Clause 2 — Work-related activity: income support claimants and partners of claimants

Welfare Reform Bill (Programme) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 3:50 pm on 10th November 2009.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment (a) in lieu, and consequential Government amendment (b).

Lords amendments 3 to 12, 15, 25 to 27, 53 to 59, 78, 90, 91 and 94.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I thank my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr. McNulty, from whom I have inherited the Bill, my noble Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, for his excellent stewardship of the Bill through the other place, and Members of both Houses for their scrutiny of the Bill, as I now seek to guide its journey to a safe conclusion this week.

In disagreeing with the Lords amendment, I shall also speak to our amendment (a) in lieu and the other Lords amendments in this group with which we agree. It will help the House if I give some brief background. The House will be aware that our policies for lone parents are based on the idea of family-friendly working. We rely on two key principles-that work is the best route out of poverty, and that parents, especially lone parents, must be allowed to fulfil their responsibilities to their children.

On the former point, we are mindful that the longer people are out of work, the more difficult it is to get a job. It is therefore vital that support be provided early, to help address the barriers to work. That is what we mean by work-related activity. We do not mean work; lone parents will not be required to take up employment until their youngest child is seven. We mean training, CV writing, help with literacy and numeracy and financial advice-overcoming a range of obstacles that often hold people back from helping themselves. Indeed, we mean the range of support offered so successfully in the new deal for lone parents, which has got 625,000 lone parents into work in the last 11 years. But it is equally important that this support must be convenient. It must come second to the welfare of the child, and depend on locally available affordable childcare. It must also allow time to drop off and pick up children from school and nursery.

Foremost in the amendments is the requirement that the well-being of a customer's child is always taken into account when a personal adviser and a parent agree the steps that they will take to prepare for, or move into, work when completing an action plan or, for lone parents with older children, a jobseeker's agreement. Here we apply a definition of well-being found elsewhere in legislation that takes into account a child's physical and mental health and emotional well-being; protection from harm and neglect; education, training and recreation; the contribution made by them to society; and their social and economic well-being. These are covered in amendments 8, 27 and 54.

There has been much debate on good cause, and what is considered to be good cause for failing to undertake a work-related activity. As a result we have taken the opportunity to outline in primary legislation some of the most important things that should always be considered when deciding on good cause for failing to undertake work-related activity. Claimants of income replacement benefits will not be directed to undertake medical or surgical treatment to meet their work-related activity requirements. However, the amendments permit such customers to undertake such activity on a voluntary basis with informed consent. We feel that that is important, especially where an individual has a health condition that is in itself a barrier to returning to work. As a result, we believe that they should receive, on a voluntary basis, the appropriate help and support to make a return to work possible, such as counselling or physiotherapy if that is something they and their adviser agree on.

To ensure that customers are not penalised if they change their minds about the decision, we would allow them to fulfil their requirement to undertake work-related activity by completing another activity on their action plan. This change is covered by Lords amendments 9, 15 and 58.

Also, after listening to the views of both Houses, we have decided to introduce amendments to make it clear that good cause considerations must take into account the availability of childcare. In practice this already happens, but we want to put that principle beyond doubt and ensure that it is protected for the future. This is covered by Lords amendments 10, 26 and 78.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling

Will my right hon. Friend clarify the situation in Scotland, where the Government do not have the administrative responsibility for the provision of childcare? Will there be full co-operation with the Scottish Government, who may or may not be able to replicate the child care coverage that exists in other parts of the UK, and will that be taken into consideration so that lone parents in Scotland will be treated in an even-handed and equal way in comparison with those in the rest of the UK?

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that reassurance. She and other colleagues from Scotland and Wales have been assiduous in raising these concerns to ensure that the legislation does not disadvantage lone parents in those parts of the country. Indeed, I have had conversations with Ministers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland about the concerns about child care arrangements being different. That is one of the important reasons for introducing those three amendments. I hope that reassures my right hon. Friend.

We have also introduced amendments to define the policy boundaries for lone parents and to build on previous flexibilities that take into account their caring responsibilities for their children. The amendments would set out clearly in the Bill that only lone parents on income-replacement benefits who have a youngest child aged between three and six will be required to undertake work-related activity. They put in primary legislation our intention that lone parents whose youngest child is under three will not be required to undertake any work-related activity.

The amendments also place in primary legislation an assurance that lone parents whose youngest child is under seven will not be required to meet the full job-seeking conditions for jobseeker's allowance, but instead will be able to claim income support, or modified jobseeker's allowance, until their youngest child is seven. They remove the requirement for lone parents whose youngest child is under one and who are in receipt of an income-replacement benefit to attend work-focused interviews. They also introduce flexibilities to allow lone parents with children between three and six who are required to undertake work-related activity to restrict the hours in which they do so.

It is intended that this flexibility will be used to allow lone parents of children up to the age of 12 to restrict their hours of availability so that they fit around their children's schooling or formal child care, or around hours in which locally provided, free, part-time nursery places are available. These measures are provided by Lords amendments 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 53, 55, 56, 57, 59, 90, 91 and 94.

We have also introduced an amendment that enables the job-seeking requirements for jobseeker's allowance recipients who have been the victims of domestic violence to be temporarily suspended for 13 weeks. Under this amendment, they will not be required to enter into a jobseeker's agreement if one is not already in place, and they will not be required to be available for work or actively to seek work during this difficult time. That is covered in Lords amendment 25. I hope that the House will agree that the package of amendments we have introduced means that parents, especially lone parents, will have the flexibility to balance the activities that they will be required to undertake with their unique family circumstances.

We are also introducing a new, more sensitive, sanctions regime.

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Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I recently wrote to my right hon. Friend about a constituent of mine who is a lone parent with five children, three of whom have conditions including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger's and Tourette's. She is a carer-and indeed, she has a carer for herself, who is one of her children. As a carer, she is not required to attend work preparation, but she is required to attend six-monthly work-focused interviews. I have inquired of Jobcentre Plus, and an action plan has never been produced for her because it is clear that while she has responsibility for the children, she will never be able to work. The six-monthly visits to her Jobcentre Plus are, however, extremely onerous for her. I have asked whether some flexibility might be given to the jobcentre so that it could have the discretion to waive that requirement.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I am grateful that my hon. Friend Lynne Jones has written to me setting out those details at even greater length than in her excellent intervention. I will need to reflect on this. In preparing a White Paper that will be published in the next few weeks, we have been examining the issue of flexibility, and the extent to which we can flex the regime so that it can be more tailored to the personal circumstances of customers on jobseeker's allowance, employment and support allowance and other benefits. In the change we have made for lone parents whose youngest child is under one, we have made it clear that there is no merit in requiring such lone parents to come in for a work-focused interview if no meaningful action follows from that. I am advised that if my hon. Friend's constituent gets carer's allowance, she is exempt from the conditionality. I clearly need to look at the details of the case and get back to my hon. Friend with a proper response.

I was about to set out the new sanctions regime. Our new regime will allow for more up-front, in-depth engagement with lone parents, and there are a number of stages before a financial sanction will even be considered. We know that sometimes extenuating circumstances, such as a domestic emergency or a sick child, will mean that lone parents are unable to keep their usual commitments. Therefore, all lone parents will be given a further chance to comply before any action is taken. If a lone parent fails to take part in a work-focused interview, or undertake or complete work-related activity, without good cause, there will not initially be a sanction. Instead the adviser will discuss any issues that the lone parent may have and give them another opportunity to engage. Only if the lone parent fails to engage again without good cause will further action be considered.

If a lone parent misses two work-focused interviews and attempts to make contact fail, a formal written warning will be sent. Similarly, lone parents who have failed to carry out the minimum agreed work-related activity in their action plan over three months will be given an opportunity to explain any good cause, renegotiate the action plan or begin the work-related activity. If they fail or refuse to do so, a formal written warning will be sent.

After three missed interviews or three failures to take up agreed work-related activity, an individual case review will be done. That involves a senior adviser or manager undertaking an in-depth review of the lone parent's circumstances and the reasons for failure to comply. That could include home visits for parents. Only after this stage, once a lone parent has failed to comply on the fourth occasion, will a financial sanction be considered, with initial sanctions at a significantly lower level than those currently applied.

This model will provide lone parents with more opportunities to comply with the requirements and will ensure that they cannot face a financial penalty before a full review of their circumstances has been carried out. As now, lone parents will, of course, have the opportunity to ask for the sanction decision to be reconsidered and/or to appeal the decision. We believe that overall, this approach will provide lone parents with every opportunity to engage with work-related activity, will lead to fewer financial sanctions but will provide the necessary backstops to ensure engagement and progression. If, after this process, someone still fails to comply without good cause, a sanction will be considered. However, as now, lone parents will have the opportunity to ask for the sanction decision to be reconsidered or to appeal.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:00 pm, 10th November 2009

The Minister started by setting out all the positive things that the Government are going to do to engage, and all the support that lone parents are going to get. However, these proposals are, in essence, about the stick; they are not about the carrot. They are about saying what punishment will be meted out to a lone parent with a three or four-year-old child if they do not do what the Government want them to do. Is it the Government's view that lone parents with children of that age are simply too stupid to see the good that this engagement will do for them, and so need to be threatened to persuade them to take it up? If it was all so good and so positive for them, why would they not take it up anyway? Why do we need a threat to make them do that?

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I have set out a range of positive measures that we are putting in the Bill. He talks in terms of "sticks" and "carrots". As he knows, it is normal in social security legislation to put the sticks in primary legislation and leave the carrots in secondary legislation and in other action. What is unusual is that we are putting the carrots-to use his language-in primary legislation, in the Bill.

Let us consider the substance of what the hon. Gentleman is asking about, and our disagreement with the Lords, which I was about to discuss. I believe, as I did when I took the legislation to raise the education participation age through Parliament, that there are circumstances in which one wants to make it more uncomfortable for people to do the wrong thing and more comfortable for them to do the right thing. As I shall go on to say, I think that in the case of some parents, it is in the interests of those individuals, of their children-in terms of tackling child poverty-and of the country as a whole, if they are actively encouraged to receive the help and support that will come about as a result of the conditionality that we want to introduce.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

My right hon. Friend talks about making things uncomfortable for people who will not do the right thing. Do not most Members find that the real problem is that it is the children of that mother who are made uncomfortable? However feckless or undeserving the mother is in his terms, it is the children who will suffer when he imposes his financial sanctions.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Naturally, I listened carefully to my hon. Friend and I hope that she also listened carefully to what I set out. My starting point was the change that we made to the legislation in the Lords that ensures that the well-being of the child comes first. Any notion that children will suffer is dealt with through that amendment, which is now on the face of the Bill. In respect of financial sanctions, as I have set out, we now have a much longer and deeper process to go through to consider the personal circumstances of the individual. Only if an individual was wilfully ignoring the sanctions regime and the opportunities available to them would any financial sanction come into play.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The Minister mentioned child poverty immediately before he took that intervention. Does he accept that the fact that a parent has gone into work does not automatically mean that the child is not in poverty any more?

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

In many ways, that misses the point. We are talking about work-related activity, not work. There is no requirement for parents whose youngest children are under the age of seven to take up employment. We are talking about work-related activities and receiving support such as that which lone parents receive in the new deal for lone parents. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman's party's position is on that, although I know that the official Opposition want to get rid of it.

Lords amendment 2 amends the Bill so that financial sanctions could not be imposed upon a "single" parent in receipt of income support with a child under five if they failed to undertake work-related activity. The amendment would not achieve the purpose that I believe it was intended to achieve. "Single" is not defined in social security legislation, so there is a risk that it could be interpreted to mean a non-resident parent, rather than the lone parent who has caring responsibility for the child. We must therefore amend the Bill today or risk an absent parent using the measure as an excuse to avoid getting back to work.

Nevertheless, to set that drafting error to one side, in both Houses there has been vigorous debate-we hear some echoes of it now-about when, based on the age of the youngest child, we should start requiring lone parents to undertake work-related activity. Based on those debates, and on the changes we have made to put the safeguards that I have described on the face of the Bill, we still believe that starting the process when a lone parent's youngest child is aged three is right, not only because there is normally a strong foundation of child care provision available for children in this age range, but because it will allow them gradually to build their confidence and skills at a pace that suits them over four years, rather than being expected to cram in the work-related activity that they need to undertake when their youngest child is five to six.

Some 76 per cent. of non-working lone parents use the free child care offered for three and four-year-olds that was developed by this Government. Most schools now have reception classes for four-year-olds. Surely it is reasonable to ask parents to use a fraction of that time to start to get ready for work? For example, 74 per cent. of non-working lone parents do not hold any qualifications. Three quarters use the free child care; three quarters have no qualifications. Why would not we ask them to take up the offer of free education to get a basic literacy and numeracy qualification in some of the time when their children are receiving an early years education?

The Conservatives, according to what their leader said today, think that

"the first step is to redistribute power and control form the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities. That way we can create the opportunity for people to take responsibility."

If that is what they truly believe-if this is to be a new fresh start for the Tories on poverty-they have to support the Government amendment today. Work-related activity for lone parents of children aged three to five is precisely what Mr. Cameron is talking about; it is creating

"the opportunity for people to take responsibility."

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I think that we have been consistent about this matter. The Minister seems somewhat uncomfortable talking about sanctions affecting very young children, but I do want to ask him a question. There is not much between us otherwise, but why is it so important to have financial sanctions that can be imposed on parents with children as young as three and four? If the sanctions became available when children were five, that would still leave two years for the parents to be engaged in work-related activity with the threat of sanctions behind them. Why is it so necessary to have sanctions when children are so young?

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

It is worth the House noting that the Opposition believe that it is appropriate to have financial sanctions in respect of work-focused interviews for lone parents whose youngest children are from three to five years old. They agree that financial sanctions are appropriate in those circumstances, but in his question the hon. Gentleman wondered about work-related activity. If he believes in the work-focused interview, which sets out an action plan for parents but has no means of enforcing that plan, he is being inconsistent.

I have said already that I believe that we need to have the opportunity to configure the support for longer than two years. Many lone parents face substantial problems, and that means that we must be able to configure the support on offer to enable them to overcome the obstacles to getting into work. It would appear that not only are the Opposition inconsistent but they are not serious about tackling poverty. If they are serious about poverty, why are they voting against this proposed action to cut child poverty? If they are serious about responsibility, why are they voting to take away the responsibility for lone parents whose children are in education to take up the support that they need?

We know that the Opposition want to abolish the new deal for lone parents, and now they want to oppose creating the opportunity for people to take responsibility. However, we appreciate the concerns raised by stakeholders, and those raised by Labour Members. They are nervous that our good intentions may not work in practice so-ever reasonable-I am seeking the House's agreement to offer, in lieu of the Lords amendment, an amendment of our own that would provide yet one more safeguard.

The House will be aware that the Bill serves to set out the framework of the work-related activity proposals that we wish to test before national implementation, and that the detail of those proposals will be set out in regulations. The amendment that I propose would require all work-related activity regulations, in so far as they relate to lone parents with children under seven, to be brought back to the House for further affirmative debate before being introduced nationally. That should reassure the House that passing the Bill will not have the effect of shutting the door on further debate about work-related activity for this customer group. Any regulations made within five years after royal assent will come back to the House and the other place, and Members of both Houses will have every opportunity to consider whether work-related activity is working in practice.

I believe that it is right for lone parents to begin the journey towards work in good time, so that they can take positive steps to prepare for rejoining the labour market and help take themselves and their families out of poverty. To remove their responsibility to start to get ready for work early would also remove the responsibility of Jobcentre Plus to provide support from an early stage.

That would be wrong. It would be a backward step, and could only come from the motivation to save money at the expense of those who need support the most. That may be the Opposition's agenda, but it is not ours. We are proud of the new deal for lone parents that the Opposition want to abolish. We are proud that more lone parents are getting into work, and that they see that these measures are necessary if we are to continue our good work on tackling child poverty through work. I look forward to hearing whether the Opposition are really serious about poverty, or whether with them it is all talk and no action.

I urge the House to overturn Lords amendment 2, and to support Government amendment (a) in lieu.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

May I begin by welcoming the Minister to the proceedings on this Bill? He has obviously spent some time studying the provisions, and he will know from previous debates that we on this side of the House have expressed broad support for the Bill and its objectives. We support many of the measures in the Bill-as we should, indeed, since we suggested many of them before the Government took them up. I admire the dexterity with which the Minister has approached the Lords amendments, and the main issue that lies at the heart of them.

The House could be forgiven for forgetting about Lords amendment 2 altogether, given how long it took the Minister to come to it. From the outset, therefore, I want to make it clear that this is the issue that lies between the parties as far as these Lords amendments are concerned. I shall take a little time to go through the issue, as I think that the Minister will have to accept, when he hears what we have to say about it, that we have been completely consistent. We welcome many of the safeguards, but he has spent such a long time putting them in place and speaking about them that it makes one wonder what is the point of the sanction in the first place. We remain uncomfortable about that sanction for reasons that I shall explain.

In approaching the question of what is to be required of lone parents, I agree with the generality of what the Minister said about getting them ready for work. We certainly believe that it is important that lone parents be helped to prepare for work, and we have not opposed general moves to take a more active approach in that field-far from it. We were at the forefront in suggesting that the age at which income support would come to an end should be lowered, and that there should be a transfer from income support to jobseeker's allowance. The Minister knows the thinking of my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith on the issue, and that seems to have played a part in shaping the Government's thinking.

We note that until last year single parents were entitled to remain on income support until their youngest child reached 16 years old. Such parents were, therefore, under what has generally been described as a passive regime, which neither made many requirements of them nor, certainly for parents of children up to 16 years old, contained the threat of sanctions that is now in the Bill. The effect of the Government's proposals is to lower the bar for those sanctions from the age of 16 to the age of three.

The Government announced the reform of the income support regime for lone parents only in the summer of 2007, and began its phased implementation last year. We have heard from the Minister about amendments in another place introducing safeguards on the requirements to be made of single parents when it comes to work-related activity, and we broadly support those safeguards. They were, in fact, announced as policy when the Bill was in Committee in our place, so in a small way I suppose that they mark progress.

However, the important part of this debate is that, after all that the Minister has told us about safeguards, and the lengthy process of missed interviews, case reviews, written warnings, further warnings, home visits, fourth warnings and so on, there remains the possibility that lone parents with pre-school age children of three and four years old could face financial sanctions as a result of failing to comply with the proposed regime.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Yes, I shall certainly give way. The right hon. Lady has experience of these matters.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the noble Lord Freud, who is no doubt watching these deliberations from on high somewhere, said that the Conservative party was not against financial sanctions? Indeed, he said:

"Our amendment is drawn deliberately narrowly" and that his party was not against

"established financial sanctions for not complying with its- the regime's-

"rather light requirements."-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 22 October 2009; Vol. 713, c. 835.]

There is an inherent contradiction in the Opposition's case, which makes me think that it is more about opportunism than about supporting lone parents.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The right hon. Lady has made her point, but may I draw her attention to Lords amendment 2? It says:

"Nothing in this section shall cause any financial sanction to be imposed in the case of a single parent with a child under five years of age."

That amendment was moved by my noble Friend Lord Freud, and it could not be more explicit. The right hon. Lady knows that we have been consistent throughout and argued that five years old should be the age at which work-related requirements are followed up with sanctions. We have been quite consistent about that throughout the Bill's passage in this place, as I think she knows, and in the other place; and the issue comes before the House today because of that amendment.

I shall take the House through what is proposed. Parents of pre-school age children could be required to undertake work-related activity. They could be directed to undertake work-related activities by advisers. Presumably that means that their advisers may direct them to undertake specific work-related activities. After the process that the Minister has proposed, they could still face sanctions-including financial sanctions-if they fail to comply, as such sanctions remain part of the Government's arrangements. I wonder what the purpose is of these financial sanctions. The Minister did not give a sufficient explanation of why sanctions are considered to be so necessary for parents of children as young as three and four. We heard such a lot about safeguards, and that makes me think that something in the detail of the Bill is wrong. More and more safeguards have been added to the Bill during its passage through this House and another place.

Why are the Government so stuck on this provision, and why are they so obstinate in their refusal to consider the issues at stake? Is the possible application of sanctions justified by what is at stake? After all, when the youngest child reaches the age of five, there will still be two years in which the lone parent can be engaged in work-related and progression-to-work activities before the child reaches the age at which the parent will be migrated from income support to jobseeker's allowance. We accept that that group may include many lone parents who face barriers to work and are not work ready, but two years will amount to a significant period in which they can be helped, backed throughout by the threat of sanctions, from which we do not demur. That will come on top of whatever other help they have received in the preceding period from the ages of three to five years, not backed by financial sanctions.

We must consider whether the attainment of the child's school age is the appropriate point at which lone parents can be fully engaged in the Government's progression-to-work regime in its full rigour, backed by sanctions. As Mrs. McGuire will know, we have been consistent in advocating the age of five and have argued for that throughout. In Committee, I moved an amendment on those lines, which was defeated. We moved an amendment on Report when the matter came back before the House, and it was voted on and defeated. Therefore, prior to the passing of the Lords amendment, the age stood at three at which parents would come into the progression-to-work regime in its full rigour, with directions and mandatory work-related activities, and backed by sanctions. The Lords amendment has altered that so that the age now stands at five, which we think is more sensible.

We must set this in the context of the progression-to-work model set out by the Government in their response to the Gregg report, which, notwithstanding everything that the Minister has said, remains the Government's policy. I look to him to demur from what I am saying if that is not the case. We are told that lone parents with children aged one to two years are:

"Required to attend Work Focused Interviews and agree an action plan. They are not mandated to undertake any activities recorded on the action plan or any other activities, although they will be encouraged to do so on a voluntary basis".

Once the child has turned three, the lone parent is:

"Required to follow the progression to work regime based around Work Focused Interviews, action plans, work related activity and the backstop of adviser direction".

On any view, the full rigour of the regime kicks in at three. The Lords amendment suggests that at least these parents should not face the liability for financial sanctions under the regime.

The Minister announced as a great concession amendment (a) in lieu of the Lords amendment. I think that he possibly put it a little strongly when he suggested that it was a great safeguard. I am not saying that the amendment is unwelcome, but I invite the House to consider it and set it against the issues at stake. The Minister did not deal with it in great detail, so it might assist Members if I provide a little more detail to enable them to assess how much value should be attached to it. It requires the affirmative resolution procedure to be followed in respect of regulations imposing work-related activities on lone parents of children under seven. Although that is welcome in itself, it does not address the questions that arise from the motion on amendment 2. The amendment in lieu deals with work-related activities to be imposed on the lone parents in question, not the sanctions that are to be imposed as a result of a breach of those requirements.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I do not want to sound cynical, but affirmative resolution procedures are invariably not worth the paper they are written on. By the time the matters in question come back to the House, people have forgotten the details of the original debate and the votes are whipped, so they are worthless undertakings. They should not be allowed to deflect Members from the issue at stake today, which is women with children as young as three having financial sanctions imposed on them because of the Government's proposal.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I think I was a little kinder than the hon. Lady in what I said about the value of affirmative resolutions. As a parliamentarian, I always welcome the affirmative procedure and argue in favour of it when considering Bills, but one needs a tinge of realism when discussing the subject.

I am always in favour of parliamentary debates, but following the hon. Lady's point I would say that even when the regulations come before the House, they will not deal with the issue in question. The affirmative resolution procedure will relate to the regulations, not to the sanctions that will back them up. We will have no say on the sanctions. Also, the affirmative resolution procedure will be in respect of requirements for children under seven. The question is what will happen to people with children under five, not under seven, so I respectfully argue that the amendment in lieu does not make a great deal of difference. The Minister put it a little too strongly when he said that it was the necessary safeguard in lieu of the Lords amendment, because it does not address the question at all. It is a bit of a misrepresentation to say that it is an amendment in lieu in the sense of forming a satisfactory replacement for the amendment from the House of Lords. It is off the point altogether.

Similarly, the Government have introduced other amendments, which the Minister spoke about at great length earlier. I broadly welcome many of them, but again I question whether they address the point at issue between us. The amendments that the Government introduced in another place were put forward on the basis of addressing the concerns that have been expressed about the requirements made of lone parents with younger children. Many such concerns were widely expressed in another place. The Government brought forward amendments described as a package of concessions-I believe that the Minister himself has described them as such-so let us see how good the concessions are on the point about protecting lone parents of younger children from financial sanctions.

Lords amendments 3 and 4 are Government amendments designed to ensure that lone parents with a child under three could not be required to undertake work-related activity. However, that is not a change in policy, because the Government have always stated that that was their intention. They said that right from the start and throughout Committee stage in this place. They stated that their intention was that lone parents with children under three would not be subject to the full regime of work progression. The amendments put that policy intention into law, but they do not in any way answer the question of what should happen to lone parents of children aged between three and five, which is what Lords amendment 2 is about.

Similarly, Lords amendment 5 would give lone parents entitled to income support a right to restrict the hours for which they will be required to undertake work-related activity. We are told that it could be used to enable them to restrict such activities to their child's hours of schooling or formal child care. Even then, if they had made that restriction and were found not to be in compliance with the requirements, they would face financial sanctions. That amendment therefore does not address that question either.

Lords amendments 10, 26 and 78 provide that regulations prescribing just cause for failing to undertake mandatory activities must expressly state that availability of child care and the claimant's physical or mental health or condition will always be considered. Again, however, we had already been told that the availability of child care was to be taken into account as a matter of policy. The Minister introduced that as a concession today, but we were told that in Committee by his then ministerial colleague, Mr. McNulty. He told the Committee, before the Bill went to the other place that

"the absence of such provision will be taken fully into account when discussing the details of an individual's work-related activity at three." --[ Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 24 February 2009; c. 120.]

That has been included in the Bill, but it would have been the Government's policy in any case. I will leave the House to judge the value of that concession as part of the package of concessions.

Taking the concessions in the round, they are either on a different matter or they put into law what would be Government policy in any case. They still leave open the possibility of lone parents of children as young as three or four facing the threat of financial sanctions. Although we may welcome the amendments, we do not think that they tackle the matter at stake. The Minister went through them carefully, but as a package of concessions, it misses the point, which, for us, has been an issue all along.

Let me deal with an amendment that we welcome. It represents a new development and is about a different subject. The Minister mentioned Lords amendment 25 and he was right about it. Under it, the Secretary of State would be required to exercise existing regulation-making powers to provide that victims of domestic violence can, for 13 weeks, start or continue a claim for jobseeker's allowance without being available for employment. That is a good idea, which we welcome. It is in line with what we proposed in a strategy paper in December 2008, when we suggested a three-month period of grace, during which women who were housed in refuges should be exempt from the requirement to seek work to qualify for jobseeker's allowance. It is right that we recognise the stresses, strains and problems that such women face at that unfortunate time in their lives. We accept that women who are the victims of domestic violence will have suffered considerable emotional distress and find themselves dealing with several practical issues, making it difficult for them to find work.

We remain concerned about Lords amendment 2 and the Government's motion to disagree. I say to Labour Members that our position on lone parents with children aged under five has been consistent throughout. If one examines the history, the Government have some questions to answer about their consistency on the matter. Originally, in the Green Paper of July 2008, they chose five as the age at which the requirements should be imposed. Barely six months later, they unilaterally lowered the age to three, without giving any justification, in response to the Gregg report on conditionality.

In March, because we supported the Government's original proposal-that five was the appropriate age-the then Secretary of State accused us of opposing the whole Bill and of using our view on age to block welfare reform. On Third Reading, he said:

"This Bill has gone through despite the opposition of Her Majesty's Opposition and it has gone through as a Labour Bill. They said that it would go through only with their support; it has gone through despite their opposition. That shows that they are not serious about welfare reform."-[ Hansard, 17 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 865.]

I shall leave it to the House to judge, but there was no such talk from the Minister today. In March we were portrayed as the determined opponents of welfare reform in the Government's eyes, whereas today, if one judges from what was said on "Today" earlier, we are the dangerous proponents of welfare reform. The Government should make up their mind about their attitude to welfare reform. They are currently oscillating-saying one thing, then another. They are all over the place.

There is an important matter at stake-the single issue that lies between us. Although we broadly support the Bill, we are concerned about the financial sanctions. Given that we are considering children as young as three and four, and lone parents, with the financial pressures that they face and all the stresses in their lives, the Government must make a better case against the amendment that was passed in the House of Lords if they propose imposing a regime of such sanctions on lone parents. We have not heard that case today, and we remain concerned about the matter. We believe that the House of Lords was right and nothing that we have heard so far from the Labour Benches has dissuaded us.

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Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 4:30 pm, 10th November 2009

I rise briefly to support Lords amendment 2 and reluctantly to oppose those on the Treasury Bench. I shall make three points, the first of which is on the politics of the amendment.

When I first read the amendment, which effectively raises from three to five the age that children must attain before their parents are subject to benefits sanction if they are not enthusiastic enough about work-related activity, I had been following the debate in outline rather than in detail, and I wondered who had made the proposal in the other place: at first, I thought it might be a liberal bishop with a social conscience; then I thought it might be a former Labour MP rocking the boat, perish the thought; finally I thought it might be an independent peer-perhaps someone with a long record in the voluntary sector-who felt strongly about the issue. To my amazement, who should have proposed this amendment in the other place but the noble Lord Freud? I am not an expert in welfare reform and it took me five or 10 seconds to think, "Who exactly is the noble Lord Freud?" Of course, I remembered that he is very same welfare reform guru who advised my right hon. Friend James Purnell when he was a welfare reform Minister.

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Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

Indeed. Lord Freud also produced a report for the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Following the production of that report, I recall a report in The Daily Telegraph that said that our current Prime Minister had a "45-minute shouting match" with the noble Lord Freud before the latter was

"aggressively cross-examined by a room full of Treasury advisers".

What has politics become? Here we have a Labour Government, whom I am proud to serve as a humble Back Bencher, adopting a more hard-line position than the noble Lord Freud and the Conservatives. That makes me question our position.

Secondly, I acknowledge that although the Secretary of State-it is a pity that she is not here this afternoon-has stuck to the position that it is possible for parents of three and four-year-old children to face benefit sanctions, as has been spelled out today, she has hemmed it in with all sorts of qualifications. For example, the well-being of the child has to be considered, and the basic policy outlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister is three strikes and out. Then, of course, there is the question of the statutory instrument, which would require the approval of the House. When my hon. Friend Ms Abbott questioned the effectiveness of such a measure, my eyes were opened. I always believed that SIs were a safeguard, but apparently they are not.

There are safeguards, but at the end of the day, it might be that in a few months' time, possibly in a little room in a jobcentre in South Dorset or in Pontefract and Castleford, a vulnerable single parent will sit at one end of the table and an official will sit at the other, and the former will have to justify their actions, justify why they are not taking up the appropriate child care so that they can do work-related activity or justify their personal circumstances.

I am a great believer in Fabianism, but there is a part of the Webb tradition that borders on authoritarianism and says, "We know best." It is a bold claim, but I think those who are doubtful about the Government's position, including me, speak for middle England. Selby is a middle England constituency, similar in some ways to South Dorset. The Opposition are right to say that thinking has changed on the Government Benches. Most people in middle England would say that there should be sticks as well as carrots when children of single parents attain a certain age, but most would be shocked to think that a Labour Government are proposing to cut up to 40 per cent. of benefits in the worst cases, and that they are proposing to make those savage cuts to the benefits of parents whose children are under five. I do not think that we are carrying middle England with us on the issue.

I said that I would be brief, so I shall make my third point. It is a pity that the Secretary of State is not here today, because I recognise, as do some of the pressure groups, such as Gingerbread, that she has tried to make the Bill more family-friendly. We in Yorkshire know that she is a warm, generous-hearted and engaging character, rather like my right hon. Friend the Minister. She has enlivened Yorkshire politics since she joined us in 2001 and has since brought up a family and a husband- [ Laughter. ] They have all enlightened Yorkshire politics.

This proposal is mean-spirited. It is cold, austere and technocratic, and it is unworthy of the Secretary of State and the Minister. I ask the Minister, even at this stage and in the spirit of Christmas, which is soon to be upon us, to drop his opposition to amendment 2.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Like Mr. Grogan, I am a great fan of the Webbs.

I find it odd that an amendment tabled by a former Government adviser who now feels comfortable in the Conservative party is being resisted as "too soft". Sometimes I cannot work out who is on which side. We have to be on the side of the child and the family, so we have real concerns about the motion to disagree with amendment 2.

Various arguments have been advanced as to why we should reject amendment 2. One is that the amendment is not clear, because it uses the phrase "single parent" rather than "lone parent", but it is fairly obvious what it means. Indeed, Lord McKenzie, in opposing the amendment in the other place said that it would mean that

"lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four would be required to attend a work-focused interview",-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 22 October 2009; Vol. 713, c. 840.]

so he knew perfectly well what it meant. If the Government's only objection is that this amendment is not tidy enough, they could have tabled an amendment to make the provision work properly, but they do not want it to work properly, which is not a credible argument.

It has been argued that the amendment does not apply to the full range of benefits, but only to certain ones, and that it could be tidied up. If it simply needs sorting out, but its spirit is accepted, the Government could deal with the matter. However, the Government do not want to deal with the matter, because they do not agree with the principle, and it is the principle that must concern us now.

I thought that the Minister was very candid when I asked him why we need the stick. Why do we need to blackmail lone parents with a youngest child of three or four to take all the goodies, help and assistance that is on offer? According to the Government, lone parents need to be forced to take that, because the Government know what is best for them. That is clearly the Government's position, as the Minister hinted when he said that we have to make it more uncomfortable for lone parents to do the wrong thing. The key question for Liberals is who decides what is the wrong thing for someone responsible for the well-being of a child aged three or four. Even when a child is as young as three or four, the Government say that they, rather than the parent, know what is best for that child, and they will threaten the household's well-being if the parent does not do what they want, which seems very presumptuous.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Like me, my parliamentary neighbour has had the opportunity to talk to new deal organisers, and it is refreshing to listen to their stories of lone parents who had no education, but who have taken up the opportunities that the Government have offered. I do not understand why the Government do not see that as a great success and continue to invest in that programme, rather than looking at the stick.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I agree; nobody doubts the potential of these schemes if they are taken up by willing volunteers. In many such cases, they are very successful, but there is a world of difference between a scheme that someone enters into willingly and enthusiastically, and one that people are coerced into entering. Indeed, the Government's approach could be counter-productive, because everybody who took part would know that they were doing so under duress, whereas if we removed the requirement for parents of three and four-year-olds, everybody would be a voluntary participant. We all know, from talking to advisers and others, that it is the willing and voluntary participants in such schemes who have the best results, not those doing so with a stick at their back.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that work is the best route out of poverty? If he does, why can he not see that, given that the length of time spent out of the labour market determines how easy it is to get back into it, we should start to encourage people to overcome the obstacles so that they can get back into work?

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

It is interesting to note the weasel words. The Government are not proposing to "encourage": they are proposing to force, blackmail and threaten. We have no problem with encouraging lone parents with children of three or four to start the process of becoming ready for work, but why did the Minister use the word "encourage", not "force", "threaten" or "blackmail", because that is what a sanction regime does? It does not solely encourage; it goes much further than that.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 4:45 pm, 10th November 2009

If the hon. Gentleman agrees that work is the best route out of poverty, but does not like what he describes as "blackmail", does that mean that he does not agree with that approach for any jobseekers? Why does he agree with it for some customers of Jobcentre Plus, but not for others?

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

As the Minister says, there is a fundamental question about the role of sanctions; on the Liberal Democrat Benches, we have a general scepticism about the role of sanctions. However, the case before us is a strong one, because the state is presuming that it, rather than the parent, knows what is best for the welfare of a child. We are talking about not only, for example, an unemployed adult, but the parent of a young child. The state is saying, "We know what's best for the welfare of your child. You don't. And we'll take money off you until you do what we tell you to do." [Interruption.] I do not know why the Minister is shaking his head, because that is precisely what the legislation does.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We are not saying that we know what is best for the child; we are saying that the well-being of the child comes first. This should be at the convenience of the parent-if adequate child care is available, and while the child is in whatever child care, nursery setting or school that the parent thinks is appropriate. All we are saying is that work is the best route out of poverty. If we are committed to tackling child poverty, we have to make it easier, and put the structures in place, for lone parents to be able to get back into work.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

There is a non sequitur in the Government's argument. They seem to argue that-the Minister in the Lords, Lord McKenzie, argued this-without the threat, the support cannot be provided, which is nonsense. Lord McKenzie said that, if we accept the amendment, it

"would mean depriving lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four of the help and support that they may need".-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 22 October 2009; Vol. 713, c. 839.]

Why? Why does the absence of bullying, a threat or a sanction prevent Governments and jobcentres from contacting lone parents, encouraging them and telling them what is available? Why do we need to threaten them?

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I respect the hon. Gentleman and his party's position on no sanctions of any kind. However, is not the case against sanctions for women with children under five that such sanctions affect not only the adult, who is arguably conscious of making their own decisions, but children who are already living on the breadline? Those are the people whom my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench want to sanction.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

That is absolutely right. There is a fiction in the Department for Work and Pensions that when sanctions are applied, they are sanctions on the adult bit of the benefit. However, the implications of the sanction are felt by the whole household. The Minister has said, "Ah no, we have brought in a safeguard-the well-being of the child." I have looked at the three amendments in the group relating to the well-being of the child, and they relate to action plans-amendments 8 and 54-and to jobseekers' agreements.

Will the Minister clarify something? Surely it is very hard to argue that the sanction does not adversely affect the welfare of the child, so how does the safeguard work? The action plan is drawn up with the welfare of the child in mind, as, too, is the jobseekers' agreement. However, if the lone parent does not comply, will an appeal tribunal or a DWP official argue, "Well, it is in mum's best interest that she gets to work, because work is the best route out of poverty, so even if the child has to live below the breadline for a while, it is for the best"? It is hard to know what that so-called safeguard means.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The phrase, "the best route out of poverty is work", concerns me a little, first because work is not always a route out of poverty. There is a second reason however: according to the Government's logic, that route could take us right down to age zero. Surely for some families, where both kids and adults are affected by lots of problems, the best thing is not to be working; however, such families should not be in poverty either.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out in an earlier intervention that there are as many children in poverty in working households as in non-working households, so work in itself is not a guarantee of being out of poverty. I also take his point that it should surely be for the lone parent themselves to judge what is in the best interests of their family, particularly when their children are young, rather than for the state to impose that on them.

The safeguards, although welcome if we have to lump what the Government propose, make the system even more complicated for someone trying to navigate it. Such a person might fail to comply, after which they get another go, but then they might fail to comply again. One of the earlier speakers in this debate said, "It's three strikes and you're out," and the Minister said from a sedentary position, "It's four strikes and you're out," but at what point is a decision appealable? If someone says, "I don't think this is in the best interests of the child-it's in breach of the Lords amendments," can the individual concerned go to appeal? Can they go to appeal because someone says that something conflicts with the child's school hours or school holidays? Can someone go to appeal on the availability of child care? The Government say that there is enough good child care available, but what if someone says that there is not, because they would need to get a bus there and they do not have the money for the bus fare?

Everything gets incredibly complicated. Lynne Jones mentioned in an intervention a family with five children. Often we are talking about families with not only one child under five, but several. Life can be incredibly complex and messy, and then there are all the hoops to jump through and all the caveats-you might satisfy this one, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but can you appeal against that one? Lone parents with young children do not need the grief, but that is what the additional threat will give them.

By all means let us contact lone parents and support them. Let us make the options that we give them as attractive as possible. Then I envisage that many will take those options up and see them as being to their long-term benefit. However, if a lone mother-or a lone father-decides that something is in the best interests of herself, her children and her family, she should have the right to do so.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I rise to speak in support of Lords amendment 2, but let me first nail the idea, which seems to emanate from my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, that single mothers as a group do not want to work and that they have to be coerced and threatened into doing so. The majority in my circle of friends are or were single mothers-some had children as early as 15-but they all went back to work. Indeed, some went back to work and got degrees-they did that of their own free will, 20 years ago, in circumstances that were a lot harder. My experience from my constituency is that single mothers with any type of skill are anxious to return to work and will do so given the right support.

What we are talking about in this debate is the Government's wish to coerce a residual group of young women, who probably do not have skills and almost certainly have very little education, back to work. Let us pause and think. I went back to work when my son was eight days old. I have nothing in principle against women with young children going back to work, but I was a well-paid woman doing a job that I loved. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are talking about ill-educated girls going back to work to stack shelves or do a service job, often in split shifts. That is the work that they want to drive those girls back to, not work that they would want to leave their three-year-old children to do. The first thing to say, therefore, is that the vast majority of single mothers, given the right support and encouragement, will go back to work as the Government wish.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

No.

Given the right support and help with child care, the majority of single mothers will go back to work. However, we are talking about a residual group of women who, in practice, go back at the very bottom of the work pyramid, to do jobs that none of us would want to leave our three-year-old children to do.

The second point is that the Government's proposal is based on fantasy figures about the availability of nursery care and child care for children aged three. Ministers have said that nursery places are available for three quarters of children, but that is not my experience in Hackney. My experience is that people regularly come to me with children aged five and above who cannot get places for them in nursery. I would be happier with the Government's proposal if the Government came to me with solid research to show that nursery provision is available for 75, 80 or 90 per cent. of children, but that is not my experience in the east end of London.

We therefore have a proposal based on fantasy figures about the availability of child care. However, even if child care were available to 100 per cent. of such children, speaking as a single mother-albeit a well-paid one-I put it to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that although some children skip off happily to nursery at the age of three and never look back, some do not like nursery, while others are sick every minute and have to stay at home for a week or two at a time. It is very hard for someone with a child who is poorly every other week or who has something wrong with them to sustain permanent employment. Only the mother is best placed to judge whether she can leave her three-year-old and go out to work.

As I have said, some children are happy in nursery at the age of two or three, but some need more support because of health issues or whatever. The mother should be able to judge that, not some official in a jobcentre. Even if 100 per cent. nursery care were available, which it is not, I believe that Ministers are peddling fantasy figures. Only a mother can tell whether it is best for her child to be left while she goes out to do work-related activity or to work. The residual group of mothers that we are talking about needs support and education as mothers; they do not need to be shoehorned into jobs at the bottom of the work pyramid.

Ministers have tried to explain to me that those women will have to work only if it fits in with school or nursery hours. Again, they are not talking about the real world. Are they taking into account travel time to and from work and the time it takes to pick up children from nursery? When my son was five, I had to leave Westminster an hour and a quarter before picking him up from nursery. Are Ministers adding on these women's travelling time? Are they taking into account the time that it takes to travel to pick up another child from school after picking up a younger child from nursery? This is not real world stuff.

Of course work is a route out of poverty, and of course we should encourage and support single mothers who want to go back to work. In the middle of a recession that has by no means played itself out, however, it is unconscionable to talk about imposing financial sanctions on women with children as young as three. We know that those women are on the breadline because they are on benefits.

It is a fact that, nowadays, the proceedings of the House of Commons are not properly reported, if they are reported at all. Colleagues on the Treasury Bench will be grateful for that, because if ordinary Labour members and supporters could hear Labour Ministers talking about imposing financial sanctions on women with three-year-old children to get them into notional jobs in the middle of a very real recession, they would be shocked and unhappy. Ministers have not made their case, and I will be voting to support Lords amendment 2.

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Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I should like to start by quoting from the Department for Work and Pensions' five-year strategy that was published in 2005. It states:

"we think it would be wrong simply to move lone parents from Income Support onto the Jobseeker's Allowance regime: an unrestricted requirement to search for work is inappropriate, given the complex and difficult circumstances many lone parents face. We think such an approach would be expensive, unfair and ineffectual."

I agree, but what has changed since 2005? Certainly, lone parents have continued to engage with work as their children have got older. They have been supported and helped by programmes such as the new deal, which I fully support.

It seems, however, that we are constantly having to respond to the Daily Mail-type agenda, which suggests that lone parents and other people on benefit-perhaps incapacity benefit-are somehow feckless and living the life of Riley while the state pays them luxurious benefits. That is not the case. As the DWP knows full well, the reality is that only a small proportion of lone parents with children over 11 are actually not in work. The figures that I have are probably not the most up to date, but they suggest that 19 per cent. of lone parents whose youngest child is over 11 claim income support. Of those, 25 per cent. are caring for a disabled child, and 28 per cent. have a disability themselves.

The reality is that lone parents do engage in work, and as the child care becomes less onerous as their children get older-or as the access to child care improves-more of them are returning to work. Research has shown that access to good quality child care is the biggest factor in determining whether lone parents go out to work. I commend the Government's work over the years on improving access to child care, but we still have a long way to go. In that quote, the Government seemed to acknowledge that lone parents have difficult lives and that they have to juggle their work and home lives.

I agree with my hon. Friend Ms Abbott that it is not for some bureaucrat to decide what is best for children. Most parents take responsibility for their children and do a good job. We should value the work that parents do in bringing up their children. That in itself is a valid contribution to our society. By all means, those who want to work and can work should be encouraged to do so, but we as a society should value the work that parents do in bringing up children and value the decisions they make about how best to do that. Yes, some people may be inadequate and need support, so we need programmes to offer it, but I do not agree with having sanctions to deprive people who are already poor of their benefits, as this may affect the children.

The biggest problem people face is coping with poverty. Yes, work will help people get out of poverty, but for some people, it is not in the interests of their family for them to work. The Government acknowledge that, as we have had all sorts of concessions made to the original proposals, which I welcome. I think that the new Secretary of State has engaged positively, trying to reflect the realities of life for lone parents in trying to engage with work, but what we have as a result is a very complex and bureaucratic system. We know that people do not understand complex systems. We know that those on the receiving end of those bureaucratic complexities do not understand them. We also know that the staff who administer those complex regulations are often not very good at understanding them. As a result, we do not always get the right decisions.

I remain of the view that the Government are right to support people on benefits, lone parents and other groups to engage in work so that they have a life of their own away from their caring responsibilities. That is good. I think that most lone parents who experience that kind of support value it and want to engage, so I think it is unnecessary to have these complex regulations to invoke sanctions against already poor people. We know from DWP research that staff themselves feel very uncomfortable about introducing a mandatory element into their work with lone parents. The Government should listen to the views of those staff, which are well documented in the DWP's own research publications.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Given that the staff working at the sharp end do not want to be involved in mandatory sanctions for women with children up to the age of three, why does my hon. Friend think that Ministers are so wedded to those mandatory sanctions? They have not explained themselves and my hon. Friend might be able to shed some light on this issue.

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Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I think the answer is in what I said at the beginning of my contribution-that there is an agenda out there that we have to be tough. I simply do not accept the idea of tough love. I think that we need positive encouragement and incentives for people to live a more fulfilled life, which they often experience by going out to work. I take my hon. Friend's point that some jobs that people engage in are low paid and not particularly interesting to do, but even those jobs provide the advantage of enabling people to meet others and to develop friendships and comradeships with their fellow workers. I believe that people value that experience; it is part of being part of society.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling

If the Government were proposing to extract parents from their home, absolve them of responsibility for their children and put them into jobs, I would probably agree with my hon. Friend, but that is not what is being proposed. Does she accept that it is important that lone parents and women in particular remain with some sort of attachment to the labour market so that when they make the decision to go back into employment, they still have live skills that they can use to lift their children and their families out of poverty?

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Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I agree that opportunities should be provided for lone parents and other benefit recipients to engage in the world of work, in the voluntary sector and in other activities that include a social element. I do not think that people ought to be stuck at home with the children and without those opportunities. However, it is up to individuals to decide how they wish to engage with those opportunities. I do not think that the opportunities should be forced on them, along with the threat of a loss of benefits which are already not over-generous.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling

We have almost reached an agreement. We agree that it is important for young women, in particular, to remain in contact with the labour market. May I point out, however, that the subject of sanctions-on which I understand that my hon. Friend holds a principled position-arises very far down the line? There is encouragement, support and negotiation for months before sanctions are even mentioned. Does she not accept that that encouragement is built into the programmes proposed by my right hon. Friend the Minister?

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Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I do not accept that sanctions are necessary. All that can be said for them is that they provide a structure for the relationship, because staff cannot simply give up the attempt to make contact; they must continue the encouragement. That is the only beneficial aspect of a sanctions programme that I can see, and if it is to be used so rarely, why invoke it?

I think I am right in saying that since sanctions were introduced for work-focused interviews, about 4 per cent.-not an insignificant figure-of lone parents have had to endure them. My argument is that we need to ensure that the services on offer are excellent and effective, that we need to involve lone parents in the identification of what services are effective and ensure that they are on offer, and that if for some reason a lone parent does not engage with the process initially, we must not give up but must use other means of drawing their attention to the availability of support, such as Sure Start centres and after-school activities involving parents. The support should be seen as a positive element, and that can be achieved through members of these people's peer group, rather than their being forced to jump through hoops because Ministers want to appear tough.

In an earlier intervention, which was rather lengthy, I gave an example involving one of my constituents. Her children are older than the ones that we are discussing, but the case demonstrates that DWP staff know that it is a waste of time trying to develop an action plan for parents such as her to engage with the world of work, because they will never be in a position to do that.

I have visited my constituent at her home, and she has explained to me how she has to juggle her commitments in order to be there for her children. Some of them go to school, and she has to be there when they come home. They have severe disabilities. I know that because my constituent is a carer she will not be required to engage in work-focused activity, but none the less she is being subjected to regular mandatory work-focused interviews, and she resents that very much. For her, it is a complete waste of time-it is a waste of her time, and it is a waste of the staff's time.

My constituent acknowledges that she would like to maintain a relationship with the person who interviews her, because she is really nice and they have a nice chat. However, that is all that it amounts to: a nice chat. I think that it is probably better to support people who need nice chats in other areas of public services, such as schools and health care settings, than to force them to participate in work-focused interviews. She says she knows other parents of disabled children who feel that these requirements are unnecessary and intrusive.

Today we only have the opportunity to vote on removing the benefits sanctions in relation to three to five-year-olds, but we are concerned in general with a group that has young children and for whom child care is the most difficult to organise. I, too, will be supporting the Lords amendment. I just wish that we were not going down this route and that we were sticking to the voluntary approach.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but he needs the leave of the House to speak again on the Lords amendment.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (the South West), Regional Affairs, Minister of State (the South West), Department for Work and Pensions, Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (South West), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I say that I was grateful to my right hon. Friend Mrs. McGuire for her sterling support?

We started with an interesting speech from Mr. Clappison. My right hon. Friend described the speech as opportunism. I agree. The Opposition are simply playing politics rather than being serious. I confirm that the amendment tabled by the noble Lord Freud in the other place was restricted to work-related activity, so the position in the other place-there are countless examples of the noble Lord Freud saying something slightly different from the Opposition spokesman-was clear: there is no problem with financial sanctions in respect of lone parents whose youngest child is aged between three and five. The measure was in respect of work-related activity. Indeed, there was no problem with sanctions; it was only a question of financial sanctions. The hon. Gentleman talked, bizarrely, about what sounded like vouchers and about making it inconvenient by forcing people to travel across cities. For the avoidance of doubt, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the regulations in amendment (a) would include the sanctions.

My hon. Friend Mr. Grogan made a typically clear and, at times, amusing contribution, but I would obviously dispute that we are being mean-spirited. We are trying to help and support this group of lone parents, to improve that help and support and to build on the success of the new deal for lone parents. I was pleased that my hon. Friend Mr. Drew paid tribute to that programme.

Steve Webb talked about whether he would be characterised as too soft. He worried that we thought we knew best. I dealt with most of his points in a series of interventions, but if he agrees in any way with conditionality, he must see merit in what we are arguing.

I say to my hon. Friend Ms Abbott that we do not want to sanction anybody. We want lone parents to be supported and to get back into work, but in a way that is sympathetic to their needs as parents. That is what I said at the outset: the principle on family-friendly working is that we believe that work is the best route out of poverty but that, first and foremost, those parents have a responsibility to their children. Any requirement that we put on them, first and foremost, has to bear in mind the needs of the children and their needs as parents. I hope that it never comes to using any of these sanctions, but having them in place helps to focus the system.

I would also say to the hon. Member for Northavon that the work-related activity must flow from an action plan, so the safeguard does apply to work-related activity. It was unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington did not want to take any interventions, as that meant I was unable to clarify a few matters for her. She accused me of using fantasy figures, although they were taken from the Department for Children, Schools and Families child care and early years survey of parents of last year, but I think there was some fantasy attached to her argument. We are not talking about forcing people into work; we are talking about people agreeing with us an action plan through the work-focused interview, and then, at the end of a very long sanctions process, the possibility of financial sanctions. There is a guarantee of a child care place for 15 hours a week from 2010 and currently for 12.5 hours, which is already in place in Hackney for all three and four-year-olds, but if that is not in place in practice, that is certainly a good cause for a lone parent not to take advantage of the work-related activity that we would provide.

My hon. Friend Lynne Jones made an interesting contribution. She said we were merely competing with the other side as to which party was tougher. That is not our motivation at all. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling made clear in some of her useful interventions, our motivation is to help people-to help these lone parents be able to get into work-because there is a fundamental point here: we have to go back to the truth that the longer someone is out of the labour market, the more difficult it is for them to get back into work. Members have to weigh up in their minds whether or not they are serious about trying to help these lone parents overcome the obstacles to their getting back into work. Many of them will have more than one child, and if they wait until their youngest child is five, they will be waiting longer than five years to get back into the labour market. We want them to be able to have a flying start if they want one, once their children start school- [Interruption.] Yes, if they want one. They would not be required to go into work until their children are seven, but we want them to be able to have a flying start, and those of them who have literacy and numeracy problems-as many lone parents do-will need the time to be able to acquire those skills by taking advantage of the support on offer to them and to build their attachment to the labour market. That is why they need more than two years.

That is why this policy is right, and that is why the Conservatives have, within hours, failed to adhere to the principles on tackling poverty that were set out in the speech their leader delivered earlier. They are failing the test of wanting to tackle child poverty. This is at the heart of why the Government urge the House to agree to our amendment, and to disagree to the Lords amendment.

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Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2.

The House divided: Ayes 286, Noes 236.

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Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.

Government amendment (a) made in lieu of Lords amendment 2.

Consequential amendment (b) made.

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