New clause 1 - Regulations made by the Treasury: voluntary work and work experience

Child Benefit Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 18 January 2005.

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'Regulations made by the Treasury shall include provision that a person may be a qualifying young person if the person concerned is undertaking training that is not provided through a contract of employment (such a person for these purposes being a ''trainee'') in circumstances where the person responsible for the organisation of the training concerned certifies in an approved form that the training can be expected to result in increased skills being acquired by the trainee.'.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

May I reiterate my thanks to you, Miss Begg, for allowing us a separate debate on this? I shall do my best to respond to that positively and ensure that I do not stray back into some of the issues that were covered very fairly on clause stand part. The new   clause seeks in principle to expand the range of courses of unwaged training that will qualify for child benefit purposes to include voluntary work and work experience. We are putting this forward for debate on the basis of representations received from a number of organisations on this specific issue.

The following point was highlighted by the Prince's Trust and perhaps I should declare a minor personal interest here. The trust has been quite active in my constituency. I have been very impressed by the work that it has done with young people, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds. They have often gone through very difficult experiences and so the trust's work is very challenging. I have seen a number of instances where it has helped young people who have been through difficult periods in their youth and turned them into successful business men, for example. It often brings those business people into economic activity: they then pay taxes and contribute to the wealth of the nation. That is to be applauded, and I should like to put that on the record while I have a chance to do so.

Having declared that interest, I want to quote from a letter that the Prince's Trust wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, which touched in particular on the issue:

''In our consultation with young people, many of them specifically talked about voluntary work and work experience, that these should be eligible since these were a form of training that would improve their employability skills and help them move forward in their lives. These, as well as other more informal forms of training, often provide the first steps out of inactivity for more vulnerable young people.

If it is only approved 'Government supported schemes' that are eligible, then young people may not feel they have the financial support to participate in these more informal activities. We would therefore like clarification on what is meant by 'Government supported schemes' and whether voluntary work, work experience and other more informal forms of training are going to be eligible for Child Benefit.''

Following that, the Government's most recent regulatory impact assessment states that there were some 80,000 young people aged 16 to 19 on unwaged training in September 2004, and the family resources survey also confirmed that households with dependent, unwaged trainees tend to have below-average incomes. In terms of the scope of the benefit, the Government could have opted to include all unwaged trainees in the expanded benefit, irrespective of programme, or could have defined those who qualified according to specific programmes. They chose the latter approach.

We suggest in the new clause not that the Government go the whole hog, as it were, but that they expand the eligibility criteria to include elements of voluntary work and work experience. We tabled new clause 1 to try to ascertain the Government's attitude to that and whether they have cost estimates of any kind, bearing in mind the point oft-repeated this afternoon on the paucity of data in that area, as well as whether they undertook any generalised cost estimate before deciding not to go down such a route for those categories. Can the Paymaster General provide a   general reply? If she cannot do so now, will she write to us before consideration on Report, which I understand is not so far away?

There is another related point that I want to make before the Paymaster General responds. If she is minded not to accept such a proposal and to stick to the Government's approach of nominated programmes, bearing in mind what the Prince's Trust said, may I stress once again, hoping that she takes this on board, that it will be important to make it as crystal clear as possible to all young people and to the voluntary organisations with which they work—we heard at least one example of a voluntary organisation that is asking specifically for such a clarification—exactly which schemes will or will not qualify?

I intimated earlier that it is important that young people understand clearly whether they will or will not qualify for support on some schemes. At the risk of trying the Paymaster General's patience, I reiterate the point. An additional point needs to be made: it is also important that the voluntary bodies and advisers—Connexions, the Prince's Trust, Barnardo's, Centrepoint and others—have that very clear list, so that they can give young people the most cogent advice possible.

I am harping on about this because there is clearly a need for it. In all seriousness, I shall be grateful if the Paymaster General attempts to take that on board. Perhaps she can say more on Report if she is not in a position to say anything this afternoon. I hope she can see what we are trying to achieve and I look forward to her reply.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 4:30, 18 January 2005

I shall not delay the Committee for too long as the hon. Member for Rayleigh set out his new clause clearly. Perhaps I should wait to hear the Paymaster General respond, but I want to encourage her to heed some of his points.

I appreciate the Paymaster General's point about the uncertainty in establishing how many individuals are in unwaged training and why the Government would be concerned about extending the definition such that it was open to abuse or they could not be sure that the individuals in respect of whom child benefit was being received were genuinely receiving training. However, the hon. Member for Rayleigh referred to a number of categories of individual who might be on schemes that, as far as I am aware, would not fall under the definition that the Government have adopted for unwaged trainees, but that might well be fairly reputable schemes in respect of which there would be no question whether there was abuse of the category of unwaged trainee.

The Paymaster General might want to go slightly further to insist that the schemes embraced by the Bill include a training element. As the hon. Member for Rayleigh mentioned, however, there are schemes, such as the Prince's Trust, that might have a strong training element and certainly have a strong skills element. I appreciate that the Paymaster General has left the door open to further changes in this area, particularly as the Government's strategy is rolled out, but are   there a few additional categories of unwaged trainee, including those that the hon. Member for Rayleigh identified, to which she might extend these measures in the very short term?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

I am a little perplexed by some of the comments from the hon. Member for Rayleigh. I concur with him on the excellent work done by the Prince's Trust and other organisations. The Prince's Trust works very effectively and we certainly appreciate that. The new deal has been effective in getting the age range that we are discussing into training and employment, but, given that the Conservatives have declared only in the past day that they will abolish it, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is making a slightly different point.

The hon. Gentleman's new clause relates to volunteering, which is slightly different. The entry to employment schemes in relation to which the Government fund any programme come within the provisions and will be listed in the regulations for clarity. It has already been said that the DFES and the DWP are committed to write guidance for parents and advisers in time for the launch in April 2006. In practice, the DFES will work with schools and the Connexions service, as was discussed on Second Reading.

The new clause specifically considers volunteering and informal skills; there is a big issue about how to monitor those. In my opening remarks, I tried to make it clear that, in principle, certain types of volunteering could be considered. I have sympathy with the points made, but the question is when and how.

If the purpose of the new clause is to see whether our mind is closed on the question of volunteering, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not. However, I do not agree with the time scale or the mechanism that the new clause would introduce. Nor, as yet, do we have a clear way forward, but the broad entitlement for which the new clause provides would probably entail substantial additional costs. There would also be a question whether the volunteering was contributing to the skills and experiences that clearly need to be achieved for the 16 to 19-year-olds.

The proposed new clause states that

''the person responsible for the organisation of the training concerned certifies in an approved form that the training can be expected to result in increased skills being acquired by the trainee.''

That is not really good enough. We are trying to improve things, so saying ''can be expected'' and ''may result in'' is not sufficient. Moreover, the new clause does not provide for the Revenue or the DWP to supervise or to verify entitlement. Clearly, such proposals carry significant risks, not just of poor value for money, but of fraud and disincentives to young people to progress to formal education and training.

The Russell commission is examining the whole area of volunteering. The Home Office and a number of other Departments have also been working closely on that matter to see whether there might be a solution because, as the hon. Gentleman said, certain types of volunteering may be suitable for inclusion in terms of the additional skills accessed.

I hope the hon. Gentleman does not press the new clause as it would be a shame to divide the Committee on a principle that we want to be supported, although we cannot find a way to do so at present. No doubt he will want to return to the matter, not just in the context of the Bill, but as those reports are published and more information becomes available. Regrettably, if he presses his proposal to a vote, I must ask my hon. Friends to oppose it.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

I must thank the Paymaster General for a thoughtful and considered reply, which did not appear to upset the microphones in any way.

The purpose of tabling a new clause such as this in Committee is to try to provoke debate and to nudge the Government's thinking along a little. It is evident from the Paymaster General's reply that the Government have already given the matter considerable thought in deciding to adopt that particular policy line.

The Paymaster General made the reasonable point that, as the purpose of the Bill is to facilitate draft regulations, which can then be amended by the statutory instruments procedure, it is possible that, once the Government have reflected further on the matter, they may decide—or a Government of any other colour might decide—that there needs to be a further expansion of qualifying courses and that therefore the regulations could be amended to take that into account. She made the point that the door was not closed on the matter, which is a reasonable reply.

In response, I would say that I chose the Prince's Trust as one example of the organisations that are pushing for such provisions, first, because I admire its work and, secondly, because I thought that it made a good case. However, a number of other organisations would like to see change in that area. I see that the Paymaster General assents to that remark.

Moreover, in order for such measures to be put in place and if the criteria were expanded in that way, we admit that there would need to be precise financial quantification of exactly what the additional burden would be on the public. The Paymaster General made it clear in her reply that additional costs will be involved, but no one is absolutely sure at this stage what they will be. That being the case, it would be churlish to press the new clause to a Division. She gave a reasonable and fair reply. I ask her and her colleagues to keep the matter under review. If there is any way in which she can offer a slight movement on   Report, perhaps to say that studies have been started, we would welcome it. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury) 4:45, 18 January 2005

I wish to thank you, Miss Begg, for the way in which you have chaired the Committee. I thank all members of the Committee for their contributions to the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West—

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Paymaster General (HM Treasury)

Yes, a score draw. I wondered whether such matters would encourage my hon. Friend, but I then realised that he needed no encouragement at all, and that he was determined to do whatever he could to improve legislation, for which I thank him. I thank the Clerk, the Officers of the House, the police and the Hansard writers for their assistance in our smooth proceedings, as I do the hon. Members for Rayleigh, for Chichester and for Yeovil for their participation. I thank my hon. Friends for supporting me so magnificently in the debate this afternoon. Finally, I wish unusually to congratulate the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde because I believe that this has been his first Bill as a Government Whip. I cannot think of any finer Bill for him on his first occasion than a Child Benefit Bill. I am pleased that I am soon about to have a cup of tea.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

I thank you, Miss Begg, for chairing our proceedings with a light touch and so admirably this afternoon, and for allowing us to organise the business in such a way that we have had a cracking debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West on having amendments accepted. I can hear his election address being rewritten as we speak. No doubt, he will make much of it. I shall be intrigued to receive a copy to know exactly how he has spun such a triumph.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Nevertheless, as the hon. Gentleman has managed to amend the Bill, we should pay tribute to him for that. [Interruption.] But if I were him, I would not become too carried away.

I thank the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, for what he has done to assist the progress of the Bill. I have served in the Opposition Whips Office, so I know that such work is both interesting and challenging. I whipped my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester for a time, so I confess that I knew the answer to the question on Iraq even before the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West posed it. Nevertheless, it can be busy in the Whips Office—important work goes on behind the scenes—so I acknowledge that it is the first Bill for the hon.   Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and I echo some of the comments that the Paymaster General made about him.

I thank the hon. Member for Yeovil for his contribution, and I look forward to his even tabling an amendment or two the next time that I serve on a Committee with him. In the meantime, I thank him for chipping in on the work of others. It has been a pleasure to have him with us this afternoon. No doubt he will get back at me on Report for that.

Finally, I thank the Paymaster General. At times, we got into some lively debate. Before this afternoon, some people might have expected the discussion to be rather dry and technical. Nevertheless, we came alive at one point, even to the excitement of the sound engineers, so we can fairly say that we have provoked some genuine parliamentary debate. I make no apology to the Paymaster General for having been mischievous; I confess that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thank her for her responses to our points. By and large, allowing even for a bit of knockabout, she gave thoughtful replies to the questions that we put to her, and we look forward to exploring some of the matters further on Report. I understand that that will be in the not too distant future.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I clearly must table many more amendments next time. Miss Begg, I thank you for presiding over such a compact Committee. We are in the Gladstone Room, and I am sure that the great man would have appreciated your laissez-faire style in allowing us to range so widely on so many issues.

I also thank the Paymaster General for her helpful contributions to the debate. I am determined, at some stage, to get to the bottom of the 80,000—at least that will allow me to say something during the remaining stages of the Bill. I congratulate not only the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West on his enormous impact on the Bill, for which he is the envy of all on the Opposition Benches in the Committee, but the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde on his first Bill. I am sure that it will not be his last, and I can but hope that if he presides over the Finance Bill, that will be as compact as this one.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Before I finally dispose of the Bill, perhaps I can add my thanks in among all the mutual congratulations. I am never sure whether my being congratulated on my light touch as a Chairperson is meant as a compliment. However, I thank hon. Members for their good humour this afternoon, and the fact that we have managed to dispose of the business in a timely manner.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at eight minutes to Five o'clock.