Like all MPs, I am regularly contacted by constituents struggling to access the training they need to secure fulfilling and meaningful work. I also speak to employers about the severe skills shortages they face in key areas across the local economy. This is replicated nationally and finding a solution is central to levelling up.
Resolving this issue is complicated and something that Governments of all stripes have tried to answer. There is one area where further education colleges play a key role; supporting unemployed people to train and retrain. Modest changes to the way the current welfare system operates, that I and many other MPs support, provide the opportunity to make access to this support from colleges much easier and crucially, fairer.
For many, the key obstacle they face is rigid and complex rules around studying and claiming Universal Credit at the same time. As those who work in colleges all too well know, recipients of Universal Credit that are considered available to work face strict requirements, known as ‘conditionality’. Typically, they must spend up to 35 hours per week looking for work, provide evidence of their work search to their Jobcentre Plus work coach and be available to meet with them and attend interviews. Claimants must be prepared to give up their training course if they are offered suitable work.
This leaves many in a catch-22 situation, where they may secure employment in the short term, but are prevented from developing skills that would allow them to get into higher quality, more stable, and better paid employment. The high employment rate in the 2010s should not disguise the fact that some people have moved from job to job with little chance to train or retrain for more meaningful and sustainable employment with prospects for progression.
Most claimants have a limited number of hours they can study per week and are typically limited to 12 weeks of full-time education and training (with 16 weeks for Skills Bootcamps), which restricts the options available. Extension to the amount of study time is at discretion of work coaches, leaving scope for inconsistency and unfairness. Claimants can be required to take part in DWP courses that take them out of college courses or else risk sacrificing payments, which means they have to catch up.
I welcome the steps Government have taken to address the disjointed education and welfare policies in recent years, including Skills Bootcamps. Unfortunately, these are too temporary, creating instability and complexity in the system, which is challenging for people, some of whom already have educational disadvantage, and colleges to navigate.
At the meeting of the of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Further Education & Lifelong Learning last summer, we heard about the important role that colleges play, working with local Jobcentre Plus, to support unemployed people into work – as captured in AoC’s Let Them Learn report. To empower colleges to do even more of this work, the report called for the Government to reform Universal Credit rules, removing existing barriers. I wrote to the then Skills Minister, Gillian Keegan, alongside a cross-party group of parliamentarians, encouraging her to take action.
The Skills Bill currently progressing through Parliament is a unique opportunity for the Government to commit to reviewing conditionality rules. A review would enable a better understanding of barriers to training for claimants and where flexibilities are needed in pursuit of a benefit system that encourages, not prohibits, education and training.
I intend on bringing forward an amendment to the Bill that would bring about this review with support from MPs across the House. While it may not make it onto the face of the Bill, I’m confident that a constructive dialogue with Government has been established and positive steps forward can be made. The cost of taking no action will ultimately be fewer people in stable and meaningful employment, slower economic growth and bigger tax burdens.