As part of the city council’s scrutiny process, whereby decisions made by the executive and outside bodies are reviewed by backbench councillors, I’ve been working with colleagues investigating the ‘effectiveness of employment strategies’. The city, like the rest of the country, oversees the spending of hundreds of millions of pounds every year to try and get people (back) into work. The review started about 18 months ago, and even then, at the height of the boom years, the unemployment rate in certain inner city wards was 20% and the ‘worklessness’ rate was 30%. (‘Worklessness’, incidentally, is a word that has been around since the 1880s but is being increasingly used by bureaucrats to mean ‘economically inactive’, so it includes anyone who isn’t working, whether they are in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance or not. I was determined never to utter the word but gave up after it started cropping up everywhere).
The report came to full council this week, and it would have been obvious to anyone with the patience to wade through it that there are some serious problems in the way that unemployment is currently being addressed. Firstly, there is far too much complexity and bureaucracy involved. The report pointedly referred to the ‘complex web of interlinked programmes and funding streams’ around the issue. That’s being far too kind. Nationally there are no less than 4 different government departments involved in tackling unemployment. Below them there’s Job Centre Plus, the Learning and Skills Council, AWM (our redevelopment agency), and the local authorities, and beneath them sit the City Region (the ‘greater Birmingham councils’ group) and local strategic partnerships. Coordination between these partners is often poor, focus constantly shifts so that we now talk about priority ‘super output areas’ rather than priority wards, and quangos change, with the LSC, for example, soon to be abolished and replaced by two new organisations. What doesn’t change however is the fact that there is a multitude of different agencies involved in tackling this issue, and all of them are helping to spend what amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. And, if we take ‘closing the gap’ – between those wards with the highest unemployment and the city average – as being the measure of success, then it looks as though none of this effort and money is actually making any difference. Unemployment may have come down in the priority areas, but, when the report was started, it was coming down across the whole of the city.
This isn’t to say that employment strategies aren’t getting some people into work, however. Many of the agencies we spoke to as part of the review claimed to have helped people into work. However, as no tracking of these individuals has taken place, we can’t be sure whether people finding work are being counted more than once – are lots of agencies claiming success with the same people, for example. Also, because of this lack of tracking we have no idea whether people finding work actually keep their jobs and are still there 3, 6 or 12 months later. And we don’t even know if those helped into work were the long term unemployed or the recently unemployed who may well have found a job fairly quickly anyway. This lack of tracking, which is put down in the case of Job Centre Plus, for example, to concerns over data protection, means that we have no effective way of knowing whether the various unemployment strategies are working.
Finally, initiatives to tackle unemployment have traditionally been far too centralised. This results in uniform, nationally focused programmes and also, as the Local Government Association suggests, a ‘democratic deficit’ in relation to overseeing public expenditure. There should be proper consultation, then, with councillors, at constituency level, on the detail of local plans. And unless schemes can demonstrate their effectiveness then we should stop throwing public money at them.