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New Clause 10

Optional work-focused interviews

'. After section 2B of the Administration Act (inserted by section 49 above) there shall be inserted--

"Optional work-focused interviews
2C.--(1) Regulations may make provision for conferring on local authorities functions in connection with conducting work-focused interviews in cases where such interviews are requested or consented to by persons to whom this section applies.
(2) This section applies to persons making claims for or entitled to--
(a) any of the benefits listed in section 2A(2) above, or
(b) any prescribed benefit;
and it so applies regardless of whether such persons have, in accordance with regulations under section 2A above, already taken part in interviews conducted under such regulations.
(3) The functions which may be conferred on a local authority by regulations under this section include functions relating to--
(a) the obtaining and receiving of information for the purposes of work-focused interviews conducted under the regulations;
(b) the recording and forwarding of information supplied at, or for the purposes of, such interviews;
(c) the taking of steps to identify potential employment or training opportunities for persons taking part in such interviews.
(4) Regulations under this section may make different provision for different areas or different authorities.
(5) In this section "work-focused interview", in relation to a person to whom this section applies, means an interview conducted for such purposes connected with employment or training in the case of such a person as may be prescribed; and the purposes which may be so prescribed include--
(a) purposes connected with the existing or future employment or training prospects or needs of such a person, and
(b) (in particular) assisting or encouraging such a person to enhance his employment prospects." '.--[Mr. Andrew Smith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.45 pm

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Mr. Andrew Smith): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, leave out lines 22 and 23.

Amendment No. 87, in clause 49, page 48, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 3 on page 49.

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Amendment No. 89, in page 48, line 40, leave out 'designated authority' and insert 'Secretary of State'.

Amendment No. 90, in page 48, line 46, leave out 'designated authority' and insert 'Secretary of State'.

Amendment No. 88, in page 49, line 17, leave out from beginning to end of line 22.

Government amendments Nos. 16, 17, 78, 48, 49, 19, 51, 50 and 52.

Mr. Smith: Clause 49 supports the introduction of the single work-focused gateway to the benefit system.

The single gateway will radically change the way in which people access benefits. Under the single gateway, claimants will have an interview and get a personal adviser. They will be treated as individuals, and offered the help that they need to become more independent, where appropriate, through work. The single gateway will also provide a better quality service, by bringing together the relevant services currently operated by the Benefits Agency, the Employment Service and local authorities. The gateway approach will stop people being shunted from pillar to post and it will give them more help, as well as underlining that with rights go responsibilities. After extensive scrutiny in Committee, this part of the Bill received a measure of cross-party support, and I hope that the same will be the case today.

I shall start by dealing with the Government amendments in this rather large group as they are make minor, technical changes to this provision to ensure that the gateway works in the way intended. I shall then move on to deal with the more substantial issues raised by the Opposition in their amendments.

New clause 10 and the consequential Government amendment No. 48 will enable local authorities to conduct voluntary work-focused interviews and advice. That has always been the intention. We want local authorities to be able to provide additional help to people who want it--above and beyond the interviews that we will require under clause 49. As it is currently drafted, the Bill only enables local authorities to carry out compulsory interviews. New clause 10 will correct that position.

Government amendment No. 16 also relates to the role of local authority staff in administering the gateway. It clarifies the definition of "designated authority" in clause 49. It makes it clear that that includes the common arrangement for administering housing benefits in which people are contracted by local authorities to deliver services on their behalf. That change reflects the definition of "local authority" in Clause 63, which enables such staff to participate in the information flows that that clause allows.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Originally, there were three definitions in clause 16 and now there are four. What or who prompted the right hon. Gentleman to add a definition? There was no mention of the need to do so in Committee, but the extra definition has suddenly emerged on Report.

Mr. Smith: On looking closely at the provisions of the Bill, we were advised that in order to operate the single gateway as intended--which, as I have said, enjoys a measure of support from the Opposition--it is only sensible to include people who have been contracted to

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supply services in administering housing and council tax benefit on behalf of local authorities, as well as staff employed by local authorities. It is a straightforward provision to ensure that local authorities will act fully within the law when they operate the single gateway in the integrated way that is intended. The change provides consistency, and will ensure that such staff are not excluded from playing a part in the administration of the new programme.

Government amendment No. 17 is a simple consequential amendment which re-numbers the subsection. Government amendment No. 49 will ensure that local authorities can be paid for their role in helping to deliver the single work-focused gateway and our plans for a modern, integrated social security system. At present, local authorities can deal only with claims for housing benefit and council tax benefit. Clauses 49 and 62, and new clause 10, will extend their statutory powers--enabling local authorities to conduct work-focused interviews, and handle claims and information relating to a range of social security benefits. Existing powers to pay subsidy to local authorities do not cover those additional functions.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The right hon. Gentleman is now talking about local authorities conducting interviews. Employment agencies are skilled in conducting such interviews. What skills will the staff of local authorities obtain that allow them to talk to people about possibilities in the jobs market? I am somewhat thrown as to how those people, who have never been involved in such work, can suddenly become involved in it.

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman cannot have been following events quite as closely as his hon. Friends who served on the Committee. It is a central aim of the single work-focused gateway that we stop people being shunted from pillar to post by drawing together in one place, at one point of contact, functions that are at present discharged separately. It is and will be an integrated operation. Therefore, positions for staff operating the single work-focused gateway and personal advisory interviews have been open to application from, and have been applied for by, staff of local authorities as well as those of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency.

The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that many local authorities have initiated one-stop shops and advice services, so it is perfectly reasonable to expect their staff to have relevant experience. The amendment provides, not only that they can play their part in those functions, but that, where subsidy is payable, the powers in the Social Security Administration Act 1992 will be extended so that those local councils can be paid subsidy in respect of those functions.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The right hon. Gentleman will recall that, in Committee, there were many discussions regarding confidentiality of information and people employed on a contract. I cannot see among the amendments anything that would apply to employees of local authorities the confidentiality provisions that apply to employees of the Employment Service. I am sure that they are included, but I should like an assurance to that effect.

Mr. Smith: I thought that I had said that equivalent arrangements for sharing information with such staff were

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in the Bill, as amended. However, it is important not only that they can share that information but that there is a legal basis for them to do the work, and that the local council can receive appropriate subsidy in respect of those functions.

Amendments Nos. 19, 50 and 51 are purely technical. They enable regulations relating to clause 49, new clause 10 and new paragraph 68A to schedule 12 of the 1992 Act to be made within two months of Royal Assent. We want to be able to present regulations to Parliament as soon as possible after that. That will allow staff and the outside world as much time as possible to prepare for the onset of the compulsory phase of the gateway, which, under the Bill, will commence in April 2000. The amendments are simply necessary to ensure that that can happen.

Amendment No. 52 is a technical amendment, which ensures that the changes introduced by amendment No. 49 will apply in England, Wales and Scotland. Amendment No. 78 expands the definition of a work-focused interview, to clarify that such interviews can deal with future employment or training prospects. It makes it clear that its purposes may also include encouraging people to enhance their employment prospects over time. It spells out our intention to ensure that the interview will be helpful and relevant--not just for those with an immediate prospect of work. The amendment helps to ensure that work-focused interviews will be available to the greatest possible number of people, providing them all with the opportunity to move towards independence.

As I explained, these are largely technical amendments, which ensure that the policy intention, so thoroughly examined in Committee, can be delivered. I commend them to the House.

I shall now discuss the Opposition amendments. Amendment (a) attempts to remove subsection (4) from new clause 10. The purpose of that subsection is to ensure that those local authorities within the 12 pilot areas of the single gateway have the additional powers that they need to conduct voluntary work-focused interviews. There is no need for all local authorities to have those powers at this stage. Subsection (4) gives us the ability to ensure that areas not involved in the pilots remain unaffected by the provision.

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