Welfare Reform Bill — Report (5th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:30 pm, 23rd January 2012

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 62ZA and 62B. I could almost do so like my noble friend Lord Kirkwood, but I will speak at slightly greater length.

I would like to assure noble Lords that we are in agreement on the need to ensure that a claimant's childcare responsibilities are taken into account when setting work-related requirements and when determining whether a claimant has good reason for failing to meet a requirement. For the record, let me set out how we intend to do this.

The legislation will provide clear safeguards. When a child is under one, support will be unconditional. When a claimant's child is under five, we will ask the claimant only to attend work-focused interviews. If claimants fail to meet this requirement for no good reason, they will be subject to the lowest level sanction; the sanctionable amount for these claimants will be limited to 40 per cent of the sanctionable amount for other claimants.

Secondly, advisers will take childcare responsibilities into account when setting work-related requirements, and we intend to set out some specific safeguards on this issue in regulations. Regulations will prescribe that claimants with a child under 13 will be able to limit their work search to jobs that fit around their children's school hours. This is key. The best way to prevent the inappropriate application of sanctions is to ensure that requirements are reasonable in the first instance.

Amendment 62B seeks to introduce a blanket exemption from conditionality sanctions for claimants who can demonstrate that they did not have guaranteed and predictable access to suitable childcare. We do not think such a legislative exemption is needed. As I have previously explained, when a claimant fails to meet a requirement, a sanction will be imposed only if the claimant does not demonstrate that there was a good reason. In considering whether there is good reason, we will consider all relevant matters raised by the claimant, which could include the availability and cost of suitable childcare. This flexible, case-by-case is approach is the right one, but to be absolutely clear, when a claimant demonstrates that a lack suitable childcare meant that the claimant was unable to meet a work-related requirement, a decision-maker should determine that the claimant has good reason and a sanction will not be applied.

Noble Lords have previously raised concerns about where the responsibilities lie in relation to the provision of good reason. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify the position. We have a responsibility to ensure that claimants understand the decision-making process and that they have an opportunity to explain the reason for a failure to meet a requirement. The onus is then on the claimant to tell us the reasons and provide supporting evidence where necessary. The department must then determine whether the reasons raised are relevant and whether any of those reasons constitute a good reason. The current practice of visiting ESA claimants with a mental health condition or learning disability before the application of a sanction is a good example of the proactive process required to collect evidence of good reason in some cases. I can assure noble Lords that we will review our approach to collecting evidence of good reason for all claimants to ensure that we get this process right.

The final safeguard is the appeals system. Any decision to reduce an award as a result of a sanction can be appealed to the First-tier Tribunal. Amendment 62ZA seeks to require the tribunal to consider whether the claimant had guaranteed and predictable access to childcare. We do not want to go down the route of prescribing specific matters to be taken into account by an independent body; the existing legislation is clear and sufficient. The First-tier Tribunal must consider any issue or circumstance raised by the claimant that is relevant to a valid appeal, so in an appeal against a decision to reduce an award of benefit because of a sanction where a claimant cites lack of suitable childcare as a good reason for failure, this should be considered by the tribunal because it is plainly relevant to whether the award ought to have been reduced.

Given the safeguards we have in place and the commitment I have made to reviewing our processes for collecting evidence for good reasons, I hope I have provided the assurances on the record that were required by the noble Baroness and I urge her to withdraw this amendment.