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Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:42 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 10:42 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, I was expecting some excellent contributions to this debate, and I was not disappointed. We have all been privileged to enjoy the quartet of maiden speeches this evening. I was particularly struck by my noble friend Lord Lansley saying that we need to add value in our measures of poverty. No one could mistake the passion with which my noble friend Lady Stroud has devoted her life to tackling the root causes of poverty. My noble friends Lord Lupton and Lord Polak concentrated on the importance of the troubled families programme. As my noble friend Lord Lupton said, we need to intervene, not just look at statistics. I also thought that we had a complete variety of styles from the four—you could not get a more varied set of contributions—and I look forward to many more contributions from my noble friends.

This Bill builds on the principles first introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012. In the past, Governments spent money in an attempt to solve problems rather than drive real change in people’s lives, and our approach is different: we believe that we should reward work and support aspiration, that we must have in place a fair, affordable and sustainable welfare system, along with the appropriate protections for the most vulnerable, and that we must relentlessly focus on tackling the root causes of child poverty to improve the life chances of our children. It is also worth remembering that the measures in the Bill must not be taken alone. We must also take into account the national living wage, increases in the personal tax allowance and the reforms of childcare, all of which will help to ensure that work pays.

Let me address some of the points that were made in the debate. There were quite a lot, and I will attempt to answer as many as possible. We will have a chance to go into them all in Committee. To help that process, I will, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked, make sure that we have the same process that we had with the Welfare Reform Bill. I will make briefing sessions available for noble Lords on the specific policy in good time, so that we have an informed process.

Let me begin with the first three clauses of the Bill: the statutory duties to report on full employment, apprenticeships and troubled families. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked why we are not setting the target for full employment there. We set out in our manifesto the aspiration for the UK to be the best place in the world to start a business, and to achieve the highest employment rate in the G7. Producing an annual report will illustrate our progress towards that goal.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked whether underemployment as a result of working part-time is contributing to low earnings. The figures show that 85% of people who are working part-time are doing so through choice. The number of vacancies are now pretty substantial—in excess of 700,000 at any one time. In answer to the question asked by the noble Baronesses, Lady Manzoor, Lady Doocey and Lady Hollis, full employment will allow support for those with disabilities. We have already found 450,000 people in the Work Programme sustained work. We need to continue to support individuals into work through successful programmes such as Access to Work, and to work with the health system to improve access to treatment.

Closing the disability gap and improving employers’ attitudes to disabled people is a theme that was picked up by the noble Baronesses, Lady Doocey, Lady Meacher, Lady Hollins, and Lady Grey-Thompson, and by the noble Lords, Lord Rix and Lord Young. Clearly, it is a challenging ambition and we are committed to it. We have extended Access to Work and launched specialist employability support. We continue to work with employers through our Disability Confident campaign, and announced funding of a further £100 million per year for additional practical support. Clearly, progress here is a key factor in achieving full employment and closing the gap.

The noble Lord, Lord Young, my noble friend Lord Blencathra and my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott asked about the quality of apprenticeships. Improving quality has been central to our reforms, and employers are developing new standards to ensure that apprenticeships meet the skills needs of their sectors.

The Government ensure that small businesses are engaged in the development of those apprenticeship standards, and we have made significant progress in making them easier for small businesses to take on. In answer to the question of my noble friend Lord Hodgson, there are 40,000 people with disabilities or learning difficulties starting an apprenticeship. More clearly can be done. My noble friend Lady Eaton asked about care leavers. The Government provide full funding for apprenticeship training for entitled 19 to 23 year-old care leavers. They can also get access to programmes such as traineeships for the support they need to get ready for an apprenticeship.

I turn to life chances. We have made it clear that our focus is on the symptoms of child poverty—excuse me, the existing statutory targets focus on the symptoms of child poverty—and we have a new approach, the life chances one, focused on transforming lives through tackling the root causes of child poverty. Clause 4 therefore places a duty on the Secretary of State to report annually on the key life-chance measures of worklessness and educational attainment.