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Youth Employment (Wirral)

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 14 September 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue of importance to my constituency in my first Adjournment debate. I should like to say a few words about young people’s employment opportunities in Wirral. Specifically, I will highlight the success of the Wirral apprenticeship scheme, touch on some wider employment issues and finally consider the numbers involved and the problem that we face in the supply of employment opportunities.

I begin by highlighting the great success of the Wirral apprenticeship scheme. Wirral council, in partnership with Connexions and Jobcentre Plus, has done an excellent job of increasing the number of apprenticeships and, most importantly, helping young people to apply for them. It has used working neighbourhood funds to support local businesses in hiring 167 young people in everything from dairy farming to jewellery design. Nearly half those young people were not already in employment, education or training, or were at risk of drifting on to the dole, which none of us wants to see.

There were two elements to the scheme. First, the council committed funding for a member of staff for 18 months if a business would commit to employing them for two years. The second, and I believe more important, part of the scheme related to recruitment support and how the council went about finding the businesses to take part and the young people to be employed by them. I pay tribute to Viv Stafford, Mel Campbell and the team at Wirral council, who worked proactively with young people and employers so that businesses were supported all along the way and young people were able to gain confidence prior to their work interview. Their priority was young people at risk of becoming a burden on the state and businesses with little existing experience of apprenticeships or of hiring young people.

Overall, the scheme resulted in not only more apprenticeships and young people who were work-ready to take up the opportunities available, but in employers gaining the confidence to offer young people more work experience. Rather than just apprenticeships per se, employers also offered work placements. I feel that the programme ought to be replicated across the country. We have real expertise in Wirral, and we can help ensure that this generation of young people does not end up missing out on the chance of success. I ask the Minister whether he supports local government playing such a leading role, and what the Government can do to back up councils that want to take that approach. My lesson from Wirral is that a cross-partnership approach involving all the responsible agencies is needed, no matter which bit of the state they are involved in. I should like to know what he thinks about that approach.

To move on from the Wirral apprenticeship scheme, there are wider issues to consider in young people accessing employment. The future jobs fund, which ensured that young people had continuity on their CVs, is now gone, and young people without work experience face a very tough labour market. My job is not to stand here and whinge on behalf of Merseyside—I will never do that. However, historic facts about our area mean that the employment picture there can be more fragile than elsewhere. It is therefore all the more important for us that Connexions, working with schools, can assist and advise young people on getting good-quality work experience placements, as well as training and mentoring. Young people need independent advice, but teachers do not always have the time to get up to speed with how the labour market has moved on. That independent advice is important.

Businesses, too, have a responsibility. They must show commitment to the next generation. When I became an MP, I went around and talked to lots of businesses in my community on how they felt about that. Thankfully, Wirral businesses told me that they absolutely want to make such a commitment. Invest Wirral has a fantastic business support team that is committed to connecting businesses with all the Government help that is available and with help from other sources. However, that depends on our local authority having the resources to provide that support. It is under great pressure given the budget cuts that are being handed down, as is all state funding.

As a side point, we should not let the media off the hook. Sometimes, there is great pressure on young people to succeed at A-levels and go straight on to a university degree, whether or not that is right for them. I would like the media more often to celebrate successful apprentices and young people who are in business. Academic success is important, but it should not be prioritised for media coverage every year at results time at the expense of all other forms of success among our young people. The more we celebrate the diversity of our young people, the more confident they will be, and we know how important self-esteem and confidence are when it comes to people achieving their hopes.

Will the Minister give me more information on what the Department for Work and Pensions and other Departments plan to do to support young people to gain work opportunities, including, but not only, apprenticeships? Will the Government support the recruitment process? I am sure he will give me a positive answer to this question: will he commit, with all Ministers, to talking up the achievements of our young people?

We know that, in part, this is a numbers game. We had a good opportunity to discuss the national apprenticeships scheme in Westminster Hall, when the fact that there are simply not enough apprenticeships out there for the people who want them was brought to light very clearly.

The hon. Lady and I are on opposite sides of the House, but our constituencies are next to each other, and on this matter we stand side by side. We both talk very passionately about youth unemployment and apprenticeships, and she will no doubt know that I am taking on an apprentice. However, Labour’s legacy is dire. Labour brought about the highest number of young people aged between 18 and 24 not earning or learning—the proportion is nearly 20%. Although I agree with her rhetoric, the evidence of what Labour did in reality is somewhat lacking. Will she join me in welcoming the new Government’s allocation of £600 million for programmes to support unemployed young people and £150 million for 50,000 apprenticeships?

The hon. Lady raises a few questions, but she and I stand side by side in ensuring that there are enough opportunities for apprenticeships—I agree with her up to that point. I understand what she says, but I invite her to come with me to visit Age Concern Wirral, which uses the future jobs fund to employ young people to do very important work in caring for those with Alzheimer’s. Those young people were getting continuity on their CVs, so that once the economy picked up, they would be work-ready and ready to look for opportunities. The Government’s first act was to take that away, which is having a real impact. I agree with her in many ways, but I obviously cannot agree with her about the previous Government’s record.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating this debate, which is important to the future of our young people. Does she agree that we have just faced an enormous global recession that has put young people out of work and made life very difficult for them, and that one of the challenges that we face is finding enough employers to take on apprentices? We therefore badly need the Government to encourage employers to take on apprentices whenever possible.

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is, sadly, rare to be inspired by a local authority officer, but I was totally inspired by our team in Wirral, which has taken employers in the area on a journey. Employers with no history of working with young people or taking on apprentices have become so confident in the scheme that they are fully funding their apprentices. We need to spread that approach across the country, and I hope that the Minister will say more about how we could do that.

There are not enough work opportunities for young people whereby they can train on the job. The Government have said that they will increase the number of opportunities, but we need truly additional funding, not just a re-badging of existing training schemes. Unless there are more opportunities for young people—and business has a role to play in this as much as Government—we will see great frustration and, ultimately, more young people on the dole. That is my real concern. That would damage not only any attempt to reduce the budget deficit, but those young people for years to come. Labour markets demonstrate hysteresis—they have memory. If a place has suffered unemployment in the past it is more likely to continue to do so, and that lowers the skills and the confidence of the people. Merseyside has worked hard, and will continue to do so, to combat the worst effects of the 1980s, some of which we still feel, but not continuing the increase in apprenticeships and work opportunities for young people will set us back and we will feel the effects for many years to come. People in my constituency do not want austerity economics: they want investment in our young people.

I would be grateful if the Minister explained how the Government will increase the number of work opportunities in the UK and, specifically, how that will affect Wirral and the Merseyside travel-to-work area.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing her first Adjournment debate on a subject that is a matter of concern across the House. I share her concerns about Wirral and Merseyside. In the previous Parliament I was the shadow Minister with responsibility for building knowledge, understanding and ties between my party and the people, businesses and communities of Merseyside, and I also spent time in Wirral supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey).

The hon. Lady mentioned the 1980s, but it is not what happened 30 years ago that defines the present moment. What defines the present moment is the failed inheritance from the previous Government. They had 13 years of unprecedented economic growth, and they spent billions of pounds on welfare programmes, but the number of people on out-of-work benefits—in Merseyside and elsewhere—remained stubbornly high. They failed to get people off benefits and into work. That failure matters now, when we are dealing with the cyclical impact of a recession, because we have to deal not only with those who have lost their jobs as a result of the recession and those who are entering the jobs market for the first time, but a huge block of people who have been on benefits for year after year. It makes the challenge that we face—of getting as many of our citizens into work as possible—much bigger than it should have been.

The hon. Lady is right to say that Wirral, and Merseyside as a whole, have suffered from the recession. In Wirral the Swiss food company Givaudan has closed, with the loss of 150 jobs, and jobs have been lost in other parts of Merseyside, leading to real pressures on the community, as in other parts of the country. We have to create an economic environment in which businesses can grow, develop and create sustainable jobs for the future, and I am confident about Merseyside in that respect.

If people spend a lot of time in Liverpool and around Merseyside, they quickly recognise what a wealth of enterprise, ideas and knowledge there is in and around the region that can be harnessed very effectively to create the opportunities of the future. There is a really dynamic spirit coming out of the universities in Liverpool. I have seen some great young businesses in the area, and I am confident that we can create the right environment there—an environment in which we charge less for employers who take on their first few employees; in which we cut the national insurance they pay; in which businesses pay less in corporation tax; in which we seek to reduce the burden of regulation; in which there are fewer health and safety regulations that cost small businesses; and in which we try to simplify the environment for businesses to work in.

In that kind of environment people will say, “Yes, I can do it. I can start a business. I can start to create jobs.” That way we can start to deal with the big problem that the hon. Lady rightly pointed out with unemployed young people. Last year there were 5,500 unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds in the Wirral—an unemployment rate that has stayed stubbornly high—but that is not simply down to the current recession. The level of young people not in employment, education or training has remained stubbornly high throughout the past 13 years, and is higher now than it was in 1997. We really have to change that.

The hon. Lady referred to the future jobs fund. Many of the employment programmes we inherited from the previous Government were not effective. I understand the motivation for the future jobs fund, but we found it to be a scheme that cost a substantial amount of money and generated temporary jobs in and around the public sector, but did not create the kind of long-term opportunities for young people that would give them skills to last a career. Frankly, we felt that we could do better. However, she is wrong to say that we simply came in and scrapped the future jobs fund. We did not. Future jobs fund jobs are still being created today. However, we have said that we will phase out the scheme and put in place a number of measures next year, including the introduction of our single Work programme, about which I will talk more in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West is right about the Government’s decision to deliver 50,000 extra apprenticeships. An apprenticeship is a much better way of giving somebody long-term skill opportunities than putting them into a temporary placement as the future jobs fund would.

The Secretary of State is talking about apprenticeships, which are fantastic for the young people who have the confidence and ability to engage with them. However, the future jobs fund helped some young people who were nowhere near ready to be apprentices and who needed that extra lift. Without that, a whole layer of young people will be put on the scrap heap. That is the difference. What he is talking about is fantastic, but he has to consider what the future jobs fund did to help young people whose situation did not allow them to take up an apprenticeship—people who were not apprenticeship-ready.

Let us be clear: the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we are dealing with very real issues for young people, and one certainly finds that in and around Merseyside. I have spent a lot of time with voluntary sector groups working with young people who have some pretty difficult circumstances in their lives. The reality is that many people from those difficult backgrounds emerge from school and struggle to enter the workplace, having not developed skills in school and having fallen behind for a variety of reasons. We have to get to grips with that.

That is one reason why this Administration are pressing ahead with the pupil premium. Hon. Members will know that often young people fall behind during early years development, at the age of one, two and three, and then get to school already behind their peers, never catch up and end up leaving school without basic levels of literacy and numeracy. That is one reason why we are putting the pupil premium into some of our most challenged schools—so that we can try to help some of those young people to catch up.

The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) is right to say that we have to do more preparatory work for young people to get into the work place, and that will be one of the key aims of the single Work programme. On the one hand, we are looking to build skills, which the apprenticeships programme is certainly designed to help achieve. However, the Work programme is the most important part of what we are trying to do. It will be introduced next year and will take over from existing programmes, some of which—such as pathways to work, which was highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee this week— have not worked, and others of which, such as the future jobs fund, we judged were not delivering value for money, given the high cost and the nature of the employment provided.

I am keen to see the creation of an environment in which we have specialist organisations working with people of all ages—including young people, who have precisely the kind of challenges to which the hon. Lady referred—by helping them to move into the workplace, build up their confidence, develop an understanding of what they need to get into work, establish work placements for the first time, build up work experience and make the jump into the workplace. That is the nature of the single Work programme.

Can the Minister say specifically how that differs from the new deal for young people? It sounds like revisionism to me—as though no good was ever done before—whereas in fact the figures in Wirral show that we have half as many unemployed people now as we did in the previous recession, which is the proper comparison. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister could say how his programme will differ from the excellent new deal.

The big problem that we had with the new deals was that they were effectively programmes designed in Whitehall. The standard new deal format was 13 weeks in a classroom, with relatively little financial focus on outcomes or whether people got into work at the end. It was very much about the Government paying for placements. The placements happened, but as for the outcomes of the different new deals—yes, they got some people into work, but the number who stayed in work was disappointingly low. One of the big differences with the Work programme is that it will not simply be about getting people into work, but will be about sustaining them in employment.

In particular, where young people come from the kind of difficult background that the hon. Member for North Tyneside described, the programme will not be about just getting them through the first days of work; it will be about helping them to stay there and overcome some of the hurdles that they face in the workplace, including some of the cultural aspects of working life that they do not expect. Having mentors sitting alongside them in the workplace is an extremely important part of what we are seeking to do.

I am expecting to have specialist providers serving the Wirral and Merseyside whose job it will be to work with unemployed young people, as well as those of other ages, not only helping them to find those first opportunities to gain work experience, develop interview skills and understand how to put together a CV, but going out and working with employers, match-making young people with the opportunities that are out there. As the hon. Lady will know, there are quite a large number of vacancies out there, but often a jobseeker will not know how to go about finding those opportunities. The skills brought by professional providers working with people with the potential to get into work, so that we match them with the right opportunities, are fundamental.

We should set that against our plans for the skills system. We are currently consulting on how the further education and skills system can be developed to respond effectively to the skills gaps that we need to address. We want to give training providers greater freedom to target provision to meet local needs, alongside giving colleges and other providers greater local autonomy to say, “This is what we need in our area,” ensuring greater provision of apprenticeships and putting in place the Work programme, which will be both local and national. The programme will be a national scheme, but the responsibility for delivery in each area will be devolved to a provider in a local community who will be specifically mandated to work with organisations in the voluntary sector and organisations such as Wirral council.

Indeed, I very much want to see local authorities participating locally in the work that is done, working with the providers and sometimes doing the work themselves. What we will end up with is local partnerships collaborating to match individuals with employment opportunities and to overcome the hurdles that often exist between the two. Although we face tough and straitened times—I will be absolutely frank and say that, as an Administration, we will not be able to do all the things that we would like to do—we need to make that investment in skills development and deliver those apprenticeships.

As my right hon. Friend would like to see that work, let me invite him, as a good friend of Merseyside, to come up to Wirral and see our apprenticeship scheme in action.

I would be very happy to do that at some point. I am always happy to revisit Merseyside. There are some great people there, and it is a great community. Liverpool is a magnificent city. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West and the hon. Member for Wirral South represent important constituencies that are also nice places to live in and to represent, and I would be delighted to come and see some of the work being done there at some point.

I share the aspiration of the hon. Member for Wirral South to ensure that as many young people as possible can find work, although there will undoubtedly be times when she and her colleagues disagree with me and my colleagues about the means that we are using to try to achieve that. We certainly face tough and challenging times financially, and that will make it more difficult to do all the things that we would like to do. At the end of the day, however, we all share that aspiration. I do not want to see large numbers of people whose lives are wasting away while they are stranded at home on benefits, doing nothing.

We need to make changes to the welfare state to improve the incentives to work. We also need to give people an extra push, particularly when they have been out of the workplace for a long time or have never worked. Such people can build up problems with their confidence, and they are often uncertain about how to get into the workplace and how to go about getting a job. We have to help them to overcome that. We all want the same thing. I want to see as many people as possible of all ages, but particularly young people, in work in thriving businesses in an enterprise culture that we have created, in which businesses are growing and developing, and emerging from our universities, and in which companies are coming into the UK to invest and create jobs. If we can create that dynamic business environment, provide investment in skills and deliver really effective back-to-work support for those who are struggling to get work, we shall be able to achieve the goals that the hon. Lady rightly sets for her constituents and for those of all right hon. and hon. Members across the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.