Report (1st Day)

Welfare Reform Bill – in the House of Lords at 11:45 am on 22nd October 2009.

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Amendment 1

Moved by Lord Northbourne

1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

"General duty to have regard to the well-being of the child

(1) The Secretary of State, in discharging his functions under this Act, shall have regard to the well-being of any child likely to be affected by his decisions.

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), the meaning of "well-being of any child" includes—

(a) physical and mental health and social and emotional well-being;

(b) secure attachment and protection from harm and neglect;

(c) education, training and recreation;

(d) the contribution made by the child to society;

(e) social and economic well-being;

(f) age appropriate childcare, supervision and guidance."

(3) In the Jobseeker's Act 1995 (c. 18) after section 1 insert—

"1A Well-being of the child

The Secretary of State, in discharging his functions under this Act, shall have regard to the well-being of any child likely to be affected by his decisions."

(4) In the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (c. 5) after section 1 insert—

"1A Well-being of the child

The Secretary of State, in discharging his functions under this Act, shall have regard to the well-being of any child likely to be affected by his decisions.""

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 11:46 am, 22nd October 2009

My Lords, I am delighted that the Government have accepted the importance of protecting the well-being of any child or children whose lives may be affected by the Bill. As people are talking, I can take advantage of this time to thank the Minister very much for his courtesy in letting me know about the proposed amendments before they were tabled. Maybe the government amendments will make my proposed new Section 1A under Amendment 1 unnecessary. None the less, I will move it because I believe that it raises two important issues.

I will speak first about the proposal to define "well-being". I have come to the conclusion that it may be a mistake to put this or any other definition in the Bill. There is no doubt in my mind that the points covered in my definition are valid and important. The problem is, as so often with lists, that if they are incorporated in primary legislation they cannot easily be changed when circumstances change and, as we know, they almost always do. I believe therefore that there is a case for a definition of "well-being" in the guidance, but not in the Bill. I should be interested to know whether the Minister agrees.

I turn now to subsections (1), (2) and (3) of the proposed new clause to be inserted under my Amendment 1. I have set these down rather boldly at the start of the Bill because I want to convince the House and the Government that the well-being of the jobseeker's family should be at its very heart. I suspect that when the Bill was originally drafted, the primary objective, which is very important, was to reduce the number of people freeloading on the back of the taxpayer when, with a little help, they could be in paid work. It also has a very worthy secondary objective, which is to stop people wasting their lives and lead them to greater fulfilment through engaging in paid work. Finally, there came the realization of the need to protect the well-being of the jobseeker's children.

Pondering on the Bill since Committee, I have become convinced that its priorities should to be the other way round. This Bill could be one of the most exciting pieces of legislation that this Government have introduced if it is presented as what it is; that is, a Bill to empower families. It will do so by making profitable work a real possibility for many more families, thus enhancing the life chances of both adults and dependants. This should be a Bill to improve quality of life for the whole family. It will save on benefits, and that is another advantage, but I do not believe it should be the main purpose. That is why I have proposed this amendment at the very start of the Bill. In itself it may well not achieve my objective because it is in a sense probing or symbolic, but if the Government thought that by any chance I had a point with it I would expect them to craft their own amendments, and I would be willing to help. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Crossbench

I support the words of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in moving this amendment. I wonder, as he does, whether it is necessary to have this in primary legislation. I have to say that I am comforted by the amendments which have been tabled by the Government. However, it would be wonderful if the wise expressions of the amendment were to be set out in guidance, a statutory instrument or whatever it might be because a general duty to have regard to the well-being of the child could be helpfully set out somewhere.

I add only this point, arising from my previous life. The Children Act 1989 puts the welfare of the child as paramount, and it is the duty of the courts to have that absolutely up front in considering anything to do with children. In the various criminal justice Bills that have gone through the House, great effort has been put into making sure that the welfare of children is treated as equal to the need to deal with them by way of sentencing. It should be made clear somewhere in this extremely important Bill that regard should be had not only to—as the Government say—children's well-being, but to what is meant by that when people have to have regard to it.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, I, too, support most warmly my noble friend Lord Northbourne both in his amendment and in what he said about it. I also add my tribute to the Minister for the way that he has kept us all informed by circulating helpful reports to us, not just during the Recess but also since we have returned.

I have a particular reason for wanting to refer to subsection (2) of the proposed new clause, and I must declare an interest as a patron of an organisation called Childhood First, a privilege that is shared by my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. Would the Minister be good enough to make certain that Ofsted is made aware of the definitions of the well-being of a child? Childhood First provides a number of small homes which care for some of the most traumatised, damaged and difficult children in the country, young children who come from desperate circumstances. The charity, known first as Pepper Harrow and now as Childhood First, cares for them with consummate skill and devotion. Over the years it has earned consistently high gradings from originally the Inspectorate of Social Services and then the Commission for Social Care Inspection. However, Ofsted has come on to the scene recently, and what less than a year ago was outstanding for CSCI is inadequate for Ofsted. Indeed, Ofsted has even gone so far as to instruct that fences should be put around the houses in which these traumatised and damaged children live and, in the debrief it handed out on a home, it criticised the staff to the damaged children. If Ofsted were to read the six definitions of well-being, it would realise that its attitude to these children in care is not "well-being". Therefore, while praising the intention of the Bill and hoping that it achieves all that those taking part in the debates on it hope for, I hope that aim spreads to Ofsted as well.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

My Lords, no one can fault the motivation behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who is a close neighbour of mine in east Kent; we live in neighbouring hundreds. Clearly the well-being of our children is of paramount importance and all the criteria in the amendment are desirable, from the secure attachment of the child to his or her social and economic well-being. However, the question is whether it would be possible to run an already overcomplicated welfare system with such requirements in the Bill.

To ensure that decisions are taken which take into account all of these criteria would threaten paralysis of decision-making for Jobcentre Plus front-line staff and outside providers. Given the pivotal importance of getting as many people as possible back into the workplace, I am sure that this not the intention of the amendment. Amendment 15 is more tightly focused. It has been tabled by the Government in response to concern over the possible adverse effects of action plans and provides the appropriate level of protection for the Bill.

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Spokesperson for Work and Pensions

My Lords, I commend the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. The noble Lord had a seminal impact on the work we did in Committee and I, as a member of that committee, valued his wise counsel and experience in this field. He is an expert on the paramount needs of children and we have had some powerful representations from our Cross-Bench colleagues in that direction.

The noble Lord is right to say that this could be revolutionary legislation. If we can get the support mechanisms right and sensitively delivered, it could transform the lives of children. However, the Bill should be focused on worklessness, and if you focus exclusively on worklessness you have to be aware that the considerations contained in the amendment might get in the way. The noble Lord, Lord Freud, might well be right about the delivery of this mechanism. The signal success secured by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in introducing the word "well-being" into the Bill was a significant step forward. I have studied social security legislation for a long while and we will watch with great care how the guidance on well-being is played out, how it is delivered and what difference it makes.

It is very ambitious to propose applying subsections (3) and (4) of the proposed new clause across all the territory at once; it is a step too far at this stage. The noble Lord's instincts are right; this should go in guidance. The role that he has played in bringing the matters before both the Committee and the House is commendable and has improved the Bill. However, on his instinct to put this in guidance, speaking from my own experience, we should first watch it and see how it goes. This legislation will be evaluated very keenly from all sides in the future and, if I were the noble Lord, I would settle for the significant progress he has made and see what the Government make of it before he returns to it—as I am sure he will in his inimitable way—in future.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, I, too, support the principle behind my noble friend's amendment and pay tribute to him for the long-standing commitment he has to the welfare of children, particularly that they should experience a secure family life as they grow up. I am led to reflect on past briefings that I have received on the continental experience, where it appears that more mothers are in employment, yet women delay returning to work longer. That might seem paradoxical, but, from my recollection, it is the situation.

We have to proceed with particular care in this country, because, in contrast with the culture on the continent, ours is not one in which the value of caring for children and good-quality maternal care has been demonstrated. Our care system in many ways falls short, whereas that on the continent appears often to have performed better. We therefore need to be very careful—as the House is striving to be—that, in making this important progress, we do not lose sight of the strong attachment that children have to their carers, as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, mentioned.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (also in Department for Work and Pensions), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government) 12:00 pm, 22nd October 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for moving the amendment and the manner in which he did so, as well as for his kind words about me. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made a significant contribution in Committee; it certainly moved and focused the Government and I thank him for that. However, the Government share the analysis of the noble Lords, Lord Kirkwood and Lord Freud, about the particular focus of the amendment—as the noble Lord said in moving it, it is by way of a probing amendment.

As he and others have recognised, I announced in Committee that the Government would bring forward amendments which ensured that the well-being of children was always taken into account when the personal adviser and parent completed an action plan or a jobseeker's agreement. I welcome the probing amendment, but it would go a stage further and create a duty on the Secretary of State to have regard to the well-being of any child affected by the discharge of any function under the Bill, the Welfare Reform Act 2007 or the Jobseekers Act 1995. We do not believe that it is either necessary or appropriate to apply a specific consideration of child well-being across all of the provisions.

Section 7 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 states that it is the general duty of the Secretary of State to promote the well-being of children in England. What constitutes well-being is set out in Section 10(2) of the Children Act 2004 and includes 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—which have strong parallels with the criteria that the noble Lord identified.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, asked how the definition of well-being would be dealt with. The Government propose to use the definition that I have just outlined when advisers and decision-makers make judgments on what is reasonable when they draw up an action plan or jobseeker's agreement with a parent, and it will be placed in guidance.

It is far more appropriate specifically to apply the consideration of the well-being of a child to the drawing-up of action plans and jobseeker's agreements. Personal advisers and customers discuss and agree these documents at the beginning of a claim to benefit, and they provide the framework of what is expected of a customer throughout the life of the claim. They can be reconsidered and revised at any point in the claim to reflect changes in a customer's circumstances or those of their children. It is during these regular discussions that a parent's caring responsibilities are considered, and it is at these meetings that we believe it is right and appropriate to consider the well-being of children.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred to Ofsted's recent actions. I am afraid that I have nothing specific on that in my brief, but I shall certainly undertake to draw to the attention of appropriate colleagues the instance that he identified.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke about the importance of family life, a matter on which I think we can all agree. There is nothing in the Bill which is contrary to this; indeed, just the reverse—as the noble Lord I think acknowledged. The thrust of Part 1 in particular is to support individuals, including lone parents, to move closer to and into work, for their well-being, that of their children and for the economic well-being of the family. We know the positive psychological benefits for children when parents move into paid work; we also know that children of lone parents who are not in work have a much greater chance of being in poverty. I welcome support for the amendments that we are going to bring forward in due course and for the general thrust of this Bill. I hope that, accordingly, the noble Lord will feel able not to press his amendment.

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

My Lords, I am most grateful for the Minister's assurances. I think that I accept the limitations that one or two noble Lords have thought to put on my ambitions. We must go a step at a time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Clause 1 : Schemes for assisting persons to obtain employment: "work for your benefit" schemes etc.

Amendment 2

Moved by Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope

2: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, after "circumstances" insert "and where claimants have guaranteed and predictable access to high quality, flexible, affordable childcare acceptable to the parent and child"

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Spokesperson for Work and Pensions

Before I go any further, I should state that I am a non-remunerated non-executive director of the Wise Group, which provides welfare-to-work programmes in Glasgow. It is in the register of interests, but I say that for the avoidance of any doubt.

This is a return to familiar territory, to some extent. If it is worklessness that this Bill is trying to attack, the red line for government provision is childcare that is affordable, accessible and suitable to family circumstances. In general, I think that the Government have made substantial progress and come quite a long way to meeting some of the concerns that were expressed. There must be residual power left in the hands of decision-makers, but when the Minister said that he was content to describe the situation as "leaving the parent in the driving seat", that was good enough for me. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that.

This amendment focuses on a fine distinction, in two respects. Clause 1 relates to the training programme that comes at the end of the Jobcentre Plus period of support for JSA claimants, before they go into the hands of private providers. The clause focuses specifically on that, but I want to focus on the programme for Scotland. We had one or two exchanges in the Committee, and, unsurprisingly, people in Scotland picked up on those exchanges. I have now had even more powerful recommendations and suggestions from people in Scotland, supported by the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform, an organisation that I know and trust and have worked with for many years and which has its fingers on the pulse. In a community like Glasgow, it knows what it is talking about, and I would trust its judgment. It is even more concerned now that the differences that apply in childcare provision north of the border mean that the facilities, structural change and money that have been put into this area of childcare in England—I am not so sure about Wales and Northern Ireland—just do not exist north of the border to the same extent. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that that could present problems, particularly for those in the "work for your benefit" training programme if they have children in the 10 to 14 year-old age group. It could pose particular problems in the long school break in the summer.

If the opinion of SCoWR is not enough to found my argument on, I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the objectives for childcare provision north of the border in the Scottish Government's document, Early Years Framework, do not include ensuring that parents in Scotland are supported in accessing employment and training through the provision of flexible, accessible and affordable childcare. So we face two potential sets of circumstances, into which we are introducing this new employment scheme.

I would like some assurances about the provisions in place in England, which are quite substantial. I still have difficulty in believing some of them: by 2010, we are to have 3,500 children's centres in England and free part-time early education places for three and four year-olds—I hope that those are both true—and by 2010, all five to 11 year-olds are to access affordable school-based childcare all year round. A sufficiency action plan has been required of local government, and a transformational fund of £125 million has been put up by central Government, via the department, for this purpose. There is, then, a new duty on local authorities in England that simply does not exist in Scotland.

Colleagues with English experience will know more about the commitments that I have just referred to than I do. I warmly welcome the ambition demonstrated by that programme, and I hope that it is in place by 2010, but, as my Granny used to say, "I hae ma doots". If the House will forgive a piece of Scottish special pleading, this is important, and these amendments seek to reflect that. There are precedents for delaying implementation of some of these programmes north of the border, where the circumstances are not yet in place to be sure that proper provision is being made for accessible childcare.

If the Government have any doubts about that whatsoever, then I hope that the Minister would be generous enough to acknowledge that there is a potential gap in providing facilities north of the border. If he finds to his satisfaction that that is so, I hope that he will come back to make sure that some circumstances are put in place so that, if nothing else happens, lone parents north of the border are not financially sanctioned in circumstances where it is only because of the absence of affordable, accessible childcare. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

My Lords, this area was debated intensively in Committee. Our concern with the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is that while it is designed by him effectively to put pressure, as he described it, on Scottish provision, it may have wider, undesirable effects on the rest of the country. We are concerned that if these amendments are adopted as they stand, they are likely to reduce the efficacy of the system across the rest of the UK—a system that is designed to help people back into work. In this case, however, it would be adding to the bureaucracy to sort out one particular problem.

Photo of Baroness Afshar Baroness Afshar Crossbench

I add my thanks for the substantial changes and for the impact that the Committee has had. As a newcomer, I am absolutely astounded at the kind of work we can do, and I am very grateful for the changes that have been initiated. I should also like to add my support for this amendment, because sometimes, in the depths of Yorkshire, finding affordable childcare becomes quite a problem. It seems to me that since the intention is there to make the well-being of the child paramount, it would perhaps be appropriate to add this, because in many areas—particularly in poorer areas of this country—affordable childcare is still not available to all.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (also in Department for Work and Pensions), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government) 12:15 pm, 22nd October 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for introducing this amendment. As noble Lords will be aware, "work for your benefit" is a programme for jobseekers who reach the end of the Flexible New Deal, usually after two years of claiming JSA. The programme is designed to fit within the overall jobseeker's regime, and will consist of individually tailored work experience placements backed up with additional job search employment support. That will ensure that those long-term jobseekers, who may have little or no recent experience of a working environment, can gather skills and experience of real value to them and to potential employers. We are tabling an amendment, which will come later, to ensure that where a jobseeker is a lone parent, their child must be over seven before they can be eligible for "work for your benefit". That is because it applies only to those who are subject to full jobseeking conditions.

Amendment 2 aims to ensure that those jobseekers to whom this clause applies could be required to participate in a "work for your benefit" programme only where there is a guaranteed and predicable source of high-quality, flexible and affordable childcare available to them that they and their child find acceptable. I am supportive of the thinking behind this amendment and I have no disagreement in principle with the eloquent arguments that the noble Lord has put forward, but I hope that I can reassure your Lordships that the amendment is unnecessary.

Many of the parents who will be required to participate in "work for your benefit" pilots will need childcare in order to do so. Like all parents, they will need assurances that their children will be cared for in a safe and secure environment. Some will prefer to use friends or family to provide that care. This is the option chosen by many working parents. Others may choose formal sources of care.

It is important to understand some of the background of the jobseekers regime in order to put this amendment in context. Parents claiming JSA are able to agree restrictions of their availability for work where their caring commitments make this necessary. It is possible, for example, to restrict availability for work to as little as 16 hours a week. Jobseekers will be able to carry those restrictions forward into the "work for your benefit" programme, so that they may, for example, need to take part only for 16 hours a week.

In the majority of cases where such restrictions apply, parents will be able to fulfil their obligations within the hours that their children are at school. If this is not possible and formal childcare is needed, affordability should not be an issue. Suppliers contracted to deliver "work for your benefit" programmes will be responsible for funding childcare for customers' children where a need for childcare is identified. This will ensure that childcare is affordable and that participants are not worse off.

The amendment requires a guarantee that childcare will be available. There can be no absolute guarantee that a parent will be able to access precisely the childcare that they want at the precise point they want it. Judgments about predictability and quality are also almost impossible to make. The effect of the amendment, therefore, would be to wreck the clause in respect of jobseekers with children, although I know that that is not its intent. Therefore, the Government propose to deal with this issue in the same way as for other provisions that have increased the obligations that we have placed on parents. We will use regulations to ensure that JSA claimants who are parents, including lone parents, will not be sanctioned if they fail to participate in "work for your benefit" because they cannot secure appropriate childcare. This arrangement is currently working in Jobcentre Plus and there is no reason to believe that it will not work for "work for your benefit". We are cognisant of the fact that many parents will be unable to participate in "work for your benefit" schemes if suitable childcare is not available to them. We will therefore ensure that appropriate safeguards are put in place.

Amendment 3 would require jobseekers to participate in "work for your benefit" schemes with a view to improving their prospects of obtaining employment,

"with guaranteed and predictable access to high quality, flexible and affordable childcare acceptable to the parent and child".

In other words, the amendment would require that the childcare was provided via the employer, although I am not sure that that was the intent. I should make it quite clear that it is for parents to choose the childcare that they feel is appropriate for their child. We do not seek to influence that decision. Our broader childcare strategy is based on the principle of giving parents as wide a choice of provision as possible. In a small proportion of cases childcare is available via employers—for example, through workplace crèches—but in the vast majority of cases it is not. We will continue to adopt the principle of allowing parents to source appropriate provision, as this offers them the widest possible choice. And, of course, this will be underpinned by the safeguards that I have just outlined.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, was talking particularly about concerns in Scotland and I acknowledge that it is quite right to look at the comparison between childcare in England and childcare in Scotland. In England, over £25 billion has been invested in childcare and early years since 1997. He made reference to children's centres. At the moment there are already over 3,000 in place, which is ahead of target for extended schools. The Childcare Act has been in effect since 2008, but it does not apply in Scotland and it has not been possible for us to ascertain how much the Scottish Government have spent on childcare since 1997. I understand that the Scottish Government have no plans to introduce children's centres, no plans to introduce extended schools and no plans for graduate leaders.

The noble Lord referred to the Scottish Government's publication The Early Years Framework. I understand that one of the key objectives included is ensuring that parents are supported to access employment and training to reduce the risk of child poverty, including through the provision of flexible, accessible and affordable childcare. That is all to the good, but I understand that no new initiatives and no new money have been made available.

It may help the noble Lord if I say that we are not proposing to pilot "work for your benefit" schemes in Scotland, so there is a bit of time for Scotland to catch up in terms of childcare provisions. So far as problems with parents in school holidays are concerned, we will allow parents to flex the hours that they do to just term time if that is necessary.

Let me be clear that conditionality in this Bill depends on the existence of the means to comply. For example, where there is no childcare, there is no right for Jobcentre Plus to require activity for a lone parent that would require childcare to be available. I hope that that has been sufficient to give assurances to the noble Lord on the very real issue that he raised and that he will feel able not to press the amendment.

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Spokesperson for Work and Pensions

I am very grateful for that reply. The point has been addressed in so far as the Government are able to do so this morning. It is reassuring that we have a bit of extra time if the pilots are being deployed elsewhere. I end with the plea that I started with: will the Minister make it his business to talk to his colleagues? I know that the department has links with all the constituent nations, not just Scotland. It is only because I know Scotland best that I am using it as an example. Will there be no glaring disparity of provision that will prejudice clients in future when the programme gets rolled out in its entirety? I think that I can detect the underlying theme from his response that he is willing to address these issues in the best way that he can in meetings with his colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Spokesperson for Work and Pensions

I thank the noble Lord for correcting me. I think that that is right; it was not my intention to suggest otherwise. I am quite happy with that provision, as long as the Minister remains vigilant about any potential gaps. On that basis, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

Amendment 3 not moved.

Amendment 4

Moved by Baroness Turner of Camden

4: Clause 1, page 2, line 10, at end insert—

"( ) Regulations under this section may not require a single parent with a child under seven years of age to participate in a 'work for your benefit' scheme."

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden Baroness Turner of Camden Labour

My Lords, we had a substantial debate on the subject of this amendment in Grand Committee. Many Members supported the notion that single parents of very young children should not feel pressured to join schemes intended to lead to work rather than benefit. The Minister gave a very comprehensive explanation in his reply of the Government's position, which is that access to employment is absolutely necessary for single-parent families, since it is the only real way out of poverty. The route to this should start when children are young, possibly as young as between three and six years old. The progression to work route will be tailored to the parents' wishes and circumstances before it is finally agreed. The Minister was against putting a specific age in the Bill, since he said that it might be necessary to change it in the future and it should be possible to do that without changing primary legislation.

I accept much of what was said then, but the fact remains that many single mothers want to care for their young children themselves. Many would regard the so-called progression as pressure to join the workforce at a time when they did not feel able to cope. Childcare arrangements may not be satisfactory either, despite what has been said this morning. This can affect even professionally qualified women. I recall one young woman of my acquaintance—a lawyer—who returned to work when her youngest child was still young. She could afford childcare. She looked sadly at her children and said, "If only I could stay with them, but I have to go back to work". How much more likely is that feeling for a mother who cannot afford to employ her own child carer and is dependent on whatever is available in her locality?

I believe strongly that such a parent should not feel under any pressure to join the workforce until she is ready and feels that she can cope. In particular, she must not feel that failure to participate in the scheme could lead to a loss of her benefit. From letters that I received prior to Grand Committee, there seems to be a real concern among single parents of young children that there could be a loss of benefit. I am sure that this is not the intention, but the fear is there. Including in the Bill the statement that there will be no compulsion on single parents of very young children should put those fears at rest. "Why should someone else be paid to look after my child when I can do it myself and I want to do it?" said one of my correspondents. I therefore hope that the Minister will think again about the views advanced in Committee and perhaps look at meeting the views expressed and the amendment that I have presented to the House. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

My Lords, I am somewhat confused by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. My understanding is that the "work for your benefit" regime would come into effect for those on the JSA regime. Lone parents will enter the JSA regime when the youngest child is seven, so the amendment seems to be redundant. I would be grateful to learn from the Minister whether my understanding is correct.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (also in Department for Work and Pensions), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for moving the amendment. I understand the sentiment and thrust behind what she said, but I say right at the start that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is absolutely right in his analysis of this matter. I hope that, perhaps together, we can reassure my noble friend.

In our discussions of Amendments 2 and 3, I described the "work for your benefit" programme and the people it would apply to. We should distinguish the "work for your benefit" programme from the work-related activity programmes, which we will discuss in some depth shortly. As such, Clause 1 applies only to those claiming jobseeker's allowance. Those who are in receipt of income support, including lone parents with a young child, are not affected. Clause 1 also ensures that no jobseeker can be required to take part in "work for your benefit" unless they are subject to a full range of jobseeking conditions. This means that those who move on to JSA when income support is eventually abolished cannot be required to undertake "work for your benefit" since they will not be subject to the full jobseeking conditions.

In addition, as I briefly alluded to earlier, the government amendments that we will come to shortly will ensure that no lone parent with a child under seven will be subject to full jobseeking conditions. With this additional safeguard in place, it is clear that there could never be a situation in which a lone parent with a child under the age of seven was unavoidably subject to Clause 1, and would therefore be required to take part in "work for your benefit". I hope that this explanation satisfies my noble friend. If she should want any further information about how the mechanics of the Bill work in this regard, I would be happy to meet her and any colleagues she may wish to involve in that discussion.

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden Baroness Turner of Camden Labour 12:30 pm, 22nd October 2009

I thank my noble friend for that explanation, particularly his reference to the additional safeguards which will be introduced in further amendments. I accept the assurances that he has confirmed; namely, that this matter is entirely voluntary as regards single parents with very young children. I am very grateful for those assurances, which will appear in the report of these proceedings. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

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

Amendment 5

Moved by Baroness Thomas of Winchester

5: Clause 2, page 4, line 21, at end insert—

"( ) No requirement may be imposed by virtue of this section on a person who—

(a) is not a member of a couple, and

(b) is responsible for, and a member of the same household as, a child under the age of 16 who is—

(i) in receipt of a disability living allowance; or

(ii) was in receipt of a disability living allowance and has made and is pursuing an appeal against a decision that he is no longer entitled to a disability living allowance, and that appeal has not yet been determined."

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Spokesperson for Work and Pensions

At the outset I should declare an interest in that I receive disability living allowance.

A similar amendment was moved in Grand Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, which advocated that lone parents of children under seven who were entitled to any rate or component of disability living allowance should be exempt altogether from work-related activity. My amendment moves the age up to 16, and has been suggested by the Child Poverty Action Group, which has a lot of experience in this field.

Before explaining the amendment in detail, I too applaud the Minister for the concessions he has already made in the Bill. His amendments on the well-being of the child, the availability of childcare and the physical and mental health of the parents before sanctions are applied are all most welcome. However, we believe there is still a problem with the difficulties faced by lone parents of disabled children. I have tabled this amendment to address this issue and hope that it will find support around the House.

There are two rates of the mobility component of disability living allowance, higher and lower; and three rates of the care component, higher, middle and lower. Lone parents with children on the lower rates are not currently exempted from the conditionality rules attached to work-related activity. The Minister said in Committee that this exemption was unnecessary because the Government believed that, by definition, that child would not need the amount of care which precluded a lone parent from doing either paid work or work-related activity. It is worth reminding the House what the lower rates of DLA mean. The lower rate for the care component is for those who need attention or supervision for a significant proportion of the day. The lower rate of the mobility component is for those who are unable to find their way around in unfamiliar places without guidance or supervision.

The Minister went on to say that safeguards would be put in place so that claimants were not asked to comply with unreasonable or inappropriate requirements. However, the case of a lone parent from Norfolk illustrates why this is not always the case. This lady, who has a disabled child, pays out £30 in specialist childcare costs every time she attends Jobcentre Plus, which is 15 miles away, for a work-focused interview. Although the staff are sympathetic and polite, they have never informed her of her right to claim back these costs. This illustrates the fact that benefits advisers, however well intentioned, do not always appreciate the needs and challenges faced by parents, and may not ask the right questions or inform parents of their rights. It is precisely this type of situation that could lead to sanctions being unfairly imposed if the amendment is not adopted.

The inadequacies in the administration of the benefits and tax credits systems and the complexity of families' lives must be taken into account. The way in which DLA is administered results in constant changes in award. Often a child's award will be downgraded or removed altogether, only for it to be reinstated on appeal. More than half of DLA appeals are decided in favour of the claimant, and this figure is rising. Research shows that DLA take-up is, in fact, low because of a lack of information, an onerous application process, constant reassessments and the stigma associated with being on benefits. DLA forms are still complex despite recent changes, resulting in poor decision-making, which in turn leads to disputed decisions. One lone parent in Norfolk said that it had taken her six months to fill in the 40-page form. Those who live in a rural area are miles from the nearest advice centre, so may not fill in the form in the way which accurately describes the child's condition. I sympathise with that as I had terrible trouble filling in my form. Often decision-makers do not know enough about invisible conditions such as autism and fluctuating conditions such as ADHD. Parents who try to suggest people who could provide additional evidence are all too often ignored. The result of this is that a DLA award is constantly being reduced or upgraded. However, it has to be said that the difference between the lower and middle rates of care component is very arbitrary.

Another problem for lone parents is the difficulty of finding appropriate childcare for disabled children—particularly for older children—which may not always be recognised by Jobcentre Plus decision-makers. This is why the amendment applies to children up to the age of 16. If a child with autistic spectrum disorders or ADHD is excluded from school or a childcare facility, lone parents have no choice but to care for that child during school hours, yet under the proposed rules in the Bill lone parents with two or more disabled children could be required to attend work-focused interviews and undertake work-related activity or face sanctions.

The Minister may well confidently state that these exclusions would constitute good cause for the lone parent not to undertake mandatory work-related activity, but I fear that we do not have so much confidence in personal advisers or decision-makers who may not understand just how difficult caring for a disabled child is, even one who is on the lowest rate of DLA. It is also quite difficult keeping track of DLA awards alongside assessing other family circumstances, and introduces onerous complexity, uncertainty and confusion into an already complicated new system. This is likely to result in some families having their benefits sanctioned, making a bad situation worse. Changes in DLA awards generate fluctuations in income for families, and the imposition of benefit sanctions is likely to plunge them into crisis and contribute to higher levels of child poverty.

It is already well known that poverty is high in families with disabled children, especially when the parent is alone. There are believed to be about 770,000 disabled children altogether—about 7 per cent of all children. Even when the parent is in part-time work, because of significant additional costs such as transport and childcare, the family is likely to be among the poorest. The sudden loss or downgrading of DLA generates high levels of stress and families often fall into debt because their income has gone down, but the additional costs I have mentioned remain the same.

Caring for disabled children is no picnic, particularly when there are other children in the family. There are hospital appointments, school appointments and medical assessments, to say nothing of negotiating the complexity of the benefits and tax credit systems. There is plenty of academic research to back up everything I have said. I have not wearied the House with it because I know that we need to get on.

I also have the backing of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, who cannot be here today. She supports the amendment:

"Mainly because many children with behavioural disabilities are on the lower rate DLA because they do not present any physical disabilities which require ongoing hands on assistance. ... these children need close parental support which would be hampered if the lone parent was forced to work, without substantive home support".

From the outside it looks as though the lone parent of children on the lower rate of DLA simply does not need protection from the sanctions regime of work-related activity, but that is not how it appears from the inside, otherwise groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group would not be so concerned. They make the point that most lone parents with disabled children want to work, and that therefore the element of compulsion is unnecessary. I urge the Minister to consider this matter again. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, I very much support the amendment and I hope that my noble friend is persuaded by the arguments of the noble Baroness. DLA is very hard to award correctly. Unlike, say, JSA, HB or even the former incapacity benefit, it is not awarded on the facts of disability but on the judgment on the effects of it on the need for care. Two people with identical disabilities can quite properly receive different levels of DLA, perhaps because of their competence, energy, general level of health, education and so on—or possibly because of practical things such as the layout of the home, their aids and appliances, which mean that they can function more or less independently.

That call for DLA is difficult to assess at the best of times. It is even harder when you are assessing mental healthcare needs, which are often stigmatised and hidden. It is even harder again when conditions fluctuate; ME, MS, attention deficit disorders and some mental health needs are unpredictable. Hardest of all is assessing the care needs of children with mental health needs, where again conditions fluctuate—comparisons have to be made continuously with so-called average or normal children—when a lone parent is not always able to articulate that child's disability or needs, and when, as the latest report from the Autism Society about adult patients with autism shows, even GPs can confuse apparent misbehaviour or failure to behave appropriately with poor mental health. How much more does that apply to children?

It is not surprising, therefore, that more than 60 per cent of appeals against the withdrawal or downgrading of an award of DLA succeed. I have sat in on some of those tribunals. The appeals succeeded not because the decision-makers were obtuse or unkind; invariably I found them polite, professional and doing their best with a difficult job. On the evidence that they were given they made what seemed at the time to be the right call. However, because conditions change, fluctuate and, sadly, all too often deteriorate, and because some mental heath problems are hard to read—even by the medical profession—and because, above all, the carer or lone parent often fails to give the DWP decision-maker all the relevant information they need because that carer does not always know what the DWP needs to know, there is an appeal. I have sat at tribunals where a kindly and patient chair has elicited information from a lone parent or carer that was not on the written application and which made all the difference; the award has been improved and the lone parent has rightly received the money that she needs for her child.

What is it, then, that the DWP needs to know and often does not know, as a result of which the lone parent who goes to appeal wins the award? As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, the lower rate is awarded when attention is needed for a significant proportion of the day beyond what an average child would need. The middle rate is awarded when frequent or several bouts of attention are needed during the day or night. The higher rate applies to frequent attention needed day and night. The gap between not having any DLA needs and qualifying for lower-rate DLA is fairly straightforward. The gap, however, between the need for significant attention, thereby qualifying for the lower rate, and frequent attention—the middle rate—is not at all straightforward. Children wander literally as well as metaphorically across that line all the time.

For example, when a child who is on the Asperger-autism spectrum needs to get ready for school, they take longer to dress, may have to go by taxi if there is some distance involved—because a seven or eight year-old cannot be trusted to behave sensibly on a bus—and so on. In that case, the lower-rate DLA applies. Then the child has a highly stressed school day; there are tantrums, biting, hitting and the parent is called in to help. At that point, two hours later, the parent has moved into potentially being a recipient of middle-rate DLA. However, the following day the child's behaviour has stabilised and we are back to lower-rate DLA—all within 24 hours.

I say to my noble friend, I fully support keeping lone parents connected to the labour market. Most want to work, need to work and it is the best possible springboard for them and their children. However, I urge him to accept that it makes no sense at all to draw an artificial line within the community of children on DLA—a line that would require some parents to enter into work-related activity and eventually work, and not others, as though there were a firm and fast line between lower and middle-rate DLA, which I know is not and never has been the case. No such line exists. It is a judgment call that is properly made one day, and a day later a different call properly can been made.

If a lone parent can work, she will; but if, given her child's disability, she thinks that she cannot, that is enough for me. Her life, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, is hard enough as it is, when every day is full of stress and problems. To add yet another set of pressures is not fair and, I suggest, will not work. Why not? Even if we enrol her into the programme and a job, she is never off duty for potential childcare. She may arrive late because the child has had a difficult early morning, and she may have to leave early because she is worried about how that child has been all day. She may find all-too-frequently that specialised childcare has broken down; this is one situation where neighbours cannot or will not be called in to substitute—so she has to drop out of work again. She may need to leave work temporarily to go into school to give medication. She may be exhausted because of a sleepless night or possibly—even probably—depressed about trying to cope with it all.

I ask your Lordships whether you as an employer, however well intentioned, could keep such a lone parent in work, even if she found a job. I rather doubt it. She will churn; and every churning, every rebuff, will add to her failure and lack of self-confidence and make re-entry harder next time. I repeat: I want her to have work-focused interviews—that is light-touch engagement with the world of work. Their children's health may change and, I hope, improve as they grow older. I want to keep pathways to work open. I and my noble friend are on the same side. However, where a child has disabilities and that line between lower and middle-rate is so unrealistic, engagement in work-preparation programmes and work must be voluntary and by encouragement. Otherwise—and I do not think that I am putting this too strongly—we risk breaking her. No one else will or could care for her disabled child as she does, with a possibility of the best outcome for that child.

I hope very much that my noble friend will accept or move towards the amendment of the noble Baroness on behalf of disabled children.

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 12:45 pm, 22nd October 2009

I wish to ask a short question: why does looking after such a child not qualify as work? Surely it is work. If the Minister wants to say that we are talking only about paid work, it raises the question: should we not pay to help parents who have to do that kind of work?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

My Lords, on these Benches we are sympathetic to lone parents who have the added burden of a child with a disability. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for tabling this amendment. However, to exempt all lone parents from progression-to-work and work requirements based on a child's receipt of DLA harks back to an era when legislators thought that they needed to protect people from the need to work. I remind noble Lords of the key finding of Waddell and Burton that work is generally good for health and well-being. The amendment refers to children up to 16 receiving DLA. Many such teenagers will be out of the house for much of the day, so the effect is to delay for far too long the time when their lone parent is introduced to economic activity. The route out of this quagmire is personalisation of the system, not blanket exemptions and blanket requirements.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

I support the amendment. Along with other noble Lords, I pay tribute to the extraordinary amount of work that the Minister and the Bill team have undertaken to improve the Bill from what I regarded as an unacceptable document to the point where now I feel that it is nearly acceptable. There are some bits in it that we are still deeply unhappy with, and we are still looking for government amendments, but I pay tribute to the Minister.

The amendment, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned, is very similar to one that I moved in Committee, so it is not surprising that I support it. As other noble Lords have said, the Bill could offer opportunities in particular to children of lone parents who have, over many years, grown up in families on benefits in a tragic degree of poverty. None of us wants children to grow up in that way. However, any sanctions for lone parents looking after a disabled child simply do not belong in legislation—I feel that very strongly. The arguments put by the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas and Lady Hollis, were extremely forceful and powerfully put. I do not want to repeat them, nor the arguments that I put in Committee. I strongly support the amendment.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (also in Department for Work and Pensions), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for moving the amendment. We have had some powerful contributions to this short debate. It is always the case that when the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, combines with my noble friend Lady Hollis and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, they form a powerful coalition of knowledgeable people. I was interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, particularly his reference to Waddell and Burton. That was a seminal piece of work from which much has flowed, particularly Carol Black's report, the Government's response and a range of initiatives that are under way as a result. We share common ground in respect of moving towards personalisation, so that the support that people get is determined not by the benefit that they are on, but by the support and help that they need to access the labour market.

In Grand Committee, we said that we wanted to mirror the requirements for lone parents with older children who are now moving from income support to jobseeker's allowance, by exempting lone parents who have a child receiving the middle-rate or highest-rate care component of DLA from having to undertake work-related activity. However, we said that we would require those in receipt of the lower-rate care component of DLA to do so. We still consider that parents receiving the higher and middle rates of DLA will not be able to comply with the requirements of work-related activity, because the number of hours that they spend undertaking their caring responsibilities will not enable them to do so. However, it can be argued that those receiving the lower rate will be in a position to engage in such activity because their caring responsibilities will not be as demanding. The level of care could be as little as one hour a day, and such care may only be provided in a school environment—although I accept that that may not necessarily be the case.

I stress that we are introducing government amendments, which we will come to shortly and which will provide a number of safeguards and assurances to ensure that lone parents are not penalised when agreeing to undertake work-related activity. Foremost in these amendments is the requirement for a personal adviser to take into account the well-being of a parent's child when they are agreeing the activities that they are going to undertake as part of their action plan. This could be especially pertinent for lone parents who receive the lower rate of DLA. It will provide them with the protection required to ensure that they are not required to undertake activities that would risk harm to their child's well-being.

I point out also that under the progression-to-work model, a lone parent may be required to undertake only one activity between their quarterly work-focused interviews. This allows personal advisers and lone parents the necessary flexibility to draw up action plans that can tailor activities to the individual needs of the lone parent and their caring responsibilities. For example, a lone parent may agree with an adviser that they will attend a children's centre in a three-month period. The activity could be carried out at any point in that time and is not restricted by dates or specific times of attendance, thereby enabling a lone parent to judge the best time for them and their child.

We are also introducing the ability for a personal adviser to reconsider the activities detailed in an action plan. Again, this provides extra flexibility and could mean that if a lone parent could not complete the work-related activity that they had previously agreed because of their caring responsibilities, the timescales could be extended or, if appropriate, the activity could be changed. They may even have completed another activity that could be considered as acceptable and classed as meeting their responsibilities. When the adviser arranges attendance at work-focused interviews, they will also be mindful of the individual needs of that lone parent and their child. This will enable them to be rearranged, if necessary, to meet the lone parent's and the child's needs.

We will also use regulation-making powers to prescribe that, in considering whether a lone parent has good cause for not complying with the new requirements, account must be taken both of the availability and suitability of childcare in relation to the specific needs of the parent or child. I mentioned earlier that it is not our intention to penalise lone parents, but to give them the opportunity to undertake activities that will help to improve not only their future prospects but also those of their children. We must not lose sight of the fact that ensuring a child's well-being also includes their social and economic well-being.

Nevertheless, on balance I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas—supported by my noble friend Lady Hollis and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—has made her case well. If the noble Baroness will agree not to press her amendment today, perhaps I can commit to looking further at the issue, with a view to coming back at Third Reading with something that meets her requirements.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Spokesperson for Work and Pensions

My Lords, I might as well tear up what I was going to say. That was very unexpected. I am grateful particularly for the powerful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and for great support from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. They put the situation in a nutshell. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, was not so keen, but on this occasion his support is not necessary. If the Minister will come back at Third Reading with something for us, we will accept that with gratitude and look forward to seeing how we can take the matter forward. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 5 withdrawn.

Amendment 6

Moved by Lord Freud

6: Clause 2, page 4, line 21, at end insert—

"( ) 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."

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

My Lords, Amendment 6 is a simple amendment that makes a simple point. It adds to Clause 2, which sets out the back-to-work path through work-related activity, a clear declaration that nothing that follows in the clause will result in a financial sanction being imposed on the lone parents of children under five. This is not a wrecking amendment. I trust that it will not be used to suggest that the Conservatives are trying to scupper the Bill. The Minister, and anyone who has followed the progress of the Bill, knows that not to be the case. We see this amendment as an additional protection, which adds to the considerable progress that the Government have been persuaded to make during the stages of the legislation through your Lordships' House and another place.

I do not wish to steal the Minister's thunder, as he will be unveiling the Government's own proposals in the next group, but perhaps I may briefly summarise the ground that we have covered in order to make the case for my amendment. Less than a year ago, the protection against sanctions applied to parents with children below the age of 16. From that position, the Government have catapulted back to infancy—from one of the most passive regimes in the developed world to one of the most active. Perhaps this reflects the zeal of the recently converted.

We heard the latest government position in an important statement made towards the end of the Committee stage before the summer, which the Minister will shortly bring forward today in amendments. Those government amendments will specify that for lone parents with children under the age of one there will be no requirement to attend work-focused interviews. There will be no mandatory work-related activity for those with children under three. Those with children between the ages of three and six will be expected to undertake mandatory work-related activity, subject to some important conditions, which I support and which I will leave for the Minister to set out in detail.

We on these Benches agree that it is important to help to prepare single parents for the world of work. We agree that they should be given the support that they need and the information that would help them to find employment and stay in it. We agree that, before going into work, the proposed work-related activity will be beneficial. However, there will be sanctions if an individual does not comply with the requirements of the activity as directed by their adviser.

What we think is unacceptable is for the situation to arise where a lone parent fails to comply and ends up facing a cut in benefit. We appreciate that this is a tricky area where many have struggled. We do not wish the absence of a sanction to be considered an incentive to do nothing but there are more ways to sanction someone than simply docking their benefit. The Government are promising a graduated approach with early sanctions being non-financial. Again, we support that.

For lone parents who have the primary responsibility for a pre-school age child, we cannot see how it is in their interest or, more importantly, their child's interest to see a meagre budget cut further. We have carefully chosen the age of five in our amendment because that is the age at which children are expected to start school. At that point, many more hours a day become available to the parent for other activities. The child is introduced to a classroom with other children, teachers and classroom assistants, and no longer depends so totally for social support on his mother or father. So it is towards this point that we are looking with our amendment. Before that age is reached, we believe that the child is simply too vulnerable for the parent to suffer financial sanctions under this new system. Our amendment is drawn deliberately narrowly; we have not ruled out the possibility of non-financial sanctions. It applies solely to work-related activity, not to the regime that already has established financial sanctions for not complying with its rather light requirements.

Again, I point out that we are moving in a very short space of time from having the most passive regime in the developed world in this area to one of the most active. It would seem sensible to ensure that there is a carefully placed safety break at the five-year point as the new system comes into effect.

To give the Government credit, they have listened, learnt and moved. This amendment merely moves them one step further to where I think—

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Spokesperson for Work and Pensions 1:00 pm, 22nd October 2009

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freud—my name is attached to the amendment—but before he continues, does this cover the provisions of Sections 12 and 13 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which deal with employment and support allowance? The main conditionality provisions for the welfare system are in the 2007 Act. Does the work-related amendment that he is moving cover Sections 12 and 13 of that Act, which is about employment and support allowance?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

My Lords, the amendment covers purely Clause 2 of this Bill. It relates to the work-related activity within, as I understand it, the JSA regime.

I am more or less grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for adding their names to the amendment on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Noble Lords will have seen that we also have the backing of Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group. I hope that other noble Lords, including the Minister, will consider the merits of our proposal and help us to place in the Bill this protection for parents of the very youngest children. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Spokesperson for Work and Pensions

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, said, the amendment is a refinement of the one introduced by his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, at the beginning of the Committee stage. Since then, as we have heard, the Minister has clarified and amended in the Bill what will be required of lone parents of children of different ages. That is very welcome and we all look forward to the noble Lord's explanation of that when we come to his amendments.

I assume that we are talking about work-focused interviews as well as work-related interviews, and that work-related interviews will still be sanctioned whereas work-related activity will not. We are now considering whether the regime of work-focused interviews will increase in intensity with the age of the child and whether that is appropriate for a lone parent on benefits with a child under school age. This is the only issue at this stage because the Government have said in terms that they will take into consideration childcare and the circumstances of the lone parent in matters such as his or her health or other caring commitments. So does the age of the child matter? We now know that the pathfinders which will pilot this regime will allow parents to restrict the hours that they would be available to participate in work-related activities. We also now know that work-related activity could start with one activity every three months for a lone parent with a child as young as three, the reasoning being that lone parents must be kept in touch with the world of work. Of course, they will be kept in touch with the world of work if work-focused interviews are still to be sanctioned.

I gather from meetings with the Minister, for which I was very grateful, that specific guidance will be issued to Jobcentre Plus offices about work-related activity for lone parents and the regime of work-related activity for others in the progression-to-work group, and so there will be two sets of guidance. Therefore, the only difference between supporters of the amendment and the Government is whether this even more benign regime for lone parents on benefits with children with under school age—that is, between the ages of three and five—should be mandated instead of voluntary. We know that many lone parents with very young children lead chaotic lives. Is it right to dock their benefit if they fail to attend an episode of work-related activity without good cause? Will the threat of this happening make them comply? I do not deny that for some it might; nor can it be denied that work is definitely a way out of poverty. However, that should be for the lone parent to decide. Many lone parents will want to work when their child is as young as three or perhaps even younger, let alone prepare for work, but the existence of sanctions if lone parents fail to comply with the work-related activity regime also sends out a strong signal that looking after their child in a hands-on, full-time way during the child's first five years is not as important to society as the parent preparing for the world of work.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, lone parents mostly want to work. I hope that your Lordships will forgive the metaphor but if one thinks of a ladder of five rungs or so, on which entry into work is at rung 5, then the lone parent trying to work out childcare or transport arrangements is at rung 4—in other words, she is work-ready and the only obstacles are practical ones. If she wants to work but has been out of the labour force for some time and has few, if any, qualifications—but she wants to try—then she might be on rung 3. It might take her two or more years before she enters the world of work—possibly a year of support and training followed by a year in a mini-job with, I hope, a £50 disregard.

Other lone parents who have such low self-esteem, who are so apprehensive about taking the risk of coming off benefits, who have effectively disengaged from school at the age of 13 or 14, who do not have a qualification to their name, who are functionally almost illiterate, who live, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, untidy and even chaotic lives and who ricochet off unsatisfactory, unemployed boyfriends, may be on step 2 of my ladder and take three or four years to build their health, confidence, skills and job readiness. Yet I cannot believe that anyone here, including the noble Lord, Lord Freud, thinks that it is wise or kind to neglect them and, crucially, their children. Hence, we have pathways to work.

Why am I unhappy with the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Freud? It is not because he is suggesting that we should not sanction the requirement to attend work-focused interviews, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, has adduced. We are talking about participation in the work-preparation programme, because it is still proposed that entry into work should occur when the child is seven. Given my analogy of ladders and rungs, why am I unhappy about that? Some lone parents need a steady, lengthy and supportive programme, and it might take several years for them to become work-ready. They need a longer programme. This amendment would mean that some of the neediest lone parents, those who are furthest away from the world of work, would find their work preparations squeezed into only two years when their child is aged between five and seven, thus adding to the stresses they might face.

If we want to engage them earlier then—I am afraid that this is human nature—we will need sanctions. A programme without sanctions might be called compulsory but, essentially, it is voluntary. Although the noble Lord, Lord Freud, said that there could be sanctions other than financial ones, he did not give us a single instance. I would like to know what they would look like. I have found from bitter experience that the sanction that really gets people engaged is the financial one. That is especially true for lone parents, who, compared with disabled people or pensioners, are financially much more ready—rightly so; I am glad they are—to claim benefits and entitlement. They are financially acute. I am pleased about that. It also means that they understand that imperative. I do not know what a non-financial sanction would look like—other than having to turn up every day to do something. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Freud, can help me on that. What happens if they do not turn up every day? Is the sanction then to tell them to turn up twice a day? What happens if they do not? It will not work.

Equally, any such sanction must come in only as a last measure. No one in the Chamber today would wish to make lone parents and their children worse off. As soon as the lone parent engages, which is the whole point, the sanction should come off. In other words, the sanction seeks to ensure engagement and will apply only so far as that engagement has been rebuffed. Engagement is at the core of what we need to do to ensure the long-term prosperity of the parent and her child.

I am sure that my noble friend can give the House two assurances which it needs. The first is to ensure that there is satisfactory childcare, whether nursery care or whatever, in place for work preparation. The second is to ensure that the steps are in place to ensure that financial sanctions are not the first or second step but the very last one, to ensure that a lone parent is engaged in preparation for work. I am sure we all believe that that is in the best interests of her and her child.

Those of us who were engaged in the New Deal a few years back were surprised to find that half of the participants were volunteers. Parents with very young children aged between one and three—not a group which the programme was seeking to reach—were keen to return to work because they were the ones who had most recently been in work. That was the defining feature of those lone parents who volunteered for the New Deal. As for previous incapacity—the noble Lord, Lord Freud, will know this as well as anyone—the longer that one is out of work, the more tenuous one's connection with the world of work is and the harder it is to get back into work. With a requirement to come in when the child is three, the work preparation programme is designed to get the lone parent to walk over that bridge back into work. The longer she leaves it, the longer the bridge will appear and the harder it will be for her to cross it.

In that sense the noble Lord's amendment is no kindness. It would require the neediest lone parents to face the most compressed and, therefore, the most demanding work-preparation programme, with the neediest having to do in two years what the less needy would have to do in four. Although the amendment is well intended, it is profoundly misconceived. We do not want to make the programme essentially voluntary for those who need it most. I do not think that that is wise. I hope the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 1:15 pm, 22nd October 2009

My Lords, some noble Lords may be surprised by what I have to say on this amendment. As other noble Lords have indicated, the thrust of the Bill in relation to single mothers is to ensure, through a series of steps, that these mothers keep in touch with the labour market. I am sure that we all agree with that ambition. All the research consistently makes clear the sense of independence that a job gives to lone parents. Self-respect and involvement with others are very important to their mental well-being and hence to their capacity for effective parenting, so the work will be to the benefit of their children. For a single mother, it is all too easy to slip into depression, isolated from work colleagues and losing confidence as time moves on. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, indicated, the gap between being at home and work feels ever more enormous. It is ever more challenging to make the leap from being at home back into work and it is extraordinarily difficult if left for more than a relatively short space of time.

As the Minister reminded us, life on benefits is a life of poverty, which we all want to see challenged, as this Bill does. I therefore support the intentions of this part of the Bill and believe that, in time, the children and lone parents involved will benefit considerably. Many years ago, I worked with single mothers as a social worker and I am well aware that many struggle to cope. Sensitivity to an individual's capacities will be essential. For this reason, I regard the Government's concessions on good cause to be very relevant to this amendment. I will be tabling a further amendment designed to ensure that claimants are given adequate opportunity to demonstrate good cause—in particular, where a person may have a mental or physical problem—to ensure that a home visit will be made to assess the feasibility of undertaking a work-related interview or activity. The Government's concession that in the preparation of an action plan the well-being of any child under the age of 16 must be taken into account is most welcome, as others have said. Also welcome is the Government's concession that a lone parent will be entitled to restrict the times at which they are required to undertake work-related activity. I assume that that means that the parent will be able to ensure that they can undertake that activity while the child is at nursery or school.

In considering this amendment, I hope that noble Lords will take account of the Government's considerable concessions, in my view, in relation to lone parents and what I hope will be a positive response on provision for home visits in appropriate cases, although at this point I cannot take that for granted by any means. Taking all this into account, I think that the Government are right, where good-quality childcare is available, to urge lone mothers to begin thinking about getting back into part-time work—that is all that they are really seeking in the early stages—as soon as they feel reasonably able to do so. Many years on benefits cannot be right for the great majority of lone parents or for their children, although we would all agree that parents with a disabled child are an exception to that rule. I understand the many arguments put by colleagues in support of this amendment but believe that the Government's overall objective deserves our support.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (also in Department for Work and Pensions), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this well informed debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that I accept that this is not a wrecking amendment. However, I think that it is ill advised. I accept his acknowledgement that the Government have moved towards an active labour market regime. The benefits of that are being demonstrated in the teeth of a tough economic situation.

The intended effect of this amendment is to prevent a financial sanction from being imposed on single parents with a child under five who fail to meet their work-related activity requirement. The practical effect of the amendment would be that lone parents with a youngest child aged below five would no longer be required to undertake work-related activity under Clause 2. This amendment would not affect the current sanctions regime for lone parents who can face a financial sanction for failing to attend a work-focused interview; it would affect only non-compliance with agreed work-related activity. I should say in response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that it relates only to income support, not ESA.

The position of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, on this is a little curious. When moving the amendment, he said that he thought it wrong for lone parents to suffer a cut in benefit, but he seems to accept that they could be sanctioned under the work-focused interview regime. There seems to be an anomaly in that position. Indeed, under the current regime for work-focused interviews, lone parents with children as young as one can, in extremis, be sanctioned. That is part of the regime that the noble Lord is accepting in moving this amendment. I suggest to him that that is illogical.

If this amendment were agreed to, we would have a position where lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four would be required to attend a work-focused interview every three months and agree an action plan but would not be required to complete any of the activities on that plan. Currently, they attend work-focused interviews every six months, but this is likely to be increased to every three months. For lone parents with a youngest child aged five or six, who would attend work-focused interviews every three months, we would require them to agree an action plan that included work-related activity that they were required to complete or face direction and, possibly, eventual sanction.

This would mean depriving lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four of the help and support that they may need to help them to start preparing for work when their children are older. This is the point to which my noble friend Lady Hollis spoke with her usual eloquence. In addition, we would be expecting many lone parents with a youngest child aged five or six, who may have been out of employment for six or seven years, to fit the extensive preparation that they may require to get a job or look for work when their youngest child reaches seven into two years or less.

Our alternative—the model that we wish to test in progression to work—is for lone parents with a youngest child aged three or over to start their planned journey towards being ready for work when their youngest child reaches seven. These extra two years will allow lone parents to build their confidence and skills at a pace that suits them. We expect many lone parents with a youngest child aged between three and six to be the hardest to help. They are likely to be some distance from the labour market and typically have multiple barriers to employment. Work-related activity should therefore be interpreted broadly. It should not be restricted to formal training or confidence building, although they would be qualifying activities.

There will be no daily requirement to undertake activity, but there will be a requirement to undertake reasonable activities that fit with the needs of the child and the lone parent's situation between work-focused interviews. These will allow advisers and lone parents flexibility in drawing up the action plans and tailoring activities to their individual needs and situations and the time to do that at a pace that suits the lone parent. For example, lone parents may start with activities addressing their own or their family's wider situation, such as starting to use a children's centre or seeking debt advice. They may then move on to improving their skills for work through mentoring or more formal training. As they move closer to the labour market, their work-related activity may focus on looking for job opportunities and the availability of childcare.

I must stress that the measures that we want to introduce under the progression-to-work model will not require any lone parent to be available for or actively seeking work. Instead, they will help lone parents in their journey towards the workplace, improving their skills and their knowledge of what is available to support them and preparing them for when their youngest child reaches seven, so that the move to jobseeking will be not a sudden step up but the next step in their journey towards work.

We want to introduce the progression-to-work model to those lone parents who have a youngest child aged three to six so that we can test if this is the correct age range. After debates in Grand Committee, we are still convinced that starting this process with a lone parent who has a youngest child aged three is right. This is because of the strong foundation of childcare provision available for children in this age range. Parents can access free, part-time pre-school education when their children are aged three and four, while children aged five and six receive free education of up to 30 hours a week during school term time.

In Grand Committee, we outlined the safeguards that we wish to introduce in secondary legislation to ensure that lone parents are not penalised if childcare cannot be accessed. Since then, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, acknowledged, we have gone further by proposing to introduce provisions to enable lone parents to restrict the hours during which they undertake work-related activity so that they fit around their children's schooling or formal childcare and to ensure that the availability of childcare is taken into account for good cause. Additionally, when agreeing appropriate work-related activity in an action plan with lone parents, Jobcentre Plus advisers must have regard to the well-being of their child or children.

As in previous debates, I cannot stress enough that the progression-to-work model is not about penalising lone parents; it is about encouraging them to improve their lives and the social and economic well-being of their children. Lone parents and advisers will work together to agree appropriate work-related activity. Given the broad spectrum of activities that count as work-related activity, we hope that in most cases customers and advisers will be able to agree suitable activities that can easily be undertaken by lone parents. However, if lone parents fail or refuse to undertake such activities without good cause despite all of the safeguards, we would want the ability, as a last resort, to impose a sanction until they comply, with, of course, provisions relating to hardship.

In progression to work, we will move away from the models currently used in jobseeker's allowance and income support and instead introduce a model that relies on more upfront, in-depth engagement with lone parents before a financial sanction is imposed. The current Jobcentre Plus procedures ensure that, before a sanction is imposed on lone parents for failing to attend a work-focused interview, considerable effort is made to contact them to find out why they did not attend. If, following all the existing stages that Jobcentre Plus goes through to avoid imposing a sanction, a lone parent fails to take part in a work-focused interview or to undertake or complete work-related activity without good cause, under our new model that will not result in a financial sanction. Instead, a formal, final written warning will be issued. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pressed an important point, which will be the subject of a later amendment, about making sure that these are real opportunities to engage and that lone parents have the opportunity to understand the import of the communications that they receive. If this fails, Jobcentre Plus will carry out an individual case review as the next stage of compliance action. This could include home visits for parents and, where necessary, compliance checks.

The purpose of this stage is to provide a more in-depth review of the lone parent's circumstances and the reasons for their failure to comply. This process will ensure that no lone parent can be sanctioned for one failure to comply. Only if they fail to comply when given a second opportunity to carry out work-related activity or a rearranged work-focused interview without good cause will a sanction be considered. If, after this process has been followed, a lone parent still fails to engage, the last resort will be financial sanctions applied to their benefit. Where a sanction is applied, a lone parent can ask for it to be reconsidered or can appeal against it if they feel that they can provide extra information to show good cause. That is always subject, as I have said, to the hardship provisions. As soon as a lone parent with a benefit sanction attends a work-focused interview or re-engages in work-related activity, the sanction can be removed and their benefit restored to the previous level. Overall, this approach will provide lone parents with every opportunity to engage with work-related activity; it will lead to fewer financial sanctions but provide the necessary backstop to ensure engagement.

I think that noble Lords will agree that our model of a journey towards work, which is based on preparation over a longer period and at a pace set by the lone parent, is the way in which to prepare this group of parents for their move into work or to jobseeker's allowance when their youngest child is seven. This must be preferable to following what may be a long period of inactivity with hurried activity in a short time.

My noble friend Lady Hollis pressed the noble Lord, Lord Freud, on alternative sanctions. As she said, he did not indicate what they might be. Depending on what he has in mind, primary legislation may well be needed to deal with alternative sanctions, because the sanctions that are permitted under the Bill relate to the withdrawal of benefits, so I do not know how we would deal with that issue. Nor have we heard anything about what protections and hardship provisions may surround the sort of sanctions that he has in mind but does not feel able to share with us at the moment.

My noble friend Lady Hollis asked particularly about childcare. We have been very clear about that. If childcare is not available, no requirements can be placed on individuals. We see the progression-to-work strategy very much as that—as steps for lone parents that may become progressively more involved as the parents move closer to being required to be available for and looking for work. That is the right way to go. To accept, on the one hand, that it is quite okay to sanction lone parents who have children as young as one for failure to comply with work-focused interviews but, on the other hand, to have an arbitrary cut-off for parents with children below the age of five for not attending work-related activity is not a sensible or coherent approach and I urge the noble Lord not to press his amendment.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions 1:30 pm, 22nd October 2009

My Lords, I am utterly delighted to hear the enthusiasm of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Meacher, for the early activation of lone parents. We agree, although we want there to be protection against the full weight of financial penalty in that early activation.

The Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, made much of the fact that by having this protection at the age of five we would in practice be forced to compress all the activity in the five-to-seven period, but the gap is clearly not as big as two years. Even the whole process of a sanction regime as described by the Minister, in which there are written warnings, visits and so on, takes up time. We are not talking about a huge gap of time or halving the four years, which the Minister sees as preparation for work.

I was challenged by the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on what on earth the sanctions might be. The Minister described two: written warnings and visits—visits are hassle. There are, however, several others. Clearly, taking people's time is effective and I suspect that there are ways of doing that even under present legislation. Making the way in which money is collected rather more inconvenient is effective. Controls on how money is spent and in what form are another.

It has always seemed somewhat illogical to us on this side of the House to come in with the full force of financial sanctions against a community that subsists on the breadline in many cases. What are you doing? Are you taking their money away? Do you expect these people and their children to starve? It is illogical. There must be more imaginative ways of running a sanctions regime and I hope that the amendment will force a little bit of creativity on the other side of the House in managing that sanctions regime.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked whether the amendment would apply purely to the JSA or to the ESA. I should make it clear that I have been corrected by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, who is a total expert in the technology of these Bills and who has pointed out that, according to new Section 6B in Clause 4(1)(b), it will cross over from the JSA to the ESA, so it will cover both of those.

Let me deal with the other accusation, which is that there is an anomaly in having financial penalties in the WFI regime and not in the ready-for-work regime. The first regime is very light; it has been established and seems to be operating. We are now introducing extremely rapidly a whole new system that in this country is quite revolutionary in that it brings the age down. Last year, the child of a lone parent only had to be 16 for there to be virtually no interaction with state except for WFIs. If we are to change that system quite so radically and quite so speedily, we obviously need to put a safety break into it so that no one who has a youngest child under five—in other words, under school age—will face financial sanction.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

Will the noble Lord reconfirm that he is still saying that, if a lone parent fails to attend a work-focused interview, it is acceptable to sanction the parent's benefit, even though the child is only one, and thus do the very things that he was talking about—starve the child and so on and so forth—but that, when that child is older and the parent has come to that work-focused interview and agreed a plan of action in good faith which she then refuses to go ahead with, it is not acceptable to sanction her?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

The plan of action clearly involves a far more elaborate set of requirements than the six-monthly visit to Jobcentre Plus that has been required up to now. There is a difference between an established system that is a very light regime and a regime that could in some circumstances be onerous and in which protection is therefore required.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

I said that it may be an onerous requirement, depending on the view of the personal adviser and the plan thereby devised. It is a completely new system, which is why we need protection of the nature suggested in our amendment.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions

I was giving the noble Lord some thoughts and I think that I have given enough. I would like to test the opinion of the House.

Division on Amendment 6

Contents 103; Not-Contents 97.

Amendment 6 agreed.

Division number 1

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 2.51 pm.