Johnstone’s View - Setting the PACE an important debate

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This week in the Scottish Parliament, I took part in the debate on the Partnership Action for Continuing Employment or PACE as it is often known.

The PACE Partnership includes the Scottish Government, Skills Development Scotland, Business Gateway and Jobcentre Plus, with other partners, and its role is to respond to redundancy situations through providing skills development and employability support to minimise the time people affected by redundancy are out of work.

I felt that this was a particularly important debate given the concern about possible job losses in the oil and gas industry, something that could have serious consequences for us here in the Mearns.

The first thing to say, of course, is that with the overall economic picture improving, and I sincerely hope that the requirement for PACE intervention would be decreasing month by month.

Since 2010, employment in Scotland is up by 175,000. Unemployment is down by 61,000. Although there was a slight increase in the latest figures, our unemployment rate is still lower than the rest of the UK. We have 265,000 new private sector jobs created.

Of course, if unemployment goes up, the default position of the Scottish Government is that the blame lies firmly at the feet of Westminster, and that it wouldn’t have happened if we had been independent. If unemployment goes down, the Scottish Government would have us believe that this is down to the success of their grand plan. That said, this is the same Scottish Government who sought to gamble our fiscal future on an oil price of $113 a barrel, and we all know what happened there.

The bottom line is, however, that this strong economic growth is down to the fiscal stewardship of the UK Government, which is delivering the fastest-growing economy in Europe.

But even against that successful backdrop, the reality is that we have a dynamic market economy where we will continue to see business successes, and failures. Where we have failures, it is important that the individuals involved get the support they need, to help access benefits, to help find new work, to help with retraining, and make the transition onto new employment that much easier.

The experience of individuals involved with PACE teams has generally been positive. The report commissioned by Skills Development Scotland looking at client experiences of PACE found that three quarters of those involved were overall satisfied with their interactions with PACE, although older clients (over 55) tended to be less satisfied than those in other age groups.

Two thirds of users suggested PACE met or exceeded their expectations. The most useful component of the PACE scheme, according to this survey, was the help with job applications and CVs.

The good news was that nearly three quarters of clients had found work following PACE’s intervention, although unfortunately over half were being paid less than they had been in their previous position, and around a quarter had undertaken further education or training.

So, the conclusion overall is that PACE are providing a valuable service and are generally well-regarded. Nonetheless, I appreciate that there remain ongoing concerns, and I want to see these addressed.

Of course, no debate in the Scottish Parliament would be complete without the Labour Party lodging an amendment which promises to throw money at a problem without revealing how the cash would be raised, or in fact how the cash spent would make a difference, and this debate was no exception.

I did have some sympathy for Labour’s suggestion to review the work of PACE in order to identify where more proactive interventions could be made at an earlier stage, but I was significantly less convinced at their call for the establishment of a resilience fund.

If such a fund is established, we need to know exactly what it will be for. In what circumstances will it be called upon? What will be the criteria required? On what basis has a budget of £10m been calculated? What exactly is this money to be spent on? If Labour are going to promote spending on this scale, then the taxpayer, who ultimately foots the bill, needs to see valid outcomes for the spend.

With that caveat aside, this was a valuable debate, especially when we consider that by the middle of last year some 63,500 had received support from PACE. That reflects a number of large scale redundancies which occurred in the economy.

With the economy in recovery, I do hope that we have a declining need for the services of PACE, but with energy jobs under threat in the north-east, I will be looking for a rapid intervention from them, if the worst does come to the worst.