HL Deb 06 March 1997 vol 578 cc1968-71

3.29 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any proposals to reorganise the Employment Service.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the Employment Service is an executive agency of my department. The role of government is to set the aims, objectives and targets for their executive agencies, and allocate resources to them. It is then for the chief executive of the agency to decide how best to organise its work.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that more than half of the jobs at the Employment Service headquarters are to be cut; that jobs will be lost in all the regional offices right across the country, in England, Scotland and Wales, involving something like 1,800 jobs? Perhaps more important, will the Minister not agree that the advice which the service gives to more than 1,000 Jobcentres is very important indeed, or do the Government consider that 1.8 million unemployed do not count for very much these days? If my suggestions are right, surely the Government are empowered to do something in relation to such a drastic proposal.

Lord Henley

My Lords, it is a matter for the employment agency. The board of the Employment Service is convinced that it must reduce its head office and regional offices to reflect unemployment, which has fallen by over 1 million in the past three years. It is also conscious of the need, in common with most organisations in both the public and private sector, to slim down overheads to improve efficiency. I should tell the noble Lord that jobs lost do not actually equate with redundancies. The Employment Service has a very strong record in managing change without compulsory redundancies and will do everything reasonable to avoid them.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as I understand it, his own Government are committed to a policy of encouraging people to job seek? If that is so, is it not a matter of government concern if the staff are not available to provide a counselling service in such instances? Alternatively, is the jobseeker's allowance, as many of us suspected, simply a means of cutting expenditure at the expense of vulnerable people?

Lord Henley

As the noble Baroness knows, the jobseeker's allowance is designed to encourage people to seek work as appropriate. I can also say that the Employment Service is committed to performing its functions as appropriate. It is appropriate for the Government to set targets for the service and they do so by means of the annual performance agreement. It is then up to the Employment Service to decide how best to meet them. I have every confidence that it will be able to continue to do so, even with a reduced headquarters. Indeed, I think that the Employment Service should be praised for taking the trouble to reduce the size of its headquarters and its overall costs.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, will the Minister admit that the Government's policy is putting the Employment Service in a double bind? On the one hand, the Government consistently reduce the staff of the service and, on the other hand, as my noble friend said, the Government continually put new pressures upon them. For example, the service has an increasing number of interviews and reorientation programmes to deal with. It also chases the unemployed day after day and week after week and is supposed to do so with fewer and fewer staff.

Lord Henley

My Lords, we do not reduce the staff in the Employment Service; staffing is a matter for the service itself. What we seek—and quite rightly— because we believe in the efficient running of government, are efficiency savings from the service. The Employment Service will still be able to meet the very testing annual performance agreement that we place before it and those targets get tougher each year.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, although it may be entirely laudable to try to slim down head office staff levels—and no doubt many industrialists would be sympathetic to that point of view—are the Government not aware that frontline services are also being cut? Are the Government further aware that the executive job club in Southwark, which is the nearest one to the City, with 60 clients on its books, will have to close at the end of March?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I will not comment about individual Jobcentres and individual job clubs. The simple fact is that the Employment Service is meeting the very testing targets which we put before it. I would ask the noble Lord to go out and have a look at the Employment Service and see what it is doing on the ground. As I said before, it is a matter for the Employment Service as to whether it can meet those targets with fewer people. Quite rightly, the service should pursue those aims and the efficiency savings that we seek.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister consider that there is any scope for making savings in the Employment Service by reducing the number of typists and secretaries either at the head office or at regional level? Further, what plans does the Employment Service have for introducing IT to the extent that every executive would have a PC on his or her own desk?

Lord Henley

Quite frankly, my Lords, that is a matter for the Employment Service to consider. As I made quite clear in my original Answer, we provide resources for the service, though we seek efficiency savings. We set targets for the service and it is then up to the chief executive to decide how best to meet them. It is possible that a greater use of IT might be an appropriate way forward. However, quite rightly, that should not be a matter for government; it should be a matter for the chief executive.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I understand what the Minister has said, although obviously I do not agree with him. Is he really saying that there are no circumstances in which the Government would intervene when, for example, a number of jobs are being lost, as in this case, or, indeed, over anything else which affects the service?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord and I have a rather different approach to the matter. I suspect the noble Lord takes a rather statist approach. We do not believe that it is right to interfere in such matters, other than to ensure that the Employment Service is providing an appropriate level of service to the people of this country. That is why we set very testing targets in the annual performance agreement and that is why, in the main, the Employment Service meets them. We shall continue to ask the service so to do.

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