Local solutions are the key to full employment

Labour is learning from countries where local services are trusted to match job seekers with vacancies.

In the pages of this week’s New Statesman the ever excellent Ian Mulheirn takes a look at this government’s employment policy. Needless to say it’s not a roaring success.

For proof, you need look no further than Wednesday’s unemployment figures. For the second month in a row, the number of people actually in work fell; that means our economy has quite simply stopped created jobs and is starting to lose them. Unemployment rose. Long term unemployment rose – and we now live in a country where one in five people out of work has been on the dole for more than two years. Yet in spite of the obvious need Ministers continue to resist Labour’s calls for a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee to end the prospect of a life on the dole.

Instead Iain Duncan Smith presses on with a Work Programme that doesn’t work, leaving more and more people getting further and further away from the labour market. And what’s more he has failed the very test he set himself his during fleeting reinvention as a compassionate conservative.

Back in Easterhouse the future Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told the world that, “A nation that leaves its vulnerable behind, diminishes its own future.” But after three years of power he isn’t bringing unemployment down on Britain’s poorest communities, he’s watching it rise.

Today, three quarters of the British estates most blighted by unemployed have seen worklessness rise since May 2010, and in two thirds long term unemployment has continued to spiral out of control.

Yet for all the promises they made in Opposition, this government has done nothing to re-skill the unemployed for the jobs that do exist. And the truth is skills are more important than ever – in today’s global market place, low skilled British workers are competing with workers paid twelve times less. The result is more than half of those without a skill are out of work, and the number is rising.

More and more of our low-skilled or no-skilled workers now live in Britain’s poorest communities. In fact, some of Britain’s poorest communities are home to five times more unskilled workers than Britain’s richest communities, and the truth is Ministers are allowing them to fall further and further behind.

The answer to the problem of poor places - as I argued in my speech to IPPR North last night – can be found in countries that are localising back to work services so workers can be better connected with local jobs, saving the state a fortune in benefit payments along the way. In times as tough as these we certainly shouldn’t be afraid to borrow the best ideas from our friends and neighbours.

In Germany, their more localised approach has contributed to saving billions of euros in welfare payments by driving up the employment rate. Local jobcentres work closely with surrounding schools and have deep roots in the local labour market which allows them to engage with employers far beyond the traditional low skill, low pay sectors.

Whilst in Canada, localised delivery of back to work programmes give local government the flexibility to establish their own priorities and to develop programmes to achieve them. Provinces and territories control how the funding is allocated in order to meet the needs of their particular labour markets, which in turn gives them the opportunity to apply local expertise to skills development, allocating targeted wage subsidies, and creating Job Creation Partnerships, to help provide useful work experience that leads to sustained employment

But it’s not just on foreign shores that decision makers are changing things on the ground with a more localised approach. Here in the UK, Labour authorities are already leading the way. Places like Glasgow, Wales, Newham and Liverpool are seeing Labour leaders innovate in a way that DWP officials in Whitehall cannot, by using local expertise to tackle unemployment head on. That’s how we start on the path back to full employment – and that’s how we rebuild Britain.

For Labour, that goal of full employment has always been the foundation for getting our country back on its feet. It was for Atlee’s Labour. It was for New Labour. It will be once more for One Nation Labour. Today the goal of full employment is important for a very simple reason. The faster we return to full employment, the faster we can pay down our debt. And the faster we can put the “something for something” back in to social security.

The Tories’ problem isn’t just that they are failing, but that they lost a belief in full employment many years ago, and never rediscovered it. That means more money spent on unemployment, so there is less to go around for working people and less for care.

After three years of failure we’ve got to find new ways to break out of this viscous circle. Seventy years ago, we set out a new path to full employment. Just as the Beveridge Report is a still a good roadmap for today, so too is the 1944 White Paper on Full Employment. It teaches us to be radical reformers to bring down the costs of social security; building exports; supporting public investment; fanning consumer demand – and taking determined action on jobs. It is a long road, but tackling poor places would be a big first step to getting our country back to full employment.

Next year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the white paper on full employment. We should mark that anniversary not with empty words but with big plans. Plans to rebuild the path to full employment for new times. Plans which could help us modernise our social security system, rebuild trust, and crucially put its finances back on an even keel for the future.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.