Nick Brown, Minister for Work, explains to Ross Wigham how the Government intends to tackle issues of age, racial diversity and returning ex-offenders to the workplace
Q What is your remit at the Department of Work and Pensions?
A Our new department draws together the employment service and the benefits agency with a very large budget of more than £100m employing a third of the civil service.
It draws a distinction between the services offered to people of pensionable age and those of working age and my responsibility is for the working age section of the department.
This division is very new and I think bringing together the link between the search for work, and the benefits paid to people out of work is the right way forward. We shall deliver this through Jobcentre Plus, which we want to roll out across the country.
Q What are you doing to involve employers?
A We need to improve the services we offer to employers. We have appointed business managers to communicate with employers so that each centre can have an understanding of the local labour market and the needs of local employers.
We have also introduced a call centre with a sophisticated system to track vacancies and we hope this will help employers to communicate with us. Instead of just sending people along to interviews, we can deal with employers’ needs as they’ve explained them to us.
I want employers to help shape this service. The relationship between companies and the employment service is crucial. It is a great challenge to us to build our relationship even further.
Q What is the key challenge for the department?
A The best way of alleviating poverty in any household is by getting people back to work. No matter how generous the benefits system is, it doesn’t make up for a wage.
After net pay, childcare is the most significant issue in determining if people, especially lone parents, can return to work. Childcare is not evenly distributed and that is why we’ve employed co-ordinators for every Jobcentre Plus.
Q How are you getting people back into the job market?
A The New Deal has been a fantastic success and there are now only 4,000 young people long-term unemployed. We have helped lone parents and people from ethnic minorities find work through this system.
We are piloting and introducing other New Deals to help people with specific problems such as recovering drug abusers and ex-offenders.
Q What is the most pressing problem in the workplace?
A Ethnic minority groups are always under-represented, under just about every test you can make of the labour market, no matter how tight it gets. Clearly there is lots more work to be done on diversity.
There is no one answer and, having spent a lot of time looking at this issue, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that discrimination by colour, perhaps more than by race, plays a part in this. The better paid the job, the more difficult it is for someone from an under-represented group to reach it.
Employers should look at their own organisations to see if there is colour prejudice and try to develop a heightened consciousness of its potential workforce.
With the labour market so tight companies should be looking beyond the traditional sources of recruitment. They should look at the older returning worker or people with a disability who may be able to fit perfectly well into the workplace.
Q How can the Government combat the 30 per cent productivity gap between our key competitors?
A It is not just a matter of people working harder, it’s about what people work with. We need to concentrate on systems and how time is organised.
Q How did you resolve the Jobcentre Plus dispute, which resulted in a national strike?
A The Government stood its ground and did not reinstate security screens because these offices are not dangerous places. We’re very concerned about staff safety, but the fact is we are now delivering a better service.
The new environment tells people that the Government is on their side and working on their behalf.
People like being treated like adults and this has reduced the temperature and aggression you get on our premises.
The screens exacerbated the problems, as did making people wait in an environment where chairs were bolted to the floor.