Report (1st Day)

Part of Pensions Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 24th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:15 pm, 24th February 2014

The point I am trying to make is that it is far better to recognise that individual responses to grief vary. As a number of noble Lords have said, grief often does not manifest in behavioural and emotional challenges until months or even years down the line, as a child matures. That is why, under universal credit, advisers have the flexibility to personalise requirements at any point, responding as circumstances arise. Where parents are facing difficulties with school, childcare arrangements or other extenuating circumstances, advisers can limit or even lift requirements.

I recognise that the application of that flexibility depends on the ability of those advisers. While I feel that our advisers are able, it is important to ensure that they have the best guidance and training to deal with such difficult cases. That is why we are currently working with experts in the field including the Childhood Bereavement Network, the Children’s Society, Cruse Bereavement Care, WAY and Gingerbread, to ensure that guidance and learning clearly articulate how advisers can identify and support parents in these circumstances, including the particular circumstances in which it would be inappropriate to apply conditionality. Our advisory services are also being repositioned as a profession with a clear career path, accredited learning and ongoing professional development. The learning programme will ensure that advisers have up-to-date skills to deal with any claimant interaction and support them in making relevant and appropriate decisions on an individual basis.

That is the standing position. I now move to the more specific response that I wish to make following our discussions in Grand Committee, particularly in answer to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I recognise that there are circumstances in which children could be in considerable distress and in which it is clear that conditionality should not be applied and flexibility is essential. I do not, however, see such cases as being limited to bereavement. There may be other circumstances in which children need additional care—for instance, where a family is fleeing domestic violence.

I assure the noble Baroness that we are not looking for a measure to define “distress”. Indeed, we need to establish exactly what the expression means; we are using it as a shorthand and there may be a much better way of capturing the concept, which is one of the things that a review should do. We are looking to identify specific circumstances in which we could expect a child to be distressed, and in which they will therefore have additional needs that need to be recognised. Claimants would need to demonstrate only the circumstances they are in, not the fact of distress, which is, as the noble Baroness has pointed out, extraordinarily difficult to establish.

I therefore want to conduct a review as quickly possible, in order to embed any new rules in the regime before we take new claims to universal credit from families. That is why I propose to undertake the review myself. I would like, in practice, to conclude that review by June or so. I will report back to the House following that. I am not quite sure of what form that will take but we will find the right form nearer the time.

The scope of the review will include not just where there is a bereavement payment due but where there is the death of a partner, possibly unmarried, where the child’s sibling dies, or where a family is fleeing domestic violence. There will be other examples. We will start with an evidence-gathering phase. I should like to involve Members of this House—one or two have already demonstrated extreme knowledge—but I would also look to engage an expert adviser and to conduct open evidence-gathering sessions, including one for Peers. If that review concludes that changes to universal credit regulations are needed, I am able to bring those forward under the existing powers in the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

I think I have covered the areas raised by my noble friend Lord German. On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, clearly I am able to commit to this review on the basis that the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, does not go through. I would not be in a position to commit to a review with a changed context because if there is an ad hoc change to a significant proportion of those in the scope, I will have to work out again exactly how to scope any proposal that I have.