Tuesday, 9 June 2009.
Welfare Reform Bill
Committee (1st Day)
If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting—which there will be—the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung, and resume after 10 minutes.
1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Exemptions to this Part
Nothing in this Part shall affect single parents who have children under school age.”
I start what I am afraid will be fairly protracted proceedings in Grand Committee with an amendment that I confess is deliberately somewhat loosely drafted. I wish to use the opportunities afforded by debating the Bill in Grand Committee to allow your Lordships to have a wide-ranging discussion on the issue.
The Minister has no doubt been briefed by his department that one reason to reject this amendment is because it is, in the favoured term of parliamentary draftsmen, “technically deficient”. He should not worry overly about that. When we return to this part of the Bill on Report, I will likely have tabled slightly altered amendments. That, of course, depends very much on how he replies to my questioning.
The real targets of this exclusionary amendment are Clauses 1 and 2. I seek to exclude single parents with children under school age from requirements to take part in “work for your benefit” schemes and work-related activity. I hope that I may count on a certain amount of support from other noble Lords across the Committee—I know that I have it from outside groups such as Gingerbread, which has been able to provide me with plenty of real-life stories, and Z2K.
My amendment would place a clear ne plus ultra line on the creeping revision of the relevant age of one’s children for welfare purposes. Until last year, it was possible for a single parent to remain on income support until the youngest child reached the age of 16. However, in June 2007, the Government announced that they were moving lone parents from income support to jobseeker’s allowance in stages. That process began last year, when the age limit for single parents to remain on income support was reduced to the youngest child reaching the age of 12. The process of transferring lone parents from income support to jobseeker’s allowance is proceeding apace. The age of children at which lone parents are transferred to jobseeker’s allowance will fall to seven in October 2010. Lone parents with children under the age of seven will not be expected to move from income support to jobseeker’s allowance, as is the case for lone parents of children over the age of seven. However, under the Government’s plans, they will be expected to fulfil the requirements set out in Clause 1.
My understanding from the compendious Peers’ information pack, for which I am grateful, is that the Government propose that lone parents are to be part of the progression-to-work group from the time that their youngest child is aged one year. The Government have set out how they see that group in their discussion paper on the implementation of the Gregg review. According to their response to that review, lone parents with children aged between one and two years will be:
“Required to attend Work Focused Interviews and agree an action plan. They are not mandated to undertake any activities recorded on the action plan”.
Paragraphs 103, 107 and 108 of the Peers’ information pack, however, say something that is rather different and, to me, confusing. Paragraph 103 makes it clear that there will be no conditionality applied to lone parents with children under one year old. The fact that this paragraph precedes the other two that I have mentioned must mean that there is a requirement to attend an initial interview in the child’s first year of life. Indeed, paragraph 107 cements this conclusion by stating:
“It is intended that those groups”—
that is, the preparation-for-work groups—
“would include lone parents with children under 1”.
But there is an anomaly here. Paragraph 108, which covers paragraph 3 of Schedule 1, says that:
“In the pathfinder areas groups such as lone parents who have a child under 1 will no longer be required to undergo work focused interviews”.
What exactly is the proposal? Is the child to be under one, under two or under three? Whichever, I find it hard to accept that any of those is an appropriate age. What effect do the Government believe that will have on the subsequent development of the child?
I return to the Bill. The intention is that when the youngest child reaches the age of three, lone parents will be:
“Required to follow the full progression to Work regime based around Work Focused interviews, action plans, work related activity and the backstop of adviser direction”.
I presume that that means that lone parents with children over three will be subject to the regime of sanctions for failing to comply with the requirements in the Bill. Am I wrong in that presumption? Will it be over two or over one, even? My amendment would substitute the age of three with school age as the point at which the proposed regime and all its requirements would begin. I expect that that would translate to five years of age in the large majority of cases. That age was not plucked out of the air; it was specified in the Government’s July 2008 Green Paper as the appropriate age at which requirements could begin to be made on lone parents. The Green Paper envisaged piloting a requirement for lone parents whose youngest child was five or six to attend relevant skills training where that would address the skills gaps identified as a barrier to starting work. As I said, the amendment is designed to stimulate a debate on the appropriate age of a child for placing certain conditions on his parent. When we come to Report, I intend to return to the issue, and it is likely that I will draft an amendment then to reflect the age of five more precisely.
The question at the heart of this is what approach we should be striking towards those lone parents with young children. We can all agree that it is desirable—indeed, necessary—to guide the unemployed back into work. However, where very young children are involved there will be a cost in terms of the bond developed, especially as we are talking about the bond between often—perhaps invariably—young mothers and their infants being disrupted or prevented. If we who are legislating on these matters are prepared to legislate for sanctions to be imposed on those who do not comply with the requirements we set out for them, we must be careful not to do more harm than good. The Conservative Party believes that it is inappropriate to allow advisers the power to direct parents of pre-school and young children to take part in any activity the adviser feels will move them towards work.
I understand that recent research for the Department for Work and Pensions looked over three years at the experiences of working single parents who had moved into paid employment voluntarily. That resulted in DWP research report 536, Work and Well-being Over Time: Lone Mothers and Their Children. Those single parents and their children believed that, as the report says,
“lone mothers could and should work but that this was a personal choice which depended on individual circumstances and mothers should not be compelled to work”.
As well as being necessarily paternalistic, by directing people back to work we should also be realistic. If parents feel that they are required to do something that compromises the welfare of their child, they are more likely to resist those requirements.
I note that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has amendments later on in the Marshalled List. Perhaps it is pertinent to mention now his question on 21 May—it was,
“does the Minister agree that the quality of the relationship and attachment between a mother and her child in the first few years of that child’s life is crucial in the way in which the child develops?”.
In response, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, replying on behalf of the Government, said,
“the noble Lord is absolutely correct. I pay tribute to the huge amount of work that he has done in your Lordships' House to support parents and parenthood. He is absolutely right: we”—
“recognise the importance of supporting parents in the early years of a child’s life”.—[Official Report, 21/5/09; col. 1428.]
That is a government view that I, and I hope all of us, commend, but I am far from certain that it fits comfortably with the threat of placing sanctions on parents who feel that they are being wrenched away from their very young children. The burdens on parents of young children are already great without the threat of sanctions. The Zacchaeus 2000 Trust has raised the worry of the mental strain becoming too much and of young mothers developing mental health problems which, to say the least, will not go any way to alleviating the poverty of welfare-dependent families.
I should not need to repeat this as I feel that we have made it abundantly clear at so many stages, but I reiterate the support of my party for the principles in the Bill. By tabling an exclusionary clause in my first amendment, I am not undermining any of those principles: I am establishing a clear principle in support of single parents—one that will help their children, help them to find work at an appropriate time and ultimately reduce poverty. I beg to move.
We support the amendment. There is clearly a balance to be struck between the state supporting lone parents to stay at home to raise a child and sooner or later requiring them to seek work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefit. On the one hand, there is the mindset that says that a single mother bringing up a child could not be doing more valuable work and it is an insult to call her workless even when her child reaches 12. On the other hand there is the view that, with the right childcare and personalised support, the best route out of poverty and off benefits is for a single parent, usually a mother, to get a job as soon as she can.
We on these Benches believe that the best solution is for single parents to have a choice, at the very least until their child is of school age. Yes, of course it is true that some single mothers wish to get back to the workplace to earn money as soon as possible so that they do not lose touch with the world of work. They may have perfectly adequate childcare and may be able to juggle any other commitments with a job, but there will be a huge number of mothers in a quite different position—perhaps in a rural area with more than one child, or with transport and childcare problems, not to mention the difficulties of finding a suitable job with flexible working.
There is something faintly ludicrous about a lone mother desperately trying to find the right person to look after her child while she dashes off to an unfulfilling part-time job, when the person who should be looking after the child is herself. In all legislation, the welfare of children, particularly very young children, must take precedence over all other considerations. We therefore think that lone parents with children up to at least school age should not be required to seek work.
I, too, support the amendment moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. I am particularly concerned about the position of single parents with children aged seven and over, who will from October 2010 have to claim JSA if they have no other source of income. Lone parents often face extra barriers to employment. A high proportion have low or no skills and very often a significant proportion will have care of a disabled child who may need full-time care. Those parents are often more vulnerable than other groups and may find themselves unemployed for more than two years and thus mandated to take part in this programme.
I hope that my noble friend will understand that there is widespread concern about the provision in the Bill which extends the requirement to take part in the schemes to single parents with young children. I hope that my intervention will convince him that this is a widely held belief among Members on my side of the House as well as those on the same side of the House as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. I would prefer single parents to be excluded altogether from the obligation to participate. One of the problems is that there is not much affordable childcare in many areas, which is another reason why single parents should be excluded from the requirement to participate. I hope that my noble friend will look with some sympathy on the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and others in support of the amendment.
I agree with much that has been said. On the other hand, it is quite important to put on record the fact that research, cited by the Children’s Society in its report A Good Childhood, into the effects on young children of being placed in childcare tends to support the general thrust of the Government’s attempt here to encourage young children to be placed in childcare while the mother works her way back into employment. The findings of the research are interesting. I have to say that they surprised me. They tend to show that even children less than 18 months old can benefit and that the effects on cognitive development are not very substantial either way. The effects on the happiness and well-being of really quite young children who are placed in childcare are interesting. Apparently, according to the research, they are more gregarious, although the research shows that they can be more aggressive. The research is complex, but it certainly does not support my argument. I would have thought that it would have shown otherwise, but it does not. One has to hang on to that and have that on the record.
My concern, and my reason for supporting the amendment, has to do with the pressures on parents. I worked many years ago with young mothers who were bringing up young children and frankly having a hell of a job—a very difficult job; I should use proper language in the House, I suppose—managing just a home and a child. I say “just”; I brought up four children and know that it is a big challenge to manage a home and a child or children. The mothers with whom I worked would be unable to cope with the pressures of having to undertake work-related activities while threatened with a loss of benefits. That is why I support the amendment. For many young mothers who are struggling, to be encouraged back into work will probably be good for them and may be good for the children, but the added stress and pressure may, I fear, knock some of these mothers off their perch. They will be unable to cope. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about these mothers. They are not disabled, and they do not have a disabled child, so they do not seem to fit into any of the exemption categories. However, a lot of mothers will not be able to cope with the challenges of this clause.
I have a lot of sympathy with the concerns behind the amendment. I am not sure that I agree all the way with the noble Baroness’s point about childcare. Like her, I have also read the research, but I think that the jury is out on the gains and the downsides of family care as opposed to professional childcare and on the well-being of the child. It is very clear that if going back to work is not the choice of the mother, the pressure on the mother when the child goes into formal childcare means that the mother becomes a reluctant conscript in the labour market. As we know from the pressures caused by tax credits and all the rest of it, such childcare, and the mother’s own guilt, means that a lone parent will very often find it very difficult to be able to stay in work because they are riven with guilt and somehow feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are letting their child down, given the quality of care available.
I wonder whether, in our discussions so far, we are failing properly to distinguish between a requirement to work, with appropriate sanctions, and progression-to-work training, which I understand we are asking lone parents of children between the ages of three to seven to go for. Why I support that, subject to certain considerations, is that we know that the longer someone is out of the labour market, the harder it is to get back. The best way of getting children out of poverty is to help their lone-parent mothers get back into the labour market. That does not mean requiring them to work 16 or more hours a week when their child is three, four, five, six or seven but, following the best practices of employers with staff on maternity leave for a year, trying to keep them connected with the labour market through interviews and perhaps encouraging them to do an evening course one evening a week to keep some up-to-date skills. That is helpful and positive, providing heavy sanctions are not attached and, ideally, that there is some financial reward for doing it with grace and willingness.
I hope the Minister will assuage the well founded worries of noble Lords by saying that the Government are not seeking to produce a regime for parents with children under the age of seven that requires them to be in work, but are seeking to keep them attached to the labour market because it is in their best interests and the child’s best interests. The best way to do this is not to go heavy on sanctions, but to go light on sanctions and heavy on financial support and encouragement. That way we will get lone parents wanting to stay attached to the labour market with grace, and when their child is old enough they will then be the sort of employee any employer would want to have.
I support this amendment. Research by the Mother and Infant Research Unit of the University of York has found that in Yorkshire there is no childcare that a woman on a low income could pay for. I do not see what jobs women with no or low incomes, no education and few skills could train for at the same time as looking after their children. Most of them are working as cleaning ladies, and trying to train them to become better cleaning ladies would not help. We need to have a different vision. I am concerned that the work that women do free of charge is not recognised as work. If we want to help them, surely we should pay them for the childcare that they provide.
I support this amendment. I do not want to get involved in a debate with the noble Baronesses around me on the report, A Good Childhood, from the Children’s Society, but part of that is to say that this is a matter not of either childcare or parental care, but of both. It is when the two are brought together that there is effective support and help for children, not least in the way in which they develop their relationships with other children.
Parts of the Bill have an almost old fashioned tinge at the moment because one of the issues is whether there is any work available. I think particularly of inner urban areas in Yorkshire, where the number of jobs has declined sharply in recent months. That means that it will be difficult to find jobs. If we go ahead with the Bill as it stands, there will be more pressure on single parents and others to find jobs in a difficult market.
My only hesitation about the amendment is whether school age is the right age and whether, if we are looking for an age under which single parents should be encouraged to stay with their children and work with them, it should not be higher than five. There is a danger of a continuing gradual erosion of childhood, which is exemplified in parts of this Bill. We need to work hard to ensure that parents, whether they are lone parents or couples, are available to their children. This amendment would provide considerable support for and contribute to the family in looking after their children. I hope that we will proceed with something along these lines.
I support the principle behind the amendment, although I am not sure that the wording is exactly as I would hope. Not entirely surprisingly, I also support everything that has been said today. I want to make two short points. First, I challenge the Minister to define what he means by work: I have just spent a weekend looking after my five grandchildren. Seriously, it is an issue. It is almost rude to say that looking after children and keeping a house is not work.
Secondly—it may not be appropriate to mention this now—the amendment would take the element of compulsion off the back of parents. It is very difficult for one person to be a trusted adviser and a policeman. To a considerable extent, the social services find that. I suggest that if the client is to feel that the worker in the jobcentre is an adviser and a friend, the longer we can keep the sanctions out of the picture, the better.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, briefly touched on parents in rural communities. As I come from a very rural community, perhaps I may say a few words in support of the amendment from that point of view. Public transport in our area is almost non-existent. I think that there is a bus in the morning and a bus in the evening, not at school time, and that is it. There is nothing in between. Childcare facilities are almost non-existent. Schools are fairly far between. A lot of Church of England schools have been closed, so people would have to travel quite a distance. If a parent has one child going to school and another who is very young, she will have to do a lot of juggling to meet any timetable for training. Access to training facilities is almost non-existent. The nearest town with any colleges is seven miles away and there is no public transport to that town. The next town is 12 miles away, where there is public transport but it is not at the right time.
In the past, we would have had—I benefited from it—support from grandparents. My mother did not work. Nowadays, grandparents work, so they are not there for parents to fall back on. If a child is ill and needs someone to sit with them, the grandparents are not there to do it. It is most important that parental support and the lack of disruption in the child’s life when it is tiny should be maintained. Therefore, I support the amendment.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for this amendment, which has given us a good start in these Committee proceedings to have a general and, in some respects, a detailed discussion also around some key provisions in the Bill. The amendment seeks to exclude single parents who have children under school age—although that is not defined, I presume it is meant to apply to children from the age of five—from any of the measures proposed in this Bill. However, I think that the noble Lord himself acknowledged that the amendment does not particularly do that because it refers to Part 1 as a whole. Part 1 includes things like payments on account, social loan provisions and issues around DLA, which I do not think was his intention. We presume that his intention was to focus on the progression-to-work pathfinders dealt with in Clause 2, but he referred to Clause 1 also. I think, and on hearing other noble Lords who have participated, that there is some confusion in this matter.
Let me try to be very clear. Clause 1, which contains “work for your benefit” provisions, applies only if someone is subjected to the full JSA conditionality requirements: that they need to be available for work and that they are actively seeking work. Therefore, my noble friend Lady Turner said that we were progressively moving down the age of the youngest child to which that provision would apply until it becomes applicable to circumstances where the youngest child is aged seven. It would have no implications and no impact on situations where the youngest child is below the age of seven.
Clause 2 deals with the progression-to-work group—this point was made by my noble friend Lady Hollis—and helping lone parents and others prepare for work in relation to getting involved in work-related activity. That would apply to lone parents where the youngest child was aged under seven, but nothing in those provisions would require a parent to look for work or to take up work. We need to be clear on those two distinct provisions. Each needs to be piloted and we need to understand what we will learn from that. That is an important distinction to hold in our minds as we discuss the Bill.
Our policies for lone parents are about balancing the right to benefits to support the family with our wider responsibilities to help lone parents lift their children out of poverty and improve their life chances by entering paid work. Evidence shows that the vast majority of parents on benefits aspire to work at some point in the future and the paid work—this, in part, is the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne—is good for them and their children in nearly all circumstances. That is why from November 2008—the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to this, as did other noble Lords—we started implementing lone-parent obligations, which will progressively mean that lone parents with a youngest child aged seven or over, who claim benefit solely as a lone parent and are capable of work, will be required to be available for and actively seeking work from October 2010.
In support of this policy, we want to introduce a progression-to-work model which places a flexible, reasonable and personalised set of requirements on parents with younger children to help to prepare them for work. In his report, Realising Potential: A Vision for Personalised Conditionality and Support, Professor Gregg suggested that the progression-to-work group should include parents, including lone parents, with a youngest child aged between one and six. However, we intend to test progression to work with parents with a youngest child aged between three and six.
We are starting with this age group because there is already a strong foundation of childcare provision available to it, as children aged three and four right across the UK have access to free part-time pre-school education, and children aged five and six receive free education of up to 30 hours a week during school term-time. We also think it is right to test an approach which balances giving lone parents on benefit time to participate full-time in early childhood activities while signalling that the long-term goal for most lone parents is to return to paid work.
In the future, we want to ensure that preparation for paid work is a natural progression for these parents, with it being part of an ongoing journey rather than a step up. We think this will help them to enter work as quickly as possible when it is appropriate for them. But I must stress at this point that we are testing this in the pathfinders to see whether this is the appropriate age group.
Under the progression-to-work model, parents with younger children will be expected to agree an action plan with their adviser. This will set out the parent’s individual goals, the activities they will undertake and the support they will access to undertake some form of activity that will help them in their eventual transition to work. In a sense, the role of the jobcentre adviser will change a little under this because hitherto the available programmes have generally been non-mandatory and people have been alerted as to what is on offer, whereas now there should be much more engagement with individuals to help them to understand the gaps that they have in their skills and what they might need to do to prepare for work. We will develop a much more engaged relationship.
When co-producing the action plan, an adviser will ensure that it will be tailored to the parent’s wishes and individual circumstances before it is finalised and agreed. This action plan will take into account their individual caring responsibilities when considering what time they have available to undertake work-related activity. That is especially important if parents need to plan this around their existing access to the Government’s free childcare offer or school arrangements.
In most cases, the activities agreed as part of an action plan can be organised in such a way that they can be fitted around these hours. If that is not possible and paid childcare is needed to enable a parent to comply with any element of their work plan, that will be funded in full by Jobcentre Plus. That is vital if parents are taking part in activities that require childcare. We will also ensure that a number of safeguards will be in place where parents can refuse to take part in, or leave, the mandatory activity they have agreed without being penalised if their personal circumstances justify that. We would allow, for example, action plans to be adapted if there was bereavement, serious illness, domestic emergency or the breakdown of childcare arrangements.
I cannot stress enough that these pathfinders are not about forcing parents, including lone parents, into work before it is appropriate for them. These measures are designed to prepare these parents and get them ready so that work becomes a natural progression for parents with younger children. We hope that this will take them closer to the labour market so they will be able to more readily access the opportunities to lift their children out of poverty and access the full range of social, economic and community benefits that come with undertaking paid work. It would be wrong to place a specific age on the face of the Bill. When we test these measures in consultation with our stakeholders, we may decide to change the age of the youngest child if that is found to be appropriate and it is right that we should be able to do that without primary legislation.
A number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Hollis, referred to the research that is available and what evidence exists for the effects of maternal employment on the neurological development of children. There is a growing body of evidence that points to the importance of early years for the development of the brain, and a child’s early experiences will determine whether their developing brain provides a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behaviour and health. The early development of cognitive, social and physical abilities not only affects their school readiness, but has the potential to affect their long-term achievement, through their school lives and into adulthood. However, there is very little evidence of the specific impact of maternal employment on the neurological development of children.
There is some evidence on the effects of maternal employment on children's cognitive and behavioural outcomes, but that is largely inconclusive: there is little specific to the UK context. What evidence there is suggests that there are few negative effects of maternal employment once the child is aged over 18 months. The small negative effects of maternal employment appear to be greater for those whose mothers work full time rather than part time, not surprisingly. Overall, no significant difference can be identified between lone parents and mothers in couples, in terms of how their employment is related to a child’s cognitive development.
Moreover, evidence suggests that the negative effects of early full-time maternal employment are concentrated in children who attended little or no formal childcare. The use of quality formal childcare seems to protect children from adverse effects. We have a strong body of evidence to show that good-quality early-years childcare for children aged two, three and four has a positive impact on child development, especially for disadvantaged children.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the right reverend Prelate referred to the attachment between the parent and the child. Working parents form strong bonds with children, and research shows that on the whole they spend more quality time with their children than those who do not work. Good-quality childcare plus good parental input results in the best outcomes for children.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred to the lack of childcare and, indeed, to the lack of transport in her location. Childcare is now more widely available than ever before, and we have made considerable investment to ensure that it is also more affordable for families on low or moderate incomes. We have further amendments that will have the chance to develop this. The large majority of lone parents will be able to find the childcare that they need to enable them to return to work. However, where suitable childcare is genuinely not available, this will be taken into consideration when determining whether there is good cause for any act or omission of a lone parent. The availability of transport and the costs of transport will similarly be taken into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, talked about the different ages that have been referred to in various bits of documentation that have been circulated. Just to be clear, for parents whose youngest child is under the age of one, there will be no conditionality. For parents whose youngest child is aged between three and six, the proposal to be piloted is a mandatory work-focused interview with an action plan and work-related activity. For those whose youngest child is between one and two, there is the usual existing mandatory work-focused interview and action plan.
A number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, touched on mothers under pressure and how these provisions relate to them. The point is taken, but the approach to work-related activity—the progression to work—provides ample scope for that to be taken into account. It is the job of the adviser to work out an action plan with the lone parent. The action plan is the format and the occasion when these issues can be reviewed and developed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, in particular referred to childcare. The Government have invested significantly in improving the affordability of childcare. The cost of childcare is a more significant issue for parents of pre-school children, but all children aged three and four are now entitled to free part-time pre-school of 12.5 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year. Obviously that has a particular impact on reducing costs. Low-to-moderate-income families receive help with childcare costs from the tax credits system, and are entitled to help with 80 per cent of eligible costs of up to £175 a week for one child and £300 a week for two or more children. Those limits compare favourably with typical costs.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds asked whether this was relevant if work was not available. I return to the point that Clause 1 is about “work for your benefit”, and that Clause 2 is about work-related activity. Notwithstanding that—obviously these matters will be developed over the next few years—the pathfinders will not start until next year, when the economy will be in a better shape. Even if that were not the case we have learnt that, if we are inactive about our benefits system and do not help people to get ready and to progress towards work when we are in a recession, it is much more difficult to do so later on. All the evidence shows that the longer people are on benefits, particularly inactive ones, the more difficult it is for them to get back into work.
I hope that I have covered each of the points that have been raised in this debate. This is an important starting point. We simply wish to reiterate the distinction between what is provided for in Clauses 1 and 2. We need to bear that in mind in our debates on subsequent amendments. I ask the noble Lord not to press his amendment. As we are in the Moses Room, I understand that he might not do so.
Can my noble friend help us on a further point? Part of our difficulty in the Committee is our concerns that the progression-to-work category for those with a youngest child under seven may appear oppressive and difficult for the lone parent to manage and handle. From my experience, I do not believe that to be the case; and that is ultimately very much to be desired. Can my noble friend help the Committee by perhaps circulating in a letter over the next couple of days some examples of what such an action plan could realistically look like, based on a couple of lone parents—one of whom might ultimately have an interest in working in a shop, and someone else who might ultimately have an interest in clerical work—and what that activity would look like when a lone parent has a child under seven, so that we can be reassured that the provisions are appropriate, sensible, not oppressive and really will fit the lifestyle, stresses and problems that a lone parent faces?
Yes, I should be very happy to do that. In fact, I asked for some case studies relating to each of the new clauses. They are too extensive to read out in our proceedings today, but I may circulate those examples to help noble Lords to get a flavour of what is involved. I hang on to the point. These are pathfinders, not programmes that will be fully introduced until we have tested them. The programmes are being developed in conjunction with stakeholders. There is flexibility in the proposals for people who, along their journey, find that the action plan they originally signed up to needs to change because of pressures and circumstances. That flexibility is available in the system.
Before the Minister finally sits down, can he assure us that in this time of scarcity of jobs there would not be a requirement for a lone parent in the progression-to-work group to be told, perhaps, that the only jobs about are cleaning jobs, and that that would be the next step to take? I have heard that this has happened already in some jobcentres. I hope that that is not the case, and I should like to be reassured on that point.
I can give the noble Baroness an absolute assurance that the progression-to-work group does not require anyone to be directed to any particular job or work at all. This is about supporting and helping them to get closer to the labour market. It might be that training is needed or just engagement with a local children’s centre; it might be that along the way they should simply seek to stabilise their housing condition, to get them in a position where they are better able to take up an employment opportunity. It is not about directing people to work. It is different from the “work for your benefit” group, and the work experience attached to that. But I hope that that assurance will help the noble Baroness.
There will be sanctions for non-compliance, which would involve at some point withdrawal of an element of benefit, but hardship provisions exist in the system. I should also say that, as part of the pathfinders, we are seeking to test Professor Gregg’s proposals on conditionality and sanctions. That approach is much more involved in co-operation, letters, warning and engaging people first before there is withdrawal of financial support. I acknowledge that some people have concerns about sanctions, but we know that if the system is to an extent mandatory and people are required to do something, if no sanctions are attached, some will not. As long as those sanctions are applied sensitively and reflect an individual’s circumstances, it is right that we do that. However, we shall consider more detailed amendments on sanctions later.
A number of provisions could apply. If the child is aged seven, by 2010 such a person could be fully within the jobseeker’s allowance regime and therefore required to actively—I seek some help from the Box. This note says, “Exemptive on carer’s allowances”, which probably prevents me having to retract something that I was going to say. I think that is in the JSA regime—sorry, it is in all the regimes. I was also going to say that—in so far as that exemption did not apply when judgments were made about what was reasonable for lone parents to do and the availability of childcare, for example—that would have to reflect the individual circumstances faced by that parent and child. If someone is on carer’s allowance, they will be exempt from these provisions.
I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords in this Grand Committee who have spoken to this first amendment. Most of them were supportive in one form or another—the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas, Lady Turner and Lady Meacher, to an extent I suppose the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and of course the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to say nothing of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.
I will start with what I might call the Yorkshire axis between the noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate. I accept that it is extremely difficult to find jobs at the moment; indeed, I have tabled an amendment on the availability of local jobcentres to access those jobs that are available, which seems pretty deplorable, but we will get to that either later today or on Thursday. I thought at one moment that the right reverend Prelate was going to quote the Jesuits: “Give me a child till he is seven and he is mine for life”. Was that not a Jesuit premise? Perhaps that thought subliminally ran through many of your Lordships’ comments on the amendment. I must make it clear that, in the amendment, I was thinking purely and simply about lone parents. Some remarks led me to believe that your Lordships were casting the net rather more widely than I had intended.
The Minister told us that I was confused between Clauses 1 and 2, namely “work for your benefit” and progression to work. I got the impression from him that he was claiming that they were mutually exclusive. I do not think that they are; by definition, you start off being on benefit. If you are not on benefit, none of this applies.
What I was trying to convey was that, if you look in particular at the age of the youngest child for which the various provisions operate, Clause 1 operates only for those subject to the full JSA conditionality, and that cannot operate where the lone parent has a child younger than seven. That obviously is not the case for Clause 2, where we look to have work-related activity requirements where the youngest child can be between the ages of three and six; that is what the pathfinder will say. They would be mutually exclusive. Subject to the exemptions that we have touched on, if you have a lone parent with the youngest child aged seven, they will be within what is the full JSA regime at the moment, and could be subject in due course to the “work for your benefit” provisions, but that programme is directed at people who have been out of the labour market for some time.
That is extremely helpful and no doubt will inform our later discussions. I also understood the Minister to say that in Clause 2—the progression-to-work category—no direction applies at any time. I am not sure that that is right. The clause is littered with various forms of directions.
What I hoped I had said was that no one can be directed to work at a particular job or to job-seek under these provisions. This is work-related activity, progression to work and helping people to put themselves in a position where they can take advantage of work opportunities. Certainly there would be directions because that is what the clause is all about.
I thought I had written it down fairly carefully but perhaps when I read Hansard tomorrow I shall understand that I was not careful enough.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that we must not have a situation where a mother becomes a reluctant participant in the programme. As the programme is meant to lead to work—ideally full-time work—the likelihood of her remaining in that work is, within those circumstances, pretty limited.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, told us that the Children's Society tends to agree with the government approach but on a fairly even-handed level. In other words, I do not think, from what she said and from what I have read from the Children's Society, that it comes down firmly on one side or the other. I know she will correct me if I am wrong. She pointed out, as have various people who have written to me, and I suspect to us all, that there could well be added pressures on parents which verge—or more than verge—on the mental health view. I accept that. That would be the same whether there were a single parent or two parents, would it not?
To sum up, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and especially to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who asked the devastating question, “What is work?”, to which I do not think the Minister replied.
Between them they could think about a carer’s allowance. I am sorry; that was naughty; I should not have said that. I am sure that we shall all read Hansard extremely carefully tomorrow. In the mean time, I am very grateful to the Minister, as usual, for the very thorough way in which he has explained this difficult matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 1 : Schemes for assisting persons to obtain employment: “work for your benefit” schemes etc.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, after “claimants” insert “under age 50”
I move to the other end of the age spectrum. I shall speak also to Amendments 27, 31, 91, 156, 157, 159, 160 and 161. Age Concern and Help the Aged have asked me to table this group of amendments because they have,
“grave concerns about the impacts of increased conditionality on people aged over 50”.
We all know that life is supposed to begin at 40 but, sadly, too frequently employment ends at 50.
With their something-for-something welfare reform agenda, the Government are committed to offer greater and more effective employment support for which benefit recipients must do more to obtain work. This legislation will allow sanctions to be applied to those who fail to comply. In its published research on the impact of Pathways to Work, the DWP acknowledges that people over the age of 50 may need more assistance with moving off incapacity benefits than younger people. Evaluations of New Deal 25-plus have also found that the type of provision available has not always been appropriate to older clients.
Research commissioned by Age Concern in 2006 found that personal advisers did not necessarily have the awareness, skills and confidence to provide the type of personalised support suited to older clients. In March 2009, Age Concern and Help the Aged commissioned IFF Research to conduct a qualitative research of jobseeker’s allowance, incapacity benefit and employment support allowance recipients over the age of 50, and I will depend heavily on that research for what I have to say.
The research included recent and longer-term claimants with varied personal circumstances and work backgrounds. Some had held professional posts until relatively recently. Others had complicated mental or physical health histories and had struggled to work for a long time. Overall, the research found that the intervention and support for the over-50s is woefully inadequate. There is little evidence that Jobcentre Plus provides effective support for them. Conversely, there is evidence that age discrimination in the workplace is the biggest barrier to them returning to work. Many over-50s welcome the prospect of greater and more effective employment support, particularly adviser support, the development of an action plan and the availability of training and development.
Given that almost no subject who took part in the research could recall being offered any appropriate support activities, they did not consider these activities should be mandatory. They felt that mandating participating in work or work-related activities was missing the point at best and potentially harmful at worst. IB claimants found the threat of sanctions distressing, and some said that they might be deterred from signing up, particularly if they had fluctuating health conditions.
Many of those interviewed said that advisers often made inappropriate suggestions. For example, a woman who had previously been a lecturer in adult education was told to apply for a position as an engineering lecturer. Another, an engineer, was told to apply for a job as a toilet cleaner. Participants who agreed to apply for recommended jobs reported feeling ridiculous, as they were aware that they had no experience in the area but felt that they had to apply or their benefits would be affected.
Many mentioned that only low-skilled work was available. At the expiry of 13 weeks on benefits, they reported that minimum-wage jobs were frequently suggested to them, regardless of their experience or skills. Those with higher skills reported lower expectations of the support the JCP service provides and regarded staff more as administrators than advisers. On the other hand, over-50s with lower skills wanted career guidance and were disappointed when JCP failed to meet that need. There was a perception among the over-50s in receipt of JSA that:
“JCP offers an impersonal service, weighed down with bureaucracy and chasing targets”.
I have already mentioned that age discrimination by employers is a major barrier to returning to work. The recession has compounded jobseekers’ views that there are even fewer quality jobs available to them. Publicity about the dearth of jobs available to recent university graduates has not helped to alleviate that view. Employers, somewhat naturally, are likely to select a young person who will work for a lower salary than they are an older, well qualified and experienced person. A substantial majority of unemployed men and women over 50 are unemployed for no reason other than the circumstances that currently pertain. They want to work, but circumstances are against them. They already have established work habits and routines. It appears unreasonable that someone who is up against it should be penalised when one half of the something-for-something bargain is not in place.
Amendment 27 proposes that the Secretary of State commissions his own research to ascertain the over-50s’ experience in jobseeking and what would improve their chances of obtaining employment. It is clear that the Government lack the evidence to support their position that everyone under pensionable age should be governed by this legislation. Until workplace age discrimination is dealt with and appropriate facilities and assistance are made available by JCP, I hope that the Minister will agree that the over-50s should be relieved of the conditionality conditions and that he will accept my amendments. I beg to move.
We have sympathy with the reasoning behind the amendment. There is no doubt that once older people are out of work for more than six months, the chances of them working again are low. In the past year, unemployment has risen by 48 per cent among the 50-plus age group, which is faster than for any other age group, and it is still rising. In the present climate, there is not only a lack of suitable jobs, but evidence that older people are not being given the right support by Jobcentre Plus. For example, some of the support is help on how to write a CV and training in interview techniques, which is not much help for an older person who may have been made redundant several times and has been unemployed for two years.
Undoubtedly, the greatest barrier is age discrimination, as the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has said, which is the chief finding of research carried out by Age Concern and Help the Aged. Does the DWP have up-to-date research on the best way to help the over-50 age group find work? Listening to the “You and Yours” radio programme today about unemployment, a woman reported having her CV returned, having failed to get a job, with her age highlighted. Another older woman was told, “Oh, you sounded much younger on the telephone”. Many of those aged over 50 now out of work would have been working for more than 30 years and will not need the “work for your benefit” regime to instil discipline into their lives. They are desperate to get a job. They need not only the right help from properly trained JCP staff but for employers to be encouraged to take older workers. I strongly support the grouped amendment about research into the employment prospects of those aged over 50.
In the case of the ethnic minorities, we often find that the over-50s do not speak English, are not literate in English and are not familiar with the processes. If they were required to do so, they could not write a CV. In Bradford, classes for minority women were provided but, because they did not pass the exams and therefore the outcome could not be measured, those classes were closed. There is a whole category of people who are invisible and who cannot survive, let alone get skilled to join the labour market.
I also have been contacted by Age Concern about these amendments. I have done some work for Age Concern in the past and have spoken from time to time on the employment of older people. I should particularly like to draw attention to the provisions in Amendment 27, which recommends a programme of research into employment prospects for people aged over 50. That is necessary because the Government want us all to go on working for longer since we all live longer. Ultimately, we will have to work a great deal longer than we have hitherto, perhaps for longer than my generation has had to work. This means that some pressure has to be exerted on employers to provide the employment opportunities. There is some evidence that the provisions existing in regard to the default retirement age have given employers the opportunity to dispense with the services of older people when they might otherwise not have done so. There is a need for research of the kind recommended in this group of amendments. It would be a good idea to ascertain the position of older people who want to be in the employment market but are finding it increasingly difficult to do so.
I am afraid that I was unable to be present at Second Reading, but I very much support the intentions behind the amendment of the noble Countess, Lady Mar. Oddly, one of the benefits of the current appalling recession is that it has put into perspective this particular group of people, who will quite obviously have their situation worsened. I think that we all agree that there is already a certain amount of age discrimination among employers, which has been thrown into much sharper relief by the situation that we are all in.
The point that has just been made about the need for the Government to do some research into this area is important and, again, part of an amendment in this group. One would like to see far more thought being given to the long-term question of the need we will all have to continue in work of one sort or another, and to what extent that should include voluntary work and more guidance into second and third careers—at least as much for women as for men. How we work ourselves out of an ageing society will depend on the consideration that this is given at this stage.
There is no doubt that the debate on welfare reform has hardly scratched the surface of the impact on older workers, so I am grateful to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for her explanation of this set of amendments. However, I rather regret that I am only partially convinced by them. There is a weakness in the labour market for those who would not thank me for describing them as being “of advancing years”; indeed, neither the noble Countess nor I would welcome that description being applied to ourselves. Nevertheless, the problem is increased by the recession, which makes older workers more vulnerable to being passed over when it comes to finding new employment opportunities.
I have no doubt that the Minister will tell us that the Government are committed to ensuring all forms of equality and doing away with anything that might be seen as ageist. That is all well and good and, of course, we commend it. However, we must not overlook the fact that, as the noble Countess made clear, those people who are over 50 and find themselves out of work might not have skills and qualifications that are as transferable or adaptable as those of people who are younger and acquired their skills more recently. In those circumstances, it should be a sine qua non that reskilling will be discussed at the work-focused interview; I hope that the Minister can confirm that.
In this connection, I have a tenant in part of my house who some years ago lost his job as an under-manager for a large hardware chain and found that no similar job was available locally. He then discovered that there was a job vacancy as a baker in a local supermarket, for which he applied. He got the job and was retrained. I am sure that noble Lords can think of people in similar situations; indeed, I can think of one fairly close to the Minister: his predecessor.
Joking apart, these examples are, to an extent, voluntary. The Bill talks of an element of compulsion, but the examples are pertinent for all that. Given that the age at which people are deemed to be too old for the workplace, and therefore eligible for their pensions, is by necessity rising, it is essential that we do not have a situation where there are large numbers of people, who may well have a near lifetime of work behind them but are still years away from their pensions, languishing on the unemployment register. In that respect, the noble Countess has a good point that steps ought to be taken to identify need and address problems. However, is that not true of all age groups? It is what, I presume, the tailored, personalised work interviews with a personal adviser will look at. They will identify any special experience and support which each person requires to help them back into work. Again, I am sure that the Minister can confirm that. The noble Countess’s proposals are, therefore, probably unnecessary and potentially damaging to the very people whom she aims to assist. The amendments would take the over-50s out of the scheme being set up by Clause 1 and hold them apart indefinitely while a programme of research was carried out.
If there needs to be some kind of investigation into unemployment among the over-50s, it would be better if it were conducted concurrently with the new welfare provisions and could then be used to inform the personal advisers if any change in their approach to older jobseekers needed to be made. That would inform not only the personal advisers but the Government, because this Bill is, as we all noted at Second Reading, littered with negative resolution orders for the very reason that rapid changes may need to be made. This is one case whereby, as a result of the research that the noble Countess is calling for, a rapid change may very well need to be made—perhaps more than one.
Before my noble friend addresses this matter, can he help me? Perhaps I should know this, but I do not. I know that when we were exploring the New Deal for Partners, which very often tended to be for older people who were unemployed—it was not a particularly successful scheme—one of the problems, given what is happening to the labour market, was particularly for older men who may have been in semi-skilled heavy work, who lost their job at 50 to 55 and could not go back to work, except perhaps to become even further deskilled as a building labourer. That, too, would depend on the situation in the construction industry, and so on. Such men find it very difficult to get back into full-time work. Women with a partner, because they are usually willing and able to take part-time work, find that there is far more flexibility.
Perhaps my noble friend can tell me whether the Government have given any thought or carried out any research on whether we could treat the total work hours of a couple together to make the equivalent of one full-time job, so that they could come into the tax credit regime, if appropriate. He might work for 16 hours and she might work for 15 or 16 hours. In practical terms that would take them over the 30-hour rule. Both would get easier access to the labour market, they might be able to work non-social hours, Box and Cox with each other, and so on. They would then stay attached to the labour market and, as and when conditions were right, they might be able to increase their hours. Perhaps they could be treated jointly.
I realise that there are bureaucratic complexities, but if we are not doing this, perhaps we could start to think out of the box on this. If the two did a part-time job of 15 or 16 hours each, together that would hit the 30-hour rule, which would therefore become a full-time job and would qualify them for working tax credit, if appropriate, and both partners would be happy, satisfied and remain attached to the labour market. I should have consulted my noble friend in advance, and I apologise; but if we are doing any work on this, can he help me, because it would be a natural extension to the work being explored previously by the department on the New Deal for Partners?
I should start by thanking the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for these amendments, because they have raised an important issue for us to focus on. My fundamental concern, which I share with the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is that the amendments could limit the levels of support that we can give to jobseekers aged over 50 at a time when we are more than ever committed to increasing employment opportunities for younger and older people. The impact of these amendments would also be inconsistent with our approach to older workers. Our active ageing policies are designed to help people to remain in the labour market for as long as possible, and we are not writing people off when they reach the age of 50. People are living longer; older people are healthier and more active than ever before and want to be able to work.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As the state pension age starts to equalise from 60 to 65 in April 2010 to 2020, some people who are out of work will need to claim or remain on a working-age benefit, instead of claiming the pension credit guarantee. We need to ensure that our back-to-work help operates equally and fairly for all ages.
At this juncture, I will revert to some statistics because there are assertions that employers are not so willing to employ older people or that for older people employment is more challenging than for other groups. The employment rate for people aged 50 to state pension age has increased in recent years. The employment rate for men of that age is now higher than at any other point since the mid-1980s—higher than the employment peak of 1990. Currently—I suspect that these figures are a little out of date but they are illustrative—the employment rate for people aged 50 to state pension age is 71.9 per cent overall, with 72.9 per cent for men and 70.5 per cent for women. The employment rate for people aged 25 to 49 is 81 per cent. Of course, around 1.3 million people are working past state pension age.
Helping older people to remain in work is good for individuals because it increases their income and enables them to make better provision for their retirement. It is good for employers, who can benefit from the skills and experience they can bring to their business. It is good for the economy because it increases productivity and tax receipts from increased numbers in employment. Let me explain how each of the amendments could unfairly restrict the back-to-work help that is available to older people.
The amendment to Clause 1 would mean that customers aged 50 and over could not be required to participate in “work for your benefit”. I can see no circumstances in which that would be desirable. As many of us in this Room know, being over 50 is not a bar to enjoying the full benefits of a working life. Indeed, as our population ages, we should expect more and more older people to be in work, and we need to do everything we can to help them do so. “Work for your benefit” is a programme designed to help people into work; therefore I cannot see why we would want to deny this group the support that it offers.
The entire direction of welfare reform is to base the support that individuals receive on their personal circumstances, to work with each person and determine what support they need, and not to make broad assumptions about their capabilities or barriers to work based only on their age or any other shared characteristic. The amendment would seriously undermine that approach. That is not in the interests of either the individual or a wider society facing the challenges of an ageing population.
The amendment to Clause 8 would exclude ESA customers who are over 50 from the specific work-related activity requirement, which is a key plank of the progression-to-work model proposed by Professor Gregg. Evidence suggests that conditionality, coupled with support, is effective in moving people closer to work. Pathways to Work increases the chance of a new customer being in employment after 18 months by around 25 per cent and saves the taxpayer £1.50 for every pound invested.
In introducing progression to work, we want to build on the success of pathways in order to help more customers to move closer to work. Within these pathfinders, we will therefore be introducing the requirement for customers to undertake at least one activity between work-focused interviews to support their own route back to work.
I am sure that noble Lords will agree that many ESA customers over 50 will have a great deal to contribute to the labour market, and it is wrong to expect that people will not work again just because they have reached a certain age. I am also sure that many customers in this group would like to find work. It is generally recognised that being out of work and on benefit is bad for health and well-being. ESA customers who are over 50 are not excluded from the current pathways system. It would be wrong to exclude them from the conditionality underpinning progression to work and the benefits that this may provide in helping them move closer to work.
Clause 2 will apply to claimants receiving income support and to the partners of claimants of other working-age benefits. However, the partner of a recipient of a working-age benefit may themselves be over pension age. In that case, we would not wish them to be subject to this clause. That is why the new Section 2D(2)(a) of the Social Security Administration Act inserted by this clause imposes these requirements only on those partners who are “under pensionable age”. The amendment would ensure that these requirements would apply only to partners of benefit recipients who were under the age of 50. That would create a different approach between claimants and their partners.
The conditionality regimes for those claiming working-age benefits apply for as long as they continue to receive the benefit to which those conditions attach; that is, until they reach pensionable age. There is no evidence that would support the imposition of a different age limit for claimants and their partners, and such an approach would be confusing to families and add complexity to the benefit system.
The amendment to Clause 26 would exempt customers who are 50 or over from the new benefit sanction that we are introducing for failure to attend mandatory appointments within the JSA regime. The new sanction will help to enforce a key element of the JSA regime—attending mandatory appointments. These appointments act as a gateway to the support on offer to help customers back to work. They also act as a crucial checkpoint in ensuring that customers are actively seeking and available for work—the fundamental conditions of receiving jobseeker’s allowance.
The over-50s are fully integrated within the JSA regime. They benefit from back-to-work support alongside younger jobseekers and receive targeted help through the New Deal 50-plus, which provides job search assistance, training opportunities and work placements. As the over-50s receive the same level of employment support as other jobseekers, it is only right that they are also subject to the same sanctions when they fail to comply. Indeed, evidence suggests that conditionality, coupled with support, is effective in moving people closer to work. We can see no case for making an arbitrary distinction at the age of 50 or at any other point during a person's working age. All jobseekers should be treated equally; it would be unfair on younger jobseekers if older customers were exempted from the sanction.
Clause 28, as it stands, will ensure that not only people up to the age of 59 as currently but also those aged 60 and over up to pensionable age will get the additional help offered by work-focused interviews when claiming income support or incapacity benefit. Everyone up to pensionable age should be able to expect to get the additional back-to-work support offered by work-focused interviews.
The noble Countess recommended a programme of research. I am pleased to say that we already have an extensive programme of published and planned research and analysis covering the employment position of people aged 50 and over. We are committed to increasing the employment of people aged 50 and over, and this research and analysis is important in informing our future progress.
The evidence for pathways was mentioned, specifically that it does not work for people over 50. As the noble Countess said, it is true that the evidence shows that pathways for existing and new repeat customers is more effective for customers under 50 than over, but that is likely to be because many customers over 50 are longer-term benefit claimants who are making repeat claims and therefore have specific barriers to work that are connected with having claimed benefit for some time. That will not be the case for new ESA customers, who will be subject to the conditionality under the progression-to-work system. New ESA customers who are over 50 will have particular barriers to work, but we are confident that, with the support of their personal advisers, they will be able to overcome these barriers and will be able to do a great deal to support their own route back to work. We will pilot a regime to test what support will be most effective for longer-term benefit claimants who are over 50.
I was asked what safeguards will be built into the progression-to-work system to protect the needs of people over 50. When agreeing work-related activity or issuing customers with a direction to undertake specific work-related activities, personal advisers must have regard to what would be reasonable in the customer’s circumstances. That would include taking into consideration any relevant factors connected with the customer’s age. If the customer feels that the requirement on him is unreasonable, he will be able to request that it is reconsidered under the provisions for reconsideration of an action plan. That is Section 14(4) of the Welfare Reform Act 2007.
If the customer fails to undertake the activity, he will be asked whether he can show good cause for that before a sanction is considered. We are setting out good-cause considerations in regulations. Evidence of good cause may include demonstrating that the conclusions from the work-focused health-related assessment or work-focused interview which led to a direction had not been or were no longer appropriate or relevant to the claimant’s circumstances. If the claimant is sanctioned for failing to undertake the activity, he will be able to appeal the decision to sanction.
We are committed to increasing employment opportunities for older workers. Our programme of research is designed to help us to build further on our support and to share good practice across providers of our back-to-work support.
The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, asked about older workers who cannot speak English. That is a very important point. I would like to write to her in some detail about what should be available at Jobcentre Plus. Certainly there is support for translation and the right to have someone attend an interview with you. With the information I have available, I do not think I can do justice to the support that should be available. In those circumstances, we always need to seek to ensure that it is delivered in a manner in which it is meant to be delivered.
My noble friend Lady Turner referred to the default retirement age, a debate which runs on. She will be aware that we are committed to review that in 2011. One can see the benefits of it being extinguished. Many employers do not operate it anyway—in particular, I am pleased to say, the DWP.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, made the key point that we all have to work longer. On pensions, we have debated what has happened to longevity and to the demographics. There are fewer people around to support the state pension system in comparison with the number of pensioners. Working longer to avoid poverty in older age is one way through that.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to age discrimination. It is absolutely right that we should do everything that we can to challenge discrimination on any grounds and certainly on the ground of age. We believe that it is important that older workers get the help and support that they need to enable them to return to work. I hope that, having heard the explanation, the noble Countess will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
Another key point is the training given to Jobcentre Plus advisers. That issue will run through many of the debates in Committee and perhaps we shall have an opportunity to focus on that in more detail later. It is certainly an important point.
I am very grateful to noble Lords who took part in the debate and for the support for my amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, stressed the increase in the numbers of those over 50 who have become unemployed in recent months since the recession began. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, confirmed my feelings about the need for more research. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that they are doing constant research. If he could let me know, in a letter, the type of research being done I would be very grateful. As the Minister said, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, raised very valid points.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, puzzled me, but perhaps we do not have the rapport that we should have because he thought I did not support him fully in his amendment, but I do. He mentioned reskilling, with which there is a problem. I am concerned that the system is unable to cope. There are not enough properly trained people to deal with the over-50s and understand the man who has worked for a motor-car factory for 30 years and suddenly finds himself, with very little notice, out of work. He might stand at the factory gate with a television interviewer with a microphone in his hand and say, “I have done this for 30 years and I do not know what I am going to do”. That must be very distressing for him and all the people around him. There is a real need for people who understand the pressures that these people are under.
I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, suggested a very bright idea. The Minister did not respond to it, but it would be nice and very helpful if he could take it on board and think about it. The Minister talked about equality and I would talk also about fairness. Employers are taking a long time to catch up with Her Majesty’s Government. They do not seem to observe the age discrimination rules as they should. Far too many people have been turned down for employment or even sacked simply because they are aged over 50 and are extra to the employer’s needs. Most of these people want to be in work and want to stay in work. I am not asking for them to be left out so that they can slack about and do nothing on benefits. The conditionality must be coupled with support, which is not always there, and is what I tried to stress.
More important than anything is the availability of work, which is scarce. It is not available and to put pressures on people when they cannot get a job is unfair.
If the noble Countess will permit me, I should like to speak to two points. Of course the labour market is challenging at the moment, but we should not overlook the fact that there still is a dynamic market. Each month, if we look at the number of people who go on to JSA and those who come off, and look at the vacancies flowing through the system, there is activity in the labour market. I accept her point entirely that, until we get the economy around the corner and growing again, the full range of opportunities that we would like to see will not be available.
The noble Countess is right that I did not respond to my noble friend, which was remiss of me. She is aware that, as regards couples where one or both are disabled, they can access tax credit at 16 hours of work. Otherwise, as she said, it has to be 30 hours of work. In terms of the proposition to combine the position of couples, I would use the escape clause that this is Treasury policy. But it is an interesting idea and worth pursuing. As my noble friend intimated, there would be complexities about how you would join two people for certain bits of the system where they otherwise are taxed individually. There is some complexity in all that, but let us reflect on it.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
3: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, after “circumstances” insert “and claimants which have guaranteed and predictable access to good quality, affordable and flexible childcare which meets the needs of the parents and the child or children in the claimants’ household”
Amendment 3 stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Thomas. I declare an interest as a non-renumerated, non-executive director of the Wise Group, which is an intermediate labour market provider in the Glasgow area.
This part of the Bill is a dog’s breakfast, which makes it very difficult. I admire the attempt made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to have a debate across this important area at the beginning. It will be difficult for us all to get to the principles of some of this because it is such a piecemeal mess. To introduce a fundamentally new approach to welfare to work by amending the Jobseekers Act 1995 is madness. If the Bill passes, we will have a jobseeker’s allowance that people can claim as long as they do not seek jobs. It makes no sense to do this. If you are going to have such a fundamental change in the strategic approach, you should have a proper Bill about it with a couple of proper sections that set out the strategy and enshrine the principles so that we can all have a proper look at them.
This is also a skeletal Bill, and the regulations that flow from it will therefore be difficult to track. They will deal with pilots which last for up to three years, which is another change that has been made. Pilots used to only be for one year. Indeed, in the Jobseekers Act 1995, pilots were only possible when they assisted people. These pilots actually require people to do things. I notice that there was a little finessing of Section 29 of the 1995 Act that enabled the former pilots. That has been changed so that there is broader access to pilots—or are they pathfinders? I do not know when a pathfinder is a pilot or vice versa; it is difficult to make sense of where the legal authority for pathfinders comes from.
I make the general opening point that we are all going to struggle. I will struggle in a minute, with a little flexibility from colleagues. We need to identify the key areas of the principle of this new policy and find ways of discussing them in spite of the actual sections of the Bill in front of us. Having got that off my chest, I perfectly well understand where we are: this is a new employment programme. Actually, it does not need much legislation because employment programmes, such as new deals and things, have been done in the past using administrative procedures.
Clause 1 is about “work for your benefit” schemes. I also object—I will stop being angry in a minute—to the use of inverted commas to do violence to the English language. As other colleagues have noticed, work, which I understand to be paid employment—a contract between an employer and an employee—is nowhere near this clause. The fees of the parliamentary draftsman who came up with the ingenuity of using inverted commas to make the English language mean something that it does not really say should be deducted. Something should happen to him or her; conditionality should be applied.
I have this in my mind as stage 5 of the Flexible New Deal, where people have been in public service for 12 months and getting assistance, and then go to a provider for specialist provision. They have therefore been out of work for two years and are then considered for “work for your benefit”. There are other routes into it, but that is where we are. We are therefore only dealing with the real jobseeker’s allowance—that of people who really need to seek jobs as well as claim the allowance. I understand that.
I use that context as a proxy for a debate about a much wider, fundamentally important essence of welfare to work. I know this because I have looked at schemes internationally. Indeed, the Gregg review refers, interestingly, to some of the Scandinavian schemes, and particularly those of the Netherlands, where it is a given that universal childcare is available. There is no question about that. Around every corner and in every precinct and community, families have ready access to childcare that is not just about looking after your children—all the things in the amendment—but guaranteed. There are entitlements to childcare in these countries. There is predictable access: the parents know exactly where they are in terms of when they have to deliver and can collect children. It is good quality because it is monitored by the state. It is affordable, and it is flexible. All these elements need to be guaranteed before you can seriously begin to deliver what Professor Gregg is trying to do with his new policy.
As has been referred to earlier, we all know the difficulties that that system brings in a United Kingdom context. There are four nation states in the United Kingdom. Of course, Professor Gregg’s remit in his report was to look at the situation in England. The English situation is clear and is set out on page 92. I think the 10-year childcare strategy has been developed since he wrote his report. It talks about universal schooling. There is a three and four year-old part which is not there yet but is to be in place by 2010. How safe will it be to fund? I do not have experience of the English education system but the third bullet point in the report states:
“By 2010 all parents with children aged 5-11 will be offered affordable, school based childcare on weekdays between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm all year round”.
I shall believe that when I see it.
Professor Gregg carried out this piece of work before the credit crunch really matured. We are now a nation facing a public sector borrowing requirement of £175 billion. That is the foundation of this policy. If it is not in place, the policy will not work. It goes on to talk about every community having easy access to a Sure Start children's centre by 2010. Some of these provisions have a pie-in-the-sky element to them. This 2008 report was probably written in 2007 and things have moved on.
It is not safe for this Grand Committee to allow the Bill to pass without absolutely cast-iron guarantees and assurances in cold print that what is in Professor Gregg's submission for his policy initiative, written in 2008, will be delivered. This policy will not be implemented unless it is delivered. It is as important as that. I do not think Scotland will be in that position by 2010, so we are in danger of disadvantaging people who live north of the border. There are precedents for delaying important parts of social policy because of the different backup support in other parts of the United Kingdom. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was delayed by four years in Scotland simply because the backup support and aftercare was not available there. The Government were big enough to recognise that and so it took an extra four years to bring that piece of legislation safely into being north of the border. For all I know, that might well be the case in Northern Ireland and in Wales.
This subject is that important to the successful deployment of this policy. We really need assurances because people are frightened about this policy and I am not surprised because the past experience of conditionality and so on has been dire. Bearing in mind that this will not all be delivered by Jobcentre Plus professional staff, the Government’s response to Gregg said that there will be 9,000 personal advisers. It will be delivered by people like the Wise Group and, like everything else in life, there are good providers and less good providers. If Professor Gregg is saying that co-ownership is the core of this policy, what will be the relationship between the personal adviser and the parents who say, “If I take this advice because of the deployment of this policy, it will prejudice my family’s and my children's development”? Where will the balance lie? Who will make the final decision? What examples are there of what the Government have considered would be a reasonable decision?
Professor Gregg is right. On the next amendment I may surprise people by supporting the Government more than they might imagine from the position I am taking now, but the key thing about Gregg is that he gives the claimant the voice, whereas the Bill gives the personal adviser the decision. He is making a decision about children's development in relation to childcare. There should be a balanced negotiation involving some guarantee of control in any decision about whether jobseeking conditions should continue to apply, but it has been left to a personal adviser who may be on a contract. The situation remains opaque, and is set against a background of where this policy has been in the past. I am not surprised that people are really frightened about it.
Other colleagues have made the point about morality and transport and issues of that kind, which all compound the difficulty of providing childcare sensibly. If people cannot go the distance and find the necessary public transport, that is difficult. This is a crucial area. I do not know how the pilots or pathfinders will work around this. It would be interesting to know if you could find an area that had all the childcare provisions to which Professor Gregg aspires in 2010. You could try this in an area such as that and then try it in a much more challenged area such as rural Wales in the valleys, where transport is difficult, and compare and contrast them. For all I know, these pilots will last for three years.
There is another point that colleagues need to remember. I understand perfectly well about the lack of jobs but Professor Gregg is talking about this policy continuing for 20 years after this recession is over. That is where he is starting and that is the vision that his document contains, if he is to be believed. It will take a long time to get this right, but we cannot safely introduce this policy at all unless childcare is guaranteed. I, for one, am not convinced that that will be the case in 2010, when this legislation is enacted. I beg to move.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. I see many things as I go around the country. The other day I visited a children's centre, which shall be nameless, and it was excellent. I asked people there, “How many children do you manage in this nursery school?” They answered that 29 was their maximum. I then embarrassed them by asking how many children of an appropriate age there were in the area that it served. After a certain amount of thought they came up with a figure of 700. I admit that there were two other children’s centres in that area, but I regret to say to the Minister that I think that he is being provided with information that needs to be proved. I do not believe that a lot of it is the case in terms of the availability of childcare in this country today, nor the quality of it. What I hear is that, because of the important conditions that the Government are laying down for childcare to ensure quality, quite a lot of child carers are dropping out of the system. We must also recognise that we are in a fluid situation. If we get our facts wrong on this point, we will do something very bad for the children of this country.
I have two amendments coming up later on exactly this subject. It might have been better if they had all come up together. I support the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, because, as other noble Lords have said, the availability of childcare is a major issue. I am unsure about the capacity of personal advisers to make these decisions about what childcare facilities should be accepted by the parent. The parent should have the final decision about whether or not childcare is satisfactory. There are major issues around childcare and I simply wanted to log my support for the concerns already expressed. I will return to these issues later.
As I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, I suddenly realised the problem of this Bill: the infrastructure is not in place. It is a little like building a whole lot of houses in the middle of a field and not having roads, water supplies, electricity and telephones. I leave it at that.
I add my concern about the amount and, of course, quality of childcare available. So many Bills that overlap to a certain extent are currently going through, and this issue also comes up under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. Reading the debates in the other place clearly indicates that there is concern about proper use and involvement of the voluntary sector, which for so many years was the only provider of childcare. Because it is relevant to this and the many other Bills that we will no doubt be dashing from one Committee Room to another to try and take part in, I would like to know exactly what the Government think the pool of childcare is, and whether it involves a proper use of those facilities. I personally know that many are closing down as a result of the centres understandably wanting to concentrate their activities in this one area. I would be grateful if the Minister could take that point on board.
In York, those who are entitled to have some payment towards their childcare, particularly teachers in primary schools, are not able to access it because they have been told that the firm providing the care would go bankrupt. There is a real problem with decisions and statutory rights, and the delivery thereof.
There is absolutely no doubt that childcare, which the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, will remember came up strongly when we debated the original order on lone parents some two years or 18 months ago—I do not know; it does not matter—is vital to the whole scheme of things. The question is how you deal with it.
In moving the amendment, the noble Lord made an impassioned plea for considering the importance of childcare. This obviously ties in with our opening debate on school-age children when I pointed out the obvious: parents will understandably be reluctant to get involved with any scheme that they might consider to adversely impact upon their children. Many of your Lordships agreed with me, including the noble Countess, Lady Mar; I was listening.
For those parents with children over school age and therefore subject to the new proposals, the availability of childcare is a vital consideration in helping them make decisions about what they feel that they are able to do for themselves: preparing for work, being in work and so on. I may have misunderstood the problem, but I was informed that it was a particular concern in Scotland, where the Childcare Act 2006, which put a duty only on councils in England and Wales to provide sufficient childcare for working parents, does not apply; I am sure that the noble Lord would be the first to comment on whether I am right or wrong. This Bill covers Scotland as well.
I expect that childcare will form a major part of the agreement reached between the adviser and the parent seeking work. Perhaps the Minister will be able to develop this point for us when he responds. What will happen to those parents who need childcare but cannot find any suitable? The Minister has already said this afternoon that, in that case, there will be no need for lone parents to be subject to the rigours of Clause 2. Indeed, that comment was made both in Committee and, I think, on Report in another place.
The important thing is for us to discover how flexible the new provisions will be when taking childcare into account. The Liberal Democrat amendments raise the question of predictable access to childcare. The wording of the amendments is perhaps a little problematic, but I shall come to that in a minute. I am interested to hear the Minister explain how the “work for your benefit” schemes can be applied satisfactorily in cases where access to childcare is available—but they may well change.
For example, a programme which is agreed with a parent may take account of there being childcare available after school hours from 3 pm to 5 pm—the noble Lord said 6 pm, but it does not really matter. What if, two months down the line, when school breaks up for its first holiday, it turns out only then that the necessary childcare is not available? Will there be sufficient flexibility built into the system to cope with that? The problem I see with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, important as it is, is that it is very difficult to legislate explicitly for predictability. Having childcare available when it is needed is, of course, highly desirable; in fact, it is more than highly desirable, it is essential. However, it is rather more difficult to guarantee it. Rather, we need to make sure that the scheme is sufficiently tailored to allow maximum flexibility, so that, instead of fixing events into a back-to-work plan, the plan is adaptable enough to react to events. I hope that the Minister will agree that this would be the right approach, rather than trying to put words into legislation.
Amendment 3 would mean that claimants could be required to participate in “work for your benefit” programmes only where there is a guaranteed and predicable source of good quality, affordable and flexible childcare available to them that meets the needs of the parents and the child or children in the claimant’s household. That is the thrust of the point which the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, expanded on. When he introduced his amendment, he ranged more widely and perhaps I may comment on a couple of his points.
He talked about the structure of the Bill being a framework Bill. That is not unusual; as the noble Lord will well know, social security Bills and welfare benefit Bills are structured on that basis, partly because piloting or pathfinders are embedded within them, and there is a need for flexibility on some of the detail in due course.
Will the Minister accept that this has been a growing phenomenon over the period of this Government? There have been an awful lot of framework Bills, especially in the work and pensions area, which are supplemented by secondary legislation. It has always been extremely difficult to cut through the framework of the Bill to understand exactly what will happen. This is why so many amendments that have been tabled would be described by the officials behind him as “niggling”. They are not niggling at all.
I accept that any amendment has a proper purpose behind it. I do not mind how many there are, as long as we have the time to get through them all. I would not accept without detailed evidence the proposition that the use of a framework approach to legislation has become worse or grown under this Government. It certainly existed under the previous Government.
Amendment 49 would make similar provision with respect to work-related activity under Clause 2. I fully understand why the noble Lord and the noble Baroness have tabled this amendment but I hope I can reassure Members of the Committee that it is not necessary. Parents who are mandated to “work for your benefit” schemes need reassurance that their children will be cared for in a safe and secure environment while they participate. This is less likely to be an issue for parents undertaking work-related activities under Clause 2 because it should be possible, for the most part, to build these activities around their caring responsibilities. However, there will be instances where participation may require the use of childcare. Some parents may be able to call on informal sources of care, such as grandparents, to meet their needs. This is the choice made by many working parents. Others may require formal, paid childcare.
The first reassurance that I can give noble Lords is that, when setting up their jobseeker’s agreement, parents can agree certain restrictions on their availability for work because of their caring commitments. A lone parent may, for example, agree with their adviser that their caring responsibilities mean that they have to restrict their job search to employment of 20 hours a week. In this instance, they would not be required to participate in a “work for your benefit” scheme for more than 20 hours a week.
I also reassure noble Lords that, for those who choose to use formal childcare, affordability should not be an issue. Parents who necessarily incur childcare costs when participating in “work for your benefit” programmes or work-focused activities will have all reasonable costs met. This will ensure that childcare is affordable and that customers on employment programmes are not worse off by virtue of the requirement to participate.
Of course, the availability of suitable provision may be as significant an issue for parents as affordability, and these amendments seek to ensure that a person could be required to participate in such a scheme only where there is guaranteed and predictable access to good-quality, affordable and flexible childcare.
I have to point out there can be no absolute guarantee that a parent will be able to access exactly the childcare that they need.
Will the Minister say who will be responsible for determining whether the childcare is “reasonable” and all the other adjectives that he attaches to it? That is the crucial point; do these personal advisers have to determine that, and, if so, will they be qualified to make those decisions?
We should be clear that, at the end of the day, childcare is the parent’s choice. One might conceive of circumstances in which, perhaps in extremis, an individual was restrictive and rejected what was available locally. That might be seen as a route to defeating the thrust of the legislation, but it is important that it is ultimately the parents who make the decision. Jobcentre Plus advisers will be able to help them to understand what is available in the market, but it is for parents to decide.
Is the Minister aware that Annette Brooke, my honourable friend in another place, discovered yesterday that there are 10,000 fewer registered childminders than six years ago and that the numbers are still rapidly declining? This is rather a serious figure.
I was not aware of that particular exchange yesterday. I have some data on the availability of childcare, which I will come to in a moment. Perhaps at this point I should make it absolutely clear that if appropriate childcare is not available, there could be no sanctions on a parent for not adopting a certain course of action. That will always be the case.
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, if it was accepted that there was appropriate childcare provision at the start and then something happened down the line to change that, the requirements of the action plan could be adjusted. There is scope to revisit the arrangements in the light of those changes.
Would the Minister be kind enough to explain something to me? I am a little confused now. If it is to be the parent who decides but there is a view that they may be being unreasonable, what is the process then? What will the penalties be? We need to understand this as the Bill goes through.
The process will clearly be an engagement between the Jobcentre Plus adviser and the individual. I envisage information being provided to the parent about what is available locally and what could be accessible. One cannot be certain about all these things, but I guess we can all envisage circumstances in which a lone parent might use childcare issues to avoid their obligations. A judgment might be made at some point. Given all the information, all the provision that is out there and the fact that the costs of it will be met in appropriate circumstances by Jobcentre Plus, if a lone parent still refuses to access childcare, the provisions for sanctions and conditionality will kick in. That is a different situation from a Jobcentre Plus adviser saying on a routine basis, “You must place your child in this provision”. That is not what is envisaged. Ultimately, it has to be the choice of the parent. Nobody is going to force a parent to place a child in any particular provision but, in extremis, we could all conceive of circumstances where failure to do that would not be a good cause under the provisions.
I am sure my noble friend would want to remind the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that there are well established appeal procedures. Following a decision by the local adviser, it would go to a decision maker who is an EO, or even an HEO, and, if necessary, beyond that. If the lone parent felt there was good cause, then I am confident that even if, for some reason, an unreasonable decision had been made by the local job adviser, there is plenty of opportunity to review it and, I hope, correct it.
My noble friend is exactly right. Sanctions are appealable and before that stage there is an opportunity to revisit the conditionality imposed on someone.
There can be no absolute guarantee that parents will be able to access exactly the childcare they need at the point they need it, and a judgment about predictability of service is almost impossible to make. Therefore, while I entirely sympathise with the amendment, its effect would be completely to neutralise the new provisions in the case of those with children. Rather than deal with the issues as the amendment proposes, we will use regulation-making powers to introduce provision that mirrors that which we introduced to support the new lone parent obligations introduced last November.
These regulations deal with decisions on good cause, as I just outlined, for any act or omission on behalf of the claimant in relation to certain jobseeking obligations, such as non-compliance with a jobseekers direction or failure to take up a suitable offer of employment. They prescribe that good-cause decisions must take account of both the availability of childcare and the suitability of any provision in relation to the specific needs of the parent or child. This will ensure that JSA claimants who are parents, including lone parents, will not be sanctioned if they fail to participate in “work for your benefit” or work-related activities because they cannot secure appropriate childcare. The availability of childcare is an important consideration for many of our clients who are seeking a return to work, not just those required to participate in schemes under Clauses 1 and 2. We understand that, and we will ensure that the safeguards already in place will be replicated for these new programmes.
Amendment 5 requires jobseekers to participate in “work for your benefit” schemes with a view to improving their prospects of obtaining employment,
“with guaranteed and predictable access to high quality, flexible and affordable childcare acceptable to the parent and child”.
The principle that we will adopt here, as we do in other areas of welfare-to-work provision, is to allow parents to source from the childcare market the provision that suits their particular needs. In some cases, this childcare is provided by employers, for example, through workplace crèches, but in the vast majority of cases it is not. We will continue to adopt the principle of allowing parents to source appropriate provision as this offers them the widest possible choice. This will, of course, be underpinned by the safeguards I have just outlined relating to good cause for failure to participate, ultimately through an appeals route, as my noble friend said.
I shall pick up some of the individual points. We will not make people work for their benefit if there is no childcare to support them. Safeguards exist so that customers will not be sanctioned if lack of appropriate childcare prevents them participating in “work for your benefit”. I want to make that absolutely clear. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked why we do not wait until we have completed the wraparound childcare and it is in place. According to our information, the availability of childcare places has more than doubled since 1997. The Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on local authorities in England and Wales, and we believe that the Scottish Government’s published objective to support access to employment and training through the provision of flexible, accessible, affordable childcare will continue to improve coverage over time. If that belief is misplaced, which is the thrust of some of the comments that have been made, there cannot be consequences for the lone parent in terms of conditionality, directions or, ultimately, sanctions, to be imposed upon them.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Skelmersdale and Lord Kirkwood, referred to the Childcare Act not applying in Scotland. Of course, we have yet to decide where the “work for your benefit” pilots will be. However, the Scottish Government recently published a document entitled The Early Years Framework, which includes a key objective of ensuring that parents in Scotland are supported in accessing employment and training to help to reduce the risks of child poverty, including through the provision of flexible, accessible and affordable childcare.
A number of comments were made about the current extent of provision in the UK. My data say that we have over 3,000 children centres in England and are on target for 3,500 next year. I have visited some as well—I do not remember how many we have in Luton, but about three of them. There is a robust plan to have a couple of dozen, maybe more, and these are fantastic facilities that are really making a difference to people’s lives. Seventeen per cent of primary schools and 79 per cent of secondary schools are already offering a core extended service for childcare and support.
On contracted-out provision, our contract specifications will make clear that decisions on the type of support and work experience undertaken must be taken in consultation with the client and not in spite of them. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, talked about the balance of power in the relationships. We want the Gregg vision of co-ownership, and directions backed up by sanctions are for hard cases. All the evidence we have shows that they are necessary. However, I can guarantee that there will be no conditionality where there is no childcare acceptable to the parent.
On the quantity of provision available, for August 2008, taking into account turnover, over 664,000 new Ofsted-registered childcare places, net, have been created since 1997. At that date, the stock of registered childcare stood at over 1.3 million places—more than double the 1997 level. Registered places are being delivered by 89,000 childcare providers, including around 64,000 child-minders. In 1997, there was a registered childcare place for one in eight children under eight, whereas now there is a registered place for one in four. There are 12,000 out-of-school clubs. There is extensive provision—
I do not have the costs in front of me; I do have them buried here somewhere in a note. I understand that the average cost is below the maximum that is provided under the tax credit rules. Obviously, there could be variations across the country but, with support from the Box, I believe that that is the provision.
I have dealt with the point of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, about flexibility if there is to be a change—
Before the Minister reiterates the various arguments, I should say that on this matter of the cost of childcare—and when it is available, when it is suitable and so on—it may well be unsuitable because it is unaffordable. The Minister has said twice this afternoon that subvention is available from central government in those cases. Can he expand on that and tell us what the budget is for that?
I am aware of that, but if we are looking at Clauses 1 and 2, pathfinders will take them forward. The extent of the pathfinders has not yet been determined and until they have been structured and identified, the extent that there may need to be childcare support cannot be calculated.
Yes, of course it does. I think I am right in saying that in the “work for your benefit” pathfinders, the provision is £20 million. Obviously, that figure covers all the components. Specifically in relation to those pathfinders, there are detailed provisions that suggest how much might have to be provided in terms of childcare costs.
I think the noble Lord is trying to draw me into an analysis of a figure that, at this stage, is just a total sum. How that sum is deployed will depend upon how the pathfinders are designed, which areas they are in, what the level of provision will be, what the cost of provision will be and what bids will come from providers in terms of their costs. Until we have gone through that, I cannot split that figure down in further detail. We are right at the start of the process of designing these pathfinders along with stakeholders. Doubtless, as these things develop, we will be better able to give some specifics on the point the noble Lord is probing.
The Minister misunderstood me, and I probably expressed myself badly. The second time I asked the question, I was asking it in global terms, not in precise financial terms. In other words, I did not want to know that £1 million of the £20 million on the original pathfinders was likely to be spent on childcare. I was asking whether the £20 million includes an amount, let us call it X, for childcare. That was what I was trying to pin down.
I was trying to answer the noble Lord’s question as best I could. A budget of £20 million has been set aside to develop the pathfinders. That will cover a range of costs that have to be met. The answer is a clear yes.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, asked about average costs. I understand that on average a full daycare place costs about £150 a week.
I am grateful for that answer. It was very useful. I think that only until I think about it a little more. It seems to me that if what he said is true, it takes away my complaint about the prospective inadequacy of the services come 2010. Is he saying that the provisions we are putting into legislation allow that when the facts of the individual case are established in relation to childcare and the parent is acting reasonably, parents have the ability to say no to jobseeker’s directions or any element of their jobseeker’s action plan for the foreseeable future? Is the Minister saying that the power is in the Bill and it is in the Government's mind that that should be the normal run of the mill? There are always exceptions because there are infinite varieties of family circumstances and they change all the time. Is the Minister saying that the power resides with the parent to say that the facts are agreed and it is not in the family’s best interests and that the parent will be allowed to leave aside any further activity provided for under jobseeker’s allowance? If that is what he said, that is massively helpful. I am not trying to be clever here; I am just trying to understand. If that is not right, perhaps he will write to us because people will be watching this very carefully. If that assurance that I have just tried to describe as accurately as I can stands, we can move on because the situation becomes a lot clearer and an awful lot better.
Let me see if I can be as helpful to the noble Lord as possible. If there is not appropriate and affordable childcare, that should be reflected in the jobseeker’s agreement. If there were to be any suggestion of sanctions that flowed from directions, in looking at good cause, no sanctions could be levied on the individual if there was no appropriate and affordable childcare or appropriate transport. That is the clear intent. I think that the noble Lord was trying to press me a little further. Notwithstanding the fact that there may be a range of good quality, affordable childcare, if a parent says, “I do not want to avail myself of any of that. I do not think that that is something I want to do”, would that lead an individual to the same position? The answer is that it probably would not. We should hang on to the point that you could see circumstances where someone would simply point-blank refuse access to any decent, available provision and thereby escape the regime. We do not intend that to happen.
My formulation covers that because that would be acting unreasonably. If there is childcare across the road and a parent says, “I don’t care. I am going nowhere”, that would be acting unreasonably. I was very careful about that. It comes down to what is the provision and who agrees whether or not it is fair. This is a really important point: it is the parent who judges the reasonableness. It is the parent who says prima facie, “That is unreasonable for me. It is my child and my future”. If they are acting unreasonably, that is understood and no one would want to give them a blanket exemption just by pleading inadequate childcare, flying in the face of the circumstances that obtain at the time.
Again, I wonder whether my noble friend can help us. Are we still eliding the distinction between progress to work and employment? Where we are dealing with employment, we are dealing with children whose youngest age is seven. Therefore, they would fall within the school day. It may well be that the child is tired and does not want to stay on for an elongated day and so on. That seems to be very different from issues about childminders et cetera. Where you are talking about progress to work and a child aged between three and seven, we know that at the age of three the child is able to go into part-time nursery school. I know of no parents who refuse that offer. They are delighted that their child is making that step.
We might need assurance from my noble friend that the regime of progress to work and the amount of activity it engenders is such that it can be perfectly reasonably done within that sort of part-time care provided by nursery schools, kindergartens and so on from the age of three, of which every parent I know is delighted to take advantage. It becomes oppressive or unreasonable only when you have to find additional care beyond that, with which the parent is uncomfortable because they feel that it is inappropriate for their child. That does not seem to be necessarily the situation with progress to work.
That is an interesting point. I disagree for the reasons in the Gregg report. Gregg says that the categories, or the arbitrary ages of seven, 10, two or three, do not matter. It is about the family circumstances. Through my work with the Wise Group, I have seen parents who, having given birth, want to go straight back to work. In their circumstances, it is right for them. There is an idea that you should categorise people and set up circumstances depending on what kind of client group they are in or what box they tick. We should be moving towards, which we will come to in the next amendment, a system so professionally supported that people will want it. The noble Baroness made the point about giving bonuses. It is about all of that.
I am blind to age and I do not care so much about it. I listened carefully to the debate earlier and I understand the points that were made and why they were made. People are frightened of the system at the moment. In future, however, we should be able to say “Come on down” to anyone in any circumstances. Age does not matter.
It is not reasonable to go from the Gregg report to this legislation because a lot of the philosophy behind the Gregg report is to some degree misconceived; it is certainly not being taken as a straightforward transposition from the one to the other. I think the noble Lord would accept that. From my experience, every lone parent who is anxious to go back to work, as has been said and as Gregg would encourage—I absolutely agree with that—has nearly always got their childcare sorted, or, if not, they are up to the last point of getting it. Once you have got to that point, it really is easy.
The problem is those parents who, often because of misdiagnosed ill-health, moderate depression, lack of skills, lack of self-confidence, feeling battered or low self-esteem, cannot even get the energy going to get into the progress-to-work activity. That, over and beyond poverty, overshadows, very often to awful effect, the quality of life of their children. That is why I asked my noble friend much earlier on for examples of what this would look like. This progress-to-work activity must be a comfortable fit for what the parent with care for fairly small children can manage in the hours during which the child is likely to go to school. Beyond that, it becomes oppressive. A lot of the Gregg report is not terribly relevant because the Bill has gone beyond that; it has gone in different directions from that.
I will pick up on a couple of points that have been made. My noble friend is absolutely right to draw a distinction between the progress-to-work group of provisions and the nature and length of engagement that they are likely to require at any point. The expectation is that that could generally, as I think I said earlier, be accomplished under the arrangements that a parent already had. There is a distinction to be drawn between them and the “work for your benefit” group of provisions in Clause 1 because there is typically a requirement to engage for possibly 40 hours a week, 10 of which are focused on job search and employment support, although if someone’s jobseeker’s agreement has already established that they should not be available for work or seek to work for more than, say, 20 hours, that would be carried through into the “work for your benefit” rules.
I shall now get back to the very reasonable point on which the noble Lord pressed me earlier. The best way in which to approach it is to say that the parent is in the driving seat and will decide what is suitable for their child. Ultimately, however, when it comes to deciding whether a direction was reasonable or whether a person had good cause not to follow it, clearly the decision-makers in Jobcentre Plus have to take a view on what was reasonable in those circumstances. Nothing in all this requires parents to be directed to place their child with any particular provision, although consequences may flow from that. I hope that that helps. I have forgotten where we are and whose amendment this is.
A sudden thought has come to me. We keep talking about one child. A lot of women have three or four children under the age of seven. What is childcare going to cost them? What is transport going to cost them? Has that been taken into consideration?
Yes. The support is at the tax-credit level. There is a rate for one child and a rate for two or more children. That is the rate that we would use. If there is more than one child, they are not necessarily at the same school, so again issues such as the timing of the arrangements and transport costs would have to reflect the circumstances of the family as a whole.
I would be grateful if the noble Lord would tell me whether I am out of order in raising an issue. It flows from what the noble Countess has just said. If the cost of childcare for four children plus transport is more than the net amount which will be derived from the employment, can a parent still be forced to take that option?
I seem to have a figure of £175 for the first child and £300 thereafter. I think that comes through the tax credit system. I come from rural Scotland where that would be adequate for the purpose, but I do not know whether it would be adequate in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I do not care how we get there, but this policy is dependent on the decision made between the parent and the personal adviser. If the Minister is saying that the parent is in the driving seat, I am prepared to settle for that. I do not think that the wording of the policy in cold print makes that clear and I do not know whether there is any scope for trying to clarify it. It might be difficult. People may think I am naïve, but I am reassured by what I have been told. Later we shall be able to look at this very carefully on other amendments tabled by colleagues which will give us time to reflect, which I will appreciate. I believe that the Minister is trying to get to the right place, but I am not sure we are there yet. The question is what is reasonable about the circumstances applying factually in each case? I shall settle for what I have, regroup and get ready to fight another day, unless further inspiration is appearing over the Minister's left shoulder.
I have two points. When we look at what is included in good cause, which we shall debate later, that is building on what is already in the system in relation to regulations. You can see what is written at the moment and how it is employed in practice. Perhaps I can ensure I have this absolutely right. For the progression-to-work group, Jobcentre Plus will pay for childcare and not the tax credit system. The tax credit system sets the parameters of the amount and we are tapping into those limits. I hope that is sufficient comfort, although I accept that the noble Lord will wish to reflect on the matter.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, leave out “designed” and insert “personally tailored”
Amendment 4 simply takes out the word “designed” and replaces it with “personally tailored” so that new Section 17A(1) would read:
“Regulations may make provision for or in connection with imposing on claimants in prescribed circumstances a requirement to participate in schemes of any prescribed description that are personally tailored to assist them to obtain employment”.
The purpose of the amendment is simple. It is to ensure that claimants would be required only to undertake “work for your benefit” schemes that were personally tailored to assist them to obtain employment, and would not be expected to take part in any old scheme, however unsuitable. The Minister will, I am sure, say that the word “designed” does the same thing, but it is in reality a long way from “personally tailored”.
In the other place, the then Minister—various Ministers have gone in the other place—stated that appropriate safeguards would be incorporated, presumably in regulations, to ensure that the work experience offered was suitable and relevant to an individual’s circumstances. In which case, why not put this undertaking in the Bill to allay the fears of many people that claimants will be placed in inappropriate, one-size-fits-all “work for your benefit” schemes? If we are to have this approach, we need to make sure that it will really help someone find a suitable job, and is not going to be looked on as some kind of punishment. I beg to move.
I have been asked to join the Committee at this stage by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. One brief look at the wording of the amendment will tell you why he considers it appropriate, if you know his wicked sense of humour.
The noble Baroness has tabled an amendment which could have sparked off a very large debate, but the amendment seems to be more of a probe. I expect that this is a theme to which we will return more than once in our deliberations. The amendment seeks to ensure that claimants would be required only to undertake “work for your benefit” schemes that are personally tailored to their needs, rather than, as the noble Baroness said, one-size-fits-all schemes, which may not be suitable or effective. She is concerned that the Government’s claims for providing high-quality, personally tailored employment and skills to support claimants is not backed up by any precise wording in the Bill.
The noble Baroness is worried that, as currently worded, the Bill would allow for claimants to be required to participate in “work for your benefit” schemes that are simply “designed”, but not apparently designed for anything much in particular. This raises an interesting question. Can the Minister be any more specific about the design of the scheme? We know from our bumper information pack that personal advisers will be on hand to offer, we are told, carefully tailored advice and support to participants. This is, of course, subject to all sorts of questions which I and other noble Lords will raise in our debates. I am thinking not least of the training which will be given to Jobcentre Plus staff for providing a personally tailored service.
I expect that the Minister will have full responses to all our concerns, as and when they are raised in the coming days. It will be through careful examination of all the Government’s proposals, rather than hearing a warm assurance of good intentions from the Minister—welcome though that may be—that Members of the Committee will be able to determine whether the service that has been “designed” really has been personally tailored.
The difficulty between the words “designed” and “tailored” is that “designed” assumes that all mothers are exactly in the same boat and that one design works. We need to have a cost-benefit analysis of tailoring. How much does it cost to prepare a home-based woman from a minority, who is not familiar with the English language, and who has not had an English education to become available for work? What kind of work does she get that would pay for the care of two or three children? Unless and until we have sensitivity to different cultures and minorities we will be unable to cope with this problem in, for example, Bradford. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of this House, I have not seen Muslim women in positions of decision-making in sufficient numbers. I am interested in finding out how much it costs to train culturally sensitive people who are not on the scene now as far as we can see, and what the cost benefits would be in getting a woman who is providing good care of her children to become a lowly paid charlady and then paying for her children to be cared for. I am sure that it would be very good for her children, but what would it do for the family and for the woman?
The Minister may be amused to know that almost exactly 50 years ago I started to work for what was known as the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. In those days, we had designed benefits. Everything was two pounds and 10 shillings a week. We only had five benefits and we did not deal with unemployment benefit. The progress that has been made since then is admirable, but we need to take care with how we deal with the people for whom we are trying to find employment. Every individual is different and they all have different needs. I am thinking of people who may not be very well but who want to work just the same. I am thinking of people who do not have the language but want to work just the same. We need staff who are trained to be able to cope with those sorts of things. The difficulty again arises with how we can split those staff, because different people live in different areas. We return to the cost benefit of this and I am concerned that it has not been thought through completely.
I was provoked by those two powerful contributions because one of my spies in the department gave me the staff survey appraisal that has just been published. It goes to the heart of whether the department is in a position to get this significant change of policy across. In the 2009 staff survey, which enjoyed the attention of 73,000 people in the department who responded, only a minority of the staff think that the department is well managed and that its executive team has a clear vision for the future. There are a lot of interesting statistics here, one or two of which I will offer the Committee for consideration because they feed into the capacity and morale of the department that will take forward the rollout of this programme.
Only 28 per cent agreed with the statement:
“I believe the DWP Executive Team has a clear vision for the future of DWP”.
The survey went on to talk about resources, with 43 per cent of respondents agreeing that there are usually sufficient people in their units, so there are some staff capacity issues there. Finally—and this is only one of a selection with which I could entertain the Committee with song and dance for some time—33 per cent of staff disagreed or strongly disagreed that their part of the DWP is committed to delivering a quality customer service and less than half agreed that it acted on feedback received from customers.
That is a very comprehensive survey and I selected those statistics rather carefully, but I wanted to add to what has been said. Unless the department is really up to the mark, and professional training, resources, capacity and morale are clearly in place for 2010, we risk this policy failing. The Government have a lot of work to do in trying to make sure that this can be delivered properly and with confidence.
The more I have listened to this relatively short debate, the more I have become convinced that the proposed amendment strikes the right note. I find it difficult to understand the line of the Conservative Bench, because they do not seem to be in favour of the amendment, which describes entirely what we are trying to achieve and puts it very clearly. I am taking no account of those criticisms which were produced by a spy, apparently, in the department. This is a sensible way of outlining the care that will be needed in working out these plans, which I would have thought the whole Bill was trying to achieve. I support the amendment.
I will start by responding to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and his comments about the staff survey. Jobcentre Plus in particular is under enormous pressure, given the volumes that it copes with, and in my view is doing fantastically well. It is still meeting the targets that were set for its operations in an environment that was much more benign. As we debated in the Budget this year and the PBR last year, considerable additional resources were made available to Jobcentre Plus so that it could address the issues and programmes for which it was put in place. I know that the noble Lord goes on visits around the country, but in my visits to Jobcentre Plus I have seen the incredible dedication and commitment of the staff who have been involved in changes to the processes around JSA in particular. They have avidly awaited those coming on stream so that they could give more support and help more quickly to their customers. I found it truly impressive. Snapshots of staff surveys have a role, but I suggest that we need to see the wider context.
The amendment seeks to enshrine in legislation that the support offered by “work for your benefit” must be “personally tailored”. I agree that this is the type of support that we want providers to offer customers, but I do not think it appropriate to specify that in primary legislation in the way that the noble Baroness suggests. All welfare-to-work programmes are designed to help people obtain work, irrespective of their personal circumstances. I readily accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, that some individuals’ circumstances are very challenging and a lot of support should quite properly go to meet their needs. It is the nature of the support offered that is personally tailored to an individual, not the principle of the programme. What should be tailored is the personal support to an individual, whereas the programme itself may in some circumstances be a more general programme.
As drafted, the amendment would require us to design separate programmes for each customer, rather than provide tailored support in a single programme. In “work for your benefit” we plan to have an overarching design that specifies the broad level of work experience required of customers and the level of employment support we expect them to receive. We will then ask providers to source individually tailored work experience placements and deliver additional support that is specific to each jobseeker’s barriers to work. The procurement approach we will take will be similar to that taken with the Flexible New Deal where we specified that:
“Suppliers will deliver work-focused support, tailored to each individual’s needs and consistent with local labour market requirements”.
“Every customer, including those with more substantial needs, will receive a level of support appropriate to their level of need”.
Using contracting rather than the legislative approach gives us the flexibility we require to respond to changing market and economic conditions without resorting to further primary legislation. I hope the noble Baroness will be convinced that that is the right approach and one that we have used successfully up to now.
In terms of resources and capacity, before we undertake any new programme, the department examines its operational readiness to implement it and we plan to pilot the programme to see if it is successful in helping people find work. Through our evaluation, we will also be able to ascertain the experience of Jobcentre Plus in referring customers to the programme. The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, asked whether it would cost too much to support some people as they need to be supported. Providers’ costs will be balanced. Some people will cost more to support and some will cost less, but we are clear that providers must address each individual’s barriers, whatever they are.
I think that the ratio of £1 invested to £1.50 returned is saying that you can recover all your costs and, in a sense, be in profit, although I do not like to use that terminology in this context. That is a broad issue around the spectrum of our programmes.
Perhaps I may deal with a couple of other points. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that “work for your benefit” schemes should not be seen as a punishment. It is not about punishment but about ensuring that the long-term unemployed have opportunities to develop work habits and experience that will stand them in good stead as they move closer to work.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred to the cost-benefit of helping the harder to help. I stress that we do not want to write anyone off, and it would be wrong to tell someone that they cannot participate because their circumstances are deemed to be too difficult. That is an absolutely fundamental part of our approach.
I hope the noble Baroness will accept that framing the amendment in this way is not particularly appropriate, although I do not think that we are apart on what we want to achieve, which is an individually supported approach.
I suppose that there are limits to the analogy of tailoring, but I can see circumstances in which someone’s situation is sufficiently of a regular fit for there to be an off-the-peg solution to their problem. There are dangers in that, however. I am thinking of the Paul Whitehouse character in the television programme who convinces the person in the ill-fitting suit that it “Suits you, sir”. I hope the Minister will understand that while it is understandable that there will be patterns that are capable of being resolved by reciprocal patterns, there are also individual cases that are extremely complex and will require considerable focus and invention to get the right solution for that individual. I hope that nothing that the noble Lord is proposing in this legislation removes that from the facility that will be available for people.
I suggest to the noble Lord that in a way we are trying to square an impossible circle, because some people—the noble Baroness gave some examples—are a long, long way away from employment. Imagine a ladder, if you like. The person who is anxious to get back into work is on, say, step nine of a 10-rung ladder. Some people are only on step one or two, and in no cost-benefit analysis can it ever be worth us investing in them to get back to work.
However, the alternative is to write them off, as my noble friend said. That is also unacceptable. I suggest, and I hope, that this would come home clearly if we could see what some of the progress-to-work patterns would look like, because at the end of progress-to-work I am quite sure that there will be a minority—I hope a tiny minority—who will never engage, as we would understand it, in the wage labour market. The process of engagement, possibly by doing some voluntary work, by being encouraged to settle and sort out their housing situation, and by getting some of their debt under control, means that none the less they will be better parents and that they and the child will enjoy a better quality of life, and a richer one, even if the final outcome is not what we would want. We may have to accept that for all sorts of reasons, including poor mental health, some people may remain a long way from the labour market. Investment in them and their personal skills will surely have repercussions over and beyond a narrower version of a cost-benefit analysis of a return to work.
I shall pick up one or two points. I want to be clear about the definition of “work for your benefit”. They are people who are work-ready, but as my noble friend Lady Hollis has said, “work-ready” might mean they still have quite a long way to go. We probably need to distinguish them from people who have limited capability for work and who would access employment and support allowance where progression-to-work might apply but not “work for your benefit”.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said that we cannot have an off-the-peg solution for everyone. That is absolutely right, but there is a distinction between having a programme that might apply to several people and ensuring that the support is specifically focused on an individual’s needs rather than analysing the needs of that individual and always tailoring a specific programme to meet those needs. I do not think that is necessarily required. That is the distinction we are trying to reach.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate for their support, especially the noble Baronesses, Lady Afshar and Lady Howe. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor—very aptly named—was fairly supportive. This point relates only to “work for your benefit”. I must warn the Committee that I have another amendment that is exactly the same; it is about claimants of ESA and income support and partners of claimants of those on JSA and ESA. I was thinking of someone who is a vegetarian being asked to shadow in an abattoir. Such problems have happened. That is a favourite example of my late friend Earl Russell.
I am very glad to hear it. The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, made a good point about the cultural problem. I wonder whether that has been addressed enough. I thought that this would be the simplest amendment we would deal with today but it has already taken 23 minutes. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendment 5 not moved.
6: Clause 1, page 1, line 16, leave out “work, or”
I hope matters will get simpler now and we shall move forward a bit faster. I have five small, probing amendments. As the Minister will remember me saying, and as is my wont, if I do not understand the Bill, how on earth will we get to Report stage with any degree of alacrity?
The amendment is the first of many, but it has a double purpose, one of which is to do something which the Minister is sometimes resistant to: that is, being pinned down, as he explained in an outburst half an hour or so ago. New Section 17A(2) to the Jobseekers Act 1995 is the second of 387 references to regulations in the Bill. The purpose of these regulations is to require participants to undertake certain activities in order to improve their prospects of getting a job. That covers an initial interview, at which it is decided what would comprise the steps needed to meet that objective.
My second amendment would require the lone parent to undertake certain activities to improve their prospects of getting a job. This would cover an initial interview at which it was decided what would comprise the steps that were needed. This amendment to line 16 of page 1 seeks to discover exactly why and where work comes into the whole scheme of things. I understand that it is absolutely essential to have this progression and the work-related activity to get there, but surely work in itself is work-related. Therefore, why do we need the word “work” in this subsection?
We agree that blurring work and work-related activity is very confusing. I think this was the noble Lord’s point. “Work for your benefit” is a tough slogan, whereas “work-related activity for your benefit” does not work nearly so well. If this is what is meant, we should know this. In the Peers’ information pack about the Bill, we see the sentence:
“Customers will be required to take part in full-time activity for up to 6 months”.
Full-time activity is a new phrase. It would be nice to know what it means.
It might be the right time to bring up another matter. Will the Minister answer a question that I asked at Second Reading? Will he say whether a claimant could be required to work full-time for six months at the JSA rate? I did not receive an answer from him at that point, but it would be useful to know whether that could happen or was very unlikely to happen. While we are on this subject, the Peers’ information pack raises another matter: personal advisers are to be allowed the flexibility to refer claimants earlier than at the two-year point if they feel that this would be beneficial for the claimant. I assume that these claimants will be in the pilot areas only. Will this be by mutual agreement, or will the adviser be able to issue a direction? The department seems to be moving the goal-posts at will, which makes scrutiny rather difficult.
Clause 1 is specifically about making provision for “work for your benefit”. “Work for your benefit” will be a significant increase in the support that we offer and the activity that we require long-term jobseekers to undertake; namely, up to six months of full-time work experience. This clause is designed to ensure that there is no doubt about our ability to require this of jobseekers.
The amendment would, on the other hand, leave considerable room for misunderstanding about the scope of the powers in this clause: for example, whether full-time work experience is actually work-related activity or work. That kind of ambiguity cannot be good for anyone. It is certainly not good for what we seek to achieve here. However, given the nervousness about the use of “work”, it might be useful to put on the record exactly what we intend for “work for your benefit”. I hope that this will offer some reassurance.
Participants will be expected to do full-time work experience—that is, up to 30 hours a week—but it could be less if the claimant has caring responsibilities, for example. This will be backed up with up to 10 additional hours per week of wider employment support to help claimants to capitalise on the experiences that they are gaining. The work experience will not be one-size-fits-all. Placements will be sourced by providers on an individual basis based on the needs of the claimant and we will expect providers to support claimants in those placements. We will not specify what type of work experience the claimant must do, nor will it need to be in any particular sector. It will depend entirely on the aspirations of the claimant and their barriers to work. This does not provide any easy answers when people ask what type of work people will be doing, but it is entirely the right approach.
In this clause we could specify to our hearts content what we expect of participants, but in the end it would do nothing more than restrict the innovation and creativity of providers and guarantee that someone, somewhere would be unable to do the kind of work experience they need to. I hope that this gives some reassurance that there is no need for this amendment. In using the word “work”, the text is intended to make clear that participants will be required to undertake work-related activity that is different or more intensive from that in which they have previously participated; namely, full-time work experience over a period of up to six months.
The proposal is for 40 hours per week, but up to 10 hours of that would involve work experience, work support or perhaps jobseeking activity. It would not all have to be work experience in terms of a placement at a particular operation. As I mentioned earlier, if someone has a jobseeker’s agreement under which they have restricted hours during which they can look or be available for work, those restricted hours will carry over in the “work for your benefit” provisions.
The work experience part is intended to be 30 hours. One of the big differences between how the programme is applied in the US and what we envisage here is that the work experience needs to be accompanied by support for actively seeking employment and employment support along the way. It is not at all about dumping someone on an employer and not having these other components. Research from international programmes has shown that if you do not have those other components, you are much less likely to be successful. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Countess. So it is 30 hours work experience plus 10 hours for job search. I hope that that has helped the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I think so. I apologise for the inadequate way in which I moved the amendment. I am very grateful to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for helping me out and pursuing my questions. I will have to read carefully what the Minister has said, but in the words almost of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, I think I am satisfied. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
7: Clause 1, page 2, line 3, leave out “or be able to do so”
I am afraid that this amendment will take a little longer. My second amendment covers the situation in new subsection (3) where someone is not already in work. At least, that is what it seems to me. This prompts a simple question for the Minister: what are the words “or remain in” doing here? How can work-related activity be carried out at the same time as someone is working? I take the point that the Minister has just made about the split between the 30 hours and 10 hours in his illustration. None the less, I am not quite clear how this works. Why should it be necessary for this to be provided for, unless the word “work” covers part-time employment and work-related activity is intended to help the individual into full-time employment, which may or may not be what the Minister has just sought to explain to the noble Countess, Lady Mar? If so, he will tell me?
Some time ago, I received some correspondence that caused me to ponder the subject of part-time work vis-à-vis the Bill. A letter I received is particularly telling and went something like this:
“I have obsessive-compulsive disorder in the form of a washing obsession. This is a disorder that affects one in 100 people and is listed among the 10 most debilitating illnesses in terms of loss of income by the World Health Organisation.
I have an illness which means that I cannot work nine to five. I am unable to work set hours and days every week, even part time. I tried and failed. My only option is to find freelance work that allows me to fit work around my washing and other obsessions.
However, the Government’s reforms involve rolling out a programme called Pathways to Work, a programme that, in practice, regardless of what they say, is only for people who can work a set amount of hours per week on a permanent basis. I have already been sent on this programme and turned away because my illness does not fit this box.
There is no help and no advice available at my Jobcentre Plus for people looking to do freelance work. There is literally zero advice available on the topic or support for coming off benefits while attempting to do freelance work. The Government says that you can get the support and advice from Pathways, but I have found that this is not the case in practice. They are paid for each person they get into employment, and as it would take several months of quite intensive support to help me, it is not worth their while, I suppose.
In addition, permitted working hours/amounts make it impossible to try to get freelance work. They state you can’t earn more than £20 a week. Actually, it took over a year to discover it’s possible to average out weekly earnings over a period of time, but nobody volunteers this information or supports you to do this work. The permitted work earnings of £92 a week do not apply unless you are doing that every week for 52 weeks, which I wouldn’t be because I would have to be finding and building up work slowly. However, if I did briefly go over the £20 limit, I would automatically fall into the £92 a week group, and so, after 52 weeks, be forced to give up all benefits or give up work.
Supported permitted work rules (that also allow £92 a week) don’t apply either because my mental health team don’t want me to do paid work, only voluntary work, and won’t support me to do freelance work. The rules don’t seem to apply to freelance work, and you have little say in recovery”.
What a horrendous tale of bad operation in Pathways to Work from a person who is trying desperately to get into work through the part-time or freelance avenue and does not appear to be allowed to do so at the moment. What do the Government intend to do within the context of the Bill to help people like this? I beg to move.
I listened to the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. It is difficult to respond in detail without having the chance to review the facts, but I am happy to take the specifics back to the department. From what he said, it seems that the Pathways to Work programme was involved. It is part of the employment and support allowance for incapacity benefit, not part of the JSA route, and therefore Clause 1 provisions about “work for your benefit” would not apply in those circumstances. Clause 1 is before us and is the subject of the amendment. Whether the individual is correctly based on ESA or not depends, as we have discussed on the Welfare Reform Bill, on the work capability assessment and what flows from that. If the noble Lord would kindly send me the details of the case, I will have it looked at by officials, if he wishes. However, I suggest it is a separate issue from what Clause 1 focuses on, which is people who are subject to full conditionality under the JSA regime and the proposed amendment to that, which I shall address briefly in my response.
The amendment would remove an important aspect of the definition of work-related activity as it applies in Clause 1. As currently drafted, work-related activity can mean activity that is designed to get people back to work, but also activity that is designed to improve someone's overall employability. It could, for example, be activity that would bring someone closer to the labour market or improve their chances of retaining employment over the longer term. It could also mean activity designed to allow someone to progress in work when they have found a job. The effects may not be immediate.
“Work for your benefit” in particular is primarily about work experience, the positive effects of which will grow with time. For example, we expect that “work for your benefit” will allow customers to develop work habits, experience routine and gain knowledge of work environments in ways in which they may not have done for some time, if ever. All of those things may be appropriate for any given claimant at different times. The amendment would therefore restrict the range of support that we may require a claimant to participate in and that is something we resist.
The definition of work-related activity used in Clause 1 is the same as we are currently using in the Welfare Reform Act 2007 and as we use in Clause 2 of the Bill. Accepting the amendment would result in a number of different definitions being used in legislation, which can only confuse the matter. I hope that, with the offer of help on the specific case raised by the noble Lord, he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I wish to clarify a point. The letter to which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred, was also sent to me as president of Mencap, which shows yet again the problems that arise in the differentiation between mental health and learning disability. The person who wrote that letter was not clear on that particular point. I took a more practical position with regard to the letter. I referred her to Mind, which should be able to do battle on her part.
I am grateful for the noble Lord’s intervention. Yet again, if there is any way that we can help, together with Mind, I am happy to do that. We are working with Mind on some pilots that we are developing around the issues of mental health and employment.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for pointing out the error of my ways. None the less, in your Lordships' House the right mode of attack for most of us is to send such letters to the Minister and that is what I intend to do. What I quoted from was a précis of a précis of the original letter sent by our joint correspondent. However, I was not so much using it to illustrate the inadequacy of the training of Jobcentre Plus employees or the inadequacy of the amounts of money involved. I was trying to discover whether, in the context of this Bill, the word “work” included part-time work—for example, the 10 hours a week that the Minister spoke of earlier. In other words, could it be employed part-time work? I hope that the answer to the question is yes.
If we are looking at the “work for your benefit” provisions, I will just recap. They are intended to apply when someone has been away from the labour market for a long time. Typically, in relation to Flexible New Deal, it would be someone who has been through the first year of the Jobcentre Plus stages and then had a year with the New Deal and has still not accessed employment. Those are particularly the people we are seeking to support with this arrangement. However, we are trying to focus this on 40 hours per week, some of which will be work experience and some of which could be a job search and other employment support. An individual who was on JSA prior to entering this programme may, under their job seeker’s agreement, have restricted hours when they have to be available and that would carry through, so a part-time engagement could be what “work for your benefit” produces for them.
It is more specifically to ensure that we cover people who are now involved in work experience which may not immediately move them into employment. This will enable them to sustain employment in the longer term. That is why there are two bits to the description.
We are looking at the short term and the longer term. The words “or be able to do so” are meant to ensure that we can cover those situations when someone may be a little further away from getting employment. It comes back to the nature of the legislation. It is a framework but we need to ensure that the sorts of regulations which we would want to develop are going to be as supportive as we want for people. We need to ensure that the legislative framework for that is clear. That phrase is there for that reason.
This has become a rather semantic debate. Clearly, the Minister is absolutely definite that he does not want to throw the baby out with the bath water and this particular phrase is the bath water. With that comment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
8: Clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 10 to 12
It is clear from new subsection (5)(a) that the personal adviser needs to notify the participant of the need to undertake work-related activity. I assume that that will take place at the original interview when the sort of work-related activity will be proposed and, in theory, at least, be agreed. What happens if it is not agreed? A sanction can hardly operate here unless the participant is being unreasonable. It could well be that the personal adviser is promoting a quite inappropriate course of action or it might be that the personal adviser simply does not click with the participant. What does the Minister envisage happening then? Will there be an opportunity to find another personal adviser?
Irrespective of those questions, new subsection (5)(b) makes provision within the regulations for a case where a person is not—that is the important word—required to participate in a scheme. Can the Minister give us an example? The subsection goes on to say that there are occasions when the participant is not required to meet certain conditions. Again, I am not quite sure what might occasion that. I hope that the Minister can explain it to us. I beg to move.
“Work for your benefit” will be a full-time programme. People may be required to do up to 40 hours of activity a week for up to six months. We think that that intensive support will be invaluable to people who are long-term unemployed but may, on occasion, make it difficult for some people to fully meet the technical requirements of entitlement to JSA. For example, jobseekers are required to be available to take up employment within 24 hours if necessary. This may be difficult if a participant has to rearrange childcare or transport arrangements.
The ability to waive some areas of the entitlement conditions will allow us to take some of these things into account and ensure that the “work for your benefit” programme is not hamstrung by bureaucracy. We would not want to create a situation where a claimant was not able to meet their conditions of entitlement because of something we required them to do. That would be not only absurd, but also deeply unfair. The amendment would remove our ability to make these easements and could result in just such a situation. I can reassure noble Lords that we do not intend to remove all requirements to look for work or to take up employment, which would clearly be counterproductive. This provision is not about excluding people from “work for your benefit”; it is just easing the other job-seeking conditions.
One hopes that at the end of six months an individual would be able to reach and sustain employment. If not, they would return to the Flexible New Deal, or to Jobcentre Plus at an earlier stage of the journey through the jobseeker’s allowance process.
It is a little vague to say an “earlier stage” in the process. Does that mean that they go back to stage 1, with the initial interview and all the rest of it, and the personal adviser suggests—and it is agreed—that they try some other form of moving him or her closer to the labour market? Or is there a later stage to which they go back?
Let me see if I can provide the noble Lord with a little more detail. If the individual goes back to Jobcentre Plus, they would go back to stage 3 of the process. There are three stages; the first three months is a self-managed job search, the next three months is a directed job search, and six months after that there is a supported job search. It is stage 3, the supported job search, to which people would go back. That regime involves a range of things, including the jobseeker’s agreement being reviewed, mandatory referral to skills support for jobseekers who have extra barriers to work, six weeks of weekly signing, and then back to fortnightly signing. Alternatively, they may go back to the Flexible New Deal programme involving external providers. I hope that that puts more flesh on the bones.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
9: Clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 13 and 14
This amendment removes lines 13 and 14 on page 2, which correspond precisely with new Section 17A(5)(c). That allows regulations to be made which suspend,
“any jobseeker’s agreement to which a person is a party for any period during which the person is a participant”.
I should like an explanation of this if the Minister can provide it. If the jobseeker’s agreement is suspended, what happens to the jobseeker? I am not talking about going back at the end of the six months to the beginning of stage 3, but a rather different situation. Is he now unemployed again, or is he deemed still to be in his agreement, pending reinstatement? How will this be recorded? Will this conveniently keep him off the unemployment figures, and what is expected to happen during the suspension? What efforts will be made to keep the participant engaged, which after all is what the whole of this clause is about?
Once again we are coming up against the problem of the Bill appearing to be quite innocuous, but the devil, which of course is in the detail, is nowhere to be found. I would have a clearer understanding of this part of the Bill if the Minister were to clear up some of these questions, which, I must say, he has been very successful at doing so far. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Lord for this amendment, and indeed for the series of amendments. If it can help to clarify things for the record, it is time well spent. However, the amendment would remove our ability to suspend a jobseeker’s agreement while a jobseeker takes part in “work for your benefit”, which could have a number of peculiar consequences. As noble Lords may know, complying with a jobseeker’s agreement is part of the entitlement conditions for jobseeker’s allowance: that is, if you fail to comply with it, you will no longer be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance.
The jobseeker’s agreement contains not only information on the kind of work that a jobseeker should look for and the hours for which they must be available for work but information on the steps that they must take to get back into work. These can be small steps such as searching the internet every week, or larger ones such as attending the jobcentre daily to look through vacancies. However, given that the “work for your benefit” programme is full-time, it may be unreasonable or actually impossible for jobseekers to undertake these steps in addition to the “work for your benefit” programme.
Indeed, it would be perverse of us to penalise customers for not complying with their jobseeker’s agreement when they cannot comply simply because they are participating in a mandatory employment programme. Therefore, we may in some circumstances wish to suspend the jobseeker’s agreement to avoid this. It does not mean that we will not expect jobseekers to continue to search for work. That is a fundamental part of the “work for your benefit” programme. Nor does it mean that we will not take account of any restrictions in the jobseeker’s agreement on the types of work or availability that have been agreed with Jobcentre Plus. We will honour those agreements, which will be carried into the “work for your benefit” programme.
I hope that that explains to the noble Lord why we need that provision. To be absolutely clear, its suspension would not affect the claimant or ILO unemployment data. It is nothing to do with seeking to manage the statistics, which never enters our head.
Managing the statistics was only one of my questions but, given the lateness of the hour, perhaps we had better let it go at that.
The problem with finding an amendment on which to hang a hook for a particular lot of questions is that the Minister falls into the temptation every time of explaining what it would mean if the particular word that I have singled out in the amendment was left out of the Bill. That has nothing to do with this case at all. That is bad luck. I want to know why the word is there.
I did not hear the Minister respond to my question about what will happen during the suspension. I may have missed that answer. If I have, I will get it from Hansard tomorrow.
I probably did not deal specifically with that. It depends on someone’s journey into the “work for your benefit” regime, but that will be provided by an external provider, so there will be a point at which the individual moves from a Flexible New Deal programme to the external provider. That will be the relationship. It will be the external provider’s role to work with the individual to organise the “work for your benefit” scheme and everything that flows from it, but the individual will still be entitled, as I said, to claim jobseeker’s allowance. They are still in the claimant count. Nothing changes there. The jobseeker’s agreement is a crucial part of the process, because compliance with that agreement is a condition of being able to claim the benefit.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
10: Clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 22 to 24
Paragraph (f) of new Section 17A(5) is very important because it will lead to the participant being sanctioned, which we know from the debate on the sanctions order on 27 April could in extreme cases lead to loss of benefit for as long as 26 weeks, as is shown by subsection (6), to which I have an amendment. But—to my mind it is a big “but”—is this not a repetition of paragraph (e)? Paragraph (e) makes it clear that the regulations will contain those matters which are, and which are not, sanctionable. That paragraph explains what constitutes “good cause” to fail,
“to comply with the regulations”.
Illness is an example that springs readily to mind and lack of available transport is another, both of which have been mentioned in Grand Committee. However, the Minister will probably be able to tell us other reasons for “good cause”.
But why is it necessary to have to paragraph (f)? What is the difference legally between whether a participant has or has not got, under paragraph (f), “good cause”, and whether the matters referred to in paragraph (e) constitute “good cause” and, therefore, by inference constitute what I might term “bad cause”. To my mind that is tautology. I hope that the Minister will be able to straighten me out. I beg to move.
I shall do my best to straighten the noble Lord out. This amendment would, in practice, cast doubt on the Secretary of State’s power to prescribe circumstances in which a customer automatically has, or does not have, good cause for failing in their responsibility to take part in the “work for your benefit” scheme. I know that this is a probing amendment. In the area of sanctions, where a claimant could lose their benefit, it is essential that we ensure there is consistency in decision making. To do otherwise would risk unfairness and inequality. Therefore, the ability to make these regulations is essential. However, it may be helpful if I take this opportunity to set out in a little detail the principle of good cause and how we propose it will operate with regard to “work for your benefit”.
Benefit sanctions are designed to provide incentives for jobseekers to engage with the back-to-work support we offer, although there are some perfectly good reasons why claimants may not be able to meet certain requirements at particular times. In these circumstances, customers are deemed to have good cause for not complying with regulations. This is a safeguard built into the system to avoid customers being unfairly sanctioned. In “work for your benefit”, we plan to adopt the same approach to good cause as existing employment programmes. This ensures that flexibility within the system to deal with individual circumstances exists. Using secondary legislation to prescribe certain circumstances will give us the right level of consistency, but also flexibility to ensure each customer’s case is considered on its merits. In “work for your benefit”, as with other employment programmes, Jobcentre Plus decision-makers will always assess all available evidence when making good-cause decisions.
I trust that that gives the detail the noble Lord seeks on why we need that provision. The noble Lord was particularly probing the difference between paragraphs (e) and (f). Paragraph (e) refers to,
“prescribing matters which are, or are not, to be taken into account”,
and paragraph (f) refers to “prescribing circumstances”. The difference is that “matters” relates to the extraneous events that affect the ability to take part. We see “circumstances” as being more personal to the claimant—for example, their health. This distinction is found elsewhere in social security legislation. I hope that that reassures the noble Lord on why we need each of those provisions.
The fact that a particular way of expressing the law occurs in other social security legislation is often taken by Ministers as a good reason not to change it, but life moves on. Goodness knows, life in Parliament moves on, as we have seen over the past three or four months, culminating in the past week. The fact that “matters” and “circumstances” are distinguished in earlier legislation does not matter to me very much; after all, you cannot have matters without circumstances pertaining to those matters—with which thought I shall leave the Committee and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
The Committee stands adjourned until Thursday at 2 pm.
Committee adjourned at 7.25 pm.