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Employment Assistance (Wales)

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower the National Assembly for Wales to make provision about transport opportunities for long-term incapacity benefit claimants who have gained employment; and for connected purposes.

A couple of weeks ago the Minster for Employment and Welfare Reform came to my constituency to speak at an employment summit. Everyone who attended recognised that the Government, in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government, had achieved enormous success in reducing unemployment in the south Wales valleys. In Wales as a whole there are now more people in work than ever before.

However, everyone at that meeting also agreed that there was still a lot to do if we are to achieve full employment. The pathways to work programme underlines the fact that the central task is successfully to tackle the issue of economic inactivity. Unfortunately, in the south Wales valleys, because of the legacy of heavy industry, a huge number of people are languishing on incapacity benefit. Those are people who were written off by the Tories when they decimated the coal industry and now this Government have the task of breathing new life once again into communities and individuals who have been ignored for so long. Let me be clear: we are not talking about people who are lazy or workshy, as some of the Tories would have it. These are proud people who have been treated with contempt by consecutive Conservative Governments. Our task today is to work with our people to provide support, encouragement and real opportunities.

Nowhere in Britain is the problem of economic inactivity more entrenched than in the area at the heads of the south Wales valleys. Recently, the Bevan Foundation indicated both the scale of the problem and some innovative ways forward. Undoubtedly, one of the problems in helping people off welfare and into work is the topography of the area. From Blaengwynfi in the west to Blaenavon in the east, there are what the writer Gwyn Thomas once called the gulches of south Wales—deep ravine-like valleys, running from north to south. The problem with such topography is twofold. First, it makes it very difficult for industry to locate, and secondly, it makes it very difficult for people to travel to work, especially if they have to travel east-west rather than north-south.

In one of the Welsh Assembly's Committees that looked at economic inactivity in Wales, the lack of transport was correctly identified as one of the main barriers to work. Transport was also referred to time and time again at the employment summit that I referred to earlier. Only the other day, a constituent explained to me how he was faced with the difficulty of travelling from his home in the village of Graig-y-Rhacca across the Rhymney valley to his place of employment just south of Ystrad Mynach. That is a classic example of how just one individual had difficulty in travelling east-west rather than north-south.

In many valley communities poor public transport is part of the fabric of life. A large number of communities do not have passenger rail links and in many cases buses do not service industrial estates and business parks. Where business parks are serviced, bus timetables rarely reflect shift-working patterns. Owning a car for many people is a practical necessity. Those unable to afford a car are frequently left immobile and isolated. Limited access to personal transport is a labour market barrier often cited by new deal participants.

In the long term, the answer is to improve public transport, and the Welsh Assembly Government, through their newly devolved powers, are working hard on that. In the short term, car ownership or access to cars is the only way to enable many people on benefit to secure employment. Of course we should be concerned about carbon emissions, but this is one of the rare cases where car ownership would have a positive social advantage.

In that respect, Working Links, a public-private partnership, is engaged in truly path-breaking work. In the valleys of south Wales, Wheels4Work and Wheels2Work are two unique loan schemes that provide cars, commercial vehicles and scooters free of charge to people requiring personal transport to enable them to get work. Today, the two initiatives have some 80 vehicles and have helped over 400 people into employment.

There is also the question of helping individuals who want to work when they have particular disabilities or conditions. I cite the example of a constituent of mine, Anthony Wilson. Anthony is a young man who suffers from epilepsy. He found a part-time job in the next valley and was supported by Jobcentre Plus, but Jobcentre Plus was unable to help him with his transport costs. Because of his condition he needed a taxi to get to and from work. Working Links was able to provide assistance and 12 months later Anthony Wilson is still in work. Fortunately, in my area we have Working Links, which complements the work of Jobcentre Plus, but it does not have contracts everywhere, so there are gaps that need to be filled.

One of the features of the past couple of years has been the increasingly positive partnership between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government. My suggestion is that we need to consider how best to deepen that relationship; the will is there but we need to look into how the relevant legislation and regulations can be modified and fine-tuned to enhance the relationship. We need to consider in particular whether we need enabling legislation to allow the WAG to intervene in DWP programmes to provide more transport opportunities. Under the Government of Wales Act 2006, the National Assembly for Wales has the opportunity to propose legislation that can then be handled speedily by Parliament.

I hope that due consideration will be given to my proposals. Problems due to transport difficulties are more widespread in the south Wales valleys than in any other part of the country. Devolution is about finding particular solutions to particular problems. This is a problem particular to the south Wales valleys, which is why I propose that consideration be given to the Welsh Assembly gaining the ability to intervene more proactively in the welfare to work agenda.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Wayne David, Mr. Don Touhig, Ann Clwyd, Mr. Dai Havard, Nia Griffith, Chris Bryant, Julie Morgan, and Chris Ruane.

Employment Assistance (Wales)

Mr. Wayne David accordingly presented a Bill to empower the National Assembly for Wales to make provision about transport opportunities for long-term incapacity benefit claimants who have gained employment; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 88].