Previous Section Index Home Page

The Barnsley scheme was the first such scheme to launch in the country, on 5 October in the new civic hall in Barnsley, and more than 160 new employees were
13 Jan 2010 : Column 731
welcomed to the world of work by the council leader, Councillor Steve Houghton, and their new employers. For many, this was the first day of work for some considerable time. I had the opportunity to address many of the new employees, and looking at the faces of all those people who had never worked before, it was clear that their first day of work was an emotional occasion. We have generations of people in the workless category. Some are the third generation who have never had jobs. The start of their active employment in the community was a great day.

Between October and Christmas last year, 178 people gained employment through the future jobs fund, and a further 100 will do so before Easter 2010. The existing candidates all completed an initial assessment that ascertains their current education level and indicates appropriate training. Many started that training after enrolling in Barnsley college. I am glad to see the Minister for Further Education in his place. I pay tribute to him for securing the £30-odd million funding to build the new Barnsley college. I am sure he will remember the sunny day that we had in October last year, when he performed the first sod-cutting of the new campus. That campus will be a fantastic asset to all future learners in Barnsley.

Many clients are already attending interviews for jobs. I am glad to say that just before Christmas one of the people on the scheme, Miss Bernice Baines, was employed in a full-time capacity by a Department. There are currently 174 people on the programme, 56 of whom are young people, and 122 are from the so-called hot spots to which I referred. The scheme has a target to achieve an equal split between young people and hot spots. There were another 20 new starters before Christmas.

The Barnsley scheme is acknowledged regionally and nationally as a model of good practice. We understand that our wrap-around support is unique. We strongly believe that that has contributed to our retention rates. Indeed, the Improvement and Development Agency, which is part of the Local Government Association, has been in touch to ask to write up the Barnsley programme as a case study.

I have witnessed at first-hand the added value that some of those workers are providing. During the past few weeks when we have had snow on the ground in Barnsley, many of those employed by the council in neighbourhood service have been playing a valiant role in clearing the pavements and roads, particularly on the old people's estates, where all our bungalows are, and keeping old people on the move so that they can get to local shops. That has been an added bonus from the scheme.

As for the next steps, it is obviously important for the scheme to maintain its integrity, from both a client and a partnership point of view. The council is looking to increase partner members in both the private and the public sector and hopes to extend the scheme to a greater range of jobs and opportunities. The council is also trying to attract finance and funding from other funding agencies to support the programme.

With every scheme, though, there are a number of risks. For example, it is often difficult to find other organisations that can provide match funding so that the scheme can be extended. Another aspect that causes concern in Barnsley is the restriction on engaging the
13 Jan 2010 : Column 732
private sector. One of the key criteria is that the businesses involved in the scheme must be of community benefit, such as not-for-profit organisations or social enterprises. Unfortunately, the council has so far been unable to identify any private sector company, but it is engaging with many businesses that are members of the work and skills board in Barnsley. There will be an announcement in the not-too-distant future about some private sector companies employing people on the scheme.

In my opinion, the scheme is a Rolls-Royce scheme and should be considered by local authorities hoping to have a positive effect on unemployment, particularly among young people in the NEETs category. I am sorry to say that the future jobs scheme might be under threat if we have a Tory Government after the election.

As we are rather short of speakers in the debate, I will go on a little longer. Moving away from the role that local authorities and central Government can play in helping young people during the downturn, let us consider the vital role that the voluntary sector can play in helping young people through the recession. I shall highlight one such organisation, Citizens Advice, which does outstanding work in all our constituencies. Nationally there are 413 citizens advice bureaux. I have three in my area-one in Doncaster, one in Barnsley and one in Mexborough. I used to be on the management committee of the Barnsley CAB when I was a young councillor in the 1980s, before all the pits closed under Thatcher.

Every CAB is a registered charity and more than 20,000 of the people involved in the service are trained volunteers. The recession has meant that more young people are looking for opportunities to develop new skills as they find it increasingly difficult to enter education, employment and training. Volunteering for a local CAB gives young people the chance to try out new opportunities and develop skills that will help with college and university courses and in gaining employment.

As part of the volunteer programme, young people receive training relevant to the role, and in some cases that will lead to a recognised certificate from the CAB. They also receive support from a dedicated supervisor as well as from other volunteers and young people in the bureau. More importantly, they have the chance to make friends. All the volunteers are part of a team and get the opportunity, through social and celebration events, to get to know other young people better. They also feel valued because Citizens Advice listens to young volunteers and has established a youth forum to ensure that young people are at the heart of the projects that it develops. The good news is that nearly one third of the volunteers who leave the CAB service each year use their experience to secure paid employment.

Citizens Advice has recognised that in the recession it is becoming increasingly difficult for graduates to find employment. Students must gain vital experience to make them stand out if they are to succeed in the jobs market. That is why the CAB has developed a student volunteering programme, which supports students to gain vital experience during the recession. It provides unique, office-based volunteering opportunities that allow students to gain tangible work experience. Many students find that volunteering with the CAB gives them a real insight and a connection with their adopted community. Students will receive training and accreditation for the work that they do, which potential employers see as very beneficial. Hundreds of students volunteer with Citizens Advice every year all over the country.

13 Jan 2010 : Column 733

Citizens Advice offers specialised volunteering opportunities for students of certain subjects. For example, law students can knock up to six months off their training contract by volunteering as an adviser. Social policy and politics students can see first-hand the kind of issues affecting people on the street, and can work to make a difference. Emerging linguists can practise what they have learned as an interpreter, especially in multicultural communities, though not so much in my constituency, I admit. Public relations or marketing students can volunteer as an event organiser or fundraiser. Citizens Advice has been at the heart of every local community for 70 years, and I am sure it will continue actively to support young people in need throughout the recession and beyond.

Rob Marris: I applaud the efforts of the CAB and other organisations that are driven by volunteers, but does my hon. Friend share my concern at the rise in internships, which tend to be monopolised by the middle class? There is a question over their legality because interns are not paid a minimum wage, and there is a key difference between an intern and a volunteer. A volunteer is someone who approaches an organisation and says, "I'd like to help you," whereas an intern often answers an advertisement for an unpaid job. We should not encourage that.

Jeff Ennis: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will address when he sums up.

This is a very important debate, from a central Government point of view, as regards what we can do to help young people through the recession, from a local authority point of view, and from a voluntary sector point of view.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that, as often happens in these circumstances, we started off with plenty of time but now the clock is moving swiftly on. Perhaps those Members who are seeking to catch my eye would bear that in mind when they are making their contributions.

3 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who is always generous and very practical.

This is an important debate. I should say to the House that one of the reasons why I shall be brisk is that I need to nip out briefly before the conclusion of the debate, but of course I want to hear the Minister wind up. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) for introducing the motion and for the forensic case that he deployed in his criticism of Government policy.

The House will know that I was formerly a further and higher education Minister, so I cover the whole remit of this debate, as it were. At my stage of a parliamentary career, it is not appropriate to be unnecessarily partisan, except perhaps at the beginning. I will merely say, in view of the difficulties in which the Minister found himself in relation to the current situation, as did the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, that I would use a motto modified from a couple from the past: "If you're in an 'ole, start aspirating." That is how one tries to get out of it.

13 Jan 2010 : Column 734

I also say to the Minister-I need not give him a completely free ride-that in my experience the Government have plumbed new depths of dysfunction. That applies across the field-whether, at one level, with what went wrong with the further education capital programme or, at another, with the concerns expressed yesterday in The Guardian, in terms that I never experienced as a Minister, by the Russell group, which said that it might take six months to bring the university sector to its knees-a view that was echoed by the University and College Union. In fact, I felt that that was a little over the top, but there are definitely problems.

I have been, and remain, concerned about people at the other end of the spectrum, specifically NEETs-those not in education, employment or training-and those who have learning difficulties or are without the necessary basic skills. In the first place, the House needs to understand the impact of recessionary pressures, which create what I would call a concertina effect. Graduates who are having difficulty in getting jobs may trade down to do less demanding jobs, below level 4, and in the process-it will not be their intention-tend to squeeze out of employment altogether those who are less well qualified. They will be under-fulfilling their potential while cutting off the potential for others.

We cannot deal with the problem of NEETs without reaching back into the school system and improving opportunities outside the conventional routes of the academic world from year 7 onwards. I am pleased to see the Minister for Further Education acknowledging that. That must be accompanied by proper independent guidance and mentoring, as people need help. We still need to devise-we have been saying this for 50 or 100 years-an examination and qualifications structure that complements the traditional royal road through A-levels and on to university with an alternative credible route involving proper concentration on subjects with an emphasis on at least part-vocational diplomas locked in with apprenticeships, without closing off the routes to progression. At all stages, certainly after year 11, we need greater hands-on involvement by potential employers-that also applies as people move on to continued education-and they may have to help to finance the process. There must be a common understanding of the best financial frameworks that we can afford to support learning, matched by a coherent set of qualifications.

I have spoken elsewhere about this, and I think it is no secret that I am something of a radical in this regard. I want a national qualifications framework, on which the Government are at last making some progress, I want a credit system, and I want the support system eventually to move into that area, although we will have to wait for the Browne report before we come to a final view on that. Above all, we must not switch off thinking about doing this in the recession-we need to use it as a springboard to development. The key themes of the system should be coherence, something for everyone, and flexibility in that no administrative, financial or qualification hurdle should frustrate those who, at whatever level they find themselves, want to build a career or simply-we should not forget this-enjoy the merits of education itself to lead a more fulfilling life.

One of the more interesting and challenging hours that I have spent recently was with a group of NEETs in my constituency. Frankly, when we started I was a bit
13 Jan 2010 : Column 735
apprehensive as to how we were going to get through the hour, but it turned into a quite rewarding dialogue. Of course, I remained aware of the problems before us, but there was a belief developing that they were not insuperable, provided that as a society we are prepared to put in the time-the golden element that we often forget-to provide sympathetic support and mentoring and to treat people, whatever their level, as individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses, needs, opportunities and potential.

I want to close my brief remarks by addressing two issues of principle that I have long embraced, which we will continue to need to have validated long after we have put the recession behind us. The first is the gross misconception that learning activity is either academic or "vocational", as if the professional classes have no practical skills and the sons of toil have no need of anything but the essential, elementary manual skills. Under the pressures of the recession, matters are made much worse by the understandable demands of employers, who say, "I'm short: send me six brickies," or six typists-whatever it may be-as though people with vocational skills were not better employees if they had an educational hinterland.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Several hon. Members have spoken about the importance of skills for manufacturing. Is it not a fact that we are leading the world in many aspects of manufacturing because we are able to combine the academic and the practical in terms of our skills mix in that sector?

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful for that intervention. I am lucky enough to have a large chunk of the Formula 1 industry, and Silverstone itself, in my constituency. These are brilliant people: they have not come up through grand academic routes, but they have fantastic application. They are highly skilled-some of the best in the world-and amazingly articulate, confident and successful people in a team. That is exactly what we are looking for.

We do not just need the one-off, simple, basic skill sets-we need hinterland as well. That may come through formal qualifications or through experience, but it needs to happen. I have seen, as many of us will have done, young people come alive through well directed vocational learning programmes, particularly when they are accompanied by good mentoring that, ideally, pulls these people through the process and motivates them, with some assurance from employers that they will take them on when they have achieved qualification. The modern work force of the future will need people with those core skills, the ability to work together, and the confidence to do their own thing and adapt to changing conditions. We are not creating automata or a mass work force, but people who can think and act for themselves.

That brings me to my final substantive point, which is about the need for progression. Of course, we all represent the aspirational classes. We take it as a matter of course that we want our children and grandchildren to progress and succeed, but why should any of us think of the NEETs as having a different agenda of their own? The problem is that in the present circumstances, it is difficult to make a plausible static case for their
13 Jan 2010 : Column 736
re-engagement with the labour market. Without unreasonable measures, or sanctions that we have not contemplated, the difference between staying a NEET and taking a dead-end job is unlikely by itself to change motivational behaviour. It is only when we can throw in the prospect of job enrichment through training, leading to greater responsibility and probable eventual promotion, that employment really becomes worth while. I remember the powerful American phrase, which I have often heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, "Start with a job, move to a good job, get on to a career." That is how we should be thinking.

There has been some talk about consensual politics. The House will know that I am essentially a one-nation Tory and have been for many years, but we will not make progress towards one nation, however we define it, if we continue to treat any one group as persistently "other", or as some phenomenon or problem rooted in the cares of the moment, great though they currently are. We must consider people's personalities, minds and motivations. A learning society, which we would all like, assumes progression from the years of compulsory school-that is the easy bit-towards a society in which people, as individuals, are supported into work and through their careers as much as they need to be. Those careers develop a society, and the economy develops and changes.

There is always a struggle to resource that, and not just in a recession, but equally there is a great prize to be gained. People should not have just a narrow range of evanescent skills to do the job that they have today. We need to build a wider and good society in which nobody need feel ill-equipped, marginalised or unable fully to participate. Fortunately, this is one of those happy situations in which the prudential case, the educational case and, let us face it, the moral case coincide.

3.12 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The Government have today once again set out the narrative that they have built up during the recession of the past year or so. The narrative that they like to put forward is something like this: "The recession was nothing to do with us. It was all caused by other people. Thanks to our wonderful Prime Minister it has now been sorted out in this country, and we will shortly be returning to growth." That is the message that they want young people to hear.

However, young people are not fooled, and they know that the reality is very different. It was summed up by the headline in the business section of The Sunday Times this week, which on the face of it was quite positive. It was something along the lines of, "City confident that Britain will keep its triple A rating". However, on reading a little of the article it became clear that the City was confident about that only because it is certain that after the general election, whoever wins will have to take urgent steps to reduce public spending.

Next Section Index Home Page