Amendment 45

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 21 October 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

The Lord Bishop of Durham:

Moved by The Lord Bishop of Durham

45: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—“Universal credit conditionalityThe Secretary of State must review universal credit conditionality with a view to ensuring that adult learners who are—(a) unemployed, and(b) in receipt of universal credit,remain entitled to universal credit if they enroll on an approved course for a qualification which is deemed to support them to secure sustainable employment.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is intended to ensure greater flexibility for potential students in receipt of universal credit to take up appropriate training that will better equip them for employment.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 45, tabled in my name, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for supporting it.

As Members will be only too aware, the £20 uplift to universal credit has ceased. A number of faith leaders, including myself, wrote to the Government alongside many other people seeking for that decision to be reversed. The response was the assertion that helping people back into high-quality, well-paid jobs is now the priority.

In order to achieve that objective—which is one that I know everyone in your Lordships’ House will applaud—it is necessary for those seeking such jobs to be suitably trained and qualified, especially if the economic and social shock of the pandemic means that they now need to change jobs for new ones or to completely retrain to meet new demand. Indeed, an early survey by Adecco in June 2020 suggested that just under one-third of employees were considering a career change post pandemic, and a further 16% had already embarked on some form of training during lockdown with that goal in mind.

Being able to access high-quality training is crucial to those aspiring to the high-quality, well-paid jobs that are rightly the Government’s objective. That was a consistent theme in the excellent points made by a succession of speakers of day 1 of Report, whether in relation to green skills and jobs, by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, or the need to increase the skills of our whole workforce, by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and many others.

It is no good having such opportunities available in theory, but finding that those who face the greatest challenges are, in practice, unable to take them up because they simply cannot afford to do so or the current eligibility criteria in effect exclude them from doing so. Among that cohort, people who are reliant on universal credit face particular difficulties in accessing such high-quality training. That is partly because the default setting for universal credit is that the client must not be in education, since support for that comes from the separate and quite distinct system of loans and grants designed for their needs—as the very helpful and recently updated policy note puts it.

As noble Lords will be aware, it is of course true that there is provision in specified circumstances for courses to be treated as a work preparation requirement for UC claimants up to a maximum of 30 hours per week in certain categories, which allows time for claimants to fulfil the other work-related requirements of their UC conditions. However, the briefest glance at the government regulations for UC that refer to education, or at the government guidance on claiming UC if you are a student, immediately showed just how complex the rules are in practice. That guidance also clearly shows how being available for work is a requirement of being able to claim UC regardless of the educational commitment, which can prove an insurmountable barrier for prospective students.

The present procedure allows a course of education to be included in an individual claimant’s work search requirements when that is approved by the claimant’s adviser. Such a request is frequently successful. However, while it is reassuring that, in some cases, education can be included in work search requirements, the fact that this is on a discretionary basis remains a cause for concern for prospective students, not least because they are reliant on their universal credit income. The uncertainty that this creates, along with the complex regulations that must be applied correctly, serves as a disincentive to many claimants to actually pursue the education that will get them into the higher-skilled work.

In addition, according to information provided by the Association of Colleges, there is a recurring issue whereby UC claims are incorrectly refused in the case of young people living independently, who are eligible to pursue full-time, non-advanced education within UC, due to the system assuming the education to be advanced. There are also significant problems facing prospective students who need financial support for accommodation or subsistence, which are either excluded from current funding or insufficient in scale. Rereading this and explaining it shows just how complicated the system is currently.

However, the good news is that a potential solution is already in the Government’s hands. In broad terms, the amendment in my name seeks to give practical effect to one aspect of the Government’s lifetime learning guarantee—a commitment that we fully and warmly support. More specifically, until the end of this month, the trials of the intensive work search programme, which is available throughout the UK and lasts 16 weeks, and the 12-week skills boot camps, which are available in England, show that it is possible to offer full-time provision as part of that lifetime skills guarantee. In addition, the Kickstart programme has been so successful that is has now been extended until March, with some 69,000 young people starting Kickstart jobs since September 2020.

Plainly, the effectiveness of these approaches needs to be properly confirmed. In any extension of UC eligibility for learners who are retraining or changing career, proper safeguards will be required to prevent abuse of the system. For example, it has been suggested that those who have obtained a recent qualification—say, within the last five years—might be ineligible for further full-time study if in receipt of UC.

The purpose of this amendment, though, is simple and straightforward. It is to enable those in receipt of universal credit to access the skills and qualifications they will need for the future, and thereby access the high-quality, well-paid jobs that the country needs to rebuild our economy, to help create a fairer and more just society, to help them and their families to flourish, and to fulfil the very purpose for which universal credit is said to exist.

I know that the Minister is acutely aware of these issues and look for reassurance that the Government are equally aware and, more importantly, committed to finding further new and creative ways to maximise incentives for those wishing to acquire new skills and take up high-quality, stable jobs and who currently rely on universal credit for all or the majority of their income.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 3:45, 21 October 2021

I will speak on Amendments 62 and 63, and thank the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett, Lord Aberdare and Lord Bird, for putting their names to them. I was taken by a comment in an earlier debate when the Minister used the phrase

“no matter where they live or their background”.—[Official Report, 19/7/21; col. 90.]

That phrase is quite key, and another phrase came in a Statement from the Commons Minister:

“Talent exists everywhere in this country. We have to ensure that we give it every opportunity to flourish, wherever people come from.”—[Official Report, Commons, 1/10/20; col. 541.]

But for people on universal credit, those fine sentiments and words do not ring true.

The right reverend Prelate was absolutely right that universal credit, as well as being a financial support, is a barrier to learning in many cases. He was also right to say that it is incredibly complex. One of the aims at the introduction of universal credit was to remove the 16-hour rule that applied with jobseeker’s allowance, where claimants would lose benefits if they worked or studied more than 16 hours a week. While universities no longer enforce this, time limits have not been discarded. Young people cannot normally claim universal credit if they are studying full-time, which is more than 12 hours. However, they might be able to if they meet certain criteria—for example, if they are responsible for a child, are disabled, are under 21, or are under a non-advanced education course and do not have parental support, for example if they are care leavers. These restrictions might incentivise some young people away from intensive study that would support their chosen career.

If a young person is already claiming universal credit, a decision will be made on whether they can continue to claim that finance while going on a course they have been referred to by a work coach. That seems bizarre. Full-time study is normally allowed where the course lasts a maximum of eight weeks. In April 2021, due to the pandemic, the Government announced that they would extend course length in some scenarios to 12 weeks and 16 weeks on the new skills boot camps for six months. Those receiving universal credit have obligations to prioritise job searches and take available jobs if they are able to, which restricts the opportunity for every unemployed person to receive financial support to study a college course with no impact on their benefit. So we need clarity on these issues. We need to ensure that, to use the Minister’s phrase, whoever you are and wherever you come from, you should be able to access learning.

If we look at Kickstart, again, universal credit is a barrier. We talk about Kickstart as being available for 16 year-olds, but you can apply to go on a Kickstart scheme only if you are receiving universal credit. Can the Minister explain the thinking behind that? Why are the Government advertising Kickstart for 16 year-olds when 16 year-olds are not entitled to universal credit and are therefore unable to go on a Kickstart scheme?

I now turn to the amendment on Kickstart. Kickstart has generally been perceived as a good scheme, with real possibilities to help young people, and I am delighted that the Government announced an extension of the programme—but there have been problems. I understand that any new scheme will have teething issues and will need to be embedded and sorted, but let us look at some of the problems that have existed. These are not my words; they come from employers.

First, they say “Actually, do you know what? We don’t just want a six-month scheme. If we’re really going to develop the career opportunities of those young people, it should be a 12-month experience.” In many cases, companies have not found the experience as easy as they thought it might be: they have found it, at times, very frustrating, waiting months for approval and then with a further delay for roles to go online on the system; referrals that are totally unsuitable for the job specification coming to their business, suggesting that the role-matching automation is deeply flawed; lack of support for any queries, with weeks to receive a reply, and never from the same person; payments incorrect; and late or no record of the young person, despite all the procedures being followed. Small firms—and this is perhaps why so few small businesses have got involved—do not have the resources or time to manage these processes. We need to get those issues right, because it is a good scheme that has the potential to really help the issue of youth unemployment.

I will make just one more statement. We talk about youth unemployment and give an overall figure of, I think, 12.4% now—but of course that is the headline figure. We should look deeper at the figures. For example, among black people aged 16 to 24, the figure was 41.6% unemployed.

So the message is: let people not be debarred from learning because they are on universal credit; and Kickstart is a good scheme—sort it out and let it continue. Be inventive about it: perhaps it could be linked to apprenticeships. The sky is the limit. We are talking about young people’s livelihoods and opportunities—so, Minister, go for it.

Photo of Lord Aberdare Lord Aberdare Crossbench 4:00, 21 October 2021

My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 62 from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and I seem to have added my speech to his as well, because I very much echo what he said. I was involved in delivering a rather similar previous scheme, the Future Jobs Fund, to young unemployed Londoners. Based on that, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that Kickstart has the potential to become a really valuable programme. I emphasise the word “potential” because I do not think it has got there yet, but it offers substantial benefits to the young participants it focuses on and to the employers who take them on.

For the participants—most, if not all, of whom are at risk of long-term unemployment—six months is long enough for them to become acclimatised to working life and to develop the employability skills they need for their Kickstart placement and for future jobs. The employers can fill short-term vacancies at a low cost, which might even lead to some Kickstarters being taken into permanent roles at the end of the placement, having proved their capability and worth.

Importantly, the scheme also recognises the need for many Kickstarters to receive extra support and training when they start by providing £1,500 for so-called wrap- around support, which is much needed for those who not only are new to the world of work but might often come from chaotic living circumstances. We used to have to send taxis to pick up some of ours to take them to their work, until they realised that they had to be up and dressed at a certain time in order to be there.

However, despite its excellent intentions, the scheme seems to be falling short of expectations, with only about two-fifths of available Kickstart jobs having been taken up by September, including in sectors heavily hit by the pandemic and now much in need of extra staff, such as hospitality, travel, retail and care. Many of the reasons for this disappointing performance, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, sound rather familiar to me, including delays, bureaucracy and complexity. It can take several weeks for a business, and indeed the specific jobs within that business, to be approved for Kickstart; only then does the rather unreliable process of identifying and recruiting candidates start. These must be referred by jobcentre work coaches, and it might take considerable time for them to come up with enough suitable candidates for employers to interview and recruit.

Again echoing the noble Lord, small businesses in particular, many of which could and do offer highly worthwhile Kickstart places, are often put off by the time, effort and bureaucracy involved. They are no longer required to use gateway providers to get involved in the scheme, but many of them continue to do so to reduce the burden on themselves of the complex administration involved.

It also seems that Kickstart is not as well integrated with other skills programmes, such as the apprenticeships programme, as it could be. Ideally, every successfully completed Kickstart placement should lead to clear pathways to further development whenever possible, including one or more apprenticeship options.

It would indeed be a pity if, just as some of these issues with Kickstart are beginning to be ironed out, and with numbers and outcomes picking up momentum, the scheme came to an end on 31 December—what I thought was its current cut-off date of, but it sounds as if that has possibly been extended. The noble Lord’s amendment would require the Secretary of State to review the scheme’s operation and consider whether its lifetime should be extended, with or without further modifications; for example, relating to eligibility and the link to universal credit. Surely such a review should be seen as an absolute necessity to learn the lessons of the scheme so far and consider whether or how it could be built on or improved.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise with great pleasure to offer my support to Amendment 45 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, to which I have attached my name. It is, in a way, the reverse of Amendment 63: Amendment 45 says that adult learners should be able to get universal credit; Amendment 63 says that you should be able to become an adult learner while on universal credit. I am not sure which is the best way round, but I am not sure that it matters or will make much practical difference. Both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, have clearly outlined the Kafkaesque complications that arise, and the unreasonable unintended traps people can find themselves in when they seek to study and find that the system simply does not allow them to.

I want to come from the other point of view very briefly and think about the overall good of the country. As I was contemplating these amendments, I thought back to hearing an economist talk about how, slightly counterintuitively, having a very short period between people becoming unemployed and finding a new job might not be the best thing, because if you have very low levels of unemployment benefits, as we do in the UK compared to many continental countries, people have to grab the first job they can secure—the first job that comes along. That means that you get an awful lot of square pegs in round holes. You get people who are not best for the job. They are not good for the employer and it is not good for them to be in a job for which they are not suited. If you have a longer period, people are able to assess and improve their skills and then find the right job, stay in that job for longer, advance in it and make real progress. We need to move towards a system that allows that to happen. When we talk about the economy, we talk about how we can solve our productivity problem. These are the base issues that we need to think about. Amendments 45 and 63 address them.

On Amendment 62, I want to offer the Green group’s support. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said nearly everything I was going to say, so I am not going repeat it. It was reminiscent of some of the reports you hear of the green homes grant and employers struggling to get paid. If we are talking about small employers, their cash flow can become a serious problem.

I note one figure that says that the north-east—the region with the highest unemployment in England—is the area with the lowest rate of take up of Kickstart. That is obviously a concern, and it should be looked at in a review, particularly in the light of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and all noble Lords who have spoken. In Committee, we had a good debate about universal credit and the various ways in which people are discouraged by the rules from getting the skills that they need. I think the issue is that government policy is not properly joined up. We need to have skills, employment and social security policy fully aligned to make this work.

What is going wrong? I suspect that, at heart, it is an issue of departmental responsibility. DfE basically wants people to get training to increase their skills so that they can engage in productive, sustainable work, but most people cannot afford to train or retrain without financial support. I suspect DfE would quite like them to be able to get benefits while they do it. However, DWP does not think its benefit system is there to support students in education and training; it thinks that is DfE’s job. In general, that works. Most students are supported by loans or grants, and a lot of people on universal credit want to get back into work and universal credit supports them while they do. But there are clearly people who may struggle to get back into sustainable jobs unless they increase, update or change their skills, and it is likely that there will be more of them in the future than there have been in the past.

In Committee, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and other noble Lords identified a number of barriers that get in the way of people wanting to do that. The Minister’s defence was basically twofold. She said, first, that DfE and DWP are working together on it and there is a trial under way for six months. She said that there is flexibility on conditionality, so that if you get universal credit and are part of the intensive work search scheme, you can study full time for 12 weeks, with boot camps and so on—the lot.

Secondly, she said that the benefit system may not be there for education and training for most people, but some people can get help. The Minister mentioned Regulation 14 of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013. I went back and refreshed my memory of that regulation. It lists the exceptions, but the only exceptions are young people doing A-levels or the like who are not living with their parents, those who have kids and some disabled people with limited capacity for work. As I read on—the Minister can correct me—I thought that all Regulation 14 does is remove the blanket requirement that you must not be in education to qualify for universal credit at all. I do not think it stops people—even in those groups—having conditionality requirements placed on them in the way that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham described, which might make it impossible for them to take on a training course. Can the Minister clarify that?

It is really quite hard to work out who can get universal credit for training, at what level and where. To that end, can the Minister tell the House whether any or all people wishing to carry out study necessary for a course leading to the lifetime skills guarantee could get universal credit while they do it, as Amendment 63 suggests? If not, how should they support themselves while they do that?

Amendment 45 from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham makes a broader point about the needs of people who are unemployed and need training to get secure, sustainable employment. There is a balance here. The benefits system is not there to fund everybody wanting to retrain, but this amendment could pick up some of those people who are long-term unemployed or may have gone from one low-paid, insecure job to another, perhaps with periods on benefits in between. Might not they and the taxpayer be better served if they could afford to get trained for a secure and sustainable career? How could they be helped under the Government’s current approach?

I turn now to Amendment 62, which would require the Government to reconsider how long Kickstart runs and who is eligible for it. When we debated Kickstart in Committee on 19 July, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, said:

“I cannot say that we will extend the duration of the Kickstart scheme or change its eligibility”.—[Official Report, 19/7/21; col. 103.]

A summer is a long time in politics because, as we have heard, a Written Ministerial Statement has now announced that Kickstart is running until the end of March. Who knows? By the time we get to Third Reading, maybe eligibility will have been reviewed as well—you never know.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the decision to extend the timescale was driven less by the rhetorical powers of noble Lords—marvellous though those are—and rather more by the fact that Kickstart is nowhere near hitting its targets. There were meant to be 250,000 placements by December. The latest figures I could find were in a Written Answer to my noble friend Lady Wilcox on 21 September in which the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, said that 69,000 young people had started Kickstart jobs as of 8 September. Does the Minister have more recent figures? That Answer also said that more than 281,000 jobs had been approved. If 281,000 jobs have been approved and only 69,000 people have started work, that is worse.

The regional position, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is really significant. I have raised the positions of the north and north-east before—not just because I live in Durham—but that Written Answer said that in the whole north-east of England only 3,170 people had started Kickstart jobs. Something is going wrong.

Can the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to rescue this scheme? In particular, why is there this lag between jobs created and jobs filled? What is happening to get young people into these jobs? Do the Government expect to meet their 250,000 target by December, March or another date? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate, the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Aberdare, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Sherlock, for taking part.

Amendments 45 and 63 from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, broadly seek to enable individuals studying at level 3 and below to claim universal credit—an issue debated at some length in Committee. It is of course vital that students feel supported and have the confidence to come forward to upskill. Where we differ is in how that support is financed.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, talked about, there should be a joined-up approach between the Department for Education and the DWP. Important work is already under way on this subject, as she mentioned. Officials at the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions are working closely together to help address and mitigate the barriers to unemployed adults taking advantage of our skills offer.

There is a new DWP train and progress initiative aimed at increasing access to training opportunities for claimants. As part of this, in April 2021 a temporary six-month extension to the flexibility offered by universal credit conditionality was announced. As a result of this change, adults who claim universal credit and are part of the intensive work search programme can now undertake work-related full-time training for up to 12 weeks, or up to 16 weeks as part of a skills boot camp in England. This builds on the eight weeks for which claimants were already able to train full-time. I am pleased to inform your Lordships that this flexibility has now been extended to run through to the end of April 2022. These measures are truly helping to ensure that UC claimants are supported to access training and skills that will improve their ability to gain good, stable and well-paid jobs.

We must remember that Section 4(1)(d) of the Welfare Reform Act 2012—which I know we have in our minds all the time—sets out that one of the basic conditions of entitlement to universal credit is that the person must not be receiving education that can be defined in regulations made under subsection (6). As noble Lords are probably already aware, financial support for students comes from the current system of learner loans and grants designed for their needs. Where students have additional needs that are not met through that support system, exceptions are already provided under regulation 14 of the Universal Credit Regulations, enabling those people to claim universal credit. That includes those responsible for a child, as either a single person or a couple, or those aged 21 or under studying non-advanced education such as A-levels who do not have parental support.

It is an important principle that universal credit does not duplicate the support provided by the student support system. Importantly, universal credit may still be available for an adult who is undertaking a course up to level 3, provided that their course is compatible with work-related requirements agreed with their work coach. Where the course is work-related and will give the person the best chance of securing work, the work coach may consider it a suitable work-preparation activity. In such cases, time spent on the course will be deducted from the amount of time the person needs to spend looking for work. We therefore do not think it necessary for the UC regulations to be amended in the manner suggested.

I turn to the topic of Kickstart and the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Storey. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, the Kickstart Scheme was created and deployed rapidly to provide urgent jobs for young people to support their long-term work prospects. Kickstart will help to reduce the long-term effects of unemployment caused by the pandemic.

To be effective, the scheme must be targeted. For that reason, Kickstart funds the creation of jobs for people aged 16 to 24 on universal credit and at risk of long-term unemployment. Through Kickstart, these young people have the chance to build confidence and skills in the workplace and gain experience that will improve their chances of progressing to find long-term, sustainable work. As of the end of September, over 86,000 young people had started in a Kickstart job, with over 3,500 young people starting in roles each week. Whether we are going to reach 250,000 is, I am afraid, not something that I can say now.

With regard to the noble Lord’s amendment, I hope he is delighted to hear that on 4 October the Chancellor announced that Kickstart would run to the end of March 2022, thereby allowing the Government to continue to offer Kickstart jobs to as many young people as need them. Alongside that, we have been delighted to see the wider labour market open up and more opportunities become available to young people. We do not want Kickstart to displace existing vacancies so there are no plans to extend eligibility beyond universal credit claimants.

As noble Lords can see, this is a clear demonstration that the Government are already keeping Kickstart under review. The amendment is therefore unnecessary. I hope this has provided some explanation to noble Lords.

Some questions came up that I will try to answer. I think the noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked me about advertising Kickstart to 16 year-olds when they are not entitled to universal credit and therefore cannot do it. I partly answered that when I said that, while it is unlikely, some 16 year-olds can qualify for universal credit and, in turn, Kickstart. This number may be low but, for those eligible, Kickstart can be there to support them. As I said earlier, it is for those 16 to 17 year-olds who may be responsible for a child or who have regular and substantial caring responsibilities, among other examples.

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, talked about Kickstart moving to apprenticeships. Once a Kickstart job has finished, work coaches will discuss further opportunities, such as apprenticeships and traineeships. But we know that all young people who have gone through Kickstart will have improved their employable skills.

The noble Lords, Lord Aberdare and Lord Storey, talked about small and medium-sized businesses. We have worked hard to make Kickstart available to them, creating gateways. New small and medium-sized businesses can apply directly to DWP—we received feedback saying that this was something that they wanted. We also created more for sole traders to take part through Gateway Plus organisations that place a young person on their pay system. We also created a network of Kickstart district account managers in every jobcentre area to manage and support employers of all sizes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked how people who have undertaken training under the LSG will fund themselves if they cannot get universal credit. Adults who study at level 3 or above can apply for an advanced learner loan to help them with the costs of a course at a college or independent training provider, if they cannot do so through existing entitlements. There is also a bursary fund to help vulnerable and disadvantaged people, via colleges and apprenticeship providers, with support such as childcare. I hope that answers noble Lords’ questions.

I ask the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham to withdraw his amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, not to move his when it is reached.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 4:15, 21 October 2021

I am very grateful to the Minister for her responses and for clarifying the situation. I am very concerned in particular about the gap that exists between now and 2025; come 2025, I think most of her answers would satisfy me, but that is four years away. So, slightly reluctantly, I would like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 166, Noes 150.

Division number 2 Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) — Amendment 45

Aye: 166 Members of the House of Lords

No: 150 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Amendment 45 agreed.