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7.15 pm

Mr. Hutton: It appears that the origins of the amendment are some comments that I made in Committee about pregnant girls leaving care. I shall deal with that point later, and I hope that I can give the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) the assurance that he seeks. If he spent the entire summer expressing anxieties about my words in Committee, I am surprised that he did not raise them with me then. I could have given him the assurance, and we might have spared ourselves some time and effort today.

I shall not deal with the amendments on the basis of their technical drafting. We know what life can sometimes be like in opposition. We all make mistakes with amendments; I have certainly made such mistakes. I want to do the hon. Gentleman the courtesy of giving him a full and proper response to his arguments.

Notwithstanding the comments I have just made, the amendment is horribly defective. We must be clear about that. The attempt to align the definition of disability in the

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Care Standards Act 2000 with clause 6 of the Bill is a complete failure, because the section that the hon. Gentleman identifies as defining disability does not do that. As defects go, that is rather substantial. However, let us draw a line under that and try to deal with the arguments that he raised.

Amendment No. 9 would replace the general power to make regulations about the groups to be excepted from the new benefits regime with a far more restrictive power, which would identify only two categories of care leavers in the Bill. That approach runs counter to the way in which legislation on social security entitlements has often been drafted in the past. Primary legislation sets out the framework and establishes the principles, and secondary legislation tends to fill in the details. That is important if the law is not to become a blunt instrument. I am not in favour of that, and I am sure that hon. Gentleman is not.

We anticipate that the principles that the measure establishes will stand the test of time. However, matters of detail may change over time. We may find that we need to make minor adjustments in the light of experience. We therefore want to allow for some flexibility in the Bill so that implementation of the new provisions can take advantage of growing experience. That means putting the detail into secondary legislation so that, if necessary, it can be changed in future.

We have been clear throughout that we plan to make exceptions for disabled young people and for lone parents who will continue to be eligible for benefits. The benefit system recognises that they have special needs and permits them to claim benefit when they are living at home with their families. We are trying to treat these young people consistently. The new arrangements will continue to recognise these special needs. I think that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that he recognised these special needs and that the young people concerned should continue to be eligible for these benefits.

I want to correct what the hon. Gentleman may have understood from my remarks in Committee. He was anxious about the matter. It seems that he gained the impression that we intend to exempt pregnant care leavers from the new funding arrangements in the Bill. We do not. I apologise to him and to others if that was their impression. It is technically possible for a pregnant care leaver to be eligible for income support and other benefits on the ground of a disabling condition to which, perhaps, the pregnancy itself might give rise. However, we have made it clear that disability and the fact that a young care leaver is a single parent--a lone parent--will be the conditions that we intend to exercise in terms of coming to a view about who should continue to be eligible for benefit entitlement. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is clear now about our intentions.

For disability, we plan to use the existing Department of Social Security eligibility criteria for claiming income support for the sick and disabled. As we are thinking about who is not to be excluded from benefit, it would be sensible to be consistent with the rules that say who can claim benefit. The amendment, which attempts to provide a new definition of disability, could be confusing. That would not be a helpful way in which to proceed. Definitions should be consistent. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who was a DSS

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Minister in the previous Administration, might be advancing a similar argument if he were standing in my shoes.

On lone parents, given that we are talking in this context about young people aged 16 and 17, it seems completely otiose to prescribe the age of a child in order for the parent to be able to claim benefits. That is what the amendment would do. Having decided that lone parents are a special group who should have access to benefits, it does not seem right to impose any additional conditions. If they claim income support or jobseeker's allowance, they will be expected to meet the normal conditions of entitlement for the benefit concerned. We see no need, therefore, for extra conditions for this particular group of lone parents.

Interestingly, amendment No. 9 talks in terms of mothers; the Government talk about lone parents. The point of principle on which we consulted in "Me, Survive, Out There?" was that we are setting up new arrangements that mirror as closely as possible the sort of support which young people would normally be able to expect from their parents. In the case of lone parents, their special needs are recognised in that they are able to claim benefit even if they are living at home, and that right is what we are reproducing for lone parents who have been looked after.

It would be a retrograde step to limit the provision to mothers. In reality, it is mothers who will be the ones looking after children--I accept that overwhelmingly that will be the case--however, it is possible that a lone father might be bringing up a child alone.

Mr. Hammond: In care.

Mr. Hutton: Yes, possibly in care. We do not want this legislation to discriminate against any such person. The amendment would allow a mother to continue to claim benefit if she had a child under four years of age, but not a father bringing up a child on his own. I accept that those cases might be exceptionally few and far between, but in fairness to those people we could not accept the amendment. There is no logic or fairness to it.

Under the terms of the Bill, these lone parents will have a young person's adviser, a pathway plan and all the support that will go with that. They will have a needs assessment like any other eligible or relevant child, and their responsible authority will agree with them a package of support, just as it does for anyone else. That package will be devised to meet the young person's individual needs and it will take account of the benefits to which he or she is entitled, just as someone else's pathway plan would take account of any income or resource that was available to them. It would not be helpful to single out this group to impose special conditions on them.

I hope that, at least in one respect, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge might be reassured by my response. It is clear that we have a different view. He prefers a particular way of dealing with the matter in the Bill, and we have tried to provide an alternative approach, which would preserve the issues of principle that he and I share and have in common. I suspect that I might be wrong, but I hope that he will not feel it necessary to push the amendment to a vote. If he insists on voting, I shall strongly advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the amendment.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister for dealing with the substance of the amendment and not

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seeking to shelter behind a technicality. He has always shown great courage in taking that line in Committee and in the House in dealing with the issues that need to be discussed. However, I am disappointed with his condemnation of our use of the definition of disability that is contained within the Care Standards Act 2000. It seems to be an eminently appropriate definition. It reads that

That seems to be quite a good definition of disability.

Mr. Hutton: It is a very good definition because I tabled the relevant amendment. However, it is not the definition that the DSS uses in determining eligibility for benefits on the basis of disability. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts the need for some consistency in those cases.

Mr. Hammond: Perhaps that is an argument for joined-up government from the Minister.

The Minister wondered aloud why I had not contacted him during the summer to discuss the confusion that may have arisen in my mind about what he said in Committee. There was no confusion. I do not believe that there was any confusion in the minds of hon. Members on either side of the Committee. The position seems pretty clear. The Minister said:

He added:

There is not much scope for misinterpretation there.

In response to an intervention from me, he said:

A column later, I said to the Minister:

The Minister said:

A column later, I said:

Nowhere in those exchanges over three columns of Hansard did the Minister seek to retract the statement that he made in column 137 that the exemption should apply also to young care leavers who are pregnant.

The Minister has said that he wants to allow in the Bill for some flexibility in how the Secretary of State seeks to use his power to make exemptions. Having heard what the Minister said in Committee--that he would intend to

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apply the exemption also to all young care leavers who are pregnant--we specifically do not want to leave the Secretary of State any flexibility in interpreting how he uses the exemption.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment No. 24.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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