Helping Britain back to work: how a Labour government would transform the Department for Work and Pensions. A speech by Jonathan Ashworth MP

The SMF hosted a speech and discussion with Jonathan Ashworth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the 11 July 2023. This is the speech in full, with Jonathan sharing his vision for the future of the DWP.

Today I wanted to talk a little bit about the Department for Work and Pensions and how we want to make artificial intelligence work for working people and how we think we can get people back to work.

Reforming welfare and helping more people make the breakthrough into sustained employment and progress in work will be our priority in a Labour Work and Pensions Department and a new approach to welfare reform is therefore needed because without action we risk condemning the generation to a life on the margins.

You’ll have seen figures this morning, unemployment is up.

1.3 million men and women unemployed. Many more fearing for their future.

The numbers out of work for long-term sickness have risen to highs of around two and a half million.

760,000 young people are not in education, employment or training.

All this at a time when there are a million or so vacancies in the labour market.

It’s why reforms are so urgent.

After 13 years of a Conservative government, too many people are trapped on welfare, going nowhere.

That’s an unforgivable waste of their potential.

A Labour government will help people move off Universal Credit and into work and when in work we will help people progress into a career or work more hours so they no longer need to rely on Universal Credit.

And to do that we need new reforms and new thinking.

Now six months ago, I outlined welfare reforms where those currently not expected to work, on disability or sickness related benefit, but who want to try and work, would be given support and help to do so.

Would be given security to make the journey into work,  should they want to go on that journey, proposing changes to the work capability assessment regime and the access to work scheme.

With my colleague the Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, we’ve described how better joining up of health services and employment services can offer tailored help for many people currently out of work with mental health conditions and support those people to move into employment with support and security.

It’s become very topical in the newspapers to talk about the numbers of over 50s who’ve left the labour market.

Though many say they would like to return to work and we’ve put forward proposals about giving them options to return to work and ensuring that flexible options are available.

Yet under the government system too many of those over 50s are denied any help finding a job.

Just two weeks ago, I heard a story of a 51 year old woman who visited a Jobcentre but because she doesn’t need to sign on for Universal Credit they told her they couldn’t do anything for her.

Instead they sent her away with a flyer for a jobs fair in a few weeks time.

Under our plans, Jobcentres will help the over 50s find the flexible work opportunities many say they want.

To help parents move into work and take on more hours, our Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson has a plan to expand school breakfast clubs.

And when we know that firms are trying to recruit and need skilled employees and when we also know that AI, data, digital technology means that in today’s world and tomorrow’s there’ll be an even greater premium on skills.

Kier Starmer last week outlined new reforms to give unemployed young people the skills necessary in the modern world to find well-paid work with reforms to how people deliver skills and reform the apprenticeship levy.

These are all, if you like, active labour market strategies but alongside these we also need a Jobcentre Plus service that is fit for the needs of a modern dynamic economy, not a service which is a conveyor belt to low paid work.

We want a reformed Jobcentre Plus, offering an escalator to a better life.

Now I actually think Jobcentre Plus was one of the most important reforms of the Blair Brown government years ago.

But today our Jobcentres must become more responsive to employers, more linked with the needs of local communities, with more local discretion, making it better equipped to deal with the challenges of a modern dynamic economy.

And today I’m arguing that better use of AI, data, digital and Technology can help us transform DWP services helping people into work faster.

Because the sad reality is what’s on offer today isn’t up to the challenges of tomorrow.

Despite, around a one billion pound technology budget, the department has a chequered history with technology.

While yes it was rightly praised for successfully administering an increased benefit case load in the pandemic, other projects have been beset by delays and problems.

Take the pensions dashboard for example, reset after millions of pounds has already been spent.

The failure to embrace and properly grip new technology has consequences.

Every year thousands of people miss out on the benefits they are entitled to because the DWP does not target them effectively.

Huge volumes of claims are processed late and the bewildering world of online job applications means that people who interact with the Jobcentre can be left pointlessly applying for the same job twice.

The DWP impacts on millions of lives every single day but yet doesn’t even hold some of the most basic information, such as the jobs people want to apply for or the training is sending people on.

I’ve asked a number of questions of ministers and they cannot even tell us what training people on Universal Credit are on this year.

I was talking to a voluntary sector organisation just last week who have worked with the DWP and who want to help unemployed young people find work.

And they went to the Jobcentre and said we want to help young people in this area find work in hospitality.

And they asked for a list of young people who have indicated an interest in working in hospitality in the local sector.

But the Jobcentre said they couldn’t run off a list of those young people who have expressed an interest in working in hospitality.

Not because of data security but simply because they don’t keep that sort of information, when a firm and a voluntary sector organisation is asking to help them, people to fill those vacancies.

And of course there’s fraud and error in the DWP, at over eight billion pounds a year.

Can you imagine a business making over eight billion pounds of errors year after year and doing nothing about it.

Now these past years have seen new technology and advances in the use of AI, automation, data science, that we couldn’t have dreamed of 10 years, 12 years ago.

The apps that we use every day in our work and personal lives Spotify, Bolt, newspaper apps – even read my old Telegraph op ed somewhere on the Telegraph app I’m sure – have all embraced innovation and used technology to improve the services they offer.

I don’t believe the same can be said for the Department of Work and Pensions.

It’s too often an analogue service in an AI age.

And while many warn of the risks of AI, I’m an optimist I want to embrace the opportunities AI gives us for reform.

The DWP should be making smarter use of AI, Digital, Data and Tech to transform Jobcentre Plus services.

Used properly and yes with safeguards in place, AI can help job seekers move to work, can help us tackle fraud and it can ensure citizens receive the payments they are entitled to.

Take moving into work, the current journey into work for a Jobcentre customer, can be time consuming.

We expect jobseekers via their claim and commitment to apply for multiple jobs a day, to check local newspapers, to check government websites but I’ve heard stories from job seekers who tell me they apply for numerous jobs only to find it’s the same job advertised again and again.

The process can mean endless applications for jobs that aren’t necessarily suitable.

Wasting time for the applicants and frankly no use for the firms as well.

And on what the most recent analysis published by the DWP, Jobcentre Plus helps 60% of unemployed people back into work within nine months.

I believe Jobcentre services of the future could make better use of AI, analysing job seeker skills and preference matching them with potential jobs and helping them move into work faster.

An AI in the hands of Job Centre work coaches, can better help job seekers with CV analysis tools and interview practice as well.

AI is now routinely used for rapidly assessing CV applications for many jobs, let’s now make it focused on getting people the skills they need for future jobs as well.

And better use of data could ensure that the Jobcentre adapts its advice and help for job seekers when local labour market conditions change.

AI could mean the degree of personalisation and the quality of jobs that can be advertised will make the overall experience a better one for unemployed people and should free up Jobcentre employment advisors to offer greater support for more vulnerable individuals who need more tailored help, rather than spending hours correcting CVS and wading through lists of job postings.

Other countries are moving in this direction, so are voluntary sector groups, so why not the DWP.

In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to debt advice charities who are embedding AI chat bots in their services to provide ground-the-clock support.

Fully embracing technology should allow Jobcentre services to do the same.

As I’ve said, better use of data science and AI should allow us to drive up the take up of entitlements currently going unclaimed.

And the shocking amount of fraud and error overseen by the DWP, eight billion on recent figures, where often criminal gangs are taking the taxpayer for a ride, can be confronted using more and better use of machine learning and pattern detection techniques as well.

Now what I’m describing today is not a fantasy.

There have been some small DWP pilots in the use of AI, but this government’s distracted approach more focused on grandstanding than delivery when it comes to AI has meant that these innovations have yet to be properly scaled.

In contrast, a Labour government will be serious about technology.

We will make sure proven innovations are scaled to benefit all citizens.

There is the potential to save millions of pounds from inefficiencies in the budget such as better buying spending controls and procurement across the DWP’s IT contracts.

And in doing so, we can place AI, data and technology at the heart of our Jobcentre Plus reform agenda.

And of course in deploying AI, we need to be responsible as well.

As my shadow cabinet colleague Lucy Powell has outlined today in a separate speech, AI will bring enormous benefits but we do have to be clear-eyed where it has limitations.

Which is why we’d always take a responsive approach and one that always has a human in the loop.

But we can transform our services using AI and that’s what a Labour government would want to do because I’m a reformer, I’m a modernizer and the reforms I will drive are built on principles or opportunity responsibility and social justice helping more people into quality work, giving people an opportunity to make them make the most of themselves, giving people dignity and crucially giving people self-belief.

So that’s a lesson I’ve learnt, for my parents who were working late nights in Manchester clubs and bars, knew a job was about opening up new horizons.

I want to give people confidence and self-belief for the chance of a good quality job.

Which is why Labour today is the party of welfare reform, having put forward proposals on sickness and disability benefits and it’s also today the party of public services reform.

A Labour Department of Work and Pensions will be a trailblazer, embracing AI to open up opportunities for work for everyone.

New technology holds enormous potential to make the future of work better.

A Labour government will deliver on this potential.


Jonathan’s speech can be viewed in full here


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