HC Deb 14 December 1971 vol 828 cc265-70
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Paul Bryan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the future of the public employment service.

My right hon. Friend has today made available in the Vote Office and through the Department's local offices copies of a report entitled "People and Jobs" which outlines a programme for modernising the Employment Service. This programme is based on a review my right hon. Friend has been making of all the Department's manpower services. We acknowledge the debt we have owed during that review to earlier work on the Employment Service, including the comments received from many individuals and organisations on the Consultative Document of May, 1970, for which the right hon. Member for Backburn (Mrs. Castle) was responsible.

The Employment Service has important economic and social functions. It has responsibilities for improving the operation of the labour market and for helping people who have difficulty in finding or keeping satisfactory employment. The present service is undoubtedly doing good work in both these respects; but for largely historical reasons it is not able fully and effectively to meet the many and varied needs of employers and workers in a modern labour market.

Accordingly the Government are making major changes in the way the service is organised and run. These are set out in detail in the report. The main changes are as follows.

First, the Employment Service is to become a departmental agency—that is, a self-managing unit within the Department of Employment. A newly appointed Chief Executive will be directly responsible for the efficient performance of the service. Second, the staff and offices dealing with placing and other employment work on the one hand and administration of unemployment benefit on the other will be separated and unemployment benefit will be paid by post.

Third, job self-service and vacancy displays will be extended to all local employment offices and the staff and training requirements of advisory interviewing work will be thoroughly reviewed. Fourth, a new network of attractively designed well located employment offices will be developed.

Fifth, plans for restyling the Professional and Executive Register and charging employers for the service will be urgently followed up. Sixth, a new division of responsibility between the Department of Employment and local authorities will be established for giving careers guidance and a placing service for young people.

As the House will realise, it will not be possible to make all these changes overnight. The Chief Executive, supported by a management team which has been freed from responsibilities for day-to-day work, will be responsible for carrying out the modernisation programme as quickly as practicable in full consultation with staff and other interests concerned.

The Government are determined to carry through this programme with all urgency and believe that it will provide the positive and dynamic public service which is required as an effective instrument of manpower policies in modern employment conditions.

Mrs. Castle

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, despite the gloss that he has put on it in his statement, this is a deeply disappointing document, on which we shall want an early debate—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Give me time. Is he also aware that, now that we have the document, there is clearly no justification for the delay of 18 months in producing it, since we have had none of the dramatic new initiatives which were hinted at at a certain time, and that all we have in this document is a continuation of policies which had already been initiated in the Department and an emasculated version of proposals which I published in May, 1970?

Is he aware that, by this delay, the Government have cost the country millions of working days, since, if improved employment services succeed in cutting down by one day on average the time taken by unemployed men and women to move into a new job, we avoid the loss of 3 million working days a year? How can he justify still further delay by leaving it to yet another management team to decide whether to set up the manpower centres which we proposed as an integral part of the modernisation? Second, when will he reach a decision on the future of the Youth Employment Service, instead of fudging the issue as he does in this document? Third, is not one of the purposes of his policy to give a further lease of life to the fee-charging private agencies which are costing employers thousands of pounds a year and which it should be the purpose of a modern employment service to make unnecessary?

Mr. Bryan

We would certainly welcome an early debate on this subject. I am surprised that the right hon. Lady gives so tepid a welcome to our proposals.

If she had listened to the one o'clock news, she would have heard Vic Feather give a much warmer welcome to them.

The right hon. Lady's document was a consultative document and did not claim to be anything else. This is a document of decision and action—action which will add up to the biggest programme of reforms which the Employment Service has ever had in all its 60 years' history. As to her question about delay, as I have said before, it was a considered decision by this Government to make a general review of all manpower services together, and that is what we have done. If this means that this document has come out a month or two later than it might have done, I can only say that the enormous stimulus that our new system of management will give to the whole system will certainly make up for any of the days or months lost.

As for the Youth Employment Service, we have made up our minds which way we mean to go. This is, of course, that the service will be shared with the educational services. This is clearly laid down—

Mrs. Castle

But not mandatory.

Mr. Bryan

It is not laid down as mandatory, because we think that we should discuss this with the local government organisations. But the whole guidance and direction of these services is clearly laid down and no one doubts which way we are going. Where the right hon. Lady was in doubt, we know what we want.

On her last question, about fee-charging agencies, the very fact that we will produce a highly efficient and competitive service is the greatest competition and curb that any inefficient fee-charging body can have—although of course there are many efficient ones too.

Mr. John Page

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the country will welcome these exciting and radical new proposals—particularly employers, employees, and those who work inside the employment agencies? In the meantime, will he forget and not eat the sour grapes which the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) offered him? Will he give particular attention instead to the employment figures of the over-fifties to see that these are not forgotten in the progress of the new plan which the Government have brought in?

Mr. Bryan

The improved services provided will certainly do well for the over-fifties. The improved services which we shall get from our very highly trained staff will give advice, especially in our occupational guidance services, of just the sort which will be of special use to those of that age.

Mr. Hooson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the modernisation of the Employment Service is long overdue and therefore should be welcomed on every hand? But is he further aware that no time is given in this statement? Over what period will these changes take place? Do the Government appreciate that the first priority must be jobs for the Employment Service to advise upon?

Mr. Bryan

As I said, a good start has been made this very day by the appointment of the Chief Executive, Mr. Ken Cooper, and his management team.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Well, that is one job.

Mr. Bryan

After that, a start will be made right away on the business of separation, and there will be evidence of this in the coming year. Work will also start on our self-service work, and evidence of that will be seen in the next year. During the next year or so we will also see the development of the payment of unemployment benefit by post, which will be an advance. Of course, one will also see the start of our programme of the actual improvement of the siting of the offices.

Dame Joan Vickers

My hon. Friend referred to highly trained staff. What type of person will be appointed to this staff? Is he aware that one of the biggest difficulties at the moment is that totally unsuitable jobs are offered to people, and if a chap refuses a job, the staff tend to wash their hands of him. What type of training will be given to ensure that we have this highly trained staff? Can we be assured that they will be better equipped to offer the right types of jobs to individuals?

Mr. Bryan

The separation of unemployment benefits from the actual Employment Service will very much simplify the task of the staff, because there will be specialists on each of these two sides. The jobs on both sides will be carefully analysed and the new management will provide training and selection. I expect to have a highly expert staff on both sides of this administration.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown

If these proposals continue to improve the Department in the public image, then obviously they are to be welcomed. Is the Minister saying that the youth employment offices will be taken over by the Department? If so, have the local authority associations agreed to this? Will there be an increase or decrease in the overall staff of the Department?

Mr. Bryan

Regarding the Youth Employment Service, we have reached what I consider to be the rational decision that instead of laying down a particular age at which an individual comes under the local education service or employment service, we are saying that when a person leaves school, whatever his age —15, 18 or 20—he will get guidance from the education system. Having got a job, if he wants to change his job later he will then be on the labour market and will go to the employment agency.

That is, I think, the sensible solution. Nothing will be absolutely rigid. If a young man has just got a job through the education authority and then, after a few weeks, wants to change it, he will be able to go back to the education authority and he will not necessarily have to come to us. The system will remain flexible.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. These matters will have to be pursued on another occasion. We must get on.