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General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 9th March 2011|
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates
Draft Jobseeker's Allowance
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Annette Toft, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Scott. It is the first time that I have done so—and, I hope, not the last. I am satisfied that the instrument is compatible with convention rights and I am glad to have the opportunity to debate these proposals in Committee today.
Let me start by giving a bit of background to the measures. As the Committee knows, young people typically face disproportionate difficulties in finding work, both during and after periods of recession. Youth unemployment is a big challenge for us today. But it is not simply a challenge of recession; it goes back to the early part of the last decade.
One of the things that is particularly striking is the way in which youth unemployment rates began to rise early in the last decade, well before we got to the period of economic difficulty. Some 600,000 young people have never worked since leaving school or college and a quarter of a million children are growing up in homes where no one has ever worked. That is a potential problem for the future. This is why the Government are determined to overhaul the welfare system and support more young people on to the first steps of the career ladder.
Today’s amendment to regulations is an important part of that process. It is just one element in a package of measures that the Government are introducing to help young people make a smooth transition from education into work. It will play a key role in a plan to ensure that we offer young people the opportunity to gain real experience of the world of work and the discipline required to allow them to play a full and responsible part in society. It will help them to overcome that age-old problem: without the experience one cannot get the job, but without the job one cannot get the experience.
We are reframing the rules around work experience programmes to make them more effective and more valuable for those who need the most support. I was heavily influenced by an e-mail I received, immediately after becoming a Minister, from a woman who said:
Essentially, the rule was that young people could do only up to two weeks’ work experience before losing their benefits. I felt that that needed to change and that we needed to focus on trying to give those young people
We have sought to ensure that young people get the opportunity to understand what it is like to take part in the commitment to work. We wanted to get them into the workplace to start showing employers the assets that young people can be to their organisations. But behind all that there has to be a degree of push. We have changed the paradigm of work experience in Jobcentre Plus so it is something that we now proactively pursue. Jobcentre Plus outreach workers liaise all the time with employers who are now actively looking for work experience opportunities for young people. However, we want to make sure that, when those opportunities are there and when the young people have agreed to take them up, they use them.
In practice, that means that under the changes that we have introduced, a Jobcentre Plus adviser will offer advice to those who are most likely to benefit from a spell of work experience. After that, the jobseeker will have a choice about whether they commit to that particular piece of experience, so that where we have funds to pay for things such as bus fares, child care and so on, which we are doing in areas where there are particular problems with unemployment, we focus those funds on those who are willing and motivated to attend. Each participant will then have a week-long probation period to find out whether the work is suitable for them. If it is not, and they do not get on with the person who is providing that work experience, they can return to the jobcentre.
At that point—and this is what the regulations are about—a benefits sanction will be introduced for those who do not complete the rest of their assignment. That is needed because this is an investment of time by employers and the Jobcentre Plus outreach teams. I want to be sure that, if we are securing opportunities for young people to do work experience and if they have started those periods of up to eight weeks, done the first week and fitted into the organisation, but after three or four weeks they just do not turn up, there is a consequence to that. I want them to understand that they have a sense of obligation as well—that this is about supporting them into the workplace and that they simply cannot subsequently turn round and say, “I don’t fancy this anymore.” That is the point of these regulations; it is no more and no less than that.
We need to put the regulations in place for those young people who decide halfway through the work experience programme that they do not want to do it any more—do not bother to turn up any more, do not get up in the morning and do not appear. I do not expect that to happen often, and I hope that it does not happen often. We are looking for motivated young people, who want work experience and want to make the step into work. I hope that the sanction is a fallback for those rare cases when somebody decides to opt out for whatever reason. It is important to give the scheme sufficient credibility.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I am listening carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Can he explain how the process will distinguish between the experiences of someone who withdraws because they are indolent or whatever—they no longer want to be part of the placement—and someone who
Chris Grayling: I think that what is important in that circumstance is that we trust the judgment of front-line Jobcentre Plus advisers. The hon. Gentleman will have spent time, as I have, with Jobcentre Plus advisers. I admire the people who work in jobcentres, because their job is often difficult. Generally, they have a lot of common sense. I have no doubt that a young person who returns to the job centre and says, “Hang on a moment, this is not on. Something untoward is happening and I cannot do this any more”, would be treated with thought and care and would not be sanctioned.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I wonder whether, in advance of the young person’s being placed on the work experience placement, there will be any vetting or quality assessment process of the placement to ensure that not only will the young person be safe and well treated, but that the placement will be worth while as well.
Chris Grayling: That is an important point. I was going to come on to say that we have started by working with some of the major employers, with whom Jobcentre Plus has an ongoing relationship. As the hon. Lady will know, we have a national account management team who have partnerships with major employers that have a footprint across the country. Many of those have already come forward and said that they will be happy to participate in the work experience scheme—organisations such as Skanska, Homebase, Hilton Hotels, McDonald’s, ISS Facilities Management, Chums, De Vere Hotels, Carillion, Coyle Personnel and Punch Taverns. Those are high-quality organisations and I have no qualms about steering young people in their direction. They are responsible employers.
The hon. Lady will also know that we have a dedicated team of people on the ground, whose job it is to go out into the local community and work with local employers—small employers—to identify possible vacancies, which can then be advertised through Jobcentre Plus. I am looking to use the experience of those people, who know the employers they work with, to identify work experience opportunities. I look to them to ensure that there is a degree of quality control.
We do not need to be nanny-statish to the degree of inspecting every potential employer, any more than we would inspect every potential provider of a work-experience placement. One reason for trusting the outreach team is that its members are people who go into the workplace, talk to employers about their needs and identify full-time vacancies. In looking for work-experience placements, they will be able to identify whether an employer is suitable for providing eight weeks’ work experience for a young person.
Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central) (LD): I would be grateful if the Minister clarified whether, if a young person has found that their work experience has been beneficial and that they have learned many skills, there will be a limit to how many different times they may take up the opportunity of work experience if they are still unable to find a job. Is there a compound number of weeks during which they could do work experience, before it affects their benefits?
As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have announced a substantial number of additional apprenticeships this year. One of the things that I hope will happen as a result of the work experience scheme is that people will move from that into apprenticeships with the organisations that have granted them work experience. Indeed, although the scheme has been going for only about a month, it is gratifying that we are already aware of the first person who has moved into an apprenticeship as a result of a work experience placement.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): If they wish, are people allowed to do more than one session of work experience, such as one of eight weeks, another of three weeks and another of eight weeks?
Chris Grayling: We have currently placed an eight-week limit in the short term. Young people who struggle to get into work much beyond that will be referred to the Work programme. If they come from a difficult background or a particular challenging set of circumstances, they will enter the programme after three months. They will enter the programme after nine months if they are conventional jobseekers. Additional support will be provided for them in that period through Jobcentre Plus flexible funds on the ground.
For the moment, we are looking at a single block of eight weeks’ work experience as part of a package. If it transpires that we need to modify that and allow people to do it again, I certainly do not rule that out. However, for the moment, we are looking at a single block of eight weeks.
Chris Grayling: That is absolutely correct. It did not require a legislative change to move the limit from two weeks to eight weeks. It was an internal management issue. We could certainly allow multiple sessions. Indeed, if people on the ground said that they wanted to do that, I would have no problem. Clearly, the one requirement that we have to place on the shoulders of the young people concerned is that they must continue their job search while they are on the work experience placement, otherwise there will be a substantial ongoing cost.
In a nutshell, that is the package. In terms of regulation, we are looking simply to make sure that there is not an easy option whereby a person can drop out halfway through. I absolutely accept the point made by Opposition Members: when something goes badly wrong with the placement and it is not the fault of the person who was placed there, I would say to Jobcentre Plus staff on the ground that they must use their discretion. That situation is no different from many others in which somebody faces a possible sanction, yet circumstances mean that they are not at fault. The Jobcentre Plus adviser can say, “I am not going to sanction you, because you are not in the wrong.”
The scheme is simple. It is designed to ensure that young people have the opportunity to take the first few steps in the workplace. We will be proactively encouraging staff throughout the country to be looking for opportunities while perhaps encouraging major employers as well as smaller, local employers to come forward and offer opportunities.
Chris Grayling: Yes. As part of the ongoing training of front-line staff, Jobcentre Plus managers are arranging sessions to explain responsibility and requirements. We are not setting up separate, dedicated training programmes but, as part of the ongoing training of staff, additional training will take place. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are introducing a broad-ranging package of new steps to help address some of our employment challenges and, in those cases, front-line staff will be given guidance on what the packages entail and the flexibilities involve.
We are clear about adviser discretion. We have sent a message across the organisation that we want front-line professionals to take decisions themselves about what they believe is right. We do not want everything always to be a matter of referring back to central guidance.
I hope that, with those remarks, the Committee will accept the recommendations. It is a simple change. It is one that gives a little bit of weight to the scheme, which I hope will make a difference to young people throughout the country.
Supporting people in lasting jobs must always be among the highest priorities of the Government. As time goes on, we will certainly have disagreements with them about important areas of policy, but we are committed to supporting them when they make decisions that are right.
We have seen some mistaken moves by the Government in this area; summarily scrapping flexible new deal contracts springs to mind. Nevertheless, the Government have been willing to build on foundations laid by the previous Government. The thinking behind the Work programme will build on experience from the new deal. Opposition Members certainly want to see the Work programme succeed. The principle of universal credit builds on the gains of the tax credit system as well, and we will be debating that in the House tomorrow.
I very much welcome the fact that with these regulations, the Government are at least starting to address the substantial problems that we now face with youth unemployment, albeit in a modest way initially. I am
For two months in a row, youth unemployment has been at its highest rate since comparable records began in 1992. It is worth looking at what has been happening to unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds. It shot up as the recession hit in mid-2008. It was about 13% then and had been for some time—too high a level, as the Minister suggested. It shot up to about 20% and then, thanks to the previous Government’s initiatives, it headed down last year to around 19%. Now, with the scrapping of the various initiatives that were addressing the problem, it has jumped up again towards the highest level it has ever been.
Chris Grayling: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm to the Committee that, as I mentioned to him in the House, none of the schemes that we inherited from the previous Government has, as yet, terminated, and that the increases he talks about have taken place while existing schemes, such as the future jobs fund, have been continuing?
Stephen Timms: Unfortunately, they are winding down, and that is the problem. I recently pressed the Prime Minister on the Government strategy for reducing youth unemployment, and he provided a worryingly complacent reply. It was a serious mistake to wind down and then scrap the future jobs fund and the jobs guarantee for young people, just when youth unemployment is at its highest ever level. I welcome this work experience programme as a first, small step, and I am very keen for the Government to do much more.
The Minister has explained what the regulations do. I take the point that a possible advantage of this provision, as opposed to the previous one, is that the claimant must continue actively to look for work while undertaking work experience. Previously, when people switched from jobseeker’s allowance to a training allowance, it was found that while their financial position was maintained, the link between the jobseeker and the jobcentre was not. Maintaining that link, as is envisaged in the regulations, may prove helpful; it is certainly worth a try.
The Minister referred to the sanctions that will apply if people drop out after the first week without good reason. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton asked about that. We need a little more justification and explanation of what is being proposed. If I understood the Government’s argument correctly, it is that some of the most valuable experiences of being in work arise from the fact that there is a sense of obligation to the employer, and that placements without sanctions cannot replicate that experience. There is something in that argument, but we should know a bit more about how the system will operate in practice. What sort of sanctions might there be? We have heard that if an individual drops out in the first week of a placement, sanctions will not be applied. If we say that people who stay on beyond the first week may be liable to sanctions, is there not a danger that we will discourage people from carrying on at all? Is there not a danger of sending the wrong message to participants?
The Minister explained that work experience can last between two and eight weeks. How will that length be fixed? Is that a matter for the employers, the individual or the jobcentre, and when will it be fixed? Will the
How exactly will the sanctions be imposed? Will that be done by the employer or the jobcentre? Presumably they will have to be imposed at the initiative, at least, of the employer, because the jobcentre will not know what is going on. How will the jobcentre know whether the sanction is justified? What range of sanctions can be applied? Suppose someone taking up a work experience placement had to give up some other worthwhile activity to comply with the requirements of the work experience, such as volunteering at a local community group and contributing in some way to the “big society”. Will the Minister clarify how sanctions will operate in practice in those circumstances?
Can the Minister tell us a little more about the range of placements that will be offered? He has listed some of the companies that have offered to take part in the scheme. The hospitality sector is strongly represented in that list. What will the Government do to procure more placements to offer participants in a wider range of organisations? To what extent will the placements be matched to the participants’ skills or future career plans? One kind of opportunity that I do not think is represented in the list is those in the third sector. Do the Government plan to look for third sector organisations that might offer places through the scheme?
We are told that work experience will be targeted initially at 14 areas throughout the UK. Which areas are they, and on what basis have they been selected? Who exactly will be encouraged to take up the opportunities? Clearly, they will not be for everybody, so how will those people be selected? How will decisions be made about the possibility of extending the programme further? We understand that discussions are taking place about extending it to older jobless people when an initial evaluation has been completed. Can the Minister tell us a little more about that process and how he envisages it unfolding?
We want the Government to be successful in helping young people into work. However, as with so much else, there is a danger that if there are too few real jobs for people to move into, we will make much less progress than we should. We know that a very large number of public sector jobs will be lost over the next few years, and so far there is no sign at all of the private sector jobs boom that the Government have been banking on. To tackle effectively the growing problem of rising youth unemployment, the Government must not only develop a growth strategy, which, as Richard Lambert pointed out, they do not have at the moment, but look again at the scale and speed of the cuts that are under way. The measure, modest though it is, may well be helpful, and we will certainly not object to its adoption.
Chris Grayling: I shall reply briefly to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. I thank him for saying that he will support the proposed regulatory change. On sanctions, a first offence will generate a two-week sanction—a two-week loss of jobseeker’s allowance payment—and a repeat offence within a 12-month period will generate a four-week sanction.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the length of placements. That is very much up to the employer. We do not want to prescribe from the centre. It may be a month or two months, but that is something to be agreed on the ground by the employer. I was seeking to avoid a situation in which somebody could lose benefits if they took a placement that was longer than two weeks. However, it seems sensible to set a limit if there is no clear path to a job after two months; otherwise it could be used simply as a labour replacement exercise.
Chris Grayling: Principally, it is for not showing up—for when someone drops out of the workplace or no longer attends. That will be a matter for the adviser on the ground. The right hon. Gentleman asked a question about the imposition of sanctions. The employer would phone the person at Jobcentre Plus who organised the placement and say, “Joe hasn’t turned up four days this week, and we’ve heard nothing from him.” Subject to a phone call from Joe explaining what had happened, and if there was no good excuse for non-appearance—a check would always be made in the case of any sanction— a sanction would be imposed. The decision to impose a sanction is made by Jobcentre Plus, not the employer. It would compromise the employer to put them in a position where they took a sanctioning decision.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked what happens if somebody is volunteering. He should remember that the scheme is voluntary. It is about young people who want work placements coming forward, which is why sanctions will seldom be used. Clearly, if someone has decided that they want work experience, they will be happy to move away from volunteering. As he knows, we are putting measures in place to strengthen volunteering for jobseekers. In particular, I am delighted that we have forged a partnership with the Prince’s Trust; there will be voluntary sector desks, organised by the trust, in most of our jobcentres. That should have a dual benefit: it will make the expertise of the Prince’s Trust available in jobcentres, which will benefit young people, and it will provide a gateway to volunteering opportunities for all jobseekers. We have also put clearer links on the Jobcentre Plus website to volunteering opportunities, and we have instructed advisers to steer people who have an interest in volunteering towards the available information. Volunteering is important.
Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): This is an excellent initiative, but will the Minister explain one point that I have not entirely grasped? If I understand correctly, there can be a sanction for not turning up at all and a sanction for leaving after a week. There is a period of a week when someone can leave without any sanction. Will the Minister explain more clearly the rationale behind that?
Chris Grayling: That is intended to be no more or less than a probationary period of the kind that exists in many forms of employment. If someone goes to a placement but it does not work and the employer and the individual do not get on, there is a get-out clause to allow that individual to say, “This is totally wrong.”
Matching skills is a matter for the adviser, and it is something that we expect to be done on the ground—looking for opportunities that are relevant to a young person’s aspirations and abilities. It is up to front-line professionals to identify the right opportunities in discussion with that young person. It may be that the young person has organised the placement themselves, as happened in a case that I saw a few months ago. I do not want the scheme to be a one-way exercise. Individuals should have the freedom to organise placements if they find them, but at the same time Jobcentre Plus must be more proactive in helping those who do not have the contacts to organise such placements.
Kate Green: In that context, in the evaluation that will be conducted after the initial areas have run the programme for a period, what monitoring will be undertaken to identify the characteristics of those young people who take up these opportunities? In light of the industry sectors that have been mentioned so far, I am particularly concerned to ensure that we are aware of the gender breakdown of the young people going into work experience. There are also issues such as ethnicity and disability to be considered.
Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady makes an important point. I wanted Jobcentre Plus to be proactive in the project because I recognise that it is easier for people from certain walks of life to organise work experience places through family contacts. To have Jobcentre Plus actively looking for placement opportunities makes it more likely that we can provide placements across the whole spectrum of young people.
On ethnicity, gender and whether the person has a disability, it is my hope that advisers will find placements to suit individuals, regardless of their circumstances, and that they will find the best placement for every individual. We have been clear that we want more people with disabilities in work, and we want to tackle the problems that face our minority groups. One thing that causes me particular concern is the high level of unemployment among young Bangladeshi men, for example. Equally, there is a problem with Bangladeshi women in east London. There is a good network of voluntary sector organisations working with that group, which I hope will end up supporting the Work programme. Those are matters of concern, and one of the reasons for making Jobcentre Plus proactive in the scheme is to try to ensure that it filters down to all levels of society and to different groups of claimants. It should be an opportunity that is open to everyone.
On third sector organisations, I have a meeting shortly with the Social Enterprise Coalition, which is interested in taking part. I have also made it clear that my Department should take part in the scheme, and I hope that other Departments will follow suit. I see no particular restrictions on kinds of employers; work experience is valuable wherever it is, and I see the public sector and the third sector playing a part.
The right hon. Member for East Ham mentioned the 14 areas, and I can quickly give him the list: Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly; Devon; eastern Scotland; the highlands and islands; Lancashire; Lincolnshire; Merseyside; Northumberland and Tyne and Wear; south Yorkshire; south-west Scotland; Tees valley and Durham; east Wales; west Wales and the valleys; and the west midlands. I stress that the whole of Jobcentre Plus nationwide is taking part in the initiative. Because we are dealing with 14 areas of deprivation and people who have significant financial challenges in their life, we are able to make available some degree of financial support for things such as bus fares and child care if necessary.
It is not that work experience is not being provided everywhere; it will be. There are some very keen staff in Jobcentre Plus looking for opportunities. The scheme means that in the areas that I mentioned, which are particularly challenged in terms of levels of unemployment, we have an opportunity to provide an extra element of support. As time goes by, if the funding becomes available to spread the scheme, we will look at the benefits of doing so.
Chris Grayling: There is always a danger with schemes such as this that one over-measures. I will want to know at the end of it whether it has been successful in securing large numbers of placements for young people, and whether there is evidence of those young people moving into jobs or apprenticeships. One of the lessons of the past decade is that one can over-engineer these things. If we put in place complicated reporting mechanisms that require vast amounts of management data to be sent back to the centre, in the end we would take the eye of the front-line staff off the ball. I really want them to be finding work placement opportunities. We will keep a watchful eye on how the scheme is working. We will collect data on, and will evaluate how, it is working. It is meant to be a simple scheme, and I do not want to over-engineer the monitoring and lose the simplicity that is its benefit.
Graham Stringer: I would not want to encourage the Minister to over-engineer the monitoring, but I would like a simple idea of the numbers and percentages. Not more than a couple of scribbles on a piece of paper would be required to enable us to know whether the scheme was a success, in terms of the numbers or percentages of people going through it and completing it.
Chris Grayling: I do not think that one would set targets for something like this. I am not going to say that the scheme will be a success only if we get x thousand young people into work experience opportunities and y thousand get jobs. We are talking about a very simple, low-cost exercise to free up an opportunity for young people. In a few months’ time, when I stand before the Select Committee on Work and Pensions or answer questions in the House, I will give Members a sense of how well it is working. Based on what we understand about the scheme, we may, as the right hon. Member for East Ham asked, look at whether it should be extended to an older age group and whether it is
In a few months’ time, I hope that we will have repeated the experience of that first person, who, after the first few weeks of a work experience placement, was offered an apprenticeship. I hope that we will be able to show that through a very simple measure we have opened a door for a lot more young people to take that
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 9th March 2011|