Update on joint working with the Department for Work and Pensions

I welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the work currently being undertaken between the Welsh Government and the UK Government to better align the employment and skills services that support jobseekers in Wales.

As a substantial policy area devolved to the Welsh Government, skills have a major impact on both the economic and social well-being of Wales. Together with policy action to support the employability of individuals, skills provide a strong lever for tackling poverty and strengthening the creation of jobs and growth.

Despite this, one of the key challenges we continue to face is the fact that a number of employment policy matters remain the responsibility of central government through the Department for Work and Pensions. In order to be fully effective we must clearly take action to join up our devolved responsibilities with those reserved at the UK level.

As many of you are no doubt keenly aware, this challenge has been crystallised since the introduction of the Department for Work and Pension’s flagship employment initiative, the Work Programme. The ongoing challenge relates primarily to the need to demonstrate added value for Welsh Government and ESF funded skills provision and ensure there is no overlap or duplication in funding coming into the system from different governments.

We have a common aim with the DWP to support individuals in Wales who are seeking work and to fulfil their ambition of gaining sustained employment. We want to ensure jobseekers in Wales have access to the widest range of help available and we therefore need to work with the DWP to simplify access to respective employment and skills programmes.

In November 2013 the Welsh Affairs Committee published a report focussing on the operation of the Work Programme in Wales and made several recommendations which required active collaboration between the DWP and the Welsh Government.
In response to these recommendations, which focussed quite clearly around the issue of access to Welsh Government and ESF funded provision for Work Programme participants, my predecessor and the Minister of State for Employment jointly agreed to establish a working group that would be charged with seeking practical solutions to the problem.

The Access to Employment Working Group has met on several occasions to discuss this and a number of other related issues. The engagement has been extremely positive and some significant agreements have already been reached including the introduction of the Skills Conditionality project which has been designed to further test mandation for jobseekers with an identified Essential Skill need and provide Welsh Ministers with additional evidence to make a definitive decision in relation to skills conditionality provision in Wales. We have also affirmed access to apprenticeship opportunities for Work Programme participants within the eligible age range and provided the Working Group the opportunity to influence issues such as the Welsh Government’s Footprint for European Social Fund delivery and the development of our new adult employability programme which will operate from September this year.

Despite these positive moves, we remain challenged by the nature of the Work Programme contracts and our inability to determine where we can demonstrate added value through integration with our own programmes and investment. The Welsh Government has persistently sought greater clarity from DWP around the nature of the delivery within the Work Programme to understand whether there are opportunities to better align the support available.

I’m very pleased therefore to announce today that following the DWP’s recent announcement to extend the Work Programme to 2017, Welsh Government and DWP officials will be working together on a solution to enable Work Programme participants in Wales access to appropriate ESF programmes from April 2015. This will involve varying the current contracts to allow greater clarity around what we expect Work Programme providers to deliver and be paid for, thereby opening up opportunities for Welsh Government or ESF funded schemes to provide additional support where required. It is expected that this work will be concluded by 31 March 2015.

This is by no means the end of the story. The DWP may have extended Work Programme contracts for an additional year but they are already considering their approach to the next round of Work Programme contracting. It is imperative that we avoid any of the issues we have experienced to date and I will therefore be strongly advocating Welsh Government involvement in every stage of the commissioning process for the next contract. I understand this will gather some momentum following the UK elections.

Further to these specific actions, and as a final point, the Welsh Government continues to develop and refine our own response to the challenges facing the skills system in Wales as we aim to move towards a better integrated and more responsive system that offers better value for the limited resources available to us. This is not only our responsibility but a joint one across the whole skills system whether it is nationally led or more regionally or locally focussed.

Our skills policy statement, and its accompanying implementation plan, along with our ongoing developments to establish programmes that provide relevant, flexible and cost effective support to both businesses and individuals, are all testament to this joint ambition.

Our ongoing relationship with the DWP as one of our key partners is vital therefore if we are to realise this ambition and I look forward to continuing to lead on our collaboration in this challenging agenda.