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Welfare Reform and Work Bill (Eighth sitting)

Debated on Tuesday 13 October 2015

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Albert Owen, †Mr Gary Streeter

† Abrahams, Debbie (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)

† Atkins, Victoria (Louth and Horncastle) (Con)

† Bardell, Hannah (Livingston) (SNP)

Churchill, Jo (Bury St Edmunds) (Con)

† Coyle, Neil (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)

Dowd, Peter (Bootle) (Lab)

† Heaton-Jones, Peter (North Devon) (Con)

† Hinds, Damian (Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury)

† Lynch, Holly (Halifax) (Lab)

† Milling, Amanda (Cannock Chase) (Con)

† Opperman, Guy (Hexham) (Con)

† Patel, Priti (Minister for Employment)

† Phillips, Jess (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)

† Scully, Paul (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)

† Shah, Naz (Bradford West) (Lab)

† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)

† Thornberry, Emily (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab)

† Vara, Mr Shailesh (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)

† Whately, Helen (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con)

† Wilson, Corri (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)

Marek Kubala, Ben Williams, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 13 October 2015


[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Welfare Reform and Work Bill

Clause 13

Employment and support allowance: work-related activity component

I beg to move amendment 139, in clause 13,  page 14,  line 21, at end insert—

‘(5A) The Secretary of State must make provision for additional personalised and specialist employment support in connection with subsections (1) to (3).

(5B) The Secretary of State must issue guidance on the following—

(a) the forms of personalised and specialist employment support;

(b) the means by which a diverse market of suppliers for personalised and specialist employment support can be developed in local areas; and

(c) information for local authorities seeking to improve local disability employment rates.’

To provide additional specialist employment support for disabled people.

I thank all Members for their understanding earlier and apologise for the interruption to our business, which was due to some sad family news.

Amendment 139 would require the Secretary of State to make provision for additional personalised and specialist employment support for disabled people. As we have heard previously in the Committee, the Government’s ambition of halving the disability employment gap is welcome, but it represents a not insignificant challenge and much more detail is needed for Committee members to be able to scrutinise how itis to be achieved. It is unclear from the Bill how Ministers intend practically to narrow the disability employment gap.

Of course, we operate in the context of what has happened in the past five years in particular, when we have seen the number of disability employment advisers at Jobcentre Plus drop; the number of disabled people supported by Access to Work, in particular, fall; work capability assessments being delayed or made inaccurately; and a lower percentage of working-age disabled people actually supported into work. We have a Work programme that has not had the highest success rate in ensuring that disabled people go on into employment. Many disabled people can and want to work, but face significant barriers to entering and staying in work. That is why specialist employment support is crucial, and this amendment is aimed at securing information from Ministers to ensure that that is delivered and is effective.

The Committee heard a great deal from witnesses about the kind of employment support that would be effective, the improvements that are needed and the lack of support that disabled people currently feel able to access. We have heard from the Minister that the Government plan to invest in additional employment support for disabled people, starting at £60 million a year from 2016-17 and rising to £100 million a year by 2021. That is positive and welcome, but it is important to understand how it will be used and how its efficacy will be measured. As yet we have heard no detail on how that investment will be directed or implemented, or how many people it is designed to support.

There are also concerns in the disability sector about whether that money will be used for Disability Confident, because of the lack of transparency about how Disability Confident is measured, and whether it is just a means of attracting employers to events or is genuinely about focusing on job outcomes for disabled people. I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity today to set out how the Government intend to develop the support programme and what it will look like in practice.

We know that disabled people trying to find, enter and stay in work face a number of barriers. They can include a lack of suitable and vacant jobs, poor attitudes from potential employers towards hiring disabled people and a lack of appropriate support to enter the workplace. However, current back-to-work support for disabled people simply is not delivering. The work capability assessment does not accurately determine the support that disabled people need; it is more of a medically focused assessment process and does not relate to disabled people’s real experience of trying to find work and, in particular, stay in work. Specialist support to assist with finding and staying in work is essential, and the amendment is designed to help secure that.

There is also concern that existing employment support is misfiring and is ineffective. To provide some detail, job outcomes for disabled people on the Work programme are only 7.7% for those entering employment support allowance, and just 3.9% for those moving from incapacity benefit on to employment support allowance. Furthermore, the specialist Work Choice programme is ineffectively targeted and offers support only to a very small number of disabled people, and I should say that the figures I have just used are the Department’s own figures. A recent evaluation of the Work programme by the Department found that disabled people were more likely than other groups to say they had not received support, which is surprising given that there is meant to be dedicated support. Those who had received support were less likely to say that it was helpful.

Both programmes come to an end in 2017, and the amendment gives the Minister another opportunity to outline what support will be available in practice from then. What plans do the Government have to re-evaluate those programmes and the type of support they offer? What improvements do they have planned?

There is particular concern among disabled people and disability organisations—I refer particularly to the briefing I have received from the disability organisation Scope—about what the quantitative changes to employment and support allowance could mean in relation to conditionality. I do not think any Member would want to find a disabled person coming to their surgery having experienced sanctions, unable to access any benefit as a result of the changes and without sufficient employment support.

Written evidence to the Committee has called for employment support to be tailored to the needs of the individual, joined up with wider public services and more reflective of local labour markets. Specialist providers have the expertise to respond directly to specific barriers to work that disabled people experience. If the Minister has not already visited, I certainly recommend that she sees the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s support programme in Loughborough. Specialist employment support could include peer-to-peer sessions, interview and CV preparation, support focused on managing specific impairments, and discussing with employers how to manage different types of support in the workplace. Such support allows for more intensive and effective interventions that reflect the specific support needs of an individual.

Scope provided me with Azar’s story. Azar is 20 and recently took part in Scope’s pre-employment programme for young disabled people. Azar has cerebral palsy and told Scope that because of his disability, potential employers assumed that “he couldn’t do this and he couldn’t do that”. He knew that he wanted to work in business, so after he left college he was looking for a job, as he wanted experience to put on his CV. Having had the support of a professional mentor, he feels more confident and less worried about being judged, which has a significant and positive impact on his employability.

Job retention is another area that requires renewed focus if we are to halve the disability employment gap, and specialist employment support has a role to play in that too. Ann, a member of staff of Scope’s employment service, provides an example of how such support can help people stay in work. Ann supported a client with Asperger’s syndrome who worked in a hotel. When he got stressed and bombarded with customers, he went into his shell and ignored people. He got really upset with his own behaviour. The reasonable adjustment was for Ann, the specialist disability employment support worker, to speak to the manager and ask about making sure that the client was able to have a breather for five minutes to handle the stress. The manager was absolutely fine with that. That is a straightforward, cost-neutral, reasonable adjustment and has significant positive benefits, but requires someone who understands the health condition and is able to work with the employer.

The Government should consider personal budgets to support disabled people, so that they have greater control over the type of employment support they receive. The In Control programme had a certain measure of success, and it is a shame that it has been wrapped up. There is considerable international evidence that personal budgets can empower disabled people to have increased choice and control over their career by removing bureaucracy from the employment support system and creating greater flexibility in the type of employment support available. They also serve to help smooth the transition for disabled people moving from unemployment into work, they and should link up with Access to Work support. If people were able to carry through the Access to Work package, it would smooth the system significantly.

Finally, the devolution agenda provides a big opportunity to do far more to ensure that disabled people are connected to growth and employment opportunities in their local area. There are precedents for funding focused on increasing employment rates for specific groups of people, such as the Youth Contract and the Youth Contract for cities. There is the potential for regions to be incentivised to put disabled people at the heart of their growth strategies. That could be done by creating specialist employment support programmes, bringing together local employers or looking at wider strategies. I therefore urge the Government to ensure as a minimum that regulations made under the Bill give due consideration to types of support that will ensure that many more disabled people are better supported in the workplace.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place, and I am glad to see that he has been able to return.

The SNP fully oppose the proposals within clauses 13 and 14. We are glad to see Labour making some headway and supporting us in our opposition. To reduce the rate of employment and support allowance to that of jobseeker’s allowance is completely immoral and makes absolutely no sense to us. The Government clearly did not consider when formulating the policy the fact that those who have been placed in the ESA work-related activity group have been independently found unfit to work. Otherwise they would not seek to reduce the support for those who are ill or have disabilities or more complex needs to the same level as support for fit-for-work claimants, such as those receiving JSA.

ESA claimants have always received a higher rate than those on JSA, because they typically take longer to move back into work, as they face additional barriers. Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, expressed the same concern when he said:

“Almost 60% of people on JSA move off the benefit within 6 months, while almost 60% of people in the WRAG need this support for at least two years. It is unrealistic to expect people to survive on £73 a week for this length of time.”

Returning to employment is not an option for many people with disabilities. Those unable to work should receive an income replacement benefit to ensure a fair income.

The Minister needs to understand that those who live with an illness or condition are typically worse off than those who do not. A Parkinson’s UK survey in 2007 found that just under a third of working-age people with Parkinson’s were in any form of employment. It further reported that many younger people with Parkinson’s who cannot sustain work because of their condition relied on incapacity benefit for their income or part of their income.

I cite again the case of my constituent with Parkinson’s who came to see me after having been sanctioned. I wrote to the Department about his sanction and raised it with the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House and by letter. He was sanctioned and taken to a tribunal, although the Department’s own legislation said that the process should be done in a paper-based format, as people with degenerative diseases are not always fit to present themselves. The Department was not even aware of its own policy, and said so in an email to me. I found that particularly disturbing, and I continue to pursue that case.

The Scottish National party is extremely worried about the provisions. Reducing the ESA WRAG rate from £102.15 a week to £73.10 a week from April 2017—a reduction of just under £30—will force sick people further away from getting back into work, despite the fact that the WRAG was created especially to support the ill and disabled back into work. The Conservatives’ policies are doing exactly the opposite of what they claim they want to do.

The Chancellor said in the summer Budget that it was a perverse incentive for ESA claimants to receive more than JSA claimants without getting support to return to work. He cited the reduction in the number of JSA claimants by 700,000 since 2010 while incapacity benefit claimants have fallen by only 90,000, and said that 61,000 of those in the WRAG want to work. We do not dispute that, and we agree that more support must be put in place to assist those with illnesses and disabilities back into work. However, we do not understand the Government’s rationale for reducing the payments for the ESA WRAG or universal credit. How will that incentivise more people to work? Perhaps the Minister can help us.

The Disability Benefits Consortium has told us that more than 493,000 disabled people are assessed as not being fit for work, 248,000 of them with mental and behavioural problems, 86,000 with diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue and 8,000 with progressive and incurable conditions such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and other serious and degenerative diseases. The DBC has said that those living with long-term conditions are struggling to get by on the current rate of ESA. For the Government to cut it further will surely put them further into poverty and deprivation. The Conservative manifesto committed to halving the disability employment gap, but it is my party’s contention that the reduction in the ESA WRAG component will in fact present more barriers to those with disabilities who are trying to get back to work.

Mencap has said that households that include a disabled person will be hit much harder than others. Given that a third of them already live below the poverty line, the additional reduction in income will have a devastating impact on those most in need of Government support. The Government’s own figures already show that over the past year, the number of disabled people living in poverty has increased by 300,000. I am astonished that the Minister can even consider taking a small additional payment away from the ill and disabled when they are struggling to deal with the challenges of their condition.

Given the Government’s own admission that the vast majority of people in the WRAG want to work, they should be protecting any benefit that will help break down the barriers to work. The SNP has been sent here to defend our people from further hardship, to protect them from poverty and to secure a fair, just and sustainable pathway to prosperity. We will not find that in this Bill. I call on Members on both sides of the Committee to vote with the SNP to remove these unscrupulous plans.

It is good to see you again, Mr Streeter. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark for his introductory speech, especially given the circumstances.

I stand to speak against clause 13. Are we considering clause 14 at the same time?

Not at the same time, but let us now agree that this can develop into a clause 13 stand part debate at the same time as considering amendment 139.

I am grateful for that clarification and for your leeway, Mr Streeter.

I am grateful to the various organisations, charities and many individuals who have contacted me with their personal stories about how they believe these changes to ESA WRAG support will affect them. I particularly mention Parkinson’s UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the RNIB, the Disability Benefits Consortium, Scope, Inclusion London, United Response, Mind and the Richmond group. Collectively, those disability and health organisations represent more than 15 million people in the UK who are disabled or have a serious long-term condition.

We want to prevent the cuts to the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance. We believe it is unjust and unfair that disabled people, and people with serious health conditions who have been assessed as part of the work capability assessment process as not fit for work and placed in the work-related activity group, are having their social security support cut by nearly £30 from £102.15 to £73.10. There is compelling evidence from the independent Extra Costs Commission, which analysed the additional costs facing disabled people and found that, on average, they spend an extra £550 a month associated with their disability.

The Government’s proposed cuts affecting people in the ESA WRAG are on top of the whole host of other cuts in social security support for disabled people since 2010. The Hardest Hit coalition has estimated that, by 2018, £23.8 billion will have been taken from 3.7 million disabled people. There were 13 policy changes under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, including changes in the indexation of social security payments from the higher retail prices index to the lower consumer prices index and the 1% cap on the uprating of certain working-age benefits, which has cut £9 billion from 3.7 million people’s social security support. People on incapacity benefit have been reassessed, which has taken another £5.6 billion. The time for which disabled people in the ESA WRAG are able to receive support has been limited, cutting another £4.4 billion. The reassessment of disabled people receiving disability living allowance to determine whether they are eligible for personal independence payment means that another £2.62 billion has been taken. That is on top of the provisions in the Bill, and we should not forget the cuts to social care, which are currently up to £3.6 billion and predicted to be £4 billion by 2020. Disabled people rely very much on support through social care.

In light of the significant existing cuts, will the Minister confirm whether the Government have undertaken a cumulative impact assessment on the latest proposed cuts affecting disabled people, in light of the requirements under the Equality Act 2010 and the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s work on cumulative impact modelling?

This morning, the Exchequer Secretary mentioned the importance of controlling welfare and social security spending. The UK currently spends 1.3% of GDP on disabled people. Out of 32 European states, we rank 19th in what we provide to disabled people. I did not have the information at my fingertips this morning, but for families and children it is slightly worse at 1.1%—23rd out of 32 European countries. We are a wealthy country, and to build our recovery on punitive measures against disabled people, vulnerable children and families is appalling.

The Government’s impact assessment on the changes to the work-related component of ESA—apart from being delayed, so that Members were unable to scrutinise it before Second Reading—is very limited in its analysis. For example, although the assessment estimates that approximately 500,000 people and their families will be affected by the cut to ESA WRAG support, there is no analysis of the impact that will have on the number of disabled people who will be pushed into poverty. We know that disabled people are twice as likely to be in persistent poverty as non-disabled people and that 80% of disability-related poverty is caused by the extra costs that I have mentioned. Last year there was a 2% increase in the proportion of disabled people living in poverty, which is equivalent to more than 300,000 disabled people pushed into poverty in one year. Given that half a million people will be affected, according to the Government’s own impact assessment, and will lose 30%, or nearly a third, of their income, what is the Government’s estimate of the increase in the number of disabled people living in poverty?

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. She has come to the Committee relatively late. I know that this is an area of expertise for her, but perhaps I can put on record the evidence that was given to us before she was on the Committee. It was essentially that if the Government are trying, as they put it, to “incentivise” people on employment and support allowance into work by cutting their benefits so that they live on the same level as JSA claimants, it will mean that they are ignoring the fact that people on ESA take longer to get into work. They may well find themselves in a crisis over the winter, when they need a new coat, because they have been unemployed that much longer. People claiming ESA are recognised by the system as not being fit for work.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely pertinent point; in fact, I was going to come on to that, so she must have read my mind. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State stated that

“the current system discourages claimants from making the transition into work”.—[Official Report, 20 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 1258.]

But what about people with progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease? There is no chance that people with those conditions will get better, but they have gone through the work capability assessment process and been placed in the work-related activity group. Are the Government seriously saying that this measure is going to incentivise that group of people into work? How many people with progressive conditions such as those will be affected? Given that, and the fact that in 2014 45% to 50% of ESA appeals were upheld, will the Government finally accept that in addition to being dehumanising, the work capability assessment is not fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul?

The impact assessment has estimated that, by 2021, approximately £640 million a year will have been cut from social security support to disabled people, with £100 million a year to be provided in unspecified support to help disabled people into work. If the Government are serious about supporting disabled people into work, what measures are in place? This is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury was making.

What measures are in place to ensure that there are jobs for those disabled people who are able to work? What are the estimates of the impact on the employment of disabled people, how this will impact on the Government’s target to reduce the 30% disability employment gap—it is actually 34% in my constituency in Oldham—and how many employers will be engaged? I hope that it is more than the current 68 active employers from the Disability Confident campaign. The campaign has been going for two years and yet only 68 employers are currently active in it; 33 of those are existing disability charities. I hope it will be more than that, but why was this not included in the impact assessment process?

What exactly is the “work” bit in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill? We have heard about reporting on apprenticeships and about different aspects of reporting. But what is the link to ensuring that disabled people are able to go into jobs before they have a third of their weekly income deducted?

On the Thursday before the August bank holiday, five months after the Information Commissioner had ruled that the Government must publish data on the people on incapacity benefit and on ESA who had died between November 2011 and May 2014, the Government finally published these data. They revealed that the death rate for people on IB/ESA in 2013 was 4.3 times that of the general population, and had increased from 3.6 times in 2003. People in the support group are 6.3 times more likely to die than the general population and people in the work-related activity group—the people whose support the Government are seeking to cut—are more than twice as likely to die. The figure is actually 2.2 times more likely to die than the general population.

The Government have, regrettably, continually maligned, vilified and demonised people on disability and other social security benefits. The language around calling people shirkers and scroungers has been picked up and used in many media outlets. In 2010 the instances of use of the term “scrounger” by the mainstream press increased to 572—more than 330% from 2009—and it has stayed at this level. Language is so important, and the way that social security claimants—particularly people with disabilities—are portrayed in the media is so important. The innuendo that people with a disability or illness might be “faking it” or are “feckless” is quite frankly grotesque and belies the epidemiological data. Incapacity benefit and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators. I can say that as a former public health consultant. I have experience of this and I have worked in this field. The release of the Government’s own data, which show that this group are more likely to die than the general population, proves that point. This group of people are vulnerable and need care and support, not humiliation, from us.

Once again the cart is being put before the horse: make cuts in support and cross your fingers that something turns up for disabled people. That also applies to people on low incomes. The policy flies in the face of the Conservative party’s pledge to protect disabled people’s benefits. All last week’s warm words at the Tory party conference are just that if they are not followed up by action.

With this cut to the ESA WRAG support without anything to replace it, the Government are condemning more people with disabilities and their families to living in poverty and I predict, unfortunately, that more tragedies will undoubtedly happen. I urge the Government and all members of the Committee to think again and vote against clause 13 standing part of the Bill.

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark for starting the debate and for his contribution. He has made some very relevant points in terms of how Government can continue to support people with disabilities to get into employment. He has touched on the fact that the Government have made a very solid commitment to increasing the employment of people with disabilities. He and other hon. Members touched on many of the schemes that the Government have undertaken to support people with disabilities and health conditions to get back into work and to participate fully in society. That is why we made a solid commitment in this year’s Budget to spend more than £310 million over the next four years to support people. Coupled with the increase in work incentives in universal credit, this will not only help to make claimants affected by the changes move closer to the labour market, but will contribute to the commitment to halve the disability employment gap. There will be bespoke schemes that are tailored to claimants, to help them back into work. The Disability Confident campaign was mentioned. We have been working with employers to remove the barriers that might prevent disabled people from fulfilling their aspirations.

It is fair to say that we also recognise that it is difficult to find the best way to improve support for people with health conditions and disabilities. It is challenging, and I do not think that any hon. Member in this room has all the answers to that challenge. Of course, as a result, varying types of support are required to help these people move into work. That is why the Department offers a flexible range of support to help people get back into work, ranging from personal individual support from Jobcentre Plus work coaches to Work Choice, Access to Work, and the flexible support fund. In the autumn we intend to put out further details on support, and that will be informed by discussions with stakeholders. That will also build on the evidence coming out of a range of pilots that the DWP is already testing.

It is welcome to know that more big detail is emerging, but it is disappointing that that detail is not before the Committee, which I think would be right and proper. We had a case this morning where, similarly, there was not enough detail to make scrutiny possible. Will the Minister commit to a meeting with representatives of groups including the Disability Benefits Consortium, Scope and RNIB, to make sure that their views are genuinely taken into account?

I would be delighted to do exactly that. I would like to emphasise for the benefit of the whole Committee that that is exactly how good policy is developed. It is developed through meeting stakeholders and hearing of their experiences, and of how we can put into implementation the practical support that people need. We need to understand how we can do that through our own current delivery mechanisms, whether through jobcentres or our work coaches or through some of our schemes.

I would also like to touch on the commissioning strategy that the Department holds right now. That includes how the Department approaches the market when looking at flexibilities for support provision, and also how the marketplace itself can develop to include stakeholders and disability organisations to provide that support. Setting out guidance on this in particular is impractical, and obviously the commissioning strategy strikes the right balance in terms of engagement and developing the right options.

Will those discussions, debates, consultations and engagement include specific proposals around the Work programme and Work Choice reform?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point. Obviously, with the 2017 date which he touched on coming up, this is about evolving the policy and looking at future provision, as well as existing provision. That is an ongoing discussion that we are having with stakeholders right now in the Department. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about devolution. Devolution provides new opportunities for further integration, and localisation that is based on collaboration, rather than setting out prescriptive approaches. As a Government, we are great believers that that is the appropriate way forward. That reflects the reality that local authorities have a good understanding of these issues, and they work with DWP and also with third parties and stakeholders at a local level.

The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware of many of the pilots that are taking place. Obviously we have the Working Well pilot in Greater Manchester with the combined authority, which is an excellent example of how support is being provided at a local level. There is much more in terms of other pilots in particular. By the time that pilot is rolled out it will cover not just individuals with disabilities, but also up to 50,000 individuals with a range of health conditions, to support them. That will involve a budget of in excess of £100 million. This includes something like £36 million from the combined authority alone.

The Minister and I met at the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which I was a member until a couple of weeks ago. I asked in that Committee about the concerns which unfortunately exist around that scheme, including that there was a mandation of claimants to the Working Well scheme. I asked for clarification about that, particularly before the pilot was due to be rolled out. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is dead against it; it flies in the face of its commitment to medical ethics. There are real concerns there.

Devolution in itself means that local authorities, working with stakeholders and delivery partners, develop the right support and the right policies for implementation to support individuals. It is not for the Government to be prescriptive about that. This is about how we can tailor support for individuals. That is exactly the right approach. This should be completely focused on providing the right level of support for people with health conditions as well as with disabilities—yes, to help them get closer to the labour market and back into work. When I came to the Select Committee there was a broad discussion focused on the value of work and its importance, from the point of view of health and wellbeing, for people’s health conditions as well as for those with disabilities.

That brings me to some other points that were raised, such as employment and support allowance, the WRAG group and the support group, and people with terminal illnesses who, quite rightly, are being supported through the support group. The hon. Lady said she felt that they were at a disadvantage, given the Government’s policy. I suggest that in fact we are supporting them, through ESA, making sure they are being given the right level of support. There is no compulsion for them to go back to work; they are being supported by the system. Through all our welfare reforms we have made it clear that we will continue to protect and support the vulnerable. That of course includes those who have terminal illnesses or people with progressive illnesses who are unable to work. That is exactly what the employment and support allowance and the support group category, in particular, does.

When we met recently, I asked the Minister about the increase in sanctions for people on ESA WRAG, which has increased since 2012 by 300%. The Minister has just stated that there is no compulsion; yet these people on ESA WRAG are being sanctioned.

Sanctions are part of the process that the claimant has with the jobcentre, in particular when it comes to the contract they have and their discussions. All the parameters are made perfectly clear to claimants coming to the jobcentres in terms of what is required of them. Those requirements are not unreasonable, given that they are work-related. In particular, they are there to help the individual to get back into work. No unreasonable requirements are placed on the individual at all.

From my experience just of those who come into my surgery, what the right hon. Lady is saying is not in touch with reality. She has talked about the importance of listening to people and I really think that she should listen to this. For example, if someone has a mental health condition which is a variable one, they will be put on the lower component of ESA, so on the edge of being able to work, perhaps with support. If it is insisted that they go in for an interview, or that they do voluntary work or fill out CVs at a period when they are suffering depression or life is particularly chaotic, the experience of my constituents is that the local jobcentre is not sufficiently understanding and they will get sanctioned.

I say to the hon. Lady that, first, sanctions are there for a purpose: they encourage jobseekers in particular to comply with reasonable requirements.

I will not give way. That is the purpose of the claimant commitment. Secondly, ESA was introduced back in 2008—as I am sure the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury will remember, although I was not a Member of Parliament then—and was dubbed a radical reform package. The work-related activity component at the time was intended to act as an incentive to encourage people to participate in employment. Clearly, we know that that has not happened. We are therefore reforming our approach with DWP, through our jobcentres and work coaches, to support individuals to get back into work.

Specifically with ESA, the hon. Lady will be aware that the Secretary of State gave a speech just before the conference recess about how we can do more. It is absolutely right that we do more to support people with health and mental health conditions, and work is already taking place around the country. With that will come more co-location of health services with our jobcentres, as well as more support and signposting in our jobcentres.

To return to my point about sanctions, I have no idea what the Labour policy on sanctions is, but they exist as a reasonable requirement through the claimant commitment. Our jobcentre staff work with claimants to ensure that they are being supported in the right way to get into employment. Our work coaches help them and signpost them through universal jobmatch. They get the support required. That is part of the claimant commitment, which is made abundantly clear to the claimant when they come into the jobcentre in the first place.

On the reasonableness of sanctions, I have had a mum come into my surgery who was sanctioned for not attending an appointment at Jobcentre Plus because she was taking her daughter to hospital. Does the Minister conclude that that is reasonable?

When employment and support allowance was introduced, there were specific expectations about the number of people who would end up in the support group, in the work-related activity group and on jobseeker’s allowance. Those potentialities were not hit for some time, due to problems with the work capability assessment. Given that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been discussing completely overhauling the work capability assessment, which was in our manifesto in May, is the Minister seriously suggesting that the system is perfect, and—

Gosh, where to start? To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about the case that he presented, no. If he would like me to pick it up, I would be happy to do that for him. With regard to the system being perfect, of course it is not; it is evolving over time, hence the Secretary of State’s most recent comment about how we can do more to support people with health conditions so that it becomes a case not of why people cannot work but of how we can support them to get back into work and with their health conditions in particular.

I could reel off a list of people who have come to my constituency surgery. I am the former chair of the largest BME mental health charity in Bradford. Does the Minister agree that it is absolutely diabolical to apply sanctions after testing somebody with mental health difficulties and saying, “If you can tie your shoelaces, you’re capable of going to work”? Does she believe that the number of people who have committed suicide after sanctions have affected their mental health problems is acceptable?

First, with regard to the hon. Lady’s long list of cases, she is welcome to present them to me, and I will look at each one individually. Secondly, the work capability assessment has evolved over time. The organisations that were originally contracted to undertake it have changed. The point is that people should be assessed for what they can do; it should not be about what they cannot do. Where people have particular health conditions, it is right that we as a society support them either to get back to work or to get the treatment that they need. On her latter point, there is no causal effect at all.

Again, this all emerged about the Minister saying that there was no compulsion. There clearly is compulsion for people on ESA WRAG. In my speech I raised points about people with progressive conditions such as MS, motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s who are included in that group.

This debate has extended. We as a Parliament are still waiting for the Government’s response to the report of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on sanctions beyond Oakley, which specifically considered ESA sanctions. It made a number of recommendations that unfortunately support what has already been said.

Thank you, Mr Streeter. I will bring it back to clause 13. Finally, I would like to say while speaking to the clause that we have touched on the level of support that is currently under way for people with health conditions and people with disabilities in particular.

I touched on devolution, some of the pilots that are taking place and some of the wide-ranging support we have, such as personalisation pathfinders and many of the supports that are already taking place in our jobcentres, as well as funding from the European social fund, that are helping with more localised provision. We believe that they are the appropriate ways forward in terms of providing the right level of support for individuals with health conditions. To come back to my earlier point, we intend to set out further details on support in the autumn, which will be informed by discussions and work with, and evidence from, stakeholders. I urge the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark to withdraw the amendment.

It is important to reiterate the concerns about the language on who is protected and who is not. We had some discussion about that before conference recess. The sheet in front of me says that 244,250 people with mental and behavioural disorders in the work-related activity group will be directly affected. Disabled people have already experienced an impact—not that group specifically but more generally. Some 440,000 disabled people have to pay the bedroom tax or spare room subsidy and benefit rates have been frozen, including the vast majority of employment and support allowance benefit paid to disabled people. We have also had the change to disability living allowance. It is very frustrating to hear Ministers continue to claim that disabled people have been protected when they clearly have not.

Having made that significant point, it would be interesting to see in more detail the concrete proposals that the Government are introducing. I am glad they are committed to working with stakeholders, although I am a little bit concerned, having been a co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium policy group for some time and not really having been consulted or engaged by them. I hope the relationship has improved under this Minister and that those discussions are constructive. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Universal credit: limited capability for work element

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

I appreciate that we have moved on, but there are many parallels between our previous objections and our objections to clause 14 and the reasons why we will not be supporting it. The clause relates to the limited capability for work element of universal credit. I do not intend to repeat my arguments from my previous speech, but having said that, very few if any of the questions that I posed were answered by the Minister. I would be grateful if at some stage she could write to me if she cannot provide the answers today. I shall pose a few additional questions, particularly about the analysis of how the cuts will affect 400,000 people with long-term conditions in the ESA WRAG—for example, those with lung disease, cancer or stroke. What do we expect the cost to be for the NHS? The Government are keen to make it a seven-day service but, with the additional demands, will that be achievable?

I have other points to make on the disability employment service, although my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury touched on some of them. The ratio of disability employment advisers in JCP is one adviser to 600 disabled people. How will that be addressed to enable those disabled people who want and are able to work to do so? How will we address the attitudinal issues that many disabled people face in trying to get into work, and ensure support for employers to employ disabled people? Given that 90% of disabled people used to work, what are the Government doing to support them leaving the labour market prematurely?

I have mentioned the Select Committee report on sanctions. Another Select Committee report—it has only just had a response from the Government—is particularly appropriate to the clause. The response on Access to Work from the Government was published, I believe, during the recess, or when we were about to go into recess, nine months after the Select Committee published its report. Last year, Access to Work supported only 35,000 people going into and at work, of a total working age population of 7 million. If there is a genuine desire to reduce the disability employment gap, how on earth is it going to be managed on those ridiculous levels of support? We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark on the Work programme and Work Choice. The Government are currently retendering the Work programme contract. How will the need for specialist provision be addressed in the retendering process? I urge all hon. Members not to support clause 14.

Clause 14 deals with universal credit and the limited capability for work element. The clause amends part 1 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 to remove the reference to the limited capability for work element. The change broadly mirrors the ESA changes introduced in clause 13. The fact that a claimant has limited capability for work will no longer exist as a need or circumstance in which regulations may be made for an element to be included in the calculation of the amount of an award of universal credit. The change will apply only to those making new claims to UC and to existing claimants where they or their partners claim on the grounds of having a health condition or disability after the change is introduced. Those claims already eligible for the limited capability for work element at the point of the change will continue to be paid that element as long as their circumstances remain unchanged and they continue to be entitled to UC. Details of how the change will be applied to existing claimants receiving that element will be set out in regulations.

I cannot cover all the points that the hon. Lady has made and, if I may, I will write to her because there are a couple of points that are more data-based that I think I can come back to her on. She mentioned the Select Committee report that is currently being considered by the Department. We will continue to work with and respond to the Work and Pensions Committee. When I came to the Committee, we were discussing many areas such as the Work programme and, in particular, its next iteration. Of course, that is ongoing—it is not specific to the clause, per se, but discussions with stakeholders are ongoing.

I emphasise that Jobcentre Plus has around 400 specialist disability employment advisers supporting disabled people, particularly with regard to support packages such as Work Choice and Access to Work and other schemes. Much more needs to be done as part of the continuing reforms, including on the long-term grassroots approach that we take at our jobcentres to improve the level of support and engagement.

Employers have an important role. The Department is working with employers not just to make the case, but to encourage them to be much more active as employers and to engage in employing people with disability and supporting them in work. It is not just a case of getting people with disability into work, but about sustained employment outcomes. That is the long-term objective we are focused on achieving.

The report on Access to Work made a number of points about how it was not working. It was published in December, but we had a response only in September. We had Second Reading in July, which shows a total lack of commitment to supporting disabled people, and yet the Government are prepared to take support away from them before they have ensured adequate provision to enable them to work if they are able to do so.

On the contrary, the measure is not about removing support. It is about what more the Government are doing in terms of our commitment to supporting disabled people to get them into employment. That is down to a package of measures.

I will not give way.

It is very easy for Labour Members to claim that the measure is about taking money away. It is about providing the right kind of support for people with health conditions and disabilities. It may not be the appropriate answer that the hon. Lady wants to hear. The Government are committed to supporting more employment. Of course, this is a binary argument for her. We are supporting claimants with a limited capability for work through our employment provisions, our jobcentres and the specialist disability employment advisers.

I will not give way. At the same time, we are working with employers through the schemes that we have, Access to Work being one example.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

On a point of order, Mr Streeter. Before the conference recess, the Minister committed to provide additional information to my office about the monitoring of disabled people’s carers. I was reminded of that when the same offer was made just now. I do not believe I have received anything yet. Is there an update on when that will be provided?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order with the Committee. Would the Minister like to respond?

I will, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have written to him and would be very happy to follow it up with him. I am not sure what has happened to the letter. I know that I have signed it.

I beg to move amendment 57, in clause 15,  page 14,  line 31, leave out paragraph (a).

This amendment would keep the “work-focused interview requirement only” for responsible carers of children aged one and two.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 62, in clause 15, page 14, line 31, leave out paragraphs (a) to (c) and insert—

“(a) in section 19(2)(c) for the words “under the age of 1” substitute “who has not yet started primary school;”.

This amendment, taken together with amendment 63, would mean claimants in receipt of universal credit who are responsible carers are not subject to work focused interviews or work preparation requirements until their child starts school. From when a child starts school, relevant claimants would be required to follow all work requirements.

Amendment 58, in clause 15, page 14, line 36, after “2,”, insert “3 or 4”.

This amendment would retain the current position for responsible carers of children aged three and four.

Amendment 59, in clause 15, page 14, line 37, leave out paragraph (c).

This amendment would retain the current position for responsible carers of children aged three and four.

Amendment 60, in clause 15, page 14, line 40, leave out paragraph (a).

This amendment would keep the current prescribed age of three years in universal credit regulations on the “work-focused interview requirement” for responsible carers of children in receipt of universal credit.

Amendment 63, in clause 15, page 14, line 40, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert—

“(a) in regulation 91 (claimants subject to work-focused interview requirement only), for the word “3” substitute “5 or when the child starts primary school”;

(b) in regulation 91A (claimants subject to work preparation requirement) for the words “3 or 4” substitute “who has not yet started primary school”;”.

This amendment, taken together with amendment 62, would mean claimants in receipt of universal credit who are responsible carers are not subject to work focused interviews or work preparation requirements until their child starts school. From when a child starts school, relevant claimants would be required to follow all work requirements.

Amendment 61, in clause 15, page 14, line 42, leave out paragraph (b).ww

This amendment would keep the current age of child (which is three or four) in universal credit regulations on the work-preparation requirement for responsible carers of children in receipt of universal credit.

Amendment 140, in clause 15, page 14, line 38, at end insert—

“(d) in section 22(1) after “section” insert “, except if the claimant is the responsible carer of a disabled child aged 3 or 4.

(1B) The Secretary of State must lay regulations determining what a disabled child is for the purpose of this section and may include, but will not be limited to a child—

(a) in receipt of an Education, Health and Care Plan,

(b) in receipt of a Statement of Special Educational Needs,

(c) identified by their local authority as having special educational needs,

(d) with child in need status,

(e) meeting the definition of disabled under the Equality Act 2010.”

To exempt a responsible carer of a disabled child aged 3 or 4 from all work-related requirements.

The Scottish National party has tabled the amendments to mitigate the changes and to take the pressure off responsible carers with very young children who receive universal credit. Currently, lone parents need attend work-focused interviews or work-related activity only when their children are between the ages of one and five, rather than having to actively seek work. The clause will mean that all parents will be expected to be available for and actively seeking work by the time their youngest child turns three in order to claim universal credit. We wish to stop those changes to the work-related requirements as well as roll back the work-related requirement for responsible carers set out in the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

Amendment 57 would ensure that the work-focused interview requirement for responsible carers of children aged two and three would remain unchanged. Amendments 58 and 59 would remove the changes to the work-preparation requirement. Amendments 60 and 61 would remove the changes to the work-focused interview requirement and the work-preparation interview requirement. Amendments 62 and 63 would amend the Welfare Reform Act so that claimants would be subject to no work-related requirements until their child begins attending school.

A child’s most critical and vulnerable years should be based on a foundation of support and love, which can make all the difference to a child’s confidence and educational attainment in later life, not to mention the benefits of family and social cohesion. Forcing a parent to spend more time looking for work means they have no choice if they want to spend more time with the child in its formative years. Where most parents are keen to return to work and to maximise their income, the provision will deprive parents of the choice of what is best for their child in the crucial early years of their development. Forcing parents to return to work before they are ready can be counterproductive and lead to financial instability as parents move in and out of work. That may lead to undue stress on parents, causing them to struggle with balancing work and the care of their young child.

Increasing conditionality for universal credit is simply another ideological crusade against those who are in genuine need of welfare support. It is, of course, not ideal for an individual to be receiving benefits, but for many it is nevertheless essential and can mean the difference between independence and absolute poverty. The stricter conditionality requirements contribute to making life intolerable for benefit claimants. In effect, it condemns the lives of those on the benefits that enable them to live independently, such as severely disabled people.

The extra requirements will bring with them an increased risk of claimants incurring sanctions. The effect of benefit sanctions are bad enough on individual benefit claimants, but increasing conditionality for responsible carers, which puts them at further risk of incurring sanctions, will have the knock-on effect of condemning the children they care for.

Carers UK has expressed concern over the effects of the clause on responsible carers of disabled children, partly due to the documented lack of childcare for disabled children. Carers of children in receipt of the higher or middle rate care component of disability living allowance are exempt from the requirements, but that does not protect carers of very young children with disabilities when there are difficulties in identifying them in the early years.

It is imperative that lone parents and responsible carers are supported back into work, but not forced or sanctioned while their young child needs their support at home. The difficulties that present themselves—accessing affordable childcare, finding suitable support for a child or finding a stable job that allows a parent to have the time needed with a young child—are huge. The everyday challenges that face working families and young parents are not as black and white as the Government would have us believe. I therefore urge all Members to unite today with the SNP to remove the harsh conditionality elements placed on parents while their children are young and effectively just babies.

May I comment briefly on the SNP’s amendments? Although I applaud the sentiment behind them, and if they are pressed to a vote, the hon. Lady can rely on our support, I want to put on record that it is not completely unconditional. The reality of life within jobcentres, unfortunately—it should not be like this—is that jobcentres have to be told that their job is to get particular groups of people into work. A constituent of mine came to see me and said, “My son is four. I would like to go back to work, but when I go to the jobcentre they don’t give me any help.” We should not need to choose between the extreme proposed by the Government and nothing. It should be possible to make jobcentres know that their primary job is not just to get people off jobseeker’s allowance at all costs and to sort out the statistics as best they can, but to ensure that they are sufficiently adaptable and flexible to help people who genuinely want to work to get into work, even if it means not fulfilling a target.

There will be people—particularly single women—who want help at an early stage, perhaps because their mum lives next door and they have good childcare, or perhaps because they have a skill level that will allow them to get work relatively easily with a bit of help from the jobcentre. They should not feel that the jobcentre believes it should not look after them because they are not part of the targets. I put in that caveat because the real world is not black and white; there are people in between who may be lost by the amendments. However, that is not to say that in principle we will not support the SNP’s amendments.

I rise to speak to amendment 140, which is about the intention expressed by the Government, including the Prime Minister, to protect disabled people. We have heard how the changes to disability living allowance and employment support allowance will affect disabled people directly. The amendment is designed to protect the parents of disabled children aged three or four.

The reason for tabling the amendment is that parents and carers of disabled children aged three or four would be allocated to the all work-related requirements group if the Bill is enacted as drafted, which would require them to look for and be available for work. It would be useful if the Minister could indicate whether that is an intentional provision, or whether it is incidental or accidental. I do not think I am going to get that acknowledgement at this stage.

There is an exemption for parents of children in receipt of the highest or middle rates of the care component of disability living allowance, but it will exempt only a very small number of parents, as few receive that benefit at that level. As many Members know, it is getting harder for parents to access disability living allowance. I certainly have experience of that from my postbag and surgeries.

Many parents of disabled children choose to care for their child, and they best know their child’s needs and abilities. Those who wish to work often come up against the lack of appropriate childcare for disabled children, as we discussed earlier. As the shadow Minister indicated, it is also more expensive to access tailored childcare for disabled children.

The rationale for the amendment is based on recent policy changes that require carers of children aged five to make a return to work. However, the Bill equates parents of children aged three and parents of children aged five. There are obviously significant differences between the two ages, which means that the Government’s assumption risks harming families, not least because five-year-olds are in primary education.

There is a read-across to the Childcare Bill, in which the Government are proposing to offer 30 hours of free childcare to working parents. That could help, but the Childcare Bill as drafted does not properly account for the barriers faced by families with disabled children when accessing childcare provision. For the same reason that we discussed this morning, it would be useful to know how the Government intend to identify that parents genuinely have access to 30 hours of appropriate childcare for a disabled child. They cannot just put a statutory obligation on a council to provide it, because we know it is not being delivered.

Many providers under the three and four-year-old offer are not able to meet the needs of children with more complex needs, and the additional cost of childcare for disabled children can limit the number of hours that can actually be accessed. The combination of those issues could severely compromise a parent’s ability to meet the conditions of looking for work, which would not be taken into account as the Bill is drafted. An offer of support is not the same as appropriate support genuinely being available in practice. This concern has been expressed by disability organisations in written and other evidence submitted to the Committee. Currently, carers of children in receipt of the highest or middle rate care component of DLA are exempted from the all work-related requirements group. The amendment would extend that protection.

Department for Work and Pensions figures suggest that there are currently just 53,000 claimants of DLA for children aged nought to five years. If the amendment is blocked, many carers of severely disabled children could be subject to conditions and sanctions, as we have already discussed, despite the fact that it can take a considerable amount of time for parents and carers of disabled children to be able to access disability living allowance. I do not think that it is the intention of Conservative MPs in particular to end up with the parent of a disabled youngster turning up in their surgery who is not able to access appropriate childcare, has work-related conditions in place and ends up being sanctioned, and then has absolutely nothing coming in. I hope that that is not the intention, and I do not believe that it is. I hope that the Government will consider this amendment.

My last point is that amendment 140 should be accepted to reflect the fact that a disabled child’s needs and the specific level of support that they require may be very hard to identify under the age of five. DLA is not a brilliant basis for the exemption of carers. It is not sufficient. It can take months or years to access disability living allowance—indeed, the Prime Minister has spoken of his own personal battle when trying to apply for disability living allowance for his son. Personal experiences should be taken into consideration when pressing ahead with this legislation. The amendment proposes using additional criteria to determine whether someone is caring for a severely disabled child which go beyond a sole reliance on claiming DLA at a certain level. These include statements of special educational needs, which a small number of children under five receive; replacement education, health and care plans; those defined as children in need; and those who meet the Equality Act definition of disabled.

Clearly, this Government believe that there is much more that can be done to support all parents, including lone parents with young children, to prepare for and look for work. I will come on to amendment 140 and some of the points which have just been raised in a minute. Universal credit offers significant work incentives over the current system of benefits, with the structure of UC designed to encourage and reward work. As universal credit is paid both in and out of work, many of the barriers to work start to be removed. Claimants with young children in particular can try suitable work depending on their own circumstances in the knowledge that their universal credit claim will not automatically close and, importantly, that their payments are adjusted systematically to take account of their earnings.

The support that we provide through work coaches should help to make parents much more ready to move into employment—that, of course, is the point of work coaches and of Jobcentre Plus in particular. Jobcentre Plus plays a vital role in supporting parents to find work via the core framework and interventions with a dedicated work coach, helping those furthest from the labour market to return or move closer to it. Work coaches deliver a personalised service to best meet the needs of the parent in relation to the local labour market conditions. That is why the Government are investing in extra work coach support. Work coaches will be able to build a relationship with individuals, ensuring that work-related requirements are tailored to their particular circumstances and capability, and are compatible with their childcare responsibilities. Work coaches also provide a gateway to access much of the other support that is available, which includes skills training and sector-based work academies, as well as financial support through the flexible support fund, in order to remove some of the barriers.

The findings from the “Universal Credit at work” report shows that those on universal credit are working more compared with those on jobseeker’s allowance. Of course, universal credit encourages claimants to find work, to increase their earnings and support themselves. I know childcare has been touched upon in our broader debates today, but it is worth mentioning that parents of disadvantaged two-year-olds in particular are able to access to free early-years education. Parents may also have access to jobcentre funding to enable them to undertake the work preparation that is necessary while their children are at that young age.

I know that we have made this point previously, but universal credit will cover up to 85% of eligible childcare costs from next year, irrespective of how few hours parents work. That will help to cover about 500,000 families at a cost of about £350 million a year. Parents will also have the option of claiming tax-free childcare, which also has significant support. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark will know that for children with disabilities—the Exchequer Secretary mentioned this earlier—that support will be up to £4,000 a year.

Access to childcare, including the flexibility and support available to parents claiming universal credit, is obviously an important component. We will ensure, of course, that all work-related requirements are tailored to individual circumstances and compatible with the childcare responsibilities.

The Minister says that individual circumstances will be taken into account. Will that include monitoring or testing to see that a parent is genuinely able to get access to the level of childcare that she says should be available?

I will come on to that when I speak to amendment 140. If I do not answer that specific point, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will intervene on me.

Carers provide invaluable support for relatives, partners or friends who through whatever circumstances are ill or disabled. The carer element within universal credit is to support carers on a low income who provide care for 35 hours or more each week for a severely disabled person. That does not replace carer’s allowance, which will continue to exist as a separate benefit outside universal credit.

Importantly, for those with less substantial caring responsibilities, some work-related conditions may apply; but existing legislation is clear about how those should be limited. Requirements for each claimant will depend on their individual capability, circumstances and caring responsibilities. That comes back to my point that the expectation will be based purely on the individual’s personal circumstances. Most responsible carers of a disabled child aged three or four will not be subject to the conditionality associated with the clause. Responsible carers who receive the carer element will fall into the “no conditionality” group in universal credit, which means that no work-related conditions will be applied.

For carers who are not entitled to the carer element, different levels of conditionality will apply. Some who do not qualify for it will be placed in the “no conditionality” group. These include full-time carers of a severely disabled person who are unable to receive the carer element because they are not the main carer, and carers of more than one severely disabled person whose cumulative caring responsibilities mean that it would be unreasonable to impose conditions on them. Also it would be unreasonable to place requirements on a claimant who is a carer of a severely disabled person for at least 35 hours, or to do so where the care giver is responsible for a severely disabled person awaiting an assessment for a severe disability benefit.

I reiterate that it is important that there should be flexibility for other carers who do not fall into the “no-conditionality” group, because caring responsibilities may change from day to day; I think we all recognise that. Where there is a disabled child in the household, that will be factored into the decision making and the appropriate level of requirements. Any requirements will be tailored.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark specifically mentioned childcare provision for parents of disabled children. He also mentioned the Childcare Bill, which is the responsibility not of my Department but of the Department for Education. More information will follow about the delivery of the childcare element, in particular the 15-hour and 30-hour delivery measures for local provision. We want to ensure that provision is in place for the parents of disabled children. We have to work with the providers on the ground, which is something that the Department for Education is doing now, working with stakeholders and consulting. That is part of a wide-ranging piece of work. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this point, however, and I will I pick it up with my colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that that is featured in and factored into their discussions with stakeholders.

Is the Minister suggesting that the Government’s expectation is that parents of a disabled child who are unable to access 30 hours of childcare would not be subject to the conditionality that might be imposed were such support to be in place?

First, we have to ensure that the provision is in place, which is part of the wider childcare offering, and work is taking place through the Childcare Bill, including on delivery. Importantly, this is about working with the parents of disabled children. We have to look at individual cases to ensure that support is tailored for them. There should never be a one-size-fits-all policy—we all recognise that—so through Jobcentre Plus and our work coaches we will look at all the relevant circumstances of the individuals.

I urge the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock to withdraw the amendment.

I was interested in the view of the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury on the jobcentre system. I worked in the Department for Work and Pensions for 20 years, and my experience is that jobcentre staff work incredibly hard to get claimants into work. The main reason that claimants cannot get off benefits seems to be that suitable jobs are not out there. Year after year, staff’s flexibility and autonomy have been diminished. Staff are tied up with sanctions regimes, at the expense of a focus on clients and getting them back into work. That is one of the reasons why we want more powers in Scotland, so that we can take control of our economy to boost economic levers that will help grow our economy and create jobs to get people off benefits. Universal credit conditionality and changes for carers will put an unacceptable and unnecessary pressure on families. We will therefore press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 62, in clause 15,  page  14, line 31,  leave out paragraphs (a) to (c) and insert—

“(a) in section 19(2)(c) for the words “under the age of 1” substitute “who has not yet started primary school”. —(Hannah Bardell.)

This amendment, taken together with amendment 63, would mean claimants in receipt of universal credit who are responsible carers are not subject to work focused interviews or work preparation requirements until their child starts school. From when a child starts school, relevant claimants would be required to follow all work requirements.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 58, in clause 15,  page 14,  line 36, after “2,”, insert “3 or 4”.—(Hannah Bardell.)

This amendment would retain the current position for responsible carers of children aged three and four.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

I beg to move amendment 101, in clause 15, page 14, line 38, at end insert—

‘(d) Insert after section 18

“(18A) Guidance on lone parents

(1) The Secretary of State shall, by regulation, provide guidance to Jobcentre Plus setting out how it should support claimants who are lone parents in meeting the work-related requirements that they are subject to.”.’

To require the Secretary of State to set out in regulation how Jobcentre Plus should support claimant of universal credit who are lone parents meet the work-related requirements they are subject to.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 131, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) Claimants subject to new requirements as a result of the measures contained in subsections (1) and (2) of this clause must, at a time no later than three months before subsections (1) and (2) come into force, receive written notification of the lone parent flexibilities issued as guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff.’

To provide that anyone who becomes subject to new work-related requirements as a result of the measures in clause 15 must be provided with written notification of the lone parent flexibilities which the DWP issues as guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff.

Amendment 132, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State must, at time no later than three months before subsections (1) and (2) come into force, issue guidance on the lone parent flexibilities to Jobcentre Plus managers, such guidance must include provision on the training of Jobcentre Plus staff in advance of the new work-related requirements coming into force.’

To require the Secretary of State to issue up to date written guidance to Jobcentre Plus managers on the lone parent flexibilities, including provisions on the training of Jobcentre Plus staff.

Amendment 133, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State may not impose a work search requirement on any claimant in receipt of Universal Credit, who is a lone parent, in circumstances which include but are not limited to the following—

(a) the claimant’s adviser determines that there is an inadequate number of suitable employment vacancies within reasonable daily travelling distance of the claimant‘s home;

(b) the claimant is responsible for the care of a child during that child‘s school holidays, and it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to make alternative arrangements;

(c) the claimant is responsible for the care of a child during any period in which that child is excluded from school, or is otherwise not receiving education pursuant to arrangements made by a local education authority, and it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to make alternative arrangements;

(d) any child care expenses which would be necessarily incurred by the claimant as a result of carrying out the requirement imposed would represent an unreasonably high proportion of the income the claimant could expect to receive while carrying out the requirement in question;

(e) the claimant is enrolled on a course of study leading to a vocational qualification, or is otherwise undertaking engaged in vocational training;

(f) the claimant has become a lone parent within the last six months;

(g) any other circumstances in which the claimant‘s adviser may consider the imposition of a work search requirement to be unreasonable in light of that claimant‘s individual circumstances.’

To provide a statutory basis for flexibility to be applied in imposing work search requirements on lone parents in receipt of Universal Credit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I want to speak to amendments 131, 132 and 133. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) tabled amendment 101, and to a certain extent the sentiment in that amendment is incorporated in the other three amendments, so it may not be necessary for me to speak specifically to it. In any event, my hon. Friend no longer sits on the Committee. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on amendments 131 to 133.

Amendment 131 arises because we have noticed a couple of paragraphs in clause 15, at the bottom of page 14, which are short but not sweet. They could have been overlooked, but they should not be. They introduce sweeping changes to work search requirements placed on single parents with very young children and do so in a way that is extraordinarily unfair and poorly thought through. The Bill not only goes further than any changes introduced by previous Governments but severs the link between the time when a child starts school and the time when that a child’s parent is expected to start actively seeking work.

Successive Governments of both parties have introduced changes to expectations on parents, and the age at which a parent is expected to seek work has been progressively lowered from 16 down to 12, then to seven and most recently to five. To a certain extent, it was thought that there was a broad consensus to expect single mothers—it is usually single mothers—to work during term time while their children were at school, subject to appropriate childcare at a price they could afford and working hours that would fit in around school time. That does not seem unreasonable. That seems fine. It seems the sort of thing that very few single parents would object to and that most of the public and a lot of children would want. It is a deeply personal decision but, frankly, I think it would carry the majority of the public on what is a fair expectation of single parents.

However, the caveats that I put on those expectations are not insignificant, and that is the point. One size does not fit all when it comes to helping single parents into work. To a certain extent, the point that I made to the Scottish nationalists earlier highlights that. A single parent came to see me when the expectation was that parents were to be actively looking for work when their children were aged seven-plus. She wanted to work when the children were younger and felt that she was not getting the support of the jobcentre. It was for that reason—the fact that no size fits all—that when my party was in Government, it gave a clear undertaking that no single parent would be forced into a job that did not fit their circumstances. Now we have a Government who are not prepared to continue that pact with single parents. That is profoundly unfair, and wrong.

In extending work search requirements to single parents with children over 12, the Government were right to introduce “greater flexibilities” into the system; in other words, the expectation that parents look for work and that that work should fit reasonably in with their lives. It is right that those flexibilities were given the strength of regulations. Parents were expected to work, if their children were over 12, so long as it fitted in with their lives, and in order to make perfectly clear what was expected, that was put into regulations.

It was hoped that when the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was passed those flexibilities would be carried over into universal credit, as they currently only apply to people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), pressed the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), on that point when that Act was debated in Committee. My right hon. Friend—who was also the Minister responsible for introducing the lone parent regulation in 2008, so he knew what he was talking about—asked for reassurance that the flexibilities would be carried over into the new regulations. In response, the then Minister said that the Government did not intend to change that. That was good. We were pleased and encouraged.

However, when the universal credit regulations were brought forward the following year, we had a new Minister in place, the former Member for Fareham. He went ahead and changed the provisions, so universal credit will not make allowances for the lives of single women, except based on guidance that is too often overlooked. There is a difference between guidance and regulations. Pressed to explain why the Government had changed their hearts, the new Minister said:

“We have chosen to move the flexibilities from regulation to guidance. We think it more appropriate to rely on the discretion and judgment of our advisors to make the right decision for families.”—[Official Report, First Delegated Legislation Committee, 11 February 2013; c. 23.]

Concerns were expressed about the decision at the time, not only by my right hon. Friend but also by the chief executive of Gingerbread, who argued that moving the flexibilities from regulations to guidance represented

“a significant weakening of the status”.

It is worth exploring how far individual discretion has worked. The former Minister said that he was changing the flexibilities from regulation to guidance—from a statutory footing to soft law guidance—and hopefully everyone would proceed with good will and it would all be fine. Well, it is not fine. I will give some examples of how it has not worked and of the significant weakening of the rules with regard to the circumstances in a single parent can be expected to work. We think that the rules should be put into regulations, and that staff should be trained in what the regulations mean. Those expected to abide by these new rules should be written to, and it should be explained what the position is so that everybody is clear. That is the reason for our amendments. The weakening of regulations to guidance is just not working, and I will give some examples of why.

The Fawcett Society, in a paper that it produced last year, pointed out that

“the rate of incorrectly imposed sanctions that are later overturned at appeal is very high.”

That was for all claimants, but

“for lone parents in particular, the proportion of sanctions overturned at appeal is even higher than for other claimants (39 compared to 28 per cent)…This raises serious questions about the training received by JCP and Work Programme service providers, as well as about their ability to make appropriate referrals and decisions about sanctions.”.

If any other Government Department were failing, with a rate of 39% of its decisions being overturned on appeal, serious questions would be asked. The 39% who are suffering that injustice are not just anyone; we are talking about lone parents with children, who are wrongly sanctioned. There is something seriously wrong. The former Minister said that it was appropriate to rely on the discretion and judgment of advisers to make the right decision for families. I hope that the current Minister is clocking what I am saying here, because evidence is so important when making decisions on policy; it would seem that she is not, but perhaps someone can point out Hansard to her later.

Good, I am glad. So, 39% of single parents are having their decisions overturned on appeal. My point is that the discretion given to Jobcentre Plus officials is not appropriate, and that it would be better, and right, to put the requirements into regulations instead, so that they are given legal standing. Discretion is not working. When nearly 40% of cases being overturned on appeal, there is something wrong with the system. That is not rhetoric, it is the evidence, and something needs to be done. The situation raises serious questions about the training of Jobcentre Plus staff and Work programme providers and their ability to make appropriate decisions. To illustrate that point I will give the Minister a few stories from single mothers. Their personal details are disguised, but their cases are real.

There is a women called Geri; she is single mother and has a nine-year-old daughter. Her jobseeker’s agreement sets out the requirements that she must meet as a condition of receiving her benefits, which are that she must apply for 21 jobs a week, either full or part-time, and be prepared to travel up to an hour each way for a job. Emma has a 10-year-old son and lives in Bristol. Her jobseeker’s agreement requires her to look for work in London, which is a 90-minute commute each way, despite the fact that the cost of a season ticket would exceed £5,000 a year. Furthermore, the extended hours of travel would make it impossible for her to take her son to school and pick him up at the end of the day.

A woman called Fiona had her jobseeker’s allowance stopped for three months because she turned down night shifts, which she had to do because she could not find suitable childcare for her daughter. Elaine was threatened with sanctions by her Work programme provider when she said that she could not attend back-to-work courses during the summer holidays. She has two young daughters whom she cannot leave on their own at home. She was offered no help with childcare costs by the provider of the voluntary work that she was supposed to be doing in order to make her fit for work.

I have heard stories of single parents being threatened with sanctions if they do not attend appointments that clash with the school run. I have heard stories from single parents who have been sanctioned for missing appointments in order to stay at home when their children are unwell. I want to point to the evidence and try to help the Minister to make the right sort of social policy, so I point out that Islington Law Centre has a 100% success rate when challenging sanctions imposed on my constituents, which I really think should give Ministers pause for thought. The centre represented, for example, a pregnant woman who was sanctioned for missing an appointment when she was so unwell with morning sickness that she was in hospital.

To add to my hon. Friend’s list, I have a constituent with three primary school age children, all at different schools. She was compelled to be at appointments when she was trying to get her children to those different schools—she was always given appointments that made it absolutely impossible for her to get to the jobcentre.

Members on both sides of the House may well have examples of such sanctions from people who have come to their surgeries. In particular, single parents are being sanctioned in an attempt to push them into work that is completely inappropriate given their caring responsibilities.

I come back to the distinction between regulations and guidance, which I think is important. It may seem academic to some, but I can assure Ministers that it is not at all academic to the women who are feeling the impact of the lack of adequate flexibility within the system and the lack of understanding of what the rules really are. For our purposes as legislators, it is important to make the distinction between the legal force of regulations and of guidance. Regulations have the force of statute, as they are introduced through secondary legislation, but guidance does not. Guidance is really soft law, and these women do not need soft law.

The principle was summed up quite well in the Supreme Court judgment of R (on the application of Alvi) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department—it is known as the Alvi case—in which the distinction at issue was between immigration rules and informal guidance. Lord Clarke wrote in his judgment:

“It seems to me that, as a matter of ordinary language, there is a clear distinction between guidance and a rule. Guidance is advisory in character; it assists the decision maker but does not compel a particular outcome. By contrast a rule is mandatory in nature; it compels the decision maker to reach a particular result.”

As I say, guidance has been called soft law. As was said in Ali v. London Borough of Newham,

“the court should be circumspect and careful so as to avoid converting what is a non-binding guidance into, in effect, mandatory rules.”

We all know why we are talking about guidance and regulations. We all know that the couple of little paragraphs on page 14 of the Bill will be going to court and will be judicially reviewed, so we need to be quite clear about what the Government want to do. Our job, as Her Majesty’s Opposition, is to look carefully at what the Government intend and at what is fair. We all know that what is said in this Committee is of relevance to the future court cases that will be coming because of the manifest unfairness that will result from the clause.

Let us therefore be clear. I am sure the Minister will tell us how fair all this is, and how everyone is proceeding with good will. But we have heard that before. We had a promise that people in jobcentres would exercise discretion fairly, and so on. We have had enough of that. They have not been doing things fairly, and it has been going wrong. We would now like clear rules so that we all know where we stand—both the single mothers who are trying to balance their caring responsibilities and want to find appropriate work, and the people in jobcentres who quite often feel compelled to force women into work. Any new rules will not be properly understood unless they are made clear. If they turn out to be unfair, they can be challenged.

Under the system that we have, a single mother who puts her responsibility to her children ahead of her requirements under the claimant commitment could lose several weeks of income as a result of an unfair sanction. That means that that family—those children—will not have any money for food. That is a desperate situation, so we need to make sure that something like that is done only in extreme circumstances and that it can be properly justified. That sanction may well be overturned—as I say, if Members come to Islington Law Centre they will find a 100% success rate—but in many cases the damage will already have been done. Does the Minister not agree that regulations, which have the force of law, could protect against some of those injustices? If so, they are worth having.

I turn now to the amendments. As things stand, there are two problems. First, there is inadequate knowledge of lone parent flexibilities: it is not known what it is reasonable to expect from jobcentre staff and Work programme providers. Secondly, single parents themselves may lack knowledge of what would reasonably be expected, so it makes it more difficult to challenge the unreasonable demands that are sometimes placed on them.

Our amendments 131 and 132 seek to tackle those problems. Amendment 131 would require that any single parent affected by the changes in clause 15 must receive written notification of their rights no later than three months before the changes come into force. Let us all know. What is the Minister scared of? Let us simply tell people, “The rules have changed. We will now expect you to do this, that and the other,” so that people understand.

Amendment 132 would also require proactive efforts on behalf of managers and staff to ensure that anyone responsible for dealing with single parents is aware of the rules. What is wrong with that? The rules should be known by everyone. Surely we can have a commitment from the Government that people will be trained and will know the rules so that we all know where we stand and that they must be adhered to.

Perhaps most importantly, amendment 133 would incorporate the major flexibilities in the 2008 regulations into the Bill. The Minister may remember that at the beginning of this rather long speech I talked about the 2008 changes being made through guidance rather than regulations, but they are not working. We are therefore reintroducing them in this amendment, so that we all know where we stand and so that they have the force of law. They include requirements that single mothers should not be forced to work during school holidays or outside school hours; that they should not be required to work if their earnings cancel out the childcare costs that they would be forced to incur; and that advisers should take into account whether there is an adequate number of suitable job vacancies within reasonable travelling distance of someone’s home. The amendment would also build on the 2008 regulations with some new measures, which I think are called for under the circumstances.

First, the amendment would provide an exemption from all work-search requirements for parents who have been single for the last six months. In other words, if a woman’s husband leaves her and she has a number of kids who need to be looked after, and suddenly her life is devastated, she could have a period of six months just to look after her children and herself. She could get herself and her family back on their feet without being threatened with sanctions from the jobcentre, so that she can do her best and look after her family’s wellbeing, including their emotional wellbeing. What is wrong with that? What is the argument against that? That would no doubt be a difficult time for the family, and it is difficult to see how such a sensitive situation could be helped by forcing a mother to comply with box-ticking exercises under the threat of sanctions. [Interruption.] As is being muttered behind me—and quite rightly—what if she is being beaten up?

Secondly, the amendment would exempt single parents from work-search requirements if they were undertaking vocational study or training. Again, that seems to be a reasonable flexibility that was one of the great strengths of the old system, under income support, which allowed single mothers to make best use of their children’s early years to improve their skills, not to mention their long-term earning prospects. However, the proposed changes will not do that; rather, jobcentres will be pushing women into work, not training, which of course has the advantage of term-time hours. During that time when the children are small, those mothers would be able to upskill themselves so that they could get better paid, good-quality work that will last. We are always talking about this, so why not allow single parents to do that?

Under the new regime, such flexibility is gone, and that is wrong. Single parents are now being shoehorned into the first available job without any regard being given to its sustainability or suitability. We have all heard countless examples of women being pushed into low-paid insecure work because, often, it is the only type of work available. Why are we stopping single parents getting the skills that they need? Why are we doing that?

I had a look at the Government’s Universal Jobmatch site this morning. I do not know whether the Minister has ever done that. I searched around the N1 area pretending to be a single mother to see what kind of jobs would be available for me today. One job was the executive vice-president of a media company for £120,000 a year—that was good—but I could not see many of the single mums from the Market estate being shortlisted for it. I had a look for others and found a zero-hours job in a bakery, another zero-hours job as a sales assistant in a 99p shop and several jobs as retail assistants, kitchen assistants, carers and cleaners, none of which paid more than the minimum wage and none of which was term-time only.

That is a Government website that is supposed to be there to help, presumably, mothers—single mothers—get into work, but it has no facility to search for term-time-only work. If the Minister really wants single mothers of very young children to go into work, why is that facility not on the website? If he is serious about getting women into work, why does he not have on a job-search site a facility to search for term-time work—leaving aside the fact that there is no work? Even if there was work, no one would be able to find it on the Government website.

As Gingerbread puts it, it is therefore little wonder that those taking on temporary or zero-hours contracts have a greater risk of cycling back into the benefits system at a later date. One in five single parents entering employment will churn out of work again within 12 months. That is the reality of working. If Ministers really care about the long-term prospects of single mothers and really want children to be inspired by the example of seeing their parents in work, they ought to recognise the value of a system that is sufficiently flexible to allow single parents to develop their skills and to move into work at a pace that is suitable for their children. The Government should have term-time work on their own website, as well as having work available on it. If the Government were serious about such things, that is what they would be doing.

Amendment 133 suggests some common-sense safeguards that Labour Members believe should be built into the legislation in order to protect single mothers from being forced into inappropriate work without regard for their individual circumstances or needs. If Ministers will not support the safeguards, I hope that they will explain their position, because I can think of no reasonable argument against these very reasonable amendments.

The hon. Lady has covered a number of points, but the one that I want to focus on is that it is right for us to support women into work. As the Committee must recognise, we have more women in work than ever before—the rate is now 68.8%. The purpose behind the Government’s changes is support for lone parents in particular to get into work without being prescriptive and in particular by recognising that our work-focused interview approach, with our work coach support, is a key enabler of the policy and, importantly, is investing in the quality of learning and development through our jobcentres. That will give lone parents in particular the right level of support and guidance that they require to find work.

Work coaches, as part of their role and when in discussion with claimants, and lone parents in particular, at the work-focused interviews, will identify the barriers to work and, importantly, the type of support required. That means taking into account the individual circumstances of lone parents and responsible carers, including care and responsibility for their child or children, and in particular identifying the type of work-related requirements possible as a result. The aim is to develop a relationship in which claimants can discuss their issues and circumstances as they emerge. People who have children recognise that circumstances change all the time. Helping to ensure that requirements remain reasonable and appropriate is our priority.

Furthermore, the parents should feel that they are involved in the development of the requirements, which of course are recorded and noted in the claimant commitment, by contributing the steps that they think will give them the best chances of finding work. We will of course only ever have requirements—based around work coaches and jobcentres—that are reasonable in light of the appropriate circumstances.

We recognise that where people are in training the requirements are tailored around that. Training itself can be part of work preparation requirements, so of course it will be relevant to the claimant commitment that is being established as well. It is also important to recognise that it would not be appropriate—and would be difficult and wrong—to set out a uniform level of support that would meet the needs of individuals. Universal credit has been constructed in a way that promotes discretion, tailoring and flexibility. The existing legislation provides work coaches with the flexibility to tailor, limit or even temporarily lift requirements that are entirely based on personal circumstances. The range of circumstances is broad. We will ensure that any work-related requirements are tailored to the individual’s circumstances and, importantly, are compatible with childcare responsibilities.

The Minister says that the Department will ensure that the requirements on individuals are flexible and sensitive. In our surgeries and case loads we are already seeing circumstances where that has not been the case to date. The Minister suggests that such individuals should not be experiencing sanctions or disincentives, but what additional safeguards or measures will be put in place to ensure that that does not happen?

It is not about the guidance that goes out one day to jobcentres or work coaches. We are routinely working with our work coaches and our jobcentres to make sure that they are supporting individuals through the advice that goes down to them, through the guidance that is sent out, through what is being distributed from the Department and also through training. That training is absolutely vital, in particular with regards to work coaches. I emphasise that point. I know that comments have been made about jobcentres not supporting people to get into work, but I would argue against that. I have sat in on many interviews myself, including with lone parents, and I have seen commitments that are tailored to that individual’s circumstances. In fact, I was in Edinburgh two weeks ago; I go to jobcentres on a weekly, very regular basis. It is absolutely the right approach that the work coaches have the freedom and flexibility to support the individual, and also to recognise the labour market conditions locally.

The Minister is very generous in giving way. One of the concerns expressed by Jobcentre Plus staff—certainly those in my own constituency and those I have been chatting to elsewhere—is that once an agreement is in place with an individual, very little flexibility or adviser discretion is possible in order to prevent the imposition of a sanction where something cannot be met. The example I gave earlier has been resolved, and I am very grateful for the Minister’s offer to intervene. In that case, because there was an agreed number of job interviews that had to be attended, when the mother ended up having to go to hospital, she became subject to sanction. There is a point in the process where an individual becomes subject to sanction for not being able to meet an agreed requirement due to unforeseen circumstances, not due to deliberate non-compliance with a plan. That is where the challenge lies.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that, and obviously that is a highly relevant and pertinent point. This is why we should not undermine the autonomy of those local decision makers by putting things in binding statutory guidance. They need to be supported, and the Department needs to support them to offer that flexibility as well. We all recognise that personal circumstances and individual circumstances change. I am pleased to hear that the case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned has been resolved, but of course we want to avoid such situations in the first instance. We can only achieve that if work coaches work with the individual claimant and understand their circumstances. Obviously, the claimant needs to be very up front and say that their circumstances are changing and explain what is going on, because life is not one-size-fits-all for everybody and obviously circumstances change.

Of course I understand that local jobcentres ought to reflect local demand, but I ask the Minister to focus on the question of what would be wrong with having it set out in the regulations that a lone parent should not be obliged to go into work or look for work if there is an inadequate number of suitable employment vacancies within reasonable daily travelling distance of the claimant’s home. The six examples that I listed in amendment 133 give flexibility and at least give a baseline of fairness and do not allow people simply to have ultimate power over small children and single parents.

I disagree with the hon. Lady’s latter point. Importantly, the labour market changes. Vacancies come up every day of the week. It is relevant to the individual, their circumstances and the ability for them to choose what they feel is best for them. They might want to be in training, which might be, for example, 30 minutes or an hour or require some travel. There might be a work placement or a work experience opportunity. It is right with the labour market flexibilities that we have those flexibilities in place. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, if an individual is unable to meet the requirements—this relates to the local flexibilities—they would come into the jobcentre to explain why that is the case and that is therefore fed into the process.

The challenge is that the flexibility does not exist now for individual advisers because of the system imposed towards the end of the previous Parliament. Individual advisers’ discretion was removed in order to have a more automated system that has developed into the experience of more sanctions. Is the Minister suggesting that that process will be reviewed or changed? Without that, the good intention will not be delivered in practice.

Work coaches have the flexibility in universal credit to respond to individual circumstances and are using their discretion—

I will not give way. Work coaches are using their discretion to tailor appropriate requirements without the need to set the types of support in regulations or to make guidance statutory. I have touched on this already; the Department routinely upgrades guidance, advice and training, and shares those resources not just locally, but with stakeholders. We want to have the highest possible standards and we are working to achieve that. Universal credit responds to individual circumstances. Accepting the amendments would result in an unnecessary, costly and overly bureaucratic imposition. It would not enhance the individual claimant’s choice, opportunities and the support that is made available to them through work coaches. I therefore urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

We wish to push these amendments to a vote. I have listened carefully to the Minister and despite what she may say about local flexibilities, the national picture is that lone parents are having 39% of their sanctions decisions overturned on appeal. Therefore, the system is not fair. We want a better system in place with proper regulations that have legal standing.

Just to be clear, amendment 101 would have to be put first. The hon. Lady could withdraw that and come to the others at the end of our deliberations on clause 15, which will only be a few moments away.

That would probably be the best way of proceeding. We can vote on amendments 131, 132 and 133 but not on amendment 101. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 108, in clause 15, page 14, line 38, at end insert—

‘(d) after section 24 (imposition of requirements) after subsection (5) insert—

“(5A) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision to ensure that where a claimant is the responsible carer for a child who is aged under five they are subject to no work-related requirements unless it is possible to make arrangements for affordable and appropriate childcare for the claimant’s child.

(5B) The regulations in subsection (5A) must provide a definition of “affordable and appropriate childcare”.”’

This amendment would ensure that responsible carers of children aged under five would not be subject to work-related requirements unless they had affordable and appropriate childcare in place for their child.

Amendment 93 will no longer be discussed with amendment 108. That might help the Minister in her response.

We have begun to discuss some of the specific barriers faced by single parents who are looking for work, but we have not yet had a detailed discussion of what I, and I am sure most people, would consider to be the most significant barrier of all: childcare. It has been said that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and in many ways it is also true that there is no such thing as free childcare. Getting the universal entitlement to 15 hours, which in theory is available to all parents of children aged three and four, is often not quite as easy as it sounds. For a start, it usually is not free.

It is widely acknowledged that the difference between the rate at which the Government subsidise childcare providers and the actual cost of delivering care is substantial; substantial enough that charging for some services is the only way that providers can stay afloat. Parents know that that can happen in a range of different ways. Some are hit by hidden charges, such as being asked to pay for the cost of food or activities, while others—we have this situation in my constituency—are told that they cannot access their free hours unless they take additional paid hours as well, often at considerable cost.

The Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare completed an inquiry last year having heard extensive evidence. It concluded that

“parents are subsidising themselves, or other parents, in order to benefit from the Government’s flagship early education policy.”

I ask the Department for Work and Pensions yet again to look beyond the rhetoric at the evidence. The House of Lords Select Committee looked at this matter and said that it is serious.

In some cases, parents have even been told that the free 15 hours can be accessed only as part of a full-time placement. Full-time normally means 50 hours, which accounts for the early morning drop-off and early evening pick-up that is generally necessary for parents who work full time. To put in perspective the scale of the financial commitment that this could mean for parents, I looked at my local authority area in order to get a proper example. Childcare costs in Islington are among the highest in the country. A full-time place in a private nursery will set a parent back more than £18,000 a year, and what if you have two children? Let me tell Ministers that not all the low-income single parents from the Market estate have that kind of money to spare. Even if they worked full-time for the London living wage, fees at that level would exceed their pre-tax salary.

I wonder if I can save the Minister some time by anticipating some of the arguments that she is likely to rehearse in response to my concerns.

May I bring my hon. Friend back to a point about zero-hours contracts? There is a significant concern that some of the people affected will be forced to take work that does not have a consistent or guaranteed income, and that in itself acts as a barrier to being able to access childcare.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent and important point. The fact is that the work that is likely to be available, particularly for single parents who have been out of the job market for some time and may well be vulnerable and lacking in confidence and who do not necessarily have the skills they need, is the sort of work that I illustrated my previous point with. It is likely to be peripheral work and zero-hours contracts. It is unlikely to be regular, and it is likely to be at the sort of hours when there are not a lot of nurseries open.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that even the 15 hours of free childcare, which is to be extended to 30 hours, is only for three and four-year-olds? I had to go to work when my children were a lot younger than that. Also, the low-welfare, high-wage economy that the Government are trying to achieve—and who could argue with that?—will unfortunately not include anyone who is under 25, as they are not to be granted the living wage. So in my circumstances—I had a child when I was 22—there would have been no help available to me to pay for childcare.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

I want to talk about the Government’s proposal to extend free childcare to 30 hours a week for some parents, and I will explain why I just do not buy it. To begin with, let me raise the most obvious problem with the proposal. It sounds wonderful, but how on earth do the Government intend to deliver it? How are they going to deliver 30 hours a week? There is the Childcare Bill—all four pages of it—and it offers no clue. I have looked at it—it can be read in a moment. It is the most extraordinary piece of legislation. To be quite honest, it is the Tory party manifesto on green paper. It does not have any detail to it. It does not answer any of the questions that people are understandably asking. A number of pertinent questions were put on Second Reading by Peers from all sides of the House, and they referred to it repeatedly as a “skeleton”. They are very polite in the House of Lords.

That view was shared by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which expressed the concern in its scathing report on the Bill that

“it contains virtually nothing of substance beyond the vague ‘mission statement’ in clause 1(1)”,

and concluded:

“The remarkable imbalance between the provision that appears in the Bill itself and what is to be left to regulations, and the scarcity of explanation in the memorandum, has led us to question whether Members will be in a position to contribute meaningfully to debates at Committee Stage and Report Stage.”

Leaving aside what that says about the Conservatives’ attitude to democracy, it also says a great deal about how serious they are. They seek to force lone parents back into work, on the promise that at some stage there will be sufficient childcare for them to be able to work, but they cannot even produce a Childcare Bill that means anything, or give us any details that mean anything. As I said, they are very polite in the Lords, and perhaps we should follow their example, but we do not. We say that it is absolute nonsense. It is yet another example of empty rhetoric. The Government are playing with people’s lives, and they should be held to account for it.

Likewise, we find ourselves debating the same promise now. Members of this Committee find ourselves ill prepared to judge the consequences of the proposals in clause 15, because we simply do not know whether the promised 30 hours of free childcare will be available when people go to work. It is immediately obvious when we start to scratch the surface of the 30 hours commitment that the policy is not funded to any meaningful level.

So we have a Bill that does not mean anything. Now let us look at the funding. The Government figures suggest, and the Minister has repeated in this debate—with a straight face, for which I commend her—that extending the entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare a week will cost £365 million in the first year, unless I am wrong. It seems that that is still the position. I do not know how that figure was calculated. We have a man from the Treasury here—the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury—and I would be pleased to sit down and listen to his explanation of how all that childcare will be provided for £365 million a year. [Interruption.] For the record, no explanation is forthcoming.

Interestingly, that figure differs substantially from the estimate made by the Conservative party of my party’s quite similar policy proposal in 2013. When we said that we wanted to extend free childcare to 25 hours a week for working families, what did the Childcare Minister, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), estimate our costs would be? He did not say £365 million; he did not say £665 million; he did not say £1 billion. He said that it would cost £1.6 billion, yet the Minister has tried to persuade us today that producing 30 hours a week of childcare for so many children will cost a mere £365 million a year through her non-existent Bill. Please excuse us if we are somewhat sceptical of the Government’s promises that they can produce that childcare.

Although we can have a laugh about it, mothers of four-year-olds on the Market estate will be threatened with sanctions unless they are actively looking for work and get a job, on the promise that there will be childcare. There will not be childcare that is affordable for them on the wages that they can expect given the type of work that is available for them. That is the reality of life, and that is why policies should be made on the basis of evidence and not rhetoric. The truth is hard.

It is worse than empty rhetoric; it is empty legislation. We have seen the same thing in social care legislation. The Government committed to providing additional support for families desperately in need of social care, but when it came to implementation, there were delays. The difference in these circumstances is that many families will be left without sufficient support but with mandatory requirements and sanctions.

That brings me back to the purpose of the amendment. If the Minister is as confident as she seems that it will cost only £365 million, not £1.6 billion —even though the Childcare Bill includes no plan for delivery and we have not heard any plan, she seems to think that it is backed up with sufficient funding and is entirely realistic—why not back our amendment? We are simply saying, “Don’t push single parents into work until there is childcare available.” If she is so confident that childcare will be available, what is the problem with supporting our amendment?

It is nonsense. In a report published last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research criticised the Government and their costing, saying that it was

“inexplicably low in comparison to other estimates, as well as to current funding.”

The inevitable outcome, the report suggests, is:

“The Government’s drastic underfunding gives rise to concerns that the hourly rates that it will give to providers to deliver this care will be too low, resulting in falling quality, poorer outcomes for children and less choice for parents as the market shrinks.”

The report also raises concerns that will be familiar to anyone who has followed debates on the issue in recent years, about the likelihood that the Government will seek to make up for the additional strain by simply loosening regulations. I have asked the Government how they can proceed with these welfare reforms without expecting families to live in cars, but I ask another question: how do they expect all those children to be looked after for such a relatively small amount of money without being put in barns? Perhaps there will be factory-farmed three-year-olds. How will the Government be able to look after all those youngsters on such a small amount of money? We have yet to see any plan for how it will be done, and we simply do not believe the Government.

Will providers be expected to relax their ratios of staff to children, spreading themselves even more thinly? It has caused some alarm among providers, to say the least, and it has caused quite a lot of alarm among parents and the wider public, unsurprisingly, given that we know about the link between the quality of childcare and low ratios of staff to children. If the Government press ahead with their proposals, even the best-qualified staff will struggle to provide an adequate standard of care.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown said in evidence to the Lords Committee last year that

“no matter how many PhDs you have, you can only hold so many babies.”

To put it simply, the Government are asking us in clause 15 simply to trust them. “Trust us,” they say, “We will provide 30 hours of free childcare. It will be available at some point in the future.” Well, we do not trust the Government on that. The Childcare Bill is not a credible piece of legislation, and the trust that we have been asked to place in the Government has not been earned. Frankly, they might as well have brought a Bill promising a land full of milk and honey, for all the credibility that the Childcare Bill has.

If I am wrong—I hope that I am—and the Minister is right, and if 30 hours childcare is about to be available free for all working parents; if everything is fine, and it is good-quality childcare that is available in the hours when people can work, then she should support our amendment. We have been discussing safeguards to prevent conditionality from being applied to parents in inappropriate circumstances, and amendment 108 provides a way to do so that is straightforward and clear. It provides simply that single parents will not be forced to look for work in the absence of affordable and appropriate childcare. If she is so confident, she should back up her confidence by supporting our amendment. There is no good reason to oppose it.

As I have outlined, there are many doubts about the promises that have been made. I understand that the Minister is leading the childcare taskforce herself, so she should be more confident than anyone else, and she should be able to say in this debate, “You’re right, Emily Thornberry. I’m going to show you just how confident I am. I’m going to instruct my Back Benchers to support the Labour amendment.” Not supporting the amendment will show that not even the Minister believes in her childcare policy.

We have been very clear that to support our full employment ambition, the Government are committed to helping working families by reducing the cost of childcare and making it easier for parents to return to work and to work more hours while knowing, importantly, that their children will be well cared for. That is why we have introduced the Childcare Bill, which will increase the level of free childcare from 15 to 30 hours for all working parents of three and four-year-olds. That will be available in some areas as early as September 2016, with further roll-out from September 2017. Clearly, however, that is only one element of a comprehensive package of childcare support available to parents up and down the country.

The existing offer provides 15 hours of early years education for all three and four-year olds and for disadvantaged two-year-olds. That is in addition to the other Government support for childcare, including, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the universal credit childcare element, which will cover 85% of eligible childcare costs from April next year. Let me emphasise again to the Committee that no matter how few hours parents work, they will have their costs covered—that is 85%.

I will not give way. That is expected to help about 500,000 additional families at a cost of £350 million a year—that cost is specific to the universal credit childcare element.

On top of that, parents will have the option to claim tax-free childcare, which will help up to 1.8 million families, who will be able to benefit by up to £2,000 per child per year, or £4,000 for disabled children. We have also secured additional funding to allow jobcentre work coaches to address barriers to employment and to support moves into work. The extra funding may be used in a variety of ways to pay for travel and childcare, to enable parents, such as lone parents, to undertake training, attend interviews or start work.

We recognise that we have to continue to do more, but—just to put this on the record—this Government has a proud record on childcare provision, in particular in the previous Parliament, when we increased the start-up grants to increase childcare supply in the marketplace. That totalled up to £2 million available to people to set up new childcare businesses. We now have about 32,000 good or outstanding childcare minders who have been supported and are now eligible through early education funding. We have made it simpler and easier for schools and childcare providers to work together to increase the amount of childcare available on school sites. Last week, we made the announcement of wraparound childcare. We have also legislated for the creation of childminder agencies, which will improve the support available for childminders and parents. We have simplified the framework so that nurseries may expand more easily.

On top of that, the Government are spending in excess of £5 billion in the childcare market, which is important first to increase the sufficiency of supply, and secondly to focus on quality. The quality continues to improve, with 85% of providers declared good or outstanding by Ofsted, which compares with 70% in 2010. The qualifications of early-years staff continued to improve in 2014. The National Day Nurseries Association reported that 88% of settings that it surveyed employed a graduate, up from 80%, and that 87% of staff had good A-level equivalent qualifications. Now we have the early-years foundation stage profile results for 2013-14, which show an 8 percentage point increase in the number of children reaching a good level of development by the age of five. That also applies to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is fair to say, therefore, that we are not embarrassed at all. It is pretty sad to hear the Opposition, although they are entitled to their views, portray the Government as not doing enough on childcare and not supporting working families on childcare—

I will not give way. The Opposition are completely wrong. The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury mentioned the childcare taskforce, which has been set up by the Prime Minister across the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. We are working with a wide variety of stakeholders, including childcare providers and the third sector—they are members of the taskforce. The Childcare Bill places a statutory duty on local authorities to publish information on childcare and other services available to parents locally, ensuring transparency for parents.

Importantly, funding was mentioned. Of course, funding continues to be one of the areas where more work is taking place in Government. A funding consultation is taking place, led by the Department for Education. Of course, we are working with the DFE. We made great progress in the last Parliament to increase parental employment, particularly with lone parents. The number of children in workless households has decreased.

Obviously, there is more we can do. We will continue to ensure that we provide affordable and appropriate childcare in the right settings, and that the availability is there. The Government firmly believe that we need to do more rather than less to support parents with young children to prepare for work. Childcare is one of those vital strands. Ultimately, it helps to improve children’s life chances as well. The clauses, together with our substantial investment in childcare, support that ambition. That is why I urge hon. Members to withdraw the amendment.

I thank the Minister for her response. If I had been allowed to intervene, I would have asked her whether she could help us on a specific point, which is probably important. The commitment is to childcare once parents are working, but for many parents, particularly if we are talking about parents of a very young child, to be able to find work, it may well be that children will need to have childcare—from the 20 hours, or whatever the commitment is—so that their parents can apply for jobs, go to interviews, fill in CVs and do voluntary work to prepare for work. Will there be any childcare available for parents who are looking for work, particularly when their children are young? If she is not able to answer me today, could she write to me about that, because I am not clear from her earlier answer whether she covered that matter or not?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly in light of the Minister’s refusal to give way to her. That was a shame, because some of the points that the Minister made are very welcome. What was frustrating was that there was no figure for the number of children. If £365 million is being provided, it would be helpful if the Government could indicate how many children that is expected to support.

There might be another question. Although the Minister has raised tax-free childcare, it probably needs to be pointed out at some stage—perhaps I might point it out now—that tax-free childcare is available only for people not claiming tax credits. It is not of any benefit to people on low incomes.

In light of the response that the Government have given us, we will not withdraw the amendment, and I wish to put it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Colleagues, we now come to a little bit of a vote-fest. I have a note that amendments 140, 63, 131, 132 and 133 can now be put in that order. Is anyone aware of any other amendments that they are looking to press to a Division?

You cannot speak again, I am afraid; just move it formally.

Amendment proposed: 140, in clause 15, page 14, line 38, at end insert—

“(d) in section 22(1) after “section” insert “, except if the claimant is the responsible carer of a disabled child aged 3 or 4.

(1B) The Secretary of State must lay regulations determining what a disabled child is for the purpose of this section and may include, but will not be limited to a child—

(a) in receipt of an Education, Health and Care Plan,

(b) in receipt of a Statement of Special Educational Needs,

(c) identified by their local authority as having special educational needs,

(d) with child in need status,

(e) meeting the definition of disabled under the Equality Act 2010.”—(Neil Coyle.)

To exempt a responsible carer of a disabled child aged 3 or 4 from all work-related requirements.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 63, in clause 15,  page 14,  line 40, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert—

“(a) in regulation 91 (claimants subject to work-focused interview requirement only), for the word “3” substitute “5 or when the child starts primary school”;

(b) in regulation 91A (claimants subject to work preparation requirement) for the words “3 or 4” substitute “who has not yet started primary school”;”—(Hannah Bardell.)

This amendment, taken together with amendment 62, would mean claimants in receipt of universal credit who are responsible carers are not subject to work focused interviews or work preparation requirements until their child starts school. From when a child starts school, relevant claimants would be required to follow all work requirements.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 131, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

“(3) Claimants subject to new requirements as a result of the measures contained in subsections (1) and (2) of this clause must, at a time no later than three months before subsections (1) and (2) come into force, receive written notification of the lone parent flexibilities issued as guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff.” —(Emily Thornberry.)

To provide that anyone who becomes subject to new work-related requirements as a result of the measures in clause 15 must be provided with written notification of the lone parent flexibilities which the DWP issues as guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 132, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State must, at time no later than three months before subsections (1) and (2) come into force, issue guidance on the lone parent flexibilities to Jobcentre Plus managers, such guidance must include provision on the training of Jobcentre Plus staff in advance of the new work-related requirements coming into force.”—(Emily Thornberry.)

To require the Secretary of State to issue up to date written guidance to Jobcentre Plus managers on the lone parent flexibilities, including provisions on the training of Jobcentre Plus staff.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 133, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State may not impose a work search requirement on any claimant in receipt of Universal Credit, who is a lone parent, in circumstances which include but are not limited to the following—

(a) the claimant‘s adviser determines that there is an inadequate number of suitable employment vacancies within reasonable daily travelling distance of the claimant‘s home;

(b) the claimant is responsible for the care of a child during that child‘s school holidays, and it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to make alternative arrangements;

(c) the claimant is responsible for the care of a child during any period in which that child is excluded from school, or is otherwise not receiving education pursuant to arrangements made by a local education authority, and it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to make alternative arrangements;

(d) any child care expenses which would be necessarily incurred by the claimant as a result of carrying out the requirement imposed would represent an unreasonably high proportion of the income the claimant could expect to receive while carrying out the requirement in question;

(e) the claimant is enrolled on a course of study leading to a vocational qualification, or is otherwise undertaking engaged in vocational training;

(f) the claimant has become a lone parent within the last six months;

(g) any other circumstances in which the claimant‘s adviser may consider the imposition of a work search requirement to be unreasonable in light of that claimant‘s individual circumstances.”—(Emily Thornberry.)

To provide a statutory basis for flexibility to be applied in imposing work search requirements on lone parents in receipt of Universal Credit.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16

Loans for mortgage interest

I beg to move amendment 110, in clause 16, page 15, line 4, leave out “pay mortgage interest in relation to property” and insert—

“make owner-occupier payments in respect of accommodation”

This amendment replaces the description of the payments for which loans may be made with a reference to “owner-occupier payments” relating to the accommodation that persons occupy as their homes. The term will be defined in regulations (see amendment 116). This amendment also ensures that there is flexibility to provide support as regards all possible dwellings.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. For the sake of good order, may I refer colleagues to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests to the extent that anything therein applies and ought to be declared?

I welcome the new members to the Committee and I wish well those who served on it before, particularly the right hon. Member for East Ham, who spoke eloquently in his contributions here and will be sorely missed on the Front Bench of the Labour party.

The clauses will change the way in which claimants with outstanding mortgages receive help from income-related benefits. I will be absolutely clear at the outset. The Government remain committed to helping owner-occupiers in times of need to avoid the risk of repossession. However, we believe it is wrong that taxpayers who are unable to afford to buy a home of their own are subsidising claimants who own their own homes. Taxpayers support a significant asset from which many homeowners are able to profit. It is our intention that help towards mortgage interest payments should be taken in the form of an interest-bearing loan that will be recovered from available equity once the property is sold. In that way, we will be able to provide a better deal for the taxpayer while ensuring that claimants receive the protection from repossession that they currently enjoy.

Moreover, the amendments will ensure that we do not exclude claimants who have non-standard financing arrangements from the offer of a loan, for example where a person has entered into what are referred to as alternative financial arrangements for purchasing their property rather than a traditional mortgage.

I am listening with care to the Minister because the change is radical compared with how things were done until now. I want to be clear about this. He has talked about the importance of protection from repossession, but can he confirm that the clause extends the period during which there is no assistance available when someone becomes unemployed from 13 to 39 weeks? Would it not make it more likely that homes will be repossessed if mortgage companies get no money at all for 39 weeks?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to make that point. She will be aware that, before the introduction of 13 weeks in 2009, the period was 39 weeks. There was a specific reason why it was reduced by the then Government to 13 weeks: it was the height of the recession. It was very difficult to get jobs and it was felt necessary to make that adjustment. The economic climate now is a lot different from what it was in 2009. When there are record levels of employment —unemployment is very low—and when we have the prospect of an economy that is recovering, we feel the time period should be brought back to what it was previously. There was no concern when there was a 39-week period when there were better economic circumstances. With the economy picking up, we feel that, as 39 weeks was fine in the past under a Labour Government, there is no reason why it should not continue under a Conservative Government.

The Minister says that he feels 39 weeks will be fine because it was fine under a Labour Government before the recession, but is the change to policy based on any evidence? Can the Government point us to any impact assessment or other information that will reassure us that homelessness will not be increased?

There is an impact assessment on the Government website and the hon. Lady is welcome to view it. She talks about evidence and I would have thought that record levels of employment for youth, women and the country as a whole is pretty strong evidence.

It is interesting that the Minister has absolute confidence in economic stability, but it is not shared by everyone. House prices are rising and falling at different rates, and different job opportunities are available, in different parts of the country. May I be the first to offer the Minister the moniker of Minister for repossessions?

Sorry, I missed the hon. Gentleman’s last point. He was obviously trying to be witty and clever, but I am afraid that it was far too witty for this time of day.

It has been a long day. My point is that the Minister will become known as the Minister for repossessions as a result of a retrograde step. Labour changed that policy in government to ensure that, having contributed to benefits through national insurance, people had support if and when they needed it. The Government are taking that support away and the Minister will become known as the Minister for repossessions.

May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who is new to the House of Commons, that, if he wishes to survive, he will have to get used to being called a lot of things?

We intend to ensure that, through the regulations, we cover financial arrangements alternative to traditional mortgages. The amendments will also ensure that claimants who live in non-traditional homes, such as houseboats or caravans, will also be offered a loan. It is important that support is available to protect the homes of all individuals, regardless of the type of accommodation they occupy. The amendments ensure that the technical detail about calculating the amount of a person’s liabilities to make owner-occupier payments, and the maximum amount of those liabilities that can be met with a loan, will be set out in regulations.

The amendments ensure that regulations made under clause 16 requiring security for a loan may make provision for situations where there are alternative financial arrangements for a home, and ensure that the security can be taken in respect of a legal or beneficial interest in the person’s home.

Clause 17 allows for the detailed framework within which loans may be made to be put in place by regulations. That will allow for the tactical operation of support for mortgage-interest loans, which will provide fairness for taxpayers along with protection from repossession for claimants. It will also continue the current administrative arrangements that mean that payments of support for mortgage interest go directly to the mortgage lender.

The amendments to clause 17 are consequential to the amendments to clause 16. They replace the description of the payments for which loans may be made with a reference to owner-occupier payments, which will be defined in regulations. They will ensure that the loan scheme will be available to eligible claimants who have acquired their home through alternative finance arrangements rather than through a traditional mortgage.

Amendment 120 seeks to clarify what requirements a person will have to meet before receiving a loan. It ensures that regulations under the clause may make provision about entering into agreements with persons receiving loans. The Secretary of State will be able to specify terms in the agreement that he thinks fit, subject to any terms set out in the regulations. That will ensure that the regulations do not have to include every term that is needed in the loan agreement.

Amendment 128 is a straightforward, consequential amendment to omit the reference to mortgage payments in section 3A(5)(a) of the State Pension Credit Act 2002, which is about the meaning of payments in respect of accommodation. It mirrors the amendment to section 11 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 in respect of an award of universal credit. The amendment is necessary because a person in receipt of pension credit will no longer receive an amount in respect of their liability to make mortgage interest payments. Instead, clause 16(1) of the Bill contains provision to enable support for mortgage interest to be paid in the form of a loan.

The impact assessment, which was mentioned earlier, is on the Parliament website and was published on 20 July.

That is why I am trying to clear this up. I was asking whether the impact assessment contains anything in particular on the effect of the changes in this clause, particularly with regard to extending the time that will be available. People will have to wait 39 weeks before they get any assistance with their mortgage. Will that increase the amount of homelessness? That is an important piece of evidence that is sadly lacking when the Government are making proposals to extend the time period.

Although the Minister talks with great glee about full employment and this and that, he is changing the legislation so that, instead of people being given assistance to pay the interest on their mortgage, which has always been the system—the assistance pays not for the equity in a property but merely for the interest payments in order to keep people safe, warm and secure in a home—people will have to take out a loan against that property. Furthermore, the Government are changing the legislation so that people have to wait for an extraordinary, scary period of 39 weeks, during which they have to keep off those who actually own the property and who have mortgaged it to them. A person who has lost their job will suddenly have to fight off those who want to repossess the property.

In the real world, we all know that there may be a grace period, but 39 weeks is a very long grace period. My concern is that it will increase the amount of homelessness. Wrapping that together with the Government’s other housing policies, which are also having an adverse effect on homelessness, will increase the amount of homelessness. That is why I asked whether the impact assessment is helpful to the Government in reassuring all of us that the measure will not increase the amount of homelessness.

On the face of it, making a mortgage company wait 39 weeks will increase the number of repossessions. Frankly, if a mortgage company hears that someone has lost their job—the person might be in their late 50s—it might make an assessment and decide that that person is unlikely to get another job. There may be areas of Buckinghamshire, London and the home counties where it is relatively easy to get a job, but there are other areas across the country where, frankly, there are no jobs. The tragedy of Redcar, of course, is that when people lose their job, the chances of their being able to get another are practically nil. They certainly will not be able to get a job at a level that will help them to continue paying their mortgage.

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. In fact, the Money Advice Trust has made exactly the same point and has expressed its considerable concern about extending the period from 13 weeks to 39 weeks. The experience of all lenders and advice agencies is that early intervention is the key to resolving—

Order. The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury has tabled an amendment that we will consider later in our proceedings on this very issue. She may not necessarily want to emphasise the point at this stage. The intervention has gone on long enough that she may want to respond to her own colleague and then perhaps give way to the Minister.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I appreciate that I sound like a cracked record, but it is about evidence, evidence, evidence. What is the evidence that this change will help us? What is the evidence that this will not increase the number of repossessions? Give us evidence and we would be interested, glad and reassured to hear it.

On the face of it, if someone does not pay back any mortgage for 39 weeks, their mortgage company will kick them out. A steelworker in Redcar might have a good mortgage, a family home and a good family wage one week, but the next week, they could be made redundant and no longer be able to pay their mortgage. The Government will not give them any assistance for 39 weeks. They would have no job and no prospects, and things could suddenly turn very nasty and difficult. Thirty nine weeks is a long period. They might be able to get a zero-hours contract. All I can say to that is: good luck with paying off a mortgage on a zero-hours contract.

As we said at the beginning of these proceedings, although the Government want to use the terms of clause 1 to be able to get up and brag about full employment or the progress towards that, we know that the definition of employment seems to be any work at all. The definition of employment is not the living wage, a wage that a family can live on or a wage that people can use to pay their mortgage..

I would make two brief comments. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has not said that the 39-week wait will drive repossessions. That is an eminently respected organisation, and it would have said if it felt that was the case. May I gently remind the hon. Lady that though she was not an MP at the time, the Labour Government from 1997 to 2009 maintained a 39-week waiting period? It seems ironic that what was suitable for a Labour Government for so many years is now felt to be inappropriate for this Government, particularly when our economic record is on the up and far better than it was under the previous Government.

I was an MP in 2005, and the difference was that there was real investment going on, homes were being built and the economy was working properly as opposed to fumbling along as it currently is and seemingly being fuelled entirely by rhetoric. It is all very well for the Minister to assert until he is blue in the face that everything is well, everyone is working, everyone is getting a great wage and there are no problems, but that is not the reality of people’s lives.

That is very helpful. As the Government amendment deals with houses, what I am about to say will be very relevant, particularly given what the hon. Lady said. She spoke about the huge amount of house building under the Labour Government when she was a Labour Member. May I remind her that the past five years have seen more affordable housing built than in the 13 years of the Labour Administration?

No. I do not agree. I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about the Council of Mortgage Lenders and its statement. I counter him with a statement from the Money Advice Trust:

“We strongly support the tabled Amendment 19, which would require that the waiting period before an application for a loan for mortgage interest can be made is retained at 13 weeks, instead of the proposed 39. Lenders and advice agencies alike know from experience that early intervention is the key to resolving financial difficulty. The proposed 39 weeks will mean that claimants will be well over six months in arrears with their mortgage by the time SMI starts to be paid—by which time it will be significantly more difficult for them to resolve their financial situation.”

There are arguments both ways.

It is important that we look at what will happen. The Government have said a great deal about pensioners, about how they will look after pensions, about the triple lock and about this Government being friendly to pensioners. Is not there a problem that this measure will affect pensioners as much as it will affect anyone else? The particular difficulty with pensioners is that if they are expected to take out a loan against their property instead of getting relief on the interest, increasingly they will lose ownership of that property. As pensioners it will be even more difficult for them to work. In fact, the idea of a pensioner is that they do not work. The policy will increasingly eat away at an asset that cannot be expanded.

Is that not an asset that, as a matter of social policy, the Government expect pensioners to use in many other ways? I will not get into a detailed debate about the cuts in social care. Let us just say that I think there have been cuts in social care. I am sure that the Minister thinks that social care is marvellous so let us leave it at that. Are not pensioners expected to be paying for their long-term care out of the asset that is their home?

Many pensioners may have been tempted by the Government’s deregulation of access to pension pots. Memorably, the previous Pensions Minister said that he would be intensely relaxed if people were to take their money out and spend it on a Bugatti or whatever it was. Of course, deregulation and the access to pension pots means that people will have access to their pension funds, which they will be able to spend in advance of their pension. They will be expected to use their houses to pay for social care and if they need assistance with paying off their mortgage, that mortgage will not be available for them in any other way; they will be expected continually to take out more of a loan on the equity of the property.

It seems that pensioners are getting it from every angle, which is very far from the rhetoric we heard at the party conference about how much the Tory party is a friend of pensioners. It is interesting that this is the first—I suspect it will not be the last—occasion in which the Government are changing the game. The Government say they want to help people make the right choices. Pensioners, of all people, may be unable to make choices. They are coming towards the end of their lives and their options are limited. They are expected to take yet another charge on the one asset of value that they have—to continually take out a loan on their property, which their children may be expecting to have to help pay off their student loans or to set up in life.

We have heard that the average age for people to set up their own home now is in their 30s. Quite often, they rely on their parents to be able to help. The rules are being changed for pensioners. This is blow No.1; we will see how many other blows there are for pensioners in the future. We will certainly ensure that pensioners hear the truth, which is that, despite the rhetoric, this Tory party which claims to be the friend of pensioners, is not. This is the first step in undermining all the promises the party made in its manifesto and at the last general election.

I simply make two responses. On pensioners, the hon. Lady conveniently overlooks that it is often the case that the asset is increasing in value. She also overlooks that the loan will eventually be paid when the house is sold. It is therefore a question of balance, and we have to ask whether it is fair that those who do not own a property of their own are through their taxes helping to pay others who own an asset that is increasing in value.

As for healthcare, I simply say to the hon. Lady that for many of those securing help in healthcare there is unlikely to be an overlap in terms of the equity in their property, as many of them are mortgage-free and sometimes have a second income or another income. They would not probably qualify for SMI in the first place.

Amendment 110 agreed to.

Amendments made: 111, in clause 16,  page 15,  line 13,  leave out

“amounts secured by a mortgage”

and insert “liabilities”.

This amendment and amendments 112, 113, 118, 122, 123, 124, 125 and 126 are consequential on amendment 110 which replaces the reference to mortgage interest payments with a reference to owner-occupier payments.

Amendment 112, in clause 16, page 15, line 16, leave out

“the mortgage relates to amounts used”

and insert

“a person’s liability to make owner-occupier payments was incurred”.

Amendment 113, in clause 16, page 15, line 18, leave out from “about” to “in” in line 19 and insert “—

(a) determining or calculating the amount of a person’s liabilities;

(b) the maximum amount of a person’s liabilities”.

Amendment 114, in clause 16, page 15, line 24, after second “a” insert “mortgage of or”.

This amendment ensures that regulations under clause 16 about requiring security for a loan may make provision for situations where there is no pre-existing mortgage over the person’s home.

Amendment 115, in clause 16, page 15, line 24, at end insert

“a legal or beneficial interest in”.—(Mr Vara.)

This amendment makes clear that regulations under clause 16 about requiring security for a loan may make provision for security to be taken in respect of a legal or a beneficial interest in the person’s home.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Guy Opperman.)

Adjourned till Thursday 13 October at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

WRW 44 Interlink Foundation, Agudas Israel of Great Britain and the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations

WRW 45 End Child Poverty Coalition

WRW 46 Chartered Institute of Housing

WRW 47 Gipton Supported Independent Living (GIPSIL)

WRW 48 Chwarae Teg

WRW 49 Oxfam

WRW 50 Remploy

WRW 51 Money Advice Trust

WRW 52 PCS Union

WRW 53 The Almshouse Association

WRW 54 Equity

WRW 55 Radian

WRW 56 Council of Mortgage Lenders

WRW 57 Harry Warner

WRW 58 Trades Union Congress

WRW 59 Emma Hauxwell

WRW 60 Capsticks LLP

WRW 61 Kinship Care Alliance

WRW 62 Wigan Council, and Wigan and Leigh Homes

WRW 63 Supplementary evidence from Cllr Gary Porter CBE, Chair, Local Government Association

WRW 64 Parkinson’s UK