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Jobseeker’s Allowance (Jobseeking and Work for Your Benefit) (Amendment and Revocation) Regulations 2012

Volume 734: debated on Monday 16 January 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Jobseeking and Work for Your Benefit) (Amendment and Revocation) Regulations 2012.

Relevant document: 34th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, I must start with the formalities: it is a requirement that I confirm for the Grand Committee that I consider that these provisions are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and I am happy so to confirm.

The Department for Work and Pensions is fully committed to supporting the Government’s commitments to the rehabilitation of prison leavers. Our main aim in the cross-government work to reduce reoffending is to increase employment outcomes for ex-offenders and prison leavers. We will do this by using the work programme—the biggest single payment-by-results welfare-to-work programme that this country has ever seen—as the primary vehicle for help and support.

We recognise that offenders face significant barriers to employment. The Government believe that there is a strong social and economic case to provide additional employment support at the earliest point to individuals who leave prison without employment. Most prison leavers have much greater difficulty in finding and retaining work than unemployed people with no criminal conviction. This can be due to a number of factors, including: employer prejudice against people with a criminal conviction; problems with accommodation; high prevalence of health conditions—especially mental health; motivation; and low educational and skills achievements. These factors all contribute to high rates of unemployment among prison leavers, which in turn increases social exclusion and has a detrimental effect on other issues, including reoffending levels and long-term benefit dependency.

That is why the Deputy Prime Minister announced on 16 August last year the Government’s intention to bring forward the work programme entry point for prison leavers to immediately on release from custody for those claiming jobseeker’s allowance. Currently, offenders are mandated on to the work programme after nine or 12 months on jobseeker’s allowance, depending on their age, although they are able to volunteer for the programme early—after three months. From March, all prison leavers who make a claim for jobseeker’s allowance can be mandated on to the work programme immediately on release from prison.

The regulation changes will provide the legal framework to allow prison leavers to be mandated on to the work programme immediately on release. This will give them the appropriate support at the point that they need it most, by taking those referred to the work programme out of the coverage of the “treated as available and actively seeking employment” provisions in the Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996. The “treated as” provisions excuse the prison leaver from having to be available for or actively seeking work for the first seven days without this impacting on the prison leaver’s eligibility for jobseeker’s allowance.

Under current legislation, the earliest that prison leavers can be mandated to participate in the work programme is the eighth day after leaving custody. During the first seven days, when the prison leaver is treated as available and actively seeking work, the prison leaver cannot be attached to the work programme. Regulation 2 removes this seven-day period for those who have been given notice to participate in the work programme. The Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011 provide the legislative framework necessary to mandate JSA claimants to participate in the work programme. Those who have not been given notice to participate in the work programme will still be provided with a seven-day period under the Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996. As an example, those prison leavers who are aged 16 and 17 and claim jobseeker’s allowance under special circumstances will not be mandated on to the work programme immediately on release.

To ensure that prison leavers who are attached to the work programme will still benefit from the seven-day period, where they are treated as being available and actively seeking employment, Regulation 3 of these draft regulations amends Regulation 5A of the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011. This means that prison leavers will benefit from the support provided by the work programme provided immediately on release, but will still be excused from having to be available for or actively seeking work for the first seven days from release without this affecting their eligibility for jobseeker’s allowance. We fully recognise that prison leavers will need to settle back into the community and re-establish their basic needs, including accommodation.

I would expect that during the first week after leaving prison, the primary focus of the work programme provider will be to support those activities that will provide a secure base from which later work preparation and job search activities can ensue. This would not, however, stop the work programme provider and the prison leaver working directly on employment issues straightaway if they both thought it appropriate.

I am happy to say that, in order to facilitate this change and mandate prison leavers on to the work programme, we are proposing that the Jobcentre Plus adviser would take the claim for jobseeker’s allowance in prison to start entitlement immediately on release, allowing mandatory referral to the work programme. Jobcentre Plus will only discuss claims for jobseeker’s allowance with prisoners on a voluntary basis, as at present. There will be no mandatory interviews with prisoners.

Where a prisoner opts not to make a jobseeker’s allowance claim while in prison and subsequently turns up at the job centre office within 13 weeks of leaving prison, then they will be mandated to the work programme from their date of claim. This change will essentially bring forward the activity that Jobcentre Plus currently conducts at the new jobseeker’s interview following release. The claim will be put in hand to be triggered immediately on release. This will help to contribute to putting prison leavers on to a sounder financial footing, enabling them to resettle more quickly, concentrate on finding a job and reduce their chances of reoffending.

In introducing this additional support for prison leavers through the work programme, we are working closely with other government departments, in particular the Ministry of Justice and its executive agency, the National Offender Management Service. We also have the support of the Scottish Prison Service. The support and co-operation of these partner organisations will be crucial in our efforts to implement this help and support our Jobcentre staff working in prisons.

To this end, we currently have around 140 Jobcentre Plus advisers in all prisons that require their service. Their work focuses on prisoners’ needs, both upon induction and in pre-release from prison. Jobcentre Plus advisers work alongside the Prison Service and other organisations providing support to offenders in prison. Taking jobseeker’s allowance claims from prison leavers who voluntarily opt to obtain the benefit will be an extension of their current work in the prison.

I would like to cover briefly the other element of these regulatory changes. The previous administration introduced the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Work for Your Benefit Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2010 to provide a legal framework for a pilot in certain Jobcentre Plus districts. These regulations allowed the Secretary of State to select claimants in specified pilot areas for participation in the work-for-your-benefit scheme if they met certain conditions. They also provided for the loss or reduction of benefit if persons selected failed to participate without good cause. The regulations came into force on 22 November 2010 and are due to lapse on 21 November 2013. The Minister for Employment’s Statement to the Commons on 19 November 2010, which I laid before this House on 22 November 2010, confirmed that this scheme would not go ahead. As a result of this decision, no jobseeker’s allowance claimants were selected for participation in the scheme. The Minister for Employment had previously made it clear that the work-for-your-benefit pilot scheme would not proceed and that the regulations for the scheme would be revoked when the opportunity arose. Regulation 4 revokes the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Work for Your Benefit Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2010. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of this order, which has our support. Enabling prison leavers to be referred to the work programme immediately upon release, rather than at the earliest after seven days, is to be welcomed. As the Explanatory Memorandum recites, those in employment are much less likely to reoffend, and the importance of this first week is acknowledged even though, as the Minister said, the focus will be on reintegration and securing a base rather than work preparation and job search. From the Explanatory Memorandum, it also appears that the JSA claim process will be conducted in prison so that entitlement can begin on release. Again, the Minister covered that. It is proposed to make use of the provisions of what I think is now Clause 96(2)(1) of the Welfare Reform Bill. What will the position be in the interim before the Clause 96 provisions can be brought into effect? What payment will be due to individuals between release and the otherwise first payment date?

The Minister might be relieved to know that I do not propose to reiterate the detailed inquiry about the work programme which was taken up in the other place. However, when is it expected that the Government will be releasing comprehensive data on its operation, about referral levels, categories, outcomes, cost et cetera? It would be helpful if the Minister would say a little more about the process of these additional referral opportunities. Will this become the main approach for those leaving prison? I note from the Explanatory Memorandum and the Minister’s confirmation that 16 and 17 year-olds will not be referred by this process. Will he say a little more about why? How many prison leavers have been referred to the work programme at day eight to date—from what the Minister said, it may be that the answer is nil—and certainly within 13 weeks of their claim? We understand that there is going to be a new category in the work programme. I am not sure whether it is just for those day one referrals rather than perhaps day eight referrals, week 13 referrals or any others.

In particular, will the Minister confirm that this will not be an automatic process that will squeeze out other programmes? I am sure that, if he were in his place, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, would talk about some of the programmes of which he is aware. I certainly remember sessions where we had presentations—I think that the Forestry Commission was engaged in employing people even before release from prison. These were imaginative programmes that really made a difference to people, and I would not wish to see these opportunities trump them and squeeze them out.

Subject to any points arising from those questions, we support the order and wish the Government well with this initiative.

I add to the welcome that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has rightly given to these regulations.

I am particularly interested in this aspect of the work programme because I am a non-executive director of the Wise Group in Glasgow, which has for some years been running a programme called “Roots Out of Prison” that has been extraordinarily successful. The Minister rightly pointed to the fact that other aspects of the public service and the voluntary sector need to help if these projects and this work are to be successful. The Scottish Prison Service was exemplary in the way that it encouraged Wise Group employees, who were reformed former convicts who had been trained by the Wise Group, who went into Barlinnie prison in the first iteration of the project. Inside the prison, those Wise Group employees, working on a voluntary basis, engaged in capturing the interest of some people who were about to be released. I was not aware that the jobseeker’s allowance regulations made that first seven-day period a bit of a difficulty—I do not know how they got round that—but all that I can say is that it was a splendid project that worked to everybody’s benefit.

As the Minister or someone else said, the first seven days are crucial. The people who are waiting to meet disaffected offenders, particularly young offenders who may have completed their first sentence, when they come out of the door at 7 on a Thursday morning, are usually the drug dealers. The drug dealers know that that is when the prisoners are let out, and they say, “Come with me to the pub and I’ll help you”. Then of course the prison leaver is back into a cycle of recidivism. Somebody should be there to welcome the prison leaver and take them somewhere, or talk to them before they come out about their housing benefit and getting accommodation. Local authorities could help some of these ex-convicts to find places where they can immediately go to live. Then the whole system would be more positively pointed at people who are in a very vulnerable set of circumstances.

I have seen for myself what can be done. I was not aware that this was to be a new thread in the work programme, but I would certainly encourage my noble friend to invest some of his well-known, indefatigable energy into these things because I know that he is genuinely interested in them. This area of work has a huge amount of potential. Independent providers and other people such as the Wise Group have thought of this. The Wise Group could not have done this without the Scottish Prison Service’s positive enthusiasm and encouragement for the proposal. There are models available that demonstrate success. I am delighted that the Government have decided to take this administrative step to remove the barrier so as to make these projects easier to function and roll out in the future. The more that we can get into the prisons and make advance claims, the better.

I am delighted to hear that Clause 96(2) of the Welfare Reform Bill, which we will soon debate on Report in your Lordships' House, will be an additional way of expediting this proposal. It is a thoroughly good thing and I am delighted that the Government have seen the opportunity. Knowing him as I do, I am sure that my noble friend will take every advantage to get the most out of these opportunities in the future and I wish him every success in so doing. I support the regulations.

Well my Lords, it is very nice to have that support, and I am looking forward to lots more of it. There were a range of questions and I will try to deal with as many as I can. Where I cannot, I will of course write.

Picking up points from the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, I think that he catches me, as he always does, on a technicality around Clause 96. We were looking to use Clause 96 in this way but, having looked at it again in legal terms, we have concluded that it is not necessary to rely on that particular amendment and that this regulation is adequate. Therefore, we do not have the timetabling issues that he was concerned about.

I have to disappoint on the numbers. We simply do not have the information on how many prisoners have been referred to the work programme to date. We will start to collect that information, clearly, when this programme comes into effect.

On the question of when more general data on the work programme are coming out, we are planning now to provide a level of information on the attachments and referrals to the work programme next month, although because of the back-ended way that payments are made, the figures on actual job outcomes will probably not come out until the autumn.

The reason that 16 and 17 year-olds are not referred is that the work programme is available to those from age 18 and over—that is just how it is structured. One of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, was urging was to look at ways of using this in an expanded way, as it is only for JSA whereas there is also ESA for youngsters. Clearly, if this starts to work I will certainly be looking very closely at the other areas where we can expand it.

On the question of squeezing out other programmes, we would expect the work programme providers to work with other local initiatives, especially when they have established a track record. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, talked about the experience of the Wise Group, which would clearly be very valuable. The Ministry of Justice has a range of pilots going on at the moment, experimenting in this area using social impact bonds—in Peterborough there is a rehabilitation payment and in Doncaster there is a justice reinvestment pilot. There are also community pilots. There is an enormous level of activity going on in this area, for the obvious reason that it is one where we need to make a lot of improvements.

I can confirm that the programme is entirely voluntary and that those who want to claim—both those who claim in prison and those who claim up to 13 weeks after release—are all in that same group of payment by results. This is a new category and we are looking to negotiate the terms and to get that new category with the work programme providers. The total amount of earnings that providers can make for a successful placement is £5,600 for an extended period. We all understand the structure of the work programme.

I think that I have covered all of the questions—

Indeed, the Minister has, and that has been very helpful, but I want to clarify a couple of points. I think he said that the programme is voluntary. Is it voluntary whether or not somebody claims JSA? It would be voluntary because if there are other programmes associated with prisons going on, such as the one that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, instanced, the referrals or the route to go via the work programme would not preclude those continuing. Where does the decision-making lie in respect of that? Is it for the individual as to which programme they attach themselves to or seek to get the benefit of, or is it the decision-makers at Jobcentre Plus—the providers? How does that all work? Although this clearly has great potential, it would be a pity if it squeezed out those good examples that already exist.

My Lords, to be blunt, it is voluntary to make the claim for JSA in prison, then once you do that as a prisoner there is immediate mandation. To the extent that voluntary charitable endeavours have been doing this with their own funding, this will displace some of that. However, I think that those who are experienced at this work will find a way to continue and to start earning money. This is stopping being a charitable endeavour now and becoming something that the state is willing to pay for, so I expect some readjustment of who does what. Clearly, there always will be that, but I would expect people who are experienced and have a track record in this area to be very well placed to continue to do it.

The transition from prison to the community is a key transition point in the journey from crime to resettlement. We have a much too large benefits bill in this country and prison leavers are significantly more likely than the average person to claim those benefits, so it is essential to put in the work and support required to get them back into the workplace so that they can start to pay their own way in society. The figures suggest that those individuals who are in employment are between one-third and one-half less likely to reoffend, so we could make a real difference by providing help not just to those individuals but also to society as a whole.

I started off wholeheartedly supporting this but now my support is slightly qualified, as, I expect, is the support of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, in relation to the Minister's response on the issue of mandation. I can see that it is voluntary whether someone claims JSA or not, but if you have no other source of income, that is not a particularly helpful designation. Once you do, you have the inevitable route in the work programme and there may be a chance of existing providers being wrapped up in that but there is no certainty. That seems to be a great pity if it risks destroying the experience of good programmes that are out there. I accept that that is not universal and I accept that they may be driven in large measure by charitable organisations but there is real work involved. I enter my qualification without necessarily withdrawing support for the regulations.

There is a genuine dilemma when you go from a cottage industry, where there are individual examples of really excellent work, to trying to provide a universal, lock-down service to everyone in the category. I do not want to sugar-coat this—it is very easy to over-sugar-coat—as I think there are going to be changes in the provision here, and there may be some groups that have been in very good individual work that does not translate into the universal service that we are aiming for. I think there is every opportunity and every incentive for those who have been affected to remain in this part of the provision. Rather than worrying about individual groups and their position, it is much more important to deal with what is a running sore and a long-term tragedy of not looking after these people properly. That is what this is doing and I hope that most of the good provision is wrapped in, but clearly that cannot be guaranteed. I think this is vital and I hope that it is the smallest of cavils from the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, but you cannot change things without changing things—tautology is very useful sometimes.

With those words, I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.