Recently, it was announced that the People Plus office based in Churton Road, Rhyl, which has provided mandatory employment support and training services to the long-term unemployed, was to be closed and relocated. The short notice given to both staff and service users is of concern and caused a great deal of upset and worry.
This week in the House of Commons I was pleased to be able to ask the secretary of state about unemployment and the work programme Rhyl and raise the issue of People Plus.
Dr James Davies MP asked the Secretary of State:
In Rhyl and district, the number of people requiring support through the Work programme for the long-term unemployed has dropped from 400 to 150 over the past 18 months. That is good news, but jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance claimant rates in parts of Rhyl remain concerning, and the Work programme delivery company has recently closed its principal office in the town. Can the Minister assure me that the new Work and Health programme will take particular account of individuals who are less receptive to intervention and who need more intensive input?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The new Work and Health programme is being designed precisely to help those people who face multiple and complex barriers to getting into work. Beyond that, our upcoming Green Paper will look at the additional ways in which we can reduce the disability employment gap in the longer term. Of course, GPs play a key role in supporting those people, and I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and his GP colleagues to discuss these important issues further.
People Plus is contracted by Rehab Jobfit on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions to deliver the Government’s Work Programme (a welfare-to-work scheme for specified claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance [JSA] and of the Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group [ESA WRAG]). They provide help with writing CVs and interview techniques and skills training.
Since the announcement, I have been liaising with People Plus, Rehab Jobfit and the Department of Work and Pensions and it has been explained to me that the current premises on Churton Road were no longer available for lease under the terms required by People Plus. It is currently unclear how much notice the company had of this, or the precise issues which prevented lease renewal.
Alternative arrangements have been put in place to ensure the service is maintained. These arrangements are requiring many individuals to travel to the People Plus office in Flint to access support but an outreach service has been set up within Rhyl and is available 3 days a week. This is based in the Hub (alongside RCS, formerly known as ‘Rhyl City Strategy’, on the corner of Wellington Road and Elwy Street). The new location is likely to assist some clients who have struggled to access the less suitably positioned previous premises and means that People Plus will be located in the same building as other agencies providing services to people seeking work. Importantly, I am advised that the range of support available will not be reduced and that People Plus have taken steps to position themselves to work more closely with local Housing Associations.
People Plus are working with their individual service users to identify travel needs and to ensure no one who is unable to make the journey to Flint is expected to do so. I understand that this will include ESA claimants and those for whom a journey to Flint would exceed 90 minutes. It is important to me that the travel needs identification process has been carried out fairly and while I am yet to receive any representations from those affected, I would encourage anyone who feels they are being unfairly dealt with, to contact their caseworker and let me know if they remain unsuccessful.
People Plus estimate that 80% of those who have been using the service in Rhyl are a 35-50 min rail journey away from Flint. A proportion of the clients affected live outside of Rhyl, some of whom are likely to find travel to Flint to be simpler than the previous arrangements. For those in Rhyl, Flint is 21 miles away. It can be reached in 19 minutes by train or in under an hour by bus. Clearly, many in employment need to travel significant distances daily to work and the JSA agreement with all clients includes a commitment to travel up to 90 minutes to find work. For those required to travel to Flint, People Plus will pay all travel costs, ensuring there is no financial impact. However, I am seeking reassurances that such costs will be met upfront and not in retrospect.
Employment in Rhyl has risen significantly over recent times, with a fall in the number of JSA claimants from 811 in Feb 2016 to 482 in April 2016. The number receiving support from People Plus in Rhyl and district has dropped from approximately 400 to 150 over the last 18 months.
In so many ways, the basis of a strong and successful community is a strong local economy. Key to the regeneration of Rhyl is securing higher levels of employment. While employment trends have been positive, parts of Rhyl do still retain unemployment levels that are clearly worse than the national average. Bearing this in mind, I believe there remain significant questions to be answered about the recently announced changes and how they may impact on the success of the Work Programme locally. A reduction in the number of long-term unemployed may mean that People Plus feels a need to rationalise their provision in order to ensure the service remains viable. However, it seems counter-intuitive to reduce service accessibility to an area more in need than most. The Work Programme would be failing in its intentions and method of delivery if these changes reflect a belief that the remaining long-term unemployed in Rhyl are too difficult or too costly to assist. There are also implications arising from the recent changes in terms of the approach that will be taken for the replacement Work and Health Programme, when it comes into being.
Much work is being carried out within Rhyl to improve the life chances of the long term unemployed and assist more into secure employment. It is critical that all services work collectively to provide the support and assistance necessary to bring about success. Since being elected, I have met many public, private and third sector organisations operating in Rhyl and I have been encouraged to hear similar reports from across the spectrum, indicating that employment is rising, despite a number of challenges. I would praise all organisations working at the ground level in this area.