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Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:23 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 8:23 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, there have been 27 speeches so far and I want to avoid ploughing or reploughing ground that has probably been pretty extensively tilled already. Therefore, my contribution will draw on my experiences in the charity and voluntary sector and, in particular, on the work that I did for the Government in looking at effects on that sector in a report called Unshackling Good Neighbours. The report tried to find ways of removing barriers to the growth of the third sector, and the research for it gave me the chance to see the condition of some of our most disadvantaged fellow citizens. At times it could be slightly dispiriting but, by contrast, the activities of the volunteers in the third sector organisations—and they were mostly volunteers—were almost universally uplifting. Often with very little money and few assets, they set out to tackle some of the most deep-seated and intractable problems in our society. They were trying to provide a ladder up which our unlucky fellow citizens could climb.

It will come as no surprise to the House that one of the main rungs of the ladder was a job—regular, steady employment, often with third sector organisations helping to provide an introduction to the disciplines and self-disciplines that the commercial world requires from people who perhaps have become unfamiliar with them because of a long period out of work. Self-evidently a job provides an answer to some of the economic challenges but it does much more than that, as my noble friend Lord Lupton said in his distinguished maiden speech. It helps to provide an answer to social challenges, because one of the pernicious effects of long-term unemployment is an erosion of self-confidence. By contrast, a job creates self-confidence. It creates a sense of self-worth, a sense of belonging and a sense of having a stake in society—above all, a stake in a society that values the individual. Thus, it contributes to social cohesion—the glue that binds us all together—the creation and maintenance of which I believe is one of the great challenges that we will face over the next few years. I will come back to that in a minute or two.

Therefore, it will come as no surprise to the House that I strongly support the direction of travel of the Bill, and in my few minutes I want to address briefly three issues: the apprenticeship programme, the troubled families initiative and the restriction of certain benefits to two children only.

The plan to create 3 million apprenticeships seems admirable. There is a pressing need for vocational training, and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, will, I know, follow me on that. It will provide people with more satisfying, better-paid and more secure jobs than—dare I say it?—a 2.2 in media studies. The Sutton Trust and Big Society Capital are only two of the many organisations that provide many concrete examples of the advantages of this policy. It is certainly not a policy that lacks ambition, but I have some concern that, as numbers expand to meet the 3 million target, the quality standards may be compromised and an apprenticeship may too often become not much more than basic training. So some element of quality control will be essential to keep faith with those joining the programmes. On that point, at least, I am happy to agree with the UNISON briefing circulated to Members of your Lordships’ House. The Skills Funding Agency, as the potential policeman, has a vital role to play in this regard. It should also consider establishing a confidential hotline so that those who feel that what was promised is not now being delivered can seek support and redress.

Secondly, I strongly support the initiatives in the Bill to help break the cycle of underachievement, underperformance and deprivation—that is, the troubled families initiative. The troubles faced by each family are unique. Themes there may be but the admixture is unique. Government programmes tend by their very nature to be broad brush—no other approach is possible at scale—but what many of these families need is the detailed attention that can often best be provided by smaller third sector groups. However, their role is often constrained by the commissioning processes. Commissioners can be highly risk averse, preferring to put their faith in large groups, for which smaller third sector organisations can too often become “bid candy”, being landed with the most challenging areas, which perforce carry a higher risk of failure, while the main contractor takes the “vanilla flavour” mainstream cases.

A Second Reading debate is not the place to discuss the details of the commissioning processes but I urge my noble friend to ask his officials to consider establishing some commissioning yardsticks. The third sector deserves a level playing field and a series of yardsticks would help to establish it. It would also provide a means for more effective delivery of the Government’s admirable policy objectives in this area.

I turn thirdly to what I might call, in shorthand, the two children issue, which is possibly the most challenging. In my various visits and trips compiling my reports for the Government I have been struck by how many people, from every sector in every region of our country, emphasise the concept of fairness. It is of course true that the detailed aspect of what each thinks is fair varies according to the eye of the beholder, but the underlying principles are very often the same. This concept of fairness underpins the unspoken and unwritten contract that commits all of us to playing our part in preserving our social model, whether it be pay-as-you-go pensions, the method of funding the National Health Service or the issues that we are discussing tonight. However, the elasticity of the social model is not infinite and should not be taken for granted.

I have of course read very carefully the briefings from a number of organisations on this issue and, in particular, the one from the faith groups, signed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I understand the point being made and, no doubt, we shall have some robust debates on this point in Committee. However, with great respect to the right reverend Prelate, and indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who spoke very strongly on this matter half an hour ago, at this stage, I think that with the careful shaping given to this part of the Bill by the Government—for example, that it is a two-child rolling programme and disabled children are exempt—they have got the fairness balance about right.

In the last part of my speech, on the background of the Bill and the issue of social cohesion, I want to turn to a very different point: how we are going to preserve the social cohesion of this country over the next 20 years and the challenges that we face.

This country is undergoing an exceptionally rapid growth in population. I want to make it clear, as I always do when I speak on this subject, that this is not about people’s race, creed, colour or ethnic origin. It is purely about absolute numbers—and the numbers are stark. The ONS figures for 2014, produced in late September, indicated that the population of this country increased by 1,435 people every day—just under 900 from immigration, and around 600 from excess of births over deaths, or the natural increase. That is 10,000 people a week. We are putting a small town on to the map of the United Kingdom every week, 52 weeks of the year.

Think of the consequences of that. Take just one consequence that we always debate in your Lordships’ House, that of housing. Currently, we house 2.3 people per dwelling. I make the assumption that we would want our new arrivals, wherever they come from, to be no less well housed. To house 1,435 people per day means that we need 624 dwellings. That is 26 per hour or one every two and a half minutes, night and day, without any improvements being made to our existing housing stock, which I suspect most of us would believe are necessary.

I am afraid that this is not a temporary phenomenon. The ONS projections indicate a mid-point for the UK’s population in 2035 of a further 10 million people—that is made up of both immigration and natural increase. Twenty years from now, we are going to have to build three new Greater Manchesters. On the same metric of 2.3 people per dwelling, that is 4.4 million homes. If noble Lords do the simple arithmetic, they will see that that is one new house every two and a half minutes for the next 20 years.

I fear that the introduction of 10 million people and 4.5 million homes will pose challenges to our social cohesion that we have not really begun to think carefully about. This is 10 million people in a country that has just overtaken the Netherlands as the most densely populated in Europe, with 425 people per square kilometre—the Netherlands having just under 400 people per square kilometre.

It is easy to put this issue into a box marked “too difficult” because it is difficult. I urge my noble friend on the Front Bench; I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock—this is not a party political matter—and, indeed, I urge the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham to hold this question and its implicit challenges in their collective mind. For, if there are to be challenges to our social cohesion, it will not be those of us in your Lordships’ House who will suffer. It will be the poor, the ill-educated, the unemployed and, above all, the recently arrived—in many ways the people we are trying to help in this Bill—who will bear the brunt.

Twenty years from now, I will probably be dribbling into my cornflakes, unaware of what is going on around me. I believe our successors will be entitled to ask why, on this important issue, we always looked the other way.