Employment and Skills, Jobs, Welfare to Work

FEATURE ARTICLE Why I owe Chris Grayling an apology

FEATURE ARTICLE  Why I owe Chris Grayling an apology

Feature article by Jack Stopforth of Liverpool Chamber of Commerce

When he was in opposition, Chris Grayling was asked by successive party leaders to keep an eye on Liverpool. It wasn’t that we were seen as a “special case” as had happened in the 1980s when the still-to-be-ennobled Michael Heseltine was dubbed “Minister for Merseyside”. Rather, he and other Shadow Ministers were each allocated key cities to study so that should they find themselves in government, they might have intelligence about and alliances in the potentially troublesome provinces. So far, so sensible.

The affable Minister-in-waiting always made a good impression when he visited my Chamber of Commerce to chew the fat with members and staff about local issues. It was not altogether a surprise, therefore, when he chose Liverpool Chamber of Commerce to launch the New Enterprise Allowance in January 2011 and then piloted the scheme in this City Region, with our colleagues at St Helens Chamber providing the Secretariat.

We were glad to help, of course, even though Government made its usual erroneous assumption that Chambers weren’t businesses but public agencies able to deliver services without charge or commercial margin.

When he launched the initiative (and here comes the apology) I completely underestimated the likely success of the NEA programme locally. A year on, at a celebratory luncheon, I had to confess that my scepticism about the scheme was wholly misplaced. I thought the premise unpromising (to say the least) – did we really expect to find latent entrepreneurs from a cohort of people who had been unemployed for at least six months? In these trying times for businesses, did we seriously expect to have successful business owners volunteering to act as mentors? And even if those things happened, what were the chances of those new businesses surviving beyond six months?

The results were (and continue to be) highly impressive. A year on we have had 1,495 clients referred across Merseyside by Job Centre Plus, of whom 87% attended the opening sessions, leading to 510 new business starts by December 2011 and of the earliest starts, more than 81% have survived beyond six months. We have almost 150 volunteer mentors. I have never been so pleased to be proven wrong.

Disappointingly there was quickly a return to form by DWP. When Government decided that the pilot should be rolled out nationally they failed to appoint the Chambers to deliver a new local programme (apparently the tender process was not allowed to award points for having a successful track record).

But let’s not be churlish – the NEA is a heartening success story and we need to find ways to clone it across the country.

Follow this link to Jack Stopforth newsletter

Jack Stopforth is Chief Executive of Liverpool Chamber of Commerce

Liverpool Chamber of Commerce

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