I have regular meetings with the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss provision for the unemployed. We believe that we have forged a closer partnership between the two Departments than has existed in the past. We want to ensure that all unemployed people who have a skills gap receive the support that they need in order to fill that gap and return to work.
Starting new businesses could generate real growth for the UK economy and create more jobs. I recently held a seminar in Hounslow on entrepreneurship for women to encourage them to accept the start-up challenge. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage jobseekers to become entrepreneurs, and to help them acquire the skills that will enable them to succeed?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done, not only in holding the seminar but in organising an extremely successful jobs fair to help her unemployed constituents to find work. I believe that, through the launch of the new enterprise allowance, we have created a mechanism that will allow unemployed women in particular, and also unemployed older workers, to move into self-employment. They have a wealth of experience to bring to it, and I hope that the allowance will create a bridge, supported by mentoring, to enable them to do so.
Training and benefit levels are inexorably linked by the Government. This morning the Prime Minister said that regional variations in benefit rates would affect areas such as mine in Wales, the north of England and Scotland much more than areas elsewhere. Will the Minister tell us whether he supports that, and whether it is supported by his hon. Friend the Pensions Minister?
I congratulate Opposition Front Benchers: this is one area in which they have made a major contribution to the debate. It was the Labour party that began the argument about the regionalisation of benefits. It was entirely sensible for the Prime Minister to take up that challenge, and we should have a proper national debate about whether this is the right approach for the future.
I welcome what the Minister has said about training. Does he agree, irrespective of certain quite loud noises off that have been heard recently, that the coalition is making the fundamental changes that will ensure that work always pays in future? That is a policy that I heartily endorse.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The universal credit, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is pioneering and which will be launched next year, will make a huge difference. As for the skills agenda, one of the coalition’s other achievements is the big expansion of apprenticeships. That is making a real difference to the prospects of unemployed people, particularly young unemployed people, giving them a chance to build up skills that can lead to a lasting career.
The recent scandal involving the unpaid jubilee steward has exposed the fact that some companies out there, under the guise of offering training to Work programme participants, are exploiting them as cheap or unpaid labour. What checks does the Minister carry out on companies that use Work programme participants?
I must say that I think it is pretty poor when the eventuality of a bus arriving two hours early is turned into a scandal by the Labour party. In fact, as part of a training and development programme, a group of volunteers were participating in a national experience that would build skills which could take them into other employment. I think that the hon. Lady should welcome that and not criticise it.
What support is available to 16 and 17-year-olds who are released from young offender institutions such as the one in Werrington, in my constituency, to ensure that they receive the training that they need so that they can get back on the right track?
That is an important issue. One of the challenges that we face is that 16 and 17-year-olds are often not on benefits. Together with the Department for Education, we are introducing a new programme, which will begin in autumn and will be funded by Payment by Results, to engage, support and develop the skills of that particular cohort of young people. We cannot abandon them, as has happened far too often in the past.