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DWP (Plymouth)

Volume 499: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2009

I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity of this debate, coming as it does today when we are also debating the final stages of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, and following yesterday’s debate on the Welfare Reform Bill.

Work is the best pathway out of poverty, and the policies that we have developed since 1997 to ensure that work pays have been vital to many people and families in Plymouth. In Plymouth, Sutton, I took on from my Conservative predecessor a constituency that was among the most severely hit by earlier recessions—especially that of the 1990s, which left it with some very poor communities, including, on the 1995 index of multiple deprivation, the poorest ward in England.

In the nine months before the 1997 election, I took time out from paid employment to ensure not just that we won what was then key seat 16, but that I knew what the priorities were for action. In 1997, a key priority was delivering jobs for the 4,000-plus who were unemployed in my constituency, one third of whom were under 25. On the doorstep, I found lone parents who asked me, before the days of the minimum wage and tax credits, “Who will pay me £180 a week?” The answer at that time was no one.

On every doorstep, there were parents, grandparents or young people who were out of work or knew someone who was and had been for a long time. The new deal programmes, funded by windfall levies on the utilities, the early establishment of employment and health zone status and new deal for communities investment over 10 years in Devonport, have had a lasting impact on people’s life chances and ability to get employment. The minimum wage, tax credits and a raft of family-friendly workplace policies meant that at times the Plymouth travel-to-work area had unemployment below the national average instead of above it, as sadly is the case again now.

This recession has been particularly harsh. Its origins may be global, but, as every MP knows, the effects are local and, as is so often the case, those most vulnerable to any volatility are the elderly, the young and those on low incomes. But this recession has also hit many hard-working individuals and families who are used to feeling more in control of their lives, making their own luck and weathering storms.

Just as the current economic crisis is unprecedented in its severity and global nature, so too has been the response of our Government and others around the world. In previous recessions under Conservative Administrations, the prevailing view was that we had to let the storm ride its course. Not only were job losses, failing businesses, home repossessions and public sector investment cuts seen as necessary evils, they were sometimes considered necessary for some kind of natural readjustment of the economy—an antidote to an over-mighty Government.

Judging from yesterday’s speech by the Conservative leader, although the Tories say that they have changed, they have not. They are still blaming what they see as big government rather than understanding the need for active government alongside the community and voluntary sectors. Talk of the big society is simply code for “You’re on your own. Please pick up the pieces of the spending cuts that we need to make to fund the tax cuts that we want for the richest 3,000 estates in the country.” I understand that the cost of the Tory proposals to do that are estimated to be £3.6 billion in the first year alone.

Talking the good talk does not add up to walking the good walk. The money would have to come from somewhere, and I can only surmise that the proposals would drive a cart and horses through the partnerships that have given Plymouth a good track record over the past decade.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the job losses at the dockyard were huge. Thousands of jobs were shed from Plymouth’s main sector. I once observed my Conservative predecessor turn on her heel in a public meeting in the Guildhall and walk out, saying, “I don’t care what you think.” Some 10 years later, her legacy—or, more accurately, that of her Government—was to leave the Plymouth, Sutton constituency with some of the poorest communities in the land, including the very poorest. The speech yesterday of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made me shudder. Although he seems to realise that the Conservatives need—

Order. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the subject of the debate. So far, there has been little reference to the work of the Department in Plymouth. Will she please keep to that subject?

I understand your point, Mr. Benton. However, I must outline the context so that the success that there has been and my concern over whether it will continue can be understood. I will try to adhere to what you are saying.

I am proud that the Government whom I support are taking an approach different from the Conservatives’ and that the leadership of our Prime Minister has changed the political weather, not just in this country, but internationally. We have said that we will not cut, but grow our way out of recession. Much of the investment is in the hands of the DWP. Our approach is to give advice and support. We stand by employers and employees, small and medium-sized businesses, depositors, home owners and young people. I thank the Minister for her part and her Department’s part in that.

If the Government had called the wrong shots, such as failing to address the issue of the banks and failing to take steps on a scale never tried hitherto, the job of the Department would be even bigger than it is. The Opposition opposed most of those decisions. Today’s unemployment figures show that more people in Plymouth are now employed and fewer unemployed. On a like-for-like basis, the figures for my constituency show that 3,214 are claiming jobseeker’s allowance in November 2009, compared with 4,715 in 1997. That is despite the current economic situation being more structurally deep-seated and global in origin than the largely homemade recession of the 1990s.

I want the support to continue and have secured this debate to ask the Minister what can be added to the efforts of her Department. At the forefront of the big task are Jobcentre Plus staff. The importance of the Department as an employer in Plymouth must be noted. The public sector generally is a large employer in Plymouth. The people who work for Jobcentre Plus are part of that. I hate to think how that situation would suffer with a change of Government.

Plymouth has an ambitious growth agenda that I am confident can be realised despite the economic conditions. Our science and engineering sectors are what the country will need to restore its prosperity. In particular, we are trying to nurture and grow green jobs, such as those in the renewable energy sector. There have been bad setbacks in the manufacturing sector. About a month ago, Toshiba made its last televisions in this country, and Gleason is another well-known casualty of recent international pressures.

The job losses in the dockyard that are part of planned defence efficiencies have come at a bad time, although they have not been of the scale that was expected by some. There was nothing like the devastation that happened under the Conservatives in the ’90s when thousands of jobs were lost with little of the support that I am discussing today. The dockyard is producing vehicles for the Army and further orders are possible, which shows that there are gains as well as losses.

The trade unions have taken a responsible role in assisting big employers such as Princess Yachts to weather the storm. Short-time working agreements have been important in that. I was pleased to read today that, having shed 260 jobs this year, the company is taking on 20 employees. That is a small sign that things may be taking a turn for the better. Much of that has been made possible by the proactive support from the DWP and Jobcentre Plus, in which the Government are seen to be pulling out all the stops to minimise the loss of employment.

We have some excellent local partners who together are building a robust framework that will help deliver economic development over the next 20 years—an important background with the grain of which the DWP needs to work. The Plymouth City Development Company has already played its part in delivering real, tangible benefits to the city and, working with the regional development agency, it helped to bring about the leasing of the long-vacant yard in the dockyard to Princess Yachts. I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence in responding to pleas from myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) to release land faster than it has ever done before.

I want to mention the work that the local strategic partnership has developed, bringing together the public, private and voluntary sectors to identify our strengths and to develop action plans that play to them. The DWP values its work. Partnership working between the DWP and organisations such as Working Links and A4e in my constituency is important, and making common cause with the Learning and Skills Council is also part of the recipe. The “wealthy and wise” theme group at the local strategic partnership helps to make that possible, in a level of co-operation and joined-up work that was undreamed of, unthought of and unsought in the 1980s and 1990s. It is made possible by active government and is not understood by the policies that we have seen announced by the Opposition this week.

Plymouth also has an enviable track record of involving the community through third-sector organisations. The Woleseley and Millfields community economic development trusts in particular have delivered a great deal in some of the most fragile communities, empowering them to do things for themselves, and self-sustaining to a large degree. However, things are always changing, and policies need to evolve too.

One of the central points of current welfare policy is the knowledge that the first six months of unemployment are crucial. That period offers the best chance for people to get back into work. In Plymouth we have a good story to tell. Even now, those flowing off the register have been doing so at roughly the same rate as people flowing on to the register. However, I know from my meetings with Jobcentre Plus, the university and the further education colleges that young people are finding the recession particularly difficult.

In previous recessions whole generations were written off, which is why the Government’s guarantee for work and training for all 18 to 24-year-olds is so important. I welcome funding for that and many other initiatives under the Backing Young Britain and future jobs programmes—in particular the announcement, made today, that there will be funding from the future jobs fund for a programme in Plymouth. That is welcome.

Vital to ensuring that the impact of the economic crisis on this generation of young people is minimised will be employers—public sector as well as private sector—stepping up to the mark to play their part. I hope that the Minister can give me some assessment from the DWP perspective of how Plymouth is doing in that respect. Can the Minister assure me that the “Back to Work” White Paper will include additional support for young people and for the employers who want to give them opportunities?

Plymouth is well poised to take advantage of the green jobs revolution. The Government recently declared the south-west to be the country’s first low-carbon enterprise zone, with additional funding for the wave and marine-energy technology sectors. I hope that my hon. Friend can outline what the role of her Department is in supporting that green jobs revolution. What help will be available to those employers taking on extra staff to deal with issues related to climate change and our transition to a low-carbon economy?

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in a moment or two about how her Department is stepping up to the mark on such things, but before I invite her to set out how they are sustaining their drive to tackle those issues in the most adverse of times, I want to raise the work that her Department does in the field of pensions. I know that the pension credit has made a big difference to many people in my constituency, and many older people—women in particular—have benefited not just from the increase in incomes guaranteed by the credit but from the tax-free winter fuel allowance, which has taken the fear out of winter fuel bills, even if some of those pressures have returned over the recent year or so.

I know that the commitment to restore the link between pensions and earnings by 2012 is eagerly awaited. Thousands of people in my constituency will welcome it. It is an important strand of future-proofing pension provision.

Personal accounts will give those without access to a good-quality workplace pension scheme the opportunity to save, again ensuring that people can look forward to a retirement with a decent income. I understand that the Minister’s Department is seeking to provide pension forecast information. Will she remind me how far away that is, and how work is progressing?

Some ideas in the interim report of Anna Walker’s review on water metering and charging would make a difference to many pensioners and other low-income households in Plymouth if followed through into the final report and acted on by Government. I know that discussions have been held between the DWP and the review team, and I will be pressing colleagues in the Treasury and DEFRA, and indeed the Prime Minister, to ensure that some long-awaited relief comes for those on low incomes, whether they are in work, on benefit or in retirement on modest incomes.

There is a qualitative as well as quantitative difference in the support offered during this recession. We have protected about 500,000 jobs, and the actual figure saved is probably higher. To put it another way, proportionately, 2,000 jobs have been saved in Plymouth. The extra £5 billion, including £2.9 billion in 2010-11, that Labour is putting into getting people back into work and training this year and next year will fund the extra support that we are providing for new clients, people unemployed for more than six months and the expansion of the flexible new deal. I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that the investment that we are making in front-line services will weather the efficiency measures that, realistically, we know the Treasury will expect from all spending Departments.

I cannot end this debate without mentioning the importance of the Child Poverty Bill, a commitment that my hon. Friend will confirm we are not shying away from and that will enshrine and entrench a historic commitment to end child poverty. The work of the DWP has enabled many people in my constituency to come out of poverty. The proportion of lone parents in work has risen from one in three a decade ago to more than half now.

I worry when I hear people say that there will be no difference between the present Government and any future Government of a different nature. I want to be certain that the sort of investment that this Government have made will continue to be an important part of our programme. I look to my hon. Friend to explain what her Department is doing in Plymouth with a clarity that will help people avoid sleep-walking back to the future, to a place where we have been before, with disastrous consequences that I do not want to see again in Plymouth in my lifetime. I know that I can count on her to avoid the half-baked platitudes set out yesterday as a recipe for tackling poverty.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing this important debate, and on the work that she has done for her constituents, particularly in promoting co-operation among employers, the Department for Work and Pensions and people who need jobs. The local employment partnerships in Plymouth are a fine example of the importance of employers, as they have helped nearly 2,000 people into work.

My hon. Friend inherited serious poverty and deprivation issues when she was elected in 1997, but now Plymouth is definitely a city with a buzz. The buzz has been created by and has grown with the growth and improvement of services and facilities in the city and the improved prospects for its citizens over the past 12 years.

Plymouth, like many of the great cities of Britain, has a great historical tradition as well as an eye to the future. Its marine technology and science industries have developed over the centuries as part of its great naval tradition. However, it also has many new industries, including the biggest cluster of digital media companies outside the M25.

My hon. Friend has been extremely kind about the work of the DWP. She has paid tribute to DWP staff and I would like to join her in acknowledging the excellent work done by them in jobcentres throughout the country. The agencies of the DWP have developed and modernised over the past 12 years. They have become more customer-focused, brighter and more professional places to visit and contact.

The Department currently employs more than 7,500 people in the south-west and nearly 2,000 in Plymouth itself. In total, the public sector employs more than 36,000 people in Plymouth and more than 700,000 in the south-west region. As such, as my hon. Friend recognised in her speech, it is a significant employer in the area. However, more significant is the work that the staff of the DWP have done for the population of Plymouth. Despite the current economic climate, the labour market is still far stronger than in 1997. The employment rate is up by 7.3 percentage points, the claimant unemployment rate is down by 1.5 percentage points and the inactivity rate is down by 4.6 percentage points.

As my hon. Friend said, unemployment has risen in recent months and there have been some large-scale redundancies in the city. Behind those statistics, many individuals face the loss of their job and their income, and are left with the uncertainty of how they will replace them. We cannot always prevent people from losing their job and we know it has been much more difficult for people to find a new job in recent months, but the Government are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. The new deal has helped nearly 10,000 people into jobs in Plymouth and over 21,000 more people are in work today than in 1997.

Jobcentre Plus in Plymouth has taken on 160 new staff, 120 of whom are in the Plymouth benefit delivery centre, and has extended the opening times of both the benefit delivery centre and individual jobcentres. By taking those decisions quickly, Jobcentre Plus has been able to maintain the high quality of its services. All benefit claims are being processed within target and accuracy rates. Meanwhile, jobseekers have been seen promptly and given the high-quality advice and support to which they are entitled.

Jobcentre Plus has also continued to react promptly to events in Plymouth, and has ring-fenced £150,000 in rapid response service money to serve the needs of those made redundant in Plymouth, including the 270 redundancies announced at Toshiba between June and January this year. City College Plymouth has made Picquet barracks available for 20 weeks at a total cost of £30,000. Plymouth city council is contributing £9,900 to that and Jobcentre Plus is contributing £20,100. The barracks have been set up as an outreach centre for large redundancies.

My hon. Friend mentioned that Princess Yachts and Toshiba have both used that facility to ensure that a quick and effective service is provided to those involved in large-scale redundancies. The site will subsequently be used to provide a support service to unemployed customers. As a result of that prompt action, of the 139 ex-employees of Toshiba who made a claim to benefit, 73—more than half—found work within the first 10 weeks of their claim. We are not sticking with the status quo; we are investing in the future and introducing programmes to ensure that individuals and the country come out of the recession stronger, not weaker.

All this is part of the Government’s national strategy to introduce measures to minimise the impact of the recession on unemployment as speedily as possible. The Government have increased funding to Jobcentre Plus by £3 billion to ensure it continues to provide personal help and advice to everyone who needs it. That money also ensures that the flexible new deal, which will provide tailored help for the long-term unemployed, can cater effectively for high volumes of jobseekers. On 12 January, a further £500 million investment was announced to provide, from April this year, opportunities for those who are still unemployed after six months to take up support.

We have also introduced the young person’s guarantee, so that from early 2010 all young people approaching 12 months on jobseeker’s allowance will be required to take up the offer of a job, training or meaningful activity. That offer will be delivered in the form of a new job created through the future jobs fund, or help with getting an existing job in a key employment sector, or work-focused training, or a place on a community task force delivering real help in the local community.

As part of that guarantee we have introduced the future jobs fund, which is worth around £1 billion, and to which local authorities and others may bid. It aims to create about 150,000 job opportunities, a significant proportion of which will be in areas of high unemployment. The fund will form a key component of the guaranteed offer to young people, and Jobcentre Plus will continue to meet the needs of Plymouth and the south-west. Today, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who is also the regional Minister for the South West, announced the 30 successful bids in the fourth wave of future jobs funding, which will create up to 7,200 jobs in England and Wales.

To date, the successful bidders have created about 95,000 jobs. In Plymouth, Wolseley Community Economic Development Trust was a successful bidder. Its work will create up to 181 jobs in Plymouth with a range of roles, including youth work, administration, customer service, maintenance, horticulture, and learning and support. Those jobs are targeted at deprived neighbourhoods with young people working in those neighbourhoods, and contributing to public services such as health and care provision, and supporting third sector organisations. The trust is also working closely with Connexions staff to launch a new team to support the district young people's strategy. We are using the customer feedback gathered by Connexions as a part of its work with young people to develop a service that meets the needs of local young adults. Jobcentre Plus is fully committed to Backing Young Britain. The process for contacting employers endorsing Backing Young Britain is currently being designed and is due to be launched later this month.

My hon. Friend raised the important issue of green jobs. The Department is helping the growth of green jobs partly through the future jobs fund—the environment is one of the community benefits against which people may bid—and we have a fund to provide 100,000 jobs in key sectors. The green arena is one of those key sectors.

Will my hon. Friend comment, as I asked, on whether employers, including in the green sector, are coming forward to provide opportunities for the future jobs fund and Backing Young Britain jobs?

My hon. Friend is right. This is partnership working, and we need employers to continue to make bids via local authorities. I hope they will do that to provide real jobs that have community benefits, are innovative, and provide good, quality experience so that people learn the skills that will be useful not just for the present, but as we come out of recession.

My hon. Friend spoke about pensions. The Government have made a commitment, which is enshrined in law, to restore the link between the basic state pension and earnings in 2012 or by the end of the next Parliament at the latest. State pension forecasts already include information to alert people to that change, and the effect that it may have on the amounts in their pension forecast. All requested pension forecasts include a specific flyer insert, and our web-based service provides specific links to further detailed information.

Both the Department and Plymouth have been extremely successful over the past 12 years. The Department has improved its services, helping millions of people into jobs and millions more to improve their job prospects. At the same time, Plymouth has grown and prospered, with increased employment and improved services.