The following is the speech delivered by Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister for Employment at ERSA’s Annual Conference. 

Thank you for inviting me today.

Four and a half months in, I’m quickly approaching the point where I can no longer claim to be the new Shadow Employment Minister. But, 4 months feels like a long time in politics at the moment – and it’s certainly longer than the job expectancy of your average Brexit Secretary…

I’ve been asked to come today to talk about my reflections on my time so far in post, and also to share some of our thinking about how a Labour response would be different to that being undertaken by the current government, and what Labour would do in power, to respond to the challenges our labour market faces.

But before I touch on this, I want to take the opportunity to say thank you to Kirsty McHugh, who I understand is moving on in the New Year after 8 years at the helm.

Under your leadership Kirsty, ERSA has gone from strength to strength, growing in size, breadth and influence, and I know that politicians from all sides, recognise and respect the role that you and ERSA have played. 

As mentioned earlier, I have only been in post a few months, but even in that time, you’ve been a valuable sounding board for the Shadow Department for Work and Pensions team. Always advocating on behalf of your members and the sector, but most passionately of all people.  People who need the right kind of support to access jobs and fulfil their potential.

Your honesty, not just about the Government, but also about how you feel we as an opposition could, and should be shaping the debate has been welcome, if on occasion challenging. That’s how it should be, and I know that you will be just as passionate about your new role at City Hall. And I look forward to working with you in City Hall, and your successor in ERSA in the future. Best of luck Kirsty.

In terms of my reflections on the last few months: My first reflection, is that the position of Shadow Employment Minister is a fantastic brief to have, covering a broad spectrum; Employment Programmes, Social Security Policy, Minimum Wage, Health and Safety, and much more in between. 

My second reflection is that I am one of the rare breed of politicians that actually worked in the employment sector, as a professionally qualified Careers Adviser, NVQ Assessor, Connexions Manager, and ESF Projects Manager.  You’ll be pleased to know that I’ll keep my thoughts to just a few of these reflections today, and focus on those elements of my brief that are most relevant to colleagues here.

But I do know, that most of you will agree with me that a goal of healthy, fulfilling, and accessible work, going hand in hand with a compassionate and supportive social security system, needs good policy across a wide range of areas.

I also think it is all too clear that, in many of those areas, the government is not only failing, but continuing on a track that takes us further away from this goal.

On Monday, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted the stark facts, that while employment growth is up, a record amount of people are trapped within in-work poverty.  And 4.1 MILLION children in the UK are in poverty – reversing 20 years of progress. 

37 Billion pounds has been cut from social security budgets, and the Government’s flagship Universal Credit project limps from crisis to crisis.

We may have seen a change in Secretary of State – I for one, will not miss that Secretary of State – but what we really need, is a radical change in direction and approach.

Not only has that not happened, the commitment to a botched roll-out remains. The 5-week wait, continues to drive people further into hardship, and Amber Rudd, the new Secretary of State, has signalled that she will press ahead with so called “managed migration”.

The Government’s changes to draft regulations on Managed Migration, have not been enough to allay the concerns of over 80 respected organisations and charities, fearing that people could fall out of the social security system altogether, by failing to make a new claim for Universal Credit.

This is all happening, of course, under the looming spectre of £7 Billion pounds more cuts in welfare, coming down the track.

As a result, the Child Poverty Action Group estimate that more than 100,000 children in households claiming Universal Credit, could suffer hardship over Christmas, because their families are waiting for a Universal Credit payment. And Food banks are warning that they could run out of stocks over Christmas.

This human tragedy cannot go on any longer.

Universal Credit, as it stands, is failing completely, and should not continue in its current form.The Government must recognise its failures and take urgent action to address them. And for that to happen, it needs a government willing to recognise its failures, reflect on its approach, and accept the need for more funding. We, as an Opposition, have 10 clear demands to deal with the biggest problems.

The Government needs to cut the five-week wait, remove the insistence for claiming online, and end counter-productive and punitive sanctions – at the same time,  recognising that people on fluctuating incomes need proper support. 

All tenants should have the right to have their housing costs paid directly to their landlord, and domestic abuse sufferers must be protected by allowing families to split their payments [As is the case in Scotland]. 

We also need to recognise that a system that is a tool to deliver cuts, not support, will always be a failure – both on its own terms, and for those who depend on it.

The 2-child limit must be abolished, and the benefit freeze ended.

Universal Credit is causing too much hardship to too many people, and the Government must stop the roll-out. 

However, speaking to people in the Employment Sector, we know that, even a properly functioning Universal Credit, cannot on its own create the environment that you need, to get people into employment, training and education. 

The Government is falling short in other areas too.

Other approaches to help people back into work have underperformed at best, or been entirely ineffective at worst. 

They replaced a largely effective Future Jobs Fund, with a Work Programme that has a mixed record at its best, and was so inflexible at its worst, that some providers feared for their future.

This in turn has been replaced by the Work and Health programme, which only covers 20% of the people that the previous Work Programme did.

Indeed, the Government’s most recent approach – the Youth Obligation, is not looking like a solution either. 

According to Centrepoint, only half of the people who started the programme, stayed on it – and even more alarmingly, the sanction rate for those on the programme, was considerably higher, than for those who weren’t on the programme, but in receipt of Universal Credit.

There is also no effective tracking of where people are going after the programme. Now I know, as a former Contracts Manager, that if I could not demonstrate positive outcomes, and track destinations, then the government department would send me packing, and the funding contract would be terminated. 

Success, of course, is about more than individual programmes, however.

A supportive employment environment is more than a collection of initiatives – it is a commitment and a culture.

That comes from the top.And the Department for Work and Pensions, as an institution, is not delivering on it.

I must be clear. This is not the fault or the responsibility of individual staff, who are dedicated and committed to making a difference – and there are many examples of good practice, such as that which I saw at my local Jobcentre in Runcorn recently. It is a corporate culture – and it needs to change.

One senior figure in the sector said to me recently, that the DWP were the “least partnership-orientated organisation that I’ve ever worked with in my life”.

Good employment support cannot only come from the centre – especially when that centre is all too often defined in the minds of users, by the failures and flaws of social security.  The perception of Jobcentres is that they are not places of support, or aspiration, but merely buildings from which to administer benefits and sanctions. 

Perhaps, most damningly of all, we see a Department, who are at the heart of the creation of a hostile environment for disabled People. The drive and commitment of people in this room, to making sure that everyone, regardless of their disability, can access good, fair, fulfilling work is undeniable, and that is, of course, shared by my Shadow Ministerial colleague Marsha de Cordova.

But to finally break down the structural and cultural barriers that continue to exist for disabled people in our job market, we need a government committed to concerted action, and not words. Making our labour market open and accessible to all, requires major action to reduce inequalities, for women, BME communities, and others.

Indeed, on both words, and actions, their record is one of broken promises and failure. Now I suspect many of you here will share much of this analysis of the Government’s short-comings.

The question is, what can be done differently, and what will a future Labour Government do to deliver this?

Our starting point is that tweaks and minor amendments will not be enough. 

We need a wholesale review of Social Security – what it is for, how it is delivered, and how it interlinks with a wider, dynamic and fair economy. 

My colleague, Margaret Greenwood, the Shadow Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, announced at the Labour Party Conference last September, that we will be launching a major consultation on all these questions, and this will be going live in the New Year.

I hope and expect, that as valued partners, you will play your part in shaping it. Given our starting point, it will be broad and wide-ranging in its scope. But we already know, from the engagement we are undertaking on a day to day basis, that underneath these headings are some key questions that apply to your sector and others.

How do we ensure stability, effectiveness and fairness of funding?  

I know that Brexit is bringing a huge amount of uncertainty, with the future of ESF a key concern.

The Government has dragged its heals over the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, and this has left a large number of employment support organisations, who rely on the European Social Fund, uncertain about their future.

We believe that it must retain what was good about its predecessor funding – most clearly its scale and regional focus on needs, but there is also the chance to reduce some of the bureaucracy associated with it, that at times stood in the way of delivery. 

If there is clear evidence, that front-loading funding for organisations, can make the difference between success and failure, then we are keen to listen to those arguments and examples.

One of the criticisms of the Work Programme, was that Payment by Results was too rigid, and divorced from economic reality. We also know that the practical and potential delivery landscape has changed significantly, even in the last couple of years. We are listening, as we develop policy for our next manifesto.

Metro Mayors, Combined Authorities and local councils, are far better placed than Whitehall Mandarins, when it comes to knowing what is best for a local area – and there is some excellent practice happening already:

The Households into Work programme in Liverpool City Region, is providing tailored support in some of our most deprived areas – whilst Preston City Council is putting in place new initiatives, to procure services and goods locally.

We are interested in hearing your thoughts on balancing the benefits of local delivery, with a clear drive and commitment from a Labour government in Westminster, that wants to make a difference, and ensure effective change. 

We also want to hear your thoughts on how and who should deliver Employment Support?

I know that ERSA has members in the public, private and third sectors, and every one of these approaches, has good practice, and, yes, at times, poor practice too. We want to work alongside you all, to be clear about what good looks like, and to build on best practice – in whatever sector it is rooted. But I need to be clear, that the approach that we have seen from elements of the private sector elsewhere, in welfare provision and public services, will not be accepted. 

We will not turn a blind eye, if profits are being made on the back of public money, whilst outcomes are poor, and terms and conditions for those who work further down the chain, are attacked – wherever that may occur. As I mentioned earlier, we want to hear about how we can support disabled people more effectively.  We want to end the hostile environment, and break down those barriers that exist both for individuals seeking work. We want to work with business and employers, to improve their approach too.

There has been virtually no progress in closing the Disability Employment Gap. Larger employers are required to report on their gender pay gap. We should look at similar requirements on companies for the Disability Employment Gap and the Disability Pay Gap. 

The Labour Party is the party of work, the party of Labour. One of our defining objectives, is to campaign for the provision of good, fulfilling work that is secure and fairly paid.

We are committed to a £10 per hour minimum wage, and will strengthen collective Trade Union representation and bargaining, to help end that scandal of low paid insecure work.

I don’t need to tell organisations here, that very often it is the people that you support – the young, and those with skills and other support needs, who have little option but to undertake this kind of work.

They are exploited, undermined and held back because of it – and we will change it. 

As a former Connexions Manager, I know myself the talent that so many people have, and we can’t allow that to be held back anymore.

So to conclude – we are determined to provide an alternative to this government’s approach. 

Too many people are being let down, left behind, and driven further and further away from the opportunities, and the life experience they demand and deserve.

We believe that this has to change, and that we can offer a better, fairer way.

But we can’t do that on our own. We offer you the opportunity to join us in shaping that. Building on what you do well, in partnership with a future government, that will offer the framework and support to achieve it.

A few days ago, I asked Kirsty what the sector wanted most from a future Labour Government?

She said that our aim should be that “everybody has access to GREAT Employment support”. That’s an aim that I’m happy to sign up to.

Let’s work together to achieve it. 

Thank you.