Assault on worklessness brings hope to disadvantaged

Understanding social problems in deprived neighbourhoods helps get workless people back into the labour market.
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The Independent Online

Forget unemployment, the big challenge in deprived neighbourhoods is worklessness. There's a big difference.

Forget unemployment, the big challenge in deprived neighbourhoods is worklessness. There's a big difference. Unemployment is a temporary phenomenon: you may lose your job or fail to get one, but you're still actively part of the labour market. At just over the million mark, unemployment rates – despite climbing slightly after September 11 – are the lowest they've been for a generation.

Workless people, however, are out of the labour market completely. It's estimated that four million people of working age – such as those with disabilities, lone parents and those who have been made redundant or taken early retirement in their fifties – are living on benefits. Although many of these people would like to work, various factors such as fear of discrimination, poor childcare and transport facilities and low wages – often allied to a lack of skills – have conspired to make them feel it's not worth even applying for jobs.

Not surprisingly, many workless people live in poor communities. After all, the worse the environment, the harder it is to climb out of worklessness. In the 10 least deprived wards in the UK, unemployment stands at 8 per cent; in the 10 most deprived it reaches 44 per cent.

The problem is felt most in urban areas, particularly those where industry is scarce, but rural communities – Cornwall, for example, where the tin mining industry has collapsed – are also affected.

"Poor health, poor educational attainment, high crime levels and poor transport facilities, plus a high rate of teenage pregnancies are all typical in contributing to high unemployment rates. It's a spider's web of deprivation," says Sian Jones of the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit (NRU). "There's also evidence that deprived neighbourhoods are stigmatised."

Understanding the social problems which affect deprived communities makes it easier for the NRU to tackle certain alarming trends in the labour market. For example, 70 per cent of people from an ethnic minority background live in the country's 88 most deprived local authority districts compared with just 40 per cent of the general population. Little wonder then that the statistics tell us that black and Asian people are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as white people.

The Government is now committed to a two-pronged assault. By 2004, taking account of the economic cycle, the employment rate of the 30 worst affected districts will be improved to bring it nearer to the overall rate. And simultaneously, job opportunities will be improved for those from disadvantaged groups.

And what is the NRU doing to tackle the problem? "Our job is to work closely with the Department of Work and Pensions as they bend their spending and strategies towards deprived communities," says Jones.

No one doubts that the key to these improvements will be empowering the neighbourhoods to help themselves. "Too often in the past, we've seen top-down, short-term initiatives which don't work," says Jones. "We're concerned to serve specifically local needs in a way that will sustain long-term employment in the area."

Often people who are out of work have to go to different places to get the different services they need. Consequently a popular approach among New Deal for Communities (NDCs) is to fund one-stop shops where residents can receive neighbourhood advice on work, benefits and training simultaneously.

In Middlesbrough, for example, the NDC appointed an intermediary job brokerage to deliver local jobs. @t work recruitment's offices include representatives from the employment services, the benefits agency and training organisations.

It's certainly effective. To date, more than 150 people have found a job through @t work. More than 75 per cent of the people placed in new, permanent jobs were previously unemployed. Why exactly does this one-stop shop work so well? "You get true partnership working between the community, local business, the NDC team and government agencies," says NDC neighbourhood manager Paul Jackson.

"In the old days, someone would walk into the Employment Service, enquire vaguely about a job, go away and feel daunted by the idea of having to come off benefits – they'd never come back. Our one-stop shop means that as soon as they find a vacancy they're interested in, they can get advice on how it affects their benefits and what back-to-work incentives, such as Working Families Tax Credit, they're entitled to. They can then decide straight away. It's so much easier for people to make the first step back into work."

New government research, however, has suggested that not all one-stop shop are working as successfully as Middlesbrough's. A spokesperson for the Work and Pensions Department says the research is still at an early stage. "We need to wait for further evidence before drawing definitive conclusions about the effect on the labour market of one-stop shops."

The success of the local-grown NDCs has fed into another strand of the national strategy: Action Teams for Jobs. Run by Working Links, a public-private partnership between the Employment Service, Manpower and Cap Gemini Ernst and Young, these teams – 53 to date – are based in deprived neighbourhoods and work simultaneously with local employers and those jobless groups who most need help. They might, for example, encourage business to provide family-friendly policies or fund training in the skills local firms complain are lacking.

In Nottingham, where the decline in manufacturing has hit employment hard, the Action Team started by targeting three groups: disaffected 15- to 17-year-olds, 18- to 24-year-olds from ethnic minority backgrounds who have failed to find work through the New Deal, and young women from ethnic minorities. Now it's broadened out to include other disadvantaged groups such as drug users, ex-offenders, refugees and those with disabilities.

"We send outreach workers into places at the hub of local life such as probation offices, community centres and youth hostels and we hold employability seminars on issues such as personal development," explains team manager Libby Macpherson. But most importantly the teams always aim to treat people as individuals. "For example, if someone has low self-esteem because they're an abuse survivor, we'll find them a specialist counsellor. Or we'll arrange language classes for asylum seekers."

The team includes several Muslim working mothers who help women from similar backgrounds into work. "We held lunches where these women could discuss the problems they faced. Many are highly qualified but struggle to get professional work here; we can help them through the minefield of the state qualifications system."

The team works so well – 377 people have been found jobs so far – because it has such strong links with local initiatives and employers. "It took months of networking before we could start getting people into work," says Macpherson. "Being known locally and understanding the area makes all the difference."

What is a neighbourhood?

"There is no exact definition of what makes a neighbourhood," states the Social Exclusion Unit's (SEU) National Strategy Action Plan, which itself gave birth to the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit. Indeed, for some, neighbourhoods are perceived as being defined by natural borders such as roads or rivers, while for others, they are marked by alterations in housing design ­ from council estate to private dwellings for example ­ or by where we shop, or catch the bus.

Almost always, however, we experience our neighbourhood as a smaller area than the formally designated town, electoral ward or borough. This small-scale focus was crucial when it came to targeting social deprivation. According to the action plan: "Looking at a larger scale, such as a region or a local authority, conceals the most extreme pockets of deprivation." To get an idea of what was happening at neighbourhood level, the SEU used statistics from electoral wards. They point out, however, that some wards include several neighbourhoods and some neighbourhoods cross ward boundaries.

There are deprived neighbourhoods in every region but the highest concentration is to be found in the North-east, the North-west, London and Yorkshire and Humberside. Most neighbourhoods, states the plan, are in "urban areas, one-industry or no-industry towns and coal mining areas. However, at least 16 of the 88 most deprived districts contain substantial rural areas."