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Work Programme

Volume 521: debated on Monday 10 January 2011

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. We published the full invitation to tender for the Work programme shortly before Christmas. Would-be bidders have until early February to submit their bids and we remain on track to launch the Work programme in the summer.

Downham Market has a community payback scheme that was initiated by volunteers. How will the community payback scheme fit with the Work programme, in which those volunteers are keen to get involved, as well as with voluntary work in my constituency?

That is an important point because many of those who go on to the Work programme will be former offenders or, in some cases, people going through community payback who are on welfare. I am in close contact with my colleagues in the Department for Justice and we are working together to try to ensure that we integrate their work on rehabilitating offenders with our work to get former offenders back into work.

In my constituency of Stafford, a number of local voluntary organisations and social enterprises are committed to getting people back into work. What assurances can the Minister give us that they will be taken into account when it comes to awarding the sub-contracts under the main contractors?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are very clear that we want to see small local community, voluntary sector, social enterprise and private sector groups having the opportunity to work alongside major contractors in the Work programme. We have been very clear to would-be prime contractors that if they do not bring together a consortium of smaller organisations that demonstrate the breadth of skills necessary to deliver support to all the different groups that will be helped under the Work programme, they will not be successful in their bids. That is of paramount importance.

I very much welcome the assurances we have received from the Minister about the small-scale organisations that are being brought in to the larger contracting. What assurances can he give my constituents and others in Cornwall who benefit from EU convergence funding that the locally identified priorities under that programme and the excellent work that has been done to get hard-to-reach groups of people back into work will continue and will benefit from the Work programme?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. At the moment, we are considering the next phase of the European social fund contracting. I am absolutely clear—indeed, the objectives of the scheme make it clear—that it must sit alongside the Work programme as part of a drive to help some of those who are furthest from the workplace to make the move back into work and to lift them out of poverty. That will remain a priority for us.

Is not the Work programme undermined from the outset by the cuts that the Minister is making to the child care component of the working tax credit, which will hit families in my constituency to the tune of some £500 a year? Why is he instituting such a disincentive to work?

The hon. Gentleman has to remember the financial mess his Government left behind. If we do not sort out the deficit and create a stable economic environment in this country, there will not be secure jobs in the future. That is and will remain our No. 1 priority.

On Thursday, I visited my borough’s alcohol and drugs service and spoke to service users and providers. One of the biggest problems found by people who have a history of misuse is moving from treatment into work. I hope that the Work programme will address that, particularly given the issues that I have been told that they have with Jobcentre Plus. We are told that the pricing system in the new programme will reward providers who help those who are hardest to reach. Will that pricing structure account for those with a history of alcohol and drug misuse?

The simple answer to that question is yes, it will. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point and I want to refer to one other dimension of the issue. A key point is giving those people opportunities to volunteer while claiming benefit. Volunteering can be an extremely important part of the pathway from a long-term problem into work. We have changed the guidance for Jobcentre Plus and will proactively promote volunteering opportunities to those who face those challenges in the hope that we will help them take that extra step on the way.

Just before Christmas, the all-party Select Committee on Work and Pensions—may I be the first to congratulate its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), on her well deserved honour in the new year’s list?—warned of a looming gap between the future jobs fund closing to new referrals of young people at the end of March and the start of the Work programme in June. In an article this morning, the Secretary of State, commenting on rising youth unemployment, promised that

“the programmes we inherited will remain in place until we replace them later this year.”

Can we therefore take it that referrals to the future jobs fund will continue until June?

I start by offering my congratulations to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg). There are moments when awards are acclaimed in all parts of the House, and hers certainly has been.

We have already extended the contracts for all the legacy programmes, which people will take advantage of until June. There will be people on the future jobs fund in the new financial year, and we are working through the detail of the transition for the final few weeks before people join the Work programme. Obviously, some people will be referred for a short period before the start of the Work programme, and we will negotiate with the would-be contractors to ensure a smooth transition. Our goal is to ensure that there is proper continuity for all those who need specialist support.