From education to employment

Prioritising the new DWP Secretary of State’s in-tray

DWP has a brand new ministerial team with only Lord Freud staying on from the previous incumbency. New ministers at Minister of State grade for Employment and for Disability, Work and Health with a downgrading of the Pensions portfolio suggests where the new Secretary of State’s priorities lie.  

For Damian Green it’s a return to the Employment portfolio which he covered in the late 1990’s, (albeit now he’s in the top job), when in 1998 he wrote a less than enthusiastic paper for the Centre for Policy Studies “The Four Failures of the New Deal:  Why the New Deal is a bad deal for the young, for business, for other unemployed groups and for the tax payer.”   Time will tell how his opinions have changed since then.  Suffice to say that the SoS’s in-tray is huge and just deciding on priorities will be quite a challenge. 

An immediate priority must be to give a clear statement about the state of play in relation to European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), both the immediate funds due to the UK before March 2018 and what will replace them thereafter. For a brief overview of why this is of critical importance to our most disadvantaged communities have a look at George Selmer’s blog this week “Brexit and the Land of Unforeseen Consequences”  A clear declaration of support for ring-fenced “UKSIF” will calm many nerves in organisations that are reliant on this funding to do the work that they do.

Brexit of course is an entirely unknown quantity.  That it will impact our economy there can be no doubt but how this will happen, when, and the extent and duration of that impact is an unknown.  The new DWP team must prepare for increases in unemployment that the Learning & Work Institute has estimated at 400-450,000.  Active labour market policies,  worked up now with partners across the private, voluntary and community sector as well as Jobcentre Plus, as Tony Wilson has said in his “The Green Agenda”  blog will pay dividends later. 

Extending the Work Programme and Work Choice might be a better option than going full tilt at their collapse in to the Work & Health Programme while we take a breath and see exactly how the economy is reacting.  The budget for the Work and Health programme currently sits at between one fifth and one sixth of the Work Programme/Work Choice budget.  A breathing space gives time for the new team to redo the maths with Treasury.  Relations between IDS and George Osborne were notoriously fractious. Perhaps we can hope for more harmonious relations between Green and Hammond?

Any nervousness about Brexit shouldn’t allow us to lose sight of the disability employment gap.  We need a programme that really does reach those parts previous programmes have failed to reach, but let’s not rush in to Work and Health, but rather create a programme that’s really fit for purpose and really will reach the people with the greatest challenges.

Of prime concern to the new team must be the horrifying level of in work poverty.  If the Brexit vote told us one thing it is that people feel left behind and Teresa May’s immediate words after becoming PM pledged her Government’s support to them.  We must hold the Government to that pledge.   JRF has reported this week that more than one in three families in the UK now have incomes below the Minimum Income Standard (MIS), a benchmark based on what the public agrees that a household needs as a minimum to live on.   Universal Credit must be made to work in a logical and humane way rewarding work and supporting progression in work.  This requires what Frank Field the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee has called “…a very different kind of welfare, which will require developing a new kind of public servant.”  A brand new ministerial team may  have the energy and the imagination to co-create this with  the private, voluntary and community sectors. I hope so.

Fran Parry is an independent consultant.  Her views are her own. You can contact her at Bright Sparks Consulting –  [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @francesparry


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