HC Deb 28 July 1983 vol 46 cc1418-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

10 pm

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

I am glad to be able to raise a subject that is of great importance to many people. The House can deal with such issues in Adjournment debates. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister does not feel that he has drawn a short straw as he has been required to reply to two Adjournment debates. Indeed, I hope that he will feel that he has a double barrel, as what he said about asbestos will, I am sure, be welcomed by many people. I hope that he will be able to make equally constructive comments about the community programme and long-term unemployment.

One of the problems of the House, which is highlighted by the difficulty of debating such subjects as long-term unemployment, is that so many Departments are involved that it is impossible to fit all the relevant Ministers on the Front Bench. The subject should be debated in the round and we must find ways in which to do so. I am grateful to the Minister for listening to my suggestions about what the Department of Employment's main programme for long-term unemployment should be.

I followed the development of STEP, which provided a maximum of about 12,000 places. I also played a part in developing the community enterprise programme, which provided about 33,000 places. It will be working until the end of September. I welcome the introduction of the new community programme, which has a ceiling of about 150,000 places. It appears, however, that the problem is growing faster than are the numbers of people using the community programme. We should consider the number of people who qualify for the programme. There are 1.143 million who have been unemployed for more than one year, 532,000 who have been unemployed for more than two years, 301,000 under-25s who have been unemployed for more than one year, and 608,000 under-25s who have been unemployed for more than six months.

When one compares those stark figures with the take-up of 52,000, one realises that we have a long way to go. I am not criticising the Manpower Services Commission or the Department of Employment for that, as I know that they are doing everything they can to promote the scheme.

Like many other hon. Members, I have been fortunate enough to travel around the country examining highly commendable schemes. Their work is extremely valuable to the community.

We should closely examine the dividing line between what is classed as a community programme, in that it is work done for the community, and a programme that might have a hidden element of so-called profit. I remember the great frustration in Lancashire when I was looking at canal clearance schemes. They provided an attractive walkway along the canal, but by the side of the canal there was a derelict mill which the same labour force could have converted into small manufacturing units. That would have contributed far more to job creation in that community.

Many schemes have moved in that direction, but I hope that during the summer recess we can review the schemes that have been undertaken in terms of their job value to the community. One does not underestimate the good works being carried out. I visited a scheme where a United Reform church was being converted to a Greek Orthodox church, which is very valuable for the Greek Orthodox community. However, priority must be given to schemes that produce jobs. Relevant schemes will attract more people.

An important element in overseas schemes is marketing graduates. The community programme is valuable not just because it helps important community projects but because the people on the scheme can achieve a great deal. The person on the scheme receives a marginally higher income. I do not believe that the present level of unemployment benefit encourages people not to work. I have spoken to many people on the schemes, and one of the first things that they have said to me is that they welcome the additional income.

The schemes represent something useful to do instead of the soul-destroying drift as time goes on and one has been unemployed for six months or a year. Individuals differ as to whether they see the scheme as marginally important or something much more profound. When I visited a scheme in my area recently, a man aged 57, who had despaired of working again because he suffered a heart attack three years ago, told me: The scheme has saved my life. Without it I would he lost. People do not know what it's like to be rejected. Many like me are available for light work—but nobody will employ you. That man is building special wooden equipment for disabled children.

For some people on the schemes it is the first time that they have been motivated to progress from unskilled labour to the desire to train. The schemes often provide training in simple skills, although at an uncommercial rate. People can learn bricklaying or carpentry, and the fact that they have achieved something means that they often wish to have more training. Another great advantage of the scheme is that it gets people over the first hurdle of the search for a job. One has a much better chance of getting a job with a recommendation from the people running the scheme than if one goes to a job interview with the tag of being unemployed for more than a year. However, in terms of the change in the pattern of employment from unskilled to skilled jobs, many of the schemes have not yet reached first base.

The Department must realise that the relevance of the project is important. We can no longer consider the community programme as a temporary measure to deal with something that will go away. Most of us recognise that long-term unemployment is already so high that many schemes will become permanent. We must examine the areas in which the schemes have operated, and perhaps I could give my hon. Friend some examples of areas where we could promote them rather more energetically. In many parts of the country the community programme undertakes insulation work, but many people cannot meet their fuel bills because their homes are not properly insulated and they are unable to budget. More co-ordination could result in a valuable addition to the work that the community programme is now undertaking.

Many community projects involve gardening and the the teaching of gardening skills. That is valuable because it enables many people to do worthwhile work. The gardens are those of the elderly and the disabled, but access to information is often tenuous, possibly through the local vicar or someone who knows Mrs. So-and-so. Would it not be possible to link such community projects directly with certain local authorities that can no longer undertake such work because of their financial problems but which have intimate knowledge of the disabled and those who are unable to look after their gardens?

An extra pair of hands is often valuable in special case work, such as that in centres for the mentally handicapped, day care centres and so on.

These suggestions are not anti-NALGO or against unions that believe that people should not be used as cheap labour or to replace full-time jobs. An extra pair of hands is valuable in addition to agreed staffing levels, and the three examples that I have cited could perhaps be developed more than they seem to have been.

It is essential that the agencies currently undertaking such programmes become established and settled so that they become known within the community as enterprising, offering genuine prospects and doing valuable work.

These community programmes must become involved in training. I know that training is within their remit, although they do not seem to have developed it to any great extent. I have visited schemes such as the Family First Trust in Nottingham, 20 per cent. of whose staff move into full-time work or education. I remember visiting a community programme in Wolverhampton called Cruse, in which young Rastafarians helped to build their own community church. They had previously wheeled barrows and shunted bricks around, but they wanted to become more skilled. There is, however, no link between the community programmes and practical training.

This is a much wider question than can be covered in a few minutes, but we must look at the skill centres and the practical ways in which we undertake training. In terms of the community programme, we must sift the agencies that can undertake the first level of training. If the agency is of any size or consequence, it must have a placement man to follow the careers of the people on the programme, to recommend them to an employer or for training, and to pester, push and place. Agencies that achieve the best results should be supported financially.

For that to happen, we must look at the position of key staff, which brings me back to the point that many of these agencies must become permanent. Under the existing rules, the community programme guarantees the post of the manager, but other key members of staff serve only up to three years. If we are to develop a professional team which is known to the community and can achieve the results about which I have been talking, it is important to have a practical solution to put all key staff on an open-ended contract subject to annual review in the same way as we developed the youth opportunities programme and the youth training scheme.

If we are to increase the level of training and increase the skill input through agencies, we must also look at the ratio of key staff. At the moment, it is 10:1, but if we move into high levels of training we should have ratios of 8:1. It is not my desire, as I am sure it is not the Government's desire, to build up any new body to duplicate work already being done. However, it is essential that if the community programmes and these agencies are to deliver, we should have a flexible approach. All of us recognise that budgetary control must be effective, but it must not be a paper-pushing exercise.

I know that the Minister feels as I do, that, in the 18 to 24 age group, we are dealing with a generation who were born in the sixties at a bullish time, who looked to the future and saw no prospect of things getting worse. They went to primary schools, often in large classes with teachers who came through teacher training college in a rush, and moved into secondary education when reorganisation was all the mode and many new schools were being developed on the basis of untried methods. They left school at a time when maximum numbers were coming on to the job market but a decline in the number of jobs available. Many have now been through the youth opportunities programme for a year and now move into the range of the community programme.

About 75,000 of those under 25 have now been unemployed for two to three years and 23,000 have been unemployed for three to four years. We need action to break the mould if we are to prevent this inevitable group, having gone through what I described, from going on to permanent unemployment. All that I have said so far is to do that and to improve the current vehicle so that it can do so.

Unless the rules have changed, the Treasury is not holding back on this. Two Budgets ago, it said that it would finance 150,000 places in the scheme and when that was full, it would look at more. It is a challenge for us to see that this scheme is filled, as it is the only way in which we can help these critical groups of 18 to 24-year-olds and 55 years and older back into the mainstream of life.

10.18 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) for raising this subject. It was of great advantage that this evening we had the time to cover it, for, very often it is such subjects that are lost in the more contentious issues upon which we normally spend our debating hours. Therefore, it has been a pleasure to have had two Adjournment debates in which we can discuss matters that are important. Although, as far as I can see, there are no Opposition Members present, we are at least at one in seeking to find a solution to a generally accepted problem. My hon. Friend is known for his concern about this matter and I, like others, read with interest his recent article in The Guardian, which covered some of the ground that he has been able to cover this evening.

The mere repeating of comments about our concern at the high level of unemployment sometimes seems unnecessary, but none of us should discuss the matter without reminding ourselves of the serious effect of unemployment upon people, particularly those who suffer from sustained unemployment. My hon. Friend was right when he said that many people in this country are unemployed for long periods and that some of those people fear that they will never find employment, for the reasons that he described. It is because we as a Government are deeply concerned about high unemployment and its effects on individuals that we have given clear priority in our proposals to young people and the long-term unemployed, and that is why we are spending nearly £2,000 million on a wide range of special employment and training measures. That figure will increase to over £2 billion next year. At the end of May, those measures covered more than 561,000 people. They had a direct effect on the opportunities provided for people who otherwise might be unemployed.

My hon. Friend spoke in particular of the community programme. It is a programme in which I have a special interest. He seemed anxious to make certain that I was interested in what he said by telling me of the conversion of a United Reform church into a Greek Orthodox church. For an Anglo-Catholic, it is good to see that the church is moving in what, in general terms, I might call the right direction. I had not realised the special use to which the community programme had been put. We owe a great deal to the many different bodies that have taken an active part in the community programme. It is true that in many cases local authorities have played an active and leading role, but the part played by voluntary bodies and individuals is growing, and it can be seen in a range of projects.

I was interested to hear the other day that the Devon county council has an environmental improvement programme near Newton Abbot. It has only 20 places for unemployed people, but when it is finished, with its walks, picnic places and improvement of a woodland area into a country park, there will be a real sense of creation. It is not only a matter of doing something but of achieving and creating something. As my hon. Friend rightly said, we can re-establish in people skills which they may have had but which have laid dormant, and a feeling that they can do something useful in a community which is clearly oriented to the status of being at work.

My hon. Friend and I could probably talk for a long time about whether that attitude to work, and the status that goes with it, is a proper one or whether it should be looked at differently. I myself am more attracted to the Benedictine concept of work, although that is not widely known or supported today. Many people need to feel that they matter, that they are making a contribution. It is not just the doing, but the achieving. My hon. Friend was right to talk about the relevance of a project.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen what Mobil has done in co-operation with the Southend borough council. They have jointly sponsored a project based on the nature reserve at Leigh marshes, on the Essex coast. More than 100 unemployed people are rebuilding the sea wall of that nature reserve. Skills that have lain dormant, or skills that people have never had, have been utilised, and when the project is complete, it will be a major monument to the effort of those people. Indeed, I listened with interest the other day to a programme in which a young man explained that what he thought worthwhile in the community programme was looking at the line of stone-walling that he had helped to build. That was important for him—not the money.

I hope that anyone who reads this debate will reflect that there is room, too, for small projects. I am anxious that the community programme should not be restricted to those who one might expect to do it. I know that my hon. Friend feels the same because he has said so in the past.

I learnt the other day of a project in Dewsbury at the St. Paulinus parish church where a small number of people are involved in turning an overgrown area into a children's play area and a landscaped garden with seating for the elderly. Dewsbury is the sort of place where such a contribution is permanent for the community. That programme involved only six or seven people, but it was well worth doing by the church group. I pay considerable tribute to the many people involved. I want to encourage more such programmes, particularly among smaller bodies and groups. As a rural Member of Parliament, I hope that there will be more in areas which are perhaps less used to dealing with this sort of matter but where there are many unemployed in the categories that have been mentioned.

This year, the programme that my hon. Friend is seeking to praise and to improve will cost over £380 million. That will provide not just joins but a permanent advantage to the communities in which those jobs are. I know that many hon. Members have taken a real part in encouraging those. The work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), a former Minister of State in the Department of Employment, in the promotion of that was important and valuable.

My hon. Friend mentioned linking the community programme with further training not only in his speech but also in his article which we found most helpful. The real problem, which I know that he recognises, is that the community programme is meant to be a temporary employment programme. That is its purpose and that is how it is seen. Therefore, it can never be that the training element is a major part of it. However, there is considerable scope for project sponsors to provide relevant training. One of the exciting things about the programme as it develops is that there is considerable evidence that the majority of sponsors—not just a few—are providing that training.

As my hon. Friend knows, the programme is flexible in its approach to training. Sponsors can use up to £10 of the wage costs per week per person or any amount of the £440 capital overheads grant to finance training which is directly related to the job in hand and which will improve the participants' employment prospects. That is an important part of the scheme and I shall certainly draw the attention of those who are concerned with the direction of the programme to the points that my hon. Friend has made as to how that might be improved.

I know that my hon. Friend realises that there is more work to be done. This is a newish programme and we shall learn all the time. Nothing that we have laid down so far is immutable and it would be wrong to see it as such. At present there are signs that more training is likely under this programme than under the previous community enterprise programme. That is partly the result of pressure from people such as my hon. Friend.

At the end of June almost 106,000 places had been approved on the programme, and of those 64,000 were already occupied. That is most encouraging. My hon. Friend's point about the number of people who become eligible owing to the latest figures is important. One or two attacks have been made on the programme, but they have increasingly been found to be without foundation. I am pleased to see that there is a growing recognition that the community programme is of great worth. I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the matter. I am sure that we can improve the programme and I shall look carefully at his specific points. I hope that he will agree with me that it is a welcome addition to the Government's raft of help to those who are unemployed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.