Skip to main content

Back to Work Initiative (Wales)

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

In the past 13 years, the number of people employed in the Vale of Clwyd, my constituency, has gone from 23,000 in 1997 to 29,000 today. That is the fifth biggest increase in the number of people employed in a constituency among the 40 parliamentary seats in Wales. Five of the top six biggest increases are in north Wales constituencies, which is something that I am very proud about.

The St. Asaph business park in my constituency, which was built by the previous Conservative Government at a cost of £11 million, was empty for 10 years. There are now 3,500 jobs on that business park. The Labour Government have applied for objective 1 funding, which was granted in 2000. The previous Conservative Government did not even apply.

The issue is not the total number of jobs in my constituency but their distribution, especially in poorer areas. In 2002, I asked for the unemployment statistics for my county of Denbighshire. There are 32 wards in Denbighshire. Most unemployment was concentrated in two wards: the south-west ward of Rhyl, the council estate ward in which I was born and brought up, and the west ward of Rhyl.

I thought that was unfair, so I asked the professionals what joint action was being taken to counteract unemployment. Organisations were working in silos, and few were working together, so I formed an unemployment group in 2002. Initially, I asked about 20 agencies to join, including representatives from the Department for Work and Pensions, the careers service, the local college, the economic regeneration team, the local education authority, the health service, the police and the probation service, as well as one individual I would particularly like to mention: Gareth Matthews, who then worked for Working Links. I believe that he is one of the finest practitioners of the back to work agenda in the whole country.

Meetings were convened about four times a year. We set our minds to improving work opportunities in those two wards. We met and made progress for three years, but the catalyst for the group was the DWP’s announcement that it would form city strategy pilots across 15 UK cities, including bigger cities such as Birmingham and Glasgow. I approached the then Minister—now the Secretary of State for Scotland—and asked him whether Rhyl could become a pilot city, even though it is a Welsh town of only 27,000 people. I asked that we be considered for the seaside pilot for the back to work agenda in 50 traditional UK seaside towns.

The Minister listened, and we did some further lobbying with the then Minister of State—now Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport—my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge). She summed up the problem with the back to work agenda by discussing her visit to Glasgow, where she learned that 200 different organisations were working, some in isolation and others in competition, to get people back to work.

That crystallised for me what we needed to do in my constituency and my home town of Rhyl, which suffered from so much unemployment. We needed to ensure that everyone involved in the back to work agenda was fully apprised of what others were doing. Where there was scope for joint working and co-operation, it should be flagged up at an early stage. Competition should be minimised, co-operation maximised and ignorance eliminated. The Minister of State listened carefully to our request, and we were made a city strategy pilot.

One of the first tasks that the Rhyl city strategy faced involved governance arrangements. We did not want to become an arm of the county council; we wanted flexibility and the ability to respond rapidly to the issues facing us. We decided to set up a community interest company. I believe that of the 15 pilot areas in the UK, we are the only one with a CIC. It was proposed by Ian Eldred, the head at the time of Clwyd Leisure, another CIC.

With city strategy status came additional funding allowing the employment of key personnel who professionalised our approach to unemployment in Rhyl. They include Ali Thomas, the inspirational local manager of Rhyl city strategy, and Julia Cain, whose lateral thinking on employment has led to engagements for ex-offenders caring for bees in an apiary. I will come to that later. Other initiatives developed local butchers and fishmongers in Rhyl. Those two officers were ably helped by Jennie Walker and Suzanne Jeffrey.

Two projects illustrate our success. The funding administered by the RCS comes from a variety of sources. The biggest source is the DWP through deprived area funding and specific grants made to the Rhyl city strategy. The Welsh Assembly Government have also stepped up to the mark. Their Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills provides big chunks of funding for basic skills.

The funding is critical to raising the skill profiles of local workers, many of whom face multiple barriers, including low literacy and numeracy, drug and alcohol problems and low self-esteem and confidence. I pay tribute to DCELLS officer Ian Williams, a key member of the city strategy team who has secured much-needed funding for our projects. The core funding is often supplemented by other agencies and bodies, sometimes in the form of gifts in kind and staffing contributions.

One project is the Dewi Sant centre, which I have mentioned. It is run by a chap called Geoff Bainbridge, who works with ex-offenders, many of whom have multiple problems. One initiative that he has come up with to engage them is an apiary on the outskirts of Rhyl where ex-offenders look after bees and develop allotments.

Another is Football in the Community, run by Jamie Digwood and Tracey Jones at Rhyl football club. They use sport as a means of engaging unemployed people by training and employing young people in the Rhyl area as football coaches. The workers then go out into the community and on to council estates to engage young people and keep them fit, healthy and on the straight and narrow. It is an excellent project. Ministers and TV crews have come from as far away as Ireland, Scotland and England to see what we are doing at Rhyl football club. The work is inspirational.

The project with perhaps the most visitors is the Rhyl youth action group at the Hub. The project is led by Shane Owen, a grass-roots professional who is setting the pace for youth engagement in the UK. The project is located in the heart of the most deprived ward in Wales and works with young people, providing accommodation above the project, youth club facilities, access to top-of-the-range computers and a retail training unit.

The facilities act as a honey pot for young people in the area, and the project has 1,000 people on its books. The key to its success is that in the same building are most of the professionals who deal with the back to work agenda in Rhyl, including Llandrillo college, the Rathbone Society, Remploy, Want 2 Work, Serco, Working Links, the Anti-Poverty Network and Mentrau Iaith. More office accommodation is being built as we speak.

Those organisations pay rent to the Hub, which means that within 18 months, that youth facility in the heart of the community will be self-sufficient. In return, the organisations have access to 1,000 young people in the same building as their offices. Synergies between organisations are enhanced by the fact that they are in the same building. Again, everyone is a winner because of the level of co-operation.

I want to mention two groups: Serco and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action. Serco is a private sector back to work organisation that is leading the way. It has established an outpost in Rhyl. In the heart of that poor community, it employs 14 local people and hopes to increase the number to 28. The employees work in a refurbished building in Edward Henry street in Rhyl. The WCVA’s national office is in Rhyl. It took some of its functions from Cardiff and located them in Rhyl, in Morfa hall.

As a consequence of the investment by those two prestigious organisations, other organisations are following suit by investing in the town and employing local people. I pay tribute to Dafydd Williams of the WCVA for the investment, the work he does and the role he plays in the future jobs fund and the Rhyl city strategy.

Jobs are provided by the private sector. I highlight the work that Tesco has promised to do in my constituency, where it intends to open two stores, one in Prestatyn and one in Denbigh. Asda hopes to open a store in the west ward of Rhyl. I wrote to Tesco to ask if it would participate in our national-local employment partnership project at 50 per cent., meaning that when the stores open, 50 per cent. of the people employed there will have come off the unemployment register. Tesco has agreed. That could make a huge difference: 1,000 people employed and 500 of them off the register. I thank Tesco for that and hope that Asda follows suit.

One novel project—please pardon the pun—is the initiative of the author David Hughes, who grew up on the same council estate as me and wrote a book about his experience. He is now turning it into a film using children and young people from the council estate as extras. He will teach them the media skills needed to make the film.

Pobl@Gwaith is an existing initiative that the Rhyl city strategy has helped. It is run by Clwyd and Alyn housing association, under the Pennaf banner and is one of the best unemployment projects I have come across. It runs on a shoestring, but its impact on the community and the unemployed is massive. It is headed by Rukhsana Nugent, who is inspirational. She works with clients, some of whom have been unemployed for more than 20 years. They include ex-offenders and people with alcohol or drug issues. To date, 115 clients have been on her course and she has found employment in the care sector for 92. The key to her success is that she takes a direct and personal interest in each and every attendee. She manages the scheme and delivers the courses. Her clients are taught health and safety theory, diversity, self-respect and communication skills.

The key to the scheme’s success is that clients have meaningful work placements, for which they receive a pay packet at the end of the week. Many of the placements are with Clwyd and Alyn housing association, which used to spend tens of thousands of pounds on recruitment and now uses that money for Pobl@Gwaith. It spots the best workers and employs them itself. That is a win-win-win situation.

I ask the Minister to reflect on the benefits of that excellent initiative and the difference it has made to at least 100 people in my community. It has given each of those people back their pride, belonging and sense of self-worth. The state has also benefited because instead of those people being unemployed, they are employed and paying taxes.

The police and the probation service have played a big role in the success of the Rhyl city strategy. I highlight the work of the divisional commander for Conwy and Denbighshire, Rob Kirman, and Steve Ray from the probation service. Both have enlightened viewpoints on the role of employment in their fields of policing and court issues. Both realise that meaningful work and training are the key to an inclusive society. I believe our success has resulted in Denbighshire being the third best crime and disorder reduction partnership of all 360 in England and Wales.

Rob Kirman came up with the idea of having unemployment advisers in custody suites. I asked the Minister to monitor the progress of that idea. The adviser will literally have a captive audience. Many people are in the custody suite for 10 to 15 hours, and they have certain issues. An adviser will be there to give advice on health, drugs, alcohol, basic skills and employment.

None of the schemes would have been successful without Rhyl college. The local community college is key to many of the successes. It offers top-class training to the many community initiatives. The principal, Celia Jones, is a passionate believer in community education and open access. She has built on the success of previous principals, Irene Norman and Jerry Jenson, and the college has just won a merit award for open access in the UK further education beacon awards. The college is going from strength to strength.

Rhyl city strategy has not rested on its laurels. It has scanned the skies for new DWP national initiatives and applied to be part of them. In the past three months, it has been successful in bidding for the future jobs fund. It has received £2.4 million to put 340 young people between the ages of 18 and 25 back to work. There is a £1 billion national investment. Such young people will not be left on the margins, as happened in previous recessions. The offer of a job and training will ensure that they have the skills, self-confidence and work record to access long-term employment when the upturn in the economy comes later this year.

The future jobs fund has also been taken up by the Wales Council for Voluntary Service and BTCV, which will supply additional placements for unemployed young people in my constituency. The majority of those young people will be employed in environmental projects. The primary concern of my constituents is the quality and feel of our local environment, in particular the built environment. The impact of 200 young people planting trees and flowerbeds, putting up hanging baskets, laying hedges and cleaning up derelict land and grot spots will be enormous. It makes so much sense.

In conclusion, I shall summarise why we have a unique winning formula for the back to work agenda in Rhyl. The first reason is the national leadership of the Government, who believe that long-term unemployment in specific communities must be addressed. I am thankful for national initiatives, such as the city strategy, “Fit for Work” and the future jobs fund. A hands-off, laissez-faire, unemployment-is-a-price-worth-paying attitude will not help the communities I represent.

Secondly, I believe our success is to do with partnership at strategic and grass-roots level. There is partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors and between all levels of government, including local government, the Welsh Assembly Government, the UK Government and—dare I say it—the EU, through objective 1 funding. There is a partnership in which ideas, initiatives and funding are shared.

Thirdly, the agencies delivering the services are located in the heart of the communities they serve, not tucked away on a leafy business park discussing theory. Fourthly, our unique governance arrangement as a community interest company has given us the flexibility and independence to achieve results.

The Minister has been to see many of the projects in my constituency, as has the Secretary of State for Wales. Will the Minister relay my request to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to visit my constituency, look at our successful initiatives and spread such best practice throughout the UK?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing this debate and on his tremendous and assiduous work on behalf of his constituents to tackle one of the main concerns of this Government, namely unemployment.

The Rhyl city strategy is an extremely good example of the best possible practice. My hon. Friend outlined the partnerships that are in place. He has done great work in pulling people together and providing coherent local leadership. He stressed the co-operation between the local college, Serco, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, the private sector, Tesco and voluntary organisations. Such partnership undoubtedly produces effective results.

As my hon. Friend said, I have had the privilege of visiting the Rhyl city strategy and seeing the good work for myself, as has the Secretary of State for Wales. I join him in paying tribute to Gareth Matthews and all his staff for their enthusiasm and the strong leadership they have provided for the local community.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of extremely successful initiatives linked to the Rhyl city strategy. He mentioned the successful future jobs fund bid, which will help to create 340 jobs, principally for young people in the local community. He has described a microcosm of the best possible practice. It would be good to replicate that good practice as much as possible and the Government are seeking to do that.

This debate is about the efforts being made to tackle unemployment. Although my hon. Friend has focused on his constituency, I am sure he would agree that the measures he has mentioned can be successful only with a proactive Government who intervene effectively. As the Prime Minister said today, the Government must not stand on the sidelines, but adopt policies and strategies that are about involvement, engagement and stimulating the local community.

We can point to the great success of the new deal. In Wales alone, the new deal has so far helped more than 120,000 people into work and more than 55,000 of those were young people, who are especially important because we are determined not to have a lost generation. We are doing everything that is humanly possible to get young people in particular back into work. We can also point to the future jobs fund in a more general sense. Some £1 billion investment will create 170,000 new jobs throughout the United Kingdom. Again, that will focus on young people.

The co-operation to which my hon. Friend has referred is in evidence in a whole raft of local organisations, but also, significantly, in relation to the Welsh Assembly Government. The good partnership arrangements that are in place between the Welsh Assembly Government and Jobcentre Plus are certainly delivering for the people who need that support—for example, there is the £32 million Want2Work package. So far, that has helped some 2,500 people back into work in Wales and has given added value to the work that has already been conducted by Jobcentre Plus.

We can also talk about the ReAct programme, which is, again, a Welsh Assembly Government initiative. That has helped 129 people in Denbighshire to start training to improve their skills and has assisted them to return to work quickly. Similarly, we can talk about the extra £20 million that has been allocated by the Welsh Assembly Government to tackle youth unemployment in Wales. All of those measures are extremely important and they are all big macro-national initiatives. What gives them added value is how they are put to effective good use. My hon. Friend has given us a clear and graphic example of the kind of co-operation that can produce concrete results.

I conclude by saying that, as I said, I am hoping to see the excellent work that is being done in Rhyl, and we will continue to give our support to the excellent initiatives that are taking place. I would also like to make the point that there is a clear political divide between the sort of measures that have been outlined by my hon. Friend and I, and the alternative that is available and on offer. We experienced that alternative in Wales during the dark years of the 1980s and 1990s, when mass unemployment became endemic and a hallmark of Wales. We must judge the successful measures that are taking place against that backdrop.

The last thing the people of Rhyl, the people of Wales or the people of Britain want to see is the clock being turned back to the bad old days of long-term mass unemployment and a whole generation of young people being cast to one side and forgotten. As we move closer to a general election, which I believe will be in the not too distant future, it is very important that people realise the active work that is taking place, the good work that is being promised and the clear choice that is before us and the people of Britain.

We now move on to the next debate, which is on the supervision and regulation of the IBM pension scheme. I inform hon. Members that the debate will finish at 5.19 pm.