Report (3rd Day)(Continued)
Welfare Reform Bill
8:23 pm

Amendment 40

Moved by Lord Freud

40: Clause 51, page 37, line 5, after "(1)" insert "or (2A)"

Amendment 40 agreed.

Amendment 40A

Moved by Lord McKenzie of Luton

40A: Clause 51, page 37, line 13, at end insert-

"(d) does not include any days in which a claim in respect to ESA is in the assessment phase."

8:32 pm
Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton

Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

My Lords, I shall speak also to the other amendment in our name in this group. Perhaps more than any other component of these changes, the inclusion of the assessment period in the tally of days which count to limit contributory allowance serves to underline that this is fundamentally about budget cuts. The assessment phase of an ESA claim normally ends 13 weeks after the beginning of an entitlement. It is the period during which DWP gathers relevant information about a claim to determine whether a person has limited capability to work or limited capability for work-related activity. While the assessment is under way, there is no entitlement to an additional component. Indeed, it is the additional component which is supposed to reflect the additional needs of those who are not job ready. If the assessment determines that a claimant should be treated as having limited capability for work or work-related activity, the relevant additional component will be backdated to the end of the 13-week period, albeit that the assessment period may have been longer. During the 13-week period, the individual is entitled to only the contributory ESA rate equivalent to the income support JSA basic personal allowance rate. This is the same rate as the contributory JSA rate. By including in the 365-day period the 13-week assessment phase with no additional component, the Government are denying the receipt of 13 weeks of the additional component at the end of the period. This is demonstrably unfair.

We will doubtless be reminded of the cost implications which are, I think, £20 million a year after 2012-13 and £115 million for that year, the accumulated effect of those hitting at the start of the system. The effect of what the Government are proposing is that the additional component receivable by those entitled to contributory ESA in the WRAG will be available for only nine months, not 12 months. This is an example of where somebody has looked at every conceivable means of clawing back moneys from sick and disabled people. The benefit to government is said to be £100 million in a year, but looked at another way, this is an additional £100 million in a year taken from the pockets of the disadvantaged.

Amendment 41A addresses the position of those with fluctuating conditions who might move between the WRAG and the support group. Fluctuating conditions have been a strong feature of our debates on this Bill and on previous welfare reform measures. Concerns have been expressed about how work capability assessment operates for those with such conditions, whether there is sufficient training for DWP staff and providers and whether there is appropriate expertise which can be brought to bear to make sure that the system works as it should for people with fluctuating conditions. This brings with it the prospect of individuals potentially moving between the WRAG and the support group when reassessment arises.

Movements into the support group have been protected by the government amendment, and for so long as somebody is in the WRAG or the support group movements into the latter would not be denied contributory ESA, but periods in the WRAG are accumulated for the purposes of the time restriction. The problem this brings is as follows: consider somebody with cancer or another fluctuating condition who has spent, say, 11 months in the WRAG, has moved to the support group for a period and whose condition subsequently improves so they move back into the WRAG on a reassessment. If the clock does not then start again, they are given one month to prepare themselves for the loss of contributory benefit and to seek to re-enter the workplace. This problem would be made worse if there was an extensive period in the support group because of the greater disconnect with prior work-related activity. It is submitted that the amendment is a narrow and entirely reasonable proposition. The Minister may have figures about how many people it might affect, but it is suggested that it is unlikely to be many.

Amendment 41A, which has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, precludes the starting of the time-period limitation for contributory ESA until the relevant provisions of the Bill enter into force. It has our support as it stands. As we discussed earlier, the clock has already started. When this legislation enters into force-the earliest date being April this year-some 100,000 people will lose their contributory ESA overnight, and for some that will be as much as £94 a week. Some may have been receiving it for the bare 365 days yet have paid their national insurance contributions for decades. We await further comments from the noble Lord, Lord Patel, but on any reasonable analysis, this is retrospective legislation and should be opposed. If there is to be time limiting of contributory ESA, in the normal course of events one would expect it to operate for claims after the introduction of the legislation. The Government are applying it to existing claims. Worse, they are counting days for which the allowance has already been received. Letters of notification have served only to cause confusion and dismay. Just imagine the consternation that would be caused by having a letter drop on the doormat telling you that in six months' time it is likely that you will lose as much as £94 a week of your income-overnight.

In their understandable need to address the deficit, which we acknowledge, I believe the Government have lost all perspective and all sense of fairness. They have been thrashing around in all directions to grab back money on the flimsiest of propositions. Frankly, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I want to make a brief contribution to this debate because we have had a busy day and I think we all want to go away and reflect on what some of the earlier important amendments and votes mean for the rest of the Bill.

As I was preparing for tonight's consideration of the Bill, I thought that Amendment 40A had some real potential to try to keep some channels open to the department. We have had some very powerful speeches and some significant decisions taken by the House. For myself, I want to go away and read all of those carefully. If we were looking for a way of trying to meet some of the obvious concerns that have been expressed in this debate, both internally and externally, this amendment suggests that there might be a possibility of getting something that can stand the test of time and that does not destroy the tight financial framework within which the Minister is seeking to operate. I know that he cannot on a whim say, "Yes, this is something that is possible for me to go away and look at", but I think this is potentially realistic.

There are a number of reasons for supporting it, not just because it is realistic and meets some of the concerns but because it wins some extra time for everyone. The extra three months would be of significant advantage to the claimants concerned. My noble friend Lady Thomas made an important point earlier when she said that Harrington has a great deal of potential. I do not think that has been properly reflected in any of this evening's discussions. The Government have set out their stall very robustly about the five-year set of annual reviews. I am well pleased, and I think everyone else is, about the progress that Professor Malcolm Harrington is making. Perhaps he should be invited to consider some of these things, including what might be done around the assessment phase. All I am saying is that I think there is some potential here for getting a compromise that might be winnable in terms of the financial constraints and might keep the channels open through the rest of the proceedings of this Bill-we might be able to come back to it at Third Reading.

In the balance of what else has happened today, this might seem nugatory or irrelevant, but I do not take that view. I think there is a mechanism here that is sensible and that may be doable. It will not be easy and there cannot be any guarantees, but I would really counsel my noble friend the Minister-who I know is actively concerned about all of this and is trying to find a way through that meets his financial framework as well as the concerns that have been expressed so powerfully by colleagues-to give this very careful consideration. The hour is not great but the House might be well advised to think carefully about this after the Minister has responded. I feel quite strongly that Amendment 40A may be worth considering voting on if we cannot get a response from the Minister that meets some of the concerns that have been expressed this evening.

8:45 pm
Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour)

My Lords, in Grand Committee the question of the assessment period got a bit lost because there were so many issues that the Minister had to deal with. I asked the Minister why the assessment period was not included but never got an answer.

We talk about the time limit kicking in after a year but it is a year minus 13 weeks because for those first 13 weeks people affected will be paid at JSA rate, which is lower. Quite a number of us were confused, but the upshot was that the Minister said:

"I have to admit that I am not particularly happy about the assessment phase of ESA and how it is working ... I would like to look at it. It is difficult to have a set of principles around something that one is somewhat unhappy about".-[Official Report, 8/11/11; col. GC 46.]

I hope that the Minister has looked at it in the interim and has perhaps realised that there is no principled reason for the clause as it now stands and there is every principled reason for supporting the amendment. I hope that the Minister will see reason and it will not be necessary to test the opinion of the House in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, was suggesting.

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, I shall leap straight in on the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on the assessment phase. What I was really alluding to was the upcoming sickness absence review, which is an important review of how we treat sickness absence. One of the things it has looked at is the interrelationship between sickness absence periods and the ESA regime. Basically the review sees no real reason for the assessment phase. As we look at this we must ask: are we structuring ESA and sickness absence so that it is a vulnerable or difficult process? I am sympathetic to my noble friend when he says that there might be a way through this. I want noble Lords to be aware that huge weaknesses have been found. We are pushing people through a process that puts them in limbo for a long period of 92 days or more. The sickness absence review states that that is deeply unsatisfactory, and I suspect that a lot of noble Lords in this Chamber who understand the system also believe that. In that area, I am not sure that this is genuinely the direction in which I want to go because I am not sure that it is something we want to maintain.

Moving on from that, let me set out some of the technicalities of the assessment phase. It usually ends after 13 weeks unless by that point there has not yet been a WCA determination. If a WCA has not been carried out by the 14th week, the assessment phase ends when a determination about limited capability for work has been made. So if the claimant's assessment phase lasts longer than 13 weeks and they are found to have limited capability for work or work-related activity, the payment of additional components is then backdated. That is the existing system, which I am not that happy with. The effect would be to exclude it in terms of counting to the 365 days, or at least the 730 days depending on where we are, but in practice it does not always happen within 13 weeks and we have a lot of disparity of treatment. Even if we were to stay with the regime, it would be a pretty messy system.

I know that noble Lords hate me when I go through figures, but let me give some-I shall do my best because these figures have been running around. Purely on this basis, there is a cost of an extra £430 million cumulative to 2016-17 over the five-year period. I shall try to make a quick off-the-cuff assessment of how much extra it is when we look at it on top of the two years, and it is not actually a hugely different sum. It is £200 million on the SR period and £400 million on the total period of five years. I know that noble Lords feel that hundreds of millions are easily obtainable, but it is not an insignificant amount of money.

Moving on to Amendment 40B, the effect of this amendment would be that for existing ESA claimants, the one-year time limit would be calculated from the date the clause is commenced, and none of the time already spent on ESA would count towards the 365-day total entitlement. I want to have a word about retrospection. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, used the word slightly freely and in fact slightly aggressively. I was upset but not ashamed. I can understand that noble Lords are unhappy that we are taking account of days before the clause is brought into account, but this is about the question of whether noble Lords feel that this is the right approach; it is not about retrospection. Retrospection involves interfering with a claimant's past entitlement and we are not doing that with this measure.

It is worth explaining what retrospection of time limiting would involve if we were to do it, which we will not. It would involve interfering with past entitlement to ESA. An example would be: at the date we commence the time-limiting provisions, if a claimant who had been receiving contributory ESA in the WRAG for 18 months, it would be retrospective if we demanded repayment of the extra six months of benefit he had already received because that would interfere with the claimant's past entitlement. We absolutely are not doing anything which is retrospective in that sense. We are redefining the terms on which claimants are entitled to ESA in the future.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester

Baroness Thomas of Winchester (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, perhaps I may make a small point. Were claimants who were receiving ESA last April told by the benefits office or whoever pays their benefit that it might be subject to this one-year cut-off? I ask this because the Government had already announced it in their comprehensive spending review. Were claimants warned then? I know that they were sent a letter in September saying that their claim was likely to end this April if it had started in the previous April. However, were they warned in April 2011?

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, it was a reasonably well publicised announcement by the Chancellor. There was no formal process of warning afterwards. That process began, as my noble friend points out, in September. How much warning people had is an issue, but the essential fact is that we are redefining the terms for entitlement to ESA. That happens quite a lot. Examples of future changes to entitlement include, among others, changing the descriptors to the work capability assessment.

I understand noble Lords having concerns about the fairness of the measure. Again, fairness is a matter of achieving a balance in our policy, so that as many claimants as possible who are in the WRAG are entitled to ESA for the same period.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked for figures. We expect that, by April 2012, around 100,000 people will have been receiving contributory ESA and been members of the WRAG for more than 12 months. If the amendment were accepted, we would have another substantial decrease in our savings forecast and a real problem.

Amendment 41A would enable claimants to start a fresh 365-day period if they moved from the support group back to the WRAG-I am not sure whether we are now talking about 365 days or 730 days, so let us leave that on one side for a minute. In practice, for those claimants moving between the two groups regularly-it is funny how, when things are encouraged financially, regularity seems to increase-the amendment would be likely to mean that they would be able to remain on contributory ESA indefinitely.

We have always made it clear that, when addressing claimants in the WRAG, our aim is for as many people as possible to receive contributory ESA for the same period. This will be a period of 365 days on our original formulation and at least 730 days on the basis of the amendment that passed. Restarting that period each time a claimant moved from the support group to the WRAG would lead to inconsistent periods on benefit for claimants.

I accept the amendment that has just gone through, but, on the basis of the period-whether one year or at least 730 days-we do not think that we need to make any of these additional changes, particularly given their high cost in the current fiscal climate. I urge noble Lords not to press these three amendments. We do not consider them consequential upon each other.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

I thank the Minister for that reply and all noble Lords who have contributed to this short and rather interesting debate.

I suppose that whether something is retrospective depends on what one's definition is, but if somebody's entitlement was put in place at a certain time and under a certain set of rules, to have that entitlement restricted by subsequent legislation and to have the clock running from that earlier date would be, in most common parlance, retrospective. We can argue about the semantics all night and not change anything, but the way in which the Government have gone about this is particularly unfortunate.

I acknowledge the contribution and concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and my noble friend Lady Lister over the assessment phase. My noble friend instanced the concern that the Minister expressed about this in Committee; I think that he has gone a little further today. As I understood it, he said that the assessment phase, when put in the context of a sickness absence policy, perhaps did not make a lot of sense. If that is the case, I presume that these issues will have to be addressed at some stage and some adjustment made to the process.

Rather than put us in a position where we would wish to test this issue by a vote-there is clearly a degree of support behind me on this and a strong degree of support on the Liberal Democrat Benches-can the Minister offer some comfort that there will be a chance to review this before we sign off the Bill? The consensus of those who have participated is that things are not satisfactory as they stand. Quite what would have to change in the light of any sickness absence policy which is developed would depend on where that policy is heading.

Certainly on issues of fairness, by taking account of the assessment period you are docking three months of someone's employment and support allowance. Most people would see that as being the period when you get the addition because you are in one of the two ESA categories and therefore the Government are restricting it to only nine months.

Photo of Lord Freud

Lord Freud (Conservative)

Let me clarify that-I hoped I had. Clearly you may not know what category of ESA you are in but you receive the money for the full 12-month period once it is decided. So there is not a problem like that. It is not nine months; it is a full 12 months.

On the question of what is to happen to the assessment phase, I will not be in a position by Third Reading, which is not far away, to give an answer. I am sure the noble Lord will have read the sickness absence review. It is an interesting piece of work which severely criticises the assessment phase. If we need to change it, we will give our response later this year. It is a substantial piece of work and it will take time to work through. It seems that it will become an area for regulations and if one is going to tie a lot of weight on this particular formulation it would probably be easier for the noble Lord to add another three months to his 24 months, if that is what he is trying to do. If it is a formulation of protection to add on another three months, it is not one that anyone would want to rely on for that reason.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

Tagging on three months is not the purpose of the amendment or of anyone who has spoken to this. There is concern about unfairness. The Minister said that you get the money from day one, but the point is that you get the money only at the basic JSA rate for the first 13 weeks. You do not get the enhanced funding that comes with the employment and support allowance when you are in either the not-fit-for-work group or not-fit-for work-related activity group. Those premiums do not kick in until after week 13. The Minister is frowning. Someone will correct me if that is wrong but I am getting support from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

I realise that we are not going to get definitive answers on any potentially significant policy development and change in the sickness absence report between now and Third Reading. However, rather than cause us to press this to a vote tonight, could not the Minister at least agree that we can have some further engagement between now and Third Reading to understand a little better the parameters of what is happening on sickness absence and how it might affect the assessment phase?

Seeking to press an issue that, given the hour and whose troops are available, we may or may not win would not be particularly constructive. People are trying to end up in the same place on this issue, which is very much the thrust of what the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is saying, so could the Minister at least assure us of further engagement so that we can understand where this may be heading and the parameters within which it will be considered? Otherwise we move to Third Reading stuck with an assessment phase that we do not think is particularly fair and, in the Minister's own words, not particularly sustainable. That does not seem a very sensible position to be in.

I do not propose to press the amendments tonight on the other two issues, retrospection and not accumulating the time spent in the work-related activity group, but I am seriously minded to press the issue of the assessment period, because we could have further engagement on that that might be of benefit to noble Lords, some of whom may be more supportive of these measures than others. We are genuinely trying to help the Government, and if they do not want to be helped we might have to look at the alternative. Perhaps the Minister can help us.

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, I am in a difficult position here. My view on the assessment phase is not going to have developed much further in the next two weeks. All I can say is that-well, let me just say what I would say in two or three weeks. I do not think that the assessment phase adds any value to the process; it puts people in limbo. It was meant to be a period in which people adjusted and settled down, and then they had their assessment. It does not seem to be working in that way at all, so we have had the very firm advice that we should get rid of the sickness absence review. If you want to be on ESA you apply for ESA, and if you pass the WCA you are on it, but you do not have all this messing around. That is what our firm advice was from an extraordinarily interesting and important piece of work, and that is where we will end up. If we start sticking other things on to a very shaky process that we want to get rid of, it does not seem a very useful thing to do at all.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

The Minister has advised us of an extremely helpful point. Would it follow that if the assessment phase disappeared, once the assessment had taken place and someone was assessed as being appropriate for putting into the WRAG or support group, the levels of funding under the ESA would kick in from day one? If they would, and that is the implication of what the Minister says, and the assessment phase went, that would be the difference between what we are facing at the moment and what might be the future. It would mean in effect that there would be no assessment phase and no period when people were paid at a lower rate than the work-related activity group component rate or the support group rate. If that is the case, we will not have quite the beef that we have at the moment with including the assessment phase.

The noble Lord has been helpful. We are just trying to see here and now how that formulation and prospect features in the Bill before us. At the very least, I ask that we agree to have another look at this, given what the Minister has said and that he is not going to be able to say anything much further between now and Third Reading, rather than having to take a decision on something tonight on which we would have only three-quarters of the information that we need. The Minister has been genuinely helpful, and we have to see how that translates into what we are considering.

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, I do not want to reopen this matter at Third Reading on the basis of things that I will have no further information on at all. That does not make much sense. The noble Lord is absolutely right that if we were to get rid of the assessment phase-and clearly that is something on which, as those who know how government works will know, we would have to do some work-it would be a big change. It would tie in with a lot of other changes, with work that we are going to be doing this year. We are utterly committed to this sickness absence review, which has been a very important document for us. My noble friend said that there was some value in using this assessment phase in this way in the future. I am trying to say that I do not think there is, because I would not want to put any weight on it. There might be other things that we can do to get out of a hole-if we are in a hole-but I honestly do not think that this is a promising line. I do not want to have this debate again at Third Reading. I have said everything I can on it, but I hope that I have said enough.

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Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour)

I apologise, but I wonder whether the Minister could say one more thing now so that we do not have to come back to it at Third Reading. If the assessment phase is done away with, clearly there is no issue. Given that the Minister himself is clearly suggesting that he would like to see that, would it be possible for him then to say whether, in the event that the assessment phase is not abolished, he would accept the spirit of this amendment now?

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

I am clearly not in a position, and it would take more than a couple of weeks to get into a position, to make that kind of assurance. I know how skilfully your Lordships ask me these questions, and I deeply appreciate it, but I cannot do that. All I can tell the noble Baroness is that we have had a very powerful report on sickness absence, which I am personally very closely associated with and have sponsored. It made this recommendation, and most people in this Chamber who understand these matters would say that that is the way to go-as I would. Noble Lords must take their conclusions from that, but I cannot go much further or make promises on hypotheticals, because that is not how the system works.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

I understand the noble Lord's dilemma; he is creating a bit of a dilemma for us. Can we at least agree that if we do not press the amendment tonight we preserve the right to bring back the issue at Third Reading, while accepting that the Minister might not be able to say anything further? It would at least give those of us who are not as close as the Minister is to the detail of the sickness absence stuff and where that might be heading a chance to reflect on what that might mean for this; and in particular if there were to be a change-as the Minister seems to want-and the assessment phase went, how that would be accomplished within the framework of the legislation.

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, I do not think that I can do that. We need to take a view now on this. All I can say is that Third Reading is probably not the time anyway for some of this stuff to come to a head. It is not the point at which my noble friend is thinking about it coming to a head. This kind of thing will probably come to a head when we have the debate between the Commons and the Lords. That is when some of these issues need to be looked at, so it is not helpful or productive to think of it happening at Third Reading. This kind of thing may become more relevant at a later stage, but not at Third Reading.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

Does the Bill contain power by regulation, or would the Minister welcome an amendment to introduce it so that at some point down the line, possibly after further consultation and so on, he can make the changes which at the moment he is minded to make but is not yet in a position to introduce?

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

Without having those in my ever helpful Box right behind me to respond to that-I hope that they are writing-my strong impression would be that I would have powers in regulation. No, my strong impression is the opposite. I am on my own.

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

I think I will owe noble Lords a letter. Thank you very much.

9:15 pm
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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

That was an extremely pertinent question. If in essence we can deal with this in due course when further analysis has been undertaken though regulation, that is fine; we would be happy to rest our case there. If the Minister is saying that primary legislation would be needed to deal with this -if that is the message coming from the Box-we are unlikely to have that opportunity for some little while.

Photo of Lord Freud

Lord Freud (Conservative)

We are looking at the sickness absence review process, which is what this is about, and that is a substantial change that will need primary legislation. So I think my reply is to presume primary legislation.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

The Minister has not made this easy. I have been trying as best I can to avoid having a vote on this today.

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Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

If my noble friend will allow me, would the Minister be content if we were to introduce such a power by regulation at Third Reading, which would commit him to nothing or everything, according to how he wished to play it in future?

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Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (Liberal Democrat)

Before whoever it is who is speaking sits down, I should say that I think that the Minister is making life difficult for himself. If he cannot take the advice that he is getting from all sides-and I, too, concur with what has been said-I, too, will look to get an expression of opinion from the House, which I really do not want to do. The suggestion that has been made about regulation-making powers is an easy out. I do not care what the Box thinks, actually; the Minister has the knowledge and the wisdom to take that decision right now, which would be a beneficial outcome for everyone.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

That has been helpful, as has been the intervention of my noble friend Lady Hollis, and I think that I can see a way forward. We do not need the Government's permission to introduce an amendment in due course to take a regulation-making power, so if there is not that opportunity at the moment we will find out between now and subsequent Report days or even Third Reading. I think that that is what we will do; it will be a route through this. On that basis, and with that preliminary notice to the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 40A withdrawn.

Amendment 40B not moved.

Amendment 41

Moved by Lord Freud

41: Clause 51, page 37, line 14, after "(1)" insert "or (2A)"

Amendment 41 agreed.

Amendments 41A to 42A not moved.

Amendment 43

Moved by Lord Freud

43: After Clause 51, insert the following new Clause-

"Further entitlement after time-limiting

(1) After section 1A of the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (as inserted by section 51 above) there is inserted-

"1B Further entitlement after time-limiting

(1) Where a person's entitlement to a contributory allowance has ceased as a result of section 1A(1) or (2A) but-

(a) the person has not at any subsequent time ceased to have (or to be treated as having) limited capability for work,

(b) the person satisfies the basic conditions, and

(c) the person has (or is treated as having) limited capability for work-related activity,

the claimant is entitled to an employment and support allowance by virtue of this section.

(2) An employment and support allowance entitlement to which is based on this section is to be regarded as a contributory allowance for the purposes of this Part."

(2) In section 1 of that Act (employment and support allowance), in the definition of "contributory allowance" in subsection (7), after "subsection (2)(a)" there is inserted "(and see section 1B(2))"."

Amendment 43 agreed.

Clause 52 : Condition relating to youth

Amendment 44 had been retabled as Amendment 45A.

Amendment 45 not moved.

Amendment 45A

Moved by Lord Freud

45A: Clause 52, leave out Clause 52 and insert the following new Clause-

"Condition relating to youth

In section 1 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (employment and support allowance), after subsection (3) there is inserted-

"(3A) After the coming into force of this subsection no claim may be made for an employment and support allowance by virtue of the third condition set out in Part 1 of Schedule 1 (youth).""

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

This amendment was in the same group as the amendment on which the Government were defeated but runs contrary to the decision that the House made previously. The assumption is that this matter will not be pressed. Otherwise, the Government give us no alternative but to force a vote on it.

Division on Amendment 45A

Contents 132; Not-Contents 49.

Amendment 45A agreed.

Division number 4

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Amendment 46

Moved by Baroness Lister of Burtersett

46: Clause 52, leave out Clause 52 and insert the following new Clause-

"Condition relating to youth

In paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (condition relating to youth), after sub-paragraph (1)(d) insert-

"(e) after the assessment phase has ended, the claimant has limited capacity for work-related activity.""

9:30 pm
Photo of Viscount Ullswater

Viscount Ullswater (Conservative)

The Question is that this amendment be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say, "Content".

Noble Lords:

Content.

Noble Lords:

Not Content.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

Forgive me-are we not dealing here with Amendment 46, which the Government have accepted is consequential on Amendment 36A?

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Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

My Lords, I was the person who drafted Amendment 36A. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, clearly introduced it as the paving amendment to Amendment 46. So the Government cannot do as they are now suggesting.

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Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, let me read out what I said in my speech. I said that I confirm that the Government see Amendment 46 as linked to Amendment 36A, but separate Divisions will be required on all amendments in this group.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton

Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)

My Lords, the noble Lord does not make that happen just by asserting it. One amendment is consequential on the other. We have had a very clear and substantial vote on this, and it is quite disgraceful that the Government are seeking to undermine that.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, does not wish to appear to be subverting the view of the entire House, which was expressed in the full knowledge that the amendment which we voted on was devised-I devised it-as a paving amendment to a substantive one, so that we could debate it in good time. Most of the population of the House has gone home, believing in good faith that the previous vote has established the principle-as it has. However, the noble Lord is trying to renege on that by forcing a vote despite the late-night keeping of the roster. That would be quite improper and quite unprecedented, and I strongly suggest that he think again.

Photo of Lord Freud

Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, I cannot understand this. I was extremely clear, and have been really clear all the way through, about which amendments relate to which, and which have to be taken separately. I read out what I said. I said it quite loudly and all noble Lords heard it. I cannot feel that it is right to accuse me of anything but absolute clarity in the House.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton

Lord Bassam of Brighton (Labour)

My Lords, this is somewhat unprecedented, and I am trying to be helpful here. The House is in danger of getting into a considerable muddle. I respectfully suggest to your Lordships that we should perhaps adjourn to try to sort this out, or perhaps come back to it when the House is in fuller session. I do not think that anyone on our side wants to accuse the Government of sharp practice, but that is certainly how it feels at the moment. That is not right or good for the reputation of the House. I ask the Minister to reconsider the course upon which he is currently embarked. Perhaps I may continue with a few more words, and perhaps the Minister will be enabled with a response that can help. I do not want the House to lose the respect that it has, and it should not be frustrated in the way in which the Minister is currently suggesting. My noble friend Lady Hollis made a very reasonable point earlier in addressing this issue. It would serve the Government better if they withdrew for a moment and paused to think about where they are going, so that we can better reflect and try to sort this out in the way that is usually in the House's best tradition.

Photo of Lord Freud

Lord Freud (Conservative)

My Lords, I have thought more deeply and accept that the amendment is consequential.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton

Lord Bassam of Brighton (Labour)

I thank the noble Lord for that moment's reflection, which does great service to your Lordships' House. I am very grateful to him.

Amendment 46 agreed.

Clause 56: Claimant responsibilities for employment and support allowance

Amendment 47 not moved.

Clause 68: Housing benefit: determination of appropriate maximum

Amendments 48 and 49 not moved.

Amendment 49A (to Amendment 49) not moved.

Clause 69: Ending of discretionary payments

Amendment 50

Moved by Baroness Lister of Burtersett

50: Clause 69, page 54, line 8, at end insert "providing those amounts are ring-fenced for the purpose set out in that Act"

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour)

My Lords, I hope that this debate will be a bit more straightforward than what we have just been discussing. The amendment aims to protect the ultimate safety net in our social security system by ring-fencing the money devoted to it when responsibility is devolved to local authorities without any statutory duties attached.

Clause 69 abolishes the discretionary Social Fund, described by Barnardo's as a lifeline for some of the poorest and most marginalised people in our society. Together with Family Action, to which I am indebted for its assistance, it is among many voluntary organisations looking to your Lordships' House to safeguard that lifeline. Indeed, 20 have this week written an open letter to the Minister. This is not the place to make the case against the abolition of the discretionary Social Fund; we rehearsed that in Grand Committee. Instead, it is up to us to ensure that when the discretionary Social Fund is abolished, the money allocated to local authorities and the devolved Administrations is used for the purpose intended.

The Social Fund was introduced in the late 1980s in place of a system of statutory payments to help some of the poorest members of society with one-off needs. At that time, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, and I were ranged against the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, who unfortunately cannot be with us this evening for health reasons. Today, we are trying to salvage something from the forthcoming wreckage of what we now acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Newton, achieved-one of life's ironies.

Through a system of community care grants and crisis loans, the discretionary Social Fund provides vital cash assistance to some of the most vulnerable members of the community. CCGs help people on out-of-work benefits to remain in or set up their own home, to retain their independence. We are talking, for instance, about young people leaving a children's home or foster care, people with chronic health conditions or disabilities who need aids and adaptations to allow them to live in the community-about one-third of recipients are estimated to be disabled-and women who have fled domestic violence. As one such woman said:

"The community care grant meant such a lot. I had been in a refuge. I had very few possessions as I had to leave them all behind ...The CCG helped me make my flat into a home".

Crisis loans are interest-free loans payable where there is an immediate threat to health or safety-for instance fares when a child has to be taken to hospital or money to cover the cost of replacements following a flood or fire.

We accept that the discretionary Social Fund needs reform, but this is not reform, it is abolition with no guarantee that local authorities will pick up the pieces using the money allocated to them. The aim of the amendment is to write into the Bill just such a guarantee and thereby achieve the Government's aim of protecting the most vulnerable.

Experience suggests that without some form of statutory ring-fencing, there is no way to ensure that the money allocated to local authorities and devolved Administrations will be spent in the way that the Government and Parliament intend. That is not a criticism of local authorities but simple realism. Local authorities are already hard-pressed to meet all their statutory functions in the face of budget cuts. This pot of money could be very tempting.

In Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, held us spellbound with a cautionary tale of what happened when he was a junior Minister of higher education, and money intended for Liverpool Polytechnic was purloined by Liverpool council for housing. It clearly impressed the Minister. More recent experience is that of Supporting People-a fund designed to help vulnerable groups. Since the ring-fence was removed from that, overall spending on Supporting People has been cut by more than 10 percentage points more than the settlement received by local authorities for the purpose. That is an existing budget; the pressure to cut a wholly new budget will surely be greater.

We should listen to what local authorities themselves have to say. Recently published DWP research with authorities addressed this issue. While admittedly some authorities were unenthusiastic about ring-fencing-perhaps seeing tying their hands in that way as being like turkeys voting for Christmas-a number were,

"concerned that without a ringfence ... funding would quickly become amalgamated into existing budgets and as a result its identity, visibility and purpose would be lost. A second concern was that Councillors or Directorate heads would redirect the funding to plug gaps in other budgets".

It is just such fears that this amendment is designed to allay.

Both the present and previous Social Fund Commissioners have expressed similar anxieties. What will happen to the woman who has fled domestic violence and who needs to turn a house into a home for her family, or the disabled person anxious to remain in her home but without the means to do so, or the ex-prisoner who needs to set up home? The potential consequences have been spelt out by organisations such as Citizens Advice and Family Action: greater reliance on overstretched charities, on food banks and on high-cost lenders, as the Joint Committee on Human Rights also warned in its report on the Bill, or simply going without, with a potential risk to health or safety.

A child rights impact assessment of the Bill, just published by the office of the Children's Commissioner, suggests that such consequences mean that the clauses in the Bill abolishing the Social Fund could be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on a number of counts. Can the Minister-wherever he is-please tell the House what account has been taken of the convention and what the Government's response is to this advice? I am sure that your Lordships' House would not want to agree to a breach of obligations under the convention.

The case for ring-fencing was made from all Benches in Grand Committee. In response, the Minister acknowledged the strength of feeling and indeed accepted the spirit of the amendment when he said:

"It is quite clear that we need to make sure, if we are putting money out for vulnerable people, that it goes to vulnerable people and is not diverted elsewhere". -[Official Report, 10/11/11; col. GC 140.]

I could not have put it better myself.

On the other hand, he argued against ring-fencing. He contended that ring-fencing would restrict innovative thinking and limit local authorities' ability to devise schemes that best address the specific needs in their respective areas. However, ring-fencing does not prevent innovative schemes; it simply prevents local authorities using the money for some other purpose entirely.

The Minister promised to reflect on the arguments put in Committee. I am sure that all noble Lords will be delighted if he has come up with a solution to the dilemma in which he found himself-that of accepting the spirit of ring-fencing but not the legislative means of achieving it. If your Lordships' House should pass this amendment, it would not cost the Government an additional penny, which should be music to the ears of the government Benches. On the contrary, it would help to ensure that the money voted by Parliament was spent on safeguarding the health and well-being of the vulnerable people for whom it was intended. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden

Baroness Turner of Camden (Labour)

My Lords, I support the amendment. When I first read the Bill, it had been my intention to put down an amendment to try to remove the clauses dealing with the Social Fund. Clauses 69 to 72 outline the abolition of the discretionary Social Fund, including community care grants and crisis loans. As we have heard from my noble friend Lady Lister, the Government expect these responsibilities to be undertaken by local authorities.

We are dealing here with quite desperate people. The funds provide assistance for people at the very end of their tether. They have no one to turn to and nowhere else to go. The problem is that local authorities are now under considerable pressure themselves. They are having to economise and there is no guarantee that the very poor people for whom the funds provided some form of immediate support will figure very high in the list of requirements so far as local authorities are concerned.

I did not process my amendment earlier but my fears are very well met in the amendment now before the House. As my noble friend indicated, it provides for ring-fencing to ensure that a local authority makes provision for the people already provided for by the Social Fund arrangements. There are many instances, as we are aware, of women facing domestic violence, which is rather horrifying. Much of it takes place within families, sometimes within immigrant families, and the women have absolutely nowhere to go. Some of the violence is unbelievably cruel and sometimes it surfaces in cases that eventually reach the courts. We have an obligation to ensure that people in such desperation have somewhere to turn.

There are other levels of deprivation and concern that have already been referred to, involving children, homeless people and those who have just been released from institutional care. They are people who have nowhere else to go and we have to provide that support for them. I very much hope that the Government will be persuaded to accept this amendment.

9:45 pm
Photo of Lord Blair of Boughton

Lord Blair of Boughton (Crossbench)

My Lords, I am a Cross-Bencher who does not necessarily spend all day in this House but I have been here all day for this amendment because I have seen the effects of the Social Fund and on victims of domestic violence, in particular. The idea that we would allow the Social Fund to become a discretionary matter for local authorities is an abdication of our duties to the poor and the desperate. I very much support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister.

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I should like to make a contribution to the debate as someone who was happy to co-sponsor the amendment of my longstanding and noble friend Lady Lister.

This has happened partly because the department thought that the Social Fund was beginning to become too difficult to handle. I know that the current explanation is that it is all part of the localism agenda, but I do not believe that. The criticisms that have been well set out by my noble friend Lady Lister are all valid. They are concerns that I share. More than anything else, I am beginning to hear from my spies, who are everywhere, that local authorities are coming to arrangements-if I were them I would do the same-for benefits in kind with white goods providers and food banks, though not quite soup kitchens yet. The point that I am making is that there is no substitute in certain circumstances, when families are in crisis and people are at risk of prejudice to their health, to the availability of access to liquid cash. There is no substitute to get them out of the kind of classic crises, whether domestic violence or other things. They need hot money and they need it right now to get them into a place where they can become safer. No amount of ingenuity, local creativity, co-operation or anything else is a substitute for that. We are not safe in this House to devolve this money-I shall come on to how it will be devolved in a moment-without recognising the value to family households in crises of having access to cash.

There is a very important point for Parliament about the oversight of this money. As colleagues know, we have a sophisticated system. There is a Social Fund commissioner and a variety of excellent public servants have served in that office with distinction. They have overseen the independent review service and have provided extremely useful current advice, information and data that have helped to stay on top of some of the policy issues. All of that is being thrown to the winds. I deeply regret that and said so at some length in Committee. The work that the Social Fund commissioners did in the past will be missed. I can see no way that Parliament will be able to stay as closely in touch with developments in this important policy area under the regime proposed in the clause.

I have no confidence at all that we can be secure in the knowledge of what will happen in Scotland and Wales. The Government may be able to control to some extent the conditions and provisions under which local authorities in England and perhaps Wales-although I am not sure about Wales-will comply with these regulations. However, certainly in Scotland the money will be given to the Scottish Government, or will pass through the Scottish Government, and noble Lords may have noticed that arguments have started to mature north of the border that perhaps will knock relations between the Westminster and Scottish Governments temporarily out of kilter. My serious point is that there will be different legalities relating to the controls and dispositions that will be made by local authorities in England and north of the border. I have no way of knowing how the Government will handle that.

No additional cost is involved in the amendment. That is an important consideration, given our earlier debates. We had some good discussions on this in Committee and I, like the noble Baroness, thought we had got some constructive and seriously positive responses from the Minister. I simply want to know how Clause 69 in all its glory and with its 10 subsections will be translated into practice and implemented.

I assume that there will be further opportunities at the regulation-laying stage-assuming that we do not agree any of the amendments that I think are necessary to improve the Bill in this important area-when the powers and the money are transferred. The money is important because another unique aspect of the Social Fund is that it has loans that are repaid, and the repaid loans refurbish the resources available for further use by other clients at a later stage. I am not sure exactly what amount of money will be transferred. I am certainly not clear-and I do not think that anybody else is-about how it will be disposed of, in relation to who gets what and the disbursement formula that will be used to allocate money. I assume that it will be done on a basis of need, but I have no way of knowing what that is. If I have missed it, I would be very pleased to be pointed towards the work that the Government are doing.

This is a really important part of the Bill and the amendment is the very least that we should ask for. This House should say that whatever sum of money is available at the moment, it would not be safe for us to let it be devolved to local authorities. I am sure that they will do their best and I have nothing against them, but we must impose a condition that any moneys that are disposed of and devolved for that purpose must be devoted to that purpose and to no other.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote

Baroness Howe of Idlicote (Crossbench)

My Lords, I remember there being considerable concern in this area upstairs in Committee. Having listened to what the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Turner, said, in particular about the plan in the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I think that there is a way of dealing with the situation. Some of the problems of exactly how it will be spread out and all the rest of it might need a little more administrative attention, but I think this is a satisfactory answer about what to do with this sum of money. I would back it like that. Let us end the argument.

Photo of The Bishop of Bath and Wells

The Bishop of Bath and Wells (Bishop)

My Lords, it is often said that we read the world from the position we occupy in it. In particular, users of the Social Fund are unlikely to be very visible and able to hold local councils to account. Recent analysis of some 500 discretionary Social Fund applications has revealed that 12 per cent involved someone leaving institutional or residential care, 20 per cent involved someone who had experienced a period of homelessness and 8 per cent involved someone leaving prison. These groups are much less likely than others to be able to demonstrate local connections, and without crucial assistance from community care grants to buy essential items such as cooking equipment and bedding, they may struggle to sustain and maintain a home. That puts those who have been offenders at risk of reoffending or of moving back into temporary or institutional accommodation, which is far more costly and means they lose their newly found independence. The issue of vulnerable groups and local connection is recognised in housing legislation where people with no local connection must be assisted by the local authority to which they originally applied. I believe that similar provision should apply to protect such groups in the absence of a standard national Social Fund, especially as the Welfare Reform Bill also abolishes the independent review service that reviews refused Social Fund applications. I hope that we can take note of this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

My Lords, I, too, support my noble friend's amendment. The whole point about the Social Fund is that all the other elements in the social security system are nationally determined and demand-led-AME-led. The Social Fund has always represented an element of flexibility, of discretionary judgment, for those who do not fit tidily into categories and need only income. When, for example, people needed a modest amount of capital for a fridge, an oven or whatever, they could go to the Social Fund. If they needed to set up after a flood or a fire, they could go to the Social Fund in ways that you cannot cover within a national framework, except by a discretionary local grant.

That is fine, but the problem with the Government's current proposal to send it to local government is threefold. First, there will be no necessary standards across local government so that similar circumstances are met in similar ways by different local authorities. For good and for bad, there will be a postcode lottery, and we know that demand will almost certainly be greatest in some of the inner cities and least, perhaps, in some of the more prosperous suburbs. There will be no consistency of standards.

Secondly, when that happens, and in the absence of identified funds, people who need that money will go not just to payday loan companies, because they do not have the security, or to pawn shops but to the forms of debt that we are all appalled by. One of the very good things about the Social Fund is that repayment, with no more than £5 or £10 per week of your income going out, is effectively interest-free. By pulling the Social Fund away from people who are most in need of some element of credit to get them from here to there, we are sending them into much more costly spirals of debt and very real problems of repayment. The third problem associated with this proposal is the guarantees we need to have that the money will be spent on the people for whom it is ordained.

The Minister can help us in this if he makes it very clear that local authorities will have no wriggle room to spend the money on anything other than the groups of people whom we are identifying. The firmer he can be in making clear to the House the statutory nature of that guidance, the more he will ease some of our concerns. He also needs to make it clear to the House what elements of the Social Fund will remain AME-demand-led and how much of it will be recycled and capped within a cash grant, what the situation will be in a local emergency-a factory explosion, a major flooding disaster or the like-and whether the local authority, as opposed to central government, has the capacity to respond to that in its social fund.

Therefore, can the Minister tell us first, how he can absolutely guarantee-short of ring-fencing, if that is not where he is prepared to go-that that is reported back to Parliament? Secondly, how he will manage the mixture of AME and DEL expenditure that currently goes into the Social Fund to ensure that local need is properly met?

10:00 pm
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Baroness Sherlock (Labour)

My Lords, I have two specific questions for the Minister. Following on from my noble friend Lady Hollis, even if the money were to be spent on the same people, how can the Government guarantee that it is spent for the purposes for which the Social Fund was originally created?

Looking at the local authority fieldwork summary report mentioned by my noble friend Lady Lister, the fear is clearly out there in local authorities that the money will be sucked up by social care budgets. For example, even if it was spent on child protection, that would simply be displacing other money and there would not then be money available to enable local authorities to give cash to vulnerable families. How will the Minister ensure that it gets to the right people and for the right purpose?

My second question follows on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said about the Office of the Children's Commissioner, which believes that the Government are in breach of Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Has the Minister taken advice on this matter and, if so, will he share it with the House?

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Baroness Meacher (Crossbench)

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 50ZC and I will try to speak extremely briefly in view of the hour. This amendment seeks to ensure that the Social Fund remains in place-

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal

Baroness Garden of Frognal (Liberal Democrat)

With great respect to the noble Baroness, that is in the next group. We are going to stop on this group.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Labour)

My Lords, I think I have the right group. As we have heard, unless this Bill is amended, it will fundamentally alter discretionary payments. Budgeting loans will be replaced by payments on account as part of the universal credit. Community care grants, which help those on means-tested benefits stay in their own homes, and crisis loans, which basically do what it says on the tin -they are for a crisis and they are a loan-will both be abolished and the money handed over to local authorities.

As has been said, the problem is that there are no guarantees that similar support will be available to vulnerable people who need it; the funding will not be ring-fenced; and there will be no statutory duties attached, not even any guidance of the sort that my noble friend Lady Hollis has requested. Earlier the Government were very clear that they would not issue any guidance-we trust they may have had time to rethink that. Without guidance, which would guarantee access to certain groups or place a statutory duty on councils to provide the sort of service that has existed, or to ring-fence the money, there is a real danger that the kinds of support that have been available will simply dry up.

The lack of ring-fencing caused the biggest concern to those responding to the Government's consultation: 42 per cent of respondents raised it, a higher proportion than on any other part of the proposals. The various charities, which know a thing or two about vulnerable people, have, I am sure, contacted the Government-they certainly contacted us about this. Crisis is,

"deeply concerned about the impact on homeless people moving into independent, settled accommodation".

Family Action is similarly,

"seriously concerned about the abolition of the discretionary Social Fund",

which it fears,

"will remove one of the final safety nets for some of the most vulnerable and needy members of society".

Barnardo's also knows a thing or two about working with vulnerable people. It feels that,

"the Social Fund is a lifeline for many"

and is therefore "seriously concerned" about its removal and the money being given to local authorities, should this not be ring-fenced. Scope is similarly,

"deeply concerned that the Government plans to devolve a vital source of support ... with no intention of ring-fencing".

I am sure that some 22 charities have been in contact because they are worried about the loss of this last safety net for the most vulnerable when they suffer from emergency situations in the form of traumatic events such as homelessness and domestic violence, which has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Blair.

The lack of the ring-fence was mentioned here tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood and in Committee, including by the noble Lord, Lord German, who is not in his place. In response to that, the Minister, who also is not in his place, said that he was extremely concerned about what was being said about the lack of a ring-fence and that he would reflect on the issues raised. I trust that his reflection is going to be shared with us shortly. As we have heard, a third of those getting community care grants are disabled, a quarter are lone parents and one in 10 are pensioners. These moneys go to people moving out of residential or institutional care to live independently, including children moving on from care and people coming out of homeless hostels, psychiatric hospitals and women's refuges. These are exactly the sort of people who are being helped. In the future, of course, we may rather sadly have to add those who are forced to move as a result of the Government's so-called under-occupancy rules, should the Government insist on overturning your Lordships' amendment. Similarly, we risk larger families being forced to move elsewhere once the benefit cap, if that is not amended, affects high-rent areas such as London and the south-east. Again, people will be forced to move and set up home anew. Community care grants also help families at risk due to exceptional pressures. We have heard about overcrowding, relationship breakdown and the examples of a house fire or flooding.

Perhaps the Minister could tell the House whether he has read Destination Unknown, a Demos report tracking the lives of disabled families through the cuts. If he has read it, does he recall the central message that, for the disabled, one unexpected event such as an added illness, a mix-up over benefits, the need for new wheels on an electric chair or longer taxi rides to medical appointments can completely blow a person's budget out of the water. The disabled tend to have no savings, no leeway and nothing else to rely on. It is exactly this sort of money that has been available to them. Charities, which have also often stepped in, are seeing their supply of funding drying up. They are finding themselves overburdened with demands. Jobs are less available, and the traditional hiccups or slight delays in payments that are bound to occur with the introduction of new systems that we will see at a later stage can have a devastating effect on the week-to-week budgets of disabled people. They just manage, but it is these sorts of emergency funds which can make all the difference when something goes wrong.

Crisis loans are slightly different from the other elements and the DWP has claimed that this expenditure rose following the introduction of the telephone-based application scheme. However, there is no actual evidence that it was a cause rather than a correlation which showed on the figures as the rise in claims also coincided with an increase in unemployment. Also, it is important to remember that the crisis loan scheme is a loan.

Another report that the House may be aware of was published by Barnardo's in December last year on the vicious circle and heavy burden of credit on low income families. Families can become trapped in a cycle of debt, which can have a very persistent effect. The Social Fund offers a far better alternative to vulnerable families than home credit, pay day loans and other forms of high-interest lending, including of course illegal loan sharks. It is estimated that a £100 loan from a loan shark needs repayments of £285 and takes 57 weeks to repay. The same loan from the Social Fund costs £100 and takes 15 weeks to repay. Furthermore, these are the amounts we are talking about. I think that the average award last year was just £83, so we are not talking about hundreds of thousands, but we are talking about money that makes an enormous difference to a certain number of people. These loans can be life-changing. They can be the rent for a new home; they can be the move out of institutional care and help to pay either that rent up front or for the cooker that enables one to live there.

Our concern is that a lack of ring-fencing will mean that these loans are simply not available under a new scheme. Councils, as has been heard, are already worried that the money will drift away elsewhere, and we understand the temptation for that. We have already seen 123 local authorities increase their meals-on-wheels charges, some by up to 400 per cent, while their own grants to local voluntary agencies, which used to be able to help, are drying up. We should not be surprised if local authorities were a little tempted to move this funding elsewhere.

The amendment does not seek to frustrate the Government's intention to localise, nor does it argue with the contention that need will best be met if identified at a local level. It seeks to provide a safeguard for the many people who need the support that the Social Fund now provides to help them in a crisis. It is because of the strong concerns that we have heard expressed across the House about the vulnerability of these groups of people if this money is not available that we support the amendment.

As Barnardo's points out, some local authorities do not yet have expertise in working with the poorest. An inner London borough may well understand how to implement the infrastructure to offer a Social Fund replacement, but this is less likely in a shire county with a smaller and more dispersed population of disadvantaged people. Indeed, localised replacement is likely to be provided through adult social services. Many people who need the support of the Social Fund, such as homeless people, will not be clients of social services, so they may struggle to access it anyway. Without ring-fencing and some guidelines about who it should go to, we have grave worries about the gap that will be left. I hope that the Minister's period of reflection on the amendment will enable him to accept it.

Photo of Lord de Mauley

Lord de Mauley (Conservative)

My Lords, I absolutely understand what the noble Baroness's Amendment 50 is trying to achieve. I assure your Lordships that we are equally committed to ensuring that this money is targeted on and reaches the most vulnerable people. We appreciate the importance of this money to vulnerable people, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has just explained.

As noble Lords have said, ring-fencing was debated in Committee and the Government have thought carefully about the valuable points that were made. We share the desire of noble Lords to ensure that these funds are used in the way intended and are not lost in the general pool of local authority funding.

We have concluded that the most appropriate way to make clear to local authorities the purpose of the funding is by setting it out in a settlement letter from the Secretary of State that will accompany the funding that is sent to each local authority. This letter will set out clearly what the funding is to be used for and describe the outcome that must be achieved. It is important that local authorities are not constrained in how they achieve that outcome, so the letter will not prescribe the method that should be used.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

Obviously this letter has not yet been sent; I presume that it has been drafted. Would the Minister be willing to circulate to Members of this House taking part in the debate the draft of the proposed settlement letter that he expects to send, so that we can be reassured? I am sure that his intentions are entirely beneficent in this regard, but it might assuage some of our concerns were we to see a letter in draft before it was sent out. If we had comments on it, we could then feed them back to him.

Photo of Lord de Mauley

Lord de Mauley (Conservative)

My Lords, the letter is not yet in draft. If it is possible to do something along the lines that the noble Baroness asks, I will do it, but I hope she appreciates that I will make no commitment on that.

The letter will ensure that the money intended for vulnerable people goes to vulnerable people without curtailing the freedom of local authorities to tailor provision and, for example, pool funding, without imposing a one-size-fits-all approach that does not take account of the different needs faced by different areas. Furthermore, to underline its purpose, the funding will be distributed to local authorities through a specific revenue grant, rather than including it with the rest of their general expenditure in the main revenue support grant.

I acknowledge that ring-fencing has been put forward as a means of ensuring that the money is spent appropriately. Our concern is that if the funding is ring-fenced in the way the amendment requires, local authorities will be prevented from investing in services or pooling the money with funding for other existing services to provide a comprehensive and effective support system for the most vulnerable in their communities.

We have thought further on the issue of how we can check that the funding for this new provision has indeed helped to support vulnerable people. The department is already planning to conduct a review in 2014-15, obtaining appropriate information from a representative cross-section of local authorities in order to help inform future funding levels. Following the helpful contributions of noble Lords in Committee, I am able to commit that this exercise will be extended to provide more information about the way in which local authorities have used the funding.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised a human rights question. The policy is developed taking account of the Government's commitment to human rights. We do not accept that the Social Fund changes breach the convention. Support will still be provided for children, and local authorities will be able to link the new provision with existing responsibilities such as those through the Children Act.

10:15 pm
Photo of Baroness Sherlock

Baroness Sherlock (Labour)

I asked specifically whether the Government had sought or received any legal advice about whether or not this proposal was compliant with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Can the Minister answer that question?

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Lord de Mauley (Conservative)

My noble friend Lord Kirkwood asked about the structure of what is being transferred. The current Social Fund AME allocation of £178 million will fund the new local provision. It will be distributed based on spend at the point of transfer nationally between England, Scotland and Wales. In England, the funding will be devolved to upper-tier local authorities. Again this will be based on Social Fund expenditure. The AME funding splits £141 million to replace community care grants and £36 million for emergency provision. The first year of the new system will be 2013-14 and the funding will be the same as the amounts in 2012-13.

My noble friend asked about the Social Fund Commissioner. The Independent Review Service changed 20,886 decisions in 2010-11. The number of crisis loans, budgeting loans and community care grant decisions made was 5,595,000. The IRS makes decisions on cases that can go one way or another depending on the discretion of the decision-maker. All decisions on the discretionary Social Fund are also first subject to an internal review in Jobcentre Plus.

My noble friend asked about the possible substitution for cash and white goods and indicated that he thought it might not meet the needs. There will of course still be national provision of advances of benefit through the new payments-on-account scheme that will replace budgeting loans and crisis loans for alignment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked how the mixture of AME and DEL will be managed. All the money is AME. There will be, of course, additional admin funding on top to cover the cost of the new burdens.

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Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

Is the Minister therefore saying that if local authorities represent that there is increased need based on the criteria in the letter of guidance, the Government will respond with increased expenditure because AME, of course, means that it is demand led?

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Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

I thought that the noble Lord would not. I do not think that we can say that it is AME, in that case, if it is not. The point about AME within DWP is that it responds to demand. If it is going to be a cash grant, it is not going to be demand; it will effectively be DEL.

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Lord de Mauley (Conservative)

Historically it has been AME. The funding for the year 2012-13 will be the funding that is transferred in 2013-14. It will not increase by that amount. However, there are the budgeting loans to which I have referred as well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised a question over benefits. Short-term advances will replace crisis loans for alignment as part of a national payments on account scheme. These advances of benefit will cover those in financial need as a result of waiting for an increase in benefit or for a benefit claim to be dealt with.

On the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, the policy is developed taking account of all relevant rights. We did not take specific legal advice.

I hope that what I have said will enable the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

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Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour)

I am very grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in support of the amendment, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Blair, who waited patiently all day and has shown his commitment to the importance of this amendment in doing so. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is ever a supporter on the side of righteousness and rightly said that ring-fencing is the very least that noble Lords should expect.

I am grateful to the Minister for the spirit in which he responded to the amendment. It was very much the spirit in Grand Committee by the end-the recognition that we must ensure that the money is spent. As my noble friend Lady Sherlock said, it is not just on the people for whom it is intended but for the purpose for which it is intended. I am afraid that I am personally not convinced that a settlement letter is sufficient to ensure that. We have made some progress but not nearly enough. The Minister then half-answered the question that I was going to asked on how the Government would check that the settlement letter was followed. I think that he said that there would be a review in 2014-15 of a cross-section of local authorities. Perhaps I may suggest that perhaps he would like to consider Amendment 50ZA before we come back, as it would go further than that and require local authorities to report on how they use the money, because that is the only way in which to be sure that the settlement letter is adhered to.

I am afraid that I am not terribly convinced by the Minister's response to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Sherlock about the UN convention on children's rights. If the Government have not taken legal advice-and I believe that the Children's Commissioner's report is only just published-I would want to know specifically what the Government's response is to that report and to what the Children's Commissioner says. We have not heard that response tonight. However, I am aware that it is very late and it is not the time to test the opinion of the House, even though not one the noble Lord has spoken in support of the Government and all noble Lords have spoken in support of the amendment. Nevertheless, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 50 withdrawn.

Consideration on Report adjourned.

House adjourned at 10.24 pm.