It’s not because they don’t want a job - it’s that they haven’t got a clue what to do next

Emma Harrison
Emma Harrison

A NATIONAL campaign led by Sheffield entrepreneur Emma Harrison has been launched to tackle long-term unemployment through the mentoring of families that “haven’t got a clue” how to get jobs.

In the wake of the riots, Prime Minister David Cameron has fast-tracked her initiative, which enlists ‘champions’ to help families – and this week Emma said she has been inundated with offers of support.

The founder of employment agency A4e believes the answer to Britain’s social welfare problems is work. And she is appealing to everyone, from politicians to charity workers, to get involved.

“I call it people helping people,” she says of her family mentoring scheme. “I’m using common sense and natural human reactions. People need a sense of purpose and that sense of purpose is work. I’m leading a campaign that says every family can be a working family.”

Ms Harrison had previously approached Gordon Brown and finally won Government backing from the Coalition in December. Now the riots have brought the issue into focus, she says.

The strategy hinges on ‘adopting’ families where two or three generations have never worked. There are around 100,000 of them, surviving on benefits that cost the country £8bn a year.

“It’s not because they don’t want a job – they just haven’t got a clue what to do next. And the biggest problem is that they don’t know anybody.”

Her ‘champions’ get to know a family, listen to their problems and aspirations, then introduce them to others who might be able to help, particularly by giving them jobs.

Ms Harrison has adopted four families herself. “I start off by asking them to do something – maybe help out down the road with a local charity. They’re so astonished that someone actually wants them.

“This family had been through 30 years of ‘professional intervention’ and it hadn’t made a blind bit of difference. They helped out and were asked back the next day – and the mum went and bought some fresh food and cooked a meal.

“Her daughter said it was the first meal she’d ever cooked for the family. They lived on crisps, chips and cigarettes from what I could tell.”

A few days’ work at the local charity shop may not lead to a full-time job, but it’s a start: “It’s about feeling wanted and valued,” she says.

“The mum may not ever get a job, but she can support her children in getting one.”

She’s speaking from the experience of 24 years with A4e – helping more than 1m jobless people back to work – as well as voluntary support through her Foundation for Social Improvement and as chair of the NSPCC’s Full Stop campaign.

It’s an attitude that dates back to her days at Tapton School when she found one of her fellow pupils was going blind because he could not afford an eye operation.

“I went home in tears and my dad said, ‘You can sit there and cry or you can do something about it.’ So I went back to school and raised the money and he had his operation.”

Her campaign is based on the premise that a little effort can made a big difference.

It has won broad support – the first meeting of a cross-party support group set up by Ms Harrison takes place next month.

Hillsborough and Brightside MP David Blunkett, a friend and ally, said he had long been a supporter of the programme.

“The concept is ambitious, innovative and, with the right support, could be transformational,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to helping to develop the programme and the key mentoring skills.

“It is clear that training will be needed for those taking on this task in order to ensure that the scheme is not undermined by well-meaning amateurs messing up in circumstances where families need both creative measures to get them engaged and an avoidance of patronising approaches which will inevitably lead to failure.”

David Cameron has pledged his support, agreeing to act if bureaucracy gets in the way and, on a more practical level, to go and have tea with the families: “Some don’t bother to clean up their houses because they don’t need to – It will give them that sense of purpose.”

The scheme has already been taken up by local authorities in Hull, Westminster and Blackpool, where professional ‘family champions’ are being recruited and trained at Ms Harrison’s own expense.

But she wants ordinary people to come forward too.

“This isn’t a reaction to riots, it’s been going for ages. Anyone who’s caring, capable and creative can do this work.”

Those who have already volunteered include employment minister Chris Grayling, families minister Tim Loughton and Tory MP Jane Ellison… they also include a retired dentist who has offered to devote two days a week to helping local families.

Others are responding via a website set up by Ms Harrison. Volunteers will be joined by those who benefit from the scheme – and will be asked to help other families in turn.

“That’s what being part of a community and society is about. This is a terrible problem and it will be solved one family by one family.”