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Jobcentres/Voluntary Organisations (Collaboration)

Volume 523: debated on Monday 14 February 2011

We were pleased last week to announce the new partnership between Jobcentre Plus and the voluntary sector generally, which will help people to get back to work. Prince’s Trust advisers and other local voluntary organisations will start to have a desk that they man in jobcentres in the next few weeks, and that provision should be available pretty much around the country in April. This will be enormously helpful in tying the voluntary sector in to some of the most difficult people.

Does the Secretary of State agree that voluntary groups can help jobcentres to help jobseekers? The Skipton and Ripon Enterprise Group, a group of leading business men in my constituency, is keen to help mentor jobseekers now. What advice can my right hon. Friend give to its members?

First, what we are doing will really open the door to the voluntary sector’s engagement in the whole process. As my hon. Friend knows, the Work programme that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has been working on has the voluntary sector embedded at the heart of how it will deliver its work. The desks in jobcentres that will be manned by representatives of the Prince’s Trust should open up the door to such people being able to see jobseekers as they come in. My hon. Friend should advise people to look at using provisions such as the enterprise allowance and, if necessary, to come and see my right hon. Friend the Minister about any other advice they need.

While the benefit system is undergoing change and reform, what plans does the Secretary of State have to change the delivery mechanism for benefits? Will he ensure that it remains customer focused, local and accessible?

At the moment, the vast majority of people—about 98%, I think—receive their benefit payments directly into their bank accounts. There is a small number of people who are still, for various reasons, in receipt of cash payments. A proposal was left to us by the previous Government on how all this can be delivered in the next few years, but we have not made a final decision on it yet. We will announce our decision very shortly.

I am grateful to the Government for allowing a pilot scheme for local jobcentres to give out food bank vouchers from the food bank charities. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the scheme that emerges is as simple and unbureaucratic as possible, so that the jobcentres in Harlow can receive food bank vouchers as soon as possible?

I would not dare do otherwise, with my hon. Friend breathing down my neck on this one. It is due to his hard efforts and pressure that we have made this particular change, and I think that it is for the good. Of course, it is important that it does not become a substitute for anything else, but it will certainly be there if people feel that they need that extra assistance, and there is no reason why we should not do it.

Has the Secretary of State made any representations to his colleagues about the proposed closures of voluntary organisations that support and train people to return to work, such as the Diamond centre in my constituency?

We constantly discuss, in Cabinet and other forums, the idea of what we are doing with the voluntary sector and how we can best help and support it. We are putting a lot of money behind the voluntary sector right now, and the Work programme will make a significant amount of money available to the sector through back-to-work programmes. Of course there are difficulties in the sector, as some local councils choose to start with voluntary organisations when they make their reductions. Personally, I often wonder whether local councils too often see the voluntary sector as an add-on, rather than as an incredibly effective and integral way of delivering good services, and I hope that they will think again about some of those changes.