Saturday, 7 June 2008

Local controls could mean more city jobs

Work and pensions secretary James Purnell spoke in Nottingham this week about new measures to get residents back to work. Political Editor Charles Walker looks at how they might work in practice.

The large number of people not in work is one of the biggest challenges Nottingham faces.

About one third of the working age population in the city is not in employment.

More than 17,000 residents are claiming incapacity benefit, and about 10,000 lone parents receive income support.

Neither of these groups are included in the official unemployment figures, which measure people claiming Job Seekers Allowance.

And the consequence of so many people not working is six out of ten city children are now believed to be living in poverty.

Grim statistics, but there are signs of hope and the visit of James Purnell, the youthful work and pensions secretary, to Nottingham this week indicates the Government can see progress.

As rats leap from a sinking ship, so ministers don't associate themselves with lost causes. Mr Purnell's visit, which included a speech at a conference on employment, skills and poverty in Nottingham, brought a few issues into focus.

Firstly, he thinks Nottingham is doing the right thing in setting up a welfare to work programme, called Making the Connection.

It seeks to target benefit claimants, engage them in basic training tailored to available vacancies, and propel them into jobs with as much support as possible (both financial through the provision of bus fares and child care and social, through mentoring and advice).

But, everyone at the conference, including Mr Purnell, recognised that the numbers assisted will have to increase hugely if real progress is to be made.

The second message was that the Government intends to push more claimants back into the job market.

The Government is pressing ahead with plans to assess benefit claimants and identify what work they can do, rather than what they cannot.

Of course, he made the right noises about proper support for people in both these groups, but there will be significant concern among existing claimants.

The third issue was raised by those in Nottingham who work to boost employment. They want more autonomy from central Government to shape services to target help and support at priority groups here.

It may be they can use funding streams from the Department for Work and Pensions to pool with cash from elsewhere, say the health service, to give more assistance to people on incapacity benefit who suffer with poor mental health.

Basically, the local Employment and Skills Board needs control over some of the money spent in Nottingham.

This local flexibility may prove to be crucial if the Government's efforts to tighten up the benefits system delivers the desired effect of getting more people into work.

Mr Purnell sounded sympathetic but the test will be how many of the ideas he heard in Nottingham this week, make it into his Green Paper on welfare later this year.

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