Reforming the welfare system and supporting people back into work go hand in hand. For too long, too many people were left languishing on benefits and trapped in a life of poverty. Helping them go back to work has been one of the primary objectives of the Government in recent years and the results are starting to show.
I have always kept in close contact with the local Job Centre and other providers delivering the Government's Work Programme and visited both again in recent weeks. Unemployment has tumbled by almost half over the last year or so, and the job market is stronger now than it has been for over a decade.
One of the most powerful schemes in recent years has been the policy of creating work experience opportunities for young people. The most important step to getting a full time job for school leavers is gaining experience. Lots of local employers have done their bit by offering unpaid work experience to school leavers and I have seen numerous cases where, after that short trial period, employers are so impressed by the young people joining their team that they move things around to try to find them a permanent place.
Another change now being rolled out is the introduction of the Universal Credit to replace other out of work benefits and Housing Benefit. Previously, many believed that they were better off on the dole. If a job didn’t work out it was difficult to get back on benefits support. If income went over a certain threshold, people lost all Housing Benefit or tax credits resulting in employees being unable to work more than sixteen hours per week for fear of being worse off. That is about to change. Under the new system there will be tapered support so that there is a single benefit payment which is withdrawn gradually as income rises. It will always pay to work more hours but if something goes wrong, the support will kick back in automatically.
These changes are never straightforward but they will transform the lives of those who are on the bottom rung of the ladder.