Deri Ap Hywel looks at the scope to devolve aspects of employment to Wales.
The recent welcome discussions through IWA’s Constitutional Convention on devolved responsibilities has made interesting reading, not least in creating space for a discussion on whether aspects of welfare might be suitable for devolution.
Alongside this discussion, Working Links has been leading a debate on whether employability and employment services are better delivered at an UK level or could be improved if it was devolved. By employability we mean things like the Work Programme, the major welfare to work initiative currently run through the Department for Work and Pensions. But, with some employment services already having been devolved in Northern Ireland and also a cross party consensus to devolve them to the Scottish Parliament, we thought it was time to try and open a debate in Wales too. After all, many aligned policy areas such as training and skills are already devolved and with a debate beginning about how the next iteration, Work Programme Plus, might look like, this seemed the opportune moment to do so.
Working Links does not favour any single model, and are committed to continue to deliver Work Programme in Scotland to the same standards whether we are delivering that on behalf of the Scottish Government or the DWP. Similarly we can adapt to work with Welsh Government on employability programmes in the same way we have been contracted with them on a variety of other work streams. The important thing we are trying to do is support a mature discussion and consideration on where powers should lie, and it’s that which compliments the work of IWA’s recent constitutional convention.
Having talked to all four main political parties in recent months, as part of an ongoing dialogue and debate which will happen both sides of the forthcoming General Election, it has been interesting to note the readiness with which all parties have welcomed the chance to think creatively about employability being devolved or not. In all cases, this discussion was one that was welcomed because it has not really been had before, in contrast to policy areas like policing, energy consents and aspects of transport.
In creating the space to discuss employability against a backdrop of change in how it will be delivered across the UK as a whole we were certainly timely. This was most clear in the context of Welsh Labour, who used their Swansea conference for Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith to announce that devolving Work Programme was now party policy in Wales and Westminster. Beyond that commitment we have little detail on how it might be done, what it might look like or how it may be commissioned, but if Labour are elected in May then change could certainly be on the cards.
Clearly the parameters of the debate and discussion are shifting and this was also true in terms of recent cross party consensus on the issue. Where the Silk Commission had ruled out devolving employability in its final report, it did however make the following recommendation:
“The UK and Welsh Governments should provide a clearer and better-coordinated approach to employment and training policies. This should include considerations of the role of the Welsh Government in the administration of Department for Work and Pensions employment programmes.”
The joint position between the four main parties announced by the Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb on St David’s Day met this concern. It pointed to the work already being undertaken between governments via the Access to Employment Working Group in order to improve co-ordination and “a better mutual understanding of the specific support offered by the DWP Work Programme in Wales and programmes of support offered to job seekers by the Welsh Government, funded through European structural funds.”
So it is clear that even if full blown devolution of the Work Programme does not occur, then there is an increasing space, capacity and political interest to design Work Programme Plus with more of a Welsh focus. Quite what the shape or the principles of that Welsh focus should be are open to interpretation and discussion at the moment for, as with Labour’s new commitment to devolve Work Programme in Wales, the detail is up for debate.
But an important point of principle to keep in mind is simply this – and we’ve heard it in our interaction with all the main parties – knowing why you want employability devolved, and what you would do differently with that new power, is as important as the debate about whether or not it should be devolved in the first place.