Report (3rd Day)

Part of Welfare Reform Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 11th January 2012.

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Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 4:45 pm, 11th January 2012

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendments 45 and 46. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has just said, we have heard very powerful presentations by my noble friend Lady Lister, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, as well as from the noble Baroness herself. I do not plan to repeat all the key issues associated with why I support these amendments. We have gone over them in Committee and we have heard them again today.

Society imposes significant challenges on young disabled people, especially so far as employment is concerned. These challenges will be particularly acute in the next few years as unemployment soars, particularly youth unemployment, which is now more than 1 million. Given the determination to place a time limit-we have yet to settle whether it should be one or two years-on contributory ESA for those in the WRAG, the abolition of the youth condition seems particularly spiteful.

The amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, would preserve the third condition, but only in circumstances where the claimant was and remained in the support group, thus focusing the support on those with the highest needs. The amendment would not appear to add any further benefits to existing claimants who qualify for ESA as a result of the third condition, because that is now covered by the government amendment. However, it would preserve the third condition for new claimants who fell within the support group. As such, I suggest that it is absolutely consistent with the Government's Amendment 43, which was so widely praised earlier. I would hope that it was readily acceptable.

Just to be clear: the effect of government Amendment 43 is to provide among other things for those with an existing claim which relies on the third condition, the youth condition, to remain entitled after time- limiting if they have moved into the support group. Amendment 46 would allow the third contribution condition still to be applicable for new claimants but only where they would go directly into the support group. So there is a parallel in enabling young people with the most severe needs, existing and new claimants, to make use of the third condition. It is unlikely to have any significant cost, but doubtless the Minister will advise on that.

The letter sent by the Minister to the Cross Benches, and perhaps more widely, states that a "recent" European Court of Justice ruling limited the circumstances. How recent is "recent"? I do not believe that we debated or touched on this issue in Committee-if I am wrong, the Minister again will correct me. The letter goes on to say that the judgment further weakens the ESA youth provision, making it potentially much more widely available than intended. Of course, none of us would support benefit shopping if that is what is behind the concerns felt and we would work with the Government to try to make sure that it did not recur and was stopped, but until we have a much clearer idea of what is involved here, it would seem wrong to throw out now, on the basis of this potential issue, the prospects before us in the Bill to deal with the third condition and people entering the support group. If we do that now on the basis of the judgment, we close it off because we are coming to the end of the primary legislation.

At the very least, I hope that the Minister will be able to give a clear assurance to the House today that there will be an opportunity to come back to this issue at Third Reading and for us have more detail, and that he will facilitate that. I would urge him also, because it would be consistent with that, not to press his Amendment 45A, because it would cut off the opportunity for people to make use of the youth condition for employment and support allowance. If noble Lords who have tabled these amendments are going to withhold pressing them on the basis that this issue requires further input, I hope that the Minister will undertake to do the same when he responds.