2A: Page 12, line 45, at end insert the following new Clause:-
“Parliamentary procedure: regulations imposing work-related activity requirements on lone parents of children under 7(1) This section applies to regulations made under any relevant provision which impose a requirement on any lone parent of a child under the age of 7 to undertake work-related activity (within the meaning of the regulations).
(2) In subsection (1) “relevant provision” means-
(a) section 2D(1) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992,(b) section 18B of the Jobseekers Act 1995, or(c) section 13 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007.(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations to which this section applies (whether alone or with other provision) may not be made at any time during the period of 5 years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed unless a draft of the statutory instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(4) If subsection (3) applies to any regulations, any provision of an Act under which a statutory instrument containing the regulations would be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament does not apply.”
2B: Page 51, line 37, at end insert-
“section [Parliamentary procedure: regulations imposing work-related activity requirements on lone parents of children under 7];”
My Lords, during the Commons’ consideration of Lords amendments in the other place, honourable Members accepted all the amendments made in your Lordships’ House with the exception of Amendment 2. This amendment would have placed a requirement in primary legislation that financial sanctions should not be imposed on a single parent with a youngest child under five for failing to undertake work-related activity. In the other place, a government amendment to make affirmative the regulations to which this clause applies was agreed in place of Amendment 2.
I shall take a moment to reiterate our position on lone parents and the safeguards that we have incorporated following the valuable discussions that we had in this House. Noble Lords will be aware that our policies for lone parents rely on two key tenets; namely, that work is the best route out of poverty and that parents, especially lone parents, must be allowed to fulfil their responsibilities to their children.
We have continued to invest heavily in evidence-based policies over the past 10 years. The changes we have debated in this Bill are a further step forward along that path. We know that combining programmes such as the New Deal for Lone Parents with work-focused-interview conditionality increases take-up of support and movements into paid work. Nevertheless, there is still a very significant disparity between the numbers who would like to move into paid work and those who take steps to achieve this. We want to bridge that gap so that we have the potential to make further significant reductions in the numbers of children who still live in poverty and improve those children’s life chances. That is why we want to introduce the measures in this Bill.
Over a period of time, lone parents will be prepared for the time when they are able to engage with the labour market and be actively available and looking for work. The gradual steps which we will expect people to take will ensure that preparation for paid work becomes a natural progression by helping lone parents gradually prepare for the workplace by improving their skills and undertaking work-related activity.
We feel that preparing for work should become the norm for lone parents with younger children. Indeed, it would be unfair not to encourage them to do so and would risk them being unprepared for the time they start looking for work when their children are older. Lone parents with a youngest child aged under one will be in the “no conditionality” group and will not be required to undertake any mandatory activity unless they want. Lone parents with a youngest child aged between one and two will be required to attend six-monthly mandatory work-focused interviews. We made amendments in this House, which were supported in the other place, to ensure that this policy intention was secured in primary legislation.
When the lone parent’s youngest child is aged between three and six, they will be expected to attend three-monthly work-focused interviews and agree an action plan with their adviser which will detail mandatory work-related activity. This action plan will set out their individual route-way to prepare them for work when it is appropriate for them, and will take into account the well-being of their child. We expect that some lone parents with a youngest child aged between three and six will be among the hardest to help, some distance from the labour market and with multiple barriers to employment. If it is to be most helpful, work-related activity should therefore be interpreted broadly to meet their needs.
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 would hope that in most cases customers and advisers would be able to agree suitable activity and that these activities can be easily undertaken by lone parents. I should stress that work-related activity is not intended to be an onerous requirement. There will be no daily, or even weekly, requirement to undertake activity; but a minimum of one activity to be undertaken between work-focused interviews, or every three months. This will allow advisers and lone parents flexibility in drawing up the action plans and allow activities to be tailored to take into account not only their individual needs but also the well-being of the child.
The nature of the work-related activity will vary with the age of the child and the situation of the parent. 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 advisor a more intensive activity, such as attendance at a short part-time course to develop or update work-related skills, perhaps while their child is at school. These agreed activities will act as a starting point for a lone parent’s journey towards work and will be reviewed and built on over time so that when it is appropriate they can progress to further activities that will increase their chances of moving into work when the time is right.
Throughout this process, lone parents will not be required to undertake any activity that cuts into time where their child is not normally at school or in formal childcare. For lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four, this would mean that they could restrict the times they can undertake work-related activity to within the hours that locally provided free part-time nursery places are available. However, if a lone parent fails or refuses to undertake such activities without good cause, we would want, as a last resort, the ability to impose a sanction until they comply.
As noble Lords are aware, sanctions are very much a last resort and we have outlined on many occasions the sanctions regime we wish to test as part of the progression to work model, which moves away from those currently present in jobseeker’s allowance and income support to include a more upfront, in-depth method of engagement with lone parents before a financial sanction is imposed. This will provide extra opportunities for personal advisers to gather further information which may have been missed or not volunteered by the lone parent, and then adapt work-related activity accordingly. This should encourage participation and ensure that lone parents understand what they need to do and the consequences for not doing it.
If a lone parent initially fails to take part in a work-focused interview, or to undertake or complete work-related activity without good cause, there will be no financial sanction. Instead, the adviser will discuss any issues the lone parent may have and give them another opportunity to engage. If a lone parent misses two work-focused interviews or has failed to carry out the minimum agreed work-related activity in their action plan over three months, they will be given an opportunity to explain good cause, renegotiate the action plan, or begin the work-related activity. If they fail or refuse to do so, a formal written warning will be issued.
After three missed interviews or three failures to take up agreed work-related activity, an individual case review will be done 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. Only after this fourth stage will a financial sanction even be considered if they fail to comply, with initial sanctions at a significantly lower level than currently applied. Those lone parents for whom there is a very real barrier to their being able to undertake work-related activity will have had the opportunity to explain this long before a sanction is even considered.
This model will provide lone parents with more opportunities to comply with the requirements and ensure that they will not face a financial penalty before a full review of their circumstances has been carried out. As now, lone parents will have the opportunity to ask for the sanction decision to be reconsidered, and to appeal the decision. Overall, this approach will provide lone parents with every opportunity to engage with work-related activity and lead to fewer financial sanctions but will provide the necessary backstops to ensure engagement and progression.
As I hope noble Lords will agree, requiring lone parents to undertake work-related activity will benefit them and their children in the long-term. It is for this reason that, in the other place, the Government laid an amendment that overturned the amendment made by the noble Lord, Lord Freud. That amendment amended the Bill so that financial sanctions could not be imposed upon a “single” parent in receipt of income support with a child under five if they failed to undertake work-related activity. This amendment would not achieve the purpose I believe it was intended to achieve. “Single” is not defined in social security legislation and as such there is a risk that it could be interpreted to mean a non-resident parent rather than the lone parent who has caring responsibility for the child. Furthermore, the amendment applies only to lone parents on income support. It would not preclude financial sanctions being applied to lone parents on employment and support allowance or the modified jobseeker’s allowance regime. This seems like an anomaly that could confuse people and make the administration of the system difficult.
I took it from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, on Report that his party was in favour of financial sanctions for failure to undertake work-focused interviews when the youngest child of a lone parent reaches age one, and that they were in favour of the concept of work-related activity starting for lone parents when their youngest child reaches age three, although I must admit that his colleagues in the other place seemed somewhat confused on this point. I also took it that they were in favour of some other sanctions, although not specified, for failure to undertake such work-related activity. The only issue that we are apart on is the use of financial sanctions in some circumstances. As I have said, we believe that financial sanctions with appropriate safeguards have a role to play in underpinning work-related activity. The amendments made in this House put crucial additional safeguards for lone parents and parents in the Bill and enable them to ensure that the well-being of their child is taken into account so that they can fulfil their caring responsibilities. They will ensure that where there is no suitable childcare available, a lone parent will not be required to undertake work-related activity or will be able to restrict their hours of availability to those which are suitable for them.
Starting the work-related activity process when a lone parent’s youngest child is aged three is right. A strong foundation of childcare provision is available for children in this age range and these measures will allow them gradually to build their confidence and skills at a pace that suits them over a four-year period.
As to the amendment laid in the other place, as noble Lords are aware, the Bill served to set out the framework of the work-related activity proposals and the detail of these proposals will be set out in regulations. The amendment proposed in the other place has the effect of requiring all work-related activity regulations, insofar as they relate to lone parents with children under seven, to be brought back to both Houses for further affirmative debate. This is a sensible proposal. It gives the assurance that the passing of the Bill will not have the effect of shutting the door on further debate on work-related activity for this customer group because any regulations made within five years of Royal Assent will come back to this House and noble Lords will have an opportunity to consider how work-related activity is working in practice.
As I have stated before, it is right that lone parents who are beginning their journey towards work do so in good time so that they are not distant from the labour market for longer than they need to be, with all the disadvantages that that would bring, and that they have the encouragement and the support they need. With this explanation and the changes we have made both in this House and the other place, I hope noble Lords will agree that these proposals offer the best chance for lone parents to begin their family’s journey out of poverty. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is with some surprise that I see this amendment in lieu has come back from another place because the arguments have been firmly on the side of the original Lords amendment. John Grogan MP—a Member on the government Benches in another place—said:
“This proposal is mean-spirited. It is cold, austere … and it is unworthy of the Secretary of State and the Minister”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/11/09; col. 181.]
I find it difficult to disagree. The purpose of my original amendment was simple: to make sure that as this new, very active labour market policy is applied to lone parents there are no unfortunate impacts on those who look after children under school age.
The Government have argued that this will compress the time that lone parents will have to prepare for work from four years to two. This is barely concealed sophistry. The Minister has today described a new sanctions regime for lone parents with a youngest child of three. There will, apparently, be a process after two missed work-focused interviews or a three-month failure to undertake work-related activity—this includes an opportunity to explain good cause—after which there will be a written warning. After three missed interviews or three failures to take up work-related activity, there will be an individual case review. After a fourth breach, a financial sanction will be considered, and then there is an appeal process on top. In the real world, this will take a considerable time; in some cases, indeed, not much less than two years. So what has happened to the argument based on compression now? It has disappeared.
I was not so much surprised at the amendment in lieu but more puzzled. As my colleague in another place, James Clappison, said:
“The amendment in lieu deals with work-related activities to be imposed on the lone parents in question, not the sanctions that are to be imposed as a result of a breach of those requirements”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/11/09; col. 177.]
I agree. The amendment in lieu is irrelevant to the issue under debate.
I am sure that the Minister would prefer to debate the principle of the amendment rather than shelter behind technical drafting issues—whether it should state “single” or “lone”—so I shall go straight to the nub of the issue. It is clear that this amendment has become something of a political game for the Government. They cannot accept this simple, unambiguous proposal because it came from our Benches, and for no other reason. I do not think that it is appropriate or seemly to join this political game. This is a Bill that we support and I do not want to endanger it. We have made our point. We believe that there should be protection for lone parents with pre-school-age children. Judging by the large number of e-mails that I have received in the past 36 hours, many lone parents are utterly dismayed that this amendment is being removed and disbelieving that it is a Labour Government who are doing it.
I can console them with this thought: in this area, it may matter considerably more who are in government in six months or so than whether this protection is explicit in the legislation. As David Cameron concluded in his remarkable speech on Monday, the Conservatives, not Labour, are best placed to fight poverty in this country. I can assure noble Lords that if we are in a position to form a Government in six months, lone parents with children under five will not face financial sanctions as a result of the progression-to-work regime.
I take exception to any suggestion that the views of the government Bench are part of a political game. The noble Lord, Lord Freud, is a fairly late entrant to the discussions on lone parents. Members on the Liberal Democrat and Labour Benches have fought the corner of lone-parent poverty for something like 15-plus years. I take strong exception to being told that we are now in a political game as we come up to a general election. Those remarks are unfortunate and I hope that, on reflection, he will feel able to withdraw them. None of us makes such aspersions in this House and all of us assume good faith, however misguided we may think any amendment may be. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that statement.
The noble Lord’s original amendment was highly regrettable, ill thought out, back to front and illogical. It would have meant that the lone parent faced greater conditionality and greater sanction for the lesser failure—of turning up for an interview—and with a younger child. But when it came to the greater failure, to follow through a commitment that they had given to enter work preparation—a commitment which was more feasible given the greater age of their child—the noble Lord would have removed the sanction. In other words, the conditionality in the sanction applies for the lesser offence on the younger child, but not for the greater failure and the older child. That is daft. I am amazed that the noble Lord thinks that there is any coherence in his position.
I have been involved in new deals for eight or 10 years as a junior Minister and subsequently. I know that, without the evidence of conditionality backed by a sanction, the participation of the group of lone parents that one most wants to reach and is hardest to reach becomes essentially voluntary. In that sense, what the original amendment would have done, which is why it was so deplorable, is drive a coach and horses through the concept of trying to ensure that all lone parents of children aged three to five are engaged in work preparation. The Benches opposite would have made that entirely voluntary. That is not in the best interests of the lone parent or the child.
My noble friend has spelt out a long list of good causes and protections and efforts to engage lone parents. Of course we want the lone parent as a willing participant, because that is how we will ensure that she goes into the labour market in due course and stays there. That is the outcome that we want. But I know that the later that engagement with the lone parent is left, the harder and longer that journey is—and it is no kindness to the lone parent or her child that the journey should be made tougher for her than it already is. That was the focus of the original, deplorable amendment.
Finally, the noble Lord said that he and his party were on the side of attacking poverty. I hope that at some point he will guarantee—and I invite him to come back to me—that the tax credits that make work pay for lone parents will be protected in their entirety, should there be any change of government. Let me remind the noble Lord that as a result of tax credits, which his party fought all the way, a lone parent going into work at 16 hours a week at minimum wage takes home double that pay as a result of tax credits. An unskilled lone parent returns home with the pay of a semi-skilled man. That has transformed outcomes for that lone parent and her child, and I invite the noble Lord—since he has made the commitment today that his party will overturn the thrust of the Commons amendment, which is to engage the lone parent in work preparation with a child between three and five—to make a similar commitment today that he will protect tax credits, which alone ensure that it is worth while for the lone parent to go out to work on a part-time basis. I invite the noble Lord to respond.
My Lords, my surprise, in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Freud, has said, is that he has not pressed his amendment again. Will he explain to his e-mail recipients why he has not done so, because I do not believe that the Bill would have been lost?
During the passage of the Bill through this House, we have come a long way over the issue of lone parents and when and how they should prepare for work. In overturning the amendment in the other place, admittedly a flawed amendment from Report, which sought to exempt some lone parents with children under school age from the work-related activity sanctions regime, the Government have now tabled this amendment in lieu, which simply gives the House a chance to have another debate on affirmative statutory instruments about the issue of work-related activity before the pilots are rolled out nationally. I think that the statutory instrument is for lone parents with children under the age of seven.
This is certainly a way of drawing the House’s attention to the issue, but it is an extremely rare procedure for the House to vote down a statutory instrument. I am sorry that the Grand Committee gave such short shrift to my attempt to bring super-affirmatives into the Bill. That procedure would have given the House the chance to suggest amendments, although it would still only be the Government who could amend the statutory instrument. In parenthesis, it always strikes me as misleading that affirmative statutory instruments are laid in draft as though Parliament had the power to amend them, but that is a debate for another day.
Turning back to the subject of lone parents of very young children and the work-related activity sanctions regime, I was encouraged that the Minister said on Report and again today in terms that the action plan agreed at work-focused interviews could be as light as one work-related activity between two three-monthly work-focused interviews. He also made it clear that any work-related activity would be required to suit only the hours that the lone parent could manage and that if satisfactory childcare was not available, no work-related activity would be expected. The Minister also made it clear, both on Report and again today, that any financial penalty would be the very last sanction to be imposed after four failures to comply with work-related activity.
At the end of all this, we come back to the fundamental question at the heart of this section of the Bill. Is this whole sanctions regime for lone parents, starting when their child is three, aimed at giving them a genuinely helping hand out of a life on benefits and therefore relative poverty, or is it beating them with a stick to make sure that they comply with the demands of the state or risk losing benefits when they have their hands full with the demands of a young child?
How Jobcentre Plus offices around the country make this part of the Bill work will be all-important. We must all hope that staff there are sensitive to our concerns about this very vulnerable group of parents. If we hear that all the safeguards in the Bill are not enough to stop too many lone parents of very young children falling foul of the sanctions regime, we on these Benches will not flinch from voting down the appropriate statutory instruments rolling out this part of the Bill in due course. In the mean time, we hope that the sanctions regime for all groups of vulnerable people will be used as little as possible during the pilots and that they will all be monitored as closely as possible before rollout.
I do not think that the position of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is being lost in this; the decision has been postponed. He might be upset about that but he may find himself in a position to do something about it in the not-too-distant future. After all, as my noble friend just said, these are pilots.
The key difference in all this—it is not yet properly understood outside the precincts of Parliament—is that there are clear differences between how people look at this progressive conditionality that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, first enabled and Professor Gregg’s report then fleshed out. You may believe that this is a penal set of sanctions to force people back into work off benefits; you think, “This is a cost-saving measure that will be tough, but people had better shape up or they’ll suffer”.
Alternatively, if you put the Freud report and the Gregg report together and, like me, you are an optimist—if you are a Liberal Democrat you have to be an optimist—you may reach a different conclusion. If personalised conditionality can be deployed sympathetically, without sanctions, as my noble friend said, you are in a different place altogether. You want to support people and you do not want to leave people out of the labour market for a long time.
I was a slightly lone voice advocating Professor Gregg’s report. I think that the Government suffered from the spin that some Ministers put on it when it came out, which I do not think its contents merited. Four bullet points from the report state what Professor Gregg thinks personalised conditionality means for the progression-to-work group, which is the group of people about whom we are talking. He says that conditionality would, first,
“Reflect the claimant’s co-ownership of the return to work process”.
He goes on to say that it needs to,
“Be tailored to their capability and built around their circumstances”.
Thirdly, it should,
“Be based on activity that supports the claimant’s own route back to work”,
and, finally, it has to,
“Link up with effective support”.
If all these are delivered—and it is a big “if”—we should be grabbing it with both hands for the progression-to-work group. The difficulty is that the Government have still not entirely made the case to the public that that will happen. There is still a feeling that it will be the hardship regime that people fear. Some of us have had the advantage of seeing the helpful letter that the Secretary of State has just written to the chairman of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which gave more comfort that we are more likely to get the Gregg version of events.
I do not know how many pilots there will be, although I guess that there will be two or three and it would be helpful to know where they are likely to be. I also have an incidental question about Scotland. We have won protections through helpful government amendments in Committee, meaning that if no childcare is available there cannot be sanctions. I still hope that if a pilot area happened to be in Scotland—I suspect that none will—in the three-year or five-year period during which these pilots are rolled out and evaluated, the availability of childcare will be equalised throughout the United Kingdom. It would be unfair if it was not.
If we get the pilots evaluated, it will become clear whether Professor Gregg’s vision or the hardship regime is delivered. My noble friend is absolutely right and I come in behind the point of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that, if this turns out to be an oppressive hardship regime where people are being sanctioned and nothing much is being achieved for the progression back to work, we will vote in big numbers to ensure that these pilots are not rolled out across the United Kingdom. I console the noble Lord, Lord Freud, with the thought that maybe he is too new and enthusiastic and expects things to happen too quickly. There may only be a delayed decision or vote but, speaking for myself, I am willing to take that risk. I do so in the earnest hope that Professor Gregg’s vision is delivered, and nothing else.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this discussion. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is right to analyse what is proposed for the sanctions regime for work-related activity: it follows that it will be broadly consistent with the Gregg model. The Secretary of State’s letter to the chair of the Select Committee itemised that in particular and I am pleased that that was helpful.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made a key point: if the sanctions end up being penal in practice, forcing people to do wholly unreasonable things, we will have failed. That is not the intent behind this process. We must recognise the point made by my noble friend Lady Hollis that there needs to be a degree of conditionality, partly because we know that, sadly, some people will simply look to buck the system. The evidence shows that conditionality—rights and responsibilities—is the best route to getting people to engage.
The noble Lord also asked about pilots. Four pilots are proposed, but the areas have not yet been identified. He again raises the issue of childcare in Scotland, or the lack of it. A course avoiding sanctions if appropriate childcare is unavailable would absolutely be a good one.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that we have come a long way. Our deliberations in this House have been particularly important in helping the Bill to end up where it is. She is again right that it ultimately depends on how it works in practice. I take the point that, if it does not turn out as we propose and believe that it will, noble Lords reserve their right, as I am sure they would anyway, to express their views forcefully when we come to those regulations and will not hesitate to vote them down.
We do not believe that the super-affirmative process is appropriate in this case. As the noble Baroness will be aware, a further safeguard for social security legislation is provided by the scrutiny of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which has the ability to consult on secondary legislation made more than six months after Royal Assent. This is a significant control and we work constructively with the committee, as I think the noble Baroness would acknowledge, on the development of our regulations. There are some technical issues over where super-affirmatives apply and where they should not, but I will not dwell on that today.
My noble friend Lady Hollis, as ever, expressed the Government’s position forcefully and clearly; I am grateful for that. In particular, she pointed out the inconsistency in the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and his colleagues. Our objection to his amendment is not just to do with its technical deficiency. It concerns the inconsistency of an approach where somebody could be sanctioned for not attending a work-focused interview if their youngest child is just one, or where lone parents with a youngest child aged three could be sanctioned, after all the protections have been exhausted, for not attending a work-focused interview. One could not receive a financial sanction for not turning up to a children’s centre, say, two weeks later, but one could then be sanctioned for not turning up to the next work-focused interview at the end of the next three months. Frankly, that is a recipe for confusion and is inherently inconsistent. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, will reflect on that.
I think that I acknowledged that the noble Lord and his colleagues have in mind—should they ever be given the opportunity to implement it—a proposition that I, of course, would not accept. There would be other sorts of sanctions. There are very interesting issues about whether denying somebody part of their cash benefit and delivering it in another way is a financial sanction. Maybe there will be a chance to test that issue. It seems that we agree on work-related activity commencing when the youngest child is aged three and that there should be a sanctions regime. We may disagree on a component of that and on whether financial sanctions are appropriate in extremis at the end of an exhaustive process. However, I think that the gap between us is quite narrow.
My noble friend Lady Hollis challenged the noble Lord. We recognise his silence on tax credits.
My Lords, we know that there are ways of making a point when somebody wants to. We note that the noble Lord did not take the opportunity to do that. There will be other opportunities to explore that situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, prayed in aid John Grogan and his contribution at the other end. He has a view but I remind the noble Lord and other noble Lords that, in the amendment before us today, the Government’s position was passed by the other House—the elected Chamber—by a considerable majority. That in itself ought to persuade us today. The noble Lord is right in the sense that the sanctions regime that I have outlined and which we want to test as part of the pilots would have a not inconsiderable lead time before one gets to a financial sanction. It is right that it should. That is why we need those protections in place. I hope that the noble Lord would support that.
Like my noble friend Lady Hollis, I think that it was unfortunate to refer to this issue as a political football, because we have covered a lot of ground in this House during the progression of the Bill. We have improved it immensely. We have had some quite intense and important debates about what it means, what its parameters should be and how we can best move to do something that I think we all want, which is to help people to move closer to and into the labour market. To characterise it in that way was, I think, unfortunate. Perhaps I have said enough. I gather that the noble Lord is not seeking to oppose what I have moved today. It is up to him. I commend the Motion.