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The Jonathan Ashworth interview: “We're going to shift power and resources out of Whitehall”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth

11 min read

Following his keynote speech setting out Labour’s plans for jobs and welfare, Jonathan Ashworth tells Tali Fraser about linking together health and employment services, his childhood experience of benefits and his determination to not become addicted to work.

Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Jonathan Ashworth has come to visit a food pantry in his Leicester South constituency, only a 20-minute walk from his own family home. The Wesley Hall Community Centre seems packed, but usually, he tells me, it has an even longer queue of local residents stretching around the corner waiting to collect food.

“It makes me absolutely furious that people are in this desperate situation,” the shadow work and pensions secretary says. Anita Rao, a volunteer trustee at the food pantry, tells us about some of the employment issues that visitors to the pantry are facing, including a woman who isn’t going back to work because she would end up losing more in benefits than she would make in wages after childcare.

Ashworth exclaims: “Isn’t that crazy! Childcare costs are ridiculous and they are stopping people who want to work, parents who want to work, from going back. The nation has a labour market shortage and then you have a really good example of people who want to work but are prevented from doing so because of the astronomical childcare costs facing them.”

The community centre itself is struggling after its application for council funding was denied, a situation Ashworth promises to look at. Shabana Ahmad, another trustee, says costs have gone from £15,000 to £60,000 a year while demand surges and donations dwindle “as everyone who was helping is now struggling”.

Jonathan Ashworth at The Wesley Hall Community Centre, Leicester, with Anita Rao and Jenny De yong
Jonathan Ashworth at The Wesley Hall Community Centre, Leicester, with Anita Rao and Jenny De yong

“I was from a poorer working class background,” Ashworth says, “but I think things are far worse than they ever were in the Thatcher years of the 80s in terms of poverty and disadvantage. It’s why you’ve got to do things to give people proper, good, well-paying jobs, you’ve got to fix the problems within Universal Credit and then you have got to fix housing problems, childcare problems.”

It is a long list, but Ashworth, 44, who experienced his own family’s interactions with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as a child, is determined to come up with solutions.

His plan involves allowing people on sickness benefits to return to the same level of welfare support if a job doesn’t work out within a year, rather than facing reassessment; promises to devolve employment services to local areas; and providing support to over-50s wanting to return to work.

There were rumours of unease within the Conservative Party following Ashworth’s recent keynote speech setting out Labour’s plan at the Centre for Social Justice (a think tank founded by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith). So much so that The Times reported Mel Stride, Secretary of State at DWP, was now looking at a similar plan himself to let people keep claiming tapered sickness benefits for up to a year after returning to work.

“The Conservatives’ immediate response [to his speech] said it was a cynical set of announcements,” Ashworth says. “Goodness knows why getting people back to work should be considered cynical but, nonetheless, that was their line to take. The next day they were briefing in a half-baked way that they were going to copy my announcements. And a day later they’re letting it be known… that No 10 is in a complete panic because of what I said.”

He adds: “In some ways, I have a wry smile if Mel Stride is pinching my policies but at the end of the day there has to be urgency here. We’ve got to get on with this, we cannot be allowing people’s lives to be written off. We cannot be wasting people’s potential.”

Following Ashworth’s speech there were further briefings that the government could exempt over-50s from income tax for up to a year to encourage them back to work. His response: “I will eat my hat if Jeremy Hunt stands up and announces that in his Budget. It just shows you their desperation.”

Ashworth says he is infuriated the government is spending around £20bn a year to deliver 49 different employment and skills schemes, administered by nine government departments, only to have the country still facing severe labour market shortages. “How can it possibly be right?” he asks.

Of the programmes that are running, like Restart – the government’s flagship scheme to deal with long-term unemployment, which as of June had found jobs for just seven per cent of those enrolled – Ashworth says: “They never meet any of the promises that ministers make for them and there is so little transparency.”

I will eat my hat if Jeremy Hunt stands up and announces that in his budget

Instead of national tenders going out for contracts, Ashworth wants to break the hold of outsourcing companies and instead have areas such as Liverpool, Leicester and Manchester design bespoke schemes “as they know the needs of their local economies best… and [mayors] Andy Burnham, Andy Street, Oliver Coppard, will be held to account as to how they have implemented this, too”.

Using one of the government’s favourite phrases, he adds: “This is real ‘levelling up’. This is a crystal clear example of how we’re going to shift power and resources out of Whitehall and I think it will help get people back to work, grow our economy and lead to more inclusive growth across the country.”

Having previously been Labour’s longest serving shadow health secretary, Ashworth is also keen to stress the importance of improving healthcare to prevent sick, older and disabled people leaving work – and makes clear that employment and health services should be better linked to combat this.

He says: “I have been looking at how you can put employment advisers, for example, in mental health services or in broader community health services because this is mutually reinforcing: you’re out of work because of reasons of mental or ill health and getting into work will help improve your condition, but the longer you are out of work the harder it is and worse it gets to get back in.”

Speaking about this leads Ashworth to launch into another “bananas” aspect of the system: “I was talking to a director of public health recently and I said to him, ‘So what interaction do you have as director of public health with job centres?’ When you are director of public health it means you are responsible for the population health in your area. He said: ‘Hardly any, to be honest, sometimes they come to some of the economic development meetings but very little.’

“When we know that ill health is increasingly a break on economic growth and we have got increasing numbers of people out of work for reasons of ill health, then why have we not got proper partnerships at a local level between directors of public health and our job centre network and local health services? That is such a gap and a hole in the system.”

Jonathan Ashworth and Tali Fraser
Jonathan Ashworth and Tali Fraser

Throughout our interview, Ashworth brands himself “a reformer,” highlighting his plans to improve Universal Credit, which marks a departure from Labour, or at least Keir Starmer’s, original position. In 2020 the Labour leader said Universal Credit should be “scrapped and replaced with a social security system fit for the 21st century”.

This is a crystal clear example of how we're going to shift power and resources out of Whitehall

“The thing about Universal Credit is that six different benefits were brought together into a universal system,” Ashworth says, “I don’t think anyone is realistically suggesting going back to the old six benefits system… so we are looking at fundamental reforms. When you deal with those reforms, what you end up with will be a different system.” He adds that he will leave it to others to argue about whether that fits with Labour’s original position.

Which areas will be tackled first? “One of the most punishing aspects of it, I believe, is the five week wait, where people are forced to take out loans,” he says, referencing recent figures showing 1.8 million households were in debt to DWP, many after taking an advance while waiting for their first Universal Credit payment.

“You are weighing people down with debts, when they are trying to get themselves back on their feet. So looking at the five-week wait and how we can rectify that in our reforms is one of our priorities.”

One innovation he wants to bring to the system is the often-forgotten sister to Universal Credit: Universal Support, a coaching scheme designed to simplify and deal with claimants’ access to the labour market, piloted in 2014 but dropped due to cost cutting. “I am very taken with this idea of Universal Support,” Ashworth says, stressing that local areas should lead the design of employment services, “in effect a form of universal support”.

Asked whether Labour has a plan for exactly how these reforms would take place, he focuses on the idea of looking at the system “in the round” to incentivise people to return to work while “meeting our ambitions to tackle destitution and child poverty”.

Jonathan Ashworth at The Wesley Hall Community Centre, Leicester
Jonathan Ashworth at The Wesley Hall Community Centre, Leicester

Growing up in 90s Radcliffe, north Manchester, Ashworth’s mother, Marie, who separated from his father when he was five, was out of work for long periods of time, meaning he experienced the benefit system first hand. When Ashworth asked his mother why she didn’t get a job, she told him it would leave her “worse off”, having previously been forced to count up her one and two pence coins to do her shopping.

“The thing about poverty is that it seeps into every single aspect of your life and it overwhelms you so you can’t stop thinking about it,” he says. “You become probably the best possible mathematician because you spend your time going around the supermarket, adding everything up in your head, because nobody wants the humiliation of getting to the till and not being able to afford what’s in the basket.”

“It was a tough childhood,” he admits. Ashworth’s father, Jon, had an alcohol addiction which saw him drink up to a bottle of Canadian Club whisky a day. He says: “Alcohol covered every aspect of my life. It was always there in the background. I always knew when he was drunk as a child, I always knew when I would have to sort of step up as a 10/11-year-old.”

As an adult his father’s alcoholism continued to affect him. Two days before Ashworth’s wedding, his father refused to go; he died two months later having not seen his son. It was only later that Ashworth discovered from friends that his father felt too embarrassed to come as he thought he would get drunk around Ashworth’s political friends and colleagues and show him up.

The lasting impact of his father’s illness is clear: “I still think about my dad all the time, I am still very, very sad about what happened… alcohol addiction dominated my childhood in many ways.” His own relationship with drink is, he says, thankfully, healthy.

The thing about poverty is that it seeps into every single aspect of your life

Ashworth says lots of politicians have similar experiences to his but feel they can’t open up because they fear how their family might react: “It’s interesting in Westminster the number of colleagues who have come up to me and said that they grew up in similar circumstances but feel they don’t want to talk about it because it might upset their relatives.”

Here, Ashworth gives now Chancellor Jeremy Hunt credit for working with him while in their respective health roles to announce a funding scheme to support the children of alcoholics.He adds: “We can joke about Mel Stride copying my ideas and that but back then it was quite decent of Jeremy Hunt, so in the same way I influenced him to implement that children of alcoholics scheme, hopefully I will influence him to get people back to work. Or he could just get out of the road and let us form a government and we will do it ourselves.”

Does Ashworth ever stop to think about how he can do things differently as a father for his daughters than he experienced as a child? “All the time. They are the most important thing in the world to me, Gracie and Annie. I love them more than anything. They come first. They’ll always come first. I will always try my best to get back to Leicester, where we live and they go to school, to get home as quickly as I can to be with them,” he says.

“I don’t want my children to grow up thinking their dad was never there and instead of alcohol, he was just addicted to work. I want to be there for them. And I try my best to be there for them as much as possible because my most important role, my most precious role is being their father.”

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