I attended an event in my constituency today, taking advantage of a one-line whip in Westminster. It was the launch of Local Employer Partnerships in the South West, which basically means local employers working with Job Centre Plus to help fill job vacancies by providing advice, support and training to people who are currently on Job Seekers Allowance or incapacity benefit.
One of the first companies to sign up was First Bus. Their representative told the Work and Pensions Secretary, Peter Hain, that the company has spent £1.5 million on language training in Poland, so that they can bring Poles over to work in the UK. They simply can't recruit people to be bus drivers here. And yet unemployment in some parts of my constituency - including on the doorstep of the First Bus depot - is well above the national average.
We were also told that there are currently some 10,000 job vacancies in Bristol, 5,000 of which are registered with Job Centre Plus. With the new Cabot Circus retail development (or the new Broadmead, as most of us will persist in calling it), another 4000 jobs will be created. Unless there's a concerted effort to raise the employability, confidence and skills levels of local people, we're going to have real trouble filling them.
Another interesting fact - 40% of those claiming Incapacity Benefit are off work because of stress - so the chances are that with the right support going forward, and with the introduction of things like mentoring and work trials, which are in the Local Employer Partnership agreements, they'll be able to re-enter the labour market at some point.