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Youth Unemployment (Walsall)

Volume 531: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

Before I ask the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) to rise from his seat, I appeal to Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, in order to afford the same courtesy to the hon. Gentleman that they would wish to be extended to them in the same circumstances.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I applied for this debate in view of the serious youth unemployment in the Walsall area and particularly in my constituency. The latest figures show that, in my constituency, just under 16% of people in the 18 to 24 age group are claiming jobseeker’s allowance. I am pleased to see the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the Front Bench tonight, as well as the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I should point out to them that that rate of just under 16% is the third highest in England. The situation in the other parts of the borough is not much different, and it is certainly still higher than the national average.

Let me state what should be obvious: unemployment is a curse to all those seeking work, and no less so to young people who want to get started in life. I emphasise again, as I have done in this House over the years, that we ourselves do not wish to become unemployed through losing our seats at any stage, and that we are always anxious to find work, and the same applies to the overwhelming majority of those who are registered unemployed.

I am glad to see the Secretary of State nodding in agreement. There is understandably considerable concern over the position locally. I fear a return to the situation in the 1980s, when two major recessions had a devastating effect not only on the borough but on the black country and on the west midlands in general.

Let me give the House an illustration of the situation nearly 26 years ago. In September 1985, more than one fifth of the age group that I am referring to were on unemployment benefit in the borough of Walsall. The situation improved over a period of time, and it certainly did so in the first years of this century. In May 2004, the youth unemployment percentage in Walsall was down to 7%. Even then, however, it was higher than the national average. I ask the Ministers to tell the House when we are likely to see the percentage go down to that figure that pertained seven years ago. Last year, youth unemployment rose in the three constituencies of Walsall North, Walsall South and Aldridge-Brownhills.

I do not challenge the fact that as the global recession took effect from 2008 onwards, unemployment grew. It is clear; the figures show it. I am not going to dispute what is, after all, quite obvious. There are bound to be continuing debates about how to deal with the recession and, indeed, about how it came about. My purpose tonight, however, is not to engage in that wider debate—there will be many opportunities in which I am sure I will participate—but to concentrate on the borough and the particular constituency of Walsall North that I represent and on what can be done to provide more opportunities for those without employment. That is the purpose of tonight’s Adjournment debate.

The sharp decline in manufacturing—what is sometimes referred to as metal-bashing—is clearly an important factor, not only for Walsall, but for what are usually described as the four black country boroughs. Walsall council’s latest review, looking at the overall employment situation in the borough, noted that in 2009, quite a number of new enterprises arose. That was very good. Unfortunately, however, there were quite a significant number of job losses. The net loss in 2009 was somewhere in the region of 285 jobs. Yes, jobs come in, but too many also go out.

As for vacancies, the figures show that 10.8 people—I use the exact figure—go after every job. I hope that there will be no disagreement about the fiction that there are jobs here and jobs there, so that those registered as unemployed—whether in the 18 to 24 age group or older—are not particularly keen to get work and are not willing to try to get it. All that is absolute fiction. I have seen reports in the paper on many occasions that when a vacancy occurs, there are sometimes as many as 40, 50 or even 100 people applying for it. As I said at the start, if we take the view, with which Ministers agreed, that those who are unemployed are keen and want to work, it is not surprising that people chase after vacancies and take every opportunity to try either to get into work for the first time or to get back into work.

What I want to find out tonight is what steps the Government intend to take, particularly in boroughs like mine. Let me point out again that this borough is the third highest in England for youth unemployment. What measures are the Government going to take? What feeling can people in my constituency and in the borough have for the fact that the Government recognise the urgency of the position and are willing to act on it?

I know that a number of measures have been publicised. Insofar as they are positive and will bring work and bring down unemployment, I will obviously welcome them. It would be strange otherwise. However, I ask Ministers when these measures that have been mentioned and published are going to come into effect. Have any of the measures on youth unemployment yet come into effect? Moreover, what priority will the Minister give in his reply to areas of high youth unemployment? It is important for him to answer that question.

There is no doubt that we need more apprentices. It is unfortunate that, more in my part of the country than in other areas, too many leave school at the first opportunity. Here we are talking about the under-18s. In a debate on education maintenance allowance that I initiated in January, I demonstrated that the percentage who received the allowance in the borough and in my constituency was very high indeed.

As the House knows, EMA is paid to those who stay at school after the age of 16 when the income of their households is relatively low. Unfortunately, the Government took measures to undermine the allowance. I do not know whether that is a controversial thing for me to say in a debate in which I have tried to avoid controversy, but I do know that the steps taken by the last Government through EMA to encourage 16-year-olds to stay at school were very useful. It is clear that more training opportunities are needed, so that those who leave school at 16 or 17—which I think we all agree is too early—can obtain the necessary skills and need not spend years, perhaps the rest of their working lives, in unskilled work with all the insecurities that that involves.

I said that I had applied for the debate because of the seriousness of the situation, and it is indeed a serious situation. As a constituency Member, I have a duty to do what I can to highlight the difficulties and bring them to the attention of the House of Commons, which, after all, is one of the responsibilities of a Member of Parliament. I have done that in the past, and I shall continue to do it for as long as I sit in the House. I hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy me that the measures announced by the Government will be effective, and will come into operation soon.

We meet again, Mr Speaker, although not quite as late as the last occasion on which we debated youth unemployment in the Chamber.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on securing the debate, and also on the measured way in which he addressed what I regard as a very serious issue. We have had quite a few debates about it, and I must say that his approach was commendable in comparison with that of some Members to whom I have listened.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the issue, and about the future of young people in his constituency. Let me tell him about the measures that we are taking to address the problem. It is a long-standing problem, not simply a problem of the recession years. During the past decade, from 2003-04 until the present day, there has been a steady increase in youth unemployment in this country—even during what have been relatively prosperous times economically—although the national figures for the last two months show a significant drop, which is of course welcome.

The hon. Gentleman was right to focus on the number of young people in his constituency who receive jobseeker’s allowance. All too often people focus on the number of unemployed people according to the International Labour Organisation measure, which includes a substantial number of full-time students and somewhat distorts the true picture. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in his constituency there has been a small increase—small in comparison with the previous position—in the number of unemployed young people receiving JSA over the last 12 months, but there was a much bigger and fairly steady increase over the previous decade.

There is indeed a problem that we must address, and to which we must deliver solutions. One of those solutions involves stimulating economic growth in what are still challenging times economically. We are particularly concerned about regions where there have been significant economic changes, where there is a smaller private sector than we might wish and higher public sector employment than in other areas, and where there is a particular labour market challenge. The regional growth fund—we announced the first tranche of RGF projects recently, and will announce further projects in due course—is designed to stimulate and support manufacturing, research and related areas of business in parts of the country where we need to build up and strengthen the manufacturing base, the research base and the skills base.

I would argue—I suspect this might be a point of difference between the hon. Gentleman and me—that the measures we are taking to address the deficit, challenging though they may be, are a necessary part of creating a stable economic environment where businesses will grow and invest and create jobs. Over the past 12 months there has been good growth in private sector employment in the UK. About 500,000 new private sector jobs, the majority of them full-time, have been created over that period, but it remains a concern that, despite that, there has been very little change in the numbers on jobseeker’s allowance. That is certainly the experience for young people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Job opportunities have been created, therefore, but we are not seeing people move into those jobs, so what do we do about that? There are three particular steps that we are taking. The hon. Gentleman asked when some of the measures we have proposed will be put into action, and my answer is that they are in place now. They are relatively new—they are in the early stages—but they are there, and we are working hard now to address some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Let me now describe those three key parts—they are not the only parts—of our strategy. The first issue is how we might provide support for the shorter-term unemployed young people, to get them into the workplace. The vast majority of young people who sign on to JSA are in work within a few months. Of those who have been out of work for nine months, only a small proportion of those who signed on on day one are still out of work. For that first group who get into work in the shorter term, we want to accelerate the process and make sure they move into work without spending those first few months on JSA looking for work.

Crucially, that is where our work experience scheme comes into play. It has its origins in an e-mail I received from the mother of a teenage girl shortly after I was appointed to my post last year. She said her daughter had just sorted out a month’s work experience for herself, and that it was clearly the right thing for her to do, but that she had been told by the jobcentre that if she did that work she would lose her benefits. That is clearly a mad situation, and we swiftly moved to address it. What we have done is turn that on its head, by saying that it is a good thing for young people to do work experience, as it gives them a first taste of the workplace and a period of time to prove to a potential employer that they have skills that that employer might wish to retain, and so we are now allowing young people to do up to eight weeks of work experience while continuing to claim JSA.

Furthermore, our Jobcentre Plus employer relations teams around the country are actively looking for work experience opportunities for young people. At the last count, we had about 35,000 committed placements over the next year. We have already placed many thousands of young people into work experience opportunities, and we are starting to see some of them move into employment as a result of that, some staying with those who provided the work experience. It will take time for the programme to build right across all the young people who could potentially benefit from it, but I am very keen about this, particularly this summer when another generation of school and college leavers will be coming into the labour market. Our team in Jobcentre Plus will be working hard to give those young people a rapid opportunity to gain real work experience, and not for one week or two weeks, but for an extended period with the hope that in many cases the employer who takes them on will take a look at that young person and say, “Actually, they’re rather good. I’d like to be able to keep them, and we’ll offer them a position.” That has certainly been our experience so far; that is what has been happening in a number of cases. Even if there is not a job opportunity for the young person, we hope that that couple of months of experience—and, I hope, a positive reference from the employer—will give them a leg-up in applying for a further vacancy.

The second part of the equation is also crucial to our strategy to help young people. It is the big increase in the number of apprenticeships. We took a decision very early on, because we think apprenticeships are a better path to help young people down than some of the schemes we inherited from the previous Government. I know that there has been great debate about the future jobs fund, but our view is that a big increase in the number of apprenticeships, with almost 100,000 extra over the past year, is a better way of providing long-term opportunities. This is not simply about the training that people gain as apprentices; the skills they gain in the workplace over an extended period lasting one, two or three years are much more likely to give a young person the foundation for a long-term career. The increase in the number of apprenticeships that we have seen over the past few months will be sustained over the course of this Parliament. These apprenticeships will be available to the young people leaving school and college this summer, and it is very much my hope that many young people who go through those two months of work experience will then be able to stay on as apprentices. I am absolutely of the view that the increased number of apprenticeships is a crucial part of dealing with the issues in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which he rightly raises.

I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying, but it does not alter the fact that the number of apprenticeships in my constituency remains very small compared with elsewhere. I am still wondering how extensive the concentration will be on the areas—this is not just about my constituency, by any means—where the level of unemployment is so high among young people.

This is very much about us collectively, by which I mean the hon. Gentleman, as a Member of Parliament, and Ministers in overseeing Jobcentre Plus and in our work to try to engage employers in the work experience scheme. One of our key goals has to be to encourage employers to get involved in the apprenticeship scheme and take on apprentices. I think that taking on a good apprentice is a very good way for the employer to add skills at a relatively low cost to their organisation, and we can all play a part in helping that to happen. I give him an absolute commitment that we in the Department for Work and Pensions, in partnership with the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will work extremely hard to engage employers, including in the hon. Gentleman’s area. I know that his area contains some very good employers and some employers who have recruited from overseas in the past. I would much rather see them recruiting local apprentices, developing them and giving them opportunities. We are very happy to work with him to do anything we can to help engage and involve employers in his constituency. If he is not already in discussion with the employer outreach team in Jobcentre Plus in his area, I would be happy to arrange for such discussions to take place.

The third and newest piece of our jigsaw puzzle to deal with this problem is the introduction of the Work programme, which began in mid-June in the hon. Gentleman’s area. We have a good team of providers in the Birmingham area, who will have centres all around the west midlands—there will be centres in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Birmingham. I strongly believe that the Work programme provides the additional piece that is needed to deal with longer-term youth unemployment and, in particular, to help those who have come from the most challenged backgrounds. I have no doubt that some of the jobseeker’s allowance claimants in his constituency, to whom he refers, are young people who have come out of some of the most challenging backgrounds, and who have left school early without proper skills development and without qualifications. They may well have come from workless households, where they have not had experience of a parent going out to work in the morning. They represent one of the biggest challenges we face in the labour market. Helping them, motivating them and guiding them towards an entry into the labour market is an extremely important challenge for us, and I see it as a central part of what the Work programme providers are there to do.

The Work programme is very clearly intended to be a revolution in the way in which we deliver welfare to work, and I have been visiting providers today in the east midlands to talk about what they are doing. That revolution is most clearly to be found in two things. The first is the freedoms we are giving private, voluntary and public sector organisations involved in the Work programme and working together in teams to decide what works best, to adapt to change and to pursue best practice but, above all, to find the best way of helping people to move into the workplace and stay there. The second crucial part of this revolution is the fact that the scheme is based on payment by results. For the first three years of seven-year contracts, the providers will get a small up-front payment and after that no up-front payment at all; the next money they see will come when someone has been in work for six months. They will have a real incentive to find the best practice and particularly to match individuals to the right vacancy to help them stay in work over a sustained period.

I asked the Minister when we were likely to return to the situation we faced in 2004. In my remarks, I have tried to avoid controversy so far as it is possible for me to do so, but he will know that I disagree with the Government’s overall economic policy as I think it is deepening the economic downturn. Having said that—I very much mean it, too, as I think the present economic policy is far too severe—may I ask when my part of the world is likely to see the same sort of situation with youth unemployment, if not adult unemployment, as we did in 2004?

I would love to get a crystal ball out for the hon. Gentleman, but sadly I am not an economic forecaster and I would not want to try to make such an estimate. The official forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, however, expect an increase in employment over the next four years, even after we take into account job losses in the public sector, of just under 1 million positions. Over the past 12 months, private sector employment around the country has increased by about 500,000.

Our key goal should be to ensure that young people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and their counterparts elsewhere who are on jobseeker’s allowance and who are struggling to get into work get all the help they need to take advantage of those jobs as they are created. The OBR will continue to publish forecasts and it is our intention to pursue a growth agenda that fosters and encourages business growth and the creation of jobs. I hope that as the OBR reflects circumstances and the impact of our policies, we will get closer to being able to give him an answer, but I fear that I cannot do that tonight.

I will say, however, that the increase the hon. Gentleman has seen is not simply down to the recession. It is a longer-term trend and problem. Employers are reluctant to take young people straight from school, college and university and sometimes it is easier to recruit from overseas. Our job, as well as that of the teams delivering the work experience opportunities, those delivering apprenticeship opportunities and those working extremely hard on the Work programme, is to ensure that those young people take advantage and get into the vacancies as and when they arise. That will give a generation of young people a genuine opportunity to move into work.

I do not want to see a large number of young people stranded on benefits for years and years and I share the hon. Gentleman’s aspiration to tackle the youth unemployment problem. I am happy to continue to work with him to discuss the issues in his constituency and to encourage our Jobcentre Plus teams to work with him to address those problems. I give him a commitment that youth unemployment in his constituency, and around the country, is a priority for us and we will do everything we can to ease it. We believe it should be at the very top of the Government’s agenda and it will continue to be there until we have cracked it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.