Under the previous government, billions of pounds were moved around the tax and benefits system in an attempt to reduce poverty. But the complexity of the previous system had the perverse effect of trapping thousands of people on benefits. Through tax credits in particular, even quite wealthy people became entangled in a labyrinthine benefits system. The benefits bill spiralled out of control, and despite this, child poverty targets were missed.
This is something the coalition government is determined to tackle. True social justice will only really be achieved when families are able to provide for themselves.
Now this is no simple task, and of course there will always be people who need our help. But this help should be in the form of a safety net, and a leg up. Not a way of life which traps people with little hope of escape.
The only real, sustainable way this can be achieved is by giving people the help and support they need to move into work. By working, people can earn the money they need to look after themselves and their families.
But money isn’t the only reason. Having a job means much, much more.
Having a job gives you pride, self-worth and dignity. Having a job gives you more control over your own life. Having a job shows your children that a life on benefits isn’t the only option.
Now of course none of this can be achieved without there being jobs available. I am not complacent - I know there are people up and down the country who are struggling to find work.
But despite tough economic times, recent employment figures have been encouraging, with more people working than ever before. Indeed figures which were published only this morning show that once again employment is up and unemployment is down.
But I am well aware this isn’t the only answer. We need a benefits system which helps people move into jobs. And that is why we have embarked on the most radical reform of the welfare state ever.
The benefits system had become so bloated that, for many people, moving into a job didn’t seem like an option.
So under Universal Credit, which starts to be rolled-out in a few months, people will always be better off in work. People will no longer be trapped in a confusing web of entitlements and add-ons. And people will always be able to increase their hours without losing out financially
And whether it’s giving lone parents the help they need to move off income support and into work, or reassessing people on incapacity benefit to see if they are capable of work, I am determined that we never again write people off. Never again will there be so much wasted potential. Never again will people be consigned to a lifetime on benefits when they could be helped into work.
But getting the structure of the benefit system right, whilst necessary, isn’t enough in itself. We need to remove the barriers to work, particularly for the hardest to help - those who are furthest away from the labour market.
For people in a family where there are multiple problems, having the jobs available is only part of the solution. They might need help to tackle unsatisfactory housing, help to manage a violent domestic life, help to learn personal skills and increase their confidence. These can all be vital in helping people make the change from a life on benefits to a life in work.
And that is where we need to work together. As people on the front line, you more than most will see how complex the lives of people in troubled families are. And you will see the need for extra help.
That is why, in December 2011, we set up the programme to provide support for people in families with multiple problems - to help them tackle some of their difficulties and move towards a job.
Funded through the European Social Fund (ESF) programme, the DWP made two hundred million pounds available to help tackle entrenched worklessness amongst troubled families. This help is there to support families identified by Local Authorities as having the sort of problems that typically overwhelm people. Families who feel there are just too many barriers to see work as a realistic prospect. Families struggling with problems like debt, difficult living conditions, involvement with drugs or crime, and a lack of skills or work experience.
This programme is intended to work across the family, across the generations and across the range of problems they may face.
Now working to tackle such challenging problems across local and national government is inevitably going to have teething problems. But I have to say that collaborative working is nothing new, and I’ve seen for myself how it can work very well.
Only last week I went to Wood Green Jobcentre Plus where their Community Engagement Adviser works closely with Haringey council and their locally-led jobs fund.
Or in Grimsby where a local fish-filleting factory is able to take on trainees using a combination of Youth Contract measures and a wage incentive offered by the local authority. Or in Gloucester where Jobcentre Plus advisers work with schools and the Local Authority to pool resources and provide a single point of contact for young jobseekers.
We want to replicate such successes with the ESF programme. By combining your expertise at working with these families with the tailored support that our providers are offering, together we can make a big difference to people’s lives.
Because where this has happened, the scheme is working well.
Take Rochdale Council, for example, where there is very strong support for the families agenda from the Chief Executive down, and they play a leading role in the Trouble Families Programme for Greater Manchester. Rochdale’s ESF families support and their Troubled Families programme are very closely integrated, helping them to identify pockets of deprivation to target resources.
Or in Liverpool where the council works closely with the prime contractor, Reed. Together they ensure that the ESF Families programme complements their existing ‘Liverpool in Work’ scheme, without duplication or competition. Now the provisions are able to refer people between them depending on individual need.
So while there are a number of shining examples, I think everyone here would agree that it could be working better.
I know that you have not been asked to make direct referrals on this scale before, and I know that some of you have frustrations with the way things have worked.
But let me reassure you - we are completely committed to turning around the lives of some of the most troubled families in this country, and we are looking at ways in which the process can be fine-tuned. And in return we hope that you, the Local Authorities, to play a stronger role too.
Perhaps the most fundamental issue is the lack of a sufficient flow of people and families into the provision; meaning expert knowledge isn’t being used to its full potential. I recognise that some of the providers have faced initial difficulties, which is why we have made some changes to things such as funding. And I completely understand that a number of local authorities have been reorganising their services in order to deliver programmes like these.
But the funding and the expert provision is there to be taken advantage of. And the provision is often innovative and flexible, such as Skills Training UK who have re-branded the ESF Families provision as ‘Progress! The Go Further programme’ in the South East. In one local authority, Progress arranges courses on anger management and confidence-building. But rather than having to wait for a new course to start, they are run on a ‘roll-on, roll-off’ basis so people can join whenever they are ready.
So now is the time to take action - it is really important that you encourage your frontline staff to make use of the provision available. And my commitment to you is that I will ensure my Department’s extensive employment expertise is able to be more directly supportive of outcomes for these families.
I believe that helping people move closer to a job is the best way to fundamentally change people’s lives. Of course, this won’t be easy for some people, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to tackle it. Because between us we have the expertise and skills that have the potential to make a real difference to people’s lives. But we can only do this by working together.