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Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 12 November 2008

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008.

The noble Lord said: The purpose of the regulations is to implement new arrangements for lone parents with older children who can currently claim income support solely on grounds of being a lone parent. It is a requirement that I confirm to the Committee that the provisions of the regulations are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and I am happy to do so.

The new arrangements will mean that instead of continuing to receive income support until their youngest child turns 16, those who are able to undertake paid work may claim jobseeker’s allowance when their youngest child reaches the age of seven, and will be required, with support and assistance, to look for paid work that is appropriate to their individual situation. Lone parents who have a disability or health-related condition that limits their capability to work may be able to claim employment and support allowance. To support these lone parents we have included amendments to the Employment and Support Allowance Regulations so that eligible claimants receive the work-related activity component from the start of their claim.

The decision to place the age threshold at seven was based on the principle that, by this age, these children would be settled in an established education routine and any disruption caused by the lone parent entering employment would be minimised. We propose to introduce the change initially for lone parents making a new or repeat claim who have a youngest child aged 12. The changes to existing claims will be phased in to ensure a smooth transition, starting with lone parents with a youngest child aged 14 from March 2009. The phasing will affect lone parents with a youngest child aged 10 from October 2009, and those with a youngest child aged seven from October 2010. This stepped approach will allow Jobcentre Plus to provide more support in helping lone parents make the transition between benefits and a move into employment.

The measures are consistent with the Government’s approach that people should make full use of the support that is available to them and from which they can benefit to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. On this basis, the Government are committed to the principle that, once children are older, lone parents who are able to do so and are claiming benefits should be expected to look for paid work. These regulations are intended to help lone parents move into paid employment. The Government believe that these measures are a balance between providing financial and other assistance to support families and the wider responsibilities to lift individuals and children out of poverty.

The Government have consulted widely on these regulations, and after careful consideration of the views put forward by individual respondents and lone parent voluntary organisations and the views of Social Security Advisory Committee, have decided to lay the proposed legislation before Parliament, with clear provisions and safeguards to ensure that vulnerable lone parents are protected. The Government’s proposals do not apply to those lone parents who are entitled to income support on other grounds. For example, lone parents who are in receipt of carers allowance, those who are fostering and lone parents who have a child for whom the middle or highest rate care component of disability living allowance is payable will remain eligible for income support.

The proposals will, however, apply to lone parents claiming income support and educating their children at home. The Government recognise the right of a parent to choose to home educate their children but do not provide them with the funding to do so. Lone parents who are currently claiming income support receive their benefit solely based on their status as lone parents, not as home educators.

To make sure that the welfare of children is not compromised by these changes, the regulations also make lone parents a vulnerable group, so the jobseeker’s allowance hardship regime may apply in certain circumstances. Although we want to apply sanctions only when absolutely necessary, sometimes it is necessary to use compulsion to encourage people to acknowledge their responsibilities and make sure that those who can work do not opt out. Provided that lone parents meet the conditions of eligibility for jobseeker’s allowance they will not be sanctioned. When a sanction is applied, no lone parent who is entitled to a hardship payment will be subject to a sanction of more than 40 per cent of their personal benefit allowance.

The regulations will include transitional protection for lone parents who receive income support and who are full-time students, undertaking a full-time course of training on the new deal for lone parents, or on an approved scheme which meets the objectives of the new deal for lone parents. We propose that lone parents in these circumstances will remain entitled to income support until their youngest child reaches the relevant age in force at the time they commence their studies, or the end of the course, whichever is the sooner. Currently, lone parents claiming income support are required to attend a work-focused interview at six-monthly intervals. To provide opportunities to prepare and support lone parents for the change in their last year of eligibility for income support, the regulations include the introduction of mandatory work-focused interviews on a quarterly basis.

The changes form part of the Government’s ongoing package of welfare reform and strategy to eradicate child poverty. In Budget 2008, the Government invested an extra £950 million in measures to continue to tackle child poverty. More than one-third of children in lone-parent households live in poverty. Fifty-eight per cent of children in workless lone-parent households live in poverty. This figure decreases to 19 per cent when the lone parent works part time, and to 7 per cent if the lone parent works full time.

The Government believe that the regulations create the right balance between providing financial and other assistance to support families, and their wider responsibilities to lift individuals, families and children out of poverty. To delay implementation, as some have suggested, would mean that lone parents who can undertake paid work may not take up the assistance available to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Of course, in addition to the financial return, paid work provides far-reaching social, health and personal benefits for both the lone parent and the children in their household. The regulations are intended to open the opportunities of paid work to more lone parents and support them to have a better standard of living for themselves and their families.

We know that some of our customers face greater barriers in obtaining paid work than others, especially parents who may have extra challenges because of their children’s needs. To recognise this, the Government have provided extra support to lone parents to assist them to find and keep a job and to progress once they have settled into employment. Support to help lone parents find work includes the New Deal for Lone Parents, which offers access to a specialist Jobcentre Plus personal adviser and a range of additional services such as extra financial support and access to training. Since its introduction in 1998, the New Deal for Lone Parents has helped more than half a million lone parents to find work.

In-work credit is now available nationally to help lone parents make the transition into employment, as well as help sustainability and progression in work. This is an additional payment of £40 a week—or £60 in London—for 52 weeks to lone parents who leave benefits for work of at least 16 hours a week. Lone parents are also able to access help when they are settling into their job. Jobcentre Plus can provide financial help to overcome any unexpected financial barriers which might otherwise prevent them remaining in paid work. Lone parents can also access in-work advisory support provided by Jobcentre Plus Advisers to help resolve any difficulties and guide individuals towards any support needed, such as skills and training.

Some stakeholders have raised concerns about the availability of childcare. We have substantially improved childcare options for working families. More than £3.5 million a day supports lower and middle-income families with their childcare costs through the tax credit system. We have more than doubled the availability of childcare provision in England since 1997, with the stock approaching 1.3 million places. As a devolved issue, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have in place childcare strategies which aim to extend access to high-quality, affordable and flexible childcare. The Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on local authorities in England and Wales to secure, so far as reasonably practicable, sufficient childcare to meet the requirements of parents in their area who require childcare in order to work or to undertake training or education to prepare for work. A key element of this in England is extended schools, offering affordable, school-based childcare on weekdays between 8 am and 6 pm, all year round. More than 14,230 schools are already offering the core extended services.

We recognise that lone parents who do not have the support of a partner may require extra help in balancing the needs of their families and looking for paid work. The regulations give Jobcentre Plus staff additional flexibility to help and support lone parents who are actively seeking work while often facing challenging circumstances. Importantly, Jobcentre Plus staff must consider whether it was unreasonable for the person to stay in a job or to take up a job because appropriate affordable childcare was not available. That may help lone parents facing particular circumstances, such as those who educate their children at home.

It is clear that the current global economic climate means that we shall face challenging times. It is important that we do not repeat the mistakes of previous slowdowns and allow people to slip into long-term inactivity. This is bad for the individual and their families, trapping them into dependence and poverty. The labour market is dynamic, with millions of moves between employment and unemployment every year. Job opportunities will continue to become available; for example, there are around 600,000 job vacancies in the economy. Our active labour market policies will ensure that lone parents do not become further detached from the labour market and are well placed to benefit from current jobs and other opportunities as the economy picks up.

I firmly believe that the regulations will result in more people obtaining a better life for themselves and their families and will lift more children out of poverty. The regulations will make sure that the right help and support will be available for lone parent customers who are able to undertake paid work but often face challenges to do so. At the same time, we will ensure that those customers for whom work is not an option are supported in a way that best suits their circumstances. The Government believe that the additional flexibilities to jobseeker’s allowance contained in the regulations, along with the operational safeguards and Jobcentre Plus guidance and training, offer protection for all lone parents, particularly the most vulnerable. I commend the regulations to the Committee. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008. 27th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 30th report from the Merits Committee.—(Lord McKenzie of Luton.)

The Grand Committee will be most grateful to the Minister for his careful explanation of these regulations. So careful was it that I was tempted to think that the noble Lord did protest too much, but perhaps that would be unfair to him. I am grateful also for the letter that he sent me explaining briefly—very briefly indeed in comparison with the speech he has just made—the regulations before us today. I was slightly less pleased that I received the letter only after Questions today. I know it is not the Minister’s fault, but somewhere in the system something has clearly gone wrong.

The Minister will be pleased to know that I find the second set of regulations that we are discussing this week quite a different cup of tea from the first. That said, like the Government, we believe that the best way out of poverty, and often ill health, is work. I therefore have no difficulty with the policy behind the regulations. There is no logic in continuing to pay income support to lone parents with school-age children until their youngest child passes compulsory school age.

However, the Minister will have read, as I have, the Social Security Advisory Committee’s comment that:

“Overall, we have considerable reservations about the proposals, both in terms of their potentially negative impacts and their potential to improve the situation of lone parents and their families and to reduce child poverty”.

Although I do not agree with that committee in total, it is right when it says that success in getting lone parents into work depends on the availability of out of school activities, whether in conventional childcare or in school activities out of school hours, especially in the holidays. We do not want to end up with an increasing number of latch-key kids or children wandering the streets in gangs and getting up to all kinds of trouble.

There is also the potential for the breakdown of family relationships. This will be particularly important when we get to the post-October 2010 period, when income support will remain only for lone parents whose youngest child is less than seven years old. It is about the seven to 10 year-old age group that I am most worried. Naturally I read the report of the discussion of this order in another place and observed that the Minister’s colleague agreed with the point that I have just made, saying that,

“the crucial point is that the whole system depends on appropriate child care being available”.—[Official Report, Commons, Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee, 30/10/08; col. 18.]

She had said earlier that the Government had,

“more than doubled the availability of child care provision in England since 1997, with the stock approaching 1.3 million places”.—[Official Report, Commons, Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee, 30/10/08; col. 5.]

The Minister has just repeated that figure.

My questions on this are twofold. Are these places currently filled? Will they cope with the extra number of children that these regulations will bring into the need for childcare? Are these places evenly spread around the country, especially in rural areas? Is every primary and secondary school open in the school holidays? I observe that page 4 of the SSAC document says, in paragraph 21, that services are increasingly available. That does not strike me as a satisfactory answer to those questions, nor does it help lone parents very much.

According to the Minister’s colleague, the figures are quite large, with 58,000 lone parents apparently having a youngest child aged 12 or over, 32,000 a youngest child of 11 or over, 38,000 a youngest child of 10 or over and 83,000 a youngest child of seven or older. Can the Minister say how many children all those people have? Doubtless it will average out at more than one.

There are other points of concern on which I should question the Minister. First, there will be a gap in lone parents’ income when they are automatically transferred from income support to jobseeker’s allowance, or employment support allowance, as the case may be. These individuals are, by definition, among the poorest in the country and an absence of income, if only for a week or two, will make them temporarily poorer still. “Oh well, they can get a temporary loan from the Social Fund”, I have heard Ministers say. That may be so if the local Social Fund has enough money in its coffers. Will the fund get an increase in subvention to cope with the undoubted calls upon it? In addition, is it wise to place lone parents into debt—perhaps even further into debt? Is it really not possible to speed up the transfer process and pay the money over immediately, and then to get the jobseeker’s agreement form signed later or even make the single parents come into the jobcentre and complete the whole process then and there? Only if they do not come should there be a gap in their benefit income; in other words, it would be an extra sanction to the ones the Minister mentioned.

I noted on page 5 of the SSAC report that arrangements had been put in place between the DWP and HMRC to encourage lone parents to claim child tax credit at least six months before the date on which they would lose their entitlement to income support. I do not pretend to be an expert or, indeed, to have any knowledge whatever about child tax credit, but the fact that it has the words “tax” and “credit” in its title must mean that at some point during the year the lone parents in question must have been paying tax—otherwise, they could not get a tax credit.

No? In that case, I shall have the answer in due course. I know that those credits go on for a full year. Nevertheless, many of those lone parents will have been out of work for some considerable time—I would guess at least seven years, and probably seven years plus maternity pay, possibly even longer. Some will never have worked at all.

The subject of jobcentres brings me to the training of officials, who are particularly stretched at the moment by a reduction in numbers at a time when unemployment is on the increase—to 1.82 million—and only 589,000 jobs are available. I noted that the Minister’s figures on that particular item drifted a little between Question Time today and the speech that he has just made. There was a difference of 2,000. That is a tease that I could not resist. One wonders how long this will last, with small and medium enterprises failing at the rate of 50 a day, according to the Federation of Small Businesses. What extra training have officials been given to cope with the extra demands being placed on them by this order? How much will they know, and inform parents, about what childcare is available locally, for example? Presumably, the parents will be expected to pay something towards the childcare that their children receive; if so, to what extent does the Minister expect lone parents to be better off when paid the minimum wage?

Lastly, and on a more general point, I said at the beginning of my speech that the Official Opposition believe that the policy of getting more people into work, whether lone parents or others, is the right one. I did not, however, say how pleased we are that the Government have adopted a fair proportion of our welfare to work policies, as shown by their acceptance of the Freud report. However, the way in which the Government are going about it makes me ponder. Do they have any intention at present of doing away with jobseeker’s allowance altogether in favour of the lower rate of ESA? Although I see a certain logic in that, now would not be the time to do it. Nor am I certain that, at a time of deepening recession, now is the time to move lone parents with children aged between 10 and 16 from income support to jobseeker’s allowance. Will the Minister tell us why the Government have introduced this order now, with unemployment rising as fast as it is?

Like the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I welcome the philosophy behind the regulations, not because I do not value parenting but because I do. I am reminded of the story that Frank Field used to tell about visiting a school in Birkenhead. He asked a 10 year-old what he was going to do when he grew up, and that 10 year-old said, “I’m going to get my benefit”. That image of children living in a home in which two or three generations have not worked is the worst possible dowry we can hand our children. I suspect that none of us in this Room doubts the need to encourage lone parents, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, rightly said, to remain attached to the labour market and to help them to prepare for that by investment in training so that they do not permanently bump along at the bottom on the minimum wage, relying on tax credits to improve their income. Therefore, the move from IS to JSA is fine. I hope that ultimately this will be one of the most effective levers with which to address child poverty, which is what matters above all.

I wish to raise a couple of points, the first of which concerns language. Throughout the document, lone parents are referred to as “he”. I understand that in law “he” includes “she”. It would be quite nice, given that 95 per cent of lone parents are female, for “she” to include “he” on occasion. There is no linguistic reason why that should not be the case. I do not know whether the blokes in the Room have noticed this, but it does rather hit one.

The substantial point is to give assurances about the nature of the conditionality of JSA and the conditionality attached to resuming JSA, should one lose a job. Those are the areas that we are concerned about, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has mentioned.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5.56 to 6.06 pm.]

I had been praising the policy and deploring the language. Perhaps I could now explore conditionality, which is the core of this. I am sure that my noble friend will be able to give us the reassurances that we need to feel entirely comfortable about this policy.

On the conditionality of JSA, my noble friend was very sensitive about the different situation faced by lone parents juggling childcare compared with the average people on JSA who tend to be younger, single people, three-quarters of whom are on JSA for less than six months and who will move very quickly into the labour market. That will not be the case for many lone parents who have had many years away from the labour market, particularly as they face limitations which the younger, single people on JSA will not face. The first is the suitability of a job. Jobs between the hours of 9.30 am and 2.30 pm are like gold dust. In my experience, they seldom exist, unless you are lucky enough to have a very supportive employer. Increasingly, lone parents take jobs which, in previous years, we used to call “unsocial hours” jobs. They are in catering or cleaning, retailing on a Saturday, or working Friday evening in the newsagents, the chip shop or the launderette. Suitable formal childcare is not available with such jobs. So there is a problem about the availability of suitable jobs with the backing of childcare.

Secondly, lone parents, particularly in rural areas, may have a very real problem with juggling transport. Most lone parents are not able to afford a private car and public transport will be weak. A lone parent has to juggle taking a child to school or to the childminder or wherever, along with getting herself to work. All that will bite into the time available for part-time work, and hence the wage, which will affect both the conditionality of JSA interviews and the ability to hold down a job under pressure.

There is also the problem of reclaiming JSA if a job folds for whatever reason. Conventionally, you do not easily reacquire JSA if you have voluntarily left a job. That is understandable in most circumstances, but not here. If your child is sick and cannot go to school and the childminder will not look after him as he may infect other children, as the child’s carer—the European Court has already established what that would mean—you cannot work. That is understandably inconvenient for the employer and, therefore, the job may fold, as a result of which there may be a question about reaccessing a JSA claim as it could be perceived that you have voluntarily left the job because you were not able to fulfil the perfectly reasonable requirements of the employer. There will be conflicts here in which both sides are right, and that will require sensitive negotiation.

The problems of reclaiming JSA will be at least as hard for many lone parents as they would be if they were going from JSA into the labour market. Alongside that will be the ability to reclaim housing benefit, which often takes weeks and weeks. I suspect that something like the linking rules that currently apply to disabled people will need to be applied to lone parents who have no income and are reliant on JSA—if they have been able to reclaim it—as part of the New Deal framework. That would be necessary to smooth the transition and avoid finding not just the lone parent but, even more importantly in my view, the child exposed to serious poverty.

Lone parents’ advisers who are handling the New Deal have a wonderful track record in acting as sheepdogs for their sheep, taking the lone parent to job interviews and helping them to buy clothes and so on. Will the task of encouraging lone parents to go not only on to JSA but into the labour market be entrusted to those selfsame lone parent New Deal advisers? If not, what additional training will be given to what are often young single men who are well intentioned, I do not doubt, but have no experience whatever of trying to juggle difficult issues where there is absolutely no financial margin with which to play?

I would be much more comfortable with the regulations if we had already securely banked the right to ask for flexible working for parents with children over the age of six. The Government are intending to introduce that but it appears to have been deferred at the moment. I would also feel much more comfortable if I knew that we could support the childcare of choice of most lone parents, which is that provided by grandparents. Twenty-six per cent of all childcare provided for women in work comes from grandparents. That is even more important in rural areas and for lone parents who work unsocial hours. Whatever the JSA regulations say, lone parents will often feel guilty about going into the labour market unless they have childcare they trust, and the childcare they trust is the sort that they themselves give the child, which is very often that provided by their own mother. They know that that childcare means that the child will be taken to the doctor if he is feeling poorly or be hugged if necessary, and it will be available if the mother is running late because the trains are late or the bus is not running, or whatever.

I am delighted that from 2010 we shall be giving carers of older people a national insurance credit if they care for 20 hours a week. I understand the argument that going for a childcare tax credit for grandparents in their 50s to pay for the childcare that would otherwise go to a childminder may produce a dead-weight loss. However, if a grandparent enables a lone parent to work, that lone parent, who would have been entitled to HRP, will not be claiming it but will be paying their own NI credits instead. Therefore, in a sense, it amounts to a transfer of the NI credit. I hope that my noble friend can take that away and look at it, because that would be one way of making the system easier. A lone parent would feel more guilt-free about entering the labour market and sustaining a job—which, after all, is the point of JSA—if she had childcare which she trusted, was stable and would strengthen family bonds. That can be provided by a grandparent. If we decide that we cannot afford to pay for it, we can at least ensure that that grandparent in their 50s is not penalised by losing access to their pension.

We should remember the problem that we had with tax credits. From the latest statistics that I saw, the core problem was that 50 per cent of lone parents experienced more than 10 changes of circumstance in any one year. As a result, the computer system toppled—it simply could not keep up with the continuously changing circumstances. For lone parents, the job contours may have changed or they may have a new partner in their life. But the primary cause of the changes of circumstances which toppled over the tax credit computer system was changes in childcare.

I have no confidence that we have fully addressed that problem. We may provide after-hours care, but if the child is tired, the child wants to go home and does not necessarily want to stay at school until 6 o’clock when the mother can come. That applies to weekends, if the mother has to work in Debenhams, for example, on a Saturday, and to holidays. Unless we can ensure that there is childcare that is stable and reliable and which the mother trusts, the lone parent will be in a revolving door situation between JSA and work, JSA and work. Every time the childcare collapses, which, from the tax credits records appears to be once a month on average, that lone parent will be out of the labour market. At that point, the employer will understandably get increasingly pressured, particularly in small firms, and lone parents will find themselves back on JSA again.

I am not confident that we have fully taken on board the ramifications of what that means. Having said that, I remain supportive of the policy. The most important thing we can do to address child poverty is to encourage the lone parent, as soon as is possible, back into the labour market, without having her fray under the pressure we put on her.

I hope that my noble friend can give me the assurances I seek on suitability of jobs, issues of transport and, above all, supporting the childcare the lone parent most needs to have available to her, which is probably that provided by her own mother.

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. She is an expert in these matters and I concur with just about everything that she said. I, too, have no rooted principled objection to these regulations, but it is worth remembering that the Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that the Government did not proceed with the regulations for a variety of operational and administrative reasons, rather than those of principle.

I pay tribute to the Merits Committee for its work on these regulations; it has helped the work of the Grand Committee considerably. The same applies to the Social Security Advisory Committee, whose report is instructive and informative. The Government’s Explanatory Memorandum is also a very useful document. As the department develops its policy, documents of that kind and in such detail help us all get a framework within which these changes can be judged.

I will try to be brief; I could talk all night about this subject, but I will resist that temptation. I want to talk about the philosophy and about operational capacity in the department and then add requests for assurances to those that the noble Baroness has just made.

I detect that these regulations take us quite a few more steps along the road of the “responsibility” agenda. Work first is a condition of benefit in the new active labour market proposals. In a normal, stable environment, when this policy was first put together—some months ago, if not years—there was a case for saying to people, “It doesn’t matter if you’re better off, your responsibility is to take work and then trade your way out of that with help”. I acknowledge that there has been a lot of support. It is described at some length in the Explanatory Memorandum; it is useful to have it all set out in one place again.

We have to be very careful, in the ugly financial circumstances that we will be facing in the next 18 months to two years, of saying that this is a work-first agenda and that people have a responsibility, if they are claiming benefits, to seek work even if that does not mean that they are financially better off. There are some circumstances in which that can happen.

Lone parents are in a unique position because they have to balance family responsibilities in a way that perhaps other claimants do not. That puts them in a unique dilemma. While the work-first agenda may have to be deployed, we have to deploy it with real care if we are talking about lone parents.

The first thing I would really like to do—I think that I know the answer to this, or at least I hope I do—lies in a quote from Mr Peter Hain, when he was the Secretary of State, in a speech that he made to Barnardo’s on 29 November 2007, which is on the departmental website. He said about the development of this policy:

“There will be lone parents for whom work is simply not an option and I will ensure that they will be protected”.

I think that that is still the Government’s policy, but I would prefer it to be said by someone more current than the previous Secretary of State, and I should like it to be said on the record, in the House. That would give some reassurance to people. If my understanding of this slight shift in policy and development of policy is right, it would be good to know where we were on that question.

I could develop the following point at much greater length, but I shall not. We should start thinking about children in terms of dependency ratios and the demographic change that we face in this country over the next 50 years, not the next two or five years. Children will have to carry a much heavier load. Economists talk about human capital and developing the human potential. I do not want to suggest for a moment that we should start thinking about children as economic units, particularly, but with the combination of the change in the demographic, with people living longer, and the reductions in fertility rates that we are now experiencing, it is staring us in the face that children will have to carry a much heavier burden of wealth creation in future, if we are to make progress as a nation. We can see that now. The child poverty agenda is so important, but we need more than that agenda. When we talk about active labour markets, we should always be conscious of the fact that this is not just about domestic family income for people in distressed conditions, but about developing the capacity and potential of the children in those households. Generally, the Government’s agenda does not give enough time to that, but maybe, in the short term, they have other problems on their minds, which I understand.

On the philosophy behind this, all my experience suggests to me that lone parents are desperate to work. The survey evidence says that nine out of 10 suggest that if the opportunities were there and they could get the support and if all the other circumstances were to hand, you could not keep them at home. Therefore, we need to be careful about moving in a sanctions direction, as we might be going against the grain because there is a willingness to work that we are not tapping into properly.

I absolutely support some of the new proposals that the Government have put in place. The Explanatory Memorandum refers to that. There is a lot here, but it is all new. There is the in-work credit from April 2008, the in-work credit and retention, the in-work advisory support from Jobcentre Plus advisers and the in-work emergency discretion fund. That is all brand new, and we do not know how effective it is going to be. That is why the SSAC has asked why we cannot just hold our horses before implementing these regulations to see how that works.

I cannot do the figures because I do not have all the data, but the success that the Government have had since 1997, with a 12.5 per cent increase in lone parent participation in labour markets to something like 57.5 per cent, represents a real change. A lot of that is because the economy has been good, because of the tax credit regime and because of the changes that the Government have introduced with the New Deal for Lone Parents. There is a success and a momentum that could be built on. If we could only find a way of retaining the jobs that lone parents win, we would get to the 70 per cent target by 2010 quicker and with the grain of the lone parent client group that we are trying to deal with.

There is a sense that the department thinks that lone parents lead an orderly lifestyle, and it may be that 80 per cent of them do, but 20 per cent lead very difficult, incoherent lifestyles in which they drop in and out of work, benefit and childcare. For all those reasons, they need additional support. If I were the Minister, I would be thinking about looking at that 20 per cent, working with them, trying to sustain them in work, and trying to deploy all the department’s resources in that direction, rather than going down the route of sanctions and the rest of the proposals in the regulations.

I want to move on quickly. I notice from the Explanatory Memorandum that the Government think that these proposals are easily done and that Jobcentre Plus will implement them at a canter. I have to tell them that the department’s annual report for last year revealed that only three out of the six key priorities were achieved. Last year was an easy year. If the Government think that Jobcentre Plus will improve on that record in the next 12 months, they are blind, deaf and dumb. I seriously think that given the job cuts that the department is experiencing and the tight Comprehensive Spending Review targets—I bore on about this, for which I apologise, but it is a very important point—the footfall after Christmas in Jobcentre Plus offices will skyrocket, which will put pressure on all the staff and certainly on the personal advisers. What sort of case load will they have? Will that interfere with the training which they will need to develop this sensitive advisory service for lone parents who are coming into this regime for the first time? Is there time to train anyone in Jobcentre Plus these days? The realignment payment suggestion of a crisis loan from the Social Fund is just a joke; the Social Fund is up to its armpits in backlogs and delays. We know about that because we have debates in this House about it.

The Government suggest, “Oh well, people can apply for a crisis loan”. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, was right to mention that, as was the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. The Social Fund entitlement of the cohort of people that we are talking about in this client group is already exhausted. Special provisions will have to be made if crisis loans are to be made for realignment for that group of people. That is guaranteed to go wrong.

If you bring child tax credit and HMRC into the equation, you will have a really nice mix of things that will all work sweetly, everything will be hunky dory, and by next spring, everything will be fine. I just do not think so, and nothing that I have heard, seen or read in the Explanatory Memorandum or anything else convinces me otherwise. I could talk at great length about that, too, but I shall not.

I shall finish on the need for assurances that have not yet been required because all of us who have contributed so far are on the same page as the Minister as regards policy development. However, there are serious concerns, and I concur with everything that has been said. I shall not repeat the concerns about the childcare wrap around provisions mentioned by both colleagues earlier, but I certainly have concerns about Scotland, because the Government have no idea what is going on there and they have no control of the policy delivery of wrap around care in Scotland. It is an entirely different jurisdiction, with a different policy envelope. I need reassurance about that and the rural areas.

In terms of home education, the department is heading straight for a judicial review. Home education used to be a lifestyle choice by people with a kind of hippy way of life. It is not any more. It is worrying that the department does not know how many people this measure will apply to, but I would put money on the fact that the provisions in the regulations will be challenged in the courts by those who home educate. I would support them in doing that because someone needs to test the fairness of the regulations as they currently stand.

I accept that there has been a concession in regard to disabled children, but the provision, which leaves people with children in the lottery of the DLA component, trying to find childcare and to fit into the regulations, is not fair. There was no need to leave lower-care component DLA children in that category. The Government should think again about that. There is nothing like enough consideration of domestic violence and breakdown. It was alluded to earlier and needs to be looked at as well.

I understand that lone parents will not continue to go from New Deal for Lone Parents into flexible New Deal after the gateway. Stage 5 of flexible New Deal is workfare. I know that a Bill is coming, and that we will need to think about these matters again, but I have great concern about how lone parents put on to jobseeker’s allowance will come out the other end. We know that Jobcentre Plus will look after them in the first year and that they will go into the private sector for specialist providers in the second. If they are still unemployed, they will go on to workfare.

I am not happy about the lone parent client group that the regulations cover being turfed into workfare at stage 5 of flexible New Deal. If that is where they are heading, the Government should think about it very carefully indeed when the Bill comes before the House. I am in the same place as the two Members of the Committee who have spoken earlier. We need more assurances. The philosophy is entirely defensible, but the operational and administrative constructs that try to support the policy are very shaky and suspect. I hope that the Government will think about it carefully and give us some assurances before we take the plunge with the regulations, which after all start next week. There is not a lot of time to work these things out and make sure that we avoid the pitfalls into which we are concerned we might fall if we are not careful.

I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate, which I would characterise as offering support for the underlying policy approach, but asking some questions around the practicalities and implementation. I shall try to deal with as many of the substantial number of points raised as I can.

I am sorry if the letter did not reach the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, until late today—it certainly was not intended. He raised a range of questions. He asked why now. It is clear that we face challenging times, as I said in my opening remarks, but we have reasons to be confident about the economy’s prospects once we get through this difficult period. However, it is vital that we continue to focus on keeping people in touch with the labour market. I do not want to overstress a perhaps political point, but one of the problems we still face with incapacity benefit is that people were dumped on it in the past without support, and the longer that people are on benefits, the more difficult we know it is for them to engage. That is why we are introducing the measures now.

The noble Lord asked also about training. Jobcentre Plus has comprehensive plans in place to make all staff aware of the changes in income support for lone parents before 24 November. All Jobcentre Plus staff will receive awareness training and process-and-scenario walkthroughs prior to the changes going live on 24 November. Staff training for dealing with the changes to JSA will be phased in line with the profile of lone parents leaving income support each month. Our training delivery started on 13 October. We plan to train sufficient staff ahead of go-live for new and repeat claims on 24 November. I have more detail on that if the noble Lord wishes to follow it up after the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and my noble friend Lady Hollis asked about childcare and affordability. As I said in my opening remarks, we are investing a huge amount of money in childcare provision. The upper limits under the childcare element of tax credits are £175 for families with one child, and £300 for families with two or more children. The childcare element of working tax credit currently benefits around 449,000 lower- and middle-income families. Of those working families, around 287,000 are lone parents and 162,000 are couples.

The noble Lord asked what happens if wrap around childcare is not fully in place. Childcare is available for the large majority of parents who want it. To put this in perspective, in the next two years we expect about 18,000 additional lone parents to move into work as a result of these changes. The Childcare and Early Years Providers Survey 2007 reported 460,000 vacancies in childcare and early years provision in England alone.

The noble Lord asked what happens if suitable childcare is not available, a point also pressed by my noble friend Lady Hollis. Advisers will be required to take into account both the availability and suitability of childcare when they consider whether a parent’s childcare responsibilities make it unreasonable for him or her to stay in employment, to take up paid employment or to carry out a jobseeker’s direction. Advisers must also consider any necessary childcare expenses where they represent an unreasonable amount of that person’s earnings. A lone parent who is claiming JSA will not be penalised if she or he has just cause for leaving a job or good cause for not taking up a job.

The noble Lord and my noble friend focused on what is suitable childcare and the range of circumstances that lone parents can face. Jobcentre Plus personal advisers will work with parents and the childcare partnership manager to identify and access appropriate childcare provision. They will not dictate to parents the type of childcare or which providers they must use—that must remain a decision for parents. A lone parent who considers that he or she cannot take up a job to which they are referred by a personal adviser because appropriate and affordable childcare is not available will need to demonstrate that they have taken reasonable steps to secure such care. If they are able to justify that, sanctions would not apply.

The noble Lord asked about childcare places in England and Wales, and in Scotland in particular, for children aged 11 to 14. In England, another concern of the noble Lord, we will ensure that by 2008 a third of all secondary schools will be extended schools; they will be open from 8 am to 6 pm and offer activities for both children in the school and the surrounding area.

Yes, it does. It is meant to be year round. By 2010 all secondary schools will open up on weekdays between 8 am and 6 pm all year round, offering a range of activities such as music and sport. Extended schools do not apply in Scotland—the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, raised this point—however, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government have in place childcare strategies which aim to extend access to high-quality, affordable and flexible childcare. We have been working with them on those issues.

I do not know whether my noble friend is staying with the issue of childcare but perhaps I may press him on one point. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is absolutely right to ask about the holidays, but the area I am concerned about is that increasingly the only jobs available to unskilled women who have been out of the labour market for a period of time are unsocial hour jobs—early morning and late night cleaning and catering, weekend retailing and so on—and no formal childcare, whether child minders, wraparound, schools or anything else, can meet their needs. How does my noble friend envisage childcare being available for such women?

There is flexibility in the system, specifically in the agreement which an individual lone parent would have to reach with the jobcentre adviser. That could lead to a requirement to work for only 16 hours a week and would obviously seek to focus on a job that is suitable for that individual. However, if the job that is suitable and available for that individual is not consistent with childcare being available on an affordable basis, then clearly that person could not be subject to sanctions. So it is not only a generic availability; it has to be available in the specific circumstances of the individual involved. I am looking for support from the Box on that and I see a few nodding heads. I hope that helps my noble friend.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked about funding. I shall leave aside the tax credit issue at the moment but lone parent transition loans will be paid out under crisis loan legislation. The crisis loan funding comes from the amount allocated annually for budgeting and crisis loans. The lone parent transition loans will be funded from that budget and, in 2007-08, £511 million was paid in budgeting loans and £121.2 million in crisis loans.

My noble friend Lady Hollis raised a number of challenging points. On the use of the language, I entirely take the point that my noble friend has made. Whatever the conventions, it seems to me that we are dealing with a group of people who are overwhelmingly likely to be women rather than men. It is not beyond the wit of parliamentary draftsmen or draftswomen to get that right.

My noble friend asked about sanctions and how they would apply. In this order we are amending the JSA regulations in connection with good and just cause. The decision-maker must consider whether a parent’s childcare responsibilities make it unreasonable for her to stay in employment, to take up paid employment or to carry out a jobseeker’s direction. We propose that the decision-maker must specifically consider the availability and suitability of childcare. In addition, we propose that decision-makers must consider any necessary childcare expenses where they represent an unreasonable amount of a person’s earnings.

My noble friend again raised issues of flexible working. No decisions have been made on this or on any other forthcoming regulations but it is only right that the Government look afresh at the costs and benefits of new regulations in the light of the global economic downturn. The Government are determined to do all they can to help both employers and employees in tough economic times and flexible working can give both employers and employees mutually beneficial flexibility, helping to keep businesses profitable and to keep people in work. The business benefits of flexible working in tougher economic times are well documented and it can make workplaces more efficient, with improved productivity and reduced absenteeism. That is looking at it from a business point of view but it can also provide a real link for the individual to good-quality employment.

My noble friend asked how lone parents will be treated if their children become ill. As now, Jobcentre Plus advisers will be able to take that into account when deciding whether there should be a sanction. Advisers have to consider whether it would be unreasonable for a person to stay in a job if they have to look after a child who is ill. If it is unreasonable, they will not be penalised. That applies also to attendance at interviews.

My noble friend also asked about travel times, particularly in relation to rural areas. The JSA policy stipulates that travel time of up to an hour each way within the first 13 weeks of a JSA claim and one and a half hours each way thereafter is appropriate. Jobcentre Plus staff would also consider whether travel time to a job is reasonable, taking health or caring responsibilities into account, and would include any reasonable time required to drop off and pick up children from school or childcare.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, raised a number of issues. He stressed the point that in many ways lone parents are in a unique position and that we need to address these issues in a sensitive and balanced way. I entirely agree. I believe these regulations seek to do that. He asked me about Peter Hain’s comments and what our position is on that. Peter was reported as saying that work is simply not an option for some people and we agree. Some people will remain on income support and some will go on to the employment and support allowance and may end up in a support group. I think it is already recognised that we are not saying that absolutely everyone must work because we know that is not appropriate for everyone. This is about helping those people who can work to move towards the labour market.

The noble Lord said that lone parents can be quite desperate for work. That is generally right—indeed, it is possibly overwhelmingly right—which is why I believe that we are pushing at an open door with these policies. It does not preclude a regime of sanctions; if used sparingly and in clearly defined circumstances the evidence shows that they can have a beneficial impact.

The noble Lord asked what would happen if a lone parent’s child was disabled. Under the new proposals, any lone parent who receives carers’ allowance for disabled children or who is caring for others will be able to continue to claim income support. So they will not be under the JSA regime. The Government considered an exemption for lone parents with a child for whom the lower rate care component of DLA is payable. However, it is our view that such a child, by definition, would not require the amount of care that precluded the parent from paid work, particularly given the flexibilities which we are building in to these arrangements.

The noble Lord asked what evidence we had that sanctions work.

Will my noble friend be good enough to assure us that, a year on, there will be a tracking of sanctions, possibly through a letter in the Library? Most JSA sanctions are for young men who do not get out of bed of a morning and do not turn up at interviews and so on and no one would dispute that they need to be brought back into real-life situations. But there are so many concerns here—such as lone parents with disabled children and those who may have to travel an hour and a half as well as dropping their children off with childminders and so one—that we need to know how many sanctions are imposed, to whom and under what circumstances It would help us if my noble friend could tell us that, 12 months on, there will be a letter, if not a formal report—one does not have to be too bureaucratic—making sure that we know how many sanctions have been applied and on what grounds. We could then see whether his assurances, which I am absolutely sure are given in good faith, are being interpreted appropriately in jobcentres.

My noble friend makes a very reasonable request. I hope she will forgive me if I cannot, off the top of my head, say precisely what is in train to evaluate and review the effects of this policy. I am sure that there is some way and I promise to take that back to the department to see how we can do it effectively. Next year’s welfare reform Bill, which will take forward some of these broad concepts, will be another opportunity for detailed scrutiny of that issue.

The noble Lord asked about the evidence on sanctioning lone parents. Our administrative data show that under the current income support regime, only one in 20 lone parents subject to the work-focused interview regime are sanctioned each year. Of those sanctioned, more than half go on to attend a work-focused interview within six months.

I am conscious that time is proceeding apace.

As the noble Baroness and I are already owed a letter—we did not even get one late, about which we are heartbroken—perhaps one dealing with some of the other points might be possible. If so, that would be perfectly acceptable.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord and I will do that. I will review the record to make sure that I have covered every point that has been raised.

On Question, Motion agreed to.