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Community Programme

Volume 113: debated on Tuesday 31 March 1987

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3.

asked the Paymaster General if he will make a statement on the number of places available on the community programme.

On 27 February 1987 there were 248,216 people employed on the programme. This is an increase of 56,338 filled places, since February 1986. In 1987–88 the programme will operate at an average level over the year of about 245,000 filled places which will provide opportunities for around 300,000 entrants, about the same number as in the current year.

Is the Paymaster General aware of the apparent capriciousness of the MSC and the place of the community programme, which means that in those areas where the programme has done well it will now be cut in order to favour those areas where it has done less well? Given that the community programme is a cost-effective scheme, would it not be worth while for the Government to increase rather than cut the number of places where the programme is doing well so that the total number of places has to increase if the Government's policy of assisting those areas that have done less well is to continue? Is the Paymaster General aware that Leeds city council has not taken up 500 places because the Government will not supplement them and, therefore, people who are unemployed in Leeds are caught between the MSC and the city council, which will not assist them in the community programme?

We must look at the allocation of places, but we are guided by need. At the moment we are trying to concentrate on those parts of Britain where unemployment remains highest. We are also seeing how the community programme places fit alongside the new job training scheme, which will provide a better option for many of the under-25s.

Half the places in Leeds will still be taken up by the Leeds city council, but we want to see a diversity of suppliers. The overall effect in Yorkshire and Humberside is that the number of places next year will be exactly the same as this year.

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is now urging us to support the community programme. I am told that long ago, when he was secretary of the council of voluntary services in Bradford, he was always opposed to it. Now that the Liberal party has come round and is seeking to imitate it, no doubt he has had a change of view.

I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that many of us who represent areas with relatively low unemployment strongly support his policy of taking places from the community programme in the wealthier parts of the country and redistributing them to areas with higher unemployment. However, will he make sure that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water and that specialist schemes, such as that operated by the Elfrida Rathbone Society, catering for those who find it more difficult to obtain work, are not scrapped at the same time as other more widespread schemes?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because it is sometimes difficult for those who provide worthwhile schemes to understand why they may be cut a little to allow more places to be provided in, say, depressed inner city areas. I certainly agree that we should have a look at specialist schemes and protect those, particularly that run by the excellent society to which he referred.

Will the Paymaster General now admit that on the figures that he has just given he has announced a cut of 10,000 places in the community programme and that the local cuts are greater than that because of the build up of some of the big national schemes, such as Branson? Will he admit that the reason is that he has found a better way to get people out of the unemployment figures, and that is called the job training scheme—work experience for benefit? Has he any plans to increase the allowance on the community programme? Will he admit that the net take-home pay on the community programme is £49 a week? If there is to be an increase, where will the money come from? Will it be from further cuts in the community programme?

The Opposition object when we introduce new programmes, and also when we try to alter the balance between existing ones. They take an extremely negative view. The figures that I gave show that the community programme, which has just gone through a period of rapid expansion, is being maintained at about the same level as last year. However, we must look at the impact of the new job training scheme, which we hope will provide 110,000 places by September of this year, chiefly for those under 25. We must see how the community programme sits alongside that scheme, as well as altering the emphasis.

The present allowance is tied to the market rate of pay— particularly the rates paid to local government manual workers— and the figures that the hon. Lady cites are better understood when it is appreciated that they are usually for part-time work, not for a full working week.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that while the community programme is essential to help the long-term unemployed, if it is used with imagination, it can also bring great benefits to local communities? In Lincoln, for example, an excellent scheme to construct a delightful walkway along the River Witham is helping both the unemployed and the community. Does the community programme not also provide encouraging results, in that the number of long-term unemployed is now on the decline?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am only sorry that his constituent, Mr. Peter Hodginkinson, who had so much to do with that scheme, has not survived to see it being brought into effect. That is one of many examples of how giving valuable work experience to the long-term unemployed can also bring benefits to the local community. That is why we are so pleased with our achievements in crime prevention in the inner cities, the farm and countryside programme and many other worthwhile aims of Government policy.