Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Corri Wilson Corri Wilson Scottish National Party, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 2:45 pm, 13th October 2015

I beg to move amendment 57, in clause 15,  page 14,  line 31, leave out paragraph (a).

This amendment would keep the “work-focused interview requirement only” for responsible carers of children aged one and two.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 62, in clause 15, page 14, line 31, leave out paragraphs (a) to (c) and insert—

“(a) in section 19(2)(c) for the words “under the age of 1” substitute “who has not yet started primary school;”.

This amendment, taken together with amendment 63, would mean claimants in receipt of universal credit who are responsible carers are not subject to work focused interviews or work preparation requirements until their child starts school. From when a child starts school, relevant claimants would be required to follow all work requirements.

Amendment 58, in clause 15, page 14, line 36, after “2,”, insert “3 or 4”.

This amendment would retain the current position for responsible carers of children aged three and four.

Amendment 59, in clause 15, page 14, line 37, leave out paragraph (c).

This amendment would retain the current position for responsible carers of children aged three and four.

Amendment 60, in clause 15, page 14, line 40, leave out paragraph (a).

This amendment would keep the current prescribed age of three years in universal credit regulations on the “work-focused interview requirement” for responsible carers of children in receipt of universal credit.

Amendment 63, in clause 15, page 14, line 40, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert—

“(a) in regulation 91 (claimants subject to work-focused interview requirement only), for the word “3” substitute “5 or when the child starts primary school”;

(b) in regulation 91A (claimants subject to work preparation requirement) for the words “3 or 4” substitute “who has not yet started primary school”;”.

This amendment, taken together with amendment 62, would mean claimants in receipt of universal credit who are responsible carers are not subject to work focused interviews or work preparation requirements until their child starts school. From when a child starts school, relevant claimants would be required to follow all work requirements.

Amendment 61, in clause 15, page 14, line 42, leave out paragraph (b).ww

This amendment would keep the current age of child (which is three or four) in universal credit regulations on the work-preparation requirement for responsible carers of children in receipt of universal credit.

Amendment 140, in clause 15, page 14, line 38, at end insert—

“(d) in section 22(1) after “section” insert “, except if the claimant is the responsible carer of a disabled child aged 3 or 4.

(1B) The Secretary of State must lay regulations determining what a disabled child is for the purpose of this section and may include, but will not be limited to a child—

(a) in receipt of an Education, Health and Care Plan,

(b) in receipt of a Statement of Special Educational Needs,

(c) identified by their local authority as having special educational needs,

(d) with child in need status,

(e) meeting the definition of disabled under the Equality Act 2010.”

To exempt a responsible carer of a disabled child aged 3 or 4 from all work-related requirements.

Photo of Corri Wilson Corri Wilson Scottish National Party, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 3:00 pm, 13th October 2015

The Scottish National party has tabled the amendments to mitigate the changes and to take the pressure off responsible carers with very young children who receive universal credit. Currently, lone parents need attend work-focused interviews or work-related activity only when their children are between the ages of one and five, rather than having to actively seek work. The clause will mean that all parents will be expected to be available for and actively seeking work by the time their youngest child turns three in order to claim universal credit. We wish to stop those changes to the work-related requirements as well as roll back the work-related requirement for responsible carers set out in the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

Amendment 57 would ensure that the work-focused interview requirement for responsible carers of children aged two and three would remain unchanged. Amendments 58 and 59 would remove the changes to the work-preparation requirement. Amendments 60 and 61 would remove the changes to the work-focused interview requirement and the work-preparation interview requirement. Amendments 62 and 63 would amend the Welfare Reform Act so that claimants would be subject to no work-related requirements until their child begins attending school.

A child’s most critical and vulnerable years should be based on a foundation of support and love, which can make all the difference to a child’s confidence and educational attainment in later life, not to mention the benefits of family and social cohesion. Forcing a parent to spend more time looking for work means they have no choice if they want to spend more time with the child in its formative years. Where most parents are keen to return to work and to maximise their income, the provision will deprive parents of the choice of what is best for their child in the crucial early years of their development. Forcing parents to return to work before they are ready can be counterproductive and lead to financial instability as parents move in and out of work. That may lead to undue stress on parents, causing them to struggle with balancing work and the care of their young child.

Increasing conditionality for universal credit is simply another ideological crusade against those who are in genuine need of welfare support. It is, of course, not ideal for an individual to be receiving benefits, but for many it is nevertheless essential and can mean the difference between independence and absolute poverty. The stricter conditionality requirements contribute to making life intolerable for benefit claimants. In effect, it condemns the lives of those on the benefits that enable them to live independently, such as severely disabled people.

The extra requirements will bring with them an increased risk of claimants incurring sanctions. The effect of benefit sanctions are bad enough on individual benefit claimants, but increasing conditionality for responsible carers, which puts them at further risk of incurring sanctions, will have the knock-on effect of condemning the children they care for.

Carers UK has expressed concern over the effects of the clause on responsible carers of disabled children, partly due to the documented lack of childcare for disabled children. Carers of children in receipt of the higher or middle rate care component of disability living allowance are exempt from the requirements, but that does not protect carers of very young children with disabilities when there are difficulties in identifying them in the early years.

It is imperative that lone parents and responsible carers are supported back into work, but not forced or sanctioned while their young child needs their support at home. The difficulties that present themselves—accessing affordable childcare, finding suitable support for a child or finding a stable job that allows a parent to have the time needed with a young child—are huge. The everyday challenges that face working families and young parents are not as black and white as the Government would have us believe. I therefore urge all Members to unite today with the SNP to remove the harsh conditionality elements placed on parents while their children are young and effectively just babies.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

May I comment briefly on the SNP’s amendments? Although I applaud the sentiment behind them, and if they are pressed to a vote, the hon. Lady can rely on our support, I want to put on record that it is not completely unconditional. The reality of life within jobcentres, unfortunately—it should not be like this—is that jobcentres have to be told that their job is to get particular groups of people into work. A constituent of mine came to see me and said, “My son is four. I would like to go back to work, but when I go to the jobcentre they don’t give me any help.” We should not need to choose between the extreme proposed by the Government and nothing. It should be possible to make jobcentres know that their primary job is not just to get people off jobseeker’s allowance at all costs and to sort out the statistics as best they can, but to ensure that they are sufficiently adaptable and flexible to help people who genuinely want to work to get into work, even if it means not fulfilling a target.

There will be people—particularly single women—who want help at an early stage, perhaps because their mum lives next door and they have good childcare, or perhaps because they have a skill level that will allow them to get work relatively easily with a bit of help from the jobcentre. They should not feel that the jobcentre believes it should  not look after them because they are not part of the targets. I put in that caveat because the real world is not black and white; there are people in between who may be lost by the amendments. However, that is not to say that in principle we will not support the SNP’s amendments.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

I rise to speak to amendment 140, which is about the intention expressed by the Government, including the Prime Minister, to protect disabled people. We have heard how the changes to disability living allowance and employment support allowance will affect disabled people directly. The amendment is designed to protect the parents of disabled children aged three or four.

The reason for tabling the amendment is that parents and carers of disabled children aged three or four would be allocated to the all work-related requirements group if the Bill is enacted as drafted, which would require them to look for and be available for work. It would be useful if the Minister could indicate whether that is an intentional provision, or whether it is incidental or accidental. I do not think I am going to get that acknowledgement at this stage.

There is an exemption for parents of children in receipt of the highest or middle rates of the care component of disability living allowance, but it will exempt only a very small number of parents, as few receive that benefit at that level. As many Members know, it is getting harder for parents to access disability living allowance. I certainly have experience of that from my postbag and surgeries.

Many parents of disabled children choose to care for their child, and they best know their child’s needs and abilities. Those who wish to work often come up against the lack of appropriate childcare for disabled children, as we discussed earlier. As the shadow Minister indicated, it is also more expensive to access tailored childcare for disabled children.

The rationale for the amendment is based on recent policy changes that require carers of children aged five to make a return to work. However, the Bill equates parents of children aged three and parents of children aged five. There are obviously significant differences between the two ages, which means that the Government’s assumption risks harming families, not least because five-year-olds are in primary education.

There is a read-across to the Childcare Bill, in which the Government are proposing to offer 30 hours of free childcare to working parents. That could help, but the Childcare Bill as drafted does not properly account for the barriers faced by families with disabled children when accessing childcare provision. For the same reason that we discussed this morning, it would be useful to know how the Government intend to identify that parents genuinely have access to 30 hours of appropriate childcare for a disabled child. They cannot just put a statutory obligation on a council to provide it, because we know it is not being delivered.

Many providers under the three and four-year-old offer are not able to meet the needs of children with more complex needs, and the additional cost of childcare for disabled children can limit the number of hours that can actually be accessed. The combination of those issues could severely compromise a parent’s ability to meet the conditions of looking for work, which would not be taken into account as the Bill is drafted. An offer  of support is not the same as appropriate support genuinely being available in practice. This concern has been expressed by disability organisations in written and other evidence submitted to the Committee. Currently, carers of children in receipt of the highest or middle rate care component of DLA are exempted from the all work-related requirements group. The amendment would extend that protection.

Department for Work and Pensions figures suggest that there are currently just 53,000 claimants of DLA for children aged nought to five years. If the amendment is blocked, many carers of severely disabled children could be subject to conditions and sanctions, as we have already discussed, despite the fact that it can take a considerable amount of time for parents and carers of disabled children to be able to access disability living allowance. I do not think that it is the intention of Conservative MPs in particular to end up with the parent of a disabled youngster turning up in their surgery who is not able to access appropriate childcare, has work-related conditions in place and ends up being sanctioned, and then has absolutely nothing coming in. I hope that that is not the intention, and I do not believe that it is. I hope that the Government will consider this amendment.

My last point is that amendment 140 should be accepted to reflect the fact that a disabled child’s needs and the specific level of support that they require may be very hard to identify under the age of five. DLA is not a brilliant basis for the exemption of carers. It is not sufficient. It can take months or years to access disability living allowance—indeed, the Prime Minister has spoken of his own personal battle when trying to apply for disability living allowance for his son. Personal experiences should be taken into consideration when pressing ahead with this legislation. The amendment proposes using additional criteria to determine whether someone is caring for a severely disabled child which go beyond a sole reliance on claiming DLA at a certain level. These include statements of special educational needs, which a small number of children under five receive; replacement education, health and care plans; those defined as children in need; and those who meet the Equality Act definition of disabled.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Clearly, this Government believe that there is much more that can be done to support all parents, including lone parents with young children, to prepare for and look for work. I will come on to amendment 140 and some of the points which have just been raised in a minute. Universal credit offers significant work incentives over the current system of benefits, with the structure of UC designed to encourage and reward work. As universal credit is paid both in and out of work, many of the barriers to work start to be removed. Claimants with young children in particular can try suitable work depending on their own circumstances in the knowledge that their universal credit claim will not automatically close and, importantly, that their payments are adjusted systematically to take account of their earnings.

The support that we provide through work coaches should help to make parents much more ready to move into employment—that, of course, is the point of work  coaches and of Jobcentre Plus in particular. Jobcentre Plus plays a vital role in supporting parents to find work via the core framework and interventions with a dedicated work coach, helping those furthest from the labour market to return or move closer to it. Work coaches deliver a personalised service to best meet the needs of the parent in relation to the local labour market conditions. That is why the Government are investing in extra work coach support. Work coaches will be able to build a relationship with individuals, ensuring that work-related requirements are tailored to their particular circumstances and capability, and are compatible with their childcare responsibilities. Work coaches also provide a gateway to access much of the other support that is available, which includes skills training and sector-based work academies, as well as financial support through the flexible support fund, in order to remove some of the barriers.

The findings from the “Universal Credit at work” report shows that those on universal credit are working more compared with those on jobseeker’s allowance. Of course, universal credit encourages claimants to find work, to increase their earnings and support themselves. I know childcare has been touched upon in our broader debates today, but it is worth mentioning that parents of disadvantaged two-year-olds in particular are able to access to free early-years education. Parents may also have access to jobcentre funding to enable them to undertake the work preparation that is necessary while their children are at that young age.

I know that we have made this point previously, but universal credit will cover up to 85% of eligible childcare costs from next year, irrespective of how few hours parents work. That will help to cover about 500,000 families at a cost of about £350 million a year. Parents will also have the option of claiming tax-free childcare, which also has significant support. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark will know that for children with disabilities—the Exchequer Secretary mentioned this earlier—that support will be up to £4,000 a year.

Access to childcare, including the flexibility and support available to parents claiming universal credit, is obviously an important component. We will ensure, of course, that all work-related requirements are tailored to individual circumstances and compatible with the childcare responsibilities.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 3:15 pm, 13th October 2015

The Minister says that individual circumstances will be taken into account. Will that include monitoring or testing to see that a parent is genuinely able to get access to the level of childcare that she says should be available?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will come on to that when I speak to amendment 140. If I do not answer that specific point, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will intervene on me.

Carers provide invaluable support for relatives, partners or friends who through whatever circumstances are ill or disabled. The carer element within universal credit is to support carers on a low income who provide care for 35 hours or more each week for a severely disabled  person. That does not replace carer’s allowance, which will continue to exist as a separate benefit outside universal credit.

Importantly, for those with less substantial caring responsibilities, some work-related conditions may apply; but existing legislation is clear about how those should be limited. Requirements for each claimant will depend on their individual capability, circumstances and caring responsibilities. That comes back to my point that the expectation will be based purely on the individual’s personal circumstances. Most responsible carers of a disabled child aged three or four will not be subject to the conditionality associated with the clause. Responsible carers who receive the carer element will fall into the “no conditionality” group in universal credit, which means that no work-related conditions will be applied.

For carers who are not entitled to the carer element, different levels of conditionality will apply. Some who do not qualify for it will be placed in the “no conditionality” group. These include full-time carers of a severely disabled person who are unable to receive the carer element because they are not the main carer, and carers of more than one severely disabled person whose cumulative caring responsibilities mean that it would be unreasonable to impose conditions on them. Also it would be unreasonable to place requirements on a claimant who is a carer of a severely disabled person for at least 35 hours, or to do so where the care giver is responsible for a severely disabled person awaiting an assessment for a severe disability benefit.

I reiterate that it is important that there should be flexibility for other carers who do not fall into the “no-conditionality” group, because caring responsibilities may change from day to day; I think we all recognise that. Where there is a disabled child in the household, that will be factored into the decision making and the appropriate level of requirements. Any requirements will be tailored.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark specifically mentioned childcare provision for parents of disabled children. He also mentioned the Childcare Bill, which is the responsibility not of my Department but of the Department for Education. More information will follow about the delivery of the childcare element, in particular the 15-hour and 30-hour delivery measures for local provision. We want to ensure that provision is in place for the parents of disabled children. We have to work with the providers on the ground, which is something that the Department for Education is doing now, working with stakeholders and consulting. That is part of a wide-ranging piece of work. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this point, however, and I will I pick it up with my colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that that is featured in and factored into their discussions with stakeholders.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Is the Minister suggesting that the Government’s expectation is that parents of a disabled child who are unable to access 30 hours of childcare would not be subject to the conditionality that might be imposed were such support to be in place?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

First, we have to ensure that the provision is in place, which is part of the wider childcare offering, and work is taking place through the Childcare Bill,  including on delivery. Importantly, this is about working with the parents of disabled children. We have to look at individual cases to ensure that support is tailored for them. There should never be a one-size-fits-all policy—we all recognise that—so through Jobcentre Plus and our work coaches we will look at all the relevant circumstances of the individuals.

I urge the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Corri Wilson Corri Wilson Scottish National Party, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

I was interested in the view of the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury on the jobcentre system. I worked in the Department for Work and Pensions for 20 years, and my experience is that jobcentre staff work incredibly hard to get claimants into work. The main reason that claimants cannot get off benefits seems to be that suitable jobs are not out there. Year after year, staff’s flexibility and autonomy have been diminished. Staff are tied up with sanctions regimes, at the expense of a focus on clients and getting them back into work. That is one of the reasons why we want more powers in Scotland, so that we can take control of our economy to boost economic levers that will help grow our economy and create jobs to get people off benefits. Universal credit conditionality and changes for carers will put an unacceptable and unnecessary pressure on families. We will therefore press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 34 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 62, in clause 15,  page  14, line 31,  leave out paragraphs (a) to (c) and insert—

“(a) in section 19(2)(c) for the words “under the age of 1” substitute “who has not yet started primary school”. —(Hannah Bardell.)

This amendment, taken together with amendment 63, would mean claimants in receipt of universal credit who are responsible carers are not subject to work focused interviews or work preparation requirements until their child starts school. From when a child starts school, relevant claimants would be required to follow all work requirements.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 35 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 58, in clause 15,  page 14,  line 36, after “2,”, insert “3 or 4”.—(Hannah Bardell.)

This amendment would retain the current position for responsible carers of children aged three and four.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 36 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 101, in clause 15, page 14, line 38, at end insert—

‘(d) Insert after section 18

“(18A) Guidance on lone parents

(1) The Secretary of State shall, by regulation, provide guidance to Jobcentre Plus setting out how it should support claimants who are lone parents in meeting the work-related requirements that they are subject to.”.’

To require the Secretary of State to set out in regulation how Jobcentre Plus should support claimant of universal credit who are lone parents meet the work-related requirements they are subject to.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 131, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) Claimants subject to new requirements as a result of the measures contained in subsections (1) and (2) of this clause must, at a time no later than three months before subsections (1) and (2) come into force, receive written notification of the lone parent flexibilities issued as guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff.’

To provide that anyone who becomes subject to new work-related requirements as a result of the measures in clause 15 must be provided with written notification of the lone parent flexibilities which the DWP issues as guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff.

Amendment 132, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State must, at time no later than three months before subsections (1) and (2) come into force, issue guidance on the lone parent flexibilities to Jobcentre Plus managers, such guidance must include provision on the training of Jobcentre Plus staff in advance of the new work-related requirements coming into force.’

To require the Secretary of State to issue up to date written guidance to Jobcentre Plus managers on the lone parent flexibilities, including provisions on the training of Jobcentre Plus staff.

Amendment 133, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State may not impose a work search requirement on any claimant in receipt of Universal Credit, who is a lone parent, in circumstances which include but are not limited to the following—

(a) the claimant’s adviser determines that there is an inadequate number of suitable employment vacancies within reasonable daily travelling distance of the claimant‘s home;

(b) the claimant is responsible for the care of a child during that child‘s school holidays, and it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to make alternative arrangements;

(c) the claimant is responsible for the care of a child during any period in which that child is excluded from school, or is otherwise not receiving education pursuant to arrangements made by a local education authority, and it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to make alternative arrangements;

(d) any child care expenses which would be necessarily incurred by the claimant as a result of carrying out the requirement imposed would represent an unreasonably high proportion of the income the claimant could expect to receive while carrying out the requirement in question;

(e) the claimant is enrolled on a course of study leading to a vocational qualification, or is otherwise undertaking engaged in vocational training;

(f) the claimant has become a lone parent within the last six months;

(g) any other circumstances in which the claimant‘s adviser may consider the imposition of a work search requirement to be unreasonable in light of that claimant‘s individual circumstances.’

To provide a statutory basis for flexibility to be applied in imposing work search requirements on lone parents in receipt of Universal Credit.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I want to speak to amendments 131, 132 and 133. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) tabled amendment 101, and to a certain extent the sentiment in that amendment is incorporated in the other three amendments, so it may not be necessary for me to speak specifically to it. In any event, my hon. Friend no longer sits on the Committee. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on amendments 131 to 133.

Amendment 131 arises because we have noticed a couple of paragraphs in clause 15, at the bottom of page 14, which are short but not sweet. They could have been overlooked, but they should not be. They introduce sweeping changes to work search requirements placed on single parents with very young children and do so in a way that is extraordinarily unfair and poorly thought through. The Bill not only goes further than any changes introduced by previous Governments but severs the link between the time when a child starts school and the time when that a child’s parent is expected to start actively seeking work.

Successive Governments of both parties have introduced changes to expectations on parents, and the age at which a parent is expected to seek work has been progressively lowered from 16 down to 12, then to seven and most recently to five. To a certain extent, it was thought that there was a broad consensus to expect single mothers—it is usually single mothers—to work during term time while their children were at school,  subject to appropriate childcare at a price they could afford and working hours that would fit in around school time. That does not seem unreasonable. That seems fine. It seems the sort of thing that very few single parents would object to and that most of the public and a lot of children would want. It is a deeply personal decision but, frankly, I think it would carry the majority of the public on what is a fair expectation of single parents.

However, the caveats that I put on those expectations are not insignificant, and that is the point. One size does not fit all when it comes to helping single parents into work. To a certain extent, the point that I made to the Scottish nationalists earlier highlights that. A single parent came to see me when the expectation was that parents were to be actively looking for work when their children were aged seven-plus. She wanted to work when the children were younger and felt that she was not getting the support of the jobcentre. It was for that reason—the fact that no size fits all—that when my party was in Government, it gave a clear undertaking that no single parent would be forced into a job that did not fit their circumstances. Now we have a Government who are not prepared to continue that pact with single parents. That is profoundly unfair, and wrong.

In extending work search requirements to single parents with children over 12, the Government were right to introduce “greater flexibilities” into the system; in other words, the expectation that parents look for work and that that work should fit reasonably in with their lives. It is right that those flexibilities were given the strength of regulations. Parents were expected to work, if their children were over 12, so long as it fitted in with their lives, and in order to make perfectly clear what was expected, that was put into regulations.

It was hoped that when the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was passed those flexibilities would be carried over into universal credit, as they currently only apply to people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), pressed the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), on that point when that Act was debated in Committee. My right hon. Friend—who was also the Minister responsible for introducing the lone parent regulation in 2008, so he knew what he was talking about—asked for reassurance that the flexibilities would be carried over into the new regulations. In response, the then Minister said that the Government did not intend to change that. That was good. We were pleased and encouraged.

However, when the universal credit regulations were brought forward the following year, we had a new Minister in place, the former Member for Fareham. He went ahead and changed the provisions, so universal credit will not make allowances for the lives of single women, except based on guidance that is too often overlooked. There is a difference between guidance and regulations. Pressed to explain why the Government had changed their hearts, the new Minister said:

“We have chosen to move the flexibilities from regulation to guidance. We think it more appropriate to rely on the discretion and judgment of our advisors to make the right decision for families.”—[Official Report, First Delegated Legislation Committee, 11 February 2013; c. 23.]

Concerns were expressed about the decision at the time, not only by my right hon. Friend but also by the chief executive of Gingerbread, who argued that moving the flexibilities from regulations to guidance represented

“a significant weakening of the status”.

It is worth exploring how far individual discretion has worked. The former Minister said that he was changing the flexibilities from regulation to guidance—from a statutory footing to soft law guidance—and hopefully everyone would proceed with good will and it would all be fine. Well, it is not fine. I will give some examples of how it has not worked and of the significant weakening of the rules with regard to the circumstances in a single parent can be expected to work. We think that the rules should be put into regulations, and that staff should be trained in what the regulations mean. Those expected to abide by these new rules should be written to, and it should be explained what the position is so that everybody is clear. That is the reason for our amendments. The weakening of regulations to guidance is just not working, and I will give some examples of why.

The Fawcett Society, in a paper that it produced last year, pointed out that

“the rate of incorrectly imposed sanctions that are later overturned at appeal is very high.”

That was for all claimants, but

“for lone parents in particular, the proportion of sanctions overturned at appeal is even higher than for other claimants (39 compared to 28 per cent)…This raises serious questions about the training received by JCP and Work Programme service providers, as well as about their ability to make appropriate referrals and decisions about sanctions.”.

If any other Government Department were failing, with a rate of 39% of its decisions being overturned on appeal, serious questions would be asked. The 39% who are suffering that injustice are not just anyone; we are talking about lone parents with children, who are wrongly sanctioned. There is something seriously wrong. The former Minister said that it was appropriate to rely on the discretion and judgment of advisers to make the right decision for families. I hope that the current Minister is clocking what I am saying here, because evidence is so important when making decisions on policy; it would seem that she is not, but perhaps someone can point out Hansard to her later.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Good, I am glad. So, 39% of single parents are having their decisions overturned on appeal. My point is that the discretion given to Jobcentre Plus officials is not appropriate, and that it would be better, and right, to put the requirements into regulations instead, so that they are given legal standing. Discretion is not working. When nearly 40% of cases being overturned on appeal, there is something wrong with the system. That is not rhetoric, it is the evidence, and something needs to be done. The situation raises serious questions about the training of Jobcentre Plus staff and Work programme providers and their ability to make appropriate decisions. To illustrate that point I will give the Minister a few stories from single mothers. Their personal details are disguised, but their cases are real.

There is a women called Geri; she is single mother and has a nine-year-old daughter. Her jobseeker’s agreement sets out the requirements that she must meet as a condition of receiving her benefits, which are that she  must apply for 21 jobs a week, either full or part-time, and be prepared to travel up to an hour each way for a job. Emma has a 10-year-old son and lives in Bristol. Her jobseeker’s agreement requires her to look for work in London, which is a 90-minute commute each way, despite the fact that the cost of a season ticket would exceed £5,000 a year. Furthermore, the extended hours of travel would make it impossible for her to take her son to school and pick him up at the end of the day.

A woman called Fiona had her jobseeker’s allowance stopped for three months because she turned down night shifts, which she had to do because she could not find suitable childcare for her daughter. Elaine was threatened with sanctions by her Work programme provider when she said that she could not attend back-to-work courses during the summer holidays. She has two young daughters whom she cannot leave on their own at home. She was offered no help with childcare costs by the provider of the voluntary work that she was supposed to be doing in order to make her fit for work.

I have heard stories of single parents being threatened with sanctions if they do not attend appointments that clash with the school run. I have heard stories from single parents who have been sanctioned for missing appointments in order to stay at home when their children are unwell. I want to point to the evidence and try to help the Minister to make the right sort of social policy, so I point out that Islington Law Centre has a 100% success rate when challenging sanctions imposed on my constituents, which I really think should give Ministers pause for thought. The centre represented, for example, a pregnant woman who was sanctioned for missing an appointment when she was so unwell with morning sickness that she was in hospital.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

To add to my hon. Friend’s list, I have a constituent with three primary school age children, all at different schools. She was compelled to be at appointments when she was trying to get her children to those different schools—she was always given appointments that made it absolutely impossible for her to get to the jobcentre.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Members on both sides of the House may well have examples of such sanctions from people who have come to their surgeries. In particular, single parents are being sanctioned in an attempt to push them into work that is completely inappropriate given their caring responsibilities.

I come back to the distinction between regulations and guidance, which I think is important. It may seem academic to some, but I can assure Ministers that it is not at all academic to the women who are feeling the impact of the lack of adequate flexibility within the system and the lack of understanding of what the rules really are. For our purposes as legislators, it is important to make the distinction between the legal force of regulations and of guidance. Regulations have the force of statute, as they are introduced through secondary legislation, but guidance does not. Guidance is really soft law, and these women do not need soft law.

The principle was summed up quite well in the Supreme Court judgment of R (on the application of Alvi) v.Secretary of State for the Home Department—it is  known as the Alvi case—in which the distinction at issue was between immigration rules and informal guidance. Lord Clarke wrote in his judgment:

“It seems to me that, as a matter of ordinary language, there is a clear distinction between guidance and a rule. Guidance is advisory in character; it assists the decision maker but does not compel a particular outcome. By contrast a rule is mandatory in nature; it compels the decision maker to reach a particular result.”

As I say, guidance has been called soft law. As was said in Ali v. London Borough of Newham,

“the court should be circumspect and careful so as to avoid converting what is a non-binding guidance into, in effect, mandatory rules.”

We all know why we are talking about guidance and regulations. We all know that the couple of little paragraphs on page 14 of the Bill will be going to court and will be judicially reviewed, so we need to be quite clear about what the Government want to do. Our job, as Her Majesty’s Opposition, is to look carefully at what the Government intend and at what is fair. We all know that what is said in this Committee is of relevance to the future court cases that will be coming because of the manifest unfairness that will result from the clause.

Let us therefore be clear. I am sure the Minister will tell us how fair all this is, and how everyone is proceeding with good will. But we have heard that before. We had a promise that people in jobcentres would exercise discretion fairly, and so on. We have had enough of that. They have not been doing things fairly, and it has been going wrong. We would now like clear rules so that we all know where we stand—both the single mothers who are trying to balance their caring responsibilities and want to find appropriate work, and the people in jobcentres who quite often feel compelled to force women into work. Any new rules will not be properly understood unless they are made clear. If they turn out to be unfair, they can be challenged.

Under the system that we have, a single mother who puts her responsibility to her children ahead of her requirements under the claimant commitment could lose several weeks of income as a result of an unfair sanction. That means that that family—those children—will not have any money for food. That is a desperate situation, so we need to make sure that something like that is done only in extreme circumstances and that it can be properly justified. That sanction may well be overturned—as I say, if Members come to Islington Law Centre they will find a 100% success rate—but in many cases the damage will already have been done. Does the Minister not agree that regulations, which have the force of law, could protect against some of those injustices? If so, they are worth having.

I turn now to the amendments. As things stand, there are two problems. First, there is inadequate knowledge of lone parent flexibilities: it is not known what it is reasonable to expect from jobcentre staff and Work programme providers. Secondly, single parents themselves may lack knowledge of what would reasonably be expected, so it makes it more difficult to challenge the unreasonable demands that are sometimes placed on them.

Our amendments 131 and 132 seek to tackle those problems. Amendment 131 would require that any single parent affected by the changes in clause 15 must receive  written notification of their rights no later than three months before the changes come into force. Let us all know. What is the Minister scared of? Let us simply tell people, “The rules have changed. We will now expect you to do this, that and the other,” so that people understand.

Amendment 132 would also require proactive efforts on behalf of managers and staff to ensure that anyone responsible for dealing with single parents is aware of the rules. What is wrong with that? The rules should be known by everyone. Surely we can have a commitment from the Government that people will be trained and will know the rules so that we all know where we stand and that they must be adhered to.

Perhaps most importantly, amendment 133 would incorporate the major flexibilities in the 2008 regulations into the Bill. The Minister may remember that at the beginning of this rather long speech I talked about the 2008 changes being made through guidance rather than regulations, but they are not working. We are therefore reintroducing them in this amendment, so that we all know where we stand and so that they have the force of law. They include requirements that single mothers should not be forced to work during school holidays or outside school hours; that they should not be required to work if their earnings cancel out the childcare costs that they would be forced to incur; and that advisers should take into account whether there is an adequate number of suitable job vacancies within reasonable travelling distance of someone’s home. The amendment would also build on the 2008 regulations with some new measures, which I think are called for under the circumstances.

First, the amendment would provide an exemption from all work-search requirements for parents who have been single for the last six months. In other words, if a woman’s husband leaves her and she has a number of kids who need to be looked after, and suddenly her life is devastated, she could have a period of six months just to look after her children and herself. She could get herself and her family back on their feet without being threatened with sanctions from the jobcentre, so that she can do her best and look after her family’s wellbeing, including their emotional wellbeing. What is wrong with that? What is the argument against that? That would no doubt be a difficult time for the family, and it is difficult to see how such a sensitive situation could be helped by forcing a mother to comply with box-ticking exercises under the threat of sanctions. [Interruption.] As is being muttered behind me—and quite rightly—what if she is being beaten up?

Secondly, the amendment would exempt single parents from work-search requirements if they were undertaking vocational study or training. Again, that seems to be a reasonable flexibility that was one of the great strengths of the old system, under income support, which allowed single mothers to make best use of their children’s early years to improve their skills, not to mention their long-term earning prospects. However, the proposed changes will not do that; rather, jobcentres will be pushing women into work, not training, which of course has the advantage of term-time hours. During that time when the children are small, those mothers would be able to upskill themselves so that they could get better paid, good-quality work that will last. We are always talking about this, so why not allow single parents to do that?

Under the new regime, such flexibility is gone, and that is wrong. Single parents are now being shoehorned into the first available job without any regard being given to its sustainability or suitability. We have all heard countless examples of women being pushed into low-paid insecure work because, often, it is the only type of work available. Why are we stopping single parents getting the skills that they need? Why are we doing that?

I had a look at the Government’s Universal Jobmatch site this morning. I do not know whether the Minister has ever done that. I searched around the N1 area pretending to be a single mother to see what kind of jobs would be available for me today. One job was the executive vice-president of a media company for £120,000 a year—that was good—but I could not see many of the single mums from the Market estate being shortlisted for it. I had a look for others and found a zero-hours job in a bakery, another zero-hours job as a sales assistant in a 99p shop and several jobs as retail assistants, kitchen assistants, carers and cleaners, none of which paid more than the minimum wage and none of which was term-time only.

That is a Government website that is supposed to be there to help, presumably, mothers—single mothers—get into work, but it has no facility to search for term-time-only work. If the Minister really wants single mothers of very young children to go into work, why is that facility not on the website? If he is serious about getting women into work, why does he not have on a job-search site a facility to search for term-time work—leaving aside the fact that there is no work? Even if there was work, no one would be able to find it on the Government website.

As Gingerbread puts it, it is therefore little wonder that those taking on temporary or zero-hours contracts have a greater risk of cycling back into the benefits system at a later date. One in five single parents entering employment will churn out of work again within 12 months. That is the reality of working. If Ministers really care about the long-term prospects of single mothers and really want children to be inspired by the example of seeing their parents in work, they ought to recognise the value of a system that is sufficiently flexible to allow single parents to develop their skills and to move into work at a pace that is suitable for their children. The Government should have term-time work on their own website, as well as having work available on it. If the Government were serious about such things, that is what they would be doing.

Amendment 133 suggests some common-sense safeguards that Labour Members believe should be built into the legislation in order to protect single mothers from being forced into inappropriate work without regard for their individual circumstances or needs. If Ministers will not support the safeguards, I hope that they will explain their position, because I can think of no reasonable argument against these very reasonable amendments.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) 3:45 pm, 13th October 2015

The hon. Lady has covered a number of points, but the one that I want to focus on is that it is right for us to support women into work. As the Committee must recognise, we have more women in work than ever before—the rate is now 68.8%. The purpose behind the Government’s changes is support for lone parents in particular to get into work without being prescriptive and in particular by recognising that our work-focused interview approach, with our work coach support, is a  key enabler of the policy and, importantly, is investing in the quality of learning and development through our jobcentres. That will give lone parents in particular the right level of support and guidance that they require to find work.

Work coaches, as part of their role and when in discussion with claimants, and lone parents in particular, at the work-focused interviews, will identify the barriers to work and, importantly, the type of support required. That means taking into account the individual circumstances of lone parents and responsible carers, including care and responsibility for their child or children, and in particular identifying the type of work-related requirements possible as a result. The aim is to develop a relationship in which claimants can discuss their issues and circumstances as they emerge. People who have children recognise that circumstances change all the time. Helping to ensure that requirements remain reasonable and appropriate is our priority.

Furthermore, the parents should feel that they are involved in the development of the requirements, which of course are recorded and noted in the claimant commitment, by contributing the steps that they think will give them the best chances of finding work. We will of course only ever have requirements—based around work coaches and jobcentres—that are reasonable in light of the appropriate circumstances.

We recognise that where people are in training the requirements are tailored around that. Training itself can be part of work preparation requirements, so of course it will be relevant to the claimant commitment that is being established as well. It is also important to recognise that it would not be appropriate—and would be difficult and wrong—to set out a uniform level of support that would meet the needs of individuals. Universal credit has been constructed in a way that promotes discretion, tailoring and flexibility. The existing legislation provides work coaches with the flexibility to tailor, limit or even temporarily lift requirements that are entirely based on personal circumstances. The range of circumstances is broad. We will ensure that any work-related requirements are tailored to the individual’s circumstances and, importantly, are compatible with childcare responsibilities.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

The Minister says that the Department will ensure that the requirements on individuals are flexible and sensitive. In our surgeries and case loads we are already seeing circumstances where that has not been the case to date. The Minister suggests that such individuals should not be experiencing sanctions or disincentives, but what additional safeguards or measures will be put in place to ensure that that does not happen?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

It is not about the guidance that goes out one day to jobcentres or work coaches. We are routinely working with our work coaches and our jobcentres to make sure that they are supporting individuals through the advice that goes down to them, through the guidance that is sent out, through what is being distributed from the Department and also through training. That training is absolutely vital, in particular with regards to work coaches. I emphasise that point. I know that comments have been made about jobcentres not supporting people to get into work, but I would argue against that. I have  sat in on many interviews myself, including with lone parents, and I have seen commitments that are tailored to that individual’s circumstances. In fact, I was in Edinburgh two weeks ago; I go to jobcentres on a weekly, very regular basis. It is absolutely the right approach that the work coaches have the freedom and flexibility to support the individual, and also to recognise the labour market conditions locally.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

The Minister is very generous in giving way. One of the concerns expressed by Jobcentre Plus staff—certainly those in my own constituency and those I have been chatting to elsewhere—is that once an agreement is in place with an individual, very little flexibility or adviser discretion is possible in order to prevent the imposition of a sanction where something cannot be met. The example I gave earlier has been resolved, and I am very grateful for the Minister’s offer to intervene. In that case, because there was an agreed number of job interviews that had to be attended, when the mother ended up having to go to hospital, she became subject to sanction. There is a point in the process where an individual becomes subject to sanction for not being able to meet an agreed requirement due to unforeseen circumstances, not due to deliberate non-compliance with a plan. That is where the challenge lies.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that, and obviously that is a highly relevant and pertinent point. This is why we should not undermine the autonomy of those local decision makers by putting things in binding statutory guidance. They need to be supported, and the Department needs to support them to offer that flexibility as well. We all recognise that personal circumstances and individual circumstances change. I am pleased to hear that the case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned has been resolved, but of course we want to avoid such situations in the first instance. We can only achieve that if work coaches work with the individual claimant and understand their circumstances. Obviously, the claimant needs to be very up front and say that their circumstances are changing and explain what is going on, because life is not one-size-fits-all for everybody and obviously circumstances change.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Of course I understand that local jobcentres ought to reflect local demand, but I ask the Minister to focus on the question of what would be wrong with having it set out in the regulations that a lone parent should not be obliged to go into work or look for work if there is an inadequate number of suitable employment vacancies within reasonable daily travelling distance of the claimant’s home. The six examples that I listed in amendment 133 give flexibility and at least give a baseline of fairness and do not allow people simply to have ultimate power over small children and single parents.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) 4:00 pm, 13th October 2015

I disagree with the hon. Lady’s latter point. Importantly, the labour market changes. Vacancies come up every day of the week. It is relevant to the individual, their circumstances and the ability for them to choose what they feel is best for them. They might want to be in training, which might be, for example, 30 minutes or an hour or require some travel. There might be a work placement or a work experience  opportunity. It is right with the labour market flexibilities that we have those flexibilities in place. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, if an individual is unable to meet the requirements—this relates to the local flexibilities—they would come into the jobcentre to explain why that is the case and that is therefore fed into the process.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

The challenge is that the flexibility does not exist now for individual advisers because of the system imposed towards the end of the previous Parliament. Individual advisers’ discretion was removed in order to have a more automated system that has developed into the experience of more sanctions. Is the Minister suggesting that that process will be reviewed or changed? Without that, the good intention will not be delivered in practice.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Work coaches have the flexibility in universal credit to respond to individual circumstances and are using their discretion—

Debbie Abrahams rose—

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will not give way. Work coaches are using their discretion to tailor appropriate requirements without the need to set the types of support in regulations or to make guidance statutory. I have touched on this already; the Department routinely upgrades guidance, advice and training, and shares those resources not just locally, but with stakeholders. We want to have the highest possible standards and we are working to achieve that. Universal credit responds to individual circumstances. Accepting the amendments would result in an unnecessary, costly and overly bureaucratic imposition. It would not enhance the individual claimant’s choice, opportunities and the support that is made available to them through work coaches. I therefore urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

We wish to push these amendments to a vote. I have listened carefully to the Minister and despite what she may say about local flexibilities, the national picture is that lone parents are having 39% of their sanctions decisions overturned on appeal. Therefore, the system is not fair. We want a better system in place with proper regulations that have legal standing.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Just to be clear, amendment 101 would have to be put first. The hon. Lady could withdraw that and come to the others at the end of our deliberations on clause 15, which will only be a few moments away.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

That would probably be the best way of proceeding. We can vote on amendments 131, 132 and 133 but not on amendment 101. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 108, in clause 15, page 14, line 38, at end insert—

‘(d) after section 24 (imposition of requirements) after subsection (5) insert—

“(5A) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision to ensure that where a claimant is the responsible carer for a child who is aged under five they are subject to no work-related requirements unless it is possible to make arrangements for affordable and appropriate childcare for the claimant’s child.

(5B) The regulations in subsection (5A) must provide a definition of “affordable and appropriate childcare”.”’

This amendment would ensure that responsible carers of children aged under five would not be subject to work-related requirements unless they had affordable and appropriate childcare in place for their child.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Amendment 93 will no longer be discussed with amendment 108. That might help the Minister in her response.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

We have begun to discuss some of the specific barriers faced by single parents who are looking for work, but we have not yet had a detailed discussion of what I, and I am sure most people, would consider to be the most significant barrier of all: childcare. It has been said that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and in many ways it is also true that there is no such thing as free childcare. Getting the universal entitlement to 15 hours, which in theory is available to all parents of children aged three and four, is often not quite as easy as it sounds. For a start, it usually is not free.

It is widely acknowledged that the difference between the rate at which the Government subsidise childcare providers and the actual cost of delivering care is substantial; substantial enough that charging for some services is the only way that providers can stay afloat. Parents know that that can happen in a range of different ways. Some are hit by hidden charges, such as being asked to pay for the cost of food or activities, while others—we have this situation in my constituency—are told that they cannot access their free hours unless they take additional paid hours as well, often at considerable cost.

The Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare completed an inquiry last year having heard extensive evidence. It concluded that

“parents are subsidising themselves, or other parents, in order to benefit from the Government’s flagship early education policy.”

I ask the Department for Work and Pensions yet again to look beyond the rhetoric at the evidence. The House of Lords Select Committee looked at this matter and said that it is serious.

In some cases, parents have even been told that the free 15 hours can be accessed only as part of a full-time placement. Full-time normally means 50 hours, which accounts for the early morning drop-off and early evening pick-up that is generally necessary for parents who work full time. To put in perspective the scale of the financial commitment that this could mean for parents, I looked at my local authority area in order to get a proper example. Childcare costs in Islington are among the highest in the country. A full-time place in a private nursery will set a parent back more than £18,000 a year, and what if you have two children? Let me tell Ministers that not all the low-income single parents from the Market estate have that kind of money to spare. Even if they worked full-time for the London living wage, fees at that level would exceed their pre-tax salary.

I wonder if I can save the Minister some time by anticipating some of the arguments that she is likely to rehearse in response to my concerns.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

May I bring my hon. Friend back to a point about zero-hours contracts? There is a significant concern that some of the people affected will be forced to take work that does not have a consistent or guaranteed income, and that in itself acts as a barrier to being able to access childcare.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent and important point. The fact is that the work that is likely to be available, particularly for single parents who have been out of the job market for some time and may well be vulnerable and lacking in confidence and who do not necessarily have the skills they need, is the sort of work that I illustrated my previous point with. It is likely to be peripheral work and zero-hours contracts. It is unlikely to be regular, and it is likely to be at the sort of hours when there are not a lot of nurseries open.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

Does my hon. Friend recognise that even the 15 hours of free childcare, which is to be extended to 30 hours, is only for three and four-year-olds? I had to go to work when my children were a lot younger than that. Also, the low-welfare, high-wage economy that the Government are trying to achieve—and who could argue with that?—will unfortunately not include anyone who is under 25, as they are not to be granted the living wage. So in my circumstances—I had a child when I was 22—there would have been no help available to me to pay for childcare.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

I want to talk about the Government’s proposal to extend free childcare to 30 hours a week for some parents, and I will explain why I just do not buy it. To begin with, let me raise the most obvious problem with the proposal. It sounds wonderful, but how on earth do the Government intend to deliver it? How are they going to deliver 30 hours a week? There is the Childcare Bill—all four pages of it—and it offers no clue. I have looked at it—it can be read in a moment. It is the most extraordinary piece of legislation. To be quite honest, it is the Tory party manifesto on green paper. It does not have any detail to it. It does not answer any of the questions that people are understandably asking. A number of pertinent questions were put on Second Reading by Peers from all sides of the House, and they referred to it repeatedly as a “skeleton”. They are very polite in the House of Lords.

That view was shared by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which expressed the concern in its scathing report on the Bill that

“it contains virtually nothing of substance beyond the vague ‘mission statement’ in clause 1(1)”,

and concluded:

“The remarkable imbalance between the provision that appears in the Bill itself and what is to be left to regulations, and the scarcity of explanation in the memorandum, has led us to question whether Members will be in a position to contribute meaningfully to debates at Committee Stage and Report Stage.”

Leaving aside what that says about the Conservatives’ attitude to democracy, it also says a great deal about how serious they are. They seek to force lone parents back into work, on the promise that at some stage there will be sufficient childcare for them to be able to work, but they cannot even produce a Childcare Bill that means anything, or give us any details that mean anything. As I said, they are very polite in the Lords, and perhaps we should follow their example, but we do not. We say that it is absolute nonsense. It is yet another example of empty rhetoric. The Government are playing with people’s lives, and they should be held to account for it.

Likewise, we find ourselves debating the same promise now. Members of this Committee find ourselves ill prepared to judge the consequences of the proposals in clause 15, because we simply do not know whether the promised 30 hours of free childcare will be available when people go to work. It is immediately obvious when we start to scratch the surface of the 30 hours commitment that the policy is not funded to any meaningful level.

So we have a Bill that does not mean anything. Now let us look at the funding. The Government figures suggest, and the Minister has repeated in this debate—with a straight face, for which I commend her—that extending the entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare a week will cost £365 million in the first year, unless I am wrong. It seems that that is still the position. I do not know how that figure was calculated. We have a man from the Treasury here—the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury—and I would be pleased to sit down and listen to his explanation of how all that childcare will be provided for £365 million a year. [Interruption.] For the record, no explanation is forthcoming.

Interestingly, that figure differs substantially from the estimate made by the Conservative party of my party’s quite similar policy proposal in 2013. When we said that we wanted to extend free childcare to 25 hours a week for working families, what did the Childcare Minister, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), estimate our costs would be? He did not say £365 million; he did not say £665 million; he did not say £1 billion. He said that it would cost £1.6 billion, yet the Minister has tried to persuade us today that producing 30 hours a week of childcare for so many children will cost a mere £365 million a year through her non-existent Bill. Please excuse us if we are somewhat sceptical of the Government’s promises that they can produce that childcare.

Although we can have a laugh about it, mothers of four-year-olds on the Market estate will be threatened with sanctions unless they are actively looking for work and get a job, on the promise that there will be childcare. There will not be childcare that is affordable for them on the wages that they can expect given the type of work that is available for them. That is the reality of life, and that is why policies should be made on the basis of evidence and not rhetoric. The truth is hard.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

It is worse than empty rhetoric; it is empty legislation. We have seen the same thing in social care legislation. The Government committed to providing additional support for families desperately in need of social care, but when it came to implementation, there were delays. The difference in these circumstances is that many families will be left without sufficient support but with mandatory requirements and sanctions.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. Let us try to stay on this Bill, on amendment 108 to clause 15.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 4:15 pm, 13th October 2015

That brings me back to the purpose of the amendment. If the Minister is as confident as she seems that it will cost only £365 million, not £1.6 billion —even though the Childcare Bill includes no plan for delivery and we have not heard any plan, she seems to think that it is backed up with sufficient funding and is  entirely realistic—why not back our amendment? We are simply saying, “Don’t push single parents into work until there is childcare available.” If she is so confident that childcare will be available, what is the problem with supporting our amendment?

It is nonsense. In a report published last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research criticised the Government and their costing, saying that it was

“inexplicably low in comparison to other estimates, as well as to current funding.”

The inevitable outcome, the report suggests, is:

“The Government’s drastic underfunding gives rise to concerns that the hourly rates that it will give to providers to deliver this care will be too low, resulting in falling quality, poorer outcomes for children and less choice for parents as the market shrinks.”

The report also raises concerns that will be familiar to anyone who has followed debates on the issue in recent years, about the likelihood that the Government will seek to make up for the additional strain by simply loosening regulations. I have asked the Government how they can proceed with these welfare reforms without expecting families to live in cars, but I ask another question: how do they expect all those children to be looked after for such a relatively small amount of money without being put in barns? Perhaps there will be factory-farmed three-year-olds. How will the Government be able to look after all those youngsters on such a small amount of money? We have yet to see any plan for how it will be done, and we simply do not believe the Government.

Will providers be expected to relax their ratios of staff to children, spreading themselves even more thinly? It has caused some alarm among providers, to say the least, and it has caused quite a lot of alarm among parents and the wider public, unsurprisingly, given that we know about the link between the quality of childcare and low ratios of staff to children. If the Government press ahead with their proposals, even the best-qualified staff will struggle to provide an adequate standard of care.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown said in evidence to the Lords Committee last year that

“no matter how many PhDs you have, you can only hold so many babies.”

To put it simply, the Government are asking us in clause 15 simply to trust them. “Trust us,” they say, “We will provide 30 hours of free childcare. It will be available at some point in the future.” Well, we do not trust the Government on that. The Childcare Bill is not a credible piece of legislation, and the trust that we have been asked to place in the Government has not been earned. Frankly, they might as well have brought a Bill promising a land full of milk and honey, for all the credibility that the Childcare Bill has.

If I am wrong—I hope that I am—and the Minister is right, and if 30 hours childcare is about to be available free for all working parents; if everything is fine, and it is good-quality childcare that is available in the hours when people can work, then she should support our amendment. We have been discussing safeguards to prevent conditionality from being applied to parents in inappropriate circumstances, and amendment 108 provides a way to do so that is straightforward and clear. It provides simply that single parents will not be forced to look for work in the absence of affordable and appropriate  childcare. If she is so confident, she should back up her confidence by supporting our amendment. There is no good reason to oppose it.

As I have outlined, there are many doubts about the promises that have been made. I understand that the Minister is leading the childcare taskforce herself, so she should be more confident than anyone else, and she should be able to say in this debate, “You’re right, Emily Thornberry. I’m going to show you just how confident I am. I’m going to instruct my Back Benchers to support the Labour amendment.” Not supporting the amendment will show that not even the Minister believes in her childcare policy.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

We have been very clear that to support our full employment ambition, the Government are committed to helping working families by reducing the cost of childcare and making it easier for parents to return to work and to work more hours while knowing, importantly, that their children will be well cared for. That is why we have introduced the Childcare Bill, which will increase the level of free childcare from 15 to 30 hours for all working parents of three and four-year-olds. That will be available in some areas as early as September 2016, with further roll-out from September 2017. Clearly, however, that is only one element of a comprehensive package of childcare support available to parents up and down the country.

The existing offer provides 15 hours of early years education for all three and four-year olds and for disadvantaged two-year-olds. That is in addition to the other Government support for childcare, including, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the universal credit childcare element, which will cover 85% of eligible childcare costs from April next year. Let me emphasise again to the Committee that no matter how few hours parents work, they will have their costs covered—that is 85%.

Emily Thornberry rose—

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will not give way. That is expected to help about 500,000 additional families at a cost of £350 million a year—that cost is specific to the universal credit childcare element.

On top of that, parents will have the option to claim tax-free childcare, which will help up to 1.8 million families, who will be able to benefit by up to £2,000 per child per year, or £4,000 for disabled children. We have also secured additional funding to allow jobcentre work coaches to address barriers to employment and to support moves into work. The extra funding may be used in a variety of ways to pay for travel and childcare, to enable parents, such as lone parents, to undertake training, attend interviews or start work.

We recognise that we have to continue to do more, but—just to put this on the record—this Government has a proud record on childcare provision, in particular in the previous Parliament, when we increased the start-up grants to increase childcare supply in the marketplace. That totalled up to £2 million available to people to set up new childcare businesses. We now have about 32,000 good or outstanding childcare minders who have been supported and are now eligible through early education funding. We have made it simpler and easier for schools and childcare providers to work together to increase the amount of childcare available on school sites. Last week,  we made the announcement of wraparound childcare. We have also legislated for the creation of childminder agencies, which will improve the support available for childminders and parents. We have simplified the framework so that nurseries may expand more easily.

On top of that, the Government are spending in excess of £5 billion in the childcare market, which is important first to increase the sufficiency of supply, and secondly to focus on quality. The quality continues to improve, with 85% of providers declared good or outstanding by Ofsted, which compares with 70% in 2010. The qualifications of early-years staff continued to improve in 2014. The National Day Nurseries Association reported that 88% of settings that it surveyed employed a graduate, up from 80%, and that 87% of staff had good A-level equivalent qualifications. Now we have the early-years foundation stage profile results for 2013-14, which show an 8 percentage point increase in the number of children reaching a good level of development by the age of five. That also applies to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is fair to say, therefore, that we are not embarrassed at all. It is pretty sad to hear the Opposition, although they are entitled to their views, portray the Government as not doing enough on childcare and not supporting working families on childcare—

Neil Coyle rose—

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will not give way. The Opposition are completely wrong. The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury mentioned the childcare taskforce, which has been set up by the Prime Minister across the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. We are working with a wide variety of stakeholders, including childcare providers and the third sector—they are members of the taskforce. The Childcare Bill places a statutory duty on local authorities to publish information on childcare and other services available to parents locally, ensuring transparency for parents.

Importantly, funding was mentioned. Of course, funding continues to be one of the areas where more work is taking place in Government. A funding consultation is taking place, led by the Department for Education. Of course, we are working with the DFE. We made great progress in the last Parliament to increase parental employment, particularly with lone parents. The number of children in workless households has decreased.

Obviously, there is more we can do. We will continue to ensure that we provide affordable and appropriate childcare in the right settings, and that the availability is there. The Government firmly believe that we need to do more rather than less to support parents with young children to prepare for work. Childcare is one of those vital strands. Ultimately, it helps to improve children’s life chances as well. The clauses, together with our substantial investment in childcare, support that ambition. That is why I urge hon. Members to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I thank the Minister for her response. If I had been allowed to intervene, I would have asked her whether she could help us on a specific point, which is probably important. The commitment is to childcare  once parents are working, but for many parents, particularly if we are talking about parents of a very young child, to be able to find work, it may well be that children will need to have childcare—from the 20 hours, or whatever the commitment is—so that their parents can apply for jobs, go to interviews, fill in CVs and do voluntary work to prepare for work. Will there be any childcare available for parents who are looking for work, particularly when their children are young? If she is not able to answer me today, could she write to me about that, because I am not clear from her earlier answer whether she covered that matter or not?

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly in light of the Minister’s refusal to give way to her. That was a shame, because some of the points that the Minister made are very welcome. What was frustrating was that there was no figure for the number of children. If £365 million is being provided, it would be helpful if the Government could indicate how many children that is expected to support.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

There might be another question. Although the Minister has raised tax-free childcare, it probably needs to be pointed out at some stage—perhaps I might point it out now—that tax-free childcare is available only for people not claiming tax credits. It is not of any benefit to people on low incomes.

In light of the response that the Government have given us, we will not withdraw the amendment, and I wish to put it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 37 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Colleagues, we now come to a little bit of a vote-fest. I have a note that amendments 140, 63, 131, 132 and 133 can now be put in that order. Is anyone aware of any other amendments that they are looking to press to a Division?

Neil Coyle rose—

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

You cannot speak again, I am afraid; just move it formally.

Amendment proposed: 140, in clause 15, page 14, line 38, at end insert—

“(d) in section 22(1) after “section” insert “, except if the claimant is the responsible carer of a disabled child aged 3 or 4.

(1B) The Secretary of State must lay regulations determining what a disabled child is for the purpose of this section and may include, but will not be limited to a child—

(a) in receipt of an Education, Health and Care Plan,

(b) in receipt of a Statement of Special Educational Needs,

(c) identified by their local authority as having special educational needs,

(d) with child in need status,

(e) meeting the definition of disabled under the Equality Act 2010.”—(Neil Coyle.)

To exempt a responsible carer of a disabled child aged 3 or 4 from all work-related requirements.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 38 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 63, in clause 15,  page 14,  line 40, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert—

“(a) in regulation 91 (claimants subject to work-focused interview requirement only), for the word “3” substitute “5 or when the child starts primary school”;

(b) in regulation 91A (claimants subject to work preparation requirement) for the words “3 or 4” substitute “who has not yet started primary school”;”—(Hannah Bardell.)

This amendment, taken together with amendment 62, would mean claimants in receipt of universal credit who are responsible carers are not subject to work focused interviews or work preparation requirements until their child starts school. From when a child starts school, relevant claimants would be required to follow all work requirements.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 39 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 131, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

“(3) Claimants subject to new requirements as a result of the measures contained in subsections (1) and (2) of this clause must, at a time no later than three months before subsections (1) and (2) come into force, receive written notification of the lone parent flexibilities issued as guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff.” —(Emily Thornberry.)

To provide that anyone who becomes subject to new work-related requirements as a result of the measures in clause 15 must be provided with written notification of the lone parent flexibilities which the DWP issues as guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 40 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 132, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State must, at time no later than three months before subsections (1) and (2) come into force, issue guidance on the lone parent flexibilities to Jobcentre Plus managers, such guidance must include provision on the training of Jobcentre Plus staff in advance of the new work-related requirements coming into force.”—(Emily Thornberry.)

To require the Secretary of State to issue up to date written guidance to Jobcentre Plus managers on the lone parent flexibilities, including provisions on the training of Jobcentre Plus staff.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 41 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 133, in clause 15, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State may not impose a work search requirement on any claimant in receipt of Universal Credit, who is a lone parent, in circumstances which include but are not limited to the following—

(a) the claimant‘s adviser determines that there is an inadequate number of suitable employment vacancies within reasonable daily travelling distance of the claimant‘s home;

(b) the claimant is responsible for the care of a child during that child‘s school holidays, and it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to make alternative arrangements;

(c) the claimant is responsible for the care of a child during any period in which that child is excluded from school, or is otherwise not receiving education pursuant to arrangements made by a local education authority, and it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to make alternative arrangements;

(d) any child care expenses which would be necessarily incurred by the claimant as a result of carrying out the requirement imposed would represent an unreasonably high proportion of the income the claimant could expect to receive while carrying out the requirement in question;

(e) the claimant is enrolled on a course of study leading to a vocational qualification, or is otherwise undertaking engaged in vocational training;

(f) the claimant has become a lone parent within the last six months;

(g) any other circumstances in which the claimant‘s adviser may consider the imposition of a work search requirement to be unreasonable in light of that claimant‘s individual circumstances.”—(Emily Thornberry.)

To provide a statutory basis for flexibility to be applied in imposing work search requirements on lone parents in receipt of Universal Credit.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 42 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 8.

Division number 43 Decision Time — Clause 15 - Universal credit: work-related requirements

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.