- Anna Turley celebrates success of regional partners working together in response to crisis
- Whitehall mandarins and further education funding cuts delayed support to workers
Labour MP for Redcar, Anna Turley, secured a Commons debate last night (Tuesday 19th January) on the successes and problems with the support package for SSI workers and contractors.
Anna celebrated the successful co-operation between local partners including the council, unions, FE providers, local enterprise partnership, employers, politicians and the media:
“Out of the tragedy has come some positive learning. The steel taskforce has been an important creation to enable multi-agency co-operation from the start.
“I believe that every region should consider putting together a committee of this kind that could be called on in the event of a catastrophe similar to that which we saw last year.”
Highlighting the challenges in getting support to the people who needed it, Anna criticised barriers in Whitehall and the reductions in further education spending over recent years:
“It took hard work from the chair of the local taskforce to convince risk-averse Whitehall mandarins that support for apprentices and the use of the funding to incentivise recruitment did not constitute state aid.”
“Unfortunately, there have also been widespread delays in accessing training, as some of the agencies involved struggled to deal with the massively increased demand. Further education funding has been reduced by 14% in the past five years. Although the £3 million available to local Teesside colleges for courses is excellent, the challenges in upscaling rapidly to cope with the levels of demand have led to delays for those accessing courses.”
Commenting on feedback from constituents about their experience in dealing with the Jobcentre, Anna said:
“Unfortunately, despite the good work done by many jobcentre staff, numerous constituents have contacted me to raise the dehumanising treatment they have received in jobcentres.
“The issues about sanctions must be addressed. Sanctions should not be used as a mechanism to force claimants to apply for jobs that are not relevant in this instance; such jobs should be a last resort.”
Concluding her speech, Anna said:
“Ultimately, the challenge of bringing jobs and economic regeneration to our area is a long-term one, but given the kind of resilience and determination that has been shown in Teesside during the past few months, the challenges are not insurmountable. With the right help and flexibility from Departments and with the devolution of power and funding to local stakeholders, I see no reason why we cannot overcome this tragedy and build a bright future for our town. We know our challenges, and we are showing we can find solutions. I sincerely hope the Government will support us.”
Full text of Anna’s speech:
Thank you Mr/Madam (Deputy) Speaker.
As has been well documented in this House and in the national media, my constituency has been through one of the toughest times in its existence.
I could debate all day with the Minister about what more I believe the government could have done to save the Redcar coke ovens and blast furnace. I also have many outstanding questions on the future of the site and who will be paying for it.
But it is the people who have borne the brunt of the tragedy that I want to make the topic of tonight’s debate.
2200 men and women lost their jobs directly when SSI went into liquidation. 26 supply chain businesses were also affected making a further 954 redundancies.
As is the case after such a calamitous economic shock, numbers continue to increase as other local businesses, shops, childminders, decorators, hairdressers and many others are affected by the money taken out of the local economy.
Each of these is a tragedy. Each of these is a life that needs to be picked up. A mortgage that needs to be paid. A Christmas that had to be got through. Redcar and Cleveland Mind have had an increase in mental health referrals of 91% in the last year. January and February are hard at the best of times. I thought therefore it was important to stop at this point and take stock of where we are and what is happening. And that is what tonight’s debate aims to do.
It aims to look at how the £50million support package from the government is being applied. What is working, what is not, and what lessons can be learned, particularly as we see other steel-making areas of the country now facing the same tragedy as us.
Out of the tragedy I would like to start with some of the positive learning.
The Steel Taskforce has been an important creation to enable multi-agency co-operation from the start. Weekly meetings allowed local partners from the DWP, the local authority, BIS, the unions, the local enterprise partnership, local media and elected politicians and others to clarify communications and processes and get to the root of the issues and concerns. I believe that every region should put together a COBRA-esque committee that could be called upon in the event of a similar catastrophe to that which we saw last year. Indeed, those areas with high levels of unemployment may want to consider organising similar partnerships as standard procedure to tackle the challenges they face in employment and skills.
It has also been encouraging that both national and local agencies have worked together in a way that departmental silos and local versus national boundaries often prevents. National Careers Service has provided guidance and advice, the Skills Funding Agency acted to remove barriers and increase the flexible use of their funding for SSI workers, the Job Centre Plus has worked closely alongside the Department of Work and Pensions and BIS, allowing rapid response processes to be put in place and create an efficient system for passing on referrals. FE+, a group of colleges in Teesside has also forged a close working relationship with private training providers allowing referrals to be passed from public sector providers to those education providers in the private sector with specialist provision.
This experience has highlighted the complex, bureaucratic nature of skills funding and provision, but has given a clear indication that, after an initial period of shock, enabling agencies to work together at regional level has enabled many of the usual barriers to be overcome, helped particularly by the benefit of a clear decision-making body in the taskforce.
One of the most important factors in the response was the flexibility of funding available. This was to ensure people weren’t limited in the courses they had access to and that specialist and professional training, ordinarily paid for by employers, was now funded for these priority workers. This flexibility coupled with relaxation of rules like the Job Centre Plus 16 hours limit for training or education or the fact applicants were not restricted to just one course or those only relevant to previous employment or experience, were barriers that would usually have got in the way of accessing opportunities. These should be looked at by DWP and BIS at national level to widen access and opportunity.
Job Centre Plus organised Rapid Response Sessions three days after liquidation with over 2000 people seen over the course of a just a few weeks. JCP then worked with NCS to organise the subsequent individual one to one skills sessions which helped inform training needs.
We have seen an unprecedented level of contact between colleges in my area and employers, with FE providers in my constituency contacting over 2500 separate companies directly. This ensured that employers were made aware of the funding and training that local colleges had available to fill vacancies that the businesses were advertising. The three jobs fairs, one which took place just 2 weeks after the announcement, have filled around 200 vacancies. There are also plans to engage more large companies locally, particularly those who are about 6 months to a year away from starting up, to shift from focussing on immediate recruitment need to create bespoke training packages for the skills they need down the line. I want to take this opportunity to thank the countless local businesses who have got on board quickly, and who have been extremely helpful and forthcoming in the support they provided to those workers and apprentices affected.
However, despite the positive collaboration and partnership at local level, the success of any venture like this is only truly measured by the experience of those who are on the receiving end of the support. And I want to set out some of the challenges we have faced so that the learning can be taken up by government.
Firstly at an early Task Force meeting, it transpired that no agency or individual had a full and comprehensive list of all those who had been affected by the closure of SSI. The Taskforce had to re-collect information on names, addresses, skill sets and qualification grants and bids processes. We need to ensure that data sharing is seen as an early priority in the unfortunate event another area is affected. We also need accurate and longitudinal information on who has accessed help and support, who is in work and where geographically the work is located.
There were also well-documented problems with accessing the money from central government that the Ministers announced. It took hard work from the chair of the local taskforce to convince risk-averse Whitehall Mandarins that support for apprentices and the use of the funding to incentivise recruitment did not constitute state aid. I hope BIS has learnt to be more ambitious in the way it supports enterprise than this episode demonstrated.
Unfortunately there have been widespread delays in accessing training as some of the agencies involved struggled to deal with the massively increased demand. Further Education funding has been reduced by 14% in the last 5 years. While the £3million available to local colleges for courses is excellent, the challenges in upscaling rapidly to cope with the levels of demand have led to delays for those acecssing courses.
For example, a constituent with 31 years’ experience in the steelworks, applied for training no less than 3 months ago. Since this time he has been passed from agency to agency and is now on the verge of missing the deadline for the next wave of training course which start in February. I have received many similar concerns about delays to accessing training. I have even had cases where ex SSI workers have been forced to attend existing college courses with 16-18 year old students, something which is disruptive for all parties involved. Others are on courses between the hours of 9am and 5pm but have been told they must attend the job centre in these hours.
Of course, the organisation and administrative challenges that come with dealing with thousands of requests after years of cutbacks is huge, but the human impact of such delays is tragic.
Unfortunately, despite good work by many Job Centre staff, numerous constituents have contacted me to raise the dehumanising treatment they received in the Job Centre. Many of these workers have never been out of work and the experience of being on the dole for many of them – like so many others in my constituency - is horrendous.
For example, we were ensured initially, that ex SSI employees who claimed JSA would be afforded a 13 week period of grace, a mechanism available to all job coaches to allow individuals with extensive experience in a particular field some time to focus on applying for jobs in that sector. However, my constituents, and I must stress not exclusively those affected by SSI, were threatened with sanctions if they did not apply for work in bars or retail work as early as 2 weeks in to their claim. We have heard from other Honourable and Right Honourable members in this House in the past regarding widespread problems with Job Centre Plus and these accusations refuse to go away. They need to be addressed, sanctions should not be used as a mechanism to force claimants to apply for job which are not relevant in this instance - they should be a last resort.
Another challenge we faced was around the confusions on pensions. The ex SSI employees were left shell shocked to find that money which was leaving their monthly pay packet was not in fact ending up in a pension fund. I am now pleased to say that continued dialogue between the Official Receiver and Community trade union has now resulted in all contributions, both employee and employer, having been received by Scottish Widows and now being applied to employees’ pension accounts on a month by month basis.
This continued dialogue with the OR and the trade unions on a weekly basis has also ensured continued communication and working through remaining problems with the workforce on site. And I want to commend Community Union for all they have done to support their members at this difficult time.
One of the other challenges we face is dealing with the fact that since the SSI announcement, we have seen a number of other companies on Teesside make workers redundant including Boulby Potash and Air Products. As a result, an initiative used to help people find work following the closure of SSI is being rolled out across the Tees Valley by Tees Valley Unlimited. The resource hub brings together a number of agencies to provide advice and support to anyone who has been made redundant or who is out of work. Advice will be available on a wide range of topics including CV writing, new career opportunities and retraining, interview techniques, trade union representation, starting your own business, money management, pensions, welfare and benefits, and health and wellbeing. This is exactly the kind of learning which I would like tonight’s debate to share more widely.
A further real achievement that we have seen has been the Insolvency Service’s decision to grant employee status to agency workers. We fought to ensure that the 29 workers from Jo Hand Recruitment were in full receipt of their statutory redundancy pay, holiday pay and notice pay. I wonder how many more of these injustices are happening around the country without the spotlight of SSI.
So to my conclusion Mr/Madam (Deputy) Speaker. We are only three months in, and still have a mountain to climb. There are many people out there who have not had the help and support they need. And ultimately the challenge of bringing jobs and economic regeneration to our area is long term.
But with the kind of Teesside resilience and determination that has been shown over the last few months, these challenges are not insurmountable.
With the right help and flexibility from Government departments and the devolution of power and funding to local stakeholders, I see no reason why we cannot overcome this tragedy and build a bright future.
We know our challenges and we are showing we can find the solutions. I hope the government will support us.