I was fortunate on Thursday to be the first local MP to visit the new A4e offices in Colwyn Bay which serve the entire county of Conwy. I was met and escorted around their operations by the local manager, Val Herd, who clearly brings a great passion and committment to her work which is reflected in the enthuthiastic team of eight that she has working on the Work Programme contract here in Conwy.
I was very keen to visit since the Work Programme is a crucial part of our Welfare Reform legislation which is in many ways one of the few obvious successes of this Government to date. They key question is whether long term unemployed people moved from benefits as a right can actually find work in the locality and just as crucially, can a provider such as A4e manage a contract which does not pay for their work in full unless a client has been in work for a full two years. In the past similar programmes have been generous with providers allowing outcome payments to be made once an individual client obtains work, but the real test of change is whether such a client can maintain long term employment. That was the question that I had for the team at Colwyn Bay.
In terms of the contract, it is fair to say that A4e and other providers are losing money at this point in time and thus across the UK we are talking about significant sums. Will they stay the course? The view of Val and her team was that the outcomes being achieved will see the contracts start to generate money for the contractors from around the 18 to 24 month stage due to the encouraging signs that clients are remaining in the jobs that they have been found. It was, I must admit, highly encouraging to hear of a significant number of clients staying in roles when you consider that many of the clients will have been the long term unemployed. It was just as good to see the names of local businesses on the notice boards next to A4e clients who were now working with them. Are there signs of real encouragement in terms of local job creation or are we now seeing local businesses having the opportunity to employ local workers now that the benefits regime is tougher?
I was also very pleased with the emphasis placed upon self-employment as an option and not at all surprised to hear that of the areas served by A4e in Wales, it was the rural areas that saw the largest interest in taking-up the self-employment option with the benefit of the re-introduction of the enterprise allowance scheme. Waste and duplication are issues that always annoy me so to hear the A4e team describe the way that they work with Welsh Government enterprise support initiatives in relation to helping those wishing to become self-employed was encouraging.
However, some of the initiatives taken by the Welsh Government in relation to supporting the temporary employment of the long term unemployed, appear to be ill-considered and damaging to the work programme. I will be raising these issues with the Department of Work and Pensions since there is little sense in taxpayers money provided to the Welsh Government being used in a manner which undermines programmes paid for by the taxpayer but managed and delivered on behalf of the Westminster Government. I sincerely hope that such a situation, as described to me by A4e, is not indicative of a deliberate spoiling tactic from the Welsh Government.
Finally, as I was coming to the end of my two hour visit a young man from Llandudno, previously a benefit recipient, had just been offered a job by a company in Llanfairfechan. I must admit that the satisfaction of the team at A4e at the news of another success coupled with the relief of the job seeker that he would be working on Monday morning was an intoxicating mix. Yes, we have a long way to go to ensure that there is an opportunity for those who want to work to find a job but the support and committment of people such as the A4e staff coupled with the changes being introduced by the Welfare Reform Act will, in my view, change perceptions and attitudes towards work and benefits in a very positive manner.
It was a great visit, I hope to do it again soon to monitor progress, and I feel quite proud that some of the changes which I debated as a member of the Welfare Reform Bill Committee are being implemented in such a positive manner here in the County of Conwy. This is a flagship policy area and it was great to be the first local MP to visit the A4e centre at Colwyn Bay.