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Business Investment (Outer-City Estates)

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 18 December 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mel Stride.)

I am pleased to be here under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies, on the last day that the House is sitting.

This is a debate on a very important topic—the outer cities. We hear a lot about the inner cities but the outer cities, and I represent an outer-city constituency, often seem to be the forgotten part of the UK. One of the things that I have attempted to do is to bring the outer cities back into focus and back on to the Front-Bench agendas of all parties. Outer cities are often neglected and unbalanced, with too many houses and not enough jobs. There must be a strategy, at both national and local level, to address their problems, and I am happy to be trying to pioneer that approach in my constituency of Nottingham North.

On the first day that the Minister for Skills and Equalities was in his new office, I had an Adjournment debate on part of the agenda that we are putting forward in Nottingham North. I will not today go back over the demographic and statistical background to prove how deprived my constituency is, other than to say it is one of the most deprived constituencies in the UK. I will give one example: it sends the fewest number of young people to university of any constituency in the UK, and, as I will refer to later, it has 1,250 young people who, by the age of 24, have never known a single day’s work in their lives. I could regale Members with other statistics, but I have already done that, so today I will talk about what we are doing locally. We are not being ground down by our circumstances, rather we are getting together, organising and improving our local circumstances in the long term. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more, from his point of view, about how the effective partnership that we have between our locality and national Government Departments is working.

Many local partners have worked together, and continue to do so, on outer-city problems. It is not as if nothing is being done; people are working incredibly hard. However, what we have done in my constituency is to add a further and original element, by creating an independent charity to cover the whole of the Nottingham North area—the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation. I hope that this charity, as it goes through its learning curve, can teach others lessons that can be spread throughout the United Kingdom. That particularly applies to the topic we are discussing today, which is the lessons around economic and business investment in the outer cities.

However, the expectations need to be made realistic from the outset. The role of Rebalancing—if I may call it that—is not only to speak up for the area but to broker the deals and convene the partners who can help. We are not a delivery body. We rely on a small board and a tremendously dedicated staff team from the public and private sectors, who generously give their time and personnel. We are indebted, not least to Public Health England, the local enterprise partnership, the council, Carillion, Nottingham City Homes, further and higher education, and the social enterprises, community and voluntary sector, as well as many others—even the local MP, and I declare an interest, as I am the chair of the Rebalancing charity. The key to all such enterprises of change is and will always be effective partnership working, not just in the locality but also between the local and national levels. Convention forbids me from naming them, but I will put on the record my appreciation of the support and creativity that particularly officials, but also Ministers, have shown. That has been immensely encouraging and helpful.

I will give two small examples of what I mean. One involves retail and shopping. We are working with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), and her Department. We will host an outreach event in Nottingham in the new year, which will bring together a range of local retailers from across the area to build links and share best practice. There are lots of great examples up and down the country of people coming together to breathe life back into their communities, and there is no reason why we cannot apply that energy to the shopping parades on our outer-city estates.

Another example is building on the encouragement of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has responsibility for public health, by bringing forward dental checks for every three-year-old. That is a legal provision at the moment, but it is terribly underused. We would also like to introduce a lung check for every 60-year-old, because we have 1970s levels of smoking in Nottingham North. Finally, we aim to do the first prevalence study of the drinking habits of mums-to-be, so that we can tackle foetal alcohol syndrome, which is so damaging to the growth potential of many of the young people in my constituency.

However, the focus today is on investment. If we are to tackle the problems of outer-city estates sustainably, our investment horizon must be long-term—at least 10 years and preferably much longer. That is hard to achieve when our partners are dealing hand to mouth with the consequences of austerity. That is one of the reasons why our relationship with the LEP is central. Our LEP is called D2N2—Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—and its growth deal not only talked about building roads and bridges but included a commitment to develop our rebalancing outer-city estates project, with the aim of getting more people into work, raising education and skill levels, and making better use of local assets and spending. The growth deal also states that the rebalancing project can be used to provide evidence on how these practices can be applied effectively to similar outer-city areas.

Included in the LEP’s growth deal were commitments from the Cabinet Office, the DCLG, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to work with the LEP, to develop proposals and to help put those proposals into action where there is a strong case for doing so. In order to sustain the Rebalancing charity itself, we have submitted a bid to the LEP, which will be decided on in the new year. Separately, we have a big, overarching employment and skills plan, which will be discussed with our key funding partners. We hope to make progress on the main proposals by about March next year. I will come back to that plan a little later.

Fundamental to business investment coming to the rebalancing area is that the labour market is ready, and that local people have the education, skills and training to be able to take the jobs on offer. Again, I could go on about the evidence regarding the demography that we are working with, but I will give just one example from our evidence base. A majority of working-age people in Nottingham North are not qualified to work in anything beyond entry-level—that is, unskilled—employment, and that problem is particularly pronounced among young people. That is one of the worst statistics, or pieces of evidence, showing the problems afflicting Nottingham North, and we are determined to do something about it. To tackle those problems requires consistent and sustained intervention. Little bits of money thrown here and there, which finish after a year or 18 months, can be worse than useless, because they raise expectations; they gear people up, then drop them back down again. A little investment and a little energy provided over a long period will be much more beneficial to communities. They can build on that, and then take over themselves as the investors gently move aside and the process transitions to people entirely running their own affairs.

There are several examples of how we are doing that. I have been discussing the matter with Ofsted and concluded a positive agreement with it and with the principals of the six secondary schools in the constituency, frankly, just to talk to each other outwith the quasi-judicial relationship that Ofsted and inspectors tend to have with schools. Let us talk to each other and find out what works. Let us talk to each other and see if we can understand each other better. As Ofsted expands its inspection regime to include young people who are not going to get 5 A to Cs—the pre-NEETs, if they can be called that—let us talk to each other to see how we can recognise their achievements. I have been to see the Minister about that as well. I can inform him that, since we met last, those meetings are now taking place. Indeed, we are extending them across the whole city, so that heads can understand better and Ofsted can understand heads better. It is one of the lessons that I mentioned earlier. That is absolutely positive progress.

The other thing that we are doing—I alluded to this some time ago, but things have moved on—is the youth engagement fund bid. We are now towards the end of that process. We are still not sure that we are going to win out, but numbers of other applicants have been weeded out as the process has gone on, so we are ever hopeful. If we are lucky enough to get that funding, we intend to have what I would call a careers adviser in every one of my secondary schools. No doubt they are called a life-work coach or some such name these days, but the theory remains the same: helping young people at the earliest possible moment to figure out what their options are in terms of skills, training and employment. They will be there to do that early and to be alongside young people as they grow through school.

The second part of the youth engagement fund bid is to create a small college dedicated to the 14 to 17-year-old group that I mentioned—what we might call the pre-NEETs—so that those people have their own place to go to. Just as the heads are dealing with the five A to C group at school, we want to place those other young people in an environment where they may want to go on and study. We are locating that college in the middle of a completely rebuilt further education college in the middle of my constituency. It was a great privilege to go on site with a hard hat and wellies, with Ofsted and all our principals and local head teachers, to see where the 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEET college will be, as it is being developed and built. I believe that it will be occupied around the middle of next year.

That college has much more potential. We are rebuilding on part of it, but it also has some land, which in the outer cities is an incredible asset. It is not a green field. Every last bit of land and property, every last street corner and every derelict site must be used to try incrementally to bring work, skills and training back into an area like mine. Using what is called the Basford Hall further education college of New College, Nottingham will be fantastically important.

I want to focus a little bit on something rather closer to home for the Minister and the Department: the disadvantaged learners scheme. We are working on proposals for the disadvantaged learners scheme with the LEP and with central Government help. The LEP commitment is to work with Government and other parties to co-design, test ideas and learn from the disadvantaged learners pilot. We are happy to be one of the guinea pigs—we hope, if we are so lucky. Central Government’s commitment is to support the LEP in developing a targeted ward-level pilot, focused on addressing skills challenges faced by disadvantaged learners with multiple barriers to employment and, subject to agreement on the proposals, to make funding and flexibilities available within the adult skills budget. The pilot will consider how local partners can work together to improve outcomes.

A key word in that regard is “flexibilities”. It is always helpful if extra resource is given, but much of what we need to do in a place such as Nottingham North, in the rebalancing area, is about having discretions around the edges to let people get on and do the job as they see it, to trial particular approaches, rather than just going straight down the line, with people saying, “Do it this way or not at all.” I know it is difficult—Whitehall has to run the whole country—but I have found that officials and Ministers are positive about minor changes that could be trialled and looked at in places such as Nottingham North, just to make the system work a little smoother, in the way that we all intended in the first place.

The disadvantaged learners fund complements the bigger, overarching employment and skills plan that we are putting together. The ambition behind that plan is for all those who live in Nottingham North to embark on a journey through education, skills and training and, ultimately, employment. Yes, it applies to the hardest to reach, but to everybody else as well. That is our ambition. It is a big one, but we think we can do it, given time, patience, flexibility and the drive that all our local partners are bringing to bear. The overarching employment and skills plan brings help at every stage of that journey, from helping people to address their initial barriers to work and training, to engaging employers in local labour schemes, and assisting people to access formal accredited training and qualifications to levels 2 and 3 and beyond.

In the big plan there are five key initiatives. I do not think the Minister has heard this before, because we have only just pulled it together and we are working with officials in his Department and others to be clearer about them. All the initiatives are of some benefit to disadvantaged learners, and some support the delivery of formal accredited training and access into employment for the hardest-to-reach groups.

First, community job coaches will provide continuous mentoring and pastoral support to the hardest-to-reach jobseekers throughout their journey to employment. Instead of popping in every so often, asking, “How’s it going?”, there will be someone with them, whom they can have confidence in and ask the right questions of and who will take them on the journey. Then there will be the great moment when that person is totally independent and can fly on their own.

Secondly, personal employability budgeting will meet the unforeseen costs that prevent jobseekers from the deprived estates of Nottingham North from accessing training and work. Those things crop up, and a little flexibility around a budget can get a young person to an interview, get them in good shape and allow them to do the things that they need to do to ensure that they are getting the opportunity.

Thirdly, community-employer partnerships will encourage employers to engage more with local communities, give greater support and get more involved in employability interventions. That sounds pretty straightforward, Mr Davies. You and I normally would just put a circular letter out, saying, “Come along to a meeting, have a sausage on a stick and talk to me about this issue.” However, it is a bit harder to do in a place with a demography like that of Nottingham North. I have done that and ended up with just two small employers in the room. In such places a one-man business has to shut the shop for two hours for the privilege of going to have a little chat with the Member of Parliament. We need to work harder on that. Certainly, we are working closely with the Federation of Small Businesses to do that.

Fourthly, a skills in the community element will deliver accredited vocational training and qualifications in a community setting and alongside mentoring and the softer types of community-based support. There was a cull—some of us would say, “About time, too”—of a lot of accredited courses. I have discussed this openly and sensibly with the Minister, and I think that the baby went out with the bathwater in a number of cases. A number of courses performed a really good function in getting a young person back into thinking about education: attending, working, writing. Frankly, if it does that, it has the makings of being the sort of course that people might want to accredit, because it starts a young person who has dropped off the conveyor belt back on the journey to skills, training and work. I am of course not saying that anything will do. That attitude was around before. However, sometimes we need to go back, have another look at the list and say, “There are a number of courses on there that should be reaccredited.” That way, we can start to get these young people on that journey. It all starts with that first step.

The fifth and final initiative is a local growth plan to develop and implement strategy to support local businesses, helping them to grow and create jobs for unemployed residents in Nottingham North. A variety of barriers exist to all those things. If it was easy, we would have done it a long time ago. The Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation is well placed to talk to the people the normal public sector institutions sometimes find it difficult to link to, through, for example, drug and alcohol work, youth work, sometimes community protection, mental health and even public health and housing. Bringing those areas in and engaging them in addressing social and personal issues is an end in itself, but another consequence of engaging with those people is that they will start to think about training, skills and employment.

If successful, our disadvantaged learners fund bid would set up a partnership to manage personal employability budgets and employ community jobs coaches, embedding them in the local community. That would not be the Rebalancing foundation, but a third party, properly procured and tested to ensure that it could deliver high-quality employability budgets and community jobs coaches. Those coaches would provide one-to-one pastoral support to develop some of these young people who do not have basic social and emotional capabilities, such as one would expect from a young person serving people in a retail shop, selling a tie or whatever. These young people are not capable of engaging and having that sort of negotiation and interaction. Sometimes it is as basic as those fundamental social and emotional skills that most of us take for granted. A real incentive for the partner organisations we can engage is that it ticks the boxes of their agendas. For example, gaining training and employment decreases the likelihood that young people will get involved in crime. I often say, as no doubt do you, Mr Davies, that the best crime prevention measure is a good job. People in work are more likely to be healthier, less of a burden on the health service and to live longer and happier lives. Employment increases income, ensuring sustainability of rent payments and addressing housing issues. Work can bring structure and self-worth to life, improving mental health and helping to tackle some of the consequences of mental ill health, including drug and alcohol problems.

Rebalancing would ensure a good mix of provision that is suitable for local disadvantaged learners. We would work closely with our partners to do that. As I mentioned, we want to target directly the 1,250 unemployed young people in the area, as well as cutting off the supply of young people into that group. That is one of our key ambitions. If we are fortunate enough to succeed in our bid, from August 2015 and running for three years, we would target three trial wards within the Rebalancing area. In those wards, we would target those aged 19 to 24 who are long-term unemployed and have claimed out-of-work benefits for more than six months. The information—their names and addresses—sits with the Department for Work and Pensions and some form of interaction or agreement will therefore need to be in place, whereby the Department regularly updates information on the eligible beneficiaries within the proposal target area.

Briefly, on small businesses, Rebalancing had a meeting just a couple of weeks ago with the NBV, the Federation of Small Businesses, the east midlands chamber of commerce, Invest in Nottingham, RightTrack Social Enterprise and Business in the Community. We agreed on three specific things that we would like to take forward. The first is the development of a concise and clear marketing and communication plan for small and medium-sized enterprises, underpinned by a few key messages. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) has taken a particular interest in pursuing similar ideas. The second is the deployment of business buddies to engage and mentor small and medium-sized enterprises, understanding the support they need to grow and assisting them in providing that essential service. Having someone to turn to who has been there and done it is important if someone is starting up a single or double-handed business. The creation of a Nottingham North SME advocate agency—part of the problem about being in a big city is that a city-wide function might not reach the places it needs to reach most—that represented the interests of SMEs would give them the support they need and a voice in our city and nationally.

I want to put a few specific issues on the Minister’s radar, although I do not suppose he will have time to deal with all of them today. I have touched on some of them. My first key word is intensiveness. Just having the service there and saying, “We have got it. It ticks the box”, is not good enough. It helps if there is someone to whom those hard-to-reach people can turn or phone outside normal hours. We tried that with the early intervention project in Nottingham with teenage mums using the family-nurse partnerships. Every teenage mum in the programme has an experienced health visitor whom they can turn to at any time. In a way, it is a little bit like that with hard-to-reach jobseekers. To reach them, it requires someone who can be personal and on the end of the phone whenever advice is needed. I put that on the Minister’s radar. Intensiveness as well as coverage is part of the answer.

Flexibility is another key word. I have talked a little about it. Sometimes, we meet the criteria set by the funding body, rather than the criteria needed by the individual. I fully appreciate that it is difficult to administer programmes that are tailor-made for each individual, but frankly it is essential when we are dealing with this sort of person. It is the only way it will work. Do not bother doing it unless there is the flexibility to say, “We can in certain circumstances bend what we are trying to do just to reach that person.” There are lots of great examples of how that has been done and how someone whom everyone else said was a lost cause—they said they would be unemployed for their whole life, could not care less and had this problem and that problem—proves to be a big success story, because of that spark of flexibility and interaction with individuals.

Continuity is another key word. When we are dealing sometimes with families who have inter-generational unemployment, programmes have to be sustainable inter-generationally. Perseverance is needed. The programme needs to be there at all points, because the issues cannot be tackled in the short term. The words “quick” and “fix” do not sit together in the same sentence. Were that true, we would have dealt with the issues long ago.

My final key word is additionality. When we are trying to do something original, flexible and new, we need also to be innovative, interesting and trialling something. Sometimes, people who do that will fail. They need to be allowed to fail, because most of the time they will be finding better ways to do stuff. It must be additional, not an add-on to what we already have with the many very good people in the field already. The bulk of the bigger picture on employability will be looked at over the next couple of months.

We hope to benefit from European structural and investment funding, which is coming up shortly, and want to work up a proper bid with our local partners, the LEP, the council and others to produce a community-led local development programme to be delivered by the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation and local partners. We hope to agree that by March next year and to get action on the ground via the LEP following that bid no later than the second quarter of 2015-16.

In conclusion, I apologise for perhaps being a little long-winded, but it is necessary when trying to explain something new, innovative and, I hope, exciting. It represents a possible way forward in several different areas. I repeat that I am almost certain that several of the projects—across the whole range from public health to community building, which I have not talked about—that we are attempting to put together will fail, but to be allowed the chance to try to succeed without asking too much of the public purse and building on the good will of our private, voluntary and public sector partners, all of which have contributed without requesting any financial recompense, is a great start.

We hope that we can trial some things for the Minister and for the Government. Should there be a change of Government, whether we get another coalition or whatever else May might bring, that offer will remain. We have made a start in Nottingham North. We are not whingeing about the numbers or about where we sit in a league table. We are using the best offices of people in the locality, the best official advice and interaction with Government, and we intend to make a real difference. Ultimately, our ambition is to ensure that every young person leaves school work-ready and gets a job.

It is traditional at this point in a contribution to say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is always a pleasure to see you on the Back Benches as well. You are always keen to make contributions, some of which have been among my favourites and will no doubt find their way into my leaflets in April.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on not only the contribution he just made, but the wider work for which he is recognised and admired across the House. His description of the specific work being done on rebalancing outer estates was informative and thought-provoking. He described it as long-winded, but the time positively flew by for me. It was also a pretty strong sales pitch for cross-departmental work and the impact that that can have on areas such as his constituency. He was typically pragmatic and non-partisan, which may be something for me to aspire to in future years, but we cannot escape the political dimension of many of the challenges that his community faces. However, I understand why he would choose not to introduce that into this debate and into his promotion of his cause. He made some thought-provoking points about the challenges and the positive steps that his project can take to make a difference. He spoke at length about the importance of partnership working and bringing on board the private, voluntary and public sectors, local enterprise partnerships and various other networks.

My hon. Friend highlighted that a project such as this will face a lack of core capacity, so where will that capacity come from? In the main Chamber today, we had a statement on local government funding. In many areas, local government would have been the glue that pulled together the fantastic work that he described. We have already seen unprecedented local government cuts over the past four and a half years, and if the events of the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that if we continue down the path the country has taken over the past few years, local government will experience even greater ravages. In somewhere like Nottingham, which has an excellent local authority, that will inevitably have an impact on capacity.

Since we have a little time to spare, I am prompted by my hon. Friend to mention two things. First, in terms of all-party working or working “across the aisle”, it will often be the case that the serious things that we need to do will stretch across more than one Government and more than one political complexion. When talking about intergenerational change, it is important that we attempt to find some common ground across all parties, but there will always be differences.

Secondly, further to my hon. Friend’s point about today’s statement, local government funding is relevant to today’s debate, because I am a strong advocate of proper devolution to local government. Even in the direst circumstances, those in the localities will spend money, limited and diminishing though it is, much more wisely. I pay tribute to the men and women in Whitehall, but local people will spend money more wisely than those in the centre. I hope that my hon. Friend, in his exalted position on the Front Bench, will continue to push that point with his colleagues in Her Majesty’s Opposition.

I do not think that it needs a great deal of pushing. My hon. Friend will be aware of the report produced by Lord Adonis, and the Labour party is enthusiastically pursuing many of its ideas, which would represent significant steps towards devolution. We recognise that whatever Government follow the next election will still be working in straitened economic times and tough decisions will still need to be made, but we disagree about the sustainability of the scale of the proposed cuts. Projects such as my hon. Friend’s must be able to survive from one Government to the next as Governments change colour. The local authority devolution agenda, involving combined authorities working with local enterprise partnerships and bringing in the best of the public, private and voluntary sectors, is a vision that we share.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the impact of austerity on his constituents, which cannot be overstated. We are all conscious of the link between poverty and educational underachievement, but for too long the focus has been on spending more on education to deal with educational underachievement, rather than dealing with poverty, which is an approach that this Government could have taken. In communities that have faced challenges over many years, people will often have to deal with welfare cuts, may have a greater reliance on food banks and may have to deal with other social ills, which will inevitably have an impact on the educational attainment of the area and on other things that my hon. Friend is attempting to address. Placing that on the record is important.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of careers guidance, and I hope that that aspect of his plan is taken up and supported. Careers advice and getting careers advisers in schools in his constituency is a key goal of his project. In fact, one of my most loyal party members in Chesterfield was previously a careers adviser in a school in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I know how important such work is in raising the aspirations and expectations of people from more deprived communities. My hon. Friend should be reassured that, more broadly, the Labour party has publicly identified previous attempts by successive Governments to boost social mobility as having too often focused on getting more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the traditional professions. In many cases, we need to see those young people’s aspirations and expectations opened more broadly, in particular with support for them to set up and run their own small businesses, which is a key part of his focus.

My hon. Friend will also be pleased, I hope, to know that a future Labour Government intend to get a representative of the business community on to every board of governors in every secondary school in the country. Schools do excellent work to ensure that young people pass exams, but alongside that there is real potential in ensuring a focus on the links between schools and the business community, which can have a positive impact on the educational aspirations of young people. He is very much pushing at an open door on the broader approach with what he is looking to introduce in his constituency through that project. I am supportive of his specific initiatives as well as of what needs to be done more generally.

My hon. Friend spoke about personal employability being one of the key criteria that his project wants to support. He is absolutely right to acknowledge the wide recognition of the need for an education system that supports people in their personal employability at the school level and through further education. He was entirely right to say that, although some streamlining of qualifications was necessary, there is a real worry about the focus moving away from vocational education and about the great narrowing of the further education opportunities available to people.

When people leave school, we need to get them on to courses that will not only give them rewards for studying, but get them turned on to study, or there is a real possibility of all of the prevalent problems that come from the absence of that. My hon. Friend was absolutely right about personal employability, but he was also right about the importance of the vocational further education landscape.

I want to touch on and take up the business support challenge set by my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that if we want to see more people from deprived communities setting up businesses, we need them to have the support. I ran three businesses, at least one of which was successful, so I know how important business support is for people when they first set out on that path. It gives them the huge array of knowledge necessary.

When people become a new business owner, they instantly become the salesperson, the marketing person, the buyer, the legal person and the accountant—they are supposed to have all those skills and knowledge bases. Having someone able to support people and understand the kind of environment that they come from and the kind of challenges that they will face, ensuring that they are given correct guidance on the process, is incredibly important business support.

In recent years, in particular in the absence of Business Link, we have seen that business support tends to collect where most businesses are, so the areas already doing well and growing well are pretty well provided for with business support networks, but in areas such as my hon. Friend’s on the exterior of cities, or even more so in small towns and rural areas, business support networks are much more spread out and patchy. As a result, we tend to find most businesses being set up in exactly the areas that are already performing best, and the fewest businesses being set up in the very areas that need them the most. I support what my hon. Friend is attempting to do with the project that he has set up. I make the wider point that his project is perhaps providing a road map for some of the ills that face our country more broadly. That is a challenge that the Labour party will be enthusiastic to take up.

I congratulate my hon. Friend again on his excellent contribution and on the work that he is doing. I support his approach and, even more than that, the need for broader devolution in tough times. He provides a road map that gives us all food for thought about some of the challenges that face a future Government. The principles that he has set out for how Nottingham North can be developed would be listened to by a sensible Government in a much broader context.

I, too, am delighted to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, if not for the same reasons as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins).

I am particularly pleased to be given an opportunity to respond to another debate of my honourable friend, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)—convention has it that we are not Friends, but we are friends nevertheless and will remain so. The hon. Gentleman had a debate on my first day in the post of skills Minister, so it is particularly interesting for me to return to the subject with some understanding of the problems, the various Government programmes and the history of Government interventions in the area, both successful and unsuccessful.

There are different kinds of Members of Parliament. The basic job is the simple one of representing constituents as Parliament deliberates and makes laws. The best kind of Members of Parliament, however, are themselves community leaders and social entrepreneurs. No one fulfils the latter function better in the hon. Gentleman’s community than he does. I would put him in a category with some of the newly elected Members of my own party, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Bedford (Richard Fuller), who both aspire to fulfil the same sort of role in their communities as the hon. Gentleman does in Nottingham North.

I accept that the fulfilment of such a role by the hon. Member for Nottingham North is a tribute to, yes, his moral purpose, but also to the needs of his constituents. Many of them live difficult lives in a country where much seems to have improved over many decades, although not for them—indeed, for some, things have even got worse. It is extremely welcome that he takes on himself the role of initiating, leading, stimulating, chivvying and prodding local and national Government to get them to act in the interests of his constituents.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that his task would be even harder were the broader economic context not one that was improving. The challenges faced by his constituents have stretched over boom times and busts—the challenges are not creations of recent years—none the less, were the economy not growing and creating jobs at an extraordinary rate, one far higher than in the rest of the European Union, his challenge would be far greater. I am sure, without wanting to tempt him into any partisan positions that might sit uncomfortably with him, he would nevertheless agree that the absolute prerequisite for making any progress at all on the issues that he highlights is to have a sustainably growing economy, which of course itself rests on having a Government with a long-term economic plan.

A phrase much used by politicians, in particular those of a glib cast of mind, “the rising tide lifts all boats”, is more revealing in the senses in which it is not true than in those in which it is true. It is clearly true that no boats will be lifted if there is no rising tide. So there has to be a rising economic tide for any progress to be made anywhere in communities that the hon. Gentleman represents or that you, Mr Davies, or I represent. But it is also clear that when we have a rising tide it is easier to identify those boats that stubbornly refuse to rise, and—I am stretching the metaphor to its limits, I feel—those whose structural flaws are so profound that they need direct intervention. That is exactly what he is proposing through his work with the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation and a whole range of other partners.

I will address—briefly and very specifically—the particular schemes that the hon. Gentleman is currently proposing and working on with Government. I hope that I can give him a fairly positive response. He referred to the bid by Rebalancing the Outer Estates and its partners to the youth engagement fund for support for the employment of careers advisers or work-life coaches—whatever one wants to call them—in every secondary school in his constituency. Although he will understand that the rules for such schemes mean that those are not decisions that I can make, I will happily put on the record my support for his bid. So long as it meets the criteria for that fund I would strongly encourage those who are in charge of making those decisions to support that bid. If we are looking for a place where proper engagement with young people is urgently required and where proper advice for them about the different opportunities available to them is desperately needed, it is hard to think of a better example than Nottingham North.

I would make a similar comment about the second project that the hon. Gentleman discussed, the bid to the disadvantaged learners fund for a pilot project.

Just before the Minister moves on, I welcome what he said a moment ago. Does it reflect a slight softening of the Government’s approach to careers guidance that suggests that they now recognise its value on the ground and face to face? Is he saying that they recognise that that sort of careers guidance should happen, particularly in areas of greater deprivation and, if so, are we likely to see that change of approach more generally across the board?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking that question because it allows me to remind him and other hon. Members of the Government’s announcement just last week of a new careers company. That company is specifically charged with identifying those areas of the country—sadly, too many—where, frankly, the headline duty on schools to ensure the provision of independent advice and guidance for young people, to inform their choices both of qualifications and for further progression in the education system and into the world of work, is not being properly met.

Schools need to provide that guidance—it is extremely explicit that they should—although we have tried not to be too prescriptive about how they should do so. When any of us visits a good school, of whatever kind, in whatever community, we find that it provides that guidance. It is not, therefore, something mysterious to those running schools, but unfortunately not all schools do it. There are different ways of doing it; it is not necessarily the case that every school will want to employ its own full-time careers advisers or work-life coaches—it may be that schools will want to work with some of the many social enterprises and charities that do such work. But it is clear that, for schools and communities facing the very particular, deep and deeply entrenched challenges that schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham North face, it is right to look to try to support that kind of very specific project to employ work-life coaches; of course, that particular project will have to prove itself and have benchmarks and a data review to see whether it has had an effect. If other schools choose to use their direct schools grant, which we have been able to protect despite the cuts elsewhere in public expenditure, they will not hear any criticism from me.

I turn back now to the disadvantaged learners pilot. I am looking vaguely at the officials in the box to see whether that is something over which I have more influence, as I do not know, but I suspect my influence is still none—one of the great discoveries on becoming a Minister is how little power one has, not how much. However, again, I say that I cannot think of a better place for that money. To be honest, the figures that the hon. Gentleman has shared with us make it quite clear that it is hard to think of a place where learners are more disadvantaged than in Nottingham North. So again, if the project proposed and being worked on by the local economic partnership and Rebalancing the Outer Estates is able to meet the criteria, I will be a strong enthusiast for it.

I want to respond to one final specific point. The hon. Gentleman said that he felt that the reform of qualifications—he himself acknowledged that that was much needed—with its winnowing out of soft and unproductive qualifications, had caught up some courses and qualifications, particularly those related to employability skills, that he thought had value. If he, or indeed anyone else—it is a general invitation—writes to me with specific details about a qualification that they think was valuable, and can provide evidence of how, I am always happy to have another look. The qualifications he is thinking of were probably removed for a reason, but that does not mean that every such decision is always right or was made when all of the evidence was available. Certainly no decision is ever for ever.

Finally—in this season of good will, I do not wish to test anyone’s patience, Mr Davies—I will reflect on the general points that the hon. Gentleman made about the nature of engagement in areas such as his. He referred to his own long-standing support for localism. That was the first thing that brought us together, before I was elected to this place, and I share his support for it. I know that he welcomes the progress the Government have made with local growth deals, city deals, local economic partnerships and, most interestingly of all, the recently announced agreement with Greater Manchester that will see a substantial devolution of powers and budgets to the new combined authority, not least in the areas of skills and employability. I hope that that is just the first of those moves. I know that my colleagues will be looking forward to receiving proposals from other areas of the country and I will certainly be happy to lend my support to any proposal for Nottingham, led by the hon. Gentleman, to be a candidate for receiving further powers of that sort.

Mr Allen, there is no obligation for you to do so, but if you would like to take a couple of minutes to wind up the debate, I am happy to facilitate that.

Thank you, Mr Davies—the invitation is unexpected but none the less very welcome.

I thank the two contributors from the Front Benches. My own party’s Front Bench is well represented in this area, particularly on small business, through the expertise that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield brings to bear. I was pleased to hear him continue to emphasise that if Her Majesty’s Opposition become Her Majesty’s Government they will step forward on the devolution trail with an even firmer tread than has been apparent in recent years. That will be very welcome.

I would like to say that the Minister learned everything he knows from being a member of my Select Committee, but that would not be true. However, we were colleagues before he became a Member. His understanding and grasp of this field is second to none. I was pleased and grateful that he made the point that he supports the youth engagement fund bid and, should it be part of his bailiwick, the disadvantaged learners fund bid.

The Minister is absolutely right—as was my hon. Friend—that it is not possible statistically to find a place more in need of assistance. That is not just the case in terms of funding; the interest displayed by Ministers, officials and the Opposition Front-Bench team is as valuable as funding, because it means that people know that they are valued and that others want a way forward for them so that they can achieve and obtain the qualifications that they are absolutely capable of getting.

It is only if we can get that done that all the other things—housing, jobs, building a community—will fall into place. The key is to enable people to set off on the course of education, skills, training and work. If we can crack that, we can crack many more of the problems that come in its wake.