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Jobseeker’s Allowance (Skills Training Conditionality Pilot) Regulations 2010

Volume 717: debated on Monday 1 March 2010

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15 December 2009 be approved.

Relevant documents: 4th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and 5th Report from the Merits Committee.

My Lords, these pilot regulations will implement the Government’s proposal to introduce increased obligations for jobseeker’s allowance customers to undertake training from 26 April 2010. Perhaps it would be helpful to explain how this fits with the current core regime for jobseekers.

The department is currently introducing a new jobseekers regime and implementing the Flexible New Deal, which builds on the successes of the outgoing new deals, to offer a much more personalised and responsive service to jobseeker's allowance customers. The new regime offers increasing support to people during the first 12 months of their jobseeker's allowance claim and expects individuals, in return, to undertake more activities to return to work the longer they remain unemployed. This is particularly noticeable from the six-month stage in a claim, where jobseekers are required to undertake particular activities to improve their chances of finding work. After 12 months, individuals will join the Flexible New Deal which is provider-led and aims to deliver whatever support a person needs to move into work.

Of course, the recession has made things tougher. But the Government have responded by making available up to £5 billion to provide significant extra assistance to help jobseekers find work. That means that more help is now available to everybody prior to redundancy and from the start of a claim. Those out of work for six months or more have access to new support, including retraining opportunities. Furthermore, all 18 to 24 year-olds are guaranteed an offer of a job, training or work experience through the young persons guarantee after six months on JSA.

The Government are also introducing the new integrated employment and skills service in which early contact with Jobcentre Plus and a learning provider or adult careers services will provide the range of services to address the specific skills needs of customers and overcome employment-related barriers to work. In return for this support, the Government expect individuals to take increased responsibility and have committed to take the legislative powers necessary to pilot requiring jobseeker’s allowance customers to address their skills needs as a condition for receipt of benefits. This pilot will run in 11 Jobcentre Plus districts that have already embedded both the Flexible New Deal and IES services.

We know that skills and qualifications play a vital role in improving labour market outcomes, both for individuals and society. Those with higher qualifications are more likely to be employed and earn more than people with lower level or no qualifications. Around 4.6 million people possess no qualifications at all and 3.5 million of those fall into at least one other priority group—they are disabled, aged 50 or over, a lone parent or from an ethnic minority. The employment rate of those with level 2 qualifications or above is around 20 percentage points higher than those with qualifications below level 2 or with no qualifications.

We want to make sure that jobseekers understand that it is not acceptable to refuse the help that could provide them with greater life chances. My noble friend Lord Leitch said in his final report:

“Individuals must raise their sights, aspirations and motivation and invest in their own skills. Where skills were once a key lever for prosperity and fairness, they are now increasingly the key lever. The UK can only achieve world class prosperity and fairness if it achieves world class skills”.

For those out of work, the skills that they have to offer employers are critical to their chances of finding a new job. There is a direct relationship between how good a person’s skills are and what their prospects are for employment. The longer a jobseeker remains on benefit, the greater the levels of support. But in return for this support the Government rightly expect individuals to step up to those requirements. However, we know that even where a customer has identified a training need, they do not always take up or complete provision to address that need. They often simply give up or lose interest.

It is not acceptable that those who are disadvantaged fail to address the very issue that could prevent them from realising their potential. That is why we have designed the JSA skills conditionality pilots so that we can learn whether equipping people with the right training means that they can ultimately get sustainable jobs and move away from a life on benefit.

The proposal to pilot skills conditionality was first announced in 2006 and details have been included in a series of Green Papers. Meanwhile, the Social Security Advisory Committee carried out a consultation on the regulations. We are grateful to SSAC and to those who responded to it. We acknowledge the concerns of SSAC about why the department did not conduct a full consultation on these regulations, and as a department we will continually look at how we can improve in this area. DWP is not averse to consultation; indeed there were 26 separate consultations during 2009, and there have already been six consultations this year. We take the comments of the committee seriously and the Permanent Secretary has recently stressed the importance of consultation to senior officials.

In this particular instance, DWP quite rightly placed great emphasis on introducing the recession measures that were urgently needed to combat rising unemployment. The enormous amount of officials’ time required for those measures unfortunately resulted in a wider consultation not taking place before SSAC was consulted. For this, I apologise. We do, however, consider that those who responded to the SSAC consultation would have raised similar questions to a DWP consultation.

The Social Security Advisory Committee formally reported to the Secretary of State on 28 September 2009 and its advice was not to proceed with the pilots, as it had some concerns about the design of the pilot and the impact of sanctions. However, it made a series of recommendations, the majority of which have been accepted. These include delaying the start of the pilot to ensure resources are in place, producing a clear communication strategy for customers and putting necessary training in place for advisers.

The recommendations that were not accepted included delaying the pilot until the IES service had been fully evaluated and reconsidering the design of the pilot. We rejected those recommendations because we believe that the evaluation approach is robust. It has a randomisation element to make sure that any differences between the test group and control group are not due to specific characteristics of the individual, such as motivation, preferences or background, but just simply due to the effects of mandation. Meanwhile, IES is fully operational in the pilot locations where skills mandation will apply. As such, we can find no reason to delay the pilot until IES is fully rolled out.

Subject to approval of the regulations, these pilots will build on the existing IES service where jobseekers who have been unemployed for 26 weeks will have their needs assessed and if there are skills barriers they will be referred to training. In the pilots, customers will be randomly allocated to either the test mandatory training group or the control group, according to their national insurance number. The regulations will empower Jobcentre Plus advisers to refer customers in the test group to training in the full knowledge that they could incur a sanction. All the pilot areas already have the Flexible New Deal in place and this sits well with skills conditionality as this regime requires that customers increase conditionality requirements the longer they claim benefits.

This measure was also considered by the Merits Committee on 12 January, and I will touch now on just a couple of the comments made by the committee. It was noted that the two previous skills pilots were not successful in identifying positive outcomes for customers involved. Indeed the results were not encouraging. However, the conditions under which these new pilots will operate will be very different from those which prevailed in previous trials. These new trials will be offering a wider variety of training that may or may not lead to a formal qualification—for example, pre-employment skills including CV writing and interview technique, IT skills or Construction Industry Training Board training.

Another key difference from previous pilots is the integrated employment and skills service that is already running at a steady state in the 11 pilot districts with Jobcentre Plus and the Learning and Skills Council—soon to become the Skills Funding Agency—working together on the ground to make sure customers can access training that will help them move into jobs.

The Merits Committee also raised an issue originally made by the SSAC concerning our ability to produce robust evaluation when these pilots are running concurrently with the Flexible New Deal.

We are confident that we will be able to distinguish the effects as they have been designed to deliver very different things. These pilots will specifically measure the impact that skills training has on employment outcomes. The objective of the randomisation process is to establish two groups—test and control—that are as identical as is practical in all their characteristics. The only difference is that one group may be mandated with the threat of sanctions, and the other not. This means that the effect of the Flexible New Deal should be similar in both groups. When we measure the different job outcomes between both groups, we are in fact looking at the effect of mandation, independently of the participation of individuals in the Flexible New Deal.

Those in both the test group and control group will be identified by a pilot marker and the customers will be tracked over a longer period—up to 2013—to look at achievement of sustained employment outcomes.

It is right and fair that the state continues to support people during times of unemployment. However, the right to support comes in exchange for taking clear steps to improve circumstances. To help customers achieve their aspirations, we will continue to work with employers who want to recruit people with the right skills. Improving the way we work with employers by understanding what skills they need and providing relevant training to jobseekers will be a key aspect of our approach. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

Insert from “but this House regrets that Her Majesty’s Government have not followed the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee not to proceed with the draft Regulations.”

My Lords, at first glance this looks like an extraordinary Motion to move about something as welcome as a pilot scheme to improve skills training among those who are looking for jobs. I must say straight away that we on these Benches are as keen as anyone for those who are out of work and on jobseeker’s allowance to be offered suitable training to enable them to learn new skills or hone existing skills in order to find a job. That is not the issue before the House this evening.

The key to the reason I have moved the amendment to the Motion lies in the word “conditionality”, which means that in the pilot areas certain jobseekers are going to be forced to take skills training on pain of losing a good part of their benefits if they default. My criticism of this order is based on two hazards: whether the pilots are being introduced prematurely and the nature of the pilots.

At this point, I remind the House, as the Minister did, that the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee has drawn these regulations to the attention of the House on the grounds that they may imperfectly achieve their policy objective.

First, I turn to the timing of the pilots and whether they are being introduced prematurely. We are told that this pilot is different from the other pilots held in 2001 and 2004, when skills training was sanctioned. Not surprisingly, the Government are keen to distance themselves from the results of both those pilots, which showed that sanctioning basic skills training actually had a long-term negative impact on the participants getting a job. We are now told that this training will be different because of the new one year-old integrated employment and skills service, but we do not know how different or exactly what is being developed. This integrated approach has been adopted, as the noble Lord said, following the Leitch report in 2006, which identified that current skills and employment services had different aims, which meant that delivery could be complex, with an array of agencies trying to give help and advice to people. Although this integrated service is not fully operational until next year, we are told that it is far enough advanced in the new pilot areas for more satisfactory pilots than the earlier ones, which first sanctioned skills training for jobseekers, to take place.

The Government have to their credit delayed the start of the pilots from January of this year to April, at the request of the Social Security Advisory Committee which, it must be stressed, said that this was the least that must be done if the Government were going to ignore its original advice not to proceed with the pilots at all.

The SSAC is in no doubt, however, that this is a very risky venture and says:

“The proposed Mandatory Training pilot is scheduled to start before the new services are fully up and running and we would question whether it is sensible to commence a complex, mandatory pilot before key services are in place and established”.

During questioning of the Minister by the Merits Committee two months ago, we were told that work-focused training in the pilot areas is to be linked to vacancies in the area. If this provision is new—and it sounds like a welcome development—should not a voluntary system at least be trialled rather than having the threat of sanctions hanging over the whole procedure from the outset?

Is there not a danger that, with all the initiatives already being rolled out at Jobcentre Plus offices, the waters are in danger of being muddied with what is on offer and how it is being delivered? Are personal advisers in Jobcentre Plus offices in the pilot areas being sufficiently trained in how to manage this complex and expensive trial? Having read quite a bit of the recently published evaluations of the Jobseekers Regime and Flexible New Deal, the Six Month Offer and Support for the Newly Unemployed, I am not convinced that this is the case. For example, on page 162, in a paragraph about the design of the Flexible New Deal needing a more personalised approach by JCP advisers, there are some alarming findings. The document states:

“In general, a lack of training and support for the new approach placed advisers at a disadvantage, particularly the new recruits and New Claim advisers. Such advisers often lacked awareness of the range of local provision available to which they could refer or signpost customers. Under time pressures, training was often not completed before new recruits were placed in posts and the electronic format of the training was often considered unsatisfactory. As a consequence, many advisers lacked the experience, confidence and sometimes motivation to exercise their discretion”.

On page 28, we read:

“A recurring theme was that the time pressures imposed by the recession had curtailed the amount of training staff were able to undertake”.

The document further states:

“Generally, the speed of change and the volume of new material posed a challenge to staff who were implementing the new recessionary measures—Support for the Newly Unemployed and the Six Months Offer. The introduction of these services was considered to be ‘rushed’ in Phase 2 districts and ‘too much, too quickly’ when combined with the Jobseekers Regime Flexible New Deal”.

These comments do not instil confidence that JCP staff are ready for yet another pilot. Is the Minister really certain that by April all will be well and all the personal advisers in the relevant districts will have received adequate training for this new and complex pilot?

While looking at the evaluations, I see that there are also some disturbing, although not surprising, findings about sanctioning that are relevant to this debate. On page 157 we read:

“The planned changes to the adviser service culture were seen to be developing but as yet not much adjustment had occurred. Alongside this, the expected changes in customer obligations”—

presumably, this means sanctions—

“did not seem to be delivered to the extent planned. In this, the early signs indicated a perceived contradiction between the advisory service giving flexible, personalised delivery through their interactions with customers, and the negative effects of enforcing obligations (via the threat of, or actual sanctioning) on the service relationship. This contradiction might prove complex to overcome”.

Later in the evaluations report, and more specifically, we are told that there is a perception that mandating activities and threats of sanctioning can be unconstructive to establishing a good adviser-customer relationship, and that some staff were reluctant to sanction. This may account for another finding, which is that claimants were often leaving interviews without fully understanding the sanctioning regime. This is certainly the experience of many CAB offices around the country.

This brings me to the design of the pilots, about which there is a lot of concern. There are to be two groups—the noble Lord told us how it would work—one is the treatment group, where non-attendance at training could risk benefit sanctions from Jobseekers Regime and Flexible New Deal stage 3; the other is the control group, who do not risk this sanction. The groups will be chosen by randomisation; that is to say, the personal adviser locally will use the final digit of the claimant’s national insurance number. An even number means that the claimant will go into one group, an odd number and it will be the other group. We are told that claimants will be told exactly what is going on, but I wish that I could fully believe this. Where the complexity comes in is the assumption that the skills needs of claimants are evenly distributed across both groups, so that apples can be compared with apples and not with pears. This will again put a lot of responsibility on to JCP personal advisers. I hope that their training on this very specific activity is adequate.

There is to be full evaluation of this pilot. The Minister told the Merits Committee that it will tell us “once and for all” whether sanctions for training work, but I wonder whether the jobs market is stable enough for this really to be the case. We were told that pilots will not be held in areas of very high unemployment, but our chairman pointed out that one of the pilot areas was to be Lambeth, where TUC figures show that in January last year there were 29 claimants for every vacancy. I cannot believe that the figures are much better now. I should have said earlier that I am a member of the Merits Committee, which is why I talk about “our chairman”.

I note that the first of the four types of training the department is offering is literacy and English for speakers of other languages. Looking at ESOL first, if this training is to be mandated, I assume that it will be free and that there will be enough classes at various levels in all the pilot areas. Will the Minister confirm this? We know that the Government now charge for ESOL classes, so I would be interested to know whether all participants will be learning together, or whether those who are mandated will be taught separately from those who have to pay. I assume that literacy and ESOL are separate, with literacy being appropriate for native English speakers, so will there be two distinct classes, one for native English speakers perhaps to learn to read and write better and other classes for ESOL?

Looking at training more generally on offer for these pilots, is the Minister convinced that all training providers will accept mandated claimants on to their courses? It is an absolutely vital point. The SSAC is concerned that without guaranteed access, the situation could arise whereby a mandated claimant is turned away from a suitable course. I am sure the Minister's brief will make the point that the integrated employment skills service will ensure that this is not the case, but the SSAC report is not convinced and nor am I. It says:

“If the training and support on offer are genuinely attractive and effective there would appear to be no need for a mandatory programme”.

I make no apology for raising at this point a problem I asked the Minister, Helen Goodman, about during the Merits Committee cross-questioning in January. I was concerned about the high number of people “failing” the new work capability assessment, which has meant that more people are being put on JSA rather than ESA. This will mean that inevitably there will be some claimants who have mental health problems and some who are likely to be on the autistic spectrum. Although we know that claimants with disabilities are supposed to see a disability benefit adviser, I am not convinced that the people who fall into the categories I have mentioned will in all cases find their way to such a person.

For example, I know of one case where a mother was not available to take her autistic son to attend an interview and was worried that his social worker was on holiday. She was told that only one change of appointment was allowed before sanctions would apply. I have just been told of another case where a claimant on the highest rate of disability living allowance failed his WCA with zero points. On appeal, he was awarded the necessary 15 points. Could the Minister tell us if it is really true that nine out of 10 applicants now fail the WCA? I am hearing about these cases all the time and I am sure that the Minister is too. There is a strong belief in the advice sector that the Government have given ATOS targets to fail people who go for a WCA. If this is bunkum, will the Minister refute it categorically?

Finally, I must come back to where I started by emphasising that we on these Benches are very much in favour of skills training. We despair as much as anyone about the large number of NEETS—those young people not in education, employment or training—and believe that as much as possible should be done to try to upskill this group so that they can get good- quality and sustainable jobs. However, we have grave misgivings about using the threat of sanctions to get these young people and, indeed, all relevant jobseekers to engage with training. I beg to move.

My Lords, we on these Benches very much welcome the policy direction of these regulations. It is absolutely right that every effort should be made to ensure that the welfare state is not a something-for-nothing concept, that its resources are protected for those who truly need them and that they are not used up by those who can work and contribute to society and the economy but who choose not to. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, I have reservations about these regulations and a number of questions I should like to ask the Minister.

First, the monitoring and review process referred to in the Explanatory Memorandum is rather vague and paragraphs 12.1 and 12.3 do not even mention job outcomes. In fact, job outcomes is the last of the four bullet points in paragraph 12.2. Can the Minister define what is meant by a successful job outcome? Are we talking about a permanent job or a temporary job? What exactly does it mean? Overall, does the Minister not agree that the evaluation should be clear and easy to understand?

Paragraph 7.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum lists four bullet points on which training is to be modelled. They are

“Basic Skills and English language for speakers of other languages; … Employability skills; … Short, job focused training of up to eight weeks; and … Other job related provision”.

This, too, is extraordinarily vague. I wonder how effective this will be as a direction; not very, I fear. Will the Minister give us a little more detail—I know he mentioned some on introducing the regulations in the first place—about the type of training that will be provided? How does he envisage that people will be in a better position to get jobs afterwards?

Given there is already strong criticism about the standard and content of training that is given by jobcentres, where it is often described as “one size fits all”, can the Minister assure us that training will be more intelligently tailored to meet individual participants’ needs? Like the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, I should like to ask about the qualifications of the people who assess the training needs. What qualifications or training do they have in personal development?

What further action are the Government taking to ensure that the record number of young people, the NEETs—those not in employment, education or training—are being quickly placed on suitable training courses? Can the Minister tell us how involved businesses and employers will be in identifying the skills needed in the pilot areas? Can he provide assurances that customers will receive skills appropriate for the job market?

However, where we are particularly worried is with regard to the time it will take to evaluate the pilot. We are in the middle of a severe recession. When do Her Majesty’s Government anticipate publishing the results of this pilot? Given that the Government closed a jobcentre every week in 2008, while unemployment was rising, can the Minister assure the House that the jobcentres involved will have the appropriate resources to implement the pilot?

The UK still lags well behind most of our competitors regarding adult numeracy and literacy. The number of people who have taken up skills for life programmes is far less than the number of adults without basic literacy and numeracy skills and progress has been limited. Does the Minister accept that a new approach needs to be taken to ensure that we do not get left even further behind? What plans are in place to ensure that this does not happen?

Lastly, paragraph 4.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum mentions data-sharing. Given the various recent blunders with data going into the public domain when such details should not have been released, will the Minister please explain what protections on data- sharing are in place?

At a time when long-term unemployment is still rising, when more than 1 million people who are fortunate enough to be in part-time work want a full-time job and when employment continues to fall to the lowest rate for 13 years, we need bold action to get Britain back on its feet and on the way to work. That means we cannot continue with a top-down, unpersonalised approach to policy.

I repeat that we welcome the concept of these regulations, but we have concerns about the quality, the appropriateness and the lack of individualised and bespoke training that will lead to the outcomes we all want, which are sustainable jobs and progression in work. Frankly, I have to say that we do not believe that these regulations are up to the task, considering the scale of the problem this country faces. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I support the amendment that has been so capably moved by my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester. Before I do anything else, I should just remind the House that I am a non-executive, non-remunerated director of the Wise Group, a job-provider in Glasgow.

I also start by saying that I think the work that has been done by the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Merits Committee on these regulations is, as ever, immensely helpful. My previous incarnation was in another place, where a merits committee just does not exist, and it should take a tip—it should take many tips—from what happens in this place. The Merits Committee is extremely important and particularly at this time because there are so many statutory instruments coming through. I do not need to tell the Treasury Bench that because it has to do them all. Trying to make sense of the volume of stuff that comes out, particularly from the Department for Work and Pensions, is very hard. I am deeply grateful for the work that the Merits Committee and the Social Security Advisory Committee do in trying to interpret the importance and significance of the content of the policy that they contain.

I, together with colleagues who have already spoken, am very nervous about these regulations, and part of that nervousness derives from my experience in the Wise Group in Glasgow. One thing that training providers tell you is that they are loath to get involved in dealing with conscripts. My noble friend mentioned that. There could be a situation where people join training groups simply in order to shelter from the conditionality regime contained in these regulations. If you are to be successful in training, you need an engaged group of people who are willing not just to turn up but to switch on their brains and think carefully about what they are being told and to do the necessary follow-up homework, whether it is English classes or anything else. If two or three people in a small group of students or clients are there merely because they are sheltering from their benefit reductions, that will create a very unhappy situation because the training group will suffer as a result. I do not think that that has begun to be understood in these regulations.

However, I absolutely understand the need for conditionality. To use a very inelegant metaphor, it is a bit like manure. If you spread the conditionality at the appropriate dosage over the appropriate surface, it will work and be to everyone’s benefit, but if you pile it on in a corner, then people will get hurt—the plants will be destroyed. I am sorry; I should have thought about that metaphor earlier.

I shall move on quickly but I have made the point. Conditionality is now an important part of the regime that we are working with and everyone understands that. My noble friend made that quite clear and I concur with that view. However, conditionality has to be applied very carefully if it is to work.

Against that background, my second point is that the balance of power—if I may put it in that rather dramatic way—that exists between the client and the personal adviser is crucial here as well. We have had many happy debates on this subject during the Committee and other stages of welfare-to-work Bills in the past, and if it is true in most other circumstances, it is absolutely true here. If this is to be a tailored, personalised service, which is what the Government lauds it and argues it to be, then at the point where the client comes into the integrated employment service, he or she needs to feel that there is an element of control—that they can make suggestions—in order to get to a better place. If that kind of approach is taken rather than telling them what they need to do, they start the journey back to work in a much better and more positive way. If we are to have a personalised system under these regulations, the personal advisers need to be sympathetic to that question overall. I want to come back to the training points that my noble friend raised, but a key point for me is that, when clients have left the interview, they should feel that they have had some control over the training requirements being offered to them.

Thirdly, this issue is often talked about in terms of an integrated employment service and a skill, but there are different changes in the different constituent parts of the United Kingdom. That is not an insignificant point because things are done differently in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. However, within the skills approach it must not be forgotten that a lot of clients need biopsychosocial support before they can be shown how to be a plumber. They come from very disadvantaged places and their psychological situation needs to be recognised holistically. You cannot simply sign them up to a further education college course and expect them to survive. Steps need to be taken before they reach the position where they can go into a further education college and survive. All that is important. I think that such progression is properly understood in most cases, but there will be people in this stage 3 Flexible New Deal client group who need holistic support before they go on to what everyone else would understand as proper skills training. If that is not properly observed by these regulations and by the personal advisers who implement them, the policy will not succeed.

Distance travelled is just as important for those clients who are furthest away from the labour market as are job outcomes. In the evaluation—and I have some doubts about the suggestions for the evaluation of these pilot schemes—the distance travelled from where people are when they come into the integrated employment service towards a position where they have any hope of competing in the labour market is equally important. If we do not recognise that people need to make that journey and that those who make the transition get much closer to the labour market than they were when they started, we are not being fair to the efforts that they are making. The system needs to recognise that.

Against that background, staff training is important, as my noble friend said, but the amount of time that clients have available with the staff after they have been properly trained is equally important. I am told various things about how often and how long clients get with personal advisers. I am assuming that the 3,000 new people whom we have taken on are all now properly trained. They have not been around for very long and I hear stories about the training being cut. However, if the training is inadequate and people are only getting 10 or 20 minutes at a time, the transformation that is necessary to get some of these clients in stage 3 of Flexible New Deal into anything approaching a trade or an apprenticeship scheme is a long, long journey and it will not start properly unless the personal advisers are both well trained and able to give the help when it is really needed.

In my experience—and any provider will tell you this—in a journey to work, people suddenly get it. Invariably, if the process works, a light bulb goes on in people’s heads and they say, “Okay, if that is what I need to do, I understand that now and I am ready to really put myself into this”. If they are not into it, if they are resistant or recalcitrant, or if they are conscripts, you are not engaging with them at all. However, when the light bulb goes on, the system needs to recognise that and move quickly so that support follows and there is a successful outcome. Personal advisers need to be alive to that moment happening and make sure that they do not miss it. Lack of staff training and lack of access by individuals to their personal advisers are a roadblock to that.

I want to make a point about baseline evaluations, which I just do not understand. I am reading from the fifth Merits Committee report, at page 9. There is a statement from the department, but it is not explained anywhere. I have never heard anything like it before. It claims that the,

“DWP anticipate a ‘projected 5% increase in attendance rates’ and assume that ‘for every 10 additional individuals who complete provision because of conditionality, an additional year of employment will be generated’”.

Where does that come from? Is that a guess? Is there some research? Is there any international experience that justifies that? It seems to me to be completely unsubstantiated. It is an example of how the evaluation of these regulations and the basis on which they are set up leaves a lot to be desired.

I agree with my noble friend that the timing of these pilots is too soon. I would have been much happier if they had been at least later in the year. The autumn would have been better, because, once we have the Comprehensive Spending Review, when the new Government are in place—whoever they are—we will see some changes that will affect the public sector workforce substantially. That will dramatically affect, I fear, the number of cases that the integrated employment service will have to cope with. Who will be the people who suffer most? It will be the stage 3 Flexible New Deal people, because they are the most disadvantaged. Therefore, I think that these pilots are premature. They are not only premature, but I am not convinced that there are sufficient resources in play to be confident that they will do the job that they seek to do. As I said, it is hard to feel confident about the methodology.

I am in favour of trying this. As my noble friend said, upskilling people and getting them closer to the labour market is something that we all have an interest in. If my colleagues and I on this side sound critical, it is not because we do not will the end; it is because we just do not think that these regulations will do what they set out to do. If that is the case, it is matter of great concern and I hope that the Minister will respond as best he can to some of the legitimate complaints that people have made about these regulations.

I thank the three noble Lords who contributed. I can summarise the mood of the debate as being in general supportive of the direction of travel with some concerns about some of the detail—in some cases, quite a lot of the detail. Questions were asked and points were made and I shall deal with as many of them as I can.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, spoke about concerns about conditionality, although that is now well embedded in the system of our welfare reform programmes. The vast majority of JSA customers comply with the conditions imposed. Just one in 10 has their benefits sanctioned. Research has shown that sanctions influence the behaviour of claimants. A survey of around 3,000 JSA customers found that almost half said that they were more likely to look for work as a result of sanctions. We expect fewer than 400 sanctions to be applied during the pilot. Jobcentre Plus already has a robust sanctioning regime that ensures that customers are given an opportunity to claim good cause and thereby avoid a sanction. Vulnerable customers can claim hardship allowance and all customers have full rights of appeal against any sanction decision.

Guidance being developed for advisers will ensure that the risk of sanction is minimised by ensuring that customers’ views and concerns are addressed and incorporated in the action plan, referring customers with motivational barriers to appropriate support before moving them on to the necessary skills training, and agreeing the type and duration of training suitable to address the individual customer’s skills needs and to move that customer closer to the labour market. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that having willing people who want to undertake this is a key barrier. Customers will be given choice, wherever possible, over full-time or part-time training, the venue and the start date. However, where there is a skills need, doing nothing will not be an option. Explaining clearly to all customers what the pilot is about, the importance of attending training and the impact of sanctions will be key.

Advisers will be fully trained to identify skills needs, to respond to them and to handle the randomisation of customers. An early evaluation of the IES shows that customers value adviser discussions. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to adviser training and suggested that it was poor in the Flexible New Deal regime and the young person’s guarantee. The early findings outlined will be taken into account as the JSA regime and the recession measures bed in. However, it is essential that we get recession-based support in place quickly.

Referrals for sanctions decisions are identified by Jobcentre Plus front-line staff and are referred to a Jobcentre Plus decision-maker to look at the facts, including the customer’s side of the story. The decision-maker is impartial and will consider evidence from the adviser and the customer set against the regulations and case law. If the doubt is upheld, the claim is suspended and no payment is made for the time that the individual failed to meet the conditions. So far as someone being mandated to training and the training provider not taking him is concerned, if that is not a good cause, I do not know what would be one. It would be difficult to see that situation, if it came to pass, leading to sanctions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that there is a contradiction between mandation and flexibility. We do not accept that. The range of support on offer in the new JSA regime is flexible and tailored and offers a wide range of choice. It is only if a jobseeker refuses to take up any of this support that sanctions come into play. This in no way limits choice or flexibility.

The principal objectives of the evaluation of the JSA skills conditionality pilot are to determine: whether the new measures impact on short-term or long-term job outcomes; whether the new measures impact on sustainable employment; whether they impact on starting and completing training and the acquisition of qualifications; the impact that the threat of sanctions has on customers’ social and psychological well-being; attitudes to training; attitudes to work; what is required to implement the new measures well; and how any economic benefits that are generated compare to the costs.

The evaluation of the pilot will begin soon after the pilot starts. There will be different interim reports during the life of the pilot, covering quantitative and qualitative elements, which will continue for up to two years after the end of the pilot. From previous experiences, we know that the effects of employment programmes are not immediate and that we need to observe them over a longer term to capture their effects. For that reason, the evaluation intends to cover short-term, medium-term and long-term effects. This requires more than one stage of the evaluation, some of which will happen even after the pilot has ended in October 2011.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, referred to concerns around randomisation. A randomised controlled trial is one of the most robust evaluation tools to effectively assess the policy being piloted. It allows us to isolate the impact of other factors that might also have an effect on employment outcomes. The aim of the random assignment is to split the customers eligible for skills training conditionality into two groups, as she identified. The randomisation will occur once a skills need has been identified and relevant training has been agreed and recorded on the customer action plans. The randomisation will be done locally by the personal adviser using the final digit of the customer’s national insurance number. We have committed to a clear customer strategy in response to the concerns raised by SSAC. We will inform all customers about the pilot and ask for their consent for their data to be used for research and analytical purposes when training is agreed on the action plan.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to people with health conditions, particularly mental health conditions. It is not our intention, and never would be, to bully people into training, as the Merits Committee might have suggested. Those with health conditions will be able to seek specialised support from the Jobcentre Plus disability employment adviser and will be able to place reasonable restrictions on their availability for work and for any training, due to their condition. We have discussed this on a number of occasions, so the noble Baroness will be aware of what happens in relation to sanctions for customers with mental health issues. We recognise that the customer’s mental or physical condition may impact on their requirements while on JSA. If a customer has failed to attend an appointment or has committed another act or omission that warrants a sanction, the Jobcentre Plus decision-maker will consider all the available evidence before applying a sanction. This can include, but is not limited to, whether the failure was caused by a fluctuation in their health condition. Every effort will be made to contact vulnerable customers before applying sanctions, to make sure that they understand what is required of them. We would not sanction someone with mental health problems without contacting them or their carer or healthcare professional first.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked about the training courses, in particular ESOL, and mandation. We are confident that there will be a sufficient number of courses available and we are working closely with providers to ensure that good-quality courses will be available to these customers. ESOL and basic literacy courses will be separate and mandated customers will have a training allowance. The noble Baroness also referred to the WCA. The WCA is a more accurate assessment of limited capability for work, looking at what a person can do as well as what they cannot. On 19 January, there was an official publication of WCA national statistics. Figures showed that, for all ESA claims in the quarter from March 2009 to the end of May 2009, 38 per cent were assessed as fit for work, 5 per cent as suitable for the support group and 12 per cent as suitable for the work-related activity group. The remaining 45 per cent either left ESA before the completion of the assessment or their assessment is still in progress.

I do not have to hand the data on the range and volume of representations that we have had, but I will certainly discuss this with officials and see whether we can provide the noble Baroness with more detail.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, talked about the training on offer in trial areas. To be clear, we want to maximise the take-up of the existing provision to ensure that there is a wide range of training for customers. No new training provision has been procured. The type of provision that is being offered to customers in the pilot encompasses employability skills, as we have discussed; work-focused training; short job-focused training for up to eight weeks; other job-related provision, which is available through further education and other LSC providers; ESF-funded provision; and DWP contract support.

Courses will be responsive to customers’ individual needs, while suitability for those courses will be based on the training being appropriate to meet individuals’ and employers’ skills needs and being flexible enough to meet individuals’ personal circumstances—it can be part time or full time. However, customers will not be required to attend training for more hours than they are available for employment or for more hours than the total number of hours for which they are available, as recorded in their jobseeker’s agreement. The training must also be available within a reasonable period. Generally, part-time training can be completed before the customer is due to enter the next stage of the Flexible New Deal if they are still unemployed at the 12-month point in their claim.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas and Lady Morris, talked about the quality of training on offer. The Learning and Skills Council is responsible for managing performance in the FE sector and works closely with Ofsted, which is responsible for inspecting and reporting on the quality of all adult education and training services.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, referred to past office closures and asked whether we were going to resource this properly. I smiled a little when that question came up, because we have debated on a number of occasions the support that the Government did not have from her Benches when we put £5 billion into capacity for Jobcentre Plus and into the programmes that have helped to address the challenges of the economic circumstances. I think that she said that we were in the midst of a recession, but she will be aware that some of the surveys out there show that there were signs of positive growth in the last quarter of last year.

Just to be clear, the programme of office closures has been suspended for the time being. Past closures of customer-facing Jobcentre Plus offices took into account a range of issues, such as the impact that the closure might have on customer service and whether the work and staff could be relocated. Our customers, partner organisations, trade union staff and local Members of Parliament are fully consulted when these things are under consideration.

The noble Baroness talked about the qualifications of advisers. Advisers in Jobcentre Plus IES districts are well qualified and experienced in identifying the skills that are needed and in tailoring training to meet them. They will also refer customers to the adult advancement and careers service for more in-depth analysis.

The noble Baroness also talked about data sharing and data security. That is a very important point. Systems and processes are already in place to ensure that customers’ personal information between Jobcentre Plus and providers is exchanged in a secure environment in accordance with the current information risk management guidance from the Cabinet Office.

I think that it was the noble Baroness who also asked about the definition of a job outcome. We are looking for sustainable job outcomes and will need to develop the evaluation strategy to reflect this.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, talked about the quality of training on offer. The LSC is responsible, as I said, for managing the FE sector. We will provide motivational courses to deal with customers who may be unwilling to co-operate before we move on to the main provisions. That is a route for helping people into the provision.

Early evaluation indicated that customers in the IES trial areas welcomed the intervention. Many said that they had a warm and supportive relationship with their next-step advisers and appreciated receiving independent, professional, one-to-one advice. Advisers encouraged customers to think about new ideas and helped to reignite their self-belief and motivation to progress. As the trials have been running for more than 12 months and processes are in place, we are confident that these skills pilots have a good foundation on which to develop—in fact, partnerships have continued to improve despite considerable pressure on services due to the recession.

I want to make it clear that the skills support can be part of the jobseeker’s agreement, but it is more likely to be included in the action plan, which I accept has an element that can be enforced, a point that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, was probing. He said that personal advisers need to spend time with jobseekers. We have implemented a new JSA regime, in which advisers have much greater flexibility to spend more time with jobseekers, dependent on need, from the six-month point.

I am being nudged by my noble friend, so I had better move swiftly to a close. My apologies for not having covered each of the points raised, but I hope that I have been able to deal sufficiently with the issues that have been raised for noble Lords to support the Motion. I respectfully ask the noble Baroness not to press her point.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very full answer. I dare say that he was as surprised as I was that my noble friend compared conditionality to manure. I am just glad that nobody said “Ordure, ordure” at that point—I am afraid that that is not original. I am grateful to the noble Lord and to my noble friend for his support, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. The contradiction between personalised help and sanctions was raised in the evaluations—I did not make it up. The evaluations pointed out the contradiction and showed that a lot of personal advisers were not happy about on the one hand being very helpful to their clients and on the other hand having to run the sanctions regime at the same time. However, all I can do is to wish the pilot success. I shall read the Minister’s answers in Hansard. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment withdrawn.

Motion agreed.