Welfare Reform — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 10th December 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Spokesperson in the Lords, Work & Pensions 3:50 pm, 10th December 2008

My Lords, we on these Benches also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said about the press getting hold of the White Paper before this and the other House. Tomorrow's debate gives the House a chance to explore some of the wider issues raised by the White Paper, so I shall to be relatively brief this afternoon.

We give a warm welcome to the intention in the White Paper to help as many people as possible into meaningful work, but we are more guarded about some parts of it and opposed to other parts of the surrounding policy. It is something of a relief to have the final document before the Bill is published, which I presume will be early in the new year. We have had the Freud report, the Government's Green Paper, No one written off, and just lately the Gregg review, and there has been much speculation about what will be in the final Bill.

The economic climate for any major change to the welfare system is not good, but we know that the Government are determined to press ahead with the full package in spite of the caution given by their own advisers, the Social Security Advisory Committee. Other groups representing disadvantaged people are also very concerned about aspects of the policy, the most concerning being how the tougher sanctions regime is going to work in practice. We must be sure that claimants understand just what is expected of them by Jobcentre Plus offices. Research on how sanctions affected lone parents found that they often did not understand that they were being sanctioned. Why should they necessarily understand that word, or the ghastly word "conditionality"? Other DWP research on Pathways sanctions showed that they incentivised people to attend work-focused interviews, but not to engage further; therefore, it is imperative that the sanctions system is communicated clearly to claimants before it is invoked. I am glad that this was highlighted by Professor Gregg and is mentioned in the White Paper.

However, we hope that the sanctions regime will be a last resort. Will there be real flexibility in Jobcentre Plus offices for dealing with those who have fluctuating conditions such as ME, MS and mental health difficulties? I know that the purpose of the regime is to get people to comply with their obligations by attending work-focused interviews and, later on, taking part in work-related activity, but there will be many people who are not fully engaged simply because of health problems. It would be heartless to subject them to sanctions.

Another area of concern is compulsory community work experience in return for JSA after two years of claiming. We are absolutely opposed to treating the unemployed like criminals, which is bad enough in a benign economic climate but unforgivable in a severe recession. Nor do we agree with supplying free labour to employers while paying individuals less than the minimum wage. What would be the difference between this kind of work and community service? Punishment is one thing; meaningful employment or work experience is another, for which people should be paid adequately.

We are opposed to any measures that force lone parents with children younger than seven to find work until there is more flexibility in jobs, full evaluation of the changes already made in this area and, most importantly, affordable and adequate good-quality childcare in place across the country. I note that the Minister said that those with younger children must "prepare for work". Will he tell us what that means?

What should be factored into any calculations of childcare is that, in a recession, when a lot of older workers have been made redundant, more grandparents are likely to be jobseekers and therefore not available for free childcare duties. On a more positive note, we warmly support the fact that parents on means-tested benefits will be able to keep all their child maintenance payments from April 2010.

We support moves to pay private and third sector organisations to provide back-to-work support that caters for individual needs rather than for a one-size-fits-all programme, but the Government must adopt the right funding model. There must be some incentive to ensure that companies help those furthest from the job market, otherwise they will cherry-pick those easiest to place and leave the rest, particularly in today's climate. The White Paper, I am glad to say, explicitly addresses this issue in the sentence,

"we believe we can successfully discourage parking by designing programmes and funding models to properly incentivise providers".

Apart from the split infinitive, that statement is welcome, but must be properly monitored.

I am pleased to see that the White Paper makes clear that carers will not be moved from income support on to JSA until the Government have a clear and detailed plan setting out how they will reform the benefits system over the longer term.

Finally, we add our voice from these Benches to those who are calling for an independent commission to look at the whole benefits structure, including tax credits and the tax system in general to reduce complexity, increase transparency, improve work incentives, cut fraud and error and increase take-up.