House of Lords
Thursday, 22 October 2009.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.
Introduction: The Lord Bishop of Blackburn
Nicholas Stewart, Lord Bishop of Blackburn, was introduced and took the oath, supported by the Bishop of Chichester and the Bishop of Bradford.
My Lords, the Iraqi Government have requested our continued military assistance, and we have therefore signed a government-to-government defence training and maritime support agreement that sets out areas where we will provide continued support. On 13 October the Iraqi Parliament endorsed the agreement, which now goes forward to the presidency council for formal ratification. We expect final ratification within the next few days.
My Lords, I am very heartened by the noble Lord’s response. This is an important mission and will help to stabilise an area that is vitally important for this country. For how long will these sailors be deployed? Will the Treasury pay for this mission, and will the Iraqis themselves start to contribute as their oil revenues build up?
My Lords, the agreement will be in force for 12 months from its entry into force, which will be a few days after the formal ratification. The funding will come from the Treasury reserve. The Iraqis will not contribute on this particular project but we have other arrangements with them, particularly for the training of officers in the United Kingdom, for which they do indeed pay.
I must answer that with care. This agreement has two parts. One part concerns the provision of training. I do not understand precisely the circumstances in which those individuals might be drawn into combat but I will write to the noble Lord on that. The other part concerns the direct provision of defence capability. When this is agreed we will have naval forces in the area and forces on the oil platforms, providing a defence capability until the Iraqi armed forces—particularly the Iraqi navy, which we are helping to rebuild—are in a position to do it for themselves.
My Lords, I do not know what actually happened to the naval personnel. There are two aspects to this. The deployed operational capability was withdrawn from Iraqi waters and replaced by a US capability. That was a reallocation of armed capability in the Gulf area. The people who were carrying out the training were physically withdrawn, but we hope they will return. I am afraid that I do not know the overall cost of this training, but considering the enormous contribution that the United Kingdom has made to creating a stable Iraq—this sovereign, now democratic, state—I put it to the noble Baroness that the money spent on completing this operation by helping them to rebuild their navy will be well worth while.
My Lords, I am afraid that I do not follow the Minister’s last point. Indeed, we have already made a huge contribution to helping Iraq, and I am delighted that this training exercise will take place. However, Iraq in 2008 produced an average of 2.4 million barrels of oil a day. At current prices, that is worth about $70 billion. I should have thought that we are rather more strapped for cash than they are. Should they not be paying for this very useful service?
I will try to ascertain how much it will cost and write to the noble Lords. I just feel that it is a reasonably commonsense concept to say that, compared with the campaign, 100 people for a year represents a modest cost in order to assure ourselves that the Iraqi people and nation have a navy, which has been rebuilt from the ruins, so that they can protect the oil installations and bring stability to the Gulf. Just in commonsense terms, that seems worth while.
My Lords, the UK has an assistance scheme for locally employed staff. It has had two phases, covering those employed before 7 August 2007 and those employed since. In the first phase, some 592 people—mostly interpreters—have entered the United Kingdom. As many again took a lump sum of money because they believed that their future would be better in Iraq itself. Employees since then have become eligible for phase 2 of the scheme. When people become redundant or for other good reasons cannot continue in employment, there is a lump-sum or resettlement option. Some 334 individuals have entered the UK on the basis of that scheme.
Climate Change: Copenhagen Conference
My Lords, the United Kingdom negotiates as part of the European Union in the international climate negotiations. The European Union has stated that it will increase its emissions reduction target from 20 per cent to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 in the context of a sufficiently ambitious Copenhagen agreement. Subject to reaching a successful agreement, the European Commission must within three months prepare a report for member states on the implementation of commitments entered into at Copenhagen for agreement by member states.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, which is not in fact the answer to the Question that I posed. That is a trifle disappointing, since I told him last week what the object of my Question was. My Question is: what is the institutional follow-up to a package at Copenhagen by the collective international community? The point of the Question is made sharper by reports in today’s newspapers that the head of the UK Statistics Authority has criticised the Government for the way in which they present their carbon emissions reductions. That shows the chaos that we will live in if we agree a package at Copenhagen and there is no international body charged with the follow-up and surveillance of the commitments entered into. Will the noble Lord have a second shot at this now?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for his patience. In July this year, the Government published The Road to Copenhagen. It is the first time that we have published our position on the global climate talks. We accept the point behind the noble Lord’s Question, that the road from Copenhagen will be as important as the road to Copenhagen. We accept also that it is important that we move more quickly than we did after the Kyoto Protocol.
The importance of Copenhagen is, first, that we need to achieve an agreement that will limit global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, because, beyond that, the risks of dangerous climate change become much greater. We want also to reach agreement on actions to help developing countries to adapt to climate change. We will conduct these discussions through the international organisations and the European Union and we expect that they will start immediately after the Copenhagen summit has concluded.
My Lords, will Her Majesty’s Government work with the United Nations technical agencies that are responsible for many of these tasks, because the UK and not the EU is a member of those? I refer particularly to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will now push forward on nuclear energy as part of our response, and also to the new agency for renewable energies. How will this be part of our follow-up to the Copenhagen agreement?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right that the discussions will be conducted with United Nations agencies as well as through the European Union. We must have a global deal that takes account of national and global emissions, and we need to make sure that countries are on track to meet their targets. We recognise the special action that needs to be taken by developing countries and the assistance that we have to give to ensure that that happens.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for reminding the House that the European Union agreement was changed to make it explicitly conditional on a satisfactory agreement in Copenhagen. Is he not aware, however, that that is not the case with the UK’s unilateral Climate Change Act? According to the Government’s impact assessment, this will cost the economy up to £18 billion every year from now until 2050, and there is no possible benefit unless everybody else follows suit. Since this is not going to happen at Copenhagen, will the Minister give an undertaking that, like the European Union agreement, the UK’s Climate Change Act will be amended to make it conditional on a satisfactory agreement coming out of Copenhagen?
My Lords, the United Kingdom supports the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and regards that as providing the most authoritative perspective on climate change science. Its fourth assessment report was the result of six years’ work by more than 1,200 scientists from more than 130 countries, including many authors.
Answer the question.
My Lords, our planet is getting warmer and there is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the primary force driving climate change. Of course we will review all legislation in the light of developments and in the context of the agreement that we hope will come out of Copenhagen.
My Lords, as the Minister knows, there are increasing doubts about whether there is enough time or commitment to get a strong deal out of Copenhagen. Does the Minister agree that a postponed but strong deal would be preferable to a weak consensus that does not meet the challenges of global warming?
No, my Lords, I do not agree with that. As the Prime Minister has made clear on a number of occasions, there is no plan B if Copenhagen fails. It is vital that an agreement is reached at Copenhagen, which is why such efforts are being made by all Ministers in the Department of Energy and Climate Change and by other Cabinet Ministers to ensure that we secure as much international agreement as possible. We are hopeful that that agreement will be forthcoming, and the discussions being held with the United States Administration are particularly promising at the moment.
My Lords, it is about time that the people opposite listened. This is the kind of firm and decisive leadership that is needed to get not just a satisfactory outcome but a satisfactory follow-up, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, rightly said. Will my noble friend encourage others Heads of Government to follow our Prime Minister’s example?
My Lords, my noble friend is of course absolutely right, and right in one very important respect. The most important part of the initiative that the Prime Minister has been taking in recent days is the climate finance initiative. Unless the world puts in place the finance needed to tackle climate change, it will not be possible to reach an agreement and to achieve the outcome of the Copenhagen agreement. A working figure of £100 billion a year by 2020 has been put forward by the Prime Minister, because it is vital that we give financial support to the world’s poor to help them to respond to the challenges of climate change. The initiative taken by the Prime Minister this week has been welcomed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, by Kofi Annan and by developing countries. It is of fundamental importance that the initiative that is under way is carried through and that the Copenhagen agreement is successful.
Visas: Dependent Relatives
My Lords, the Immigration Rules contain provision for an applicant to be granted settlement in the United Kingdom as the dependent relative of a person present and settled in the United Kingdom. The term “dependent relative” includes a son, daughter, sister, brother, uncle or aunt, all over the age of 18, if living alone outside the UK in the most exceptional compassionate circumstances and mainly dependent financially on relatives settled in the UK.
My Lords, that is very interesting, but is the noble Lord aware that the dependent children of Latin American diplomats whose student visas expire while their parents are still accredited have to return to their country of origin and reapply for a visa at considerable expense and inconvenience? Is that really a sensible way to proceed?
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, was kind enough to let me know of this issue beforehand and I have looked into it in some detail. Within the rules, we are able to make sure that that does not happen and I shall be talking to the noble Viscount about this specific case to see how it came to happen. If a diplomatic family is sent here with a child under 18 who is studying, they are allowed to remain until the diplomat goes back with his family. That is effectively the position. I shall be talking to the noble Viscount on the specifics to see exactly what happened in that case.
My Lords, I refer the Minister to a Question that I asked on 25 June 2007. I shall not read it because it is too long but I asked about a Latin American person who, at that time, had lived in this country for 27 years invisibly because her passport had been stolen and so on. The reply given to me by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, was that she should,
“apply to the Home Office Border and Immigration Agency to regularise her position and apply for indefinite leave to remain; that is, to settle in the United Kingdom”.—[Official Report, 25/6/07; col. 410.]
Does the Minister realise how extremely difficult that is? I saw her recently and for the past two years she has been trying to apply. She has been told to produce details of the school that she went to but it has closed and the company that she worked for originally went broke. She lost her passport and reported that to the police, so she could not leave the country. Again, no records were kept. What is the answer to those who are in a difficult and invisible position for a long time?
My Lords, it is very difficult for me to give an answer on a specific case. It sounds very bad. We are now a lot harder and more careful about people coming into the country. I came into this arena late—two and a half years ago—but for many years, through successive Administrations, I do not believe that we were tight enough on our border controls. In the past two and a half years, that has changed dramatically; for example, net migration dropped by 44 per cent between 2007 and 2008. These measures are beginning to have a real impact, which is crucial. Immigrants have given a huge amount to our country, but we have to control the situation and we are beginning to do that.
My Lords, the last time the independent monitor for entry clearance visited Latin America was, I think, 2006, when she made a report about the inconsistencies and lack of fairness faced by people when applying for visas. Can the Minister say how the inspection regime for that region is finding the situation now?
My Lords, 204 years ago today, the victorious British fleet was off Cadiz with its prizes and was hit by a great storm. In the same way, I feel taken flat aback by that question. I do not know the exact answer to it, so perhaps I may respond in writing.
My Lords, the Minister answered the noble Viscount’s supplementary question in terms of diplomats with children under 18, whereas the Question specifically refers to those over 18. Can the noble Lord also explain why I am getting reports of British nationals in South America having to send their passports for renewal and extension to New York, rather than to the country in which they reside?
My Lords, I apologise if I did not answer the Question of the noble Viscount correctly. I meant to indicate that, even when such children are over 18 and they are still in full-time education, they are allowed to be here. They are allowed to be with their families under other circumstances as well, but those circumstances are too complex to list them all. If they are over 18 and in full-time education, it is absolutely right that they should stay with their families.
On the passport issue, this is the hub-and-spoke system, which we have talked about a number of times in this Chamber. There have been teething problems with it, but it has saved the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a gigantic amount of money, which it needed to save. We need to squeeze down and give better value for taxpayers. I accept that there have been teething problems, but I believe that we are overcoming them all. This is done very efficiently with standardised procedures and we do it in various parts of the world. I know that some people have felt that there are delays and that this has slowed things down, but overall we are very satisfied. We shall have to keep refining it and do better, but I think that it is the right thing to have done.
My Lords, notwithstanding the need for proper border controls, is there a general predisposition by the Government to encourage skilled and highly trained immigrants from Latin America in view of the huge talents existing now in the Latin American communities already in Britain?
My Lords, as I said, there is no doubt that immigrants have added huge value to our country. However, we have to be much tighter on our controls as regards South America, as with everywhere else in the world. We now have our points-based system, which is working well. It enables people to get into this country and it enables flow and movement. Interestingly, the net migration figure is dramatically down, which shows that there are checks and balances. People move to where there are opportunities. We have tightened the controls and I think that we are going in the right direction, but it will take time to get this sorted out. E-borders will help. At long last, we are getting real control of the borders, which had not really happened for 40 years or so.
My Lords, the general policy on the transfer of prisoners is set out in prison order 1810. This specifies that each prison area must produce and implement a local strategy incorporating instructions on the movement of prisoners in a range of circumstances, including moves on grounds of discipline and security and moves on grounds of difficult or disruptive prisoners. It is definitely not policy to transfer any prisoner solely because of a forthcoming inspection.
My Lords, the whole House will condemn the dereliction of the duty of care towards the 11 prisoners at HMP Wandsworth and HMP Pentonville, as outlined in the report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, but can we see the Government take some responsibility for the state of prison overcrowding, which results in prisoners being moved on a regular basis due to operational capacity requirements? Will they reflect on the impact on vulnerable prisoners and those undergoing medical care and reassure the House about what they will do to ensure that those kinds of prisoners are never impacted by this again?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is both right and entirely wrong. She is right when she says it was absolutely down to the behaviour of certain senior prison staff. It is clear that, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons said, the attempt was a pointless and irresponsible attempt to undermine the inspection process, and we, like her, condemn it completely. However, the noble Baroness is wrong in saying that it had anything whatever to do with the setting and maintenance of targets or with overcrowding in prisons. The fact is that in local prisons—and both these prisons are busy local prisons—there is always substantial movement in and out to court and back. Local prisons, especially those in London, are very difficult to manage, and we pay tribute to the staff. This has always been the case, but we have engaged in an extensive building programme, and, so far, we have kept prisoners out of police cells for at least the past year.
My Lords, it is one thing to have a strategy, but another thing to have it implemented, and because of the numbers of people in prison, there appears to be no way in which population management—the department of the Prison Service responsible for the movement of prisoners—can prevent what is demeaningly referred to as “horse trading” of prisoners between prisons, such as the disgraceful transfer exposed by the chief inspector. One of the Prison Service's recent successes has been a project in the north-west called “Pathfinder”, in which the population management of all male young offenders was delegated to the prison and probation regional managers. Can the Minister tell the House whether the lessons of the Pathfinder project have been learnt and whether it is intended that in future population management of all prisoners in all regions will be delegated to regional directors of offender management?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord who was, of course, Dame Anne Owers's predecessor. I know that he spoke to her about this matter earlier this week. I cannot confirm what he asked about Pathfinder, but we are always looking at ways of doing this better. As far as these incidents are concerned, they stand on their own. We are looking to see whether this has happened anywhere else, but at the moment, they stand on their own, and, as the noble Lord rightly described them, they were disgraceful.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that his noble friend Lady Morgan of Drefelin is taking through this House the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill? The Bill completely changes the way in which education is delivered to young people in prison and its success is dependent on them being in one place for a considerable time. Will he therefore do his best to ensure that the lessons learnt from the Pathway scheme will be applied universally as soon as possible?
Yes, my Lords, we will do our very best to do that. There has been a transformation in the nature of prison regimes over the past 12 years. Inspections are part of that as are performance standards and substantial investment. At the risk of overquoting the present Chief Inspector of Prisoners, she said that prisons today are more decent, more constructive and considerably more secure.
My Lords, it was a pointless, irresponsible attempt that would not have affected the inspections in any way, as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons has made clear, because inspections have nothing to do with performance targets; they are about looking at the whole of a prison, as the noble Baroness knows very well. However, I am really not in a position to comment on what individuals thought or did not think. There are disciplinary proceedings at present, and it would be extremely foolish of me to comment any further.
My Lords, I am surprised that the Minister dismissed the very important point raised by my noble friend Lady Falkner. It is easy to dismiss the culture in prisons that affects the results of performance indicators, performance targets and audits followed by prison inspections. I talked to a governor only this morning, and it is pretty clear that many people at that level are demoralised. Why have we created a culture that ultimately will result in many good governors leaving prisons? More importantly, will the Minister confirm that the inquiry will look not only at the vulnerable prisoners who were transferred but at their families and friends, who are concerned about the impact on them in relation to suicidal tendencies, self-harm and so on? These are very serious matters indeed.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, to whom I also pay tribute for his experience in this field, that this was a very serious matter. Self-harm and suicides in prison are serious matters and involve relatives as well as prisons, so I will consider his question.
My Lords, may I remind noble Lords of paragraph 5.24 of the Companion, which relates to Oral Questions in this Chamber? In essence, this paragraph says that we should have short supplementary questions and short ministerial answers. I recognise that the latter is my responsibility, but we all have a responsibility for the former.
My Lords, I congratulate the Leader of the House on reminding us of those points. She is absolutely right; the questions have gone on for far too long, as have the answers. If they are both short, not only is it more fun but it prevents an awful queue and people being unable to ask questions.
My Lords, is not the answer to this question for someone to intervene and to stop people asking long questions and Ministers giving long answers? Until that happens, we will have interventions from the Dispatch Box that are meaningless and lead to nothing.
My Lords, should not the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, whom we all respect and like, answer both the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and my noble friend Lord Ferrers? They have asked perfectly reasonable questions to which the Leader of the House should be able to respond. I hope that she will do that, and I am sure that we will listen with rapt attention to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in a minute.
Arrangement of Business
Announcement of Recess Dates
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons has made a Statement today announcing the next Session’s proposed recess dates for the other place. As is current practice, I intend to match these dates, subject to the progress of business. These dates are as follows, so pencils at the ready. We will rise for the Christmas Recess at the end of business on Wednesday 16 December, returning on Tuesday 5 January. We will rise for the February half-term on Wednesday 10 February, returning on Monday 22 February. The dates for the Easter Recess will be announced in due course. A note of these dates is now available in the Printed Paper Office.
Saving Gateway Accounts Regulations 2009
Financial Restrictions (Iran) Order 2009
Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order 2009
District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2009
Private Security Industry Act 2001 (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2009
Private Security Industry Act 2001 (Amendments to Schedule 2) Order 2009
Motion to Refer to Grand Committee
Welfare Reform Bill
Report (1st Day)
1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“General duty to have regard to the well-being of the child
(1) The Secretary of State, in discharging his functions under this Act, shall have regard to the well-being of any child likely to be affected by his decisions.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), the meaning of “well-being of any child” includes—
(a) physical and mental health and social and emotional well-being;(b) secure attachment and protection from harm and neglect;(c) education, training and recreation;(d) the contribution made by the child to society;(e) social and economic well-being; (f) age appropriate childcare, supervision and guidance.”(3) In the Jobseeker’s Act 1995 (c. 18) after section 1 insert—
“1A Well-being of the child
The Secretary of State, in discharging his functions under this Act, shall have regard to the well-being of any child likely to be affected by his decisions.”
(4) In the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (c. 5) after section 1 insert—
“1A Well-being of the child
The Secretary of State, in discharging his functions under this Act, shall have regard to the well-being of any child likely to be affected by his decisions.””
My Lords, I am delighted that the Government have accepted the importance of protecting the well-being of any child or children whose lives may be affected by the Bill. As people are talking, I can take advantage of this time to thank the Minister very much for his courtesy in letting me know about the proposed amendments before they were tabled. Maybe the government amendments will make my proposed new Section 1A under Amendment 1 unnecessary. None the less, I will move it because I believe that it raises two important issues.
I will speak first about the proposal to define “well-being”. I have come to the conclusion that it may be a mistake to put this or any other definition in the Bill. There is no doubt in my mind that the points covered in my definition are valid and important. The problem is, as so often with lists, that if they are incorporated in primary legislation they cannot easily be changed when circumstances change and, as we know, they almost always do. I believe therefore that there is a case for a definition of “well-being” in the guidance, but not in the Bill. I should be interested to know whether the Minister agrees.
I turn now to subsections (1), (2) and (3) of the proposed new clause to be inserted under my Amendment 1. I have set these down rather boldly at the start of the Bill because I want to convince the House and the Government that the well-being of the jobseeker's family should be at its very heart. I suspect that when the Bill was originally drafted, the primary objective, which is very important, was to reduce the number of people freeloading on the back of the taxpayer when, with a little help, they could be in paid work. It also has a very worthy secondary objective, which is to stop people wasting their lives and lead them to greater fulfilment through engaging in paid work. Finally, there came the realization of the need to protect the well-being of the jobseeker's children.
Pondering on the Bill since Committee, I have become convinced that its priorities should be the other way round. This Bill could be one of the most exciting pieces of legislation that this Government have introduced if it is presented as what it is; that is, a Bill to empower families. It will do so by making profitable work a real possibility for many more families, thus enhancing the life chances of both adults and dependants. This should be a Bill to improve quality of life for the whole family. It will save on benefits, and that is another advantage, but I do not believe it should be the main purpose. That is why I have proposed this amendment at the very start of the Bill. In itself it may well not achieve my objective because it is in a sense probing or symbolic, but if the Government thought that by any chance I had a point with it I would expect them to craft their own amendments, and I would be willing to help. I beg to move.
I support the words of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in moving this amendment. I wonder, as he does, whether it is necessary to have this in primary legislation. I have to say that I am comforted by the amendments which have been tabled by the Government. However, it would be wonderful if the wise expressions of the amendment were to be set out in guidance, a statutory instrument or whatever it might be because a general duty to have regard to the well-being of the child could be helpfully set out somewhere.
I add only this point, arising from my previous life. The Children Act 1989 puts the welfare of the child as paramount, and it is the duty of the courts to have that absolutely up front in considering anything to do with children. In the various criminal justice Bills that have gone through the House, great effort has been put into making sure that the welfare of children is treated as equal to the need to deal with them by way of sentencing. It should be made clear somewhere in this extremely important Bill that regard should be had not only to—as the Government say—children’s well-being, but to what is meant by that when people have to have regard to it.
My Lords, I, too, support most warmly my noble friend Lord Northbourne both in his amendment and in what he said about it. I also add my tribute to the Minister for the way that he has kept us all informed by circulating helpful reports to us, not just during the Recess but also since we have returned.
I have a particular reason for wanting to refer to subsection (2) of the proposed new clause, and I must declare an interest as a patron of an organisation called Childhood First, a privilege that is shared by my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. Would the Minister be good enough to make certain that Ofsted is made aware of the definitions of the well-being of a child? Childhood First provides a number of small homes which care for some of the most traumatised, damaged and difficult children in the country, young children who come from desperate circumstances. The charity, known first as Pepper Harrow and now as Childhood First, cares for them with consummate skill and devotion. Over the years it has earned consistently high gradings from originally the Inspectorate of Social Services and then the Commission for Social Care Inspection. However, Ofsted has come on to the scene recently, and what less than a year ago was outstanding for CSCI is inadequate for Ofsted. Indeed, Ofsted has even gone so far as to instruct that fences should be put around the houses in which these traumatised and damaged children live and, in the debrief it handed out on a home, it criticised the staff to the damaged children. If Ofsted were to read the six definitions of well-being, it would realise that its attitude to these children in care is not “well-being”. Therefore, while praising the intention of the Bill and hoping that it achieves all that those taking part in the debates on it hope for, I hope that aim spreads to Ofsted as well.
My Lords, no one can fault the motivation behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who is a close neighbour of mine in east Kent; we live in neighbouring hundreds. Clearly the well-being of our children is of paramount importance and all the criteria in the amendment are desirable, from the secure attachment of the child to his or her social and economic well-being. However, the question is whether it would be possible to run an already overcomplicated welfare system with such requirements in the Bill.
To ensure that decisions are taken which take into account all of these criteria would threaten paralysis of decision-making for Jobcentre Plus front-line staff and outside providers. Given the pivotal importance of getting as many people as possible back into the workplace, I am sure that this not the intention of the amendment. Amendment 15 is more tightly focused. It has been tabled by the Government in response to concern over the possible adverse effects of action plans and provides the appropriate level of protection for the Bill.
My Lords, I commend the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. The noble Lord had a seminal impact on the work we did in Committee and I, as a member of that committee, valued his wise counsel and experience in this field. He is an expert on the paramount needs of children and we have had some powerful representations from our Cross-Bench colleagues in that direction.
The noble Lord is right to say that this could be revolutionary legislation. If we can get the support mechanisms right and sensitively delivered, it could transform the lives of children. However, the Bill should be focused on worklessness, and if you focus exclusively on worklessness you have to be aware that the considerations contained in the amendment might get in the way. The noble Lord, Lord Freud, might well be right about the delivery of this mechanism. The signal success secured by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in introducing the word “well-being” into the Bill was a significant step forward. I have studied social security legislation for a long while and we will watch with great care how the guidance on well-being is played out, how it is delivered and what difference it makes.
It is very ambitious to propose applying subsections (3) and (4) of the proposed new clause across all the territory at once; it is a step too far at this stage. The noble Lord’s instincts are right; this should go in guidance. The role that he has played in bringing the matters before both the Committee and the House is commendable and has improved the Bill. However, on his instinct to put this in guidance, speaking from my own experience, we should first watch it and see how it goes. This legislation will be evaluated very keenly from all sides in the future and, if I were the noble Lord, I would settle for the significant progress he has made and see what the Government make of it before he returns to it—as I am sure he will in his inimitable way—in future.
My Lords, I, too, support the principle behind my noble friend’s amendment and pay tribute to him for the long-standing commitment he has to the welfare of children, particularly that they should experience a secure family life as they grow up. I am led to reflect on past briefings that I have received on the continental experience, where it appears that more mothers are in employment, yet women delay returning to work longer. That might seem paradoxical, but, from my recollection, it is the situation.
We have to proceed with particular care in this country, because, in contrast with the culture on the continent, ours is not one in which the value of caring for children and good-quality maternal care has been demonstrated. Our care system in many ways falls short, whereas that on the continent appears often to have performed better. We therefore need to be very careful—as the House is striving to be—that, in making this important progress, we do not lose sight of the strong attachment that children have to their carers, as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, mentioned.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for moving the amendment and the manner in which he did so, as well as for his kind words about me. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made a significant contribution in Committee; it certainly moved and focused the Government and I thank him for that. However, the Government share the analysis of the noble Lords, Lord Kirkwood and Lord Freud, about the particular focus of the amendment—as the noble Lord said in moving it, it is by way of a probing amendment.
As he and others have recognised, I announced in Committee that the Government would bring forward amendments which ensured that the well-being of children was always taken into account when the personal adviser and parent completed an action plan or a jobseeker’s agreement. I welcome the probing amendment, but it would go a stage further and create a duty on the Secretary of State to have regard to the well-being of any child affected by the discharge of any function under the Bill, the Welfare Reform Act 2007 or the Jobseekers Act 1995. We do not believe that it is either necessary or appropriate to apply a specific consideration of child well-being across all of the provisions.
Section 7 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 states that it is the general duty of the Secretary of State to promote the well-being of children in England. What constitutes well-being is set out in Section 10(2) of the Children Act 2004 and includes a child’s physical and mental health and emotional well-being; protection from harm and neglect; education, training and recreation; the contribution made by them to society; and their social and economic well-being—which have strong parallels with the criteria that the noble Lord identified.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, asked how the definition of well-being would be dealt with. The Government propose to use the definition that I have just outlined when advisers and decision-makers make judgments on what is reasonable when they draw up an action plan or jobseeker’s agreement with a parent, and it will be placed in guidance.
It is far more appropriate specifically to apply the consideration of the well-being of a child to the drawing-up of action plans and jobseeker’s agreements. Personal advisers and customers discuss and agree these documents at the beginning of a claim to benefit, and they provide the framework of what is expected of a customer throughout the life of the claim. They can be reconsidered and revised at any point in the claim to reflect changes in a customer’s circumstances or those of their children. It is during these regular discussions that a parent’s caring responsibilities are considered, and it is at these meetings that we believe it is right and appropriate to consider the well-being of children.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred to Ofsted’s recent actions. I am afraid that I have nothing specific on that in my brief, but I shall certainly undertake to draw to the attention of appropriate colleagues the instance that he identified.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke about the importance of family life, a matter on which I think we can all agree. There is nothing in the Bill which is contrary to this; indeed, just the reverse—as the noble Lord I think acknowledged. The thrust of Part 1 in particular is to support individuals, including lone parents, to move closer to and into work, for their well-being, that of their children and for the economic well-being of the family. We know the positive psychological benefits for children when parents move into paid work; we also know that children of lone parents who are not in work have a much greater chance of being in poverty. I welcome support for the amendments that we are going to bring forward in due course and for the general thrust of this Bill. I hope that, accordingly, the noble Lord will feel able not to press his amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 1 : Schemes for assisting persons to obtain employment: “work for your benefit” schemes etc.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, after “circumstances” insert “and where claimants have guaranteed and predictable access to high quality, flexible, affordable childcare acceptable to the parent and child”
Before I go any further, I should state that I am a non-remunerated non-executive director of the Wise Group, which provides welfare-to-work programmes in Glasgow. It is in the register of interests, but I say that for the avoidance of any doubt.
This is a return to familiar territory, to some extent. If it is worklessness that this Bill is trying to attack, the red line for government provision is childcare that is affordable, accessible and suitable to family circumstances. In general, I think that the Government have made substantial progress and come quite a long way to meeting some of the concerns that were expressed. There must be residual power left in the hands of decision-makers, but when the Minister said that he was content to describe the situation as “leaving the parent in the driving seat”, that was good enough for me. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that.
This amendment focuses on a fine distinction, in two respects. Clause 1 relates to the training programme that comes at the end of the Jobcentre Plus period of support for JSA claimants, before they go into the hands of private providers. The clause focuses specifically on that, but I want to focus on the programme for Scotland. We had one or two exchanges in the Committee, and, unsurprisingly, people in Scotland picked up on those exchanges. I have now had even more powerful recommendations and suggestions from people in Scotland, supported by the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform, an organisation that I know and trust and have worked with for many years and which has its fingers on the pulse. In a community like Glasgow, it knows what it is talking about, and I would trust its judgment. It is even more concerned now that the differences that apply in childcare provision north of the border mean that the facilities, structural change and money that have been put into this area of childcare in England—I am not so sure about Wales and Northern Ireland—just do not exist north of the border to the same extent. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that that could present problems, particularly for those in the “work for your benefit” training programme if they have children in the 10 to 14 year-old age group. It could pose particular problems in the long school break in the summer.
If the opinion of SCoWR is not enough to found my argument on, I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the objectives for childcare provision north of the border in the Scottish Government’s document, Early Years Framework, do not include ensuring that parents in Scotland are supported in accessing employment and training through the provision of flexible, accessible and affordable childcare. So we face two potential sets of circumstances, into which we are introducing this new employment scheme.
I would like some assurances about the provisions in place in England, which are quite substantial. I still have difficulty in believing some of them: by 2010, we are to have 3,500 children’s centres in England and free part-time early education places for three and four year-olds—I hope that those are both true—and by 2010, all five to 11 year-olds are to access affordable school-based childcare all year round. A sufficiency action plan has been required of local government, and a transformational fund of £125 million has been put up by central Government, via the department, for this purpose. There is, then, a new duty on local authorities in England that simply does not exist in Scotland.
Colleagues with English experience will know more about the commitments that I have just referred to than I do. I warmly welcome the ambition demonstrated by that programme, and I hope that it is in place by 2010, but, as my Granny used to say, “I hae ma doots”. If the House will forgive a piece of Scottish special pleading, this is important, and these amendments seek to reflect that. There are precedents for delaying implementation of some of these programmes north of the border, where the circumstances are not yet in place to be sure that proper provision is being made for accessible childcare.
If the Government have any doubts about that whatsoever, then I hope that the Minister would be generous enough to acknowledge that there is a potential gap in providing facilities north of the border. If he finds to his satisfaction that that is so, I hope that he will come back to make sure that some circumstances are put in place so that, if nothing else happens, lone parents north of the border are not financially sanctioned in circumstances where it is only because of the absence of affordable, accessible childcare. I beg to move.
My Lords, this area was debated intensively in Committee. Our concern with the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is that while it is designed by him effectively to put pressure, as he described it, on Scottish provision, it may have wider, undesirable effects on the rest of the country. We are concerned that if these amendments are adopted as they stand, they are likely to reduce the efficacy of the system across the rest of the UK—a system that is designed to help people back into work. In this case, however, it would be adding to the bureaucracy to sort out one particular problem.
I add my thanks for the substantial changes and for the impact that the Committee has had. As a newcomer, I am absolutely astounded at the kind of work we can do, and I am very grateful for the changes that have been initiated. I should also like to add my support for this amendment, because sometimes, in the depths of Yorkshire, finding affordable childcare becomes quite a problem. It seems to me that since the intention is there to make the well-being of the child paramount, it would perhaps be appropriate to add this, because in many areas—particularly in poorer areas of this country—affordable childcare is still not available to all.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for introducing this amendment. As noble Lords will be aware, “work for your benefit” is a programme for jobseekers who reach the end of the Flexible New Deal, usually after two years of claiming JSA. The programme is designed to fit within the overall jobseeker’s regime, and will consist of individually tailored work experience placements backed up with additional job search employment support. That will ensure that those long-term jobseekers, who may have little or no recent experience of a working environment, can gather skills and experience of real value to them and to potential employers. We are tabling an amendment, which will come later, to ensure that where a jobseeker is a lone parent, their child must be over seven before they can be eligible for “work for your benefit”. That is because it applies only to those who are subject to full jobseeking conditions.
Amendment 2 aims to ensure that those jobseekers to whom this clause applies could be required to participate in a “work for your benefit” programme only where there is a guaranteed and predicable source of high-quality, flexible and affordable childcare available to them that they and their child find acceptable. I am supportive of the thinking behind this amendment and I have no disagreement in principle with the eloquent arguments that the noble Lord has put forward, but I hope that I can reassure your Lordships that the amendment is unnecessary.
Many of the parents who will be required to participate in “work for your benefit” pilots will need childcare in order to do so. Like all parents, they will need assurances that their children will be cared for in a safe and secure environment. Some will prefer to use friends or family to provide that care. This is the option chosen by many working parents. Others may choose formal sources of care.
It is important to understand some of the background of the jobseekers regime in order to put this amendment in context. Parents claiming JSA are able to agree restrictions of their availability for work where their caring commitments make this necessary. It is possible, for example, to restrict availability for work to as little as 16 hours a week. Jobseekers will be able to carry those restrictions forward into the “work for your benefit” programme, so that they may, for example, need to take part only for 16 hours a week.
In the majority of cases where such restrictions apply, parents will be able to fulfil their obligations within the hours that their children are at school. If this is not possible and formal childcare is needed, affordability should not be an issue. Suppliers contracted to deliver “work for your benefit” programmes will be responsible for funding childcare for customers’ children where a need for childcare is identified. This will ensure that childcare is affordable and that participants are not worse off.
The amendment requires a guarantee that childcare will be available. There can be no absolute guarantee that a parent will be able to access precisely the childcare that they want at the precise point they want it. Judgments about predictability and quality are also almost impossible to make. The effect of the amendment, therefore, would be to wreck the clause in respect of jobseekers with children, although I know that that is not its intent. Therefore, the Government propose to deal with this issue in the same way as for other provisions that have increased the obligations that we have placed on parents. We will use regulations to ensure that JSA claimants who are parents, including lone parents, will not be sanctioned if they fail to participate in “work for your benefit” because they cannot secure appropriate childcare. This arrangement is currently working in Jobcentre Plus and there is no reason to believe that it will not work for “work for your benefit”. We are cognisant of the fact that many parents will be unable to participate in “work for your benefit” schemes if suitable childcare is not available to them. We will therefore ensure that appropriate safeguards are put in place.
Amendment 3 would require jobseekers to participate in “work for your benefit” schemes with a view to improving their prospects of obtaining employment,
“with guaranteed and predictable access to high quality, flexible and affordable childcare acceptable to the parent and child”.
In other words, the amendment would require that the childcare was provided via the employer, although I am not sure that that was the intent. I should make it quite clear that it is for parents to choose the childcare that they feel is appropriate for their child. We do not seek to influence that decision. Our broader childcare strategy is based on the principle of giving parents as wide a choice of provision as possible. In a small proportion of cases childcare is available via employers—for example, through workplace crèches—but in the vast majority of cases it is not. We will continue to adopt the principle of allowing parents to source appropriate provision, as this offers them the widest possible choice. And, of course, this will be underpinned by the safeguards that I have just outlined.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, was talking particularly about concerns in Scotland and I acknowledge that it is quite right to look at the comparison between childcare in England and childcare in Scotland. In England, over £25 billion has been invested in childcare and early years since 1997. He made reference to children’s centres. At the moment there are already over 3,000 in place, which is ahead of target for extended schools. The Childcare Act has been in effect since 2008, but it does not apply in Scotland and it has not been possible for us to ascertain how much the Scottish Government have spent on childcare since 1997. I understand that the Scottish Government have no plans to introduce children’s centres, no plans to introduce extended schools and no plans for graduate leaders.
The noble Lord referred to the Scottish Government’s publication The Early Years Framework. I understand that one of the key objectives included is ensuring that parents are supported to access employment and training to reduce the risk of child poverty, including through the provision of flexible, accessible and affordable childcare. That is all to the good, but I understand that no new initiatives and no new money have been made available.
It may help the noble Lord if I say that we are not proposing to pilot “work for your benefit” schemes in Scotland, so there is a bit of time for Scotland to catch up in terms of childcare provisions. So far as problems with parents in school holidays are concerned, we will allow parents to flex the hours that they do to just term time if that is necessary.
Let me be clear that conditionality in this Bill depends on the existence of the means to comply. For example, where there is no childcare, there is no right for Jobcentre Plus to require activity for a lone parent that would require childcare to be available. I hope that that has been sufficient to give assurances to the noble Lord on the very real issue that he raised and that he will feel able not to press the amendment.
I am very grateful for that reply. The point has been addressed in so far as the Government are able to do so this morning. It is reassuring that we have a bit of extra time if the pilots are being deployed elsewhere. I end with the plea that I started with: will the Minister make it his business to talk to his colleagues? I know that the department has links with all the constituent nations, not just Scotland. It is only because I know Scotland best that I am using it as an example. Will there be no glaring disparity of provision that will prejudice clients in future when the programme gets rolled out in its entirety? I think that I can detect the underlying theme from his response that he is willing to address these issues in the best way that he can in meetings with his colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I thank the noble Lord for correcting me. I think that that is right; it was not my intention to suggest otherwise. I am quite happy with that provision, as long as the Minister remains vigilant about any potential gaps. On that basis, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendment 3 not moved.
4: Clause 1, page 2, line 10, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations under this section may not require a single parent with a child under seven years of age to participate in a ‘work for your benefit’ scheme.”
My Lords, we had a substantial debate on the subject of this amendment in Grand Committee. Many Members supported the notion that single parents of very young children should not feel pressured to join schemes intended to lead to work rather than benefit. The Minister gave a very comprehensive explanation in his reply of the Government’s position, which is that access to employment is absolutely necessary for single-parent families, since it is the only real way out of poverty. The route to this should start when children are young, possibly as young as between three and six years old. The progression to work route will be tailored to the parents’ wishes and circumstances before it is finally agreed. The Minister was against putting a specific age in the Bill, since he said that it might be necessary to change it in the future and it should be possible to do that without changing primary legislation.
I accept much of what was said then, but the fact remains that many single mothers want to care for their young children themselves. Many would regard the so-called progression as pressure to join the workforce at a time when they did not feel able to cope. Childcare arrangements may not be satisfactory either, despite what has been said this morning. This can affect even professionally qualified women. I recall one young woman of my acquaintance—a lawyer—who returned to work when her youngest child was still young. She could afford childcare. She looked sadly at her children and said, “If only I could stay with them, but I have to go back to work”. How much more likely is that feeling for a mother who cannot afford to employ her own child carer and is dependent on whatever is available in her locality?
I believe strongly that such a parent should not feel under any pressure to join the workforce until she is ready and feels that she can cope. In particular, she must not feel that failure to participate in the scheme could lead to a loss of her benefit. From letters that I received prior to Grand Committee, there seems to be a real concern among single parents of young children that there could be a loss of benefit. I am sure that this is not the intention, but the fear is there. Including in the Bill the statement that there will be no compulsion on single parents of very young children should put those fears at rest. “Why should someone else be paid to look after my child when I can do it myself and I want to do it?” said one of my correspondents. I therefore hope that the Minister will think again about the views advanced in Committee and perhaps look at meeting the views expressed and the amendment that I have presented to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am somewhat confused by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. My understanding is that the “work for your benefit” regime would come into effect for those on the JSA regime. Lone parents will enter the JSA regime when the youngest child is seven, so the amendment seems to be redundant. I would be grateful to learn from the Minister whether my understanding is correct.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for moving the amendment. I understand the sentiment and thrust behind what she said, but I say right at the start that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is absolutely right in his analysis of this matter. I hope that, perhaps together, we can reassure my noble friend.
In our discussions of Amendments 2 and 3, I described the “work for your benefit” programme and the people it would apply to. We should distinguish the “work for your benefit” programme from the work-related activity programmes, which we will discuss in some depth shortly. As such, Clause 1 applies only to those claiming jobseeker’s allowance. Those who are in receipt of income support, including lone parents with a young child, are not affected. Clause 1 also ensures that no jobseeker can be required to take part in “work for your benefit” unless they are subject to a full range of jobseeking conditions. This means that those who move on to JSA when income support is eventually abolished cannot be required to undertake “work for your benefit” since they will not be subject to the full jobseeking conditions.
In addition, as I briefly alluded to earlier, the government amendments that we will come to shortly will ensure that no lone parent with a child under seven will be subject to full jobseeking conditions. With this additional safeguard in place, it is clear that there could never be a situation in which a lone parent with a child under the age of seven was unavoidably subject to Clause 1, and would therefore be required to take part in “work for your benefit”. I hope that this explanation satisfies my noble friend. If she should want any further information about how the mechanics of the Bill work in this regard, I would be happy to meet her and any colleagues she may wish to involve in that discussion.
I thank my noble friend for that explanation, particularly his reference to the additional safeguards which will be introduced in further amendments. I accept the assurances that he has confirmed; namely, that this matter is entirely voluntary as regards single parents with very young children. I am very grateful for those assurances, which will appear in the report of these proceedings. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Clause 2 : Work-related activity: income support claimants and partners of claimants
5: Clause 2, page 4, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) No requirement may be imposed by virtue of this section on a person who—
(a) is not a member of a couple, and(b) is responsible for, and a member of the same household as, a child under the age of 16 who is—(i) in receipt of a disability living allowance; or(ii) was in receipt of a disability living allowance and has made and is pursuing an appeal against a decision that he is no longer entitled to a disability living allowance, and that appeal has not yet been determined.”
At the outset I should declare an interest in that I receive disability living allowance.
A similar amendment was moved in Grand Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, which advocated that lone parents of children under seven who were entitled to any rate or component of disability living allowance should be exempt altogether from work-related activity. My amendment moves the age up to 16, and has been suggested by the Child Poverty Action Group, which has a lot of experience in this field.
Before explaining the amendment in detail, I too applaud the Minister for the concessions he has already made in the Bill. His amendments on the well-being of the child, the availability of childcare and the physical and mental health of the parents before sanctions are applied are all most welcome. However, we believe there is still a problem with the difficulties faced by lone parents of disabled children. I have tabled this amendment to address this issue and hope that it will find support around the House.
There are two rates of the mobility component of disability living allowance, higher and lower; and three rates of the care component, higher, middle and lower. Lone parents with children on the lower rates are not currently exempted from the conditionality rules attached to work-related activity. The Minister said in Committee that this exemption was unnecessary because the Government believed that, by definition, that child would not need the amount of care which precluded a lone parent from doing either paid work or work-related activity. It is worth reminding the House what the lower rates of DLA mean. The lower rate for the care component is for those who need attention or supervision for a significant proportion of the day. The lower rate of the mobility component is for those who are unable to find their way around in unfamiliar places without guidance or supervision.
The Minister went on to say that safeguards would be put in place so that claimants were not asked to comply with unreasonable or inappropriate requirements. However, the case of a lone parent from Norfolk illustrates why this is not always the case. This lady, who has a disabled child, pays out £30 in specialist childcare costs every time she attends Jobcentre Plus, which is 15 miles away, for a work-focused interview. Although the staff are sympathetic and polite, they have never informed her of her right to claim back these costs. This illustrates the fact that benefits advisers, however well intentioned, do not always appreciate the needs and challenges faced by parents, and may not ask the right questions or inform parents of their rights. It is precisely this type of situation that could lead to sanctions being unfairly imposed if the amendment is not adopted.
The inadequacies in the administration of the benefits and tax credits systems and the complexity of families’ lives must be taken into account. The way in which DLA is administered results in constant changes in award. Often a child’s award will be downgraded or removed altogether, only for it to be reinstated on appeal. More than half of DLA appeals are decided in favour of the claimant, and this figure is rising. Research shows that DLA take-up is, in fact, low because of a lack of information, an onerous application process, constant reassessments and the stigma associated with being on benefits. DLA forms are still complex despite recent changes, resulting in poor decision-making, which in turn leads to disputed decisions. One lone parent in Norfolk said that it had taken her six months to fill in the 40-page form. Those who live in a rural area are miles from the nearest advice centre, so may not fill in the form in the way which accurately describes the child’s condition. I sympathise with that as I had terrible trouble filling in my form. Often decision-makers do not know enough about invisible conditions such as autism and fluctuating conditions such as ADHD. Parents who try to suggest people who could provide additional evidence are all too often ignored. The result of this is that a DLA award is constantly being reduced or upgraded. However, it has to be said that the difference between the lower and middle rates of care component is very arbitrary.
Another problem for lone parents is the difficulty of finding appropriate childcare for disabled children—particularly for older children—which may not always be recognised by Jobcentre Plus decision-makers. This is why the amendment applies to children up to the age of 16. If a child with autistic spectrum disorders or ADHD is excluded from school or a childcare facility, lone parents have no choice but to care for that child during school hours, yet under the proposed rules in the Bill lone parents with two or more disabled children could be required to attend work-focused interviews and undertake work-related activity or face sanctions.
The Minister may well confidently state that these exclusions would constitute good cause for the lone parent not to undertake mandatory work-related activity, but I fear that we do not have so much confidence in personal advisers or decision-makers who may not understand just how difficult caring for a disabled child is, even one who is on the lowest rate of DLA. It is also quite difficult keeping track of DLA awards alongside assessing other family circumstances, and introduces onerous complexity, uncertainty and confusion into an already complicated new system. This is likely to result in some families having their benefits sanctioned, making a bad situation worse. Changes in DLA awards generate fluctuations in income for families, and the imposition of benefit sanctions is likely to plunge them into crisis and contribute to higher levels of child poverty.
It is already well known that poverty is high in families with disabled children, especially when the parent is alone. There are believed to be about 770,000 disabled children altogether—about 7 per cent of all children. Even when the parent is in part-time work, because of significant additional costs such as transport and childcare, the family is likely to be among the poorest. The sudden loss or downgrading of DLA generates high levels of stress and families often fall into debt because their income has gone down, but the additional costs I have mentioned remain the same.
Caring for disabled children is no picnic, particularly when there are other children in the family. There are hospital appointments, school appointments and medical assessments, to say nothing of negotiating the complexity of the benefits and tax credit systems. There is plenty of academic research to back up everything I have said. I have not wearied the House with it because I know that we need to get on.
I also have the backing of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, who cannot be here today. She supports the amendment:
“Mainly because many children with behavioural disabilities are on the lower rate DLA because they do not present any physical disabilities which require ongoing hands on assistance. … these children need close parental support which would be hampered if the lone parent was forced to work, without substantive home support”.
From the outside it looks as though the lone parent of children on the lower rate of DLA simply does not need protection from the sanctions regime of work-related activity, but that is not how it appears from the inside, otherwise groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group would not be so concerned. They make the point that most lone parents with disabled children want to work, and that therefore the element of compulsion is unnecessary. I urge the Minister to consider this matter again. I beg to move.
My Lords, I very much support the amendment and I hope that my noble friend is persuaded by the arguments of the noble Baroness. DLA is very hard to award correctly. Unlike, say, JSA, HB or even the former incapacity benefit, it is not awarded on the facts of disability but on the judgment on the effects of it on the need for care. Two people with identical disabilities can quite properly receive different levels of DLA, perhaps because of their competence, energy, general level of health, education and so on—or possibly because of practical things such as the layout of the home, their aids and appliances, which mean that they can function more or less independently.
That call for DLA is difficult to assess at the best of times. It is even harder when you are assessing mental healthcare needs, which are often stigmatised and hidden. It is even harder again when conditions fluctuate; ME, MS, attention deficit disorders and some mental health needs are unpredictable. Hardest of all is assessing the care needs of children with mental health needs, where again conditions fluctuate—comparisons have to be made continuously with so-called average or normal children—when a lone parent is not always able to articulate that child’s disability or needs, and when, as the latest report from the Autism Society about adult patients with autism shows, even GPs can confuse apparent misbehaviour or failure to behave appropriately with poor mental health. How much more does that apply to children?
It is not surprising, therefore, that more than 60 per cent of appeals against the withdrawal or downgrading of an award of DLA succeed. I have sat in on some of those tribunals. The appeals succeeded not because the decision-makers were obtuse or unkind; invariably I found them polite, professional and doing their best with a difficult job. On the evidence that they were given they made what seemed at the time to be the right call. However, because conditions change, fluctuate and, sadly, all too often deteriorate, and because some mental heath problems are hard to read—even by the medical profession—and because, above all, the carer or lone parent often fails to give the DWP decision-maker all the relevant information they need because that carer does not always know what the DWP needs to know, there is an appeal. I have sat at tribunals where a kindly and patient chair has elicited information from a lone parent or carer that was not on the written application and which made all the difference; the award has been improved and the lone parent has rightly received the money that she needs for her child.
What is it, then, that the DWP needs to know and often does not know, as a result of which the lone parent who goes to appeal wins the award? As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, the lower rate is awarded when attention is needed for a significant proportion of the day beyond what an average child would need. The middle rate is awarded when frequent or several bouts of attention are needed during the day or night. The higher rate applies to frequent attention needed day and night. The gap between not having any DLA needs and qualifying for lower-rate DLA is fairly straightforward. The gap, however, between the need for significant attention, thereby qualifying for the lower rate, and frequent attention—the middle rate—is not at all straightforward. Children wander literally as well as metaphorically across that line all the time.
For example, when a child who is on the Asperger-autism spectrum needs to get ready for school, they take longer to dress, may have to go by taxi if there is some distance involved—because a seven or eight year-old cannot be trusted to behave sensibly on a bus—and so on. In that case, the lower-rate DLA applies. Then the child has a highly stressed school day; there are tantrums, biting, hitting and the parent is called in to help. At that point, two hours later, the parent has moved into potentially being a recipient of middle-rate DLA. However, the following day the child’s behaviour has stabilised and we are back to lower-rate DLA—all within 24 hours.
I say to my noble friend, I fully support keeping lone parents connected to the labour market. Most want to work, need to work and it is the best possible springboard for them and their children. However, I urge him to accept that it makes no sense at all to draw an artificial line within the community of children on DLA—a line that would require some parents to enter into work-related activity and eventually work, and not others, as though there were a firm and fast line between lower and middle-rate DLA, which I know is not and never has been the case. No such line exists. It is a judgment call that is properly made one day, and a day later a different call properly can been made.
If a lone parent can work, she will; but if, given her child’s disability, she thinks that she cannot, that is enough for me. Her life, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, is hard enough as it is, when every day is full of stress and problems. To add yet another set of pressures is not fair and, I suggest, will not work. Why not? Even if we enrol her into the programme and a job, she is never off duty for potential childcare. She may arrive late because the child has had a difficult early morning, and she may have to leave early because she is worried about how that child has been all day. She may find all-too-frequently that specialised childcare has broken down; this is one situation where neighbours cannot or will not be called in to substitute—so she has to drop out of work again. She may need to leave work temporarily to go into school to give medication. She may be exhausted because of a sleepless night or possibly—even probably—depressed about trying to cope with it all.
I ask your Lordships whether you as an employer, however well intentioned, could keep such a lone parent in work, even if she found a job. I rather doubt it. She will churn; and every churning, every rebuff, will add to her failure and lack of self-confidence and make re-entry harder next time. I repeat: I want her to have work-focused interviews—that is light-touch engagement with the world of work. Their children’s health may change and, I hope, improve as they grow older. I want to keep pathways to work open. I and my noble friend are on the same side. However, where a child has disabilities and that line between lower and middle-rate is so unrealistic, engagement in work-preparation programmes and work must be voluntary and by encouragement. Otherwise—and I do not think that I am putting this too strongly—we risk breaking her. No one else will or could care for her disabled child as she does, with a possibility of the best outcome for that child.
I hope very much that my noble friend will accept or move towards the amendment of the noble Baroness on behalf of disabled children.
I wish to ask a short question: why does looking after such a child not qualify as work? Surely it is work. If the Minister wants to say that we are talking only about paid work, it raises the question: should we not pay to help parents who have to do that kind of work?
My Lords, on these Benches we are sympathetic to lone parents who have the added burden of a child with a disability. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for tabling this amendment. However, to exempt all lone parents from progression-to-work and work requirements based on a child’s receipt of DLA harks back to an era when legislators thought that they needed to protect people from the need to work. I remind noble Lords of the key finding of Waddell and Burton that work is generally good for health and well-being. The amendment refers to children up to 16 receiving DLA. Many such teenagers will be out of the house for much of the day, so the effect is to delay for far too long the time when their lone parent is introduced to economic activity. The route out of this quagmire is personalisation of the system, not blanket exemptions and blanket requirements.
I support the amendment. Along with other noble Lords, I pay tribute to the extraordinary amount of work that the Minister and the Bill team have undertaken to improve the Bill from what I regarded as an unacceptable document to the point where now I feel that it is nearly acceptable. There are some bits in it that we are still deeply unhappy with, and we are still looking for government amendments, but I pay tribute to the Minister.
The amendment, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned, is very similar to one that I moved in Committee, so it is not surprising that I support it. As other noble Lords have said, the Bill could offer opportunities in particular to children of lone parents who have, over many years, grown up in families on benefits in a tragic degree of poverty. None of us wants children to grow up in that way. However, any sanctions for lone parents looking after a disabled child simply do not belong in legislation—I feel that very strongly. The arguments put by the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas and Lady Hollis, were extremely forceful and powerfully put. I do not want to repeat them, nor the arguments that I put in Committee. I strongly support the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for moving the amendment. We have had some powerful contributions to this short debate. It is always the case that when the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, combines with my noble friend Lady Hollis and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, they form a powerful coalition of knowledgeable people. I was interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, particularly his reference to Waddell and Burton. That was a seminal piece of work from which much has flowed, particularly Carol Black’s report, the Government’s response and a range of initiatives that are under way as a result. We share common ground in respect of moving towards personalisation, so that the support that people get is determined not by the benefit that they are on, but by the support and help that they need to access the labour market.
In Grand Committee, we said that we wanted to mirror the requirements for lone parents with older children who are now moving from income support to jobseeker’s allowance, by exempting lone parents who have a child receiving the middle-rate or highest-rate care component of DLA from having to undertake work-related activity. However, we said that we would require those in receipt of the lower-rate care component of DLA to do so. We still consider that parents receiving the higher and middle rates of DLA will not be able to comply with the requirements of work-related activity, because the number of hours that they spend undertaking their caring responsibilities will not enable them to do so. However, it can be argued that those receiving the lower rate will be in a position to engage in such activity because their caring responsibilities will not be as demanding. The level of care could be as little as one hour a day, and such care may only be provided in a school environment—although I accept that that may not necessarily be the case.
I stress that we are introducing government amendments, which we will come to shortly and which will provide a number of safeguards and assurances to ensure that lone parents are not penalised when agreeing to undertake work-related activity. Foremost in these amendments is the requirement for a personal adviser to take into account the well-being of a parent’s child when they are agreeing the activities that they are going to undertake as part of their action plan. This could be especially pertinent for lone parents who receive the lower rate of DLA. It will provide them with the protection required to ensure that they are not required to undertake activities that would risk harm to their child’s well-being.
I point out also that under the progression-to-work model, a lone parent may be required to undertake only one activity between their quarterly work-focused interviews. This allows personal advisers and lone parents the necessary flexibility to draw up action plans that can tailor activities to the individual needs of the lone parent and their caring responsibilities. For example, a lone parent may agree with an adviser that they will attend a children’s centre in a three-month period. The activity could be carried out at any point in that time and is not restricted by dates or specific times of attendance, thereby enabling a lone parent to judge the best time for them and their child.
We are also introducing the ability for a personal adviser to reconsider the activities detailed in an action plan. Again, this provides extra flexibility and could mean that if a lone parent could not complete the work-related activity that they had previously agreed because of their caring responsibilities, the timescales could be extended or, if appropriate, the activity could be changed. They may even have completed another activity that could be considered as acceptable and classed as meeting their responsibilities. When the adviser arranges attendance at work-focused interviews, they will also be mindful of the individual needs of that lone parent and their child. This will enable them to be rearranged, if necessary, to meet the lone parent’s and the child’s needs.
We will also use regulation-making powers to prescribe that, in considering whether a lone parent has good cause for not complying with the new requirements, account must be taken both of the availability and suitability of childcare in relation to the specific needs of the parent or child. I mentioned earlier that it is not our intention to penalise lone parents, but to give them the opportunity to undertake activities that will help to improve not only their future prospects but also those of their children. We must not lose sight of the fact that ensuring a child’s well-being also includes their social and economic well-being.
Nevertheless, on balance I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas—supported by my noble friend Lady Hollis and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—has made her case well. If the noble Baroness will agree not to press her amendment today, perhaps I can commit to looking further at the issue, with a view to coming back at Third Reading with something that meets her requirements.
My Lords, I might as well tear up what I was going to say. That was very unexpected. I am grateful particularly for the powerful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and for great support from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. They put the situation in a nutshell. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, was not so keen, but on this occasion his support is not necessary. If the Minister will come back at Third Reading with something for us, we will accept that with gratitude and look forward to seeing how we can take the matter forward. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
6: Clause 2, page 4, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) Nothing in this section shall cause any financial sanction to be imposed in the case of a single parent with a child under five years of age.”
My Lords, Amendment 6 is a simple amendment that makes a simple point. It adds to Clause 2, which sets out the back-to-work path through work-related activity, a clear declaration that nothing that follows in the clause will result in a financial sanction being imposed on the lone parents of children under five. This is not a wrecking amendment. I trust that it will not be used to suggest that the Conservatives are trying to scupper the Bill. The Minister, and anyone who has followed the progress of the Bill, knows that not to be the case. We see this amendment as an additional protection, which adds to the considerable progress that the Government have been persuaded to make during the stages of the legislation through your Lordships’ House and another place.
I do not wish to steal the Minister’s thunder, as he will be unveiling the Government’s own proposals in the next group, but perhaps I may briefly summarise the ground that we have covered in order to make the case for my amendment. Less than a year ago, the protection against sanctions applied to parents with children below the age of 16. From that position, the Government have catapulted back to infancy—from one of the most passive regimes in the developed world to one of the most active. Perhaps this reflects the zeal of the recently converted.
We heard the latest government position in an important statement made towards the end of the Committee stage before the summer, which the Minister will shortly bring forward today in amendments. Those government amendments will specify that for lone parents with children under the age of one there will be no requirement to attend work-focused interviews. There will be no mandatory work-related activity for those with children under three. Those with children between the ages of three and six will be expected to undertake mandatory work-related activity, subject to some important conditions, which I support and which I will leave for the Minister to set out in detail.
We on these Benches agree that it is important to help to prepare single parents for the world of work. We agree that they should be given the support that they need and the information that would help them to find employment and stay in it. We agree that, before going into work, the proposed work-related activity will be beneficial. However, there will be sanctions if an individual does not comply with the requirements of the activity as directed by their adviser.
What we think is unacceptable is for the situation to arise where a lone parent fails to comply and ends up facing a cut in benefit. We appreciate that this is a tricky area where many have struggled. We do not wish the absence of a sanction to be considered an incentive to do nothing but there are more ways to sanction someone than simply docking their benefit. The Government are promising a graduated approach with early sanctions being non-financial. Again, we support that.
For lone parents who have the primary responsibility for a pre-school age child, we cannot see how it is in their interest or, more importantly, their child’s interest to see a meagre budget cut further. We have carefully chosen the age of five in our amendment because that is the age at which children are expected to start school. At that point, many more hours a day become available to the parent for other activities. The child is introduced to a classroom with other children, teachers and classroom assistants, and no longer depends so totally for social support on his mother or father. So it is towards this point that we are looking with our amendment. Before that age is reached, we believe that the child is simply too vulnerable for the parent to suffer financial sanctions under this new system. Our amendment is drawn deliberately narrowly; we have not ruled out the possibility of non-financial sanctions. It applies solely to work-related activity, not to the regime that already has established financial sanctions for not complying with its rather light requirements.
Again, I point out that we are moving in a very short space of time from having the most passive regime in the developed world in this area to one of the most active. It would seem sensible to ensure that there is a carefully placed safety break at the five-year point as the new system comes into effect.
To give the Government credit, they have listened, learnt and moved. This amendment merely moves them one step further to where I think—
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freud—my name is attached to the amendment—but before he continues, does this cover the provisions of Sections 12 and 13 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which deal with employment and support allowance? The main conditionality provisions for the welfare system are in the 2007 Act. Does the work-related amendment that he is moving cover Sections 12 and 13 of that Act, which is about employment and support allowance?
My Lords, the amendment covers purely Clause 2 of this Bill. It relates to the work-related activity within, as I understand it, the JSA regime.
I am more or less grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for adding their names to the amendment on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Noble Lords will have seen that we also have the backing of Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group. I hope that other noble Lords, including the Minister, will consider the merits of our proposal and help us to place in the Bill this protection for parents of the very youngest children. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, said, the amendment is a refinement of the one introduced by his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, at the beginning of the Committee stage. Since then, as we have heard, the Minister has clarified and amended in the Bill what will be required of lone parents of children of different ages. That is very welcome and we all look forward to the noble Lord’s explanation of that when we come to his amendments.
I assume that we are talking about work-focused interviews as well as work-related activity, and that work-related interviews will still be sanctioned whereas work-related activity will not. We are now considering whether the regime of work-related activity will increase in intensity with the age of the child and whether that is appropriate for a lone parent on benefits with a child under school age. This is the only issue at this stage because the Government have said in terms that they will take into consideration childcare and the circumstances of the lone parent in matters such as his or her health or other caring commitments. So does the age of the child matter? We now know that the pathfinders which will pilot this regime will allow parents to restrict the hours that they would be available to participate in work-related activities. We also now know that work-related activity could start with one activity every three months for a lone parent with a child as young as three, the reasoning being that lone parents must be kept in touch with the world of work. Of course, they will be kept in touch with the world of work if work-focused interviews are still to be sanctioned.
I gather from meetings with the Minister, for which I was very grateful, that specific guidance will be issued to Jobcentre Plus offices about work-related activity for lone parents and the regime of work-related activity for others in the progression-to-work group, and so there will be two sets of guidance. Therefore, the only difference between supporters of the amendment and the Government is whether this even more benign regime for lone parents on benefits with children with under school age—that is, between the ages of three and five—should be mandated instead of voluntary. We know that many lone parents with very young children lead chaotic lives. Is it right to dock their benefit if they fail to attend an episode of work-related activity without good cause? Will the threat of this happening make them comply? I do not deny that for some it might; nor can it be denied that work is definitely a way out of poverty. However, that should be for the lone parent to decide. Many lone parents will want to work when their child is as young as three or perhaps even younger, let alone prepare for work, but the existence of sanctions if lone parents fail to comply with the work-related activity regime also sends out a strong signal that looking after their child in a hands-on, full-time way during the child’s first five years is not as important to society as the parent preparing for the world of work.
My Lords, lone parents mostly want to work. I hope that your Lordships will forgive the metaphor but if one thinks of a ladder of five rungs or so, on which entry into work is at rung 5, then the lone parent trying to work out childcare or transport arrangements is at rung 4—in other words, she is work-ready and the only obstacles are practical ones. If she wants to work but has been out of the labour force for some time and has few, if any, qualifications—but she wants to try—then she might be on rung 3. It might take her two or more years before she enters the world of work—possibly a year of support and training followed by a year in a mini-job with, I hope, a £50 disregard.
Other lone parents who have such low self-esteem, who are so apprehensive about taking the risk of coming off benefits, who have effectively disengaged from school at the age of 13 or 14, who do not have a qualification to their name, who are functionally almost illiterate, who live, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, untidy and even chaotic lives and who ricochet off unsatisfactory, unemployed boyfriends, may be on step 2 of my ladder and take three or four years to build their health, confidence, skills and job readiness. Yet I cannot believe that anyone here, including the noble Lord, Lord Freud, thinks that it is wise or kind to neglect them and, crucially, their children. Hence, we have pathways to work.
Why am I unhappy with the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Freud? It is not because he is suggesting that we should not sanction the requirement to attend work-focused interviews, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, has adduced. We are talking about participation in the work-preparation programme, because it is still proposed that entry into work should occur when the child is seven. Given my analogy of ladders and rungs, why am I unhappy about that? Some lone parents need a steady, lengthy and supportive programme, and it might take several years for them to become work-ready. They need a longer programme. This amendment would mean that some of the neediest lone parents, those who are furthest away from the world of work, would find their work preparations squeezed into only two years when their child is aged between five and seven, thus adding to the stresses they might face.
If we want to engage them earlier then—I am afraid that this is human nature—we will need sanctions. A programme without sanctions might be called compulsory but, essentially, it is voluntary. Although the noble Lord, Lord Freud, said that there could be sanctions other than financial ones, he did not give us a single instance. I would like to know what they would look like. I have found from bitter experience that the sanction that really gets people engaged is the financial one. That is especially true for lone parents, who, compared with disabled people or pensioners, are financially much more ready—rightly so; I am glad they are—to claim benefits and entitlement. They are financially acute. I am pleased about that. It also means that they understand that imperative. I do not know what a non-financial sanction would look like—other than having to turn up every day to do something. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Freud, can help me on that. What happens if they do not turn up every day? Is the sanction then to tell them to turn up twice a day? What happens if they do not? It will not work.
Equally, any such sanction must come in only as a last measure. No one in the Chamber today would wish to make lone parents and their children worse off. As soon as the lone parent engages, which is the whole point, the sanction should come off. In other words, the sanction seeks to ensure engagement and will apply only so far as that engagement has been rebuffed. Engagement is at the core of what we need to do to ensure the long-term prosperity of the parent and her child.
I am sure that my noble friend can give the House two assurances which it needs. The first is to ensure that there is satisfactory childcare, whether nursery care or whatever, in place for work preparation. The second is to ensure that the steps are in place to ensure that financial sanctions are not the first or second step but the very last one, to ensure that a lone parent is engaged in preparation for work. I am sure we all believe that that is in the best interests of her and her child.
Those of us who were engaged in the New Deal a few years back were surprised to find that half of the participants were volunteers. Parents with very young children aged between one and three—not a group which the programme was seeking to reach—were keen to return to work because they were the ones who had most recently been in work. That was the defining feature of those lone parents who volunteered for the New Deal. As for previous incapacity—the noble Lord, Lord Freud, will know this as well as anyone—the longer that one is out of work, the more tenuous one’s connection with the world of work is and the harder it is to get back into work. With a requirement to come in when the child is three, the work preparation programme is designed to get the lone parent to walk over that bridge back into work. The longer she leaves it, the longer the bridge will appear and the harder it will be for her to cross it.
In that sense the noble Lord’s amendment is no kindness. It would require the neediest lone parents to face the most compressed and, therefore, the most demanding work-preparation programme, with the neediest having to do in two years what the less needy would have to do in four. Although the amendment is well intended, it is profoundly misconceived. We do not want to make the programme essentially voluntary for those who need it most. I do not think that that is wise. I hope the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, some noble Lords may be surprised by what I have to say on this amendment. As other noble Lords have indicated, the thrust of the Bill in relation to single mothers is to ensure, through a series of steps, that these mothers keep in touch with the labour market. I am sure that we all agree with that ambition. All the research consistently makes clear the sense of independence that a job gives to lone parents. Self-respect and involvement with others are very important to their mental well-being and hence to their capacity for effective parenting, so the work will be to the benefit of their children. For a single mother, it is all too easy to slip into depression, isolated from work colleagues and losing confidence as time moves on. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, indicated, the gap between being at home and work feels ever more enormous. It is ever more challenging to make the leap from being at home back into work and it is extraordinarily difficult if left for more than a relatively short space of time.
As the Minister reminded us, life on benefits is a life of poverty, which we all want to see challenged, as this Bill does. I therefore support the intentions of this part of the Bill and believe that, in time, the children and lone parents involved will benefit considerably. Many years ago, I worked with single mothers as a social worker and I am well aware that many struggle to cope. Sensitivity to an individual’s capacities will be essential. For this reason, I regard the Government’s concessions on good cause to be very relevant to this amendment. I will be tabling a further amendment designed to ensure that claimants are given adequate opportunity to demonstrate good cause—in particular, where a person may have a mental or physical problem—to ensure that a home visit will be made to assess the feasibility of undertaking a work-related interview or activity. The Government’s concession that in the preparation of an action plan the well-being of any child under the age of 16 must be taken into account is most welcome, as others have said. Also welcome is the Government’s concession that a lone parent will be entitled to restrict the times at which they are required to undertake work-related activity. I assume that that means that the parent will be able to ensure that they can undertake that activity while the child is at nursery or school.
In considering this amendment, I hope that noble Lords will take account of the Government’s considerable concessions, in my view, in relation to lone parents and what I hope will be a positive response on provision for home visits in appropriate cases, although at this point I cannot take that for granted by any means. Taking all this into account, I think that the Government are right, where good-quality childcare is available, to urge lone mothers to begin thinking about getting back into part-time work—that is all that they are really seeking in the early stages—as soon as they feel reasonably able to do so. Many years on benefits cannot be right for the great majority of lone parents or for their children, although we would all agree that parents with a disabled child are an exception to that rule. I understand the many arguments put by colleagues in support of this amendment but believe that the Government’s overall objective deserves our support.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this well informed debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that I accept that this is not a wrecking amendment. However, I think that it is ill advised. I accept his acknowledgement that the Government have moved towards an active labour market regime. The benefits of that are being demonstrated in the teeth of a tough economic situation.
The intended effect of this amendment is to prevent a financial sanction from being imposed on single parents with a child under five who fail to meet their work-related activity requirement. The practical effect of the amendment would be that lone parents with a youngest child aged below five would no longer be required to undertake work-related activity under Clause 2. This amendment would not affect the current sanctions regime for lone parents who can face a financial sanction for failing to attend a work-focused interview; it would affect only non-compliance with agreed work-related activity. I should say in response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that it relates only to income support, not ESA.
The position of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, on this is a little curious. When moving the amendment, he said that he thought it wrong for lone parents to suffer a cut in benefit, but he seems to accept that they could be sanctioned under the work-focused interview regime. There seems to be an anomaly in that position. Indeed, under the current regime for work-focused interviews, lone parents with children as young as one can, in extremis, be sanctioned. That is part of the regime that the noble Lord is accepting in moving this amendment. I suggest to him that that is illogical.
If this amendment were agreed to, we would have a position where lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four would be required to attend a work-focused interview every three months and agree an action plan but would not be required to complete any of the activities on that plan. Currently, they attend work-focused interviews every six months, but this is likely to be increased to every three months. For lone parents with a youngest child aged five or six, who would attend work-focused interviews every three months, we would require them to agree an action plan that included work-related activity that they were required to complete or face direction and, possibly, eventual sanction.
This would mean depriving lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four of the help and support that they may need to help them to start preparing for work when their children are older. This is the point to which my noble friend Lady Hollis spoke with her usual eloquence. In addition, we would be expecting many lone parents with a youngest child aged five or six, who may have been out of employment for six or seven years, to fit the extensive preparation that they may require to get a job or look for work when their youngest child reaches seven into two years or less.
Our alternative—the model that we wish to test in progression to work—is for lone parents with a youngest child aged three or over to start their planned journey towards being ready for work when their youngest child reaches seven. These extra two years will allow lone parents to build their confidence and skills at a pace that suits them. We expect many lone parents with a youngest child aged between three and six to be the hardest to help. They are likely to be some distance from the labour market and typically have multiple barriers to employment. Work-related activity should therefore be interpreted broadly. It should not be restricted to formal training or confidence building, although they would be qualifying activities.
There will be no daily requirement to undertake activity, but there will be a requirement to undertake reasonable activities that fit with the needs of the child and the lone parent’s situation between work-focused interviews. These will allow advisers and lone parents flexibility in drawing up the action plans and tailoring activities to their individual needs and situations and the time to do that at a pace that suits the lone parent. For example, lone parents may start with activities addressing their own or their family’s wider situation, such as starting to use a children’s centre or seeking debt advice. They may then move on to improving their skills for work through mentoring or more formal training. As they move closer to the labour market, their work-related activity may focus on looking for job opportunities and the availability of childcare.
I must stress that the measures that we want to introduce under the progression-to-work model will not require any lone parent to be available for or actively seeking work. Instead, they will help lone parents in their journey towards the workplace, improving their skills and their knowledge of what is available to support them and preparing them for when their youngest child reaches seven, so that the move to jobseeking will be not a sudden step up but the next step in their journey towards work.
We want to introduce the progression-to-work model to those lone parents who have a youngest child aged three to six so that we can test if this is the correct age range. After debates in Grand Committee, we are still convinced that starting this process with a lone parent who has a youngest child aged three is right. This is because of the strong foundation of childcare provision available for children in this age range. Parents can access free, part-time pre-school education when their children are aged three and four, while children aged five and six receive free education of up to 30 hours a week during school term time.
In Grand Committee, we outlined the safeguards that we wish to introduce in secondary legislation to ensure that lone parents are not penalised if childcare cannot be accessed. Since then, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, acknowledged, we have gone further by proposing to introduce provisions to enable lone parents to restrict the hours during which they undertake work-related activity so that they fit around their children’s schooling or formal childcare and to ensure that the availability of childcare is taken into account for good cause. Additionally, when agreeing appropriate work-related activity in an action plan with lone parents, Jobcentre Plus advisers must have regard to the well-being of their child or children.
As in previous debates, I cannot stress enough that the progression-to-work model is not about penalising lone parents; it is about encouraging them to improve their lives and the social and economic well-being of their children. Lone parents and advisers will work together to agree appropriate work-related activity. Given the broad spectrum of activities that count as work-related activity, we hope that in most cases customers and advisers will be able to agree suitable activities that can easily be undertaken by lone parents. However, if lone parents fail or refuse to undertake such activities without good cause despite all of the safeguards, we would want the ability, as a last resort, to impose a sanction until they comply, with, of course, provisions relating to hardship.
In progression to work, we will move away from the models currently used in jobseeker’s allowance and income support and instead introduce a model that relies on more upfront, in-depth engagement with lone parents before a financial sanction is imposed. The current Jobcentre Plus procedures ensure that, before a sanction is imposed on lone parents for failing to attend a work-focused interview, considerable effort is made to contact them to find out why they did not attend. If, following all the existing stages that Jobcentre Plus goes through to avoid imposing a sanction, a lone parent fails to take part in a work-focused interview or to undertake or complete work-related activity without good cause, under our new model that will not result in a financial sanction. Instead, a formal, final written warning will be issued. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pressed an important point, which will be the subject of a later amendment, about making sure that these are real opportunities to engage and that lone parents have the opportunity to understand the import of the communications that they receive. If this fails, Jobcentre Plus will carry out an individual case review as the next stage of compliance action. This could include home visits for parents and, where necessary, compliance checks.
The purpose of this stage is to provide a more in-depth review of the lone parent’s circumstances and the reasons for their failure to comply. This process will ensure that no lone parent can be sanctioned for one failure to comply. Only if they fail to comply when given a second opportunity to carry out work-related activity or a rearranged work-focused interview without good cause will a sanction be considered. If, after this process has been followed, a lone parent still fails to engage, the last resort will be financial sanctions applied to their benefit. Where a sanction is applied, a lone parent can ask for it to be reconsidered or can appeal against it if they feel that they can provide extra information to show good cause. That is always subject, as I have said, to the hardship provisions. As soon as a lone parent with a benefit sanction attends a work-focused interview or re-engages in work-related activity, the sanction can be removed and their benefit restored to the previous level. Overall, this approach will provide lone parents with every opportunity to engage with work-related activity; it will lead to fewer financial sanctions but provide the necessary backstop to ensure engagement.
I think that noble Lords will agree that our model of a journey towards work, which is based on preparation over a longer period and at a pace set by the lone parent, is the way in which to prepare this group of parents for their move into work or to jobseeker’s allowance when their youngest child is seven. This must be preferable to following what may be a long period of inactivity with hurried activity in a short time.
My noble friend Lady Hollis pressed the noble Lord, Lord Freud, on alternative sanctions. As she said, he did not indicate what they might be. Depending on what he has in mind, primary legislation may well be needed to deal with alternative sanctions, because the sanctions that are permitted under the Bill relate to the withdrawal of benefits, so I do not know how we would deal with that issue. Nor have we heard anything about what protections and hardship provisions may surround the sort of sanctions that he has in mind but does not feel able to share with us at the moment.
My noble friend Lady Hollis asked particularly about childcare. We have been very clear about that. If childcare is not available, no requirements can be placed on individuals. We see the progression-to-work strategy very much as that—as steps for lone parents that may become progressively more involved as the parents move closer to being required to be available for and looking for work. That is the right way to go. To accept, on the one hand, that it is quite okay to sanction lone parents who have children as young as one for failure to comply with work-focused interviews but, on the other hand, to have an arbitrary cut-off for parents with children below the age of five for not attending work-related activity is not a sensible or coherent approach and I urge the noble Lord not to press his amendment.
My Lords, I am utterly delighted to hear the enthusiasm of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Meacher, for the early activation of lone parents. We agree, although we want there to be protection against the full weight of financial penalty in that early activation.
The Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, made much of the fact that by having this protection at the age of five we would in practice be forced to compress all the activity in the five-to-seven period, but the gap is clearly not as big as two years. Even the whole process of a sanction regime as described by the Minister, in which there are written warnings, visits and so on, takes up time. We are not talking about a huge gap of time or halving the four years, which the Minister sees as preparation for work.
I was challenged by the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on what on earth the sanctions might be. The Minister described two: written warnings and visits—visits are hassle. There are, however, several others. Clearly, taking people’s time is effective and I suspect that there are ways of doing that even under present legislation. Making the way in which money is collected rather more inconvenient is effective. Controls on how money is spent and in what form are another.
It has always seemed somewhat illogical to us on this side of the House to come in with the full force of financial sanctions against a community that subsists on the breadline in many cases. What are you doing? Are you taking their money away? Do you expect these people and their children to starve? It is illogical. There must be more imaginative ways of running a sanctions regime and I hope that the amendment will force a little bit of creativity on the other side of the House in managing that sanctions regime.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked whether the amendment would apply purely to the JSA or to the ESA. I should make it clear that I have been corrected by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, who is a total expert in the technology of these Bills and who has pointed out that, according to new Section 6B in Clause 4(1)(b), it will cross over from the JSA to the ESA, so it will cover both of those.
Let me deal with the other accusation, which is that there is an anomaly in having financial penalties in the WFI regime and not in the ready-for-work regime. The first regime is very light; it has been established and seems to be operating. We are now introducing extremely rapidly a whole new system that in this country is quite revolutionary in that it brings the age down. Last year, the child of a lone parent only had to be 16 for there to be virtually no interaction with state except for WFIs. If we are to change that system quite so radically and quite so speedily, we obviously need to put a safety break into it so that no one who has a youngest child under five—in other words, under school age—will face financial sanction.
Will the noble Lord reconfirm that he is still saying that, if a lone parent fails to attend a work-focused interview, it is acceptable to sanction the parent’s benefit, even though the child is only one, and thus do the very things that he was talking about—starve the child and so on and so forth—but that, when that child is older and the parent has come to that work-focused interview and agreed a plan of action in good faith which she then refuses to go ahead with, it is not acceptable to sanction her?
The plan of action clearly involves a far more elaborate set of requirements than the six-monthly visit to Jobcentre Plus that has been required up to now. There is a difference between an established system that is a very light regime and a regime that could in some circumstances be onerous and in which protection is therefore required.
The noble Lord asserts that the action plan will be onerous. I have outlined what we see to be the progression through that plan and the fact that the action plan may occasionally require one activity between two three-monthly WFIs. What on earth is so complicated about that?
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 2.51 pm.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to open this short debate. There has been much media concentration on the problems of young people, school leavers and those recently graduated, and I support what the Government are trying to do in that situation, but older workers in the 50-plus category face particular problems when they become unemployed. Many find that age discrimination magnifies other barriers that they face. Eventually the hurdles become insurmountable. They begin to fear that they may never work again. With a fall in income from pensions and savings, many who lose their jobs face the prospect of a bleak old age. As one unemployed 50 year-old put it, “Age is the new disability”.
Hopefully, recessions do not last for ever and this debate is concerned with the future as well as the immediate prospects. The background is well known. We are all living longer. Average life expectancy rose by 30 years in the 20th century and is still rising. Presently, there are more people aged 65-plus than people aged under 16. This is causing the Government and pension providers to endeavour to make changes in pension provision and is in part responsible for the decline, which I regret, in defined benefit pension schemes. But far too little is being done to ensure that those who are living longer have the opportunity to play a part in the labour market.
There are quite a few myths about older workers. These include ideas such as that all older workers are happy to retire; many are not. It is said that older workers cost more, but the evidence does not bear this out. Older workers are said to be less productive, but this also is not supported by the facts. There are health benefits attached to being at work. A recent review found that good work has a beneficial effect because work with others is a social activity. After a lifetime during which social contacts and lifestyle have been built around work roles and the workplace, it is often not easy to adjust to inactivity and a slower pace of life. A recent survey of older workers in former G7 countries revealed that while 82 per cent of the British respondents said that in general they worked for the money, only 45 per cent listed money as the main reason. Some 49 per cent wanted to work to stay mentally active, and 31 per cent said that it helped them to remain physically active.
A great deal of discussion recently has been about the lack of social care for the elderly. Indeed, the Prime Minister has promised that more would be done to provide adequate social care for older people. Of course that is important and very necessary. We must do a great deal more to ensure that care is available for elderly people when they need it, but it would seem from research undertaken that much less social care would be needed if older people were encouraged to maintain an active life through an appropriate form of work, and this could include the opportunity to move to less physically demanding work. Since 2006, new permissive legal regulations have allowed a company pension to be combined with a salary from the same employer, thus allowing a job to be downsized. Very few employers, however, have taken advantage of this.
While the age regulations we now have provide protection against discrimination by age, employers still have the right to compel the retirement of employees reaching the age of 65. Employees may ask to remain in employment, but many employers simply refuse such requests. The employee has a right of appeal, but this is rarely successful, and the employer does not have to give a reason for his decision. Indeed, employers’ rights in this respect have recently been confirmed in a High Court decision, but the judge made it clear that he believed that the law should be changed. We have the national default retirement age of 65. I understand that this is to be reviewed next year, but in the light of the judge’s comment in the recent court case, it surely should be dealt with immediately.
A survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development of 50 to 64 year-old workers indicated that, if they could, 38 per cent planned to carry on working beyond age 65, and a further 31 per cent said they would be willing to do so if their employer were willing to grant flexible working. A further 20 per cent said that they would like to stay on if they could be granted an improved deferred state pension. It seems reasonable to conclude that if employers go the extra mile and make adaptations to working arrangements to accommodate older workers, many more would want to remain in employment. Of course there are trades and occupations where it is quite unsuitable for older people to continue working. The construction industry is obviously such a case, and incidentally seems to have a very poor safety record. But there are many occupations where suitable adjustments could be made and where older workers’ knowledge and experience could continue to be useful.
Recently I attended a reception at the invitation of the Age and Employment Network, the organisation to which I am indebted for much of the briefing I have received, at which presentations were made to the representatives of three UK companies which had won awards for the innovative way in which they employed older workers. The key areas for consideration in making the awards were what the companies had done in regard to their recruitment practices, the provision of training and education, alternative work options, flexible working, job sharing and phased retirement. I had the opportunity to talk to some of the company representatives present. I was struck by their enthusiasm. They spoke highly of the experience, knowledge and commitment of their older staff, so this shows what can be done, and I believe that much could be learnt from the experience of other countries, notably Denmark and Finland.
I know that these issues have been receiving some attention from the Government. The revised ageing strategy has been set out in the paper entitled Building a Society for All Ages. But there is some concern among organisations working with older people that insufficient attention is paid to the problems facing older workers seeking employment. Targeted support is provided to unemployed people after six months of unemployment, but this might not be appropriate in the case of older people. Rejection can follow rejection. Disillusion sets in and confidence evaporates. Older people must get help earlier. Jobcentre advisers need to be aware of the needs of older workers in order to direct them to possible employers. Many older workers feel that too little attention is given to the experience and knowledge that they may be able to bring to a job, as distinct from formal qualifications that they may not have had the opportunity of acquiring when they were younger.
Recently I read a pamphlet produced by the Institute of Directors about pension provision: 70 is the new 65, it declares, urging that the age of retirement should be immediately defined at this later age, believing that money would thus be saved in regard to pension provision. But it had little to say about employment. If the older worker simply moves from receiving the state pension to collecting jobseeker’s allowance, that is hardly likely to be very popular; indeed it has already been substantially criticised. The provision of appropriate work is absolutely crucial. I believe that the Government can give a lead here, and I await with interest the response of my noble friend.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, for securing the debate and for her excellent presentation.
We have an ageing population in the country and this puts a huge pressure on state services as well as on the state pension. We need, therefore, to look at ways of relieving this pressure, and enabling older people to work is crucial to achieving this aim. The current model, if left unreformed, will be unsustainable. It is therefore important to encourage people over 65 to remain as an active part of the productive economy. The Work and Pensions Select Committee has estimated that deferring retirement by just two years can ease the situation in regard to the basic state pension by up to 20 per cent.
Work also has an important intrinsic social and cultural value, providing structure to many lives and providing informal support mechanisms. A number of older persons need to keep themselves occupied: this gives them a purpose in life and they attain a great deal of satisfaction and pride by working. The aims of the Government to get us all to work longer are indeed laudable for a variety of socio-economic reasons but, if we look at the reality, there are often disincentives to this.
A cultural shift is required, focusing on three core areas: support and training for middle-aged and older people; removing economic barriers to carrying on working after 65; and ensuring that the workforce is not largely diminished through ill health. Employers should recognise that older workers are experienced and loyal assets to organisations; they provide excellent customer service.
The default retirement age, anti-age discrimination legislation and the retirement age need to be reviewed for the future, but we need a period of radical thinking about what we can do today. The Pensions Commission’s call for lower employer national insurance contributions for those over pensionable age is one such suggestion. Extending flexible working is also key in enabling older people to carry on working while balancing family and other duties.
The level of skills and training in older workers is often below average. A Conservative “all ages careers service” will make apprenticeships available to all and not only the young. It is also scandalous that people of state pension age are not entitled to attend Jobcentre Plus. We need to review this matter.
The economic incentives to work for the poorest pensioners who are receiving pension credit top-ups are minimal. The Work and Pensions Select Committee stated:
“A single pensioner on Guarantee Credit is entitled to £5 per week disregard on their earnings with couples entitled to a £10 disregard”
For many pensioners, it is probably not worth considering taking up work. As the disregard has stayed the same since 1988, I call on the Government to undertake a full-scale review of the earnings disregard.
Finally, I urge employers to take a proactive role towards the health of their workers who are over 50 as some fall ill in middle age and never return to the workplace. I would appreciate an update from the Minister on the progress of the trial of early intervention provision, Fit for Work schemes and the current ongoing work of the National Centre for Working Age Health and Well-being. Barriers to work for older people are a combination of cultural factors, economic disincentives and health concerns. I commend the Government’s efforts thus far but we need a more fundamental review if this plank of policy is going to be realised.
My Lords, for the first time in the history of this country we have now reached a position where there are more people of retirement age than there are younger people of working age. With our country facing the prospect of a rising life expectancy, an ageing population is something that we should consider much more than we have in the past. The fact that someone born today can expect to live well into their eighties should be seen as real progress—it is a triumph—and we should see it as an opportunity to harness the talents of older people. However, despite the fact that these are revolutionary changes, when we talk about an ageing population it is usually in pessimistic—and sometimes apocalyptic—terms; older people are seen as a problem or a burden because of the rising cost to the NHS and the cost of pensions. This is a great pity.
Sometimes public bodies send out messages that are really unfortunate in this regard. Last year, Moira Stuart was sacked from her job as a newsreader; apparently because she was considered too old. Just recently, Arlene Phillips has been taken off “Strictly Come Dancing” to be replaced by a younger model. What kind of message does this send out? That above talent, skill and experience, we value youthfulness.
This recession, like others, has seen a sharp increase in unemployment across all age groups, but people made redundant in their fifties face the real prospect of never working again. This was certainly the experience during the previous recession, where studies have shown that employment rates for the over-fifties took a decade to get back to their pre-recession levels. There is a great deal of evidence—some of it anecdotal but some of it more than that—that Jobcentre Plus simply does not understand the needs of older job applicants. People are sent for jobs for which they are not suitable or to employers who have no intention of employing older people. Quite often, frankly, they are patronised by people who are many years younger than they are.
It seems to us on these Benches—and has done for some time—that there is no option now but to remove the mandatory retirement age. We need a flexible decade of retirement where older people are given the option of working longer and generally contributing to their own and the country’s economic success. It would then become much more viable to retrain people who lose their jobs in their fifties. The recent High Court judgment on the national default retirement age has again highlighted the need for an urgent review of the current policy, which is unquestionably ageist, in spirit if not in law.
Earlier this week the Institute of Directors announced its proposals for retirement, suggesting, as we heard from the noble Baroness, that the retirement age be raised to 70—and, with increased longevity, it may have a good point—but that simply cannot happen in practice unless all kinds of other changes are taken into account. In any event, most older workers do not want to be made to work until they drop; they want choice. Many will want to work part time or to job share, and for the individual this would remove the cliff face of sudden retirement. It would also provide a more diverse and flexible workforce.
The Government need to allow older people to draw part of their private or occupational pension while still working, if they are working part time, and there should be much more flexibility in the way that annuities are used; they could be divided between current income and capital—whatever works for the individual concerned. We have a choice: an ageing population could become a massive burden or we can get used to the idea of flexible retirement, with people working longer where they wish to and are well enough to do so, so that pensions are deferred and the resources that are freed up can be concentrated on the very old and the very vulnerable.
I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what the Government think they can do. They are a major employer and could set a very good example in this regard. It will be interesting to know what they are doing. We need now serious action which can effectively deal with the ageing population, harness the potential and ensure that older workers are given the recognition and the rights that they thoroughly deserve.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, has given us most eloquently an idea of the consequences of the huge demographic revolution that we are living through. Other noble Lords have also pointed to this—that we have to get used to and adapt to the ageing of society, benefit from it and welcome it. Older workers are a huge resource to society. Economists have demonstrated over many years conclusively that there is no fixed pool of labour; older workers, if properly guided and managed, do not block younger workers and take away their jobs. Older workers have different skills from younger workers; older workers often mentor the young and know the history of the organisation in which they are working. Part of a firm’s policy of diversity is to welcome the resource of older workers. Many in the retail sector have understood that customers welcome dealing with older workers; they like them and want to be served by them. So it is not a negative proposition at all, but we need to help employers in all sectors—especially SMEs—to manage effectively, through proper appraisal systems throughout the working life, which can guide people into appropriate work and give retraining throughout their career, as necessary. That will enable younger managers to have enough confidence to appraise workers as they get older, guide them into new forms of work and give appropriate training throughout their career. That is very important.
The Government have spoken of a review of the default retirement age. That has to be speeded up. The Equality Bill is another opportunity—but somehow we have to get rid of the default retirement age. It is a cliff edge that is totally disproportionate, and it is discriminatory, as it uses an arbitrary age to define the capacity of someone to do a job. We know that people vary tremendously and that age is not a reliable indicator. People have to be judged on their capacity to do a job. Older workers, research has shown, because they want or need to work, tend to be punctual, reliable and loyal and have a good sickness record. The effect on the health and well-being of those who work is positive, which has cost-effective economic, social and health results, of benefit to any company or employer. To replace a middle manager, for example, with someone new, costs approximately £8,000 to £10,000, when you take into consideration the retraining costs of new workers. So the cost-benefit analysis has to be realistic about the results of getting rid of older workers.
We have to change the situation of throwing people out of work at an arbitrary age. The Government have led the way with senior civil servants; now is the time to broaden this to all workers in all sectors. Fairness demands that the Government do that and do it now.
My Lords, I think that I am replacing the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood. Like her, I got caught out, because on the electronic system it said that this debate was in the dinner break. I then thought that perhaps I was mixing up luncheon and dinner, which is some strange form of social division.
I am a follower of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and I have spoken on this subject before. I regard myself as one of her disciples—although I do not know if there is any word for a female disciple, I am a disciple in this cause.
I approach this matter purely on economic grounds. The economy of any nation is directly related to the work of its people and their contribution—and that means all the people. One of our problems now is that we have forgotten that. As headhunters used to divide everything into quartiles, I propose to take a knife and divide us into quartiles. The first quartile is under 20, of which there are around 15 million people and the male side has a slight lead in numbers, because more boys are born than girls. People in that age group should really be trained for the future, even if they start work at 16. In that sector, we need the creation of added value through training and experience, and even apprenticeships. But they are not the main contributors to the economy; it is not their labour that pays an enormous amount towards the costs of others, particularly those who may not work.
In the second quartile, aged between 20 and 50, suddenly the women begin to take over. That group amounts to 25 million people, or thereabouts, with just a slight female majority. They are the powerhouse of the United Kingdom, who earn more each year and have the training and experience. There should be no unemployed in that sector. They are the ones who are paying for the pensions, not only of themselves but of those who go before them and will come after them.
Fifty was the age at which many employers, in the previous recession—and there have been many recessions—tended to cut the workforce, offering old Joe premature retirement, whereby he got two-thirds of his pension if he left immediately. A lot of those people thought, “That is wonderful, I might be able to do something part time”—but the part-time jobs were not open to them. They often disappeared and faded away. Some of my friends would ring me up on a Monday and ask what was new. I thought I might set up an organisation and call it GA—Geriatrics Anonymous. Anyone who was retired and wanted something to do could ring me up, and we could talk and find out what we could do. That is a sad group, because it has reached the next level.
The next level consists of those aged 50 to 79. I do not just use your Lordships' House as an example, with 69 the average age, increasing by six months every year. I know people in many parts of the world who can make a contribution at any time. At that level, and in the middle level, women start to be dominant. In the last quartile of those over 80, the ratio of women to men is two to one. Of course, life expectancy for women from birth was 82 and, for men, it was 77—but that life expectancy is rising. How do we look at what those people can contribute? The noble Baroness has already suggested part-time work. To me, it is a simple matter and almost a fiscal one. When people reach retirement age—and it is probably fair that women and men retire at the same age of 65 and get their full pensions—thereafter they should be entitled to work without any contribution made by their employer to insurance or things like that and without paying tax. Perhaps they should be able to produce two hours a week, or four or eight hours a week, or two days. The population that is not working is an economic asset, and it is the duty of every Government to recognise that.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, for raising this important issue. I support all the points made in her speech and those of other noble Lords. I also thank TAEN, Age Concern and Help the Aged for their invaluable briefings. Clearly, we are faced with a growing UK population within which those over 50 will form an increasing percentage. Therefore, it must be in everyone's interest to think through those measures that can help those facing the reality of a life expectancy well into their 80s and 90s to be able to continue working for as long as they are willing and able to do so, not least to give older workers adequate income for those increased years of life.
Two issues are top of the list. First and most vital, there is the need to abolish the national default retirement age, which, while still in existence, gives employers the excuse to get rid of workers once they have reached 65. The second priority is the expansion to everyone of the right to request flexible working. I cannot help thinking how relevant this situation is to the 30-year plus battle, albeit a battle still under way, for employment equal opportunities for women. Today it is recognised, if not yet fully implemented, that an increasingly competitive global economy, in which we need to use everybody’s talents and experience, has to be arranged on a flexible basis if women are to work and fulfil their family responsibilities.
The battle for men, and for all employers, to realise that they too would gain from working flexibly is also at least under way and is essential if men are to share family responsibilities with their partners. As we are all beginning to see, that makes sense. Ironically, however, flexible working has become more sharply in focus, positively because of the problems caused by our disastrous recession. Today, many employers who would not have thought of voluntarily offering such an option now see it as the only alternative to closure—that is, to shutting down their and their workforce’s whole business and livelihood.
What, then, is the most sensible route and priority for Government to be supporting the over-50s? We have heard some very good ideas already. Surely, however, it is to legislate at an early opportunity for all employees, regardless of sex and age, to have at the very least the right to ask for, and to expect, to be allowed to work flexibly. Flexible working for the over-50s would allow a more gradual route to retirement—earning less, certainly, but still contributing to adequate incomes when retirement arrived. Yet there are other reasons why we should encourage more over-50s to stay in work.
Evidence from TAEN has shown that the stereotypes that older workers cost more, are less productive, work less flexibly and take more sick leave are all statistically incorrect. In every case, exactly the opposite is actually true in relation to the younger group. Against that background, it is not indeed shameful that, as a survey revealed, only 9 per cent of the over-50s said that they had never experienced age discrimination? Indeed, a rise in employment among the over-50s makes far more sense. That would lessen the pension burden, lessen costs to the NHS—given the mental and physical benefits of employment—assist in the improvement of inter-generational cohesion, and allow many to realise their desire to continue to work. Opening up new training and retraining to older workers, disseminating good practice, encouraging flexible working and rewarding those employers who hire and employ older workers are other possible routes that the Government could well and truly go down.
My last point is that, sadly, the unemployment of the over-50s is currently rising at a higher rate than for the rest of those in employment. The alarming rise of 71 per cent in those claiming jobseeker’s allowance in that age group over the past year surely needs more research and action from the Government. I hope very much that we shall hear some positive signs of what the Government intend to do—and as soon as possible, please.
First, I wish to thank my noble friend for introducing this debate—and it is the right place to have it, if we look around here. It shows that older people have a use after all, and can contribute to society. We might, perhaps, not get everyone to agree but when it is repeatedly said that the debates in here are far superior to those elsewhere, that is something to take credit for. I was pleased with the statistic used, that the average age here is about 69 and rising—of course it is, but does that not prove that it works?
We are not alone in this. It has to be faced that more than a third of the population are now 50 and over, and that that will rise to 40 per cent. We cannot allow those people not to contribute. We are not saying that everybody is the same; they are not. Everybody is different, and while some want to retire, a lot of people—perhaps most—do not want to do so. They want to be able to contribute not least because, as my noble friend said when she opened the debate, one difficulty facing a lot of people now is that the pension is not quite what they imagined it would be when they set off. Many of them are still paying off a mortgage and with many, it is the case that one or other of them has been the only wage or salary earner in that household, so there is a need to look at it and give them that opportunity to work.
We are talking at a time of recession—not just about the recession now, but about coming out of it—but there is no doubt that, as has been said repeatedly in this House, many people who are just over 50 have lost their jobs in that recession, and many fear that they will never work again. That is completely wrong; not only is it degrading, but we are losing an awful lot of talent, skill and expertise. One of the problems that have been mentioned is that, unfortunately, we live in a world where it is all about qualifications and not so much about expertise and skill. I am sorry to say that that colours the thinking of many employers who are looking at it.
Another thing is that, if we look at the surveys, many of those people said that, in being refused, they were either too well-qualified or too experienced for the job. Others said that they were just told, “You’re too old”, and that was the end of it. We have to do a lot of education with employers to get over that kind of difficulty. Another problem is that we should be appealing to employers to provide, throughout an employee’s career with them, the necessary training so that they can qualify to do one job or another. As my noble friend said, they do that a lot better in other countries than we do here, and it should be provided, but that does not mean to say that we cannot use the people who are here now. We certainly can, and we ought to do it more.
I shall be very interested to hear my noble friend’s reply, for, as he knows, I have always listened to him throughout his career, in many other different phases and spheres—different orbs, if I might say so, than this—but I want to know what he will do in the public sector. When you talk to people, they say it is not just the private sector refusing; equally, the public sector is refusing that. It is all right to talk about senior civil servants, but what about the vast majority underneath them? I cannot believe that we cannot use a lot of the expertise and skill lying there, and I look forward to a positive reply from him.
If people want to work longer, as has been said, they ought to be able to do it, and a lot of attention must be paid to employers who are saying, “The employee has the right to ask whether he can continue”, when far too many are just saying “no”. That is a blanket “no”, where they are not even looking at it. There is a lot to be done, and I am looking forward to my noble friend joining us in offering positive ideas about how we can use the skill and expertise of the growing number of our population who are over 50.
My Lords, I, too, am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, for initiating this debate on a subject close to my heart. We have heard how the national default retirement age is to be reviewed next year—and, if it were not to be, how a High Court judge, Mr Justice Blake, would recently have required it to be reconsidered. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and with others all around this Chamber that it is time that the Government got on with it. It would be wonderful if we could hear from the Minister that the review will take place late in this year as well as, perhaps, early into next year. It is time; we have had enough.
I am also extremely grateful to the Age and Employment Network, and Age Concern/Help the Aged for their excellent briefings, particularly for the point that they made about CIPD evidence suggesting that one employer in five is intending to enforce compulsory retirement ages more rigorously than before. That is even more reason to get the default retirement age reviewed pretty quickly.
We have got it completely wrong in this country. There is no doubt that older people wish to feel that they are useful members of society and that they are no burden on others. We know that productivity means different things to different people. While I was working on a book on part of this subject, many of my discussions with older people made it clear that they longed to be back at work. For some, it was because they needed more money—doubly true in a recession, or where people have lost pensions—but, clearly, it is about more than money. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said, for many people, it seems to be about a sense of being of value. The more our society judges people by what they do, rather than by who they are, the more older people are going to want to go back to work. My noble friend Lady Scott has already highlighted cases of people being thrown out because of their age, particularly Moira Stuart and Arlene Phillips, but we could think of hundreds and thousands more. There are some who are lucky and carry on working. They tend often to be self-employed. There is Phyllis who is 101 and still does the accounts at the garden centre she founded. There is Jackie Lawson, the online greetings card queen who started her business at 62 and has become a millionaire. There is also the plumber I encountered who did not take the day off on his 100th birthday because he did not want to let his customers down. That is really great.
However, there are huge challenges in finding and keeping a job at a later age, and that is particularly true in areas of high unemployment. Furthermore, as many Members of your Lordships’ House have said, there remains a prevailing view, which is completely incorrect, that older workers are too costly and too resistant to change. Nine out of 10 older people believe that employers discriminate against them and a quarter speak from experience, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said. Some 10 per cent of companies refuse to employ anyone over 50.
There are signs of measures to help. The EU has taken a bit of a lead but has not done as much as Japan where, with the Japan Organisation for Employment of the Elderly and Persons with Disabilities, they are working to police a new law which forces employers to keep people in work until at least 65. We could do with something like that here, so there needs to be a cultural shift. Our present culture that says we retire at 65 must go. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, made that point most clearly, and the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, made the important point that if all the older people who wanted to work found jobs, they would generate an economic output as high as £30 billion. We ought to be able to do something more sensible.
However, I would argue that the real reason the Government have been so slow to encourage change and legislate for it is probably the same reason the employers have been so slow: they discount the skills and experiences of older people and cling to an increasing faith in those of the young. The editor of the Times, James Harding, when he was its Business Editor back in 2007 and only in his 30s, wrote about this most movingly:
“If the offices of the FTSE 100s chief executives had a theme tune, it would be the refrain of Bob Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages’—‘Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now’”.
The average age of FTSE 100 chief executives had fallen by nine months to 52 during the preceding five years. This is what James Harding wrote:
“Corporate Britain is squandering experience, driving out good people … when they are in their prime. There is too much age concern in the executive suite”.
The default retirement age is one thing, but a real attempt to give older people a chance at apprenticeships and learning skills for new jobs and a chance to show that they bring real experience is sadly lacking. Can the Minister now assure this House that the Government will review the default retirement age immediately, starting now not next year; encourage apprenticeships and other adult learning for new skills for older people in a way that they do not at present; and, as employers, view favourably any request from any government employee to continue working beyond 65?
My Lords, we on these Benches strongly agree that older people should be able, indeed encouraged, to continue to work where they are willing and able to do so. Some people prefer to continue to work as a lifestyle decision—indeed, as my noble friend Lord Selsdon and the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said, your Lordships’ House is such a good example of how good continuing to work can be for one’s health. For others, their pensions may have been destroyed by the abolishment of the ACT credit and falling stock markets, so that they have to continue to work. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned that and we are grateful to her for bringing this debate forward. As my noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, older, experienced workers have so much to offer employers.
The national default retirement age, which is after all at the core of this debate, is currently 65, with a right to request to continue beyond that age. The review of the Government’s decision to have a national default retirement age at all has, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said, been brought forward to 2010. That is welcome.
Many employers have completely given up trying to comply with the colossal burden of employment legislation brought in over the past few years, which has had such a profoundly negative impact on UK competitiveness. So we can understand if the Government do not want to exacerbate the problem by reducing flexibility in the labour market even further at such a difficult time for business. Even John Hutton has said that there was a,
“need to challenge the automatic assumption that the only way to deal with exploitation in the workplace is by passing new laws”.
However, we on these Benches believe that we should be moving towards an environment where retirement is flexible, as my noble friend Lord Sheikh said, and viewed as a process rather than a single event. People with physical jobs should, for example, be able to retrain to take on less physically demanding jobs which can utilise their valuable experience—again, mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Turner and Lady Howe. Others may opt to move into part-time work for a few years before final retirement. The noble Baronesses, Lady Scott of Needham Market and Lady Howe, referred to an ageing population, and it is a fact that once growth returns there will be a natural progression to businesses employing older people because they will have no option.
It is important that whatever action is taken in relation to the default retirement age is co-ordinated with that on the state pension age. My honourable friend the shadow Chancellor recently proposed an updated review of the state pension age and that, given the state of the public finances and changing demographic projections, the Government should consider whether the rise from 65 to 66 should be brought forward from their currently planned date of 2026, but starting no earlier than 2016 for men and 2020 for women. The noble Lord, Lord Turner, is quoted in the Daily Telegraph on 3 July this year as having said that if he were to redo his 2005 report he,
“would be more radical, arguing for an even faster increase in the state pension age”.
The Conservative position is that there should be a renewed commitment to relink the state pension to earnings growth in the next Parliament to ensure a decent standard of living for all in retirement, halt the spread of means-testing and restore incentives to save. If there is to be a default retirement age, it would clearly be inappropriate for it to be lower than the age at which an individual can draw the state pension. That is something that will presumably be recommended by the government default retirement review as a matter of course.
We support the review and are pleased that it has been brought forward to next year. In addition to pension age, it should address, first, whether there should be a default retirement age and if so, secondly, what that age should be. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the review will indeed address those questions. In addition, I understand that several countries have no default retirement age. Can the Minister also tell us what those countries are and what their experiences are?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Turner on initiating this wide-ranging and stimulating debate. I genuinely mean that and it is proof positive of the liveliness of the cerebral cortex of those of us who passed the age of 60 a few years ago. I have probably an impossible task in answering every single point that has been made, but I will do my best in the limited time available. If I cannot do so, I will communicate with noble Lords in writing.
There is no doubt that older workers make a critical contribution to our economy. With the demographic changes that are upon us, the proportion of over-50s in the workforce is set to rise from about 24 per cent now to just under one-third by 2020. We are committed to ensuring that older people have choice and opportunity to work up to the age of 65 and beyond. That means that older workers will play an important part in the economic recovery—indeed, in our economy—now and in the future. They will need to be as skilled and productive as younger workers, and keep up with technological advances and changes in working methods. That is why we are committed to ensuring that people of all ages and backgrounds, both within the workforce and outside, can enjoy and benefit from the wide range of learning opportunities on offer.
Our age discrimination legislation has helped to protect older workers’ employment rate by making age-targeted redundancy generally unlawful and by making compulsory retirement ages below 65 generally unlawful, but we need to continue our efforts. Extending working life and raising the state pension age over the longer term are essential for pensions sustainability in our ageing society. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, talked about relieving the pressure. The proportion of people of working age to people over state pension age was expected to fall from 5:1 in 1950 to just 2:1 by 2050, but by raising state pension age to 68 by 2048, we can hold the dependency ratio at 3:1. I note what the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, said about the noble Lord, Lord Turner, and his recent comments that in hindsight he would have been more radical. We have already committed ourselves to restoring the earnings link, and I welcome the conversion to that policy by the opposition Benches.
A number of noble Lords addressed redundancy in recession. Workers of all ages have been affected by the recession. The employment rate of people aged 50 to state pension age has gone down only slightly, down by less than 1 percentage point over the past year, compared to the rate for 25 to 49s, which has gone down by 1.8 percentage points, and for 16 to 24s, which is down by 4.4 percentage points. That shows that attitudes to older people in employment are changing, maybe not as fast as we would like, but those figures are interesting.
In response to the current economic downturn, the Government have committed half a billion pounds of additional support to help prevent people who are out of work from becoming long-term unemployed. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, asked about early intervention. We have doubled the resources available to the Rapid Response Service. The service offers support across the country for those facing redundancy with immediate help and advice, including skills assessments and retraining, to ensure that people get back to work as soon as possible. The noble Lord also talked about apprenticeships, and we have taken away the age barrier on apprenticeships. He will be pleased to know that there were some 27,000 adult apprenticeships last year. We have done away with the concept that apprenticeships are just about vocational careers for young people. They are a valuable contribution to people retraining and reskilling.
My noble friend Lady Turner talked about helping people of all ages through the recession. We have provided our Jobcentre Plus advisers with extensive training to ensure that they are able to help all jobseekers. We will continue to develop our advisers and our range of support so that individual jobseekers—older and younger—receive effective help. In addition, the Flexible New Deal is being rolled out from this year and will offer individually tailored help to meet the needs of both younger and older jobseekers.
My noble friend Lady Turner talked about the fact that many requests to defer retirement are turned down and fewer employers are using flexible pension rules. The survey of employers’ policies, practices and preferences will explore these issues. Business organisations such as the CBI and EEF say that most requests are accepted, but we need to examine that evidence, which is critical. My noble friend Lady Turner commented on the judge’s comments on the Age Concern judicial review and said that the Government’s review of default retirement age should take place immediately. That request was also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. We announced earlier this year that the review of the default retirement age will be brought forward from 2011 to 2010, so the direction of travel is right. The judge endorsed that approach—
I declare an interest, since I was counsel in that case on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Speaking personally, not professionally, I am very glad to hear what has been said. Can the Minister give an assurance that the review will take place in sufficient time, if necessary, to change the law before the next election?
Let me finish the point that I was making and then I will come on to that point.
We have said that the review will be brought forward. The judge endorsed that approach. There is no suggestion in the judgment that it should take place any sooner or that the default retirement age should be abolished. It is important that the review be evidence-based. At this stage, I cannot confirm when the review will conclude. We want the review to take place as soon as possible. We want it to be evidence-based and wide-ranging. I assure the House that there is no intention to delay the review. We understand the importance of the timeliness of the review.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said that people over state pension age cannot access Jobcentre Plus support. I think I have covered that. On the earnings disregard, those claiming benefits can access the same services regardless of age. Those not on benefits can access services through the self-service channels. There are currently no plans to change the earnings disregard. However, people over state pension age do not have to pay national insurance, and those over 65 generally have a higher tax allowance, so they keep more of what they earn. That is not to say that everything is perfect. Some of those issues will need to be raised during the review.
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills assesses that we need to fill 14 million jobs in the next 10 years. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education says that only 7 million young people are coming through the education system in that time. Therefore, extending working life will be critical to meeting that challenge. I was fascinated by the careful, analytic approach to the different quartiles of life given by the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, and it had much to commend it. One thing that was not mentioned during the debate—although we focused mainly on work and the default retirement age—is that a lot of people as they enter into the third and last quarters of their life take pleasure in voluntary activities. That is important and we should not forget it. That is not attempting to divert us from dealing with the default retirement age.
As a number of noble Lords said, extending working life will also play an important part in reducing pensioner poverty and ensuring that individuals are able to fulfil their expectations of retirement. A man on average earnings who delays retirement for two years can increase his net income in retirement by 14 per cent.
Many employers are recognising the importance of retaining the valuable skills and experience of older workers to help them through and out of the recession. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, made a valid point about their reliability, their sick records, the value of their experience and the cost-benefit analysis of their contribution. Attitudes are changing, but unfortunately age discrimination persists. That is why, through our Age Positive initiative, we are working with business sector leaders and business-led organisations, such as the Chartered Institute for Professional Development, which has been mentioned, the Employers Forum on Age and the Institute of Directors to encourage employers to adopt flexible approaches to work and retirement. We are providing guidance for them on the benefits that many employers have found by employing and retaining older workers, without the need for a fixed retirement age. I make no apology for mentioning companies such as Asda, South Wales Forgemasters, Marks & Spencer, B&Q and the Co-operative Group, which are part of the Age Positive initiative. They display enlightened attitudes and understand the benefit of employing older workers. We are working alongside business-led organisations to develop and launch guidance on sector-based models for flexible approaches to work and retirement.
We have also simplified tax rules to support flexible retirement so that, where pension schemes allow it, people can draw down all or part of an occupational pension while working for the sponsoring employer. It may not be the complete answer, but it is a move in the right direction. A number of noble Lords raised the default retirement age, and I think I have covered that in relation to the European Court of Justice and the High Court.
The Government provided for the default retirement age on the basis of the evidence available at the time but, recognising that circumstances can change, we made a public commitment to review it. As I have said, we are now bringing it forward. We announced that in Building a Society for All Ages. On 15 October, my right honourable friend in the other place, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, announced that we are calling for stakeholders to submit evidence that will inform the review by 1 February.
Further to this, I am pleased to announce that a statement setting out the sort of evidence that we are seeking will be posted on the websites of both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions next week. I will of course ensure that the points made here today are fed into the evidence-gathering process. Obviously, I also encourage noble Lords to submit any further evidence that they may have. We have also commissioned a major research project, the Survey of Employers’ Policies, Practices and Preferences Relating to Age, which I have referred to, and which will provide a key insight into employers’ age-based practices, particularly the use of the default retirement age.
There was a comment about putting our own house in order. Increasingly, employers have been removing fixed retirement ages. By April 2010 the Civil Service will have removed retirement ages for all staff, not just the Senior Civil Service. I do not have any more information on the public sector, but that is a good thing. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, talked about the importance to everyone of flexible working. I share her view. There was some scepticism from the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, about some of the things that we have done being a burden on employers. However, such things as the national minimum wage, extending flexible working to parents and so on have been of benefit to society.
I apologise that I could not cover every point raised. I thank my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden for instigating the debate and I commend it to the House. I will try to answer in writing any questions that I have not covered.
Welfare Reform Bill
Report (1st Day) (Continued)
7: Clause 2, page 4, line 23, after “who” insert “—
My Lords, in moving Amendment 7, I will speak also to the other government amendments in this group. As noble Lords will be aware, in Committee I announced that we would table a number of government amendments to take into account the informative and thought-provoking debates that we had had. This set of amendments delivers those commitments and builds on them. The amendments provide the assurances and safeguards that noble Lords seek. I will start by briefly running through what these amendments do, but I want to spend the bulk of my time explaining what effect they will have on lone parents.
Amendments 10 and 19 seek to introduce flexibility to allow lone parents undertaking work-related activity on employment and support allowance, and those affected by progression-to-work, to restrict the hours when they undertake work-related activity. It is intended that this flexibility will be used to allow such lone parents to restrict their hours of availability so that they fit around their children’s schooling or formal childcare. This has been introduced with the intention of mirroring the ability in jobseeker’s allowance to restrict the number of hours that they are available for work.
I note in passing that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has tabled amendments that seek to extend the provisions above for lone parents to all parents. However, we have chosen to amend primary legislation for lone parents because we want to highlight the added problems that they will have in combining work-related activity and their caring responsibilities and to protect them accordingly. We feel that parents, as a more general group, do not face the same barriers, because they can share caring.
Amendments 19 and 21 place in primary legislation an assurance that lone parents with a youngest child aged below seven will not be required to meet the full jobseeking conditions of jobseeker’s allowance—for example, being available for work or actively seeking work. This will give strength to our position of allowing lone parents to be entitled to claim income support or modified jobseeker’s allowance until their youngest child is seven. Amendment 19 also removes the requirement for lone parents with a youngest child aged under one, and who are in receipt of income support and employment and support allowance, to attend work-focused interviews. To continue this across the benefits, Amendment 22 ensures that this position is carried forward into modified jobseeker’s allowance. Lone parents on income support or employment and support allowance, with a youngest child aged between one and two, will still be required to attend mandatory work-focused interviews and draw up an action plan; they can voluntarily access the support available via the New Deal for Lone Parents or Pathways to Work.
Amendment 19 also seeks to put in primary legislation our intention that those lone parents with a youngest child aged between one and two, who are claiming employment and support allowance, will not be required to undertake any work-related activity. This means that only lone parents with a youngest child aged three or over can be required to undertake work-related activity.
Noble Lords will be aware that, when amendments are tabled, minor amendments are needed to make the legislation work. Amendments 93, 94 and 96 are three such amendments. They are included so that when income support is eventually abolished all the statutory references go with it.
Amendments 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 25 and 26 reaffirm our policy intention and make it clear in the Bill that only those lone parents who are on income support—and, in future, on modified JSA—and who have a youngest child aged between three and six, will be required to undertake work-related activity. To put these amendments in context, I will now cover the journey that a lone parent will make as a result of these amendments and the existing Bill provisions.
As I have mentioned, lone parents with a youngest child under one will be in the “no conditionality” group. A “no conditionality” approach allows us to mirror other policies, such as changes to maternity entitlement and maternity and paternity leave, which already protect the position of lone parents in the important first year of a child’s life. This ensures that, during that first year, lone parents will have the right and the ability to look after and bond with their child, without any requirements to engage with Jobcentre Plus. However, this does not necessarily mean that they have no access to support and advice about preparation for work. They will still be able voluntarily to attend work-focused interviews and access the support and various benefits that are available to lone parents with a youngest child aged between one and two.
Lone parents with a youngest child between one and two will be expected to attend mandatory work-focused interviews. When their youngest child is aged three to six, they will be expected to attend three-monthly work-focused interviews and agree an action plan with their adviser to undertake work-related activity. This action plan will set out their individual route to prepare them for work when it is appropriate for them. We expect that the action plan will be subject to the well-being provisions that we are about to debate.
As we have discussed, this preparation for work may start with limited activity for the parent, gradually increasing as they move closer to the labour market and want to enter work or as their child becomes older and they feel more able to work. To support this gradual increase, tailored to the individual’s needs, we do not intend to have a specific definition of what will qualify as work-related activity. Rather, we want to establish the principle that these customers are on an active journey towards eventual employment, keeping the specific steps open for claimants and advisers to agree on an individual basis. For example, after their discussion, a parent and an adviser may agree that, because confidence is low and the lone parent is at the beginning of their journey and some way from the labour market, quarterly attendance at a children’s centre is an acceptable work-related activity as a starting point. At the other end of the scale, a parent who is much more prepared for work may agree with an adviser a more intensive activity, such as daily attendance at a short, part-time course, to develop or update work-related skills while their child is at school.
We expect many lone parents with a youngest child aged between three and six to be among the hardest to help, likely to be some distance from the labour market and typically to have multiple barriers to employment. Work-related activity should therefore be interpreted broadly to meet their needs if it is to be most helpful. It should not be restricted to formal training or confidence building, although these could be qualifying activities. Unlike “work for your benefit”, which is only for those on the full jobseeker’s allowance regime, and which we have already discussed, there will be no daily requirement to undertake activity, but there will be a minimal one to undertake one activity between work-focused interviews. This will allow advisers and lone parents flexibility in drawing up the action plans and tailoring activities to their individual needs and situation. Throughout this, they will be able to protect the time in which their children are normally not at school or in formal childcare. We will not require them to undertake any activity that cuts into that time.
I stress that work-related activity will not require any lone parent to be available for or actively seeking work. Instead, it will help lone parents in their journey towards the workplace, improving their skills and their knowledge of what is available, in order to support them and prepare them for when their youngest child reaches seven, so that the move to jobseeking will not be a sudden step up but the next step in their journey towards work, as we have discussed. Then, when the child is seven or over, they will be subject to the jobseeker’s allowance regime and, where appropriate, be able to use the flexibilities that we introduced when we changed the entitlement conditions for income support for lone parents based on the age of their youngest child from November 2008. These flexibilities allow lone parents to be available for work for a minimum of 16 hours a week and allow them to refuse a job or to leave employment if childcare is not available.
Additionally, a lone parent can restrict their availability so that this does not clash with school hours or formal childcare. We have also added the need for a personal adviser to ensure that the well-being of the child is taken into account when drawing up a jobseeker’s agreement. I believe that these amendments fulfil the obligations that we introduced in Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 9 and 11, which seek to amend Amendments 8 and 10 respectively. These are probing amendments. I have tabled them to raise a very real question, as I see it. I welcome and support all the amendments that the noble Lord has tabled in relation to lone parents. I by no means ignore the very real problems that lone parents have and I support what the Government are doing. However, significant problems and injustices may arise as a result of prioritising lone parents in the way proposed.
The Minister referred to shared parenting. I am not convinced that it is reasonable to assume that, because two people are living together as a couple, the second partner will be available to stand in for the other parent when they are called to the jobcentre. Is it reasonable to assume that a partner will be available, able to and qualified to take up childcare to suit the jobcentre, especially when substantial travel time may be involved? Is it not possible that sometimes the partner will be a totally inappropriate person? He might be an alcoholic, violent or aggressive. Being one of a couple does not necessarily guarantee that attending interviews or work-related activities will be any easier. Couple parents may also have problems; conversely, single parents who have good childcare facilities would be just as well off with their child being looked after in childcare as they would be by having them looked after by a partner.
I raise this issue not only because I believe that the concerns of couple parents should be drawn to the attention of the House, but because there are problems. Penalising couple parents, which is what this will be seen as, creates a perverse incentive. It will discourage unmarried couples from making a home together for their child. Children need the security of family life, with two committed parents wherever possible. We already have a tax and benefit system that, for some parents, costs them 20 per cent more to live together than to live apart. The disadvantage that is implicit in the noble Lord’s amendments will tend to encourage one of the worst and most dangerous family structures for children—a home where the mother lives with short-term, often-changing male partners.
The amendments that the Government and others have introduced to protect children of lone parents are excellent, but they should be extended to cover couple parents as well. If the Government say that this is a step too far and will cost too much, I would say that the availability of childcare should be the criterion. If childcare is available to the partner couple from the partner, or if childcare is available from any other source, that is fine. Those people should not be excluded from the obligations to attend the jobcentre. Where childcare from the partner or outside is not available, the exclusions in my amendments should be appropriate. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak in reluctant support of this proposition, not because I think that couples who live together should be married, but in particular because for many low-income couples the facility of taking time off is not a real option. If you have an insecure job in which you are paid for the day you work, taking a day off may not be appropriate. My hope is that the preference given in the Bill to the welfare of children will mean that, if a parent feels that the welfare of the children is threatened, they will not go to work. If that is not the case, I would very much like “lone” to be removed.
My Lords, I should like to take advantage of this group of amendments to reiterate our fundamental support for the Bill—I am grateful that the Minister has acknowledged that support. The protective measures introduced in these government amendments go a long way towards satisfying our concerns. Indeed, should our Amendment 6 be incorporated in the Act, the structure of these government amendments would offer a coherent approach, on a sensible timeline, to drawing lone parents into the workforce and, I hope, out of poverty. We are pleased that the Government have responded positively to our concerns in this area.
The only specific point that I should like to make is on the protection that we sought to introduce in our previous amendment on work-related activity. I refer to our debate before lunch, when the Minister told us that action plans would be light. However, when introducing these amendments, he said that the plans may require daily attendance at a part-time course. Which of the two alternatives is to be applied?
I should like to express admiration for the deletions proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in Amendments 9 and 11 of the word “lone” in “lone parents”. This would widen the protections from lone parents to all parents. His logic is impeccable. Differentiating in this way between lone parents and couples serves to encourage the state of single parenthood.
The noble Lord has put his finger on a huge problem. That excellent publication launched last month by the Centre for Social Justice, Dynamic Benefits, found that nearly 2 million low-earning couples lose an average of £1,336 per year because they live together. Only three of the 26 OECD countries surveyed have larger couple penalties than the UK. People in this situation know it. The document states:
“This is a strong disincentive to marriage or cohabitation and is recognised as such by those who face it. Our polling showed that 77% of those who are out of work or in part-time work think low-earning/unemployed people are materially better off if they live apart than if they live as a couple”.
The thought seems to have bred action. The study found that low earners are 30 to 50 per cent less likely than high earners to live as couples.
These are two powerful, probing amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. In practice, the conditionality for lone parents is being ratcheted up in the Bill, so in relative terms the differentiation is being reduced. I would be interested to learn from the Minister whether the Government have any plans to address the underlying problem in the context of a much broader review of the welfare system.
My Lords, I, too, acknowledge that the Minister’s amendments in this group contain welcome concessions. I am also grateful that he took the opportunity to sketch out what he thinks the journey for lone parents will look like. Am I right in thinking that until the child is seven, when lone parents will join the normal jobseeker’s allowance regulations under the provisions of the 1995 Act, with all that that entails, these parents will be in the hands of Jobcentre Plus and not of providers who might be looking after parents of three to five year-olds—or whatever client groups we have—in a different way? I would be more comfortable if the journey to the age of seven was contained within the public service, because of the necessary evaluation of how the change in policy and its delivery are being implemented, particularly in relation to the protections that are essential to making sure that the policy works.
I listened as carefully as I could. The impression given was that until the child is seven, Jobcentre Plus and professionals in the public service will look after their client group, and afterwards there is the possibility of going to private service providers. I said earlier that evaluation is very important. We are looking at a back-to-work White Paper—goodness help us—in the next fortnight or three weeks, and there is a danger that this will be so confusing to lone parent groups, never mind the policy-makers who are trying to understand the legislation, that people will get lost in the complexity. If the White Paper has another go at this and makes more changes in the few weeks before it is published, that is something that the House will want to look at.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. Everyone has supported the government amendments. I will return in a moment to the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I accept that they are probing amendments, which the Government are not able to accept.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that I accept and appreciate the broad support that has been given by his Benches to the Bill. In relation to the debate that we had on the action plan, and the extent of the detail in the plans and the activity levels required, I have tried to explain that we see this as a journey. When the youngest child is three or four, the level of activity is likely to be less than when the youngest child approaches the age of seven, which is the point at which the parent will enter the jobseeker’s allowance regime, with the full conditionality that goes with it. We see it as a journey, which is why, in the early days, the requirements on lone parents would be quite gentle. It might be just one activity in the course of a quarter between two work-focused interviews. It might be going along to a children’s centre or going to get support to sort out the parent’s finances. If the lone parent wishes to do more, there will be the opportunity for that. That is the journey that we see—a progression towards the time when individuals will be subject to the full conditionality of jobseeker’s allowance.
The noble Lord posed a broader point about family structures and what the Government have done to support those structures. We could spend a lot of time debating what the Government have done in the way of tax credits and supporting families, and particularly children, making what I believe to be significant improvements in our society. Hundreds of thousands of children have been taken out of poverty but there are still some challenges to go. The forward direction of the welfare system is partly addressed in the Bill before us. We have promised in due course a White Paper, which will map out the steps going forward. I think I would characterise this group of government amendments as focusing on family-friendly issues, particularly support for and recognition of the role that parents have in bringing up, supporting and caring for their children. That is the direction from which we have come and on which we are embarked.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked about the position before the progression-to-work changes and what conditionality would apply to lone parents with children under the age of seven. Such parents would typically be on income support. I do not think that they would be precluded from employment and support allowance, but that would obviously depend on their circumstances. The conditionality applied would generally be turning up for work-focused interviews. If the parent was on employment and support allowance, they could be in a pathways system, rather than on income support, where by and large there would be engagement with Jobcentre Plus. I shall check but I think I am right in saying that parents in that position are still able to volunteer for the New Deal support that is on offer. I see reassuring nods from the Box, where I think the heads are going up and down rather than sideways, so I have some confidence in that remark.
I turn to address more specifically the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I accept that they are probing and therefore hope that he will not press them. With regard to child maintenance, there are technical rules on shared care, based on the payment of child benefit and the number of nights spent with each parent. I think that the noble Lord was involved in our debates on the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill the year before last, although it seems like only yesterday. The benefits system assumes that the child is cared for by the parent receiving the child benefit. We have looked at other systems but they all have considerable practical problems. I should also make the point that the childcare flexibility, good cause and well-being safeguards apply to all parents, not just lone parents. That is very important.
Again, I am grateful for the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, who has been supportive of and has engaged in these provisions. We are grateful for that.
With that, I ask for support for the government amendments and ask the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, not to press his amendments.
My Lords, I do not think that the Minister really explained why the non-availability of childcare, whether family care or outside care, was not a better criterion than a parent simply happening to be a lone parent. Is it just that Gingerbread is persuasive or is there some real argument for this particular prejudice in favour of lone mothers when many couple mothers also have problems? Having said that, I shall not press my amendments.
Amendment 7 agreed.
8: Clause 2, page 4, line 23, after “support” insert “, and
(b) is not a lone parent of a child under the age of 3,”
Amendment 9, as an amendment to Amendment 8, not moved.
Amendment 8 agreed.
10: Clause 2, page 5, line 41, at end insert—
“(7A) Regulations under this section must include provision for securing that lone parents are entitled (subject to meeting any prescribed conditions) to restrict the times at which they are required to undertake work-related activity.”
Amendment 11, as an amendment to Amendment 10, not moved.
Amendment 10 agreed.
Amendments 12 and 13
12: Clause 2, page 5, line 44, at end insert—
“(aa) “lone parent” means a person who—(i) is not a member of a couple, and(ii) is responsible for, and a member of the same household as, a child;”
13: Clause 2, page 6, line 8, at end insert—
“(8A) For the purposes of this section regulations may make provision—
(a) as to circumstances in which one person is to be treated as responsible or not responsible for another;(b) as to circumstances in which persons are to be treated as being or not being members of the same household.”
Amendments 12 and 13 agreed.
14: Clause 2, page 6, line 30, at end insert “provided that such particulars shall not include taking any surgical or medical treatment”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 23 and 35. These amendments complement the Government’s amendment to Clause 8, which ensures that a direction by the Secretary of State may not specify medical or surgical treatment as the only activity which is regarded as work-related activity in an individual case. The government amendment reflects the Government’s agreement that medical treatment cannot be regarded as an activity, which, if the claimant fails to accept it, is subject to sanctions. In other words, compulsory treatment under the threat of benefit sanctions does not belong in this or in any other government legislation. I am not suggesting that the Government are saying that compulsory treatment does not belong in any other legislation—those are my words—but their amendment on this issue shows their commitment, at least, in relation to this piece of legislation.
I have tabled these three amendments because I believe that the government amendment on its own leaves a loophole. If a claimant agrees to include medical treatment in their action plan, perhaps under duress—none of us can be sure about that—and if they fail to undertake that part of their action plan they may be subject to benefit sanctions. We know that some 50 per cent of claimants are failing the test which could qualify them for employment support allowance. Therefore, they are placed on jobseeker’s allowance, as I understand it, even if they have mental or physical disabilities as long as those are not assessed as preventing them taking a job. It is therefore important that the clarification that medical treatment will not be a sanctionable work-related activity is included within the Bill in relation to the various benefits covered by the Bill.
These three amendments do just that. There is an issue here. For many people, psychological treatment or a rehabilitation programme may be very important in preparing them for a return to work. It would therefore make sense to include those treatments within an action plan. My point is that these treatments must not be sanctionable. If someone does not feel able to enter treatment for some reason at a particular time, they should not be forced to do so.
There are four powerful reasons for that. First, treatment without consent is a breach of civil liberties and a potential breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Secondly, such treatment is not efficacious. Any treatment, but most particularly psychological treatment which is likely to be applicable to many of these claimants, will not work effectively without the client's commitment and engagement. One has only to think about it to realise that if someone is forced to go along to some CBT therapist, they may miss a session, they may turn up late, they may not concentrate and the whole thing will be thoroughly unhelpful. Thirdly, such treatments would be a waste of resources. There are not enough therapists available to deal with the people who desperately want that help. If a therapist takes on a claimant who is there only to ensure continuation of their benefits, the therapist will almost certainly be wasting their time, time which could fruitfully be devoted to another claimant who wants that help. Fourthly, and very importantly for the Government and the rest of us, legislation in one department should be consistent with legislation in another. Therefore, the Welfare Reform Bill should be consistent with the Mental Health Act 2007.
I shall not go into detail on that. Suffice it to say that someone can be given treatment without his consent only with the most rigorous safeguards under the 2007 Act. For example, if somebody has a severe mental illness and two senior clinicians and a nurse or social worker have signed to say that he has such an illness and that that illness might result in him being a threat to his own life or somebody else’s, he may be detained in hospital and, for a period of three months, given treatment without his consent. None of that is reflected in this Bill, and I do not think any Government could justify that inconsistency between the rigours of the Mental Health Act 2007 and the apparent relaxation in relation to treatment without consent that one is confronted with in the Bill. I understand that the Government accept these arguments.
I propose that any medical treatment needed by a claimant should be included in an annexe to the action plan that would not be sanctionable. I do not want the idea that psychological help, which may be very important to the claimant, should not be included in any way in an action plan. That would be unhelpful. I wait with interest to hear the Minister’s response.
An important related point is that under the Mental Health Act regulations and guidance, it is made abundantly clear that the term “medical treatment” includes habilitation and rehabilitation and, most particularly, includes psychological treatment. I ask the Minister to assure the House today that the regulations to be issued with respect to the Welfare Reform Bill will use the same definition of medical treatment as that used in the regulations and guidance under the Mental Health Act. I beg to move.
My Lords, I completely concur with the noble Baroness’s view that benefit recipients should never be directed to undertake medical or surgical treatment to fulfil their conditionality, and I agree that we should have consistency across the legislation in this area. That has always been our policy intention. Nevertheless, we have listened to the invaluable debates that we have had in this House and we have decided to move this safeguard into the Bill. That is the purpose of our Amendments 16, 28, 36, 42, 43, 49 and 50.
Amendment 16 amends Clause 2F, which covers income support customers, to ensure that a direction cannot specify a medical or surgical treatment as the only activity that in any person’s case is to be regarded as being work-related activity. Amendment 28 to Schedule 1 ensures that this extends to customers on modified JSA. Amendment 36 is to Clause 8 and extends this safeguard to ESA customers. Amendments 42 and 43 are to Schedule 3 and extend this safeguard to problem drug users on JSA. Amendments 49 and 50 are to Schedule 3 and extend this safeguard to problem drug users on ESA.
Where individuals have a health condition that in itself is a barrier to them returning to work, we believe that they should receive appropriate help and support to make a return to work possible, such as counselling or physiotherapy, if that is something they think is appropriate for themselves. The effect of the government amendments is such that it will remain permissible for customers to undertake such medical or surgical treatment to meet their work-related activity requirement voluntarily and with informed consent. However, under the noble Baroness’s amendment, that would be impossible. Whether it were in an annex or in the agreement itself, it would amount to the same thing. This would prohibit an adviser from entering such activities on the action plan—activities that the customer might want to undertake and which might be very beneficial for that person. We will ensure that customers are not penalised, if they change their mind about this voluntary decision, by allowing them to fulfil their requirement to undertake work-related activity by completing another activity on their action plan.
We have deliberately not defined medical or surgical treatment in the Bill, but we will produce detailed guidance for advisers on what are and are not appropriate activities to direct customers into. We would never, for example, direct customers into treatments such as physiotherapy, psychotherapy, a condition-management programme, or a diet or exercise regime. We are also confident that healthcare professionals will not deliver anything that constitutes treatment against a customer’s will. This would be against medical ethics and codes of practice.
I hope that our government amendments will allay the concerns that noble Lords have expressed about this issue in previous debates, and will demonstrate in primary legislation our determination to ensure that people cannot be coerced into medical treatment—the same concerns that the noble Baroness has sought to address through her amendments. I commend Amendments 16, 28, 36, 42, 44, 49 and 50 to the House, and I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, we welcome the Minister’s clarification of whether the claimants of the ESA might have to undergo medical treatment under the guise of work-related activity with the obvious result that they would be penalised if they failed to comply. We are pleased that he has clarified that that will not happen.
My Lords, in this debate on government Amendment 36, on work-related activity for claimants of the employment and support allowance, I bring to noble Lords’ attention the importance of the monitoring-by-impairment group. The Minister and the Bill team have been very helpful in improving the Bill, although I fear that their help has not extended as far as the monitoring-by-impairment group, as I would have wished. However, I live in hope.
Amendment 36 is specific to Clause 8, on the power to direct the claimant to undertake specific work-related activity, and relates in particular to employment and support allowance claimants and to Pathways to Work provision. My point, however, relates to other provisions such as the new Work Choice employment programme, the flexible new deal, and the “work for your benefit” scheme, which is to be piloted for long-term jobseekers.
Given the scope of the changes that are proposed in the Bill, inevitably there is significant uncertainty about what will follow for people with a learning disability. This uncertainty would be acknowledged if appropriate safeguards were put in place by the monitoring-by-impairment group, thereby addressing many people’s concerns about some aspects of the Bill. There are, for example, multiple barriers to employment faced by people with a learning disability, and I am concerned about the apparent failure to take their specific needs into account and that a disproportionate number of them could be moved towards “work for your benefit” schemes.
I am concerned that such workfare measures could be introduced as a consequence of factors outside the control of the individual, such as a failure by the flexible new deal provider to give them appropriate support. Indeed, the Department for Work and Pensions’ very own impact assessment states that “the policy proposal”—the “work for your benefits” scheme—
“is expected to have a greater impact on people with a disability as they are more likely to reach the end of Flexible New Deal without having moved into employment”.
However, without adequate information from the monitoring-by-impairment group, we may not be aware of the extent of this or indeed other trends. Without the means to know the extent to which people with learning disabilities and others are affected—I am aware that the Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed similar concern about those with mental health conditions—how are we to judge the effectiveness of the Government’s proposals? How are we to assess whether people with learning disabilities are able to access genuine opportunities to employment? How are we to ascertain the extent, or otherwise, of the Government's success? As noble Lords will be aware, I have consistently championed moves to provide increased support for people with learning disabilities, and disabled people in general, to seek, gain and retain employment.
However, I have ongoing concerns as to how the reforms may work in practice for those individuals furthest from entering the labour market. There needs to be an acknowledgement that individuals’ disabilities can be vastly different and require significantly diverse types and levels of support. Without a clear analysis of those whom the new reforms are reaching, and where, when and to what extent, I fear that the Government may fail in their aim of breaking down the barriers to meaningful employment for all people with a disability.
I believe that this Bill provides the Government with a valuable opportunity to meet their commitments as set out in Valuing Employment Now and ensure that more people with learning disabilities can access employment and not be denied the opportunities to which they are clearly entitled as they seek to enter the job market and gain full citizenship. What assurances can the Minister give me?
My Lords, I want to thank the Minister sincerely for a most helpful response to my amendments, in particular the absolute clarification that in no circumstances will a claimant be subject to sanctions, even if they have a reference to some form of medical treatment or psychological therapy within their action plan, and subsequently change their mind for any reason and do not pursue that treatment. It is enormously important to have had that said in this House as a reference for anyone concerned.
The other important aspect of the Minister’s response was his clarification that medical treatment refers to all forms of treatment, including—we did not use the word “rehabilitation”—psychological treatment, to which the noble Lord referred, which makes the point. On the basis of those assurances, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
15: Clause 2, page 6, line 40, at end insert—
“(6) In preparing any action plan, the Secretary of State must have regard (so far as practicable) to its impact on the well-being of any person under the age of 16 who may be affected by it.”
Before I turn to Amendment 15 formally, perhaps I may thank the noble Lord, Lord Freud, for his support for the government amendments. I am pleased that we have been able to clarify the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is appropriately concerned about and that we have a meeting of minds. I acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is a huge campaigner and has great expertise around the issue of people with learning difficulties. He is fundamentally absolutely right about the need for monitoring. Without that monitoring and data, it is difficult to determine the progress being made. I thank the noble Lord for giving me this opportunity to discuss that important issue before I explain what data we collect on our employment programmes.
Perhaps I may start by outlining the progress we have made since our debates in Committee. During the summer, departmental officials held a workshop with the Disability Benefits Consortium to discuss this issue. The discussion focused on the data that the department currently holds about a customer’s impairment type and how they could be used to enhance understanding of the effectiveness of DWP’s disability employment programmes. All parties were in agreement that monitoring by impairment type was important in order to allow comprehensive evaluation of the department’s employment programmes and benefits. The Government’s position remains the same. We are committed to monitoring by disability and medical condition where it is practical to do so.
For all IB and ESA customers, the department holds detailed information about a customer’s primary medical condition. This information uses the international classification of disease. Figures on the high-level medical condition of IB and ESA claimants are already published on the DWP website as part of our quarterly national statistics publication. This information will be collected on customers taking part in the welfare reform pilots and will be used to analyse the impact of these back-to-work programmes. Subject to sample size and data validity, we plan to use such data to analyse the impact of our programmes and to publish them as part of DWP’s evaluation and research.
For specialist disability employment programmes such as WORKSTEP, work preparation and Access to Work, the department collects high-level impairment information using a variety of classification systems. The Government intend to publish official statistics on the new Work Choice programme and we hope to include impairment information as part of this publication. I hope that this goes some way towards reassuring the noble Lord that we take this matter extremely seriously.
That leads me, if I may, to government Amendment 15 and the amendments grouped with it. Again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for ensuring that during our discussions in Grand Committee, we did not lose sight of the impact that this Bill may have on children. Amendments 15, 24 and 60 ensure that the well-being of children is always taken into account when the personal adviser and the parent agree the steps the parent will take to prepare for and move into work when completing an action plan or a jobseeker’s agreement. We have drawn on the provisions in Section 7 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 which state that it is the general duty of the Secretary of State to promote the well-being of children in England. The Act refers to a definition of “well-being” in Section 10(2) of the Children Act 2004 and requires the following to be taken into account: the child’s physical and mental health and emotional well-being; protection from harm and neglect; education, training and recreation; the contribution made by them to society, and their social and economic well-being. It is this definition that will be used when advisers and decision-makers make judgments on what is reasonable when they draw up an action plan or jobseeker’s agreement with a parent. This will require them to take into account all these important factors.
However, we must not lose sight of the fact that ensuring that parents prepare for and enter work has a beneficial impact on individual claimants and their children. Evidence shows that the benefits to children if their parents are working are more far-reaching than increased income alone. Indeed, children have reported the benefits of parental employment, and parents making the move into paid work have observed positive psychological benefits in their children. For example, a study of newly working households found reduced stigma among children as a result of their parents leaving the benefits system and as a consequence fitting in more with their peers and having a less stressful home life due to fewer arguments about money. Personal advisers and decision-makers already deal with complex circumstances in their discussions with parents, and I believe that this amendment will enable them to deliver a more personalised and family-focused approach. I beg to move.
My Lords, simply for information, Amendment 15 refers to a person under the age of 16 whereas some of the other amendments, such as Amendment 24, refer to the “well-being of any child”. I understand a child to be any person under the age of 18, and I wonder what the reason is for the difference.
The noble Lord raises an interesting point to which I regret I am unable to provide an answer at the Dispatch Box. I shall prevaricate for a little while in the hope that rescue may come from the Box, but if not, perhaps I may write to the noble Lord. I am sure there is a full answer, but it is not here yet. I shall write to him.
Amendment 15 agreed.
16: Clause 2, page 7, line 2, at end insert—
“(1A) But a direction under subsection (1) may not specify medical or surgical treatment as the only activity which, in any person’s case, is to be regarded as being work-related activity.”
Amendment 16 agreed.
17: Clause 2, page 9, line 5, at end insert—
“2H Good cause for failure to comply with regulations
(1) This section applies to any regulations made under section 2A, 2AA or 2D that prescribe matters to be taken into account in determining whether a person has good cause for any failure to comply with the regulations.
(2) The provision made by the regulations prescribing those matters must include provision relating to—
(a) the person’s physical or mental health or condition;(b) the availability of childcare.””
My Lords, I shall speak also to the other government amendments in this group.
I return now to the important issue of good cause. Noble Lords will be aware that where ESA, IS or JSA customers fail to undertake mandatory activity they are given the opportunity to demonstrate good cause for this before a sanction is considered. In previous debates we have discussed the importance of this as a safeguard ensuring that customers are not sanctioned unfairly.
I continue to believe that it would be impossible to specify all the circumstances in which somebody would have a good reason for failure to comply with the requirements on them. Jobcentre Plus decision-makers therefore have a responsibility to fairly assess all the evidence available to them, considering each person’s individual circumstances. However, in order to assist the decision-maker in this assessment, regulations provide a list of matters which the decision-maker may take into account in determining whether the customer has good cause. These circumstances vary depending on the nature of the requirement and the benefit claimed. We do not propose to create an exhaustive list of circumstances that must be taken into account.
However, we have listened to the views of both Houses and believe that there is a case for making clear in primary legislation that good-cause considerations must take account of the availability of childcare and the customer’s health condition or disability. I am therefore bringing forward Amendments 17, 52 and 59 to achieve this. In practice, consideration of such matters already happens but we want to place this beyond doubt and ensure that it is safeguarded for the future. I hope that the amendments reassure noble Lords that no customer will be unfairly sanctioned where they are prevented from complying with a requirement because of a lack of available childcare or as a result of a health condition or disability, and that they go some way to reassuring the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—who will be speaking to her amendment in a moment—that we make every attempt to give customers adequate opportunity to demonstrate good cause.
If a customer fails to attend a work-focused interview, the adviser will contact the customer by phone, prior to writing to them, to ask them for evidence of good cause. The customer will then be given five days to provide that evidence. I note that in her amendment the noble Baroness seeks to include in primary legislation that we must always make reasonable attempts to visit a customer with a disability, mental impairment or significant communications difficulty at their usual address. At present we attempt to make a home visit to customers who have a mental health condition, learning disability or a condition that affects cognition if they fail to attend a work-focused interview in order to explain the conditionality. If we are unsuccessful the first time, we will try for a second time. If this fails, a manager will investigate the customer’s situation to try to establish their whereabouts and make referrals to other services if appropriate. We would not sanction a customer if we believed that they had not understood the conditionality on them. We intend to apply these safeguards to good cause with regard to work-related activity also.
The noble Baroness wishes us to put in primary legislation that we should put in place any reasonable support measures to enable the customer to comply with the conditionality. Advisers already endeavour to do this. For example, customers with a learning disability may bring an advocate along to their work-focused interviews. We will be providing clear guidance to our advisers around the good-cause procedure and around the support that should be put in place to enable customers to comply with conditionality.
As I have explained, we have also tabled an amendment to the Bill that good-cause consideration should include a customer’s disability or health condition. This demonstrates how seriously we take putting appropriate safeguards in place for our customers. Having said that, I beg to move the amendment. I hope, although she has not yet spoken to her amendment, that that helps the noble Baroness.
My Lords, before speaking to Amendment 20, I thank the Minister for Amendment 17 on the same subject, which goes some way towards meeting the requirements under good cause, as he said. However, the government amendment on its own does not go far enough.
The Minister said that advisers try to make home visits when they can, and so on, but this should not be done on an arbitrary or “if time permits” basis. Certainly in my limited direct experience of these matters, these things do not happen in general. My amendment introduces a general requirement on the welfare system to give claimants an adequate opportunity to explain their non-attendance at a work-focused interview or activity.
The amendment also includes three appropriate steps that must—not “may”—be undertaken by officials to ensure that a person with a disability, mental impairment or significant communication difficulty has had an adequate opportunity to demonstrate good cause. These are all reasonable attempts to achieve a visit to the person’s home—we understand that there are of course occasions when somebody just hides behind the door, pretends to be out and is just not available. All we are seeking here is that reasonable attempts should have been made. That is vital for people with mental health problems and fluctuating conditions. I spoke at length in Committee about just how vulnerable those people feel if they receive a letter inviting them to an interview and a subsequent letter saying that their benefits will be sanctioned. They may not even have opened the first letter and will certainly not have opened the second.
Let us assume that the Royal Mail is working most of the time or at least continues to exist, which of course it may not.
I mentioned in Committee that the brother of a friend of mine went to see his brother who had a mental health problem and whose benefits had long since been cancelled. He had not eaten for goodness knows how long. My friend’s brother could hardly get through the door for all the mail, leaflets and newspapers behind it. Nothing had been opened, and there was no way that this man was going to get to the phone, make a coherent phone call or find a piece of paper and write a letter. None of that was remotely possible. One cannot emphasise too strongly the importance of home visits for these very vulnerable claimants. It just is not good enough to say, “Maybe we’ll try and do it”.
The second step in the amendment is provision of any support measures that the person requires in order to comply with the Bill, leaving it rather open to take account of various special circumstances of different claimants. The third is the making of all reasonable adjustments under the Disability Discrimination Act.
The amendment is important because, as the Bill stands, claimants unable to attend a work-related interview or activity must demonstrate good cause. However, be it through ill health or a lack of understanding, they may inadvertently fail to do so. If somebody is being difficult, that is understandable, but if somebody inadvertently fails to comply, it does not seem right that they should be even poorer than they would otherwise be.
The Minister said in Committee:
“If the customer has a mental health condition or learning difficulties, the personal adviser will arrange for a home visit to take place. The adviser will always attempt to meet the customer before any reduction in benefit is proposed”.—[Official Report, 11/6/09; col. GC 129.]
This is an important statement, for which I thank the Minister, but he needs to give more assurance that these things will be in place. I hope he will agree for it to be written into the Bill as a specific duty. If it is left to guidance, as the Minister is suggesting, I have no doubt that it will lapse or be applied very unevenly across the country, which has always happened. The tragic suicides of people on incapacity benefit who have been informed by letter that their benefit has been cancelled make clear how important this is. It may sound trivial, but it is not.
With reference to providing reasonable adjustments under the Disability Discrimination Act, we remain concerned about the five-day timeframe for someone to demonstrate good cause—we tabled amendments in Committee on that issue. However, this amendment accepts that the five-day limit will remain, but that a claimant with a disability might justify a longer period or a different process for satisfying the good cause condition. We are looking for flexibility and individual treatment, rather than a rigid increase from five days to—let us say—10 days. It would be more helpful. Likewise, reasonable adjustments will have to be made in the case of a claimant with a mental health problem. We discussed the special needs of claimants at length, but this amendment is important because, in a new and tougher regime, it provides assurances for claimants in different circumstances and with a range of special needs. That is the important point about this—it seeks to ensure that people are not inappropriately and improperly denied the benefits to which they are entitled.
I shall speak to Amendment 17. I very much welcome the Minister’s amendment on good cause, which will place on statute that any failure to comply with regulations must take into account a person’s physical or mental health condition. I want to underline several points.
The definition of good cause was extremely important in relation to safeguarding people with a learning disability, as has already been acknowledged, and should include their failure to understand what is expected of them, as well as recognition of inadequate support for a claimant in complying with conditions imposed on them. As they stand, the draft regulations state that the claimant,
“has to show good cause for failure to undertake general or specific work-related activity due to learning, language or literacy difficulties or any misleading information given by the Secretary of State”.
It does not acknowledge the issue of support. What would happen, for example, if a person with a learning disability is expected to attend a work-focused interview but cannot travel independently and has no one to support them to attend? Surely that would be good cause for failure to comply. Any reassurances that the Minister can provide in this matter would be most welcome.
I have a concern with respect to minorities, which can regard any kind of mental illness as a dishonouring factor in the family and are highly likely to hide anyone who has that kind of disability and exclude them from access to these rights. Being able to find those people and visit them helps the individual—sometimes against the wishes of the family, but it is extremely helpful and important. I suggest that geography, too, should be a factor. There are areas in which you really do not see a social worker from year to year, because it is just too far. Often it is in those areas that the greatest need exists. A requirement for someone to check on them would help recipients.
I shall add a word or two about this important group of amendments and support the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I concur with her argument. I am not naturally disposed to putting things like this in a Bill, as it often constrains consideration, because people are shoe-horned into primary legislation, which can inhibit flexibility in practice. However, this is so important—and the addition of the two or three issues to which the noble Baroness alluded under Amendment 20 would enhance the confidence with which people approached this legislation, if the Government saw fit to accept it.
I have a couple of operational and delivery-type questions around this area. Of course, the key person in the consideration of good cause is the decision-maker, but there is upstream and downstream activity from both these things. I know that decision-makers are serious professionals and experienced hands and are usually capable of carrying the weight of a decision of this importance. However, in the new regime, as far as I can see, service providers will take the initial decision to refer to a decision-maker. What will the process and guidance be, and what requirements in the contracts for service providers on training will be set out on this question about consideration of good cause? If there were proper provisions, guidance and requirements for training people before they started considering questions of the operation of good cause, that would be important to know.
There is also, of course, the downstream activity of review through the independent tribunal process. That is well established and will, no doubt, come to decisions, as a matter of fact, in the fullness of time on questions about what is and is not a good cause. I am concerned about the Government sensitively monitoring those decisions when they start to flow, as that may well not be for some time. Then, if the balance of what we are all trying to achieve in this Bill is not delivered in practice as a result of those operational and delivery decisions, the Government should be prepared to look urgently at this again, and make appropriate adjustments. However, we have made a lot of progress and I acknowledge that the Government have been listening. We had a very good debate in Committee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has done well to achieve such progress. Speaking for myself, were she to push this to a vote I should happily follow her into the Lobby.
My Lords, these government amendments reflect exhaustive discussions in Committee, and we are happy to accept these protections covering physical and mental health, as well as the availability of childcare. We also believe it appropriate that those protections should be detailed in regulations rather than set out in the Bill.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. First, I understand and thoroughly support the thrust of what the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is seeking to achieve here. I should make it absolutely clear to noble Lords that we take safeguards for our customers very seriously. Advisers always try to ensure that all customers understand the conditionality on them and the good cause process. Advisers endeavour to ensure that customers have all reasonable support in place to enable them to comply with conditionality. For example, a customer with a learning disability would be able to bring a support worker or an advocate to their work-focused interview if they felt it necessary.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, if the circumstances that he outlined in his question arose where someone with a learning disability did not have somebody on hand to go with them to an interview, I could not possibly see how that individual could be sanctioned for failing to attend. We attempt to conduct a home visit to customers with a mental health condition, learning disability or condition that affects cognition, if they fail to attend their work-focused interview, in order to explain the conditionality and to rearrange it. I also take the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, made; sometimes, the community is not so supportive outwardly in helping people with some of the conditions that we are talking about, so home visits are particularly apt where that is concerned—as is the availability of translation services.
To go back to the process; if the first attempt to make contact fails, we will try for a second time. If those visits are unsuccessful, a manager will investigate the customer’s situation and will make referrals to other services if appropriate. We will not sanction customers if we believe that they have not understood the requirements on them. Customers can, of course, appeal any decision to have their benefit sanctioned, although I would readily accept that for some customers, the act of appealing would simply be a step way beyond them.
Forgive me if I have either misunderstood or not heard what the Minister has said, but was it that regulations will make it clear that if a person is suspected of having a mental health problem, a communication difficulty or, indeed, a learning difficulty, there will a requirement that every attempt is made to achieve a home visit? Is the Minister saying that regulations will specify a requirement?
That is exactly right—the requirement to do so will be set down, so that it is absolutely clear for people who have to operate these arrangements. We will not sanction customers if we believe that they have not understood the requirements on them, and customers have the right of appeal. But we have common cause with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, on this—that dealing with the matter other than in primary legislation is the best way. It gives us scope for flexibility if in due course we should want to change or enhance those requirements.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, was right in saying that as regards sanctions, it will always be a decision-maker and always a Jobcentre Plus person who will ultimately deal with this. No contractors can take decisions to sanction people. Clearly, training is an important issue around that and we shall discuss it later. Clearly, issues around the number of cases of good cause should be part of a monitoring and evaluation process and I have no doubt that they will be. I hope that that explanation satisfies noble Lords and I commend the amendment.
Amendment 17 agreed.
18: Clause 2, page 9, line 5, at end insert—
“2H Required competencies for persons exercising functions of Secretary of State
(1) Any person exercising the functions of the Secretary of State under sections 2A, 2D, 2E, 2F, in relation to income support, including any person authorised under section 2G, shall have the required competencies.
(2) The Secretary of State shall by regulations make provision for the required competencies as indicated in subsection (1).
(3) The provision which shall be made by regulations under subsection (2) shall include, in particular, provision as to—
(a) the knowledge and understanding of the needs and requirements of people with disabilities in general and with specified disabilities in particular;(b) the courses to be undertaken by persons before such approvals are to be given and during the period for which such approvals have effect;(c) the factors to be taken into account in determining whether persons have required competencies as mentioned in subsection (1).”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 38 and 61. We have tabled these amendments to acknowledge the widespread concern expressed in Committee about the competence of those in positions of authority in the offices of Jobcentre Plus and the outsourced companies. The amendment requires the Secretary of State in regulations to set down what the required competences are for staff in JCP offices and those of the outsourced providers. The last thing we want is to seek to build a huge bureaucracy around training for staff in this field, but there is a great deal of disquiet about whether the rapid expansion of JCP staff has meant that their training has been compromised. Those of us who raised this issue in Grand Committee were particularly concerned that staff should be adequately trained to recognise and meet the needs of people with mental and/or physical health conditions.
Amendment 38 would ensure that any staff dealing with those customers with drug problems should have the competence to deal with them. Amendment 61 would extend the requirement to outsourced providers. In July, I wrote to the Minister about the training of personal advisers, decision-makers and disability employment advisers. His reply, a copy of which was placed in the Library, was that personal advisers complete 60 hours of induction and foundation learning. This is followed by 160 hours of learning specific to the personal adviser job. The letter goes on to talk about adviser skills workshops and something called,
“periods of supported workplace consolidation to enable advisers to effectively interview customers”.
I wondered how and when all this learning can take place when JCP offices are under such pressure.
However, the Minister’s letter goes on to say that the programme of “learning products” has been prioritised to enable PAs to take up their roles quickly. Cutting out the jargon, the thrust of the letter seems to be that a lot of JCP staff have been thrown on to the front line pretty quickly, with a minimum of training, and that more extensive training is being deferred until the offices are less busy. While this is understandable in the present economic climate, in the context of the Bill we hope that the wider training programme will be undertaken as soon as conditions are right. This is particularly important when there will be claimants with more barriers to work than ever before who will be in the employment group of ESA and who will be expected to be in the progression-to-work group. While some will be seen by a disability employment adviser who we hope will have training in helping those with specific health problems, such as all the myriad fluctuating conditions and those with a degree of autism or dyslexia, there will be many such claimants who see a personal adviser.
Our grouped Amendment 61 also requires the outsourced companies to ensure that their staff have adequate training to deal with their clients, who often have the most complex barriers to work. I will not mention “creaming” and “parking” again, as we have raised this problem again and again with the Minister in the context of the Flexible New Deal, and he assures us that the contracts with the outsourced companies will guard against that. We need to know that, as they will receive taxpayers’ money to help clients with complex problems, and we hope they will have sufficient training for this.
The importance of sufficiently trained staff was highlighted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its 14th report on the Bill. It says:
“The Bill expressly provides that any direction must be reasonable ‘having regard to the person’s circumstances’. It is unclear whether advisers will have the tools necessary to assess an individual’s circumstances effectively enough to know when a particular activity is appropriate or not”.
The DWP’s own research suggests that even within Pathways regimes personal advisers admit lacking knowledge and understanding of mental health issues, with some saying that their initial training had not prepared them for working with people with mental health problems. We hope that individuals with disabilities will be involved in designing and delivering this training, as this has been found to be highly effective in improving understanding. The Minister knows that we have both worked on a plan that will come up very soon in a statutory instrument about a better deal for people who are doing this work.
I conclude with some information that I heard the other day from someone who was thrown off incapacity benefit but who was helped enormously by a disability benefits adviser to get on to a government programme specifically targeted at her previous profession. This changed the woman’s life dramatically and she said that she was eternally grateful to the adviser who was, interestingly, herself disabled. I beg to move.
My Lords, the purpose of my intervention is to speak to Amendment 18 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. Mencap, of which I am the president, has always been clear on this point. We have no problem in principle with the idea of a “rights and responsibilities” agenda, as long as we can be sure that the rights of people with a learning disability are clearly defined. By that, I mean that the Government’s approach must ensure that there is absolute commitment to match increased obligations on claimants with support that is adequate and appropriate. We made that point during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, but it is perhaps even more important now given the increased requirements and conditionality on claimants being proposed in this Bill.
Those involved in the processes surrounding the administration of out-of-work benefits and work support, particularly in relation to sanctions and increased conditionality, must be aware of and understand the needs of people with a learning disability. Action plans, work-focused interviews and work-related activity must give due regard to the specific support needs of people with a learning disability.
While we absolutely endorse the focus of the new employment and support allowance on what people are capable of doing as opposed to what they are capable of not doing, it is clearly the case that work advisers need to understand the specific support needs of people with a learning disability. Indeed, as a starting point, they must first understand what a learning disability is. All too often, a learning disability is confused or conflated, particularly in terms of the gathering of statistics, with mental health conditions or certain learning difficulties including, for example, dyslexia. This is unhelpful, both in gathering accurate information about where people with a learning disability are in the system, and in recognising the very different support needs of someone with a learning disability compared to those of someone with a learning difficulty—say, someone with dyslexia or a mental health condition.
It is a concern, therefore, that the guidance which is provided for Jobcentre Plus personal advisers does not separate out learning disabilities as a distinct group, but incorporates this group within the “low ability” section, where there is reference to specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. I worry that this may confuse things even further. I have always understood dyslexia to be a learning difficulty, not a learning disability. I wonder whether the Government have considered, in relation to learning disabilities, what is already being done for people with mental health conditions.
I remember, back in May, the Government announcing the introduction of a new network of mental health co-ordinators at all jobcentres. I wonder whether a similar model is being considered in respect of people with a learning disability. It would seem to be a very positive move, which would ensure expertise in learning disabilities throughout all jobcentre districts. This would certainly be in line with the commitments outlined in the Government’s employment strategy for people with a learning disability, Valuing Employment Now, which states that the Government will ensure that personal advisers in both Jobcentre Plus and its partners are obliged to work with customers with learning disabilities and that Department for Work and Pensions programmes and staff training meet the needs of all disabled people, including those with moderate and severe learning disabilities.
My remaining concern on this point is that a lack of such understanding could potentially result in work advisers prescribing an activity that is unsuitable for someone with a learning disability, or which someone with a learning disability does not understand how to fulfil, and so on. I wonder whether this is likely to be even more of an issue with the contracting out of employment provision, as per the prime provider model. Once again, any reassurances that the Minister may be able to provide on this matter would be most welcome.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, on opening up this area for debate. I will try to spell out the approach of these Benches to the amendment. If you visit a contractor of Welfare to Work on the ground, they will show you a wedge of paper that they have to assemble—with all the ticks in the right boxes—to be paid for finding someone a job. It is clear that we are paying large sums of money for paperwork, rather than for provision that will change people’s lives. That is what happens when we insert protections, requirements and necessary procedures. They have to be complied with; the fact that they have been completed has to be recorded; and then they have to be checked.
Let me declare my hand: I hope that in this country we will soon have extensive programmes to help people with disabilities back into the workplace, and that we will have a national system which ensures that substantial sums are spent to help the very hardest-to-help back into sustained economic activity. That system will and must be based largely on payment by results. The key will be to ensure that the incentives are aligned in such a way that absolutely the right interventions are applied to get people back into the workplace. I have no doubt that many of the people involved in this effort will be highly trained, and the most successful providers seem to be moving up the quality chain in terms of personnel. There may well be a range of initiatives available; I am thinking, for instance, of the creation of an institute that will raise standards and capability in this rapidly growing industry. However, if we impose top-down training standards on those providers, we will distort the pure focus on successful work placement in favour of another paper chase. We would like to see money spent on interventions, not on filling out paper forms. While these amendments are clearly tabled with the best of intentions, I am afraid that they may prove counterproductive.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling these amendments and to all noble Lords who have spoken to them. I was interested to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, has plans, should he ever be given the opportunity to implement them, to spend large sums on national programmes. Perhaps this is not the occasion to pick over issues around the fiscal stimulus, who refused to support it and what that means, because you must not only will the ends but will the means as well, and that has been somewhat lacking in the noble Lord’s party.
Everyone would agree that you do not want to have bureaucratic systems in place that are there for the sake of it, but there are real issues about monitoring. If you do not monitor things, how can you measure them and know what progress you are making? That is particularly important in relation to people with learning disabilities, disabled people and people with mental health conditions. I do not know how many years you would have to think back to a time before we started to monitor issues around ethnicity. Until we started to do that, you could not properly determine what was happening, where to target resources and where help and support were most needed. I take the point that being overly bureaucratic in requiring top-down rigid structures of training to fit everyone is not necessarily the right thing to do, but there is a balance to be struck here.
Amendments 18, 38 and 61, which seek to ensure that advisers, discharging functions of the Secretary of State in relation to key aspects of the administration of income support, JSA and ESA regimes, including work-focused interviews and work-related activity, are adequately trained and meet required competencies, which it is proposed would be outlined in secondary legislation. I hope to persuade noble Lords that these amendments are unnecessary.
As has been said, we discussed this subject at some length in Committee. I hope to reassure noble Lords that we take the training of personal advisers extremely seriously and believe that it is critical to the success of our back-to-work programmes. In previous debates I have set out some of the steps that the department already takes in this area; today I can also provide noble Lords with some further developments, which I hope will further reassure.
As we have previously discussed, Jobcentre Plus advisers working with IB and ESA claimants already have considerable training in dealing with customers with a range of health conditions. All the organisations that deliver provider-led pathways have equally given specific training to their staff, to assist them in dealing with customers with learning disabilities and mental health conditions. They also have links to specialist subcontractors, to which clients with specific medical conditions can be referred for additional assistance.
Jobcentre Plus keeps its learning and development of advisers constantly under review. We are undertaking a review of the training for all its IB advisers and ESA advisers, which will be completed by the autumn. Since April 2009, all Jobcentre Plus staff have also been supported by a new performance management system, which aims to ensure that they have the right skills to carry out their roles. This includes a new national competency framework for all operational staff.
In addition, Jobcentre Plus is reviewing its options for adviser accreditation. We are exploring how we can link the acquisition of a professional qualification to the successful completion of the learning and development that advisers currently undertake. This will ensure that the skills that personal advisers acquire are externally benchmarked and will enable us to measure our adviser capability through a recognised framework.
Within the procurement process of our back-to-work programmes, we ensure that we contract only with providers that have trained staff. For instance, in the provider-led pathways invitation to tender, we asked bidders to describe the relevant skills or experience of their employees or subcontractors to enable them to deliver the provision effectively and address the specific needs and barriers of their customers. We also asked for specific information on the roles, qualifications and experience required for each post needed to deliver the provision. In addition, the procurement processes have requirements within the terms and conditions of contracts for contractors to satisfy themselves that their employees are suitable in all respects to deliver the programme.
The DWP does not require contracted providers to deliver specific training to their personal advisers, as we believe that this allows our providers the flexibility to deliver the training that they feel most suits the needs of their customers. However, I reassure noble Lords that all providers are subject to external inspection by Ofsted in England and Estyn in Wales to ensure that they provide a quality service to our customers. We are working with HM Inspectorate of Education to align Scotland with the current arrangements in England and Wales and will introduce an inspection regime for DWP-contracted employment provision in Scotland from January 2010.
To specify to providers the exact competencies and training courses that the advisers must undertake could result in a significant increase in the contract price that the department has to pay. In some cases, the provider may not wish to agree a contract variation on this basis, which would make it difficult to progress until the contracts are ready for renewal.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked what the expansion of Jobcentre Plus means for staff and whether they are being properly trained. All staff joining JCP receive appropriate training. We have implemented shortened training packages for the key job roles in all delivery arms for new staff and kept the tried and tested model that we use for delivering ESA training, which uses increased class sizes and has facilitated e-learning. This enables us to ensure that we can train the number of new recruits coming through our doors. We also routinely monitor performance down to site level. Even in these challenging times, we do not shy away from tackling individual sites whose performance is relatively poorer than others. Such sites are given priority status and singled out for specific attention and ongoing focus to drive performance back to an acceptable level. We plan to have sufficient internal capacity to provide training for 2,500 recruits per month, with in excess of 600 trainers and coaches to support the peaks of our delivery.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, spoke with his great expertise on learning disabilities about the importance of people understanding them and being able to differentiate them from other conditions, so that people are encouraged to make the right decisions about action plans or jobseeker’s agreements. That is absolutely right. The suggestion that Jobcentre Plus might have a network of learning disability co-ordinators is interesting. I shall take that issue back. I know that Jobcentre Plus engages extensively with stakeholders and experts such as the noble Lord to do our best to make sure that we have full coverage of the whole range of clients whom we should serve.
I hope that I have provided some reassurance on all the issues around training. I am conscious, as ever when we have these debates, of assertions that there is not enough training or that it is not as universal or effective as it might be. We assert from the Dispatch Box on the Government’s behalf that lots of investment and lots of training are taking place. No one would claim that it is perfect in every respect on every day, but there is huge effort and investment going in. Engagement with our stakeholders and the range of people whom we should serve will help to drive continuing improvements. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I will not press it. That is why I ended my remarks with an upbeat story about the lady who was very much helped by a disability employment adviser. There are very good advisers in many jobcentres around the country, but we want to ensure that the standard is as high as it can be, particularly in the outsourced companies, about which it is difficult for us in Parliament to know because we cannot see the contracts.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that I am the last person who considers ticks in boxes in a wedge of paper to be effective training. That is the last thing that we should go for. I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said about training now being even more important with the tough conditionality regime. He made the practical point that learning disabilities are confused with learning difficulties. We know that mental health conditions are wrapped up in both those expressions. I hope that the DWP, the people who set out training and people in the outsourced companies will go to organisations such as Mencap, Mind and Rethink to learn how to deal with people with these different problems. That is what I would like them to do, rather than tick boxes in a computer programme—or “learning product” as it is now called. I hope that there will be a two-way flow between the groups and those who provide training.
I was interested to hear the Minister say that a review will be published in the autumn. I presume that we are talking about this autumn and that it is due soon, so perhaps we will be able to see it on the DWP website. I see that the Minister is nodding. I am very reassured and grateful to him for further explanations about training. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 18 withdrawn.
19: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
(1) In section 124 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (c. 4) (conditions for income support), after subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) Regulations under paragraph (e) of subsection (1) must secure that a person who—
(a) is not a member of a couple, and(b) is responsible for, and a member of the same household as, a child under the age of 7,falls within a category of person prescribed under that paragraph.(1B) Subsection (1A) does not apply if regulations under subsection (4)(c) of section 1A of the Jobseekers Act 1995 containing the provision mentioned in subsection (4A) of that section are in force.”
(2) In section 2A of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (c. 5) (work-focused interviews)—
(a) after subsection (2) insert—“(2A) No requirement may be imposed by virtue of this section on a person who—(a) is not a member of a couple, and(b) is responsible for, and a member of the same household as, a child under the age of one.(2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A)(b) regulations may make provision—(a) as to circumstances in which one person is to be treated as responsible or not responsible for another;(b) as to circumstances in which persons are to be treated as being or not being members of the same household.”, and(b) in subsection (8), after “In this section—” insert—““couple” has the meaning given by section 137(1) of the Contributions and Benefits Act;”.
(3) In section 12 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (c. 5) (employment and support allowance: work-focused interviews), in subsection (1)(b), at the end insert “or a lone parent of a child under the age of one”.
(4) In section 13 of that Act (employment and support allowance: work-related activity)—
(a) in subsection (1), after “section 12(1)” insert “, and who is not a lone parent of a child under the age of 3,”, and(b) after subsection (6) insert—“(6A) Regulations under this section shall include provision for securing that lone parents are entitled (subject to meeting any prescribed conditions) to restrict the times at which they are required to undertake work-related activity.”(5) In section 24 of that Act (interpretation of Part 1), after subsection (3) insert—
“(3A) For the purposes of this Part, a person is a lone parent if the person—
(a) is not a member of a couple (within the meaning given by section 137(1) of the Contributions and Benefits Act), and(b) is responsible for, and a member of the same household as, a person under the age of 16.(3B) For the purposes of subsection (3A)(b) regulations may make provision—
(a) as to circumstances in which one person is to be treated as responsible or not responsible for another;(b) as to circumstances in which persons are to be treated as being or not being members of the same household.””
Amendment 19 agreed.
Amendment 20 not moved.
Clause 3 : Entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance without seeking employment etc.