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Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, following the remarks by Sir Richard Tilt, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Committee, they plan to defer proposals to make lone parents, disabled people and the long-term jobless seek work.

My Lords, there is no current intention to defer our proposals.

We have learnt the lessons of the past and know that it is important to help people prepare for work, not abandon them on benefits, causing them to become detached from the labour market. Our welfare reform proposals offer more support to ensure that people are well placed to enter work when the economy picks up.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he accept that the whole welfare-to-work policy, which we on these Benches and the Social Security Advisory Committee broadly endorse, was conceived in a much more benign economic climate? In the light of that, are the Government prepared to agree that, until there is better childcare, more flexibility in employment and enough well trained personal advisers in enough jobcentres around the country, the tough sanctions regime should be abandoned?

No, my Lords, I do not agree with that. The capacity of Jobcentre Plus is being increased. We shall doubtless deal with that when we discuss the Statement shortly. Of course, it is important that affordable and appropriate childcare is available, if we are to ask lone parents to undertake employment. The Government have invested more than £25 billion in childcare and early years provision since 1997. Over the next two years, we expect about 18,000 additional lone parents to move into work as a result of our proposals. However, there are some 460,000 vacancies in childcare and early years provision in England alone. We believe that it is not right to step back from the proposals. In the past we consigned people on to benefits and effectively destroyed their lives. Eight hundred thousand people have been on incapacity benefit for 10 years or more because we neglected them and their families in the past. We must not repeat that.

My Lords, would it not make better sense to help to liberate people from the poverty trap in which they are ensnared? Does the Minister not understand that when many people at the bottom of the stack go back to work and earn £1, income tax and loss of benefit takes back 80p out of that £1? Why not give them the incentive to work instead of trying to beat them into work?

My Lords, nobody is trying to beat anybody into work. Everybody who goes through a Jobcentre Plus process to be helped towards the labour market is provided with a “better off in work” calculation, which demonstrates exactly what their circumstances are. The proposition that people will inevitably end up poorer by going into work is simply not the case under this Government’s policies. Withdrawal rates of benefits are lower than under the Conservative Government.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in considering whether to require a person to take up work, it is essential for Jobcentre Plus staff to have regard to the availability of accessible transport, the nature of the work, whether it is reasonable for the person concerned given their impairment and previous career history, and whether it is reasonable to expect a person to take a job which would lead to a fall in their family income?

My Lords, I agree that the issues the noble Lord has identified should, and would, be properly taken into account in determining whether a person should take up an employment opportunity. That is exactly what the employment and support allowance and the flexible New Deal proposals are all about.

My Lords, in following up the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, does my noble friend agree that under previous Administrations, in which a wage was a man’s wage, often, if he had dependants, he was better off on benefits, whereas tax credits were designed precisely to ensure that the take-home pay reflected family size so that work paid?

My Lords, my noble friend, as ever, is absolutely right. We should not forget in all of this the national minimum wage, which has been very important in helping work pay and, from my recollection, was opposed by some Members in this Chamber.

My Lords, is not the problem with withdrawal rates that they are different for different benefits? None the less, even in the worst recession since the Second World War, more than half a million jobs are waiting to be filled, as the noble Lord has just said. Surely he will agree that to abandon people to state benefits, whether single parents or anyone else, is no way to achieve the Government’s aim of lifting them out of poverty?

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord. As he said, half a million job vacancies are available at any one time, there is a very dynamic labour market, millions of people move between jobs, from work into benefits and from benefits into work, and 10,000 vacancies are notified to Jobcentre Plus every working day. We will not repeat the mistakes of the past. That does not mean that we should not properly also focus resources on those who will be made newly redundant in the current economic climate. Yesterday’s PBR announcements will help us significantly to deal with those issues.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, despite all the Government’s efforts, families still fall through the poverty trap? For example, where a young mother has a disabled child and would like to go back to work but that would mean part-time work and, therefore, she would lose her carer’s allowance and end up with less than she is receiving on benefits. I hope that the Government will look at those circumstances where there are still gaps in the benefits.

My Lords, certainly I am happy to review a detailed calculation on the basis suggested by the noble Baroness.