Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 21st March 2013.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:25 pm, 21st March 2013

I will come on to explain that in a little.

The arguments that we will make before the Supreme Court, if we are granted permission, will not be affected by this Bill. However, we need the Bill to provide certainty that the Government are not in a position where we will have to repay previous benefit sanctions, and can impose sanctions where decisions have been stayed, in respect of claimants who have failed to take part in employment programmes without good reason. We have made it clear that we will take steps to ensure that claimants cannot expect a sanction refund as a result of this judgment, and there is a compelling public interest for taking those steps.

The Bill does not overturn previous appeals that have succeeded on the basis of good cause and it does not prevent claimants from appealing a sanction on the basis of good reason. Instead, it ensures that claimants who have failed to participate with no good reason do not obtain an undeserved windfall payment. We estimate that such a windfall could cost the public purse up to £130 million. That is money that would be better spent on people who take their responsibilities seriously, and it is in the public interest that we ensure this.

There is also an important public interest, as the Court of Appeal recognised, in getting people back to work by ensuring that jobseeker's allowance is paid only to those who are actively seeking employment and who engage with attempts made by the state to achieve that end, and that those who do not do so face the appropriate consequences. The Bill will protect this public interest by ensuring that those who have not engaged with attempts made by the state to return them to work face the appropriate consequences, rather than receiving an undeserved windfall.

The Government respect the general principle that Parliament should not legislate to reverse the effects of the judgments of the court for past cases unless the situation is exceptional. However, it is entirely proper to enact such legislation if there is a compelling reason to do so. There is a compelling reason here on three grounds: first, the cost involved; secondly, the claimants affected do not deserve a windfall payment; and, thirdly, this is an unusual case in social security legislation where a court or tribunal decision has a retrospective effect.

The Bill will provide that any decision to reduce jobseeker's allowance under the ESE regulations cannot be challenged on the grounds that those regulations were invalid or the notices given under them inadequate. It makes similar provision in relation to the mandatory work activity regulations in respect of notices given under those regulations.

I have said that we fundamentally disagree with the court's verdict with respect to the lawfulness of the ESE regulations and the notices given under them. We believe that those regulations were correctly drafted. They were drafted to be flexible enough to encompass a wide range of programmes designed to support jobseekers into work. There was no clear and identified need to go further than the ESE regulations in order to lawfully mandate claimants to our schemes.

The Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, as it was then called, published a report that covered the ESE regulations on 5 May 2011. The Merits Committee had a number of concerns, including the quality of the Explanatory Memorandum. To go off on a tangent, I want to acknowledge that there was a period when we were not servicing the Merits Committee adequately, and I have taken steps since then to improve that position. The Merits Committee had concerns, but the possibility that the ESE regulations were unlawful was not one of them. The committee drew attention to the fact that the regulations,

"interpret the Act very broadly so that future changes to the Scheme could be made administratively without any reference to Parliament".

However, it did not go on to suggest that they went beyond the primary powers.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments also considered the ESE regulations at its meeting on 15 June 2011. I am sorry to report that no fewer than three instances of defective drafting were identified, which the department acknowledged. However, the committee did not raise even the possibility that the ESE regulations were unlawful. The Social Security Advisory Committee, whose independent and informed advice we value greatly and with which we have a very constructive relationship, also considered the ESE regulations. Among other issues, it made a point about the breadth of the powers, but it did not suggest that they went beyond the primary powers. Similarly, those primary powers in the Welfare Reform Act 2009 received full scrutiny. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee regarded the delegations in the relevant part of the Act and the associated scrutiny procedure as unexceptionable.

We consider that the primary powers do not require that the regulations set out the fine details of the scheme. We believe that it is undesirable to do so, as a wide variety of possible arrangements could be made, depending on the nature of the labour market conditions in particular parts of the country. We also need to be able to respond to changing conditions and challenges quickly and effectively.

We believe that the flexibility that the ESE regulations provided was rational and desirable, and it must be remembered that the High Court ruled that the regulations were lawful. We therefore cannot agree with the Court of Appeal's judgment. We also believe that the letters issued to claimants provided sufficient information on the consequences of not participating in our schemes. In addition to the information provided in the letter, claimants would have also discussed the precise details of the scheme with their jobcentre adviser, including what was expected of them and the consequences of not upholding their side of the bargain.

Nevertheless, following the High Court judgment, we revised all referral notices to comply with the judgment and sent letters clarifying the position to the then claimants impacted by the decision. That allowed us to continue to operate the schemes as intended-an intention that has been clear to all from the scheme's inception, based on principles which the effects of the Court of Appeal judgment undermines and which the Bill is intended to protect.

It is right that we are able to operate our schemes as intended, giving jobseekers the opportunity to improve their chances of moving into work, with appropriate consequences for those who fail to take up that opportunity. It is right that government resources are targeted on those claimants who are actively seeking employment and taking all reasonable steps to improve their chances of securing employment and that resources are not wasted on those who have not met their responsibilities.

To pick up the question asked by the noble Lord, as soon as the judgment was handed down, the department explored all the options and avenues available to it to ensure the protection of the public interest. Once the decision to pursue emergency legislation was taken, that required legal advice, the appropriate consent prior to introduction and preparing the Bill products. We also engaged the Opposition, who rightly gave the matter thorough consideration. I am sure that all noble Lords will appreciate the time that that has taken.