Social Security (Jobcentre Plus Interviews for Partners) Regulations 2003
Earl Russell (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, the regulations are paved with good intentions. The Minister will remember a series of exchanges that we have had about the principle of this at every stage of the passage of the legislation through the House. So I do not expect to surprise the noble Baroness greatly by my comments tonight. But perhaps I may save her a small amount of work regarding the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, about the surviving benefit of 10 pence. Am I right in supposing that that will continue as a passport to housing benefit? If so it serves a useful, necessary and sensible purpose, and diminishes the force of the criticisms that I might otherwise have made and of the indignation which I might otherwise feel.
We have a balance of argument. I can see why the Minister and the Government wanted to introduce some sort of provision for partners. The days when men must work and women must weep are very long gone. We should all be glad of that. So, because someone's partner has been working, that does not necessarily shed any light on whether they should work. The fact that the Government want to have interviews for partners, to see whether they can be found a suitable opportunity for working, is something that we should welcome. However, there is here an undistributed middle that is of some importance. On these Benches, we move heaven and earth to try to get an opportunity to work for those partners who want to do so. We believe categorically in choice.
The Minister has many times given an undertaking, which I accept, that no one under these provisions will be compelled to work. That is clear. However, there is a grey area that was slightly touched on in the Statement on the latest Green Paper on pensions, where people might talk about "encouraging" partners with children to work. That puts us on these Benches in greater doubt. The juggling necessary to combine children with work is a particular skill—just like going under the bonnet of a car engine and seeing what happens there. Some of us have that skill, some of us do not. It is not the business of the state to decide for people, or even to encourage them to decide, which way they should do that. The matter is strictly personal. The state should be helping them to choose whichever way they wish to go, no matter which way that might be. If the regulations were to be a precursor of any serious encouragement to both partners to work when they have young children, that would cause us concern.
The Minister has always said that the purpose of the interviews was that you do not know what you do not know. I take that point. However, although the Minister is undoubtedly right, it seems that people who have partners in work are more likely to be in work themselves.
According to the findings of the House of Commons Library, that appears to be nothing to do with work-focused interviews where we have carried out pilots. It reports that no evidence was found of an effect on labour-market participation and that the analysis of respondents' job-search behaviour found no difference between pilots and control respondents in the proportions of non-working lone parents looking for a job or delaying a search for work. Nor were there any differences between them in the methods used to find a job.
As regards further study of the pilot, there could be a significant finding. We have an immense amount of administrative effort which does not appear to be issuing in any particularly solid result. That is a point at which one might well pause and ask a few questions.
I take absolutely the Minister's point that our requirement is only one interview and that there is no pressure to work beyond that. When the Bill was before us, I made the point that it would produce fear and distress. Carers UK has discovered that that has turned out to be the case. It states that judging by calls to its helpline there is a problem in the style and approach to carers. Many find that insensitive and it seems to place a large degree of worry on stressful caring responsibility. It believes that it undermines carers' self-worth because it suggests that work is considered the only valuable activity.
If that is so, it should be a cause for concern. One does not want to cause that kind of reaction and one knows that people dealing with the welfare state often do so in a state of considerable anxiety. No doubt some of it is unjustified, but where that is the case, one wants to make it plain that that is the case and the creation of fear is not a useful process.
Furthermore, there is a specific problem with Bangladeshis. The Disability Alliance informs me that there is no specific word for "carer" in Sylheti, which is regularly spoken among Bangladeshis, because it is regarded as the task of all the women in the family. In this case, it is not easy to explain to them what is on offer and what is not, and who is allowed exemption for caring responsibility and who is not.
The point is also made that invalid care allowance is available only to one person, whereas the care of an invalid may rest upon several people. The other people may not receive any consideration for the care that they are giving. That point might be worth attention and it might even be possible to give it some attention.
It will not surprise the Minister that my chief complaint about these regulations—my chief complaint about this interview—is that it can be made a ground of a benefit sanction. The Minister is painfully familiar with my views on benefit sanctions. I keep asking her for evidence to refute them, as she clearly does not agree with them. She does not have any. On our latest round of Questions for Written Answer on the housing benefit sanctions, the Minister was able to offer me no information on what visible means of support were available to those suffering a benefit sanction. There is no information on whether more of them were admitted to hospital than other people and no information on whether more of them ended up in prison than any other people.
There seems to be a lamentable lack of curiosity. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I shall continue to believe that the imposition of a benefit sanction is a penalty little less in gravity than the death penalty; that it is potentially life-threatening. I have read the judgment of Mr Justice Collins and of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, in the case of Q. Incidentally, when the asylum Bill was before the House, I gave warnings that the Government were risking precisely that judgment. Some of these people were reduced to a state of real life-threatening misery.
I would like to know, and I hope that the Minister would like to know, how many of the other people who are victims of benefit sanctions are reduced to any equivalent sense of misery. That seems to be material in assessing how far a benefit sanction is a justifiable penalty.
The Minister remarked—a little casually, I thought—that the regulations were ECHR compatible. I wonder how familiar she is with the developments in process about the interpretation of Article 3; that is, inhuman or degrading treatment. She may remember that it was one of the main grounds of Mr Justice Collins' judgment in the case of the asylum seekers. It seems at present to be the basis of Article 3 that to establish inhuman or degrading treatment one must establish destitution plus—destitution plus some other form of gross hardship or injury. Clearly, that is not a stable resting place; it is not a clear definition. It will go either forward or backwards.
I am in no position to prophesy which, but which it is may have a real relevance to the future of benefit sanctions. It could conclude with the whole lot of them being found contrary to Article 3. Therefore, the Minister might exercise a little more scholarly caution in the assertion that the regulations are ECHR compatible. Incidentally, if she reads the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, she will note that he did not say that they were ECHR compatible; he said that the point was open to doubt on both sides. That is not nearly as much of a clearance as the Home Secretary took it to be.
The Minister was not in the Chamber last Friday when my noble friend Lord Goodhart gave the Government a powerful but carefully drafted warning about our future conduct on regulations if the Government should continue to put through measures in them which cause us more discontent than many of the measures that we vote against in Bills. My noble friend chose his words very carefully indeed. I will not repeat them because I am in full agreement with them.