Clause 2

Welfare Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 24th February 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Work-related activity: income suport claimants and partners of claimants

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 39, in clause 2, page 4, line 21, at end insert—

‘(A1) This section does not apply in the case of a single parent with a child under five years of age.’.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

With this it will be convenient to consider amendment 44, in clause 2, page 4, line 21, at end insert—

‘(A1) This section does not apply in the case of a single parent with a child under seven years of age.’.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Clause 2 deals with the work-related activity which may be required of certain benefit claimants, including benefit claimants on income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or income-related employment and support allowance. Although it is not specifically mentioned in the Bill, the clause appears to affect lone parents of younger children who are currently in receipt of income support. This is the relevant point to ventilate some important considerations for lone parents of younger children.

Amendment 39 deals with the age that the youngest child must have reached before lone parents are required to take part in the work-related activity regime envisaged in these proposals. It would set that age at five. Amendment 44, which has been tabled by the Liberal Democrats, sets it at seven. The background to this is quite important. Until last year it was possible for a single parent to remain on income support until the youngest child reached the age of 16. However, in June 2007 the Government announced that they were moving lone parents from income support to jobseeker’s allowance in stages.

The process began last year, when the age limit for single parents to remain on income support was reduced to the youngest child reaching the age of 12. As we speak, the process of transferring lone parents from income support to jobseeker’s allowance is proceeding in jobcentres up and down the country. The age at which lone parents are transferred from income support to jobseeker’s allowance will fall to seven in October 2010. That leaves open the question of what is expected of lone parents with children under seven. Of course, they will not be expected to move from income support to jobseeker’s allowance, as is the case with lone parents of children over the age of seven, but under the Government’s plans they will be expected to fulfil the requirements set out in the clause, some of which we have already touched on when debating other amendments.

Our understanding of the Government’s proposals as a whole is that they see lone parents as part of a progression to work group from the time their youngest child is aged one. The Government have set out how they see that group in their discussion paper on the implementation of the Gregg review. According to their response to that review, lone parents with children aged between one and two years will be

“Required to attend Work Focused interviews and agree an action plan. They are not mandated to undertake any activities recorded on the action plan”.

However, the important point is that when the youngest child reaches the age of three, lone parents will be

“Required to follow the full progression to Work regime based around Work Focused interviews, action plans, work related activity and the backstop of adviser direction.”

That presumably means that lone parents with children aged three or over will be subject to the regime of sanctions for failing to comply with the requirements, as is set out in the Bill.

Amendment 39 would substitute the age of three with the age of five as the point at which the regime and all its requirements would begin. The age of five was specified in the Government’s July 2008 Green Paper as the appropriate age at which requirements could begin to be made on lone parents. The Green Paper envisaged piloting a requirement for lone parents whose youngest child is five or six to attend relevant skills training where that would address the skills gaps identified as a barrier to starting work. Subsequently, the Gregg review suggested that lone parents with a youngest child between the age of one and seven should be in the progression to work group, as I have indicated, as part of the Gregg vision of personalised conditionality, although I do not believe that Professor Gregg specified the age of three as the age at which that move to the regime would occur, as the Government are now setting out.

The progression to work group is intended to prepare people for full availability for work, and in this case we are talking about preparing single parents for entry to the jobseeker’s regime when their youngest child reaches the age of seven. Commencing the work-related activity for them at the age of five, as suggested in amendment 39, would give them two years in which to undertake work-related activity to prepare them for work, and something along those lines seems to have been present in the Government’s thinking in the July 2008 Green Paper.

The question I wish to put to the Minister is this: why is the two years of work-related activity in that regime from the time the youngest child reaches the age of five insufficient to prepare lone parents for work?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

In view of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, can he tell us what has happened to the recommendation of his own party’s social justice policy group, chaired by the former leader of his party, that:

“Whilst their youngest child is below the age of 5 they should spend between 5 and 10 hours a week preparing for work”?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for studying that document, because it has proved to be the inspiration behind much of what we are debating today. It created the momentum of the debate because we had 11 years in which there was no movement at all and the age remained 16. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question directly, he will see that the age of five was specifically mentioned in that report as the age of the youngest child at which parents should be moved across, and of course that document did not have in mind the full regime that we are now talking about. The Under-Secretary of State looks perplexed about that, but when that document was written the social justice policy group did not have in mind and could not know the full regime proposed by the Government. We have no issue with the regime as a generality, but in the case of parents of younger children we think that there is an issue to discuss in cases where parents will be subject to the regime and to sanctions for failing to comply. I think that the hon. Gentleman will have to accept that there are issues to be debated and that it is right for us to debate the age at which that move takes place. He has not answered the question of why two years is insufficient time.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions 12:00 pm, 24th February 2009

The hon. Gentleman said that I looked perplexed. I was perplexed because I did not understand whether he shared the view of his own policy commission—and, indeed, our view—that there should be work-focused activity when the child is under, not at, the age of five. I would be grateful for his response.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I think that I responded to that in my answer to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington. We are talking about the regime, not some general work-focused activity. We have no problem with interviews. However, this is a very specific regime in which action plans have to be agreed, directions are given and sanctions may follow for non-compliance from when the child is aged three, as the hon. Lady knows from her study of both the documents and the Government’s response to the Gregg report.

I hoped that the hon. Lady would answer the question of why two years was insufficient time for lone parents to prepare for work. We are willing to listen to the debate. Two years is a long time for somebody to prepare for work. We are talking about somebody whose lack of availability for work is caused, in the first instance, by the fact that they are caring for a child.  They are not in the same position as somebody in receipt of employment and support allowance, who may need to spend time managing a condition that they have. Here the inhibition is the care of a child; that is what prevents the parent from going into the labour market. Five is a reasonable age in such circumstances, as it leaves two years for a parent to prepare for work, and the child will have started school. It is reasonable to ventilate the issue, and we look forward to hearing why two years is not sufficient time for a parent to be under the regime envisaged in the proposals.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I wish to continue to press the hon. Gentleman on that point. As I said before, his own social justice policy group says that a lone parent should spend between five and 10 hours a week preparing for work if their child is under five. What activity did the group envisage during those five to 10 hours?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I think that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am waiting for an answer from him as to why two years is not sufficient. I shall make a deal with him. I am interested to hear his answer—[Interruption.] I have given the hon. Gentleman our answer.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. I ask for a little calm.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman has had his answer. The commission for social justice could not have known about this specific regime, under which lone parents will be subject to sanctions. I think that the hon. Gentleman will, on reflection, feel that it is reasonable to ventilate the issue. I return to my question: why is two years not sufficient? If he cannot answer, I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I assume that the hon. Gentleman’s commission would argue that two years was not sufficient, otherwise why would it recommend that the job preparation activity should commence while the child was under five? I return to my earlier question about the five to 10 hours, which he has still not answered. Does his commission envisage lone parents undergoing a 10-hour interview?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I think that we are going round in circles. The question is whether two years is sufficient time to prepare under a regime that is subject to sanctions. If the hon. Gentleman cannot answer, I look forward to an answer from the Minister.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

We have started an important debate about conditionality within a new system of work-related activity. As has been said, we have already seen a change of Government policy, in that a lone parent will now have to engage in work-related activity when their child reaches the lower age of 12. That policy has been operating for only a short time and it is still bedding in, but we now have a Government proposal to lower the age to three. Taking on board the fact that the change is new, we believe that support for lone parents getting back into work is not fully in place, and that must be addressed. Indeed, we have heard of examples of people who have been given, in our view, quite inappropriate  advice about what they can and cannot do in terms of getting back to work. There are still barriers to work for lone parents—child care, transport and facilities barriers. For example, there is only one child care place for every 200 children over 11, yet the Government are already moving the provision from the age of 12 to three, and the way in which to deal with a parent with older children has not been addressed. Serious issues must be addressed before the change can be made.

We suggest in amendment 44 that the child should be seven rather than five before conditionality beds in, and we would like a phased movement rather than the Government’s complete change because that would give the parent time to organise and prepare themselves for work as the child starts school. We need some answers about this aspect, which deals with young children and lone parents. In particular, I should like from the Minister a commitment—the Child Poverty Action Group has asked for it, too—that parents will be protected from any financial sanctions that worsen the severity of child poverty, and that any non-financial sanctions that might be imposed as a result of the regime will not create additional expenditure for the parent. If parents are required to attend a particular locality for a certain number of hours, will the costs of travel and child care be paid for?

We also want assurances that decisions on child care will rest fully and firmly with the parent and that under no circumstances will a direction be given to them that they have to take a particular form of child care. We want an assurance that lone parents and partners in education—I had a case relating to this a couple of weeks ago—will not be required to cease their education, which in turn will be recognised as a work-related activity. The case I had involved a single parent who was looking after two young children and had gone to university. He received a student loan, but that was classed as income and affected his entitlement to housing benefit, so he had to drop out of the course because he could not afford to pay his rent and university fees. Such real issues affect lone parents, and if we are going to apply stricter conditionality at a much lower age, we need to address the availability of child care, for example. It would be interesting to hear what steps the Minister is taking to ensure that child care for older children will be improved under the current regime. It appears that the Government are moving far too quickly, and that they do not have the support in place to enable this group to get back into work, which is, I am sure, what we all want.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Employment and Welfare Reform; Minister for London), Department for Work and Pensions

We have already touched on some of these topics, including during our discussion of the first set of amendments. It is important to start by saying that no one has a monopoly on concern for child poverty, as the hon. Member for Rochdale implies. Everyone can quote the Child Poverty Action Group. The surest way to help children out of poverty is to support more parents into paid work that enables parents to manage the careful balance between employment and family life—that must be absolutely right. The hon. Member for Hertsmere will know that Professor Gregg suggested conditionality from the age of one.

The hon. Member for Rochdale is confused, in part, when he suggests that there is a time dimension to being  prepared for work. We have had what I consider to be a rather facile debate about two years versus one year versus three years versus four years. Let us be clear that work-related activity is about the health and well-being—intellectually, morally, spiritually and every other way—of the individual while there are barriers, including the delight of childbirth, to getting back into work. That is the centre of what Gregg was saying, and to describe it as a mechanistic process in which one can turn a tap on and off and say that six months will do, as though it were an elongated version of a makeover or make-up session, is nonsense. This is about not preening someone to get back into the labour market, but providing all that we can for an end goal that all the child poverty lobby agrees is desirable: to get people who want to do so back into work.

The hon. Gentleman again draws a picture of doom and gloom—Rochdale doom and gloom not Hertsmere’s; Hertsmere is happier—about the notion of conditionality as though it were oppressive, suppressive and driving down on lone parents for some malign intent, as yet not fully defined, but nothing could be further from the case. It is about trying to help and support people get back into work at the earliest opportunity. The hon. Gentleman—for Hertsmere this time, not Rochdale—is seriously suggesting that we need to leave people alone and not trouble them until their children are five, and then between five and seven we should have a magical process to get them back to work-readiness and back into work. That is, at one level, utterly neglectful. We need to start working with lone parents at the earliest opportunity—with them, I emphasise—with all that that entails on removing barriers, to get them ready for, and ultimately involved in, work-related activity, and then to get them back into the labour market. Again, quite deliberately, work-related activity is drawn at its widest. We cannot have a Bill that purports to offer as much personalised and flexible support as possible and then get lost in an anally retentive fixation on lists that define what that flexibility is—by definition that is an oxymoron.

Why the age of three? Notwithstanding the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, three is increasingly—it is not yet 100 per cent. there throughout England and Wales—the age at which the state provides full-time child care. The duty on local councils is newish, and the absence of such provision will be taken fully into account when discussing the details of an individual’s work-related activity at three.

Saying that the two years do not matter either way, and that five is a lot better, is at least a more measured approach from the hon. Member for Hertsmere. The Leader of the Opposition, as is his perennial wont, dismissed these plans as sick and shameful in his rush to jump on the nearest bandwagon—he is more fixated with bandwagons than the Liberal Democrats used to be, which is a shame. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall when he welcomes his soon-to-be-ennobled Front Bencher in the Lords, David Freud, who thinks we are being timid. He would like us to go much further than even we are suggesting, although I do not know whether that was a Freudian slip. It is rather a shame that there is a notion that this is territory in which we should play rather futile politics. There can and should be as wide a consensus as possible.

The age of seven is a nonsense, although I would entertain five a little more, notwithstanding the point about Scotland. Starting to talk to individual lone parents about their journey back into work by time the child is seven should, in the interests of those parents, happen at the earliest opportunity. The closer the child gets to seven and the lone parent to that stage of obligation, I would envisage a slightly stronger focus on the work element of the work-related activities rather than the broader skills and training element.

The amendments are, I hope, probing rather than otherwise—certainly that tabled by the hon. Member for Hertsmere. We take it as read that the hon. Member for Rochdale could not care less about the Bill or the policy framework that we are seeking to adopt. However, I fear if he continues for too much longer, the implication of his comments will be that he could not care less about the people about whom we are talking, and that would be a dangerous road to go down. I ask for the amendment to be withdrawn.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 12:15 pm, 24th February 2009

I shall study the Minister’s words carefully because the subject is important. We think that it is reasonable to have a debate about the age at which such requirements are placed on lone parents. We have no problem with the general vision of getting people back to work and of conditionality in appropriate circumstances. The Minister mentioned going further, and we will not be slow to come forward with ideas about how the Government can go further than they are at present—much further in some cases. He referred to giving help to parents of children below the age of three—help with interviews and making suggestions and assistance available. There is no problem with that either.

What is significant about the Government’s proposals, however, is the way in which things change at the age of three. Some of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks were fair, but he referred to a mechanistic approach on our part. However, when I look at the Government’s proposals, I think mechanistic is rather a good word to use to describe them. I will quote so that the Committee will know exactly the issues at stake as we consider the amendment

“Age of youngest child—1-2: Conditionality Grouping—Progression to Work: Required to attend Work Focused Interviews and agree an action plan. They are not mandated to undertake any activities recorded on the action plan or any other activities, although they will be encouraged to do so on a voluntary basis...3-6: Progression to Work: Required to follow the full progression to Work regime based around Work Focused interviews, action plans, work related activity and the backstop of adviser direction.”

We apprehend, since it has not been said to the contrary, that those parents will also be subject to the full rigour of the sanctions regime in the same way as others in the sane conditionality group.

We need to reflect on these important matters and to think carefully about the question of age and, on that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I beg to move amendment 57, in clause 2, page 4, line 26, at end insert

‘unless the person is caring for another person for 35 hours or more per week.’.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 58, in clause 7, page 13, line 16, at end insert—

‘(3A) In exercising the powers contained in subsections (1) to (3) the Secretary of State shall not require people caring for at least 35 hours per week who are receiving income support to claim jobseeker’s allowance.’.

Amendment 59, in clause 8, page 14, line 11, at end insert ‘including any caring responsibilities.’.

New clause 3—Review of carers’ benefits

‘(1) The Secretary of State must undertake a review of the benefits to which carers are entitled, reporting to Parliament on the outcome of this review no later than six months after the Welfare Reform Bill receives Royal Assent.

(2) The Secretary of State must involve carers in this review and must publish a report on the findings of the review.’.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

Notwithstanding the Minister’s comments and my party’s general views on the Bill, the Government are seeking to introduce major changes in legislation. We will do two things. We will put forward alternative policies and seek to amend what the Conservative Opposition have described as mechanistic and what we would describe as half-baked and ill thought-out.

Amendments 58 and 59 and new clause 3 are probing amendments that deal with issues associated with carers and the carer’s allowance. Amendment 57, which relates to clause 2, removes the requirement to engage in workplace activity for a person who is caring for another person for 35 hours or more per week. The current lack of provision for carers does not sit well with the research that the Department has carried out, including the Gregg report. Some 230,000 people satisfy the criteria for carer’s allowance—that is, they are caring for someone for at least 35 hours a week and currently receive income support or income-based JSA. We would welcome clarification that people in that category will not be required to undertake work-focused activity. That is consistent with what was set out in Paul Gregg’s report, and which was confirmed in the White Paper: that people providing substantial care should be in the no-conditionality group.

There are several other related issues, such as the current inadequacy of the carer’s allowance, which is the lowest of all the income replacement benefits at £50.55 a week. The earnings limit of £95 a week prevents many carers from progressing into paid work, and the rule banning more than 21 hours of study per week traps carers on benefits and in low-status jobs. The allowance cannot be paid alongside a state pension, so it leaves many older carers with no recognition of their caring role or the assistance that they need with the costs of caring. I am aware that the Government have promised to overhaul the carer’s benefit, but that seems to have been completely overlooked in the Bill. That is a disappointment. The Government are committed to ensuring by 2018 that no carer is forced into financial hardship by virtue of their caring role, as set out in the national carers strategy, “Carers at the Heart of the 21st century: families and communities”, which was published in June last year.

The Work and Pensions Committee called in August last year for an overhaul of carer’s benefits and set out a prescription for reform that would tackle many of the problems I have just outlined. This clause proposes that people receiving income support, income-based JSA or  income-based ESA will not be required to undertake work-related activity, as specified in these regulations. I hope that the Minister can give us that clarification, as well as saying why no opportunity has been taken in the Bill to deal with some of the inequalities relating to carer’s allowance.

Amendment 58 amends clause 7 and, again, ensures that in exercising the powers the Secretary of State will not require people to take part who are caring for at least 35 hours and are receiving income support. This is a probing amendment because we want to hear a commitment from the Government that they will not move carers off income support until there are clear and detailed plans setting out how the benefits system will be reformed over the long term. There is a need for further analysis of the ESA. The clause provides for the abolition of income support.

Carers UK welcomed the commitment in the White Paper, “Raising expectations and increasing support”, that carers receiving income support will not be moved off it until there is a clear and detailed plan setting out the long-term reform of the benefits system. The proposal in the Green Paper, “No one written off”, to move them to a modified version of jobseeker’s allowance caused distress and anger among carers, who saw it as insulting to receive a benefit that implied that they were not working already. Carers UK would welcome a reiteration of the Government’s commitment. When will we get further details of the clear and detailed plan?

Amendment 59 would add the instruction “including any caring responsibilities”. Again, we want a commitment from the Government that the changes in the Bill will not affect the commitments that have been made to this very vulnerable group until we have the long-term changes. That is also the purpose of new clause 3, which includes a requirement on the Secretary of State to

“undertake a review of the benefits to which carers are entitled, reporting to Parliament on the outcome of this review no later than six months after the Welfare Reform Bill receives Royal Assent.”

We want carers to be involved in that review and the findings to be published.

Given the Government’s previous commitments to carers, we believe that the promise of a review within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent will provide reassurance on the needs of carers. They undergo discrimination at the moment and the caring duties that they carry out are worth millions of pounds each year. Before some of the changes in the Bill are introduced for carers, there should be a full review. I hope for and look forward to the Minister’s commitment to reaffirming and protecting the interests of carers, particularly in relation to the clause.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Employment and Welfare Reform; Minister for London), Department for Work and Pensions

No one doubts that these are important matters. As was said earlier, the broader notion that we should move to a simplification of the benefits system and eventually to a single working-age benefit is the right sentiment. However, perhaps we got carried away in our enthusiasm for that journey when we insisted in the Green Paper that carers would all transfer to jobseeker’s allowance. I was happy to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the  Member for Chatham and Aylesford, to review that aspect of the Green Paper. [Interruption.] I am not allowed to say “Jonathan”.

For the reasons suggested by many carers’ organisations, we have set aside the notion that all carers should be transferred from IS to ESA. One reason for that was that doing so would have suggested to carers that they do not already have a job. In many instances, caring for their family is very much a full-time job. We were very clear in the White Paper—much read out by the hon. Member for Rochdale—at least in spirit, that we would not be migrating, for want of a better phrase, carers on IS to JSA.

So what are we left with? We are left with the hon. Gentleman asking me to confirm the content of the White Paper, which, of course, I am very happy to do. We made very clear in the White Paper, and in our response to Professor Gregg, that we accepted his suggestion that anybody involved in full-time caring, above the 35 hours that the hon. Gentleman suggests in his amendments, should not be subject to conditionality at all. That is the import of both amendments 57 and 58, and given that we have said that as recently as in the White Paper, I can confirm that full-time carers will not be subject to conditionality. I hope that deals with amendments 57, 58 and 59.

New clause 3, which calls for a review of carers’ benefits, is, again, what was spelled out in the White Paper. I listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and he said almost word for word what I am implored by officials to read out:

“As a result we have amended our proposal”— that in the Green Paper—

“and will not move carers from Income Support until we have”— and I think these were the exact words the hon. Gentleman used —

“a clear and detailed plan setting out how we will reform the benefits system over the longer term.”

That commitment is, and remains, absolute. We are very mindful of the contribution carers make in this country—that is beyond doubt across all parties.

Much of what the hon. Gentleman suggests about extra areas that need looking at will be encompassed in that study. We may need to take a range of decisions as this work progresses, including moving people to different benefits under transitional arrangements. Many carers, however—as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows—want to work; some already receive jobseeker’s allowance with the carer premium. But the Government do appreciate that caring responsibilities often make it difficult or impossible for carers to consider taking up paid employment, and we have no intention of requiring carers to seek employment or of reducing the level of benefit income they receive.

As the hon. Gentleman also implied, last year we published “Carers at the heart of 21st century families and communities”. This followed the major review of our national strategy for carers, which was an enormous consultation exercise. He will know that the income taskforce, which was set up to examine the financial support available to carers, focused particularly on carers’ benefits. Many of the other points that he made—perfectly  valid ones—regarding some of the criteria for benefits will be the focus of that taskforce, including the interface with that study.

Everyone agrees that benefits for carers should be reformed over the long term. We know also that, working with colleagues in the Department of Health, we need to be far more integrated in our broader approach to carers across government. We accordingly made a commitment to look at the full picture not just in the context of longer term plans for welfare reform, rather than piecemeal changes, but in the broader context of what, from the social care side, we are doing with carers from the health perspective.

There is a new standing committee on carers, which is overseeing the delivery of the overall carers’ strategy. Much of what we determine in the wider reform of carers’ benefits will feed into that process. I can therefore absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that his amendments on 35 hours and full-time carers and on the migration of carers from IS to jobseeker’s allowance, and the broader points that he makes in new clause 3, are covered in the White Paper. I say in the gentlest of terms that, given what I have said, his amendments and the new clause are not required. While I accept the spirit in which he made his case, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister 12:30 pm, 24th February 2009

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. In our view, it was important that those commitments be read into the record. Given that we have got those, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 2, page 5, line 12, leave out paragraph (e).

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 14, in clause 3, page 10, line 24, leave out subsections (2) and (3).

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Amendment 6 refers to a specific point in the context of work-related activity requirements for partners: the work-related activity requirement for partners where a claimant has more than one partner—in other words, where there is a polygamous relationship. Polygamous relationships are recognised elsewhere, in social security legislation and policy, but we would like a bit more detail from the Government about what will happen in this instance.

Subsection 2D(2)(e) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 establishes a regulation-making power for determining, in the case of a claimant in a polygamous marriage, which of the partners is required to undertake work-related activity—or, indeed, whether all the partners are. The purpose of this amendment is to ascertain the principles that will lie behind this process, since nothing is said in the notes on clauses about the principles that will operate. On the face of it, it appears that a number of questions have to be answered. For example, in which cases will one, some or all of the partners be required to meet the requirements? If only one or some of the partners are required to meet the work-related activity requirements, how will the decision be made as to which one, or ones? There is no clue in the Bill or  elsewhere as to how these decisions will be made. Therefore, we think it a proper use of parliamentary scrutiny to ask the Minister for a bit more detail as to how this will work in practice and what principles will be adopted to determine these issues.

Amendment 14 simply deals with the same issue in a different context—that is, in respect of a joint claim for jobseeker’s allowance. That raises the question of who are to be regarded as joint claimants and whether there is a joint claim for jobseeker’s allowance. Again, how will that be determined? Which of the partners will be part of the claim, and which will not?

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Employment and Welfare Reform; Minister for London), Department for Work and Pensions

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, these are complex and sensitive matters that have already been recognised for some time in the body of social security legislation. This part of the Bill merely seeks to reflect that which already exists in recognition of this particular condition. I accept what he says, but we need to explore—not in the Bill but in regulation—precisely how to deal with the matters that he brings up. If the amendments are passed, we will lose the ability to do that.

Again, without wishing to sound like a broken record, we feel that this is more properly done in regulation rather than in the Bill, not least for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman suggests. Secondly, we have to do so, since this recognition already exists in the body of social security legislation. Thirdly, officials can and should come forward, sooner rather than later, with the regulations and what they look like, to explain the perfectly valid points the hon. Gentleman makes. Although I know that my response to him is sadly lacking—in a sense, he is saying let us wait and see what the substance of the regulations is—in the spirit of a wonderful morning, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

How can I respond to such a suggestion? I think that the best response is to say that we will remain tantalised by how those decisions will be made, and we hope that there will be harmony when they are made in certain domestic circumstances, but we shall wait and see. It seems that we shall also have to wait until we see more of the regulations to know exactly what the principles of the measures will be and how they will work. In order to make progress, and in the spirit of these being probing amendments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I beg to move amendment 46, in clause 2, page 5, line 28, at end insert—

‘(j) but may not prescribe accessing of healthcare provision, taking of medication or accessing psychological therapies as a relevant requirement.’.

The measure relates to the conditions that may be attached to a person in order for them to receive work-related benefits, and the amendment would make a clear commitment that a personal adviser may not prescribe that someone should access a certain type of health care, medication or psychological therapy as a requirement of receiving benefit. I appreciate the importance of someone with a drug or alcohol problem or a mental illness receiving support and help, and I understand that it might be necessary for that person to deal with  that problem or illness in order to take part in full-time work. Indeed, I think it vital that such people be encouraged to take that route. The evidence from the DWP’s voluntary programme has shown that when people are encouraged to go on a drug rehabilitation programme, they make progress and move into the world of work, whereas there is no evidence whatever that prescribing a certain form of treatment will be successful.

In the evidence sessions, we heard that nearly 250,000 people who currently receive benefits have drug and alcohol problems. We also heard that the health care budget would have to be increased by 50 per cent. if the Government’s target of ensuring that everyone is involved in the programme is to be achieved, but that is not going to happen. We do not believe that a move from encouraging people to seek treatment, as a means of getting them back into work, to making treatment compulsory is the right way forward. We believe that the best way forward is for the Government to continue what they are doing with the voluntary scheme, and to encourage and develop such programmes, which are the best way of getting people back into the work market.

We also have great concerns about who will undertake the direction. Will it be the personal adviser? If so, what additional training will they get? No qualifications are stipulated as being required for JCP advisers, and there is no qualification to say that a person is experienced at analysing, assessing and stipulating what course of treatment people who present themselves for interview should undertake. In our view, that kind of decision is best left to health care professionals.

Again, the Bill runs directly contrary to the recently published NHS constitution, which makes it clear that treatment shall not be prescribed to a patient, yet the Government are saying that it will be possible for a personal adviser to prescribe a course of treatment as a condition of benefit. That is totally contrary to the NHS constitution, and it is totally inappropriate. As I said, all the evidence is that voluntary programmes in which people readily engage are the ones that are likely to be successful.

On psychological therapies, how will a JCP adviser be able to carry out a proper assessment of a person who has a fluctuating mental illness? Earlier, we discussed the problems that may come about if a fluctuating illness means that a person is unable to attend for an interview. If the illness is so unstable and so fluctuating, what qualifications will the adviser have to make such decisions?

The clause is dangerous, and we do not believe that it is the right way to go about getting people back into work. As we said earlier, we would much prefer to see greater emphasis on developing programmes that will get people back into work. We have real concerns about how the measure may be interpreted, and we do not believe that this route will result in people with a drug or alcohol problem or a mental illness getting back to work. Much better routes could be taken, and we are disappointed with the formulation of the clause.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Employment and Welfare Reform; Minister for London), Department for Work and Pensions 12:45 pm, 24th February 2009

Interesting speech, but wrong clause! In the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm and rush to download every hackneyed clichÃ(c) that he possibly could while  discussing his misinterpretation of our policies in clause 9 on drug misuse, he has tagged his concerns on to clause 2 and made the speech anyway. On one level, that is fine, but the downside is that we will have to hear it all again when we get to clause 9, which is a matter of regret.

Let me answer clearly the substance of what the hon. Gentleman said in the context of clause 2: we will never mandate any parent into any health intervention that is delivered by a health professional, including psychological therapies and the taking of medication, except if it is required as part of a drug rehabilitation programme, which is dealt with in clause 9.

On clause 2, in the context of work-related activity, income support claimants and partners of claimants, and in the context of the substance of the wording of the amendment, which states

“may not prescribe accessing of healthcare provision, taking of medication or accessing psychological therapies as a relevant requirement’,

I repeat, to allay the hon. Gentleman’s fears, that we will never mandate any parent into any health intervention such as those described.

Given right place, wrong time, or wrong place, right time—or wrong clause—I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, notwithstanding the substance of his comments.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I have listened to what the Minister said. In the light of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 10, in clause 2, page 5, line 49, at end insert

‘, including activity which enables the person to improve his or her skills for work.’.

The amendment concerns the definition of work-related activity, which the Bill defines as

“an activity which makes it more likely that the person will obtain or remain in work or be able to do so.”

There is common ground between us on the idea that the acquisition of skills makes it more likely that a person will obtain or remain in work, and I apprehend that the Government’s thinking is that the acquisition of skills will play an important part in work-related activity. However, we thought this was an opportunity to hear more about the Government’s plans and thinking, and to give them a gentle steer in our direction. We know that the issue is dealt with in the White Paper, and we will make common ground on it, but we would like to hear more detail and, particularly, what provision there will be for the assessment and reskilling of existing incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance claimants.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Employment and Welfare Reform; Minister for London), Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: the provision will include improving and identifying skills need and taking steps to improve such skills. We have, as I have indicated throughout the morning, drawn the definition of work-related activity as broadly as possible—quite deliberately, because different individuals will be at different stages on an array of different journeys on their way back to work. I should have thought that, for all concerned, improving and identifying skills need would be a central work-related activity, and as I tried to imply earlier, all the more important the closer the person got to the end of that journey back to work. The early stages of such a process, however, may include stabilising their housing situation; attending a  motivation and confidence-building course—much pooh-poohed by many, but for people who are remote from the labour market, developing such self-esteem and confidence-building skills is important; starting to use the services of a children’s centre and all that that entails; or attending appropriate training, having discussed what was necessary with the personal adviser. So, the provision is quite deliberately drawn as broadly as possible.

On those—when we finally get to them—in the ESA work group, rather than in the support group, there will be a range of activities and help and support. Again, we have drawn the provision broadly so that we can make it as personalised as possible. If that sounds vague, it is meant to, because we really want individualised and personalised activity and support for each individual. I know that I sound a bit like a broken record.

I agree with the thrust of the amendment. In this case, the hon. Gentleman is probably three-quarters right rather than half right, but for the reasons suggested, there is no need for the amendment. We do not want to fall down that slippery slope of undue specificity. Although I embrace the spirit of the amendment, I ask that it be withdrawn as otiose.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Heaven forbid that we should be otiose, but we make common ground on this issue by wanting a wide reach for work-related activity, both in its forms and in the people whom it reaches. We are concerned that the provision should have as much effect in practice as possible and reach as many people as possible. Skills are an important part of that, but in light of what has been said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 11, in clause 2, page 6, line 12, leave out ‘in prescribed circumstances’.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 91, in clause 2, page 6, line 29, after ‘which’, insert

‘the person is willing to undertake and which’.

Amendment 92, in clause 2, page 6, line 30, at end insert—

‘( ) an action plan shall include details of any sanction that can be applied under the Act if the person, without good cause, fails to comply with any of the activities in the action plan.’.

Amendment 84, in clause 2, page 6, line 31, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

Amendment 85, in clause 2, page 6, line 32, after first ‘the’, insert ‘reasonable’.

Amendment 86, in clause 2, page 6, line 34, leave out paragraph (a).

Amendment 93, in schedule 1, page 54, line 45, at end insert—

‘An action plan shall include details of any sanction that can be applied under the Act if the person, without good cause, fails to comply with any of the activities in the action plan.’.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Very briefly, this is a probing amendment. Subsection (2)(e) of the proposed new section requires an action plan to be prepared by a person, subject to requirements. It must be prepared by the Secretary of  State in prescribed circumstances. We simply want to know more about what those prescribed circumstances are, and as such, this is a probing amendment seeking more detail. We note the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East; no doubt the Minister will want to explain how they fit into the scheme of the Bill. Amendments 84, 85 and 86 stand in the name of the hon. Member for Rochdale. If I may introduce a new word for the Committee, we have some concern about the “automaticity” of the provision that the hon. Gentleman is recommending—that there will always be a right to reconsideration of a report. We have some concerns, but we look forward to hearing more details from the Minister.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I wish to speak to amendments 91, 92 and 93, on the question of action plans. If we are going to have action plans there surely needs to be agreement as to what is in them. My reading of the Bill at the moment—and I seek reassurance from the Minister—is that the adviser, solely, would be able to lay down the terms of what is in the action plans. That may not be the intention but it is my reading of it. Elsewhere in the Bill we have talked about a right of control and wanting people to be involved in their own progress. It would seem that some of these measures would in fact take away from that, and the person’s real involvement and ownership would be less.

We obviously need to build confidence in people—going back to people with mental health issues and so on. I wonder whether imposing such an action plan, completely from outside, is the right way to go ahead. It appears that both the DWP and private contractors are able to issue mandatory directions. There is no detail in the Bill about how such an agreement between an adviser and a claimant would be reached, and if there is dispute over what is in these action plans, how that would be taken forward—other than when there is a sanction, there would then be an appeal.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

We want to look at the parts that deal with the actual sanctions, and the sanctions that may be taken if someone who is on income support—claimants, or partners of claimants—does not undertake the prescribed activities. We are seeking to introduce three small amendments—84, 85 and 86. We want to replace the word “may” with “shall”. We believe it is an important safeguard. We wish also to insert the word “reasonable”. I know we are not defining what we mean by reasonable—that presumably will be developed by case law—but we think it is important that a reasonable sanction should be imposed. The third change we wish to make is to leave out subsection (6)(a) of proposed new section 2D, which refers to the reduction, and how it is to be calculated by reference to such an amount as may be prescribed. That does not actually explain what is happening. They are small amendments but in terms of sanctions, they tighten up what is being proposed.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

On the importance in their own terms, is the Minister a little intrigued by the Liberal Democrats’ approach, which seems to be turning the clause around to arrive back in exactly the same position it was in in  the first place? Under the Liberal Democrats’ amendments there is a mandatory provision—a “shall” provision, that there should be a reconsideration of an action plan at the reasonable request—

The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Four o’clock.