jobcentre staffadvisers, for exampleto deliver services on more of an outreach basis, taking advantage of the many publicly owned buildings and facilities in constituencies such as mine. I am thinking, for example, of public libraries. The Highland council has a network of service points. There are village halls in the highlands; a number of communities have recently benefited from new village halls, which would be very suitable for the task, allowing soundproofing, confidentiality, access to the internet and all the various things that would need to be available to allow the services effectively to be delivered.
When I raised the issue at Work and Pensions questions the other day, the response that I received from the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, although positive, was rather vague, so I would be interested to hear this Minister be more specific, if possible, about proposals that the Government might be bringing forward to make use of other public spaces for the delivery of Jobcentre Plus services.
It is time for Jobcentre Plus to operate on a more dispersed and accessible model, reaching into communities. In my constituency, there is only one jobcentre, in Inverness. The Nairn jobcentre was closed and even though it is not possible to reopen a permanent jobcentre in Nairn, I hope that an outreach model can be developed to allow the services to be accessed once again in Nairn. The same applies for people living in, for example, Dalwhinnie in my constituency, which is nearly 60 miles from Inverness. That is a small community. Other communities such as Newtonmore and Kingussie, which are 40-odd miles away from Inverness, have never had
access to jobcentre services locally. If a way could be found to provide such services, that would be very beneficial.
If the Minister is looking for a place to pilot an outreach regime, the highlands of Scotland would be a very good place indeed to start such a pilot. I have already raised the idea informally with representatives on the Highland council and received a very positive reception. In particular, if a link-up could be devised in a way that would also help to increase benefit take-up, that would be beneficial not only to the individuals themselves, but to local authorities. I look forward to the Ministers response and hope that a more dispersed model of jobcentre servicesan outreach modelcan be developed to help people in the highlands to have greater access to those services.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)I hope that I pronounced the name of his constituency half right, despite my accenton securing the debate. It is a great pleasure to be able to debate with him. As many hon. Members may know, we worked side by side in a previous incarnation and we once joked about whether an occasion such as this would ever happen. It is nicefor us both, I hopethat it has.
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hard work of jobcentre and benefit delivery centre staff not only in his constituency, but throughout the highlands. I know that many of his constituents are being helped and supported by people, who presumably are also or are likely to be his constituents, working in Jobcentre Plus in Inverness, in Fort William, which I believe is also in his constituency, and in Forres, which is just outside it. This is not an easy time for many people up and down the country, and the highlands are no exception. I should like to place on record my understanding of how difficult things must be for his constituents who have recently found themselves, through no fault of their own, out of work. That must have been particularly hard for the communities around the Strathaird fish processing centre. Our thoughts are certainly with them.
The hon. Gentleman has engaged well in these difficult times. Only a few weeks ago, I think, he met the district manager in Inverness to discuss what more can be done, so he is a great example of a constituency MP doing a good job in difficult times. Before I move on to give my main response to the very good points that he raised, I of course want to express my agreement with him on the difficulties posed by some of the attitudes of the devolved Administration. Although we may not agree on everything across the party political divide, we can certainly agree on that. However, we continue to do our best as a delivery Department, despite some of the obstacles put in our way.
The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the seasonal nature of some of the work in his constituency; we acknowledge that there are seasonal variations. I am not in any way suggesting that the situation is particularly positive at the moment, but he may want to know that the increases in the number of people in the highlands and islands going on to jobseekers allowance are not as
large as those in the rest of Scotland, so they are doing something right, although the figures are not going in the right direction. In the period from April to December last year, the increase in new JSA claims for the highlands and islands was 13.8 per cent. compared with 17.7 per cent. for Scotland as a whole. Obviously, those numbers are still far too large.
The other contextual fact that may be useful as we discuss this subject is that the number of people going off JSA is also rising, so the situation is more dynamic than the headline figures suggest. That applies across the whole country. If anyone is listening to or reading the record of the debate, I want to send a clear message that there are opportunities across the country now and that we will support people in trying to take advantage of those opportunities, but they need to keep looking and working with us to do that, rather than giving up hope, because there are opportunities there.
The Government will be judged on how they respond to the current situation up and down the country and in the various nations of the UK. This phenomenon is affecting most of the world. Anyone who listened to Barack Obama a few weeks ago will realise that the problem is not confined to the highlands of Scotland or to the UK. The Governments response is that we have a choice. We could do what other Administrations have done during previous recessions and take the passive approach of merely being good at processing people on benefit and ensuring that they get their weekly or fortnightly payments. However, we take the opposite approach because we believe that it is the role of the Government to enable and support people and to enter into partnership with them to get the most out of what is not a particularly good situation, which can be seen just by looking at the headlines.
I am proud of the way in which people in our agencies have responded to the present circumstances. Across the country, clearance times for processing new benefit claims have been maintained under the target level, despite a 30 per cent. increase in the weekly uptake. It is not just the hon. Gentlemans constituents who are working hard in jobcentres, but staff across the country.
We do need extra resourcesthe hon. Gentleman made that point well. The pre-Budget report announced the investment of an extra £1.3 billion over the next two years in the delivery services of the Department for Work and Pensions in response to the economic downturn and the increase in people claiming jobseekers allowance. The Government are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when people who were short-term unemployed became long-term unemployed because they did not get the help to which they were entitled. We are investing a further £500 million to guarantee more support for people who are unemployed for six months by providing incentives for firms to hire, access to help with setting up a business, extra funding for training, and opportunities for work-focused volunteering. Our support will increase the longer the hon. Gentlemans constituents are out of work rather than decreasing and becoming more passive as people slip away from the labour market.
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