Report (1st Day)

Part of Pensions Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 24th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat 4:45 pm, 24th February 2014

My Lords, these are delicate and sensitive issues. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for using her ingenuity to make sure that these issues are right at the forefront of our discussion on Report. The major issues have already been raised and were expressed from these Benches both at Second Reading and in Committee. The evidence I quoted from the research literature on these matters identifies absolutely clearly that one needs to be extremely careful when dealing with these very difficult times for families. Indeed, what we should recognise is that some people may be able to regain a sense of normality more rapidly than others. You cannot make a distinction or see clear lines between one family and another. It seems that this is very much about the circumstances in which people find themselves and how those positions are managed and handled. The issues raised by these amendments have to be a source of major concern to Members on these Benches, and as I say, they were raised earlier.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Freud for giving us an opportunity to discuss these matters in considerable detail between the Committee stage and today, and to help shape a Government response which adequately meets the concerns expressed. An adequate response from the Government has to satisfy the discussion we had in Committee and be highly relevant to the issues already raised today in this Chamber about these sensitive matters, particularly relationships within families. I want to see a process that meets the issues and was raised in that evidence. This is what I want to challenge and talk to my noble friend about.

As many people will know, a review has little relevance if it does not result in concrete outcomes. My discussions so far with my noble friend have given me considerable confidence that we will see a changed regime at the end of the review. There is a second issue, which relates to speed. We need to make sure that the regulations, associated not really with this Bill but with universal credit, are in place and that there is a chance for people to put their views on record to that review. Quite clearly, a normal government review of this kind would not give a swift response, but we need to get that response in place before people are brought into the universal credit fold.

Therefore I have a number of questions about my noble friend’s review. The first is about scope. So far today, the amendments have been about specific parts of the conditionality regime. Will my noble friend confirm that his review will not just be about the children of married parents, but also of those in a partnership where one is bereaved and the children find themselves in forms of distress? Will it also include situations where a child loses a brother or sister, or those who flee from violence? Violence is often a cause of people fleeing, and of great distress to those children, yet distress to children is a difficult thing to define—as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, described. Is it not rather about the situations in which children find themselves in distress? Is that the purpose of this review? Is it about where and how we see that distress occurring, so we describe the circumstances, rather than the actual distress itself? That would be crucial in ensuring that we get a powerful outcome.

Does my noble friend have the powers to bring in new regulations without putting them in the Bill? Does he have the power to make sure that the results can be put into regulation and guidance, and would any new powers be required for whatever circumstance might be the outcome of his review? What is the timetable for implementing the review’s recommendations, in particular so that any family brought into the universal credit fold can be brought into the new proposed conditionality arrangements which might come out of the review? Some outcome timetable would be very useful to understanding, especially as we have a need for speed.

What assurance of independence and impartiality does my noble friend have within his review? Would he consider appointing an external expert adviser to accompany him on this review? It might be sensible to consider someone who has first-hand, practical experience of distress situations in which children find themselves. How will the Minister conduct evidence gathering? It is important that stakeholders and Members have views and can express them to the ministerial review. Who will the Minister conduct his evidence gathering with, and will he include evidence gathering from a research base, which we heard about today and which I referred to in Committee?

Finally, how will the review’s findings be reported to this House and Parliament in general? In particular, how will Parliament have an opportunity to discuss its outcomes? Given the opportunity for a wider-scoped review which will touch upon some of the situations which are excluded from the amendments before us now, it is possible that we may see before us a real opportunity for a concrete examination of these issues and, more importantly, some specific concrete outcomes which will make changes to the situation before us.