Fresh from the immigrant worker figures fiasco, Caroline Flint, employment and welfare reform minister, speaks to Personnel Today about statistics, employment, and government plans for welfare reform.
Employment minister Caroline Flint is, whether she likes it or not, a numbers woman. Her ministerial portfolio covers, among other things, responsibility for the labour market, migrants, welfare reform and Jobcentre Plus.
This means she has a wealth of statistics at her fingertips about employment rates, the amount of jobs available, people on benefits, and the current political hot potato of immigration levels in the UK.
Our interview at the Department for Work and Pensions’ offices in Westminster falls the day after the government admitted that it got its figures wrong on the number of immigrants employed in the UK.
In an embarrassing incident for the government, Flint’s boss, work and pensions secretary Peter Hain, was forced to admit the actual number of migrants in the workforce was 1.1 million, rather than the 800,000 he had initially quoted.
It later emerged that of the 2.1 million new jobs Labour boasted it had created since coming to power in 1997, more than half had gone to foreign workers. This was a major admission for a government that has been banging on about “British jobs for British workers”.
The muddle has thrust the issue of immigration, and how the government manages it, fully into the political spotlight. Flint was, unsurprisingly, keen to draw a line under the issue.
“When the government has to correct figures that have been discussed publicly, then that will obviously raise concerns with people,” she said. “It’s important for me as a minister to get the figures right as quickly as possible, no matter what grief that gives me.”
But would the government prefer it if the majority of the new jobs had gone to home-grown workers?
“For employers looking to fill vacancies, if they cannot get people to apply for those from the UK population, then they are obviously going to look elsewhere,” Flint said. “It would be naïve and wrong to suggest that migrant labour isn’t part of the workforce of the future, just as it has been for generations.”
A former trade unionist, Flint was elected to parliament in 1997 as part of the new wave of female MPs labelled ‘Blair’s babes’. She was appointed to her current role in June, following Gordon Brown’s reshuffle upon becoming prime minister.
In terms of the labour market, her mantra is ‘the jobs are there for those who want them’. Employment is at record levels – 29.1 million people were in work in June to August – and the number of people claiming benefits is falling. Running alongside this, the number of job vacancies has remained steady at more than 600,000.
Flint said all this meant she was confident the government would meet its target of 250,000 jobs for benefit claimants through its Local Employment Partnerships with major employers. More than 100 companies, including Asda, Whitbread, Travelodge and John Lewis have signed up so far.
Whether these are jobs exclusively for British workers, as promised by Brown at September’s TUC Congress, is unclear. The Conservatives claim the pledge is illegal under EU law, so could Flint clarify the situation?
“The job pledge is linked to people currently out of work on benefits, who [the government] wants to get into work,” she said. “For the most part, migrant workers who come to the UK are working, and it’s fair to say people on benefits are either British born, or born abroad and now UK citizens. So that is the group we are targeting.” So that’s cleared that up, then.
Government welfare reform plans, which place greater obligations on benefit claimants to look for work, have also attracted criticism from various groups. The TUC said it feared the plans could lead to employers using unpaid work experience as an alternative to paid employment, and that lone parents may be stigmatised. But Flint disagreed, and said the consultation – which closed at the end of October – had pushed the discussion about the role of work up the agenda.
“It is important for individuals not to be reliant on the state – it’s not there to run people’s lives but to support and enable,” she said. “The closer we can get people to see what work is like, the better. The ideal model is where we can provide a pre-employability programme at a workplace. You get a group of people together at work, suddenly it becomes real, and that’s when people can see a real job at the end of it, and not just something that is abstract.”
Also falling under Flint’s remit is the new Commission for Employment and Skills, due to start work next April. Flint was at pains to reassure employers that the body would make a real impact. “It won’t just be a talking shop, although talking is important,” she said. “Getting people from the employers side and skills side to talk is the most important aspect.
“The commission will have a vital role in advising ministers about what can work better. I’m a practical person and like to look at what the problems and barriers are, and how to solve them. The commission can help us with that agenda.”
June 2007 – present
Employment and welfare reform minister
May 2006 – June 2007
Public health minister
May 2005 – May 2006
Parliamentary under- secretary of state for public health
June 2003 – May 2005
Parliamentary under- secretary of state at the Home Office
2002 – 2003
Parliamentary private secretary to John Reid
1999 – 2002
Parliamentary private secretary to Peter Hain