Monday, 22 June 2009.
Welfare Reform Bill
Committee (5th Day)
71: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Work-related activity: additional premiums
(1) The Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (c. 4) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 135, (the applicable amount) after subsection (6) insert—
“(7) The applicable amount shall include an amount in respect of a work-related activity component if the claimant undertakes work-related activity as defined in section 2D(8)(c) of this Act.”.”
I shall be moving Amendment 72 as a separate amendment, but I shall not move Amendment 73, as we have already explored the issues in it fairly fully. However, I should like to make a couple of points that relate to both Amendments 71 and 72 before going into the detail of Amendment 71.
As I am sure members of the Committee appreciate, I should like to emphasise how much I support the philosophy of the Bill to keep lone parents attached to the labour market. The later you return to work, the harder it is. The best way of helping children out of poverty is to help their parents, particularly a lone parent, back into work. I was delighted to see that half the mothers on the NDLP programme—the New Deal for Lone Parents—were volunteers, even though they have young children, because they were attached to the labour market and had recently worked.
Secondly—and we have said this before—I believe that we are making a profound mistake if we try to fit lone parents, with all the pressures they face, into a model of JSA designed for the feckless 22 year-old young man who does not care to get up in the morning. One of the problems is that JSA is conceptually based on men; it assumes that they are either out of work and, without a health reason, therefore lazy, or in full-time work—one or the other. There is no recognition of, and probably no need in that situation for, sensible disregards, mini-jobs or stepping stones—all the things that make sense for lone parents who not only have children whom they are bringing up single-handedly but who may have been out of the labour market for some time and need a more gradual re-entry than just pressure and hassle. We do not want the lone parents dichotomy of slammed doors—in work, out of work. We need a staircase, a ladder, so that every hour you work you are better off. Therefore, although we want to encourage lone parents who may have lost the knowledge, confidence, even the will to re-enter waged work, we should encourage them by additional premiums, not sanction them by cutting their benefits. You sanction the lone parent, and you sanction the child.
Amendment 71 proposes that we offer women on IS who are required to engage in work-related activity a premium or an additional component. Currently, if they are on employment and support allowance, they receive an additional £24 above the JSA rate for participating in a series of work-focused interviews. But no such additional premium is proposed if instead, because of the age of their child, they are on IS. Instead, they will receive a sanction, as will their child, for failing to do what the adviser has required.
I do not understand why one group of lone parents gets the premium and the other does not when they are both required to participate in work-related activity. In practical terms, we are far more likely to get a positive response and outlook from lone parents with an additional premium than with the threat of sanction, which impoverishes and demoralises both them and their children.
This amendment proposes what the Government themselves proposed for this group of lone parents in paragraph 2.70 of their July Green Paper No One Written Off. It says that,
“to encourage those with children under five to take part in these activities voluntarily at an earlier point in time, we will also pilot a “skills for work” premium for agreed activity, on top of existing benefit entitlement”.
Note the language—it says, “We will also”, not “We may”, not “We shall consider”, not “We shall reflect”, not even “We shall consult”. And then nothing.
We know that the amendment is in line with the Government’s original proposals, which seem to have got lost. Can we hope that this is a temporary loss of memory, and that we can help my noble friend recover it on behalf of the department? Can we hope that my noble friend, appropriately nudged, will come back with his own amendment to introduce a work-related premium to lone parents in this situation? I beg to move.
I shall be brief as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has said it all, including the quote that I was going to make from the Green Paper. This is the ultimate carrot for lone parents, which we on these Benches support. As she suggested at Second Reading and today, giving lone parents on income support who come under the provisions of the Bill a financial incentive to undertake work-related activity would be a much better idea than sanctioning them if they failed to comply. As she has said, claimants of the work-related activity component of ESA already receive an additional premium of £24 above the JSA rate for participating in work-focused interviews. So the concept of this kind of carrot is not new. We thought that it was going to be in this Bill because of what was in the Green Paper.
Basing the new policy on incentives rather than sanctions is a much more attractive proposition. It may be worth noting that when my honourable friend Paul Rowen suggested this proposition in the other place, the then Secretary of State, James Purnell, seemed to be confused. He referred to the additional financial support available to single parents starting in employment, not to those in the progression-to-work group of single parents. We support the amendment and look forward to hearing the Government’s reply.
I heartily support the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in her amendment. Income support is not generous. For mothers having to struggle on benefits, the thought of losing benefit is more likely to be a disincentive than an incentive to the join the groups and the steps leading to work. It is very important to encourage rather than to penalise. I should like to say, “Well done to the noble Baroness”.
I must confess that I got confused when reading this first amendment on today’s Marshalled List. We are looking at an amendment which would insert a new clause to the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act, which in turn appears to refer to work-related activity, as defined in Section 2D of the Social Security Administration Act that is about to be created by the Bill. It is a tortuous path and I must confess that I am not there yet. But I hazard it that the aim of the noble Baroness’s amendment is to make sure that any money or at least some money on a work-related activity does not count towards any amount disregarded as income on which supplementary benefits are based. From what the noble Baroness said, she was talking about £24, which is the same amount as is available under ESA, to which I will turn in a minute.
I am not sure that I agree with the noble Baroness in her basic proposition. For a start, I am not at all clear that work-related activity will produce any income. I had assumed that if one was earning money from an activity, that would be work. We have touched on this before, but perhaps this would be a good opportunity for the Minister to clarify these definitions. If the work-related activity does not produce an income, the applicable amount referred to in the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act would not be affected one way or the other. However, should the work-related activity generate an income, what reason is there for that to be entirely disregarded, which, as I understand it, could occur under the amendment? Let us take the hypothetical situation—I admit that it is very unlikely—where a participant in the back-to-work scheme lands a work-related activity which pays more than the amount that they would receive on benefits. Why should there be a total disregard so that full benefit is paid as well? I accept that this extreme scenario will almost certainly never happen, but the principle remains. I, too, would like to know why a single parent is to receive no disregard, while a single parent with a disabled child would receive a disregard. It seems totally illogical, and I, too, look forward to what the Minister has to say.
I thank my noble friend Lady Hollis for the amendment and for her express support for the policy thrust of the Bill. I say with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that he has conflated issues in this amendment with the amendment that is to follow. I think that the thrust of this amendment is that there should be a work-related component available for those undertaking work-related activity. It is the next amendment which looks at a level of disregard, which my noble friend’s amendment seeks to increase. We need to unpick those things. I note also that my noble friend’s amendment has the support of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas.
While the amendment has wider connotations, it is clearly directed at our intention, under Clause 2, to require lone parents and partners of benefit recipients to undertake work-related activity as part of the conditions for full benefit entitlement. We know that the vast majority of those on benefits aspire to work at some point and that paid work is good for them and their children in nearly every circumstance. To help more parents meet their aspirations and do more to eradicate child poverty, we have continued to invest heavily in evidence-based policy measures during the past 10 years. The changes that we are discussing today are a further step forward along that path.
This is all positive. However, as we have taken forward evidence-based policies, we have learnt that there is more we need to do. We have learnt from the current conditionality and support regime that we have in place that there is still a very significant disparity between the numbers who would like to move into paid work and those who actually take steps toward achieving this. We therefore want those parents in the progression-to-work group to undertake appropriate and personalised requirements as part of the condition of their benefit entitlement.
Here, I need to part company with my noble friend, because the thrust of the provisions in the Bill is focused on personalised support, the aspiration being that their level of support should be driven not by what benefit a person is on but by the help that they need in meeting those barriers to work.
To deliver this, we will ask claimants to agree with an adviser the steps that they are willing to take to make progress towards a return to work at the appropriate time for them. To help them achieve this, we shall provide a system of highly flexible and personalised support from the outset. The model of conditionality and support that we want to test is based on an expectation that they will undertake these agreed activities as part of their journey towards employment. Without this, many parents who can move towards the labour market will not take up the assistance that is available so that they can start to move closer to the labour market and be better placed to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
In addition, we will ensure that we adopt a very broad definition of work-related activity that encompasses more traditional training, skills and job-related support, and wider, socially inclusive measures such as volunteering, undertaking parenting programmes or consulting a debt adviser. We therefore want to test this approach on lone parents and partners with a youngest child aged three to six by introducing pathfinders in 2010, as we have discussed in earlier Committee sittings.
We do not believe that it is right to look at a single component of a particular benefit and compare it with another where the structure and client group are radically different. That is why we have decided, notwithstanding the quotes that my noble friend read out, not to mirror the employment and support allowance provisions in the progression-to-work pathfinders.
We acknowledge the extra difficulties and costs which lone parents face because of the caring responsibilities for their children. That is why they receive child tax credits and assistance with childcare payments. The extra expenses which occur when a lone parent on income support undertakes work-related activity are mainly for childcare and travel. That is why Jobcentre Plus will reimburse childcare costs and travel expenses, including those relating to travel to the childcare facility. Lone parents with a health condition can, of course, claim employment and support allowance and, if they do, they may qualify for the work-related component.
I appreciate that linking the requirements to undertake work-related activity with the payment with a specific additional premium can seem attractive but I think the noble Baroness will recognise that it is only reasonable in the context of the support provided as a whole. On that basis, I ask my noble friend not to press her amendment.
As often happens in the development of policy, we focus on one issue and then move on. The thrust of the proposition which we want to test through our pathfinders is to encourage people through a progression-to-work path. We give them support to undertake that journey and, in a sense, that should be the incentive which helps to move them from where they are to attaining work and all that that can mean. In shorthand, we have moved on from where we were.
Moved on or perhaps moved back—I am not sure. Has my noble friend any research evidence based on pilots, pathways or anything else to show whether the additional premium has been attractive and effective in delivering the outcomes of the programmes he seeks? Usually we do that and usually we find that it works. Can my noble friend share any such information with us?
We have very limited experience of the employment and support allowance. It came in only in October last year and it is far too early to evaluate its impact. I stress again that the thrust and focus of ESA is for people who are disabled or who have a health condition and, therefore, to mirror that exactly is not necessarily appropriate. That is why I return to the fact that we want to test the conditionality provided for in the Bill.
There are also issues about the extent to which sanctions effectively encourage compliance. The internal Department for Work and Pensions’ administrative data show that, under the current income support regime, around one in 20 lone parents who are subjected to the work-focused interview regime are sanctioned each year but of those sanctioned more than half go on to attend a work-focused interview within six months. We do not see sanctioning as the objective of the regime, as it means a failure of the regime, but there is evidence that a sanctioning regime is a necessary component of the conditionality in which we ask people to engage.
Let me make it clear: I do not object, in principle, to the issue of sanctions as I absolutely accept that without sanctions a lot of DWP proposals and initiatives become voluntary when they are meant to be statutory. I understand that. Can my noble friend tell me—I should know this, so forgive me—whether the Bill contains capacity through regulatory power to introduce a work-focused premium at a later stage by regulations as opposed to primary legislation? I understand the point my noble friend is making that at the moment he has no evidence to suggest that we need a work-focused interview premium let alone a work-related premium of £24 a week to add to the attractiveness for lone parents of coming into the programme and that, at the moment, he thinks that sanctions will be good enough because he has evidence that they work, to some degree, for lone parents failing to attend work-focused interviews at six-monthly intervals, but should he be proved erroneous, as is quite possible, and as there may be varying patterns in the country according to how far one lives from opportunities—a rural pathway may be very different from a city one with decent transport and so on—does the Bill contain the powers to introduce such premiums by regulation, whether on a piloted, regional or any other subset basis or would he have to come back for primary legislation? Can he assure me that there are powers by regulation and that as a result we will monitor this and see whether we need to introduce it? If so, I would be much more accepting of his position. If not, we may need to consider the matter.
I would need to check in more detail, but I do not believe that the Bill provides for a work-related component to be introduced for people on income support or on JSA after transfer across. It would need a change to primary legislation to achieve that.
Would not my noble friend welcome having in his back pocket the possibility at some stage down the line of introducing an additional work-related premium, so that if it was thought desirable it would not depend on primary legislation but could be introduced, possibly after consultation? If he were not willing at this stage not to go for this amendment—I accept that he is not going to do that—but to use his best endeavours to come back at Report with an agreement or statement to the effect that regulations would be possible to cover this, should it be shown to be desirable in future, I would be content. Would he do that?
I understand the point that my noble friend presses on me. I reiterate that it is no part of our current intent to have a work-related component for work-related activity outside the ESA regime. Our policy is as set out in the White Paper. The short answer is that there is no provision in the primary legislation at the moment, but I shall certainly go away and think about whether there should be. However, I do not want to give my noble friend false hopes on that, because it is not the intent. If all lone parents on income support with a youngest child between three and six received a work-related premium of about £25 a week, which is the ESA work-related premium, the cost would be of the order of £300 million a year. That assumes no change of behaviour; I accept that that does not necessarily follow. But the short answer is that there is no provision in the Bill at the moment and no intent to include one, but I shall take away my noble friend’s point.
I do not think that the noble Baroness will be very pleased with me, but I caution the Minister in his thinking on this issue to divorce himself from any idea of introducing it in pilots. The situation between those in the pilots and those not in the pilots would be seen as monstrously unfair. I suspect that there will be a certain amount of thinking of unfairness in the pilots anyway, but that would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. If it were to be introduced after the Minister’s consultations and further thought, it should be introduced when the whole scheme goes live and not as a pilot.
I take that point. All that I was trying to suggest was that, if my noble friend was unwilling to take this proposal on in the current legislation—and I understand his point—he might give himself the reserve power so that he could. I take the noble Lord’s on pilots. My noble friend is relying on the power of sanctions to deliver compliance with work-related activity. All my experience shows that you need sanctions but that you get a further mileage in compliance with an additional premium, when it becomes increasingly cost effective. To find out whether that is the case, you sometimes have to do pilots in which you can compare a group with the premium with a group without. So I take the noble Lord’s point, but that is true for all the piloted new deals involving additional support. Unless you have a control group, you do not know what works. I agree that it is not especially desirable in the sense of any notion of unfairness, but it would at least allow you to establish how effective sanctions are as against, or in addition to, an additional premium.
In the name of good public policy, not just this amendment, I urge my noble friend not to rule out an obvious possible future development that a Government might wish to return to down the road, given that it was part of departmental thinking in the Green Paper. If they have permissive powers in regulations, that is fine, but if they do not and have to wait for major legislation, given all the pressures on legislative time my noble friend or his successor could rue the day if that power is not there in reserve. With my noble friend’s assurance that he will take it away to see whether there could be a power by regulation should it be proven appropriate in future—I understand there is no commitment—I am content to withdraw the amendment.
Responding first to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, it is inevitably the case, as my noble friend confirmed, that when having pathfinders and pilots it is not infrequent for there to be different financial arrangements in the pilots from the generality of benefits. As my noble friend says, we need a controlled situation to test the benefits of the arrangements that we are looking at. I stress that our pilots revolve around the benefit being conditional, not around inactivity being a choice.
I do not wish to raise my noble friend’s hopes on this. I reiterate that I am happy to reflect on it given the history and what was said in the Green Paper. However, I cannot promise to come back with an amendment that she would find satisfactory.
Amendment 71 withdrawn.
72: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Income disregard for lone parents
(1) The Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (c. 4) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 136 (income and capital), after subsection (3), insert—
“(3A) Regulations made within subsection (3) above shall make provision for the amount of earnings to be disregarded for a lone parent to be no less than £87.”.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, identified, there are two separate issues. One is a premium for taking part in work-preparation activity. This one, as he rightly identified, is about disregards.
Lone parents on IS currently have a disregard of £20 a week, which equates to about three and a half hours of work. Thereafter, any further hours they work carry no financial benefit at all until, if an employer will allow them to do so, they reach 16 hours a week at which point they switch on to wage plus tax credit and double their take-home pay.
That cannot be sensible or good public policy. I hope that other Members of the Committee will agree with me that we want to encourage the lone parents to progress through mini-jobs until they are finally in tax-credit-supported work. It makes sense, given that they are sometimes patching together part-time jobs whose hours will alter according to their own needs and those of their children, such as during holidays, and those of the employers, many of whom want extra seasonal help—and many of whom deliberately peg jobs at 15 hours a week to avoid NI contributions and keep the lone parents below the lower earnings limit.
Mini-jobs, as Kate Bell’s research at Gingerbread has shown, make good sense for many lone parents. They increase their income and skills, whether till work, teamwork or stock control. They increase sociability and self-esteem and the parents learn about a wider world of work opportunities: the knowledge network that comes from knowing what is going on, which those isolated on benefit so often lack. All the research shows that one of the biggest barriers to getting back into work is the lack of access to the knowledge economy of what is going on in the labour market.
We want a staircase into work, not the daft present system. It is worth it if you are a lone parent working for three to four hours a week: you keep every penny. Then for the next 12.5 hours or so a week, you lose every additional penny. Then, at 16 hours—bingo!—you double your pay. Who could have thought of such a scheme? Not women, I think.
The amendment is obviously more probing than most, because it puts a figure of £87 in the Bill, which is not sensible at all—in fact, it is really rather silly—as we would need primary legislation to uprate it. However, that figure is there to indicate the purpose of the amendment. The disregard is worth at least 15 hours a week at the minimum wage, and at 16 hours a week you go into tax-credit-supported work. The amendment sounds generous, but it has already been conceded that claimants on ESA can earn up to £88.50 a week without losing access to benefits. We have always had similar and rightly helpful benefit top-ups, such as therapeutic earnings for disabled people. It would cost the taxpayer nothing because the lone parent receives the benefit as usual and the employer, not the Government, tops it up with a part-time wage.
I willingly concede that, providing it is kept simple, a taper might be appropriate or we could limit such an arrangement to the first two years back to work or until the youngest child is seven. Recent research by Gingerbread and the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that this would increase voluntary employment of lone parents by 5 per cent or more, which is as much as we have achieved in the past five years of elaborate policy-making and new deals. Make work pay, and work works. It is already the case that 27 per cent of jobs advertised in jobcentres are for less than 16 hours a week because employers need flexi-working. Indeed, lone parents who are currently working 16 or 18 hours a week are, in a recession, finding their hours cut back to 12 or 14 hours a week and they immediately cannot afford to work because they lose every penny beyond the original disregard of £20. That is what happens when you have snakes instead of ladders, which is the system we have devised.
Even if my noble friend cannot agree today to introduce a staircase of opportunity moving from benefits into work, I am sure he would wish to do so once he has thought through all the implications. I accept that it would be an 18-month policy haul because of the read-across to other benefits that always bedevils social security, although it is easy enough to do. However, we could give much of the same help if we took the path that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, indicated and increased the disregard for lone parents from the current £20 a week to £50 a week, although that is not as generous as my £87. What would that mean? For the lone parent it would be worth working nine hours a week before benefits deduction came into play; it is very simple, and it can easily be done in 48 hours by regulation rather than after 18 months’ policy haul. Bluntly, this is the amendment I would really like to see delivered, for reasons I hope to argue, and I might wish to come back to it on Report, if that seemed appropriate.
What are the amendment’s virtues? First, it would help child poverty. An extra £50 a week on top of benefits would be transforming. For the lone parent, along with any child maintenance, it would lift her and her children well above the poverty line. Is it not worth going after a really noticeable reduction in child poverty? After all, we have a child poverty Bill ahead of us. Secondly, it would help the lone parent remain attached to the labour market. The evidence shows that mini-jobs are the best preparation for a 16-hour tax-credit-supported proper job. Working nine hours each week, sorting out the transport and the childcare and learning the appropriate skills are a far more effective way to prepare a mother for conventional, full-time work than all the interviews, action plans, CV training, skills courses—which may not relate to local jobs—newspaper adverts search and the rest in the work-preparation package. I support that work-preparation package, but the best preparation for work is not work preparation, with hours spent travelling to and from the jobcentre, but work. Precisely because the mother is a willing employee, not a reluctant conscript, she will sustain it and build on it and we are there. She is doing exactly what we want her to do and gaining experience in the world of real work, so why do we not make that possible and attractive rather than punish her by taking away some of her benefit?
Child poverty reduction and the lone parent in work are the first two arguments. The third is that it would help the employer, who would have a larger pool of flexible labour on which to draw. I repeat, more than a quarter, and I suspect it will soon be a third, of jobs in Jobcentre Plus are for fewer than 16 hours. As the recession recedes, an employer with a woman in a nine-hours-a-week job would be poised to increase her hours so that, in time, she can come off benefit and go into tax-credit-supported work. Many employers hesitate to employ a lone parent, as they do a disabled person, because of possibly misguided fears of unreliability. It would take the employer’s risk out of employing her, as the risk of entering work is taken out for her. She would know that she can cope and that she is comfortable. We all know that the best way of getting a better job is to be in one already, preferably with the same employer.
Fourthly, it would also help to get fraud out of the system. One of the biggest reasons for fraud is that a lone parent, understandably from hers and her child’s point of view, does work on the side—perhaps cleaning—which she does not declare and she is always nervous about whether a neighbour might report her to the social, which adds to the stress in her life.
Finally, it would be really cheap. With more wet towels I could possibly establish that it might even save the Government real money. Taxpayers pay benefit exactly as is—no change—and forgo only the tiny amount of benefit that a highly scrupulous, lone parent now declares which is deducted. Of course, they either do not work now, because it is not worth it, or they do and they do not declare it. The extra money—the £50—which the lone parent gets comes because she has worked for it and the employer is paying for it; it does not come from taxpayers. If even half of lone parents with children under the age of seven work nine hours, it would cost taxpayers a modest £20 million a year and, I suspect, even that is a serious overestimate. The cost of putting all lone parents through the work-preparation scheme would also be about £20 million a year, a tentative figure, according to the regulatory impact assessment. Given the much greater likelihood of lone parents moving fully off benefit earlier from a mini-job than from any work-preparation scheme, however desirable—and I support them—the Government could expect to see savings much sooner as those parents will no longer need to rely on benefit. There is no contest and I would have thought it was a no-brainer. In net terms, we might even save the Government money.
I urge my noble friend to bring a proposal forward on Report, or possibly, more sensibly, a commitment to do this by regulation, as it should be done of course, to increase the disregard to £50 a week. I know that the previous Secretary of State and the department were exploring that. Think of the gains: first, a real contribution to lifting children out of poverty; secondly, as it is a mini-job, it is a sensible and decent preparation for work, infinitely more effective, appropriate and in real time than action plans, work preparation and the like; thirdly, it would take fraud out of the system; fourthly, it would help the employer; and, fifthly, it would be so cheap and effective that compared with work-preparation programmes it could well save the Government money. I suggest to my noble friend that it is a no-brainer. I beg to move.
This amendment was foreshadowed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in her Second Reading speech and we warmly support it from these Benches. As she has said, it is intended to ensure that the income disregard for lone parents is at least the value of 15 hours at the national minimum wage. That is where the complication of the benefit system comes in. As she said, ESA claimants may claim up to £92 a week, although I think it has gone up, without losing access to means-tested benefits, enabling them to work in jobs of fewer than 16 hours, after which they would become entitled to tax credits. However, single parents on benefits can earn only £20 a week, meaning that there is no financial incentive to work in jobs of between four and 16 hours. Gingerbread, about which we have heard much this afternoon, is in favour of the amendment and says that on its helpline it hears from lone parents who have had their hours cut below 16 because of the recession and so can no longer afford to work. It is worth pointing out, as the noble Baroness has said today and on previous occasions, that this would do a huge amount for child poverty, which often simply means lone-parent poverty. We support the amendment and hope that it will receive a favourable response from the Minister.
I also support the amendment. As will be recalled, we discussed lone parents earlier in the passage of the Bill. I took the view at the very beginning that lone parents ought to have a choice as to whether they spend their time looking after their children or try to access a work environment in some way or other. The amendment comes to terms with that choice. Many lone parents want flexibility. They want to be able to decide how little work they can do and not lose any benefit, which this amendment is designed to enable. It would therefore be desirable for it to be included in the Bill and I hope that the Minister will agree with it in principle on Report, even though he may not like the wording.
I rise with some trepidation to make a few comments. I had not planned to make a speech and am relying somewhat on my memory of 30 or 35 years ago when I was heavily involved in campaigning for increases in the income disregard; in those days it was £4 a week. The arguments that were always put to me in that context were around the poverty trap. I very much support the basic principle of the amendment, that you need a stepladder back into work. However, I am conscious of the huge complexities of achieving a nice, neat stepladder because of the multitude of benefits and the implications for the incentive to get closer to full-time work if you have a clunky income disregard. I hope that the Minister takes the amendment away and gives serious thought to how best to achieve a nice, neat little stepladder. However, I fear that, in trying to achieve that, he will have to take account of the housing benefit withdrawal rate, changes in council tax as your income increases, and so on. It is no simple business. I remember huge tables of this sort of material from many years ago.
I support the principle of the amendment, but the Minister and his department will have a lot of work to do if he is to achieve this without dropping large numbers of single parents into a poverty trap at a slightly higher level; that is, if he is really going to achieve a money saving, which is ultimately what the Government—and no doubt any alternative Government—would be after, by encouraging lone parents to return to work in a way that would reduce the state contribution to their weekly income. I hope that I have said enough to convey one or two points to the Committee.
Before my noble friend responds, the noble Baroness’s understanding of the position 30 years ago is absolutely right. Since 1998, however, we have introduced the tax credits system precisely to ensure that you can have earnings disregards of, say, £50 a week without any problem; this is the main thrust of my second amendment. If you are on the minimum wage, something like £5.85 or £5.95 an hour, a tax credit doubles the take-home pay so that an unskilled lone parent will get the take-home pay of semi-skilled man. As a result, there is no poverty trap, because of the effectiveness of the tax credits. What the noble Baroness said was absolutely true when disregards were first introduced. It is no longer true. We therefore have a clean sheet and can move forward.
The noble Baroness mentioned seasonal workers. Coming from a rural community as I do, I am used to the idea of seasonal workers—strawberry picking, asparagus cutting, raspberry picking and even goose plucking in the winter. That is how things work. What concerns me a little is that it will not be the same people doing all those different jobs. A young mother may, as I have done myself, take her child with her to work; that is what I used to do when I was younger. She can earn quite a lot in a short period of time, but then there is a desert when she has no more. How could that be balanced out?
That remark reminds me of a book that I read years and years ago in which a good lady working as a reaper on a farm in Hungary gave birth within seconds of putting down her scythe. Of course, seasonal work has to come into this, but the real problem is that we do not have a graduated withdrawal system across the board. The basic stumbling block has always been the 16-hour rule. Until we find a way in which to get rid of that we have to accept either disregard, as in this amendment, or absolute allowances, as in the noble Baroness’s first amendment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, is clearly warming to her theme. I do not wish her to think that I am determined to thwart her at every turn. I have a great deal of sympathy with this amendment, which she moved, as usual, with great passion. It is difficult to pick a figure that everyone can agree with; the amendment mentions £87 as acceptable for subsistence. It is even harder to do that when one is trying to balance one’s genuine concern for struggling parents with the cold necessity of working out what is affordable and practicable. I hope that my genuine concern is not in doubt. The figure of £87 that would be disregarded for lone parents is around the ball park of the numbers I have seen suggested. I believe that the Z2K Trust has calculated the subsistence level to be £64.30 a week, so an extra £22.70 would not seem excessive if there are children involved. But I now understand what the noble Baroness was saying, and that her ultimate objective is to have a £50 one.
I expect that the Minister will be able to furnish us with his department’s most up-to-date statistics, along with his reasons for resisting the amendment. However, I hope that they will not be too strong, as I agree with everyone who has spoken. I shall be interested to hear his response, because there is a case to be made—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has just done—for protecting a certain level of income for single parents.
I was interested in the figures that the noble Baroness gave. I should like to know why a single parent is perhaps slightly disadvantaged in these cases. That said, I should like to examine the figures that she gave us; if her proposal is really close to cost-neutral and the Minister said that it would not be unreasonable in the terms of the Bill, I would be more favourably disposed towards the amendment. The noble Baroness will understand why I cannot go any further than that at the moment. However, parents do maintain responsibility for their children and when they can afford to pay for their childcare, they must continue to do so. The Minister has already told us that when parents cannot afford to pay for childcare, the jobcentre will pay for them. As with so many debates that we have had in Grand Committee, the same theme raises its head: much depends on getting the action plans right. Getting childcare arrangements sorted out to the satisfaction of parents is crucial to the success of the scheme. For that reason, all noble Lords will be thinking carefully about how to approach action plans, as this matter will be returned to with some gusto on Report.
What I have just said has very little to do with the finances behind the amendment, but I believe it to be true just the same. We should look at these two things together, as I have no doubt the Minister is about to do.
I hope that I can give my noble friend more comfort on this amendment than on the previous one—although perhaps not total comfort; I do not want to raise her hopes unduly.
We announced in our response to the Gregg review that the department would test an improved financial incentive for parents with younger children to work less than 16 hours while on benefit in the progression-to-work pathfinders. On the question whether mini-jobs lead to other employment opportunities, research—which I think is the research to which my noble friend referred—shows that mini-jobs could play a role in engaging mothers in the labour market and allowing them to combine both caring for children and working. Mini-jobs may be appealing particularly to those who are further from the labour market, such as those with young children, or those who have a larger family and lack qualifications. Being in a mini-job helps them remain in employment. The impact of mini-jobs for couple-mothers is less clear. The evidence suggests that participation in mini-jobs tends to be a stable activity of couple-mothers.
As a result of our desire to test and improve financial incentive, we are proposing to introduce in the pathfinders an earnings disregard higher than the current £20 a week into income support for lone parents working below 16 hours a week. Our evaluation has indicated that an appropriate amount to test would be to increase the current disregard to £50 a week. The rationale is that it balances the increase in income that a lone parent receives when working on benefit when they obtain a mini-job and the need to ensure that lone parents have an incentive to move off benefit altogether by working more than 16 hours a week and taking advantage of the additional help available for low-income groups through, for example, tax credits.
As my noble friend pointed out at Second Reading, we would not want a lone parent to miss out on moving into work of 16 hours or more a week and accessing tax credits where they can. Some people are able to double their take-home minimum wage and make work really pay—again, as my noble friend instanced.
It is crucial to test the improved incentive of a £50 disregard within the pathfinder areas to try out work while on benefits. It will represent one way in which lone parents can be encouraged to take up work-related activity that helps them make the transition into full-time work as part of the progression-to-work pathfinders. The new amount also represents a relatively simple and clear increase in the disregard and a much improved incentive to try out work while on benefits, without allowing lone parents to receive significantly more by working fewer hours and staying on benefits than if they were working 16 hours or more.
The provision would not provide the step-progression that my noble friend referred to, because, at a £50 disregard, you are pretty much on the cusp of whether working just slightly under 16 hours equates to working 16 hours and being out of benefits and into the tax credits system. With the £50 disregard, there would be a level income for somebody working about eight hours through to working just under 16 hours. The provision does not deal with the step-progression that my noble friend sought, but seeks to test improved financial incentives for parents in mini-jobs, which is the key point that my noble friend was pressing.
We also feel that it is inappropriate to specify an amount in primary legislation, because we would have to debate a new amount every time we wanted to change it. That is best left to delegated legislation and the processes already in place; for example, scrutiny by the Social Security Advisory Committee. Having heard what we intend to do, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
First, I thank every member of the Committee who has taken part in this debate for their support. I understand the caution of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale—some of us have been in that situation before—but the fact that he supports the amendment in principle and recognises the stumbling block of the 16 hours is welcome. Most of us would agree that in an ideal world, if one were doing a zero-sum game, one would indeed have a step system. But it is quite a profound policy haul because of the interface; therefore, we need time and reflection. We can get much of the same benefit by going for the simple disregard.
I was delighted at my noble friend’s response. He will not be surprised if I ask him some questions on timing, numbers and rollout. Would he regard this as being in place of work preparation—otherwise being work preparation itself? I would obviously be entirely satisfied with keeping six-monthly WFIs going so that one could keep track, so to speak.
Will my noble friend tell me about the timing of the pathfinders, not just when they will start but how long they will run and when we could expect to see the report on their efficacy? How many lone parents will be affected and who might benefit? Given that we might see this scheme roll out, when might it be widely available?
I hope that I can help with at least some of my noble friend’s questions. As we have already discussed, we are looking to pilot progression-to-work pathfinders in about 10 to 12 areas. The pathfinders should start in October 2010 and run for two years, followed by an evaluation. That is the rough timescale. Until we have done further work on the full scope of the pathfinders, it is impossible to say precisely how many lone parents will be affected, but my noble friend will recognise from her experience that there is inevitably an evaluation process that follows. I can give no particular timelines about going through the process and completing the evaluation but the pathfinders will certainly start in October 2010.
Is it still the intention that pilots should last for six months? I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that the best preparation for work is to dip your toe in the water and do part-time work, but the trouble is that this will happen for only six months. You have your part-time job, you remain on JSA with all the advantages that the noble Baroness and, indeed, the Minister, described, but what happens at the end of six months? That needs thinking through as well.
They may do, but it is not inevitably the case. They probably would be there throughout the two years, which precludes people joining. I was going on to say that people might start off in that progression-to-work group; they will undertake work-related activity and may try out mini-jobs, with the benefit of an increased disregard, and that may lead them on more quickly than would otherwise be the case to work of 16 hours a week or more. There is the chance to progress, although they would not necessarily stay on those pathfinders for two years.
That does not alter the fact that there is a fixed period and, sooner or later, those who have been on it throughout will fall off the end. I referred to six months, and the noble Lord is right to remind me that he is not talking about six months in this case but about two years. I am trying to establish what is likely to happen under the noble Baroness’s proposal at the end of the pilot or pathfinder period. The Minister will probably not be able to answer now but he might like to think about it in his further consideration of the amendment.
It very much depends on the evaluation of what comes from the pathfinders. If they prove successful and the judgment is to roll it out nationally, that is what we would do; that might include the £50 disregard, if that is proved to be a successful way in which to encourage engagement. But until we have been through the pathfinders, we will not know for certain.
I think perhaps I have explained myself rather badly. I am interested not in the result of the pathfinders but in the effect on the individual who has been working for six months of the two years, say, or even the full two years. When she comes to the end of the pathfinder, does she keep her disregard or does it disappear? What happens next?
It is expected that we would have transitional arrangements in place to protect those who were in receipt of a higher disregard, but that is some of the detail that is still to be worked out. What we are doing is to test the approach; until we have done so, we cannot conclude in what direction we shall go forward. That is not unusual with pathfinders or pilots.
The noble Lord made a point about someone with the benefit of a higher disregard that might disappear quickly when they are undertaking their mini-job. We would need to look at transitional arrangements to cover those situations.
The Minister probably cannot tell me now—I suspect that this has still to be determined, so he would not be in a position to do so—but would he write giving me some details? He mentioned 10 to 12 pathfinders. What proportion of lone parents will be encompassed within those pathfinders? I suspect that he would have to have a minimum of 1,000 lone parents in them, but it could be as many as 2,000 or 3,000 per pathfinder. I do not know whether he has any sense of that, but I should like to see how far the possibility of mini-jobs, a £50 disregard and a real concerted effort on child poverty could be met and what proportion of lone parents would be affected by it.
I am happy to write to my noble friend, but I am advised that the pathfinders that we would roll out in October 2010 could include some 60,000 lone parents each year. That is a measure of the number that would be involved, which my noble friend will recognise is a good number from which to make an effective evaluation.
So that would be about one-third or so of the total eligible lone parent population. I would be grateful if my noble friend could write with the details but, in the light of that, I shall reflect on what he has said and see whether there is any way in which we could expedite it more quickly. I am very appreciative of his comments and those of all the other Members of the Committee for recognising the value of mini-jobs and, therefore, the need for a reward for work for lone parents, the child and the employer. I wish my noble friend speed in pursuing the development of pathfinders, and I hope that he writes to all Members of the Committee as soon as he is in a position to do so. I realise that if he is not thinking about this for another 14 months, we are some way off. I had hoped for an earlier introduction of the pathfinders, but if he gives me the details I shall be grateful. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 72 withdrawn.
Amendment 73 not moved.
74: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Jobseekers who are home-educators
Regulations made pursuant to sections 1 and 2 shall be so drafted as to ensure that jobseekers who are home-educating a child or children shall not be required to take any employment or to attend any interview at a job centre or elsewhere which would significantly disrupt the child’s education and, if the jobseeker concerned is a lone parent, they shall be entitled to register for jobseeker’s allowance by post and shall be deemed to have met the conditions of receiving jobseeker’s allowance.”
My amendment coming after that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, must seem terribly badly drafted, and indeed, it is. This is strange territory for me. Education is where home educators and I belong. I have drifted into this because of the Badman review and how home education is being handled from an educational point of view. I take an interest in that and therefore one of the related questions: how are these people handled by the welfare system?
The home education community is immensely diverse. I do not think that it can be categorised in any useful way. Clearly, a number of people home educate out of conviction—either that is their educational philosophy or they have a religious requirement which is not met by the state system. The majority are there by default because the state system has failed their children. They have children with special educational needs. I am sure the noble Baroness will recognise that many schools do not deal with such children properly. That is just a fact of life. If your child is disappearing down a whirlpool at school, it is noble and honourable to pick him out, take him home, look after him and make sure that he is educated properly. Some have children who, rather than having a diagnosable special educational need, are just shy, have been bullied, have become school phobics or in some way or another have become children who are extremely difficult to educate at school.
As regards the state, these parents are doing something supportive. In educating their child at home, they immediately save the state £4,500 a year—the cost of educating a child in the state system. The Government do not have to pay that money to anyone when a child is home educated. The parents do not receive any support in any way from the local authority. They pay for GCSE entrance fees, swimming lessons and all sorts of other things which are provided as a matter of course to children in the schooling system. These parents are not living off the state. They are taking a substantial burden on themselves which the state would ordinarily assume.
It seems to me that the welfare system should deal properly and sympathetically with such parents, which is by no means always the case. It appears to be the habit of some officers at jobcentres to say that if the parents cannot get childcare, the children have to go back to school. That is an extremely rough thing to say in front of the child, who is always there because if you are home educating your child would be with you. That can cause extreme harm to the child if it is done under the wrong circumstances. Anyway, it is not the right thing to do. There needs to be an understanding that the childcare provided should be appropriate to the child. A child with special educational needs—for example, on the autistic spectrum—will need to have predictability and regularity about the way in which childcare is provided. They cannot just hop from one childcare provider to another. The childcare provider will need to have an understanding of a child’s condition. For these parents, signing on is burdensome. Because they have their child traipsing backwards and forwards to the jobcentre every other week, often on a long train or bus journey, several hours of the schooling day are taken up by useless transporting.
These conditions are not imposed in relatively parallel circumstances. If a child is excluded from school or if you are the subject of a school attendance order, the system makes allowances for it. It does not make you travel to the jobcentre. It allows you to sign on by post. It makes other concessions which make the job of looking after children in those circumstances easier. But the Government are not prepared to extend those familiar ways of working to home educators. Again, if you are asking a home educator to look for work, that work must be something that they can fit around their child, particularly if child-minding is a difficult thing to come by. Training as a child-minder and child-minding might be a pretty good way of helping these parents, but the Government have cut back enormously on the number of places on such training schemes.
Home-working is another good way of getting these parents back into the job market, but home-working opportunities are not generally available through jobcentres. Many of these parents are quite active and intelligent, and if you were not that you would be foolhardy to take on educating your own child. They are quite capable of running their own businesses from home, given a little advice and help. Again, however, the jobcentre does not seem to be in the business of pointing people in the right direction.
I would like to see an understanding and supportive attitude; not bending the Government’s objectives of getting people back into work for all the benefits thereof, but being prepared to use the flexibility that they extend to others to make the whole business of being a home-educating parent looking for work easier. I would like to see them adapt what they are doing with the sort of jobs they are prepared to offer and the sort of opportunities they are prepared to support in the circumstances of home-educating parents.
We will come back to this in other contexts and other fora over the next year or so, as the Badman review works itself out and we get into the business of how home-educating parents are to be integrated into the system, which is clearly going to happen. They are likely to have a register and be known to the authorities. There is even talk of some kind of local authority support. Since we now have the Bill in front of us, we should at least begin to think about how the welfare system should treat home-educating parents, and what concessions and additional facilities can be extended to them so that the Government’s objectives, which I by and large share, are achieved in a way that benefits both the Government and the parents concerned. I beg to move.
I strongly support the amendment, particularly because it raises a fundamental principle: do we or do we not believe that parents are responsible for procuring or providing the education for their child? I also support it because it is a specific example of the general principle enshrined in the amendment that I moved in Committee several sittings ago, that the implementation of these arrangements should always be sympathetic to the best interests of the child.
My hope and belief is that that was the Government’s intention, because if it is not it is simply a back door to doing away with home education. I ask the Minister whether, as it seems to me, home education would fall within new Section 2F(2) in Clause (2):
“A direction under subsection (1) given to any person … must be reasonable, having regard to the person’s circumstances”.
Would “the person’s circumstances” include home education? Would the new section be sympathetic to it?
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on an ingenious amendment that opens up the whole topic of the status of home educators who are lone parents on benefits. In view of the announcement last week, it is extremely topical, as the noble Lord said.
We know that the Government will not accept that home educators who are lone parents on benefits should be exempt from the provisions of the Bill to attend Jobcentre Plus for work-focused interviews or work-related activity. This is presumably because they think that there is a lot of flexibility built into being a home educator and, therefore, that lone parents who are home educators can attend Jobcentre Plus for work-focused interviews, and possibly work-related activity, around their home-educating responsibilities. But why can that not be regarded as work-related activities, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said? As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, many lone parents who home educate their children do so for practical reasons, such as the presence of a disabled child for whom it may be very difficult to get the appropriate childcare.
It seems to me that if new rules are to be brought in, including registration, right of access of local authority officials and more support for home educators—those points were in the Badman report—there is no reason at all why the Government should not also agree that home education is, at the very least, work-related activity. They cannot have it both ways. The Minister’s erstwhile colleague in the department, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, said that they have always been clear that parents should retain the right to educate their children at home, that most home educators do a fantastic job and that she wants to ensure that they get more support from local authorities. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
This afternoon we have heard much about ballots and those Members of the Committee who have been here most of the time—I apologise to the Committee for not being able to include myself in their number—will appreciate that in the Bill a balance has to be struck and even an occasional participant like myself becomes quickly aware of that underlying all the debates on the Bill. That balance revolves around the fact that the longer an individual is out of work the more difficult it becomes for them to return to work. The Bill seeks to address that essential feature. In that context, we must be certain that any exclusions to the proposals in Clause 2—the progression-to-work group—on which we settle do not end up with a financial and psychological downside to the entire family.
Those thoughts bring me to Amendment 74, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas. It seeks to exclude parents—I am not sure whether it is one or both—from the progression-to-work group on the basis that they are educating their children at home, perhaps because the latter are subject to school exclusion or have been bullied at school and have subsequently been withdrawn or simply because the parents believe that their children will be better educated if that education were conducted at home rather than in a conventional school setting. I have to confess that a department of state which I have had nothing to do with in my relatively short time in this House is the Department of Education and Science as it used to be called, or in the modern idiom the Department for Children, Schools and Families. My noble friend Lord Lucas should not feel unnerved by finding himself drifting, to quote his words, into this Bill and this Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, have said, his interest is an important one for the Committee to consider.
I support the view that parents should have the right to support and educate their children as they feel fit, subject of course to the necessary safeguards. However, as well as an education, I believe that a child will benefit from being exposed to an environment in which there are working adults in the family or at least adults progressing to work. Of course, that must be a judgment but I know where my opinion sits. While I would not deny the right of parents to educate their children as they want, it would be wrong for taxpayers to finance, admittedly at a fairly low level of income, the living of a family who chose to educate their children at home.
The likely response of my noble friend to this matter is that by educating the children at home they are saving taxpayers’ money. In the short term that is undoubtedly correct but I ask my noble friend to think of the longer term as it applies to the children and to their parents after what may well be 11 years out of the workplace. How likely are those parents to get into work? Will taxpayers have to support them through the rest of their lives? What effect will that have on the children? How likely are they to end up in the world of work? No doubt the Minister will give us some statistics, if she has them, of the propensity of that. I shall await her response with interest.
It may be very hard work. I am the father of two children—both are now adults. Looking after children in any capacity is very hard work. We can talk about parenting and motherhood or fatherhood as a job, but that considerably expands the discussion of the Bill, and I do not believe that is the background against which it is being proposed. I hope I have explained the downside of an environment where regular work is not part of the family’s background. I am sure that one reason why the Government have brought forward the Bill is to increase the number of families, both single parents and married couples, who find themselves with an opportunity to work because it is the framework in which children may find a more fulfilled life.
I rise to dip my toe into the Welfare Reform Bill in front of my far more experienced Peers, but that is the lot of the lowly Whip. We have had a good, wide-ranging and useful debate on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I begin by repeating the quote from my noble friend Lady Morgan, the children’s Minister, used by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, which demonstrates how the Government have to strike a balance in our response. It was from my noble friend’s immediate response to the Badman report and its recommendations. She said:
“We’ve always been clear that parents should retain the right to educate their children at home. Most home educators do a fantastic job and I want to ensure they get more support from Local Authorities. But we can’t afford to let any child slip through the net – in terms of their education, or safety”.
That is the balance that we are looking for.
As we discussed, the work-related activity a parent will be required to undertake under Clause 2 will be specifically tailored to the needs of the parent who is undertaking it. While I recognise that parents can choose to home educate their children, it remains the case that paid work is the best way out of poverty for parents and their families, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, intimated. Parents who choose to educate their children at home will need to be able to balance home educating activities with the steps they need to take to improve their long-term labour market prospects.
In addition, funding is not provided by government by way of benefits or otherwise to undertake home education. We believe that about 20,000 children are being educated at home, but it could well be double that, and we will discuss that when we come to the Badman report. The Government do not consider that parents who choose to educate their children at home should be treated more favourably in benefit terms than those whose children attend school. It would therefore be inconsistent with current government policy if benefit recipients who were also home educators were not required to participate in “work for your benefit”, as outlined in Clause 1 or to undertake work-related activity under Clause 2, if it was required of them. Nor do the Government think it is right to exempt home educators claiming JSA from signing on at a Jobcentre Plus office. However, as we have already stated, some parents will be exempted from work-related activity, as they are now from seeking work, because of the extra caring responsibilities that they have. We spoke about the higher proportion of children with SEN who are being home educated; those parents who are in receipt of carer’s allowance or who have a child who is in receipt of the middle or highest rate care component of disability living allowance will not be required to undertake these activities.
In addition, unlike many parents who send their child to school, parents who choose to educate their child at home do not have to observe school hours, days or terms and may therefore—and this is the other side of the coin from the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made about time constraints—have greater flexibility to fit paid work or work-related activity around their children’s education. Therefore, home educators, like other parents, should be able to identify times which fit with their family and other commitments so they can undertake work-related activity or participate in “work for your benefit”. As with all other people subject to these new arrangements, home educators will not be penalised if they have good cause for not taking up a job—I think that that was the gist of the question that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked; the availability and suitability of childcare will be central to such a decision. The jobseeker’s allowance regulations were amended last year to make this clear. We will, of course, listen carefully to the responses to our public consultation on elective home education currently underway in response to the Graham Badman review.
Noble Lords asked me a number of questions. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talked about the training of childminders and their ability. I understand that we have not cut back on the training for childminders. The number of childminders has dropped; the number of places provided by childminders has increased.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, spoke about statistics. I am not sure whether I answered his question. The statistics that we have at the moment say that 20,000 children are in this position, but we believe the number is far greater. One point of the Badman report is to have far better monitoring of the whole situation, which I am sure means support for home educators as well as being important for the well-being and safety of children and the duty of local authorities to ensure that that duty of care is carried out. There must be better monitoring, better support and better regular visits.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked about the reasonableness of what is required of home educators. A decision-maker would take into account the fact that there is a school-age child in the house; home education as such may not be relevant but for the availability of childcare it would be relevant. The state recognises that the childcare responsibility of home carers is a relevant issue on which to engage with home carers. However, it does not recognise that the education responsibility of home carers is one that it should discuss with home educators, because that is a voluntary activity on the part of parents.
I hope that I have answered the questions and urge the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to withdraw his amendment.
Withdrawing an amendment is no problem in Grand Committee because it happens to the best of us, so there is no opportunity for vanity. It has been an education to me, and one from which I will profit, to listen to all noble Lords on this occasion. I can see that there is a consensus, at least at this end of the Table, on the objectives of jobseeker’s allowance, what it is seeking to achieve and how it goes about it. As a stranger in this territory, I shall seek to work within that consensus.
The noble Baroness said that home educators should go to their fortnightly interviews. I will research more whether that is a good or bad thing. I am not entirely sure whether it is totally constructive, given that other parents in similar situations but tied into the state are very much the same position—such as if their child has been excluded from school, has not been allocated a school or has a school attendance order but does not have to attend every couple of weeks. I must try to understand why the Government make that concession in those circumstances and are never prepared to consider it for home educators.
None the less, the parents and their children are very much in the same situation. Anyway, I admit my ignorance in this area and will try to educate myself between now and Report. However, I would like more comfort—if not now then later—on what their experience of returning every couple of weeks is like. I would like to know that it was the Government’s policy that school is not an acceptable form of childcare in these circumstances. Certainly, that is related to me by many home educators: they are told that if they cannot find childcare they will have to send the kid back to school. Given these circumstances, whether it is philosophical or a child’s crisis at the school, that does not seem to be an acceptable or well trained attitude to home education; it seems to me to be an uninformed attitude to it.
I would also like to try to understand why jobcentres are not more supportive of home-working and home businesses than they are. Why do they not, for instance, routinely refer people to the Prince’s Trust if they show an interest in starting a business from home? Why do they not have a full and proper register of home-working opportunities? Again, this is none of my personal experience but just what has been related to me by home educators. I would like to try to understand these issues between now and Report. I would be most grateful for anything that the noble Baroness can do now or, indeed, later.
Perhaps the noble Lord and I might meet between now and Report to discuss these things. We will certainly write on the issue that he raised about school as childcare and his point about the reported conversation with someone in this position being told that it was.
Amendment 74 withdrawn.
Clause 3 : Work-related activity: income support claimants and partners of claimants
74A: Clause 3, page 10, line 17, at end insert—
“(8) Regulations made under subsection (4)(c) shall include any person with dependant children who has claimed benefit in the previous three months where he has left and remains absent from the former dwelling occupied as the home through fear of violence in that dwelling or by a former member of his family.”
Amendment 74A seeks to include those who have left home due to domestic violence in the definition of those who fall into the Clause 3 category of those entitled to jobseeker’s allowance without seeking employment. The exclusion from the need to seek employment would last for three months. The reason why I am moving this amendment and not the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of the Shaws, is that she thought that she might be detained in court when this amendment came up. Happily, she has managed to be here—but that is why I am taking the liberty of moving this amendment from these Benches. The amendment uses the same definition of domestic violence as that used in the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987, which allows a claimant in this situation to claim housing costs even though he is not resident in the home. So we are not reinventing the wheel.
In 2008, research conducted by Gingerbread and Family Action examined the financial impact of domestic violence on women and found that it had a profound effect on women's ability to participate in employment, both while they were in a violent relationship and after they had left. Not only did it severely dent their confidence, but the very prospect of employment raised safety issues around their former partners knowing their whereabouts. Women fleeing domestic violence have also to be rehoused and resettled, often in temporary accommodation or refuges, which leads to significant disruption of their lives.
Reading the Report and Third Reading stages of the Bill in another place, the then Secretary of State, Mr. James Purnell, whom I seem to keep quoting, assured the Opposition spokesman that there would be three months' grace during which a woman who is housed in a refuge following domestic violence will not be required to work in order to qualify for JSA. How will that be taken forward? Will the Minister put down his own amendment? Will this be spelt out in regulations or simply be in guidance? I understand that at present Jobcentre Plus has the discretion to grant up to two months’ respite for women in a situation of domestic emergency to look for work. There is also a suggestion that that could be extended to three months. However, we are looking for clarity and commitment for women who are specifically fleeing domestic violence. Why should they rely on the discretion of a decision-making Jobcentre Plus in such an important area of policy? In Grand Committee, we have discovered that decision-makers do not always get these things right. Sometimes, they may even say that black is white.
When the Opposition spokesman asked about the three months’ grace, the former Secretary of State said that he could definitely give that assurance, which sounds to me like a firm promise of action. We want statutory protection for these women. I hope that however this promise is taken forward, it will extend to women who are not just in refuges following domestic violence but who might be elsewhere—perhaps with a family member or friends. I beg to move.
First, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for taking the lead on this amendment on my behalf. I am in the middle of a difficult terrorist trial and it was looking unlikely that I would be here today. I am glad that I was able to make it and can add my words to those of the noble Baroness who has argued the case beautifully. There is little that I can add.
Over the years, I have been deeply involved with cases of domestic violence. When I was a much younger lawyer, it was a regular part of my practice. Now, at the much more serious end of crime, it is usually when there is a fatality that I am involved and that is deeply traumatic. The trauma of domestic violence cannot be underestimated. In the work that I now do with many of the organisations represented here today on the listening benches, we who are involved in any capacity with domestic violence know that the toll it takes is considerable. Women and children living in households where there is domestic violence take a long time to recover from its effects.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned the respite of three months. We should be thinking of something more considerable. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some solace on this and say that we might be talking about more than three months. I shall explain why. With regard to the exercise of discretion by those in the offices who will deal with people coming for jobseeker’s allowance, there is still considerable ignorance about domestic violence. People still think that once a partner has left or a woman has left a situation of domestic violence, that is the end of things. The toll of long periods of domestic violence is so great that it often takes a very long time for people to feel able properly to engage again with the world. The idea of being able to find employment and hold down a job is truly daunting. It will take a lot of support and help for women to reach that point, often because their self-esteem has been totally undermined.
I want to emphasise the impact of domestic violence on children. It took many years for the judges before whom we would argue these cases to understand that when a woman was being battered it was abuse of the children too. The children became traumatised, suffered emotionally and were often damaged by witnessing the violence in their home. Those children are often very needy and need their parent in the months afterwards. It feels like a bereavement, and there are often complicated emotions because the children often also have great affection and love for the abusive parent. Seeing their parents separating is often deeply traumatic for the children, and the mother is especially needed in the months that follow. Therefore, I urge the Committee to be sensitive about pressing the woman into work during that time.
I return to the matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. The easy response would be to say that there will be discretion for those interviewing these women—it is largely women—but that does not give enough solace to those of us who know about these experiences. Too many people do not understand the impact of domestic violence, particularly long-term domestic violence. We are hoping that the Minister will be able to give us comfort by saying that the Government will table an amendment to provide the protections for women that we want to see in the Bill. If welfare is about anything, it is about protecting the most vulnerable. Domestic violence is one of those areas. We know the social cost of domestic violence. In the longer term, we are talking about the underperformance of children in education and the higher incidence of mental illness as children become older when they have been brought up in violent homes. We know the cost in terms of anti-social behaviour. Children often act out because they have been brought up in abusive environments. If we can deal with this sensitively early on by providing support to a mother going through this experience, it would be important for society as a whole.
I hope that the Minister will see this in the context of the wider work that has been done by government on domestic violence. The Government have a good record on putting domestic violence on the agenda. All political parties accept that this is an area that we have to deal with well if we are going to heal some of the problems in our society.
This means that in a Bill as important as this we have to make sure that we are alert to the ways in which domestic violence has a long-term impact on those who are on the receiving end. To urge them too early into work will not be beneficial to any of those involved or to society as a whole. That is why this is such an important issue for those who are creating this legislation.
I support much of what the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas and Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, have just said. I expect that domestic violence will be debated at some length later on in the Bill, when we come to Schedule 6, which will, I am pleased to say, be placed in the safe hands of my noble friend Lord Taylor.
However, on this rather more specific issue of how the rules on claiming jobseeker’s allowance relate to those who suffer from domestic violence, I believe that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. The noble Baroness’s amendment refers to a person who has left the family home through fear of violence. Although I admire her efforts to be determinedly politically correct—the amendment after all refers to a male—the sad truth is that the people whom we really have in mind are more likely to be women and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, their trauma.
Women who have children over seven who leave a violent relationship would previously have been entitled to income support. However, due to changes in regulations, which we have been talking about off and on for far too long, those women will now be asked to claim jobseeker's allowance and be subject to the full conditions that are incorporated in the jobseeker's allowance regime—whether it is the full regime or the modified regime does not really matter.
We are trying to avoid placing demands on frightened and vulnerable women which would be too onerous, given their circumstances, for them to meet. For those women who have to flee their homes to escape violence, with children in tow, the income support that they receive, until they are migrated off it, is essential for them to survive. For those who manage to find refuge in a shelter, the benefits that they receive will be vital to help pay for that and to meet their other needs.
I believe that it is in recognition of these problems that the noble Baronesses have proposed the amendment. For that reason, we support the principle that women—or, indeed, men, as the amendment allows—should have a grace period. Indeed, my great party proposed last year a grace period of three months, during which women who are in refuges, having had to flee their homes to escape domestic violence, would not be required to seek work in order to qualify for JSA. My party did not go as far as to say that they should not be in the progression-to-work group, because that was not in the process of being debated.
I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that such a measure is fair, as there is little to be gained from foisting demands on traumatised women who need a period of time to pull their lives back together. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said that three months was often not enough—I shall have to study that most carefully. My right honourable friend Mrs May spoke strongly in favour of the proposal in another place, and I am happy to put on record my support, too. Our figures suggest that the numbers are relatively small—the mothers of around 3,000 children. I hope that the Government will be able to confirm or deny this, but, more importantly, will be able to support the basic proposal.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to the fact that this matter was raised, perhaps too briefly, in another place, as consideration of the Bill there was drawing to a close. I say “too briefly”, because the Minister’s most recent temporary boss pronounced on this issue—I would have thought, unlike perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas—somewhat uncertainly. Therefore, I look to the Minister to be more explicit. The quotation that I would like to comment on is one from Mr Purnell on 17 March, at col. 871 of Hansard, when he said that he believed it to be the case that mothers in this category were already protected. The former Secretary of State believed it to be the case, but will the Minister confirm that it is so and will remain so? If he can, I expect that the noble Baroness will be happy to withdraw the amendment, knowing that in the precise words that she has chosen it is not needed. Again, however, I shall have to think carefully about the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy.
I strongly support this amendment and declare an interest, going back many years now, when I was involved as a local authority housing chair in setting up both a refuge for battered women and some of the halfway houses to which they were able to move. Obviously, circumstances changed and differed among the women who suffered domestic violence, but most who came to the refuge had to move on every few weeks as an aggressive, abusive and violent man sought to find them. They would try to track down their children at school, follow them back from school and then break the windows of the refuge. Above and beyond all the physical assaults that lone parent had had, she had to deal with the fact that she and her children were constantly moving home and school; sometimes she would even move out of the local authority area into an adjacent local authority area for her own safety. Apart from all the trauma and stress of the impossible situation in which that put the lone parent, it was impossible for the DWP and any prospective employer to have a working relationship with somebody who was essentially on the move for her own physical safety. That will not be true of all of them, but it was true of many of the women that I worked with those years back.
For all sorts of reasons, I hope that my noble friend can agree the amendment today and we can bank it and regard this as a step forward. There is no way that such a woman in such a situation will be job-ready or remain focused on work when she is thinking about her physical safety and her child’s emotional safety. I hope that my noble friend will simply say that it is a done deal; that would be terrific. We could all applaud him and we could all go home thinking that we had achieved something worth while.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for moving this important amendment. I am pleased that my noble friend Lady Kennedy was able to make our proceedings, despite the pressing issues that she has to deal with. I acknowledge my noble friend’s long-standing expertise and commitment in this area and the important issue that she raises about domestic violence having an impact on children in particular. There was also the point raised by my noble friend Lady Hollis about the transitory nature of housing arrangements for women and children in these circumstances. To the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I can say that, while we are looking at regulations under the JSA regime, they could and should and will be imported into the progression to work group as well.
Clause 3 gives power to prescribe in regulations persons who can receive income-based jobseeker’s allowance without having to meet the usual job-seeking conditions. Our objective is to modify the conditions for jobseeker’s allowance so that it is suitable for people who currently receive income support, such as lone parents with a youngest child under the age of 7. This amendment would place in the Bill a specific category of people who would be able to receive jobseeker’s allowance but who, for a period of three months, would not be required to seek work. That easement would apply to jobseekers with dependent children who have left their previous home through fear of violence. For the most part, it would be of benefit to lone parents with children aged seven or older who have been subject to domestic violence.
As we have discussed previously in this Committee, lone parents with older children no longer have automatic entitlement to income support. If they are otherwise work-ready, they can access support through jobseeker’s allowance only; in doing so, they are required to comply with the full labour market conditions that attach to that benefit.
However, when putting these provisions in place, we recognise that there will be times when it would be unreasonable to expect the full conditions of jobseeker’s allowance to apply; for example, in cases of recent bereavement or relationship break-up where the pressure to comply with full conditionality could place further stress and anxiety on an individual or their children. I hope that noble Lords will be pleased to hear that these provisions also apply in instances of domestic violence.
We have amended the jobseeker’s allowance regulations to enable advisers to use their discretion in cases where there is some domestic emergency. Parents in these circumstances, including lone parents, will be treated sympathetically and advisers will be able to waive the requirement to be available for employment for a period of up to eight weeks on any one occasion in any period of 12 months. That is in addition to the three further periods of one week each that may be allowed under the current rules for the same circumstances. These additional weeks can run consecutively. So depending on the individual’s needs a total of up to 11 weeks could be allowed for such emergencies in any 12-month period.
While I understand the very real concerns behind these amendments, I believe the approach we are already taking is the sensible one that enables those facing difficult and stressful times to be supported. We already have provisions in place that enable a period of respite which will give parents subject to violence an opportunity to start to rebuild their lives and self-confidence while not having to worry about attending their jobcentre or looking for work. Prior to the abolition of income support we also want to mirror these provisions within regulations for the progression-to-work group.
I am going back to training. The Minister has said that jobcentre staff will use their discretion in these cases. They will have to be extremely sensitive to understand what women go through when they are badly treated by their husbands or partners. It is not in the experience of most people to understand this. As well as the training that we are told advisers will receive for people with fluctuating illnesses, learning difficulties and mental problems, what sort of training will be given? How long will it take? Will the advisers meet some people who have already gone through these traumas themselves in order to ascertain how difficult it is for the people who the advisers will deal with?
I should also like to pick up on that and the Minister can answer us both at the same time. The reason why training to help deal with discretion is being raised is because we know that although the police around the country have been urged to take domestic violence seriously, there are huge variations in response to this and huge variations, despite training, in how the police deal with domestic violence. Unfortunate failures have led to terrible events. It is very hard for those who have never themselves had any close dealings with domestic violence to understand its impact. Are the Government confident that even training such people will deal with that? In the courts, judges, lawyers and the police have great difficulty. We still struggle to have this understood by all those players in this area. The idea that people in jobcentres up and down the country will understand well enough to exercise discretion in a favourable way is something about which we have profound concerns. Perhaps the Minister has an answer to that.
Perhaps I may also throw in a question for my noble friend. When contact is made with a woman and, as a result of the situation she is exposed to, she asks for this discretion, how often does he expect the personal adviser to grant it? If it is to be granted informally, make it a right. That makes it simple. As a former local authority leader, he will understand the situation very well in his own borough. If he thinks that, as a result, almost every woman exposed to domestic violence would have the sympathetic response from the personal adviser that we would all like to see so that they would not be brought within the regime for three months or more, make it a right, an entitlement, and take one more bureaucratic pressure off not only the lone parent, but possibly off the hostel or refuge where she is staying where they are trying to help her get herself back on her own two feet.
I acknowledge that the training and understanding of advisers is key in this issue, as in so much of what we have debated so far during the passage of the Bill. In relation to the existing JSA regime and the progression-to-work model, we believe it will be necessary further to develop a workforce strategy to think through the implications of the adviser role. That work will also enable us to develop comprehensive additional training material for Jobcentre Plus advisers to enhance the knowledge and skills necessary to deliver this more personalised approach. It is inevitable that there will be differences of approach and emphasis, and there will not necessarily be uniform understanding. We need to continue to work at that to broaden the understanding and sensitise our advisers to these situations so they deliver the flexibility that is in the system at the moment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to the previous Secretary of State’s reference to this matter and assurance that three months’ grace would be available. The current formulation is eight weeks plus three one weeks, so one thing I will take away from this is the need for the regulations to recognise that three months are available. Under the regulations that is technically not quite there.
There is, as ever on these issues, a debate around whether we should allow discretion within the system or how much we should put in the Bill. The amendment would ensure that all those who left their previous home due to violence would be exempted, whereas the current provision requires some degree of judgment by advisers. However, advisers’ decisions are subject to the normal safeguards that apply within the system; that is, there is a separate decision-making function that ensures that the facts are looked at objectively and that decisions are reasonable in the circumstances and there is a right to appeal to an independent tribunal. There is that protection in the system. To summarise, we have to make clear that we are looking at three months, not eight weeks plus one week plus one week plus one week. We have to make sure that our advisers are trained and sensitised to these important issues. Where we might part company is on the need to put things in primary legislation, but I hope we have a common objective in dealing with this.
On issues around training, I would be happy to engage with my noble friend Lady Kennedy to run through what is currently involved in those training exercises and, if we may, draw on her particular expertise in seeking to address them. I hope that that has shown our support for the issues that have been pressed here. The key issue that we are apart on is the necessity of putting the provisions in primary legislation, which we do not think necessary. However, we need to make sure that the regulations and the system support the three-month requirement.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate: I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for her powerful speech. The Minister has moved an inch, but no further. I am worried that the phrase “domestic emergency”, under which Jobcentre Plus advisers would have to look at this issue, could cover a burst water main or something like that. It does not quite reflect the real trauma which the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, talked about of the impact on family life, the disruption to children’s lives, perhaps having to move to a refuge or to safe houses, with all the knock-on effects of later anti-social behaviour. This is in a completely different league from other kinds of domestic emergencies.
I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness. I saw the use of the terminology “domestic emergency” as potentially broader than the detail of the noble Baroness’s amendment, which talks about having to flee the home. From what we have heard today, in most instances it is probably a woman with her children who has to flee the home. I can imagine that there may be some instances when someone is barred from the home, but that would not necessarily be a requirement. We are dealing here not only with the fact of domestic violence but also with the fear of it.
Again, I am happy to take this away and look at the regulations to ensure that it is absolutely clear that they cover the situations on which we are focusing. The regulations say that if there is a domestic emergency then there shall be an exemption. The discretion is over the period of exemption. Perhaps I did not make that sufficiently clear earlier on.
I am grateful to the Minister for that further elucidation. We shall have to study carefully what he said to see whether we should return to this matter. Three months is the absolute minimum and we now discover that it is not quite three months at the moment. We shall reflect on what the Minister has said. The fact that we have this amendment means that in various parts of the country the guidance has not been satisfactory; the discretion of Jobcentre Plus advisers has not been satisfactory, otherwise it would not have been brought to our attention. We will both study what noble Lords have said in this debate, and in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 74A withdrawn.
Clause 3 agreed.
75: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—
“Jobseeker’s allowance sanction regime where suitable childcare is not available
(1) The Jobseekers Act 1995 (c. 18) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 20 (exemptions from section 19), after subsection (1), insert—
“(1A) Nothing in section 19, or in regulations under that section, shall be taken to prevent payment of a jobseeker’s allowance unless the Secretary of State has shown that lack of suitable childcare for children for whom the claimant is responsible was not the reason that the claimant falls within subsection (5) or (6) of section 19.
(1B) In deciding what is suitable childcare for a particular child or children the Secretary of State must have regard to the reasonable views of the claimant as to what childcare would be suitable in their child or children’s case.”.”
This is a probing amendment. It concerns childcare for older children of parents who claim jobseeker’s allowance. Your Lordships will be well aware that we debated similar issues during the first day in Committee, but principally with respect to employment support allowance and the treatment of childcare for younger children. I do not want to rehearse the same issues here again, but ask for your Lordships’ patience while I explore a few points concerning JSA and older children where the Government’s position remains a little unclear.
On younger children, on the first day in Committee the Minister gave a good assurance that the parent would be responsible for decisions as to whether a particular childcare facility was appropriate for her child. On older children, in the context of decision-making on a parent’s participation in the flexible New Deal, the impression from the Government is very different. The former Secretary of State told the Work and Pensions Committee:
“In the end it will be the personal adviser's decision with the possibility of appeal because if we did it the other way round that would clearly have the potential to drive the cart and horses through the conditionality regime”.
“The cart and horses” is quite sweet, really.
The Government’s response to the Work and Pensions Committee report on the commissioning strategy for the flexible New Deal said:
“Advisers will be required to consider the availability and suitability of childcare when they consider whether a parent's child care responsibilities made it unreasonable for them to stay in employment, to take up paid employment, or to carry out a jobseeker's direction”.
This implies that personal advisers, who are unlikely to have any professional knowledge of and expertise in the childcare requirements of children, will be making decisions that will have a major impact upon a child’s development. I think that that quote can be interpreted in more than one way, so I am not saying that it is categorical.
I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the following points. First, will the right of the parent to decide whether a particular childcare facility is suitable for their child be the same for older children from the age of seven with respect to the flexible New Deal as we understood it to be for younger children under seven in the ESA context? Secondly, will the non-availability of suitable childcare be accepted as good cause for parents with older children? Thirdly, I understand from the Child Poverty Action Group that only 6 per cent of 14 year-olds uses out-of-school clubs. This figure is apparently well out of line with the Ofsted data. If an out-of-school club is the only option for a child, would the availability of an out-of-school club be taken as suitable childcare availability even if the parent explained that the child had made it clear that they would not attend it? Fourthly, the DWP is guaranteeing that all working parents will be able to access affordable childcare by 2015. What is the DWP’s definition of “affordable” in that context? I beg to move.
The noble Baroness raises an important point. We have so far talked about childcare largely as it relates to the under-sevens and the early years, which we must all recognise is a crucial period in the child’s life. But we must surely ask what we mean by “childcare”. It is simply unrealistic to talk about it just in the context of somewhere for the child to go and watch the television day in, day out eating noodles out of a pot. It is also unrealistic to expect teenagers to go where they are told to go; they have got to go where they want to go; there have got to be activities for them. Anyone who has worked in this area must be perfectly conscious that most of the youth clubs have closed and most of the playing fields have been sold off, and that extended schools are simply not a reality, yet, in terms of providing facilities for children of that age.
It is of the utmost importance that we take the opportunity of introducing a suitable amendment—the drafting of the amendment is fascinating: it is a quadruple negative—to suggest that parents have this right. After all, when children get to even nine, 10 or 11 years old, if they have a latch-key, they start looking on their computer or on the television for all the sorts of rubbish—not only rubbish but the positively evil material—that is available to them. They are then on the streets; they do not have anybody to guide them; they do not have anything to do; they form gangs and start to get drunk; and so we have domestic violence and many of the problems that we have with our young people today. What are we going to do about that? What are we going to do about parents who work perhaps at weekends or in the holidays who are not in a position to give guidance and some measure of supervision to their child?
The new clause would create a new exemption from the application of Section 19 of the Jobseekers Act 1995. It would raise the absence of childcare facilities as a good cause for not fulfilling the obligations of the jobseeker’s agreement. I know from our earlier debate on childcare that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is concerned about the problems posed to parents of young children. In a way, the noble Lord is quite right: the problems of older children are arguably even more likely to be serious than those of younger children. I think that all noble Lords would probably agree with this, and hope that Members of the Committee see that I am as concerned as they are. I reiterate the point raised earlier that childcare is such a big part of parents’ lives on their way back into the job market that it will necessarily be a major element in an action plan.
Your Lordships may have decided, perhaps rightly, that I am fixated—to use my word to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas—about the super-affirmative regulation that she proposed what seems weeks ago; perhaps it was, I am not entirely sure. However, I was interested to hear what the Minister said in response to that, as it is clear that childcare will be a stumbling block unless adequate provision is put in place. I hold to the view that this must be worked out in advance by a participant in a scheme and the adviser, and the scheme should be constructed accordingly to take account of school hours, available childcare, visiting rights if applicable, and so on.
When we were discussing the changes in the regulations in November 2008, I made the point that no one wanted to see children running wild, joining gangs and so on. Equally, no one wants to see them watching rubbish television for hours on end or, even worse, sitting in front of a computer—arguably for even longer. There is an awful lot of damaging material available on computers unless the parents sensibly block it—assuming that they know how, which is by no means always the case.
Having said this, I am not sure that I can support the noble Baroness’s amendment. It is unusual in that it places an almost insurmountable standard of proof on the Secretary of State. As well as being—what was the noble Lord’s expression?—a quadruple negative, the amendment means that if a person fails to take part in their scheme, they would not, as currently envisaged in the Bill, have to show that they had good cause for doing so. They would simply be able to sit back and leave the Secretary of State to prove that lack of suitable childcare was not the cause. It is difficult to prove a negative. I fear that the noble Baroness would risk rendering a scheme potentially unworkable. It is much more straightforward for the parents to point to a lack of childcare as their good cause. Reversing the burden of proof like this risks tying logic in knots.
I accept that this is a useful peg on which to hang a detailed discussion on childcare provision if, indeed, another lengthy one is still required. However, I remain of the view that this is, when put in practice, an action plan issue.
We on this side of the Committee would be interested to know how the Minister replies on childcare for older children. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the age at which a child must have somebody looking after them. There is one perception, but I am not sure that 14 is a relevant age in law. It would be interesting to know what the reply is on that. This was reflected in the evidence-taking session in the other place. Someone from one of the groups—it may have been Gingerbread—said that it was much harder finding childcare for older children than it is for younger children. It is an important question.
I can understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has tabled this amendment but I hope, once again, to be able to reassure her that it is unnecessary. Section 19 of the Jobseekers Act 1995 allows for the denial of jobseeker’s allowance in specified circumstances. Broadly, these are that a person has, without good cause or just cause, failed to carry out a jobseeker’s direction; failed to take up a place on a training scheme or employment programme; lost his job through misconduct; left his job voluntarily; or refused a reasonable opportunity of employment.
Section 19(8) enables regulations to prescribe the matters to be taken into account in determining whether a person has good or just cause for any act or omission with respect to these requirements. Regulations made under that provision ensure that the availability of suitable childcare forms part of the consideration.
Regulation 72 of the jobseekers regulations 1996 relates to decisions under Sections 19(5)(a) and 19(6)(c) of the Jobseekers Act. This regulation states that account must be taken of any caring responsibilities which would, or did, make it unreasonable for the person to undertake a particular employment or carry out the jobseeker’s direction. The regulation also requires that regard must be had to whether childcare is reasonably available and, where it is, whether it is unsuitable due to the parent’s particular needs or those of the child. Regulations 73 and 73A make similar provision in relation to good cause for failure to participate in training schemes or employment programmes and in respect of just cause in cases of voluntary unemployment.
The Government are cognisant of the fact that parental employment is likely to be predicated on the availability of suitable childcare. That is why we have invested heavily in our childcare strategies, and it is why we have already put regulations in place to ensure that this is a factor taken into account in deciding whether or not to deny benefit to jobseekers.
I should make it clear, as I hoped I had in our earlier deliberations, that it is for parents to decide which childcare provision is suitable for their children. That applies to older as well as younger children. Jobcentre Plus advisers will not make that decision on parents’ behalf; we believe that such an approach would be counterproductive as a parent is unlikely to be able to work efficiently or participate effectively in work-related activities if they are worried about how their child is being cared for. However, if a parent makes representations that no suitable childcare is available to them, we will need to be satisfied that such claims are reasonable. Jobcentre Plus will ensure that the person has made reasonable efforts to determine what childcare is available in the area—for example, by contacting local family information services and visiting local childcare providers. If from its knowledge of local provision Jobcentre Plus believes that the search has been less than exhaustive, it will help the person to identify other possible options. When the local provision has been thoroughly investigated, the parent will need to explain why they consider each provider available to them to be unsuitable to their needs or the needs of their child. If there is a fairly limited range of provision available or there are extenuating circumstances, it may be quite reasonable for the parent not to take up the provision on offer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked about our definition of affordable. It is within the tax credit limits: £175 for one child and £300 for two or more. As for 14 year-olds and out-of-school clubs, we should bear it in mind that lone parents can restrict availability down to 16 hours a week. Of course, 14 year-old children are in school for 30 hours a week, so within that context there should not be a problem, because the Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on local authorities to ensure sufficient childcare for children up to the age of 14.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred to playing fields being sold off and extended schools not being available. The Government aim for all schools in England to become extended schools by 2010, offering a range of services, including childcare and study support, from 8 am to 6 pm weekdays throughout the year. Some 15,550 schools—that is, 71 per cent of the total, 17 per cent of them primary schools and 79 per cent of them secondary schools—with more than 5.2 million pupils on roll are now offering the core extended service.
On extended schools, the local authorities are required to provide them, and those services refer to various things, including childcare, but do not refer to any activities for older children between 3.15 pm when they leave school and 6.30 pm, which is the end of the extended school period.
I think that the period is 8 am through to 6 pm. My understanding is that a range of services do cater for older children, but I do not have chapter and verse in front of me. I re-emphasise that the Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient childcare. The extended school provision covers children to the age of 14; they should be catered for under that provision.
From what has been said, it is clear that there is a considerable amount of discretion for the personal adviser about whether childcare is reasonably available. That is the term used. The Minister did not answer the point about what would happen if a child refused to go to the available childcare facilities—and of course kids of 13 or 14 are very likely to refuse to do what one would dearly like them to do, as I know well. I feel that there is discretion for the personal adviser whether to take that seriously or whether simply to sanction the parent. Could the Minister give some sort of assurance on that?
As I said earlier, children at the age of 14 are due to be in school for 30 hours a week, and a parent can restrict their availability to 16 hours a week. Therefore, routinely, there would not seem to be an issue; they would not necessarily be dependent on childcare outside of school. In any event, that issue would be part of the reasonableness decision if a parent continued to maintain that the provision that was there was not suitable because it was not, in practice, suitable for the particular child.
On the earlier issue on the age that children can be left at home, the law is not clear because it does not state an age when children can be left alone but parents can be prosecuted for wilful neglect if they leave a child unsupervised in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health. That is in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. I hope that that has dealt with the queries from noble Lords.
I am most grateful to noble Lords who have supported the amendment, particularly the well considered contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I am grateful for the Minister’s reply. These are complex matters; there are grave risks involved for these teenage children and I shall have to consider whether to bring this back on Report. At this point, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 75 withdrawn.
Schedule 1 : Amendments connected to section 3
75A: Schedule 1, page 53, line 9, leave out paragraph 2
I shall speak also to Amendments 75B and 76A. Over the past two weeks, thanks to the Minister’s responses to the multitudinous questions asked by Members of this Committee, we have discovered quite a lot about the proposed system for moving people on JSA closer to the workplace. Most of your Lordships’ concerns have centred, although not exclusively, on the transfer of single parents from income support when their children are less than seven years old. As I have understood the proposals up to now, when the child is only one year old, the parent is summoned to interview. I had not appreciated until last Thursday that it could be a group interview and not a one-to-one with a personal adviser. Will those group interviews, illustrated by part of the letter that I read out when moving Amendment 57 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, be the normal way of interviewing those single parents in the first instance? How this initial interview is conducted is of vital importance to the future conduct of the relationship between Jobcentre Plus and the single mother, not least because the individual circumstances of one parent in the group will differ from another. Does the Minister agree that a group interview simply cannot achieve that?
Having said that, I am grateful to the Minister’s advisers’ rapid response to my moving of the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, last week. The response explains that a group information session is not a work-focused interview. A one-to-one work-focused interview will usually follow a group information session and it is the only mandatory aspect. However, the customer can decline the offer of a group information session without having to give a reason. In such instances a separate one-to-one work-focused interview will be arranged, usually in the jobcentre. I hope that that is well understood. It certainly was not by the person whose letter I partly read out. Therefore, it is a failure of information between Jobcentre Plus and the people who are called in the first instance to these group interviews.
Secondly, unless and until an individualised action plan—incidentally, I heard the Minister talking about “individualised” several times, so I have hope for the amendment that I moved on that subject some while ago—is agreed with the parent, which is not until the child is three years old, the only requirement on the parent is to turn up on a regular basis to the one-to-one interviews. At one point we heard that this is to be every three months. The illustrative examples—Panglossian, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, called them—tend to confirm that. In the circumstances, three months seems to be rather a short period. If she—it is usually she—fails to go to the interview without good cause on the day and at the time it is to happen, she risks losing part of her benefit. If she persists she loses more and more and ultimately can lose it altogether for six months.
This group of amendments, therefore, is to discover why the Government have decided that interviews at an age when the parent is still in constant care of the child are deemed so necessary. The point is particularly valid as the parent does not have to do anything except turn up for interviews. In view of that, what is the benefit of these repeated interviews?
Paragraph 260 of the notes on clauses implies that the reason for these repeated interviews is that they are the condition on which benefits continue to be paid. Are these interviews really the only way that these conditions can be met? It strikes me as a very time-consuming and expensive way of going about it. If the Minister is about to say that that is the system established under the Jobseekers Act 1995 and the Government do not want to change it, perhaps I may gently remind him that we are dealing with a completely new set of affairs which was not even an idea in the mind of God when the 1995 Act was being drafted. What we need to look at is the effect of these provisions on today’s clientele—in this case, single parents.
Amendment 75B is intended to probe why paragraph 267, which lists the relevant benefits to which new Section 11B refers, includes incapacity benefit but not employment and support allowance, which is slowly replacing it. Incidentally, it would be helpful if the Minister would tell us when it is now intended that migration from income support to ESA should begin. New claimants have of course been on it for some months now.
Amendment 76A, which I am afraid was an afterthought, refers to paragraph 23(3) of Schedule 1. Notes on clauses say that this “is intended” to amend the provision which allows people to continue to receive JSA temporarily without being available for work, having entered into a jobseeker’s agreement or being available for work. This intention is clearly needed when you migrate single parents with very young children from income support to JSA. I assume that it is also foreshadowing one of the groups which is to remain on income support and which will be transferred much later—those involved in court proceedings lasting longer than eight weeks.
Clearly, the intention is good, but the question arises about whether it is met by new paragraph 8 of existing Schedule 1 to the Jobseekers Act 1995, which refers only to regulations being made which may—not shall—prescribe circumstances when a person does not need to fill the normal actively seeking work conditions and so on. That is particularly important when we consider Amendment 80, which concerns those groups that will remain on income support for a period after the Bill is enacted, which are many more than those involved in the court proceedings I was talking about just now. I beg to move.
This amendment is welcome in that it gives us a chance to talk about the need for work-focused interviews, which seems slightly obscure for lone parents who have a very young child. However, this highlights the complexity of the rules in Jobcentre Plus and the fact that there is obviously much disparity around the country about how the rules are worked out. Obviously, there is guidance for Jobcentre Plus personal advisers about work-focused interviews, but we have just heard about someone who could not get to a group work-focused interview and was told that there was no flexibility. That is disturbing because they should have been told that if they made another appointment they could have a one-to-one work-focused interview in the afternoon. However, they were not told that but just that there was no flexibility. We come back to this leitmotiv which has been running through the whole Grand Committee about the training of Jobcentre Plus staff and the guidance issued to them. This shows that the guidance needs to be thoroughly overhauled.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for his amendments to Schedule 1. Earlier in Committee, I outlined how Clause 3 deals with the entitlement conditions for JSA as set out in the Jobseekers Act 1995 and paves the way for a major simplification of the benefits system by enabling JSA to take on the role currently performed by income support.
Schedule 1 contains a number of further amendments to the Jobseekers Act and it is worth saying at this point that the provisions within it are not new. The schedule amends and updates existing legislation to enable the introduction of the modified JSA regime and to ensure that a consistent approach is taken across benefits. Some of the amendments in Schedule 1 simply restate the existing rules for jobseekers, while most carry forward into JSA the system of conditionality and support established by Clause 2 for people on income support in the progression-to-work group, such as lone parents.
Paragraph 2 of the schedule removes the requirement for JSA claimants who are not subject to the jobseeking conditions to attend interviews and provide evidence about their jobseeking activity. Claimants who are available for work would normally be required to attend fortnightly interviews at their local Jobcentre Plus office in order to provide information and evidence of their availability for employment and active job search, often referred to as signing-on.
When we proposed moving people from income support to the modified form of JSA we recognised that it would be inappropriate for people who were on income support, who are not expected to be available for and actively seeking work, to be subject to the same conditionality as jobseekers. There was certainly no intention to require them to look for work or to sign on in the same way as current jobseekers. This paragraph makes it clear that the signing-on provisions do not apply to people on the modified regime, and I hope the Committee will agree that this is a sensible approach to take.
The provisions in new Section 11B of the Jobseekers Act, to which the second amendment refers, repeat the wording of existing provisions in the Social Security Administration Act in relation to work-focused interviews. In doing this, we have aimed to maintain consistency of legislation across the benefits system. For people in receipt of more than one benefit, these provisions ensure that we set out in regulations which benefits can be subject to a sanction for not attending a work-focused interview and the extent of any such sanction. The amendment would remove that important transparency for our customers, which I do not believe was the noble Lord’s intention.
I turn briefly to Amendment 76A. I can understand why the paragraph of Schedule 1 to which it refers may seem odd. There has always been a provision in the Jobseekers Act that enables prescribed groups to be exempt from the jobseeking conditions. It was drafted on the basis that everyone on JSA would be required to look for work, and it is used in limited circumstances when jobseekers attend training courses and are therefore not expected to sign on or actively to seek work. Paragraph 23(3) of Schedule 1 to the Bill amends this provision so that the current arrangements can continue as now for people who would normally be subject to the jobseeking conditions, while making it clear that the regulations will apply only to people who are not otherwise entitled to JSA, in particular under the new arrangements for groups currently on income support. That is why it provides that regulations may prescribe circumstances where income-related JSA can be available to a person without needing to meet the jobseeking conditions if they would not otherwise be entitled to benefit. This is very much a detailed point, but the key thing is that the new provisions will help ensure that all groups that should be claiming JSA can be catered for under the new arrangements as seamlessly as possible.
Several additional points were raised in connection with the amendments and otherwise. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to the letter to which he referred on the previous day in Committee. He is right that a group information system is not a work-focused interview. One work-focused interview will usually follow a group information session. It is therefore not mandatory to attend a group session and action to impose a sanction cannot be taken for failing to attend. The noble Lord asked about work-focused interviews for parents with young children. The work-focused interview should operate at the point of first claim, then at six months and one year. That is the only conditionality for parents whose youngest child is below the age of one.
The noble Lord asked what is the purpose of work-focused interviews. It is as an opportunity to explain to our customers the journey that they may be required to undertake in future, to explain the functions of Jobcentre Plus, to explain issues around work and skills and, generally, to be a keeping-in-touch opportunity for people who would otherwise not necessarily be focused on the labour market.
The noble Lord asked about the IB to ESA migration timescale. The plan, which we previously discussed, is for all claimants on incapacity benefits to be transferred between 2010 and 2013 but, as ever, we are keeping the issues under review and the final timetable has not been determined. I hope that deals with the points the noble Lord raised and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Yet again, I am extremely grateful to the Minister. He spoke early on in his few words about this being a major simplification. I am not sure that many people outside this Room, and perhaps a few in it, would agree with him. Certainly initially, until it is all worked through, the Bill produces a subset—I should not call it a subset, but I do—of jobseeker’s allowance and rolls it into a single benefit.
Yes, of course I understand that the fully fledged jobseeker’s allowance as it has been up to now requires fortnightly so-called “signing on” interviews because the job adviser needs to be satisfied that people really are actively seeking work through applying for posts through advertisements and the various other ways in which that can be done. However, we are now talking about people who are not actively seeking work. They do not fit into the progression-to-work group either, until their child, as the Minister has said over and over again, becomes three years old. So it is always necessary to have a first interview, but I suggest that it really isn’t necessary to have another until the child is slightly over three. I will have to work on this for Report.
Would it help the noble Lord if I expanded on my comments? There are various steps along the conditionality road. There is the requirement to attend the periodic work-focused interviews when the youngest child is below the age of one. Therefore, for older children, there is a requirement for regular work-focused interviews and for an action plan to be drawn up. On our proposed piloting, when the youngest child reaches the age of three we are looking to have pathfinders on the work-related activity. There is that progression until one gets to the full jobseeker’s allowance requirements.
The only thing that single parents have to do is to turn up to these work-focused interviews. Until the child is three, they do not have to do anything else. I ask again: what on earth is the point of these very early intermediate work-focused interviews?
The point of a work-focused interview is to give an individual a chance to engage with what is entailed in moving further towards the job market. If you do not have the opportunity of that work-focused interview at an earlier stage, the first engagement under the noble Lord’s proposition seems to be when the youngest child is aged three. That adds to the period where the lone parent may have been away from the job market. We know that some engagement, even if it is a work-focused interview, generally enhances the chances of people accessing work at an earlier stage than they otherwise might. If you say that they do not have to come near the jobcentre until their youngest child reaches the age of three, that is a gap that would make it more difficult for many people to access work or get themselves involved in those work-related activities as quickly as they otherwise might.
What I am trying to explain is that, as I understand the position, they go along to these intermediate work interviews, they are preached at yet again and they do not have to do anything about it. I simply do not believe that this is a practical way in which to go about things. We are clearly not going to be able to take the argument any further today—although I see the Minister has a couple of extra points that he would like to make.
I hope just to reinforce the points that I have already made. It is mandatory for people to turn up for their work-focused interview but, beyond that, there is no requirement for them to engage in further work-related activity or job seeking or anything of that nature, although there is the provision for them to do that if they want to and the opportunity for them to engage before the youngest child reaches the age of three. It is up to lone parents whether they want to do that; it is about giving people opportunities, not just about conditionality.
Surely to goodness, that is explained in the initial interview. We have been worrying about lone parents who are worried about childcare, and so on. Nursery schools, followed by playgroups, start these days with children at a very young age. I cannot remember when my grandson first went, but it was certainly before the age of one. It might be that those parents are satisfied and go back to work very quickly, but I still do not see that these intermediate interviews will have any effect whatever. I suppose that the Minister will say, “Ah, we’ve got to have a pilot and find out!” What happens if I am right?
We are getting a bit repetitive and, I think, making somewhat heavy weather of this. It may well be the case that because an individual comes in for a work-focused interview and understands what Jobcentre Plus is about and what the journey in due course towards employment may be, that person may come to focus on the fact that they wish to update their skills, for examples. The work-focused interview may well have prompted that thought in their minds, and they voluntarily may wish to engage to undertake some training and upgrade those skills before they get into any work-related activity requirement. If we do not have the work-focused interviews, it is less likely that those opportunities will occur or present themselves to individuals. I do not see what problem the noble Lord has about this, as it is a limited engagement that people have at these interviews to open up opportunities for them so that they can progress to work faster than the mandatory system may require.
Amendment 75A withdrawn.
Amendments 75B to 76A not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6 : Transitional provision relating to sections 3 to 5
78: Clause 6, page 12, line 10, leave out paragraph (c)
In moving Amendment 78, I shall speak also to Amendments 81 and 82.
Clause 6 is designed to support the migration of people from income support either to ESA or to JSA according to the Peers’ information pack. It does two things: first, they do not have to do anything when they make the move, as it is done for them administratively; secondly, it will ensure that the new benefit is income-protected at the point of change. That is fair enough, but for how long is that protection to continue? I have never seen a social security change such as is outlined in this Bill whereby no one loses out; there are inevitably gainers and losers. This is particularly relevant where the child element in income support is taken into account. Are the Government really saying that there will be no losers?
I apologise for the wording of Amendments 81 and 82, which are grouped with Amendment 78. I am afraid that it may have caused some confusion among the Minister’s advisers. My problem is that I could not find a formulation that included this current Bill when enacted and all previous Acts passed, or regulations made under this and previous Acts, while excluding future Acts.
Over the past few years, it has become commonplace to find words identical to those in Clause 7. This has come to worry me more than a little, because who knows what the future will bring? Will the Minister still be en poste this time next year? Will I still be badgering him after the forthcoming State Opening of Parliament? Who is to tell?
Teasing apart, what future Acts can possibly be relevant, or, as the subsection has it, be likely to be relevant, to the move from income support to jobseeker’s allowance, or even ESA, and how could they accomplish something that is not accomplished by the Jobseekers Act 1995 as amended by this Bill, and the statutory instruments flowing from the amended Act? A cynic would suggest that the draftsman is covering himself in case the formulation in this Bill and the myriad regulations flowing from it are incomplete and future Acts and the regulations flowing from them will be needed to complete the job.
If this were not the very epitome of a framework Bill, I would not be nearly so worried about subsection (5), as any specific measures would be in the Bill. However, here we have a situation where everything is done by regulations, the rationale for which is described in the various clauses in the Bill. In essence, the Bill allows the Government to do anything they like by means of regulations. What possible future Bills or orders do the Government think might just be necessary? Even if they become necessary in years to come, why cannot those future Bills contain provisions to amend earlier Acts of Parliament, as we all know does this one?
I appreciate that my worries are of a more general nature than just this Bill. None the less, I hope that I have related them to social security law more generally, as amended by this Bill, which after all is the Bill currently before the Committee. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for his amendments to Clauses 6 and 7. These clauses are closely connected to the provision made by Clause 3 for a new form of JSA to be paid to people in place of income support without paying them any less money or requiring them to meet the usual job-seeking conditions.
Clause 6 enables awards of income support or income-related ESA to be stopped where appropriate, and allows for a transitional allowance to be paid for a time and at an amount that can be prescribed by regulation if such arrangements are required. There are a small number of occasions when the benefit rates for income support, ESA and JSA are not the same and, in these circumstances, we need to ensure we have the necessary provisions to protect the benefit incomes of claimants as they migrate from one benefit to another as a result of these changes. Subsection (2)(c) provides that protection, and I do not believe that noble Lords would want us to reduce clarity in the Bill on the considerations that are to take place in the determination of a transitional allowance.
Clause 7 sets out the conditions which are required before a decision to abolish income support can be taken. Where these conditions exist, the Secretary of State can make an order which effectively switches off income support. It also allows him to make any transitional and consequential provisions that may be needed. Amendments 81 and 82 seek to ensure that an order made under Clause 7(4) could not be made to amend, repeal or revoke any provision or regulation made in any Act after the commencement of the Bill. I can stress again that the powers can be used only once alternative provision has been made for all income support recipients. Clauses 3 and 5 ensure that we have that provision in place. Clause 7(4) is necessary and important because it allows us to make workable transitional arrangements if the benefit rules change after this Bill is commenced.
I hope that noble Lords will agree with me that such provision should be made. As I explained at the outset, in proposing to abolish income support we are not proposing that the people who get it should receive any less money or be subject to the requirements placed on people who are required to look for work. The intention is to simplify and streamline the system but not to make it any less sensitive to people’s needs. However, this provision future-proofs the legislation and will help ensure that any transitional or consequential provision made under Clause 7(4) is effective. On that basis I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Of course I will, but I asked for how long the protection is to continue. What I did not say in moving the amendment and speaking to the other two, which I suppose that I should have done, was that they are, of course, probing and intended to get that information from the Minister. Can he help me with the length of time of the transitional arrangements? Do they last until the individual finds work, or is there a period after which they sort of fall off the cliff edge?
It is common practice when introducing social security changes to provide transitional protection—the noble Lord’s party when in government has done so previously—and to do it so that there are no losers at the point of change and that people do not see decreases in their benefit. How long protection will be needed for will depend on circumstances, which will obviously be set out in detail in due course. That is the normal approach to these matters.
Amendment 78 withdrawn.
79: Clause 6, page 12, line 45, at end insert—
“(7) In section 14 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (c. 5) (action plans in connection with work-focused interviews) for subsection (3) substitute—
“(3) Regulations under this section may, in particular, make provision for action plans which are provided to a person who is subject under section 13 to a requirement to undertake work-related activity to contain particulars of activity which if undertaken would enable the requirement to be met, provided that such particulars shall not include taking any medical treatment, including medication or psychological therapies.””
It is clear that regulations making provision for action plans within the work-related activity requirements should not and would not include any requirement to accept medical treatment, whether medication or psychological therapies. The amendment is a re-drafting of an amendment tabled by Paul Rowen, MP, in the other place on Tuesday 24 February. However, the amendment is broader than the one debated in the other place and ensures that all claimants on ESA are covered by the safeguard. A second important difference between the two amendments is that this one does not place any restriction on what can be drawn up in the action plan. Instead, it removes the compulsory nature of any medical or health-related treatment in the action plan.
The reason for the changes to the amendment is important. Some medical treatment might help a claimant in his or her progression to work, and claimants may wish to include that treatment in their action plan. However, the important point is that this must always be a decision taken freely by the individual. Claimants must not be sanctioned for failing to carry it out. During the Committee debate in the other place, the Minister, Tony McNulty, MP, said,
“we will never mandate any parent into any health intervention that is delivered by a health professional, including psychological therapies and the taking of medication”.—[Official Report, Commons, Welfare Reform Bill Committee, 24/2/09; col.129.]
The principle of our amendment has thus been conceded by the Government.
Our concern is that the safeguard should be incorporated in the Bill. We have had many discussions in relation to various Bills about the importance of principles being in legislation, and we have a similar issue here. Although statements from Ministers giving assurances are always welcome, they do not, of course, have the strength or impact of the Bill itself. The wider legal system sets strict limits on compulsory medical treatment and provides significant safeguards for those who are compelled to take treatment in special circumstances. As someone who is very familiar with the Mental Health Act, I am aware of the strengths of those safeguards.
The Mental Health Act also has safeguards to protect the giving of consent by a patient to ensure that it is real and informed consent. There would be no such safeguards in the Bill. The giving of consent would be experienced as given under duress, I suggest. The Bill gives significantly wider powers to personal advisers. They will not be trained health professionals but could potentially be requiring a claimant to undertake specific activities to improve their health. As I have already indicated, this might include therapy programmes or medication. Such decisions surely should and must be decided between a person and their clinician. I hope that we are pushing at an open door here. As I indicated earlier, the Government have accepted the principle of the amendment. Most importantly, it will not cost the Government anything. I beg to move.
In the absence of my noble friend Lord Alderdice, whose name is on the amendment, I shall speak briefly in support of it. However, a lot of my words will be exactly the same as those used by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I do not want to repeat them all. My speech also contains the phrase “we may be pushing at an open door”. The noble Baroness quoted the words of the Minister in the other place, so I shall not do so. However, the Government have made clear that activities to stabilise health conditions can be included as part of work-related activity, and hence a claimant might be subject to sanction if they are not undertaken. The worry of health professionals like my noble friend Lord Alderdice, who is a psychiatrist, is that the measures in the Bill have the potential to blur the boundaries of consent. While claimants might appear to consent to do particular activities, such as take certain medical treatment, it might not be entirely clear to them that they had a choice. Therefore, the taking of such medical treatment might be seen not as a voluntary decision but compulsory if the claimant wanted to go on receiving their full benefit entitlement.
One of the main worries of health professionals and others is, as my colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said—I would like to call her my noble friend but I shall call her my noble colleague—that, whatever else a Jobcentre Plus personal adviser is, he or she is not a trained health professional, but could potentially be requiring a claimant to undertake specific activities to improve their health. This might extend to therapy programmes, medication regimes or to other activities such as exercise or weight management. If these activities are genuinely agreed voluntarily by the claimant, that is all well and good, but we must be sure that this will always be the case. That is why we need a statutory safeguard in this very important area of how the Bill will work in practice.
I, too, support the amendment. It is completely unethical for any doctor, nurse or clinical psychologist to engage in any treatment of a patient who has been coerced into care by the state, or indeed by anybody else unless they fall within the provisions of certain public health Acts—the Mental Health Act or certain parts of the Mental Capacity Act.
It is necessary not only to ensure that the person does not receive medication and specific treatments in a coerced manner, but that they should not be dictated to about the place that they should attend. There have been many discussions about this with regard to the Mental Health Act but it is clear that once you start dictating to a person the place they might attend to receive care and treatment, such as a day centre or a day hospital, you are near to coercing them into the programmes that are delivered at those places of care and treatment. It is almost impossible for the person to say no once they get there. This is an extremely important point that we argued over a great deal when we discussed the mental health legislation. It is utterly crucial that the individual should be willing and able to seek care and treatment, and that that care and treatment is delivered on a completely voluntary basis with no quid pro quo in terms of what they will get in return.
I too support the amendment. The noble Lord has heard me carrying on enough about people with ME/CFS, but in some cases they have been told that it is a condition of their continuing to get benefit that they take a course of cognitive behaviour therapy and graded exercises. The NICE guidelines recommend CBT in certain instances for people with mild to moderate ME—I am using “ME” as a shortcut—but say that it has to be a joint decision between the medical practitioner and the patient, that it must be with the patient’s consent and that the cognitive behaviour therapy must be given by somebody who understands and has had training in ME. I have seen a medical assessor’s report where he recommended that a particular claimant had a course of CBT because there was nothing really wrong with him. That is not acceptable, and we need something more tightly on the books.
I am not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, intended the amendment to be a precursor to our debates very shortly—perhaps not that shortly—on drug and alcohol abuse. However, I take the view that even if the amendment covers that situation, it is unintentional and she wants to stick to those people whom she mentioned. Drug abuse is obviously an important topic that we must and shall address fully. The amendment would mean that an action plan for work-related activity could not specify a requirement for the participant to do anything that would require him to take medication or treatment. It would prevent any medical treatment being required as a necessary step in completing a back-to-work progression. That is wrong. Once again we return to the action plan, which I am sure that all noble Lords are by now well aware must be agreed between the parties. That requirement precludes the kind of enforced medication which some may worry would be required.
None of us would rule out, however, the scenario in which a participant with a medical problem which hinders their return to work but is none the less treatable or even curable agrees—that is the important word—to seek medical help to overcome that problem.
While a claimant is being interviewed and developing their action plan with the personal adviser there is no safeguard to make sure that, if they agree to some medical or other form of treatment, that it is informed and real consent. That is the issue that we are conscious of in the mental health field—that people in that field too need robust safeguards to make sure that they are not coerced into treatment. They are in a vulnerable position. In a personal adviser’s office, a person is also in a vulnerable position; they feel that they had better fit in with the requirements of the personal adviser or they may lose their benefit. The issue of consent is fundamental here.
Will the noble Lord consider a straightforward example? A plumber with osteoarthritis of the knee can no longer work as a plumber because of deterioration, but can really be cured only by having a knee replacement. For all kinds of other reasons, he may have decided that a knee replacement is not in his best interests and does not want it. As I understand it, the noble Lord is suggesting that that should be discussed in an interview and that he should agree to have a knee replacement.
Perhaps the noble Lord would explain to me how that problem might be tackled as there is a real danger of getting to a position where one could be coerced—that is the word I would use. For a whole range of reasons, it might appear to an adviser that someone is being awkward and does not want to do that for a reason that the adviser would not find appropriate. I would like the noble Lord to explore that further.
We are back to the training of advisers and the right way in which to ask such questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, looks as though she is about to jump down my throat again, as her glare normally precedes that activity. Perhaps I may be allowed to explain. A properly trained adviser would not go about it in the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, suggests I might believe they should.
A properly trained adviser might say two things to the plumber with a bad knee. First, I hope he would say, “Have you considered getting a new knee?”, in which case there would be an answer such as, “Yes, I have considered it and I have taken advice from my GP”, or whatever, and then it could not go into the action plan by any stretch of the imagination, could it? Secondly, a badly trained adviser might say, “I think you ought to get that knee seen to”, and the plumber might say, “Who by?”. Again, the normal entry into the hospital world, as the noble Baroness knows perfectly well, is through a GP and if the plumber comes back, having seen his GP, with whatever suggestion the GP makes, then we are in a different scenario.
I do not think that these worries bear much weight. I shall say more about this when we get to the drugs and alcohol issue, as we shall shortly. I hope that the Minister will be able to reinforce what I have said about the proper training of the job adviser.
I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher, Lady Murphy and Lady Thomas, for their amendment. I hope I can reassure them about our intentions in this area. The definition of work-related activity is drawn very widely. That is to provide as much flexibility as possible for claimants and advisers to agree the activities in a non-coercive atmosphere that will best support a return to work in their particular circumstances. Where an individual has a health condition that in itself is a barrier to that person returning to work, we believe that he or she should receive appropriate help and support to make a return to work possible. Many individuals will be keen to undertake medical treatment, such as counselling or physiotherapy, as their work-related activity.
The amendment would mean that these activities could not be recorded on the action plan as work-related activity, even where that was the wish of the claimant. We would not want to limit the scope of the provisions in that way. Every claimant should have the right to choose to take up medical treatment to meet his or her work-related activity requirement. However, I agree that claimants should not be directed to undergo medical treatment under the specific work-related activity provisions. I repeat: we do not agree that claimants should be directed to undertake medical treatment under the specific work-related activity provisions. This is consistent—
If the Minister is clear, as she appears to be, that no claimant would be required to undertake medical or other kinds of treatment within this action plan, would she be willing to have this in the Bill, because only then would we have a clear safeguard that personal advisers would be aware of? As I said earlier, assurances are valuable, but why not have this in the Bill? This is a very important safeguard and is not just a matter of training, if I may say so. I should say that on the previous occasion I was looking anxious and shaking my head rather than glaring.
If you are looking beyond the warm words of Ministers in Hansard, we will see the evidence that we have included this important safeguard in the draft ESA work-related activity regulations. I do not believe that when the amendment was put down those regulations were available to noble Lords. However, I believe that they have been circulated to the Committee. So it is in the regulations, not the Bill, as the noble Baroness asked. We believe that that is consistent with the recommendations of the Gregg review and the codes of medical practice that the noble Baroness and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, spoke about.
I was asked some specific questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked what would happen if people changed their minds—again raising the coercion issue. If claimants want to undertake medical treatment, it will be made clear to them that they are free to change their mind at any time. It will never be required that they must continue to receive the treatment or take up new treatment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, asked whether we will require customers to attend a certain place where a medical intervention can take place. Under Clause 8, as regards ESA claimants, we will not require customers to undertake medical treatment or require them to attend a place of treatment, although we may require someone to go to an information session. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, talked about a plumber—
Why was it felt important when we debated the Mental Health Bill that these crucial safeguards were included in the Mental Health Act while in this Bill it is regarded as okay to have them in regulations? I do not understand that because the principle is exactly the same in relation to human rights, which are what we are really talking about. To impose treatment against someone’s will is very serious; it is an assault. I ask the Minister to take this away and think about it in relation to the Mental Health Act.
Absolutely. The noble Baroness makes a very strong point, and we will certainly take it away. We feel that we have gone as far as is necessary, but I do not disagree that she has made a strong point, and we will certainly look at it between now and Report.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, used the example of the plumber. The adviser may well discuss other work-related activities. Could the plumber consider work that does not involve stress on his legs? Reskilling would be something to do with that.
Amendment 79 withdrawn.
Clause 6 agreed
Clause 7 : Abolition of income support
80: Clause 7, page 13, line 12, at end insert “following presentation of a report concerning income support.
( ) An order may not be made under subsection (2) unless a draft statutory instrument containing the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
I will also speak to Clause 7 in general. Clause 7 gives the Secretary of State the power to abolish income support and is a clause on which we have all received a great deal of representation from many groups, all expressing concern about what looks like the imminent abolition of income support. We understand the Government's purpose in putting this clause in the Bill. They say it is all about simplifying the benefits system and they confirm that the power to abolish income support will not be triggered until no one needs it. However, Governments come and Governments go. All we seek in this amendment is a modest but important proposal—a safeguard, really—for income support to be the subject of a report to be presented to Parliament before regulations to abolish income support are brought in under the affirmative procedure.
Income support is still available and is particularly taken up by lone parents, carers and women in the later stages of pregnancy. We are told that there is to be a new and detailed plan for the long-term reform of benefits available to carers, and we look forward to that. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when we can expect that; I do not think that this is the first time that he has been asked about it. We hope that any review of the benefits system in relation to carers will recognise the very important work that carers of all kinds do and the fact that their economic value to the country is probably incalculable. Moving carers from income support on to a modified JSA regime seems a very clumsy way of treating them and could deter some people from taking on unpaid caring duties, which in turn could damage family relationships. We must not forget that carers can get carer’s addition only if the person for whom they are caring gets certain benefits themselves. That is not always the case. Those benefits are attendance allowance, disability living allowance at the middle or highest rate for personal care, constant attendance allowance in some circumstances and, in others, war disablement pension.
It is not just voluntary groups that are concerned about this part of the Bill. The Government's own advisers, the Social Security Advisory Committee, thought the Government's proposals “ill-conceived and short-sighted”. We urge the Government to listen to all those voices expressing great concern that the power to abolish income support might be brought in before proper safeguards are in place for those who rely on it. I beg to move.
I support what has already been said so far as income support is concerned, particularly with reference to the clause stand part; I would support the Question to oppose it. The suggestion that income support should be removed should be opposed. The clauses give the Secretary of State powers to extend eligibility for jobseeker’s allowance to members of groups who cannot reasonably be expected to be available for employment, such as carers, as the noble Baroness referred to. She also emphasised that the people who benefit from income support are nearly always women—women carers, women who are recovering from pregnancy and women who care not just for children but very often for older people. Taking away their right to an income should not be contemplated by the Government.
The TUC has been in touch with me about this. It tells me that trades unions are determined to defend the Beveridge principle of providing a safety net to guarantee that no one will be left without a right to an income. Many people who learn that they are to be switched from income support to jobseeker’s allowance will worry that they will be required to be available for employment, even though that will not be practical for them. It is quite clear that this has already begun to worry a number of women. I am sure a number of us have, like me, received quite a lot of material from women’s organisations. It includes a letter from a woman who has a disabled child. She wrote:
“If I was told today that I had to go into waged work, it would be very difficult not only for me but especially for my child. I wouldn’t want to leave her in the care of someone else who may not have her needs at heart as her mother does or be as aware of her condition … If I was in waged work I would have to leave suddenly if my daughter was ill – not a lot of jobs let you do that. And if my daughter was very ill I would have to leave the job and go back on benefits. I’m already working caring for my child but the work I’m doing is not paid, so now they are asking me to do paid work on top of all my unwaged caring work, which is devastating and exhausting”.
That is typical of letters from people who are on income support and fear that the provisions in the Bill will remove their right to it and that they will be expected to enter into some form of waged work or a work-related system that they feel they are not able to cope with.
I support the amendment. Most people with mental health problems probably do not qualify for the various disability benefits that might support the carer in avoiding sanctions. If the Minister attended one of our carers’ groups, he would be aware of the tremendous strain that these people face day by day. Many of them barely cope, yet if they did not keep going, the mental health services in this country would not cope. We are incredibly dependent upon the contribution made by carers in that field. For that reason alone—I would not presume to contribute on any other disability issue about which I am less familiar—I hope that the Minister will take this amendment very seriously.
There are mothers of almost grown up or, indeed, grown-up autistic children who are carers and there are mothers of children who are bed-bound with ME. To expect those people even to think that they might have to go out to work because of the title of the allowance that they will be given is wrong. If the Minister is going to come up with a new name for it, that may be acceptable, but let us hear what he has to say.
I wonder whether there is a misconception here. No one is saying that the multitude of groups will be dealt with in a one-size-fits-all way. When one looks at the list—for example, pregnant women within 11 weeks of their expected confinement or young people in full-time non-advanced education who are estranged from their parents—one sees that none of the words we have heard covers them. I talked on an earlier amendment of those who are involved in court cases for more than eight weeks, which is another category so usefully listed in the Peers’ information pack.
I was also alarmed that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, suggested that the switch to income support would mean loss of benefit altogether. I cannot believe that of any Government of whatever persuasion. The noble Baroness will know full well that I do not share her Government’s persuasion 100 per cent of the time and perhaps not even 50 per cent of the time. That thought beggars belief.
Of course, Parliament will need to be satisfied that all these groups are being looked after before agreeing to regulations, which should not be allowed to be brushed aside unless a Member of either House notices as would have happened in years gone by. I do not believe that that is the case now because for some time we have had the assiduous services of your Lordships’ Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, on which we had a debate last Friday. Alas, I could not attend, although I should have liked to, due particularly to my small involvement in creating the committee, which was based on the frustration I felt as a long-term member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, whose standing orders have always precluded a discussion on the merits.
However, I digress slightly from the point that I was making. There now has to be a better reason than formerly to choose an affirmative procedure over a negative one. The final abolition of income support is definitely not of such importance as to warrant an affirmative instrument, as it will have withered on the vine by that stage. Of course I accept that each of the categories of people who will remain on income support after this Bill is up and running will need legislation to move them on to another benefit—perhaps JSA, the single benefit currently being investigated by the Government and the Official Opposition, or some other benefit which is yet to be invented. The conundrum, which I share with other Members of this Committee, is, first, when; secondly, how; and, perhaps thirdly, where, as regards what benefit is most appropriate. The only clue we have is to be found in the Raising Expectations White Paper regarding carers. Apparently, there are no plans to move carers on to JSA until the Government have finished their examination of long-term care and have what the Peers’ information pack calls a clear and detailed plan.
For the other categories, with the exception of the sick and disabled claimants who will I am sure migrate to ESA, the Government appear to be rather indecisive. Perhaps unhelpfully, the Peers’ information pack says that this might be appropriate for those on statutory sick pay, which I would have thought was inevitable and the right proposal. The Peers’ information pack goes on to say that the DWP currently plans to move all the other groups on to the modified form of JSA. This policy is being developed over a number of years. The fact that the pack says that the DWP currently plans to move them all to a modified JSA does not mean that that will happen. I do not have the least idea where they will all end up, but I have no doubt that for some of the groups a modified form of JSA would be appropriate.
However, I am not clear about how the JSA can be the catch-all for all those groups currently on income support. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain, not least because for many of these groups jobseeking has nothing to do with their circumstances. I am thinking, for example, again of people who are involved in long court cases. By definition, they are not even in the progression-to-work group. Would it not be better if the court system took care of them, for example?
To sum up, we need a progress report at regular intervals before income support is finally abolished. I think that we will get that because each of these categories will have a statutory instrument before they are allowed to be moved on to a new and different benefit. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that. I do not know whether they will be done in blocks of categories or if each category will have its own statutory instrument. The Minister probably cannot answer that yet, because he probably does not know. As I say, we are years ahead of actually achieving this. But when income support is finally abolished, we will have had a whole series of statutory instruments and reports—possibly reports from CSAC, on top of that—and maybe other information as well. We would then be satisfied that all the groups had been properly taken care of elsewhere in the social security system, so that when the time came, abolition by negative resolution would be the appropriate way in which to do it. I hope that that will help the Minister in what is likely to be rather a difficult response, given all noble Lords and the noble Baronesses who have spoken in support of the amendment.
This has been an important debate. In responding, I will have the opportunity to put on the record and try to allay some of the fears of most noble Lords who have spoken, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, the noble Baronesses, Lady Turner, Lady Meacher and Lady Thomas, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar.
I shall make a couple of points to start with. To be clear to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, we are not taking away anybody’s right to an income by anything included in these provisions. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked about the timetable for bringing forward specific proposals on carers’ benefits. Our Green Paper on care and support is likely to be published before the Summer Recess. We have committed to retaining income support for as long as it is needed for carers.
Clause 7 sets out the conditions which are required before a decision to abolish income support can be taken. When these conditions exist, the clause will enable the Secretary of State to make an order which effectively switches off income support. It would also allow him to make any transitional and consequential provisions that may be needed. Amendment 80 states that the decision to switch off income support should be subject to affirmative procedure; and that the Government should also present Parliament a report concerning income support.
I will deal with the issue of affirmative powers first. As noble Lords will be aware, the Delegated Powers Committee has looked carefully at the Bill and concluded that Clause 7 should be subject to affirmative procedure. Based on that advice, we will table a government amendment on Report to make Clause 7 subject to affirmative procedure. I hope that noble Lords will be satisfied at least on that point. The second part of the amendment would require the production of a report before the order can be made. I am not convinced that this is necessary, especially as we have now agreed that the order will be subject to affirmative procedure process. I know that noble Lords have been concerned about the position of carers when income support is abolished; I am happy to reiterate our commitment that carers will not be moved from income support until we have agreed a clear and detailed plan setting out how we will reform the benefit system over the longer term and how the particular needs of carers will be recognised. Invariably that process will involve consultation with carers themselves and their representative groups.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, have given notice that they intend to oppose that Clause 7 stand part of the Bill. Clause 7 is important as it sets out how we will perform and simplify the structure of the benefit system. It provides the basis for a streamlined system in which there is no longer a separate benefit called “income support”. That may seem a very radical change but it is the logical step in a process which has been continuing for some time.
When it was first introduced, income support was a catch-all benefit for everyone who satisfied an income test. Over the years, a number of new benefits have been introduced to provide support for different groups: income-based jobseeker’s allowance for unemployed people, pension credit for older people and, most recently, income-related employment and support allowance for sick and disabled people. In addition, lone parents with older children now receive jobseeker’s allowance rather than income support. Once those changes have come in, income support will serve a much narrower purpose than was intended; it will be a benefit mainly for lone parents with young children, carers and a number of much smaller groups, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to. In those circumstances we do not think it makes sense to retain income support as a separate benefit.
Of course, people who receive income support will still need help. In Clause 3 we are amending jobseeker’s allowance to ensure that they can get it. The amendments to Clause 3 will create a new form of jobseeker’s allowance which will, for all intents and purposes, provide the same comprehensive safety net currently provided by income support. Clause 7, therefore, provides a mechanism for abolishing income support where there are no longer any groups of people who require it. Although we have no definite date to do that by and although we have said that we shall do it only once resources allow, we still believe that this is the right time to take these powers.
We shall need to look carefully at how the change will fit with other changes which are underway, in particular the transfer of sick and disabled people from income support to the employment and support allowance, but we believe that it is important to set out our clear intention to abolish income support and, thereby, move towards a system based on two main benefits for people of working age: employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance. That will be a significant step towards a simpler and more flexible system of benefits in which people are treated as individuals and not categorised by benefit labels. In the longer term, we may go further and get to a position where there is a single benefit for people of working age. However, reforms of that magnitude can only be taken in stages and removing income support is the obvious next step.
I hope that noble Lords agree that it is right for the Government to make their intentions to reform the benefit system clear and that making the provisions to abolish income support subject to the affirmative procedure will provide the necessary level of scrutiny. I hope that they will also agree that a report to Parliament will offer little in the way of additional scrutiny as the key discussions and decisions will already have taken place by the time a report is introduced.
A number of specific additional points were raised. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, asked whether we should change the name. Perhaps in the longer term we may move to an entirely new single working-age benefit and at that stage we may look at the title.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, may correct me but one thing that we are worried about is that carers will not claim jobseeker’s allowance because it is called “jobseeker’s allowance” and they will not think that they fit into that category. The name is important.
I understand that not unreasonable point. We need to see where the carers’ strategy is heading. It is fair to say that people may be switched off from claiming just by the title, but I am sure that there are ways in which we can address that. On balance, we note that for most people on jobseeker’s allowance it would be the start of a journey towards work and towards seeking employment. It is important that we retain that component of our approach.
My noble friend Lady Turner expressed concern about removing the safety net which the benefit system provides for thousands of vulnerable people, reiterating the TUC's position on that as well as her own. To be clear, the Bill does not abolish income support but it provides a mechanism for abolishing it by order once it has been decided that there are no longer any groups that need it, but not before that. No decision has been taken about when that will happen.
It looks as though there is a great deal of fear among people who are now on income support, otherwise we would not receive letters from people who are afraid that their income support will be removed and that they will not have anything to replace it.
I acknowledge that. This is why it is useful to have these exchanges. We need to reflect on how we can seek to address those fears genuinely and explain fully to people what is intended. I acknowledged that these can be sensitive times for people, particularly those who are vulnerable.
I have dealt with the point about the safety net. My noble friend Lady Turner also said that it was inevitable that we would use the powers in the Bill as a stepping stone to applying full JSA conditionality to all groups. I stress that this is not the case; we acknowledge that some groups on income support have significant responsibilities that should take priority over actively seeking work, and there is no intention to introduce full JSA conditionality for those groups until they are in a position to benefit from an increased level of activity.
I have dealt with the position of carers and the fundamental reason why we seek to support this provision. On the basis of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment and that Clause 7 will stand part of the Bill.
I thank all those who have supported the amendment. It is significant that I was supported by three noble Baronesses. As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, income support applies particularly to women and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, made the same point. Women are particularly sensitive to the need for income support. I accept what the Minister said, but having a clause called “Abolition of income support” in the Bill has frightened a lot of people. There is a real failure to communicate what this will do. We all know what the situation is, but even the press do not. It is one of the complaints that the press make; if they talk about the Bill at all, and they are beginning to talk about it now, they just talk about the abolition of income support.
I am glad that we now know that the report on carers will be with us before the Summer Recess. That is very welcome. There is a real problem—the noble Countess, Lady Mar, touched on this—that a lot of groups worry about carers being put on jobseeker’s allowance, even if they are in the category of JSA that will not be expected to look for a job. That carries the wrong message. I understand in a sense why the Government are doing that, but it is a very cock-eyed way of doing it that has produced a great deal of misunderstanding.
I am pleased, though, that the Minister has said that the Government will abide by the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Committee and will make the affirmative procedure apply to any regulations made under this section of the Bill, which will allow us to have another debate on Report if necessary. If it had been a negative instrument it would have been the same, but we will get a report from the Social Security Advisory Committee, which will be welcome. However, if that committee has any doubts about it, will he assure us—if he is in a position to say this—that the Government will listen to its recommendations? Sometimes the Government do not listen at all but plough on, regardless of the views of their own advisers. I hope that in this instance they will listen.
With the five-bedroom cap, the Government did not follow the committee’s recommendations. That has been the case several times in the recent past. As a member of the Merits Committee I am in a good position to know these things. However, the Minister has at least assured us of the amendment on Report. For that, I am grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 80 withdrawn.
Amendments 81 and 82 not moved.
Committee adjourned at 7.40 pm.