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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Contracting Out (Functions Relating to Social Security) Order 2000

Ninth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 16 March 2000

[Mr. NICHOLAS WINTERTON in the Chair]

Draft Contracting Out (Functions Relating to Social Security) Order 2000

Draft Social Security (Work-Focused Interviews) Regulations 2000

4.30 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): On a point of order, Mr. Winterton. I shall not disguise my anger at what I believe will prove to be a waste of our time. Today, the Prime Minister announced a new agency that will combine functions of the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Social Security that relate directly and exactly to matters covered by the statutory instruments that we are to debate: work-focused interviews and contracting out. I draw the attention of any Labour Member of the Committee who doubts my words to the terms of the draft order and a letter from the Library. The letter states:

    The order relates only to functions connected with the ONE service: it does not cover any other social security functions, such as those related to the determination of . . . benefits.

However, in today's reply to a written question tabled by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), the Prime Minister said that the new agency

    will deliver a single, integrated service to benefit claimants of working age and to employers.

I know, Mr. Winterton, that you are a guardian of Back Benchers. I should point out that I did not receive this letter from either Department or from the Library; I had to borrow it from a member of the Lobby-a journalist. Hon. Members, and members of this Committee in particular, should have been the first to receive that information. We are about to discuss two statutory instruments that will be torn up before the ink has dried on them. The only solution is for the Minister of State to withdraw the orders, or for you to exercise your discretion and withdraw them, so that they can be amended accordingly. Otherwise, we shall be wasting our time this afternoon.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Further to that point of order, Mr. Winterton. Given that a very important debate is taking place in the House on the future of Rover, and in light of changes that have been leaked to the press and authenticated in various letters to hon. Members that have yet to be made public, it is extraordinary that no indication has been given of how long the two statutory instruments will be in operation. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) has a strong point, in that it would be a waste of our time to debate the orders for 90 minutes, only to discover that they were shortly to be repealed. It is a gross discourtesy, not only to the House but the Committee, that such information has first been leaked to the press and dealt with in letters to some hon. Members and not others' but has not yet formally been put into in the public domain.

The Chairman: Does the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities wish to catch my eye?

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell): I am happy to respond to those points during the debate.

The Chairman: Although the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar has raised what any Committee member would consider a very important matter, I must tell him and the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) that it is a matter for debate, not for me. As Chairman, I act in accordance with precedent and the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, and I must rule that the matter is indeed a bona fide, genuine matter for debate. I can only express the hope that the Minister of State has heard what has been said and that she will deal in her speech with the matters of deep concern that have been raised by Opposition Members. No doubt the Minister-I see that a member of the Government Whips' Office is also present-will ensure that the Government are made aware of the concerns expressed by Her Majesty's Opposition.

4.35 pm

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Contracting Out (Functions Relating to Social Security) Order 2000.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Social Security (Work-focused Interviews) Regulations 2000.

Ms Jowell: Thank you, Mr. Winterton. It is a pleasure to meet under your traditionally fair Chairmanship. I intend to open the debate and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), will wind up. That arrangement provides clear evidence of the cross-departmental way in which the proposals have been developed.

I shall begin by dealing with the Opposition's fair questions, because the timing of the debate and the Prime Minister's announcement need to be explained. I shall deal with that before coming to the substance of the matters before the Committee. First, I hope that all members of the Committee accept that today's debate was set without regard to the scheduled announcement. Secondly, the Prime Minister's announcement has much broader relevance than the regulations. The regulations will take effect only until 2002; at that time, we shall decide whether, in the light of experience, to roll them out and generalise the method of access to advice and information on welfare benefits and searching for a job. I assure Opposition Members that the order and the schedules apply specifically to the 12 pilot areas in which the ONE models are currently operating.

Mr. Fabricant: No one would suggest that the Minister contrived that the debate should happen today. However, does she not recognise the concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Prime Minister's announcement was not made in the House, but was leaked from Downing street and given first to the press?

Ms Jowell: That is not the case. The Prime Minister's statement was delivered to the House by way of a parliamentary answer, which was timed for 12.30 pm today. However, I know that speculative reports were carried in the morning news bulletins and I put it on the record that that is cause for great regret.

In the interests of the 80,000 staff involved and of the many more members of the public who are affected by the orders, enormous care was taken with the announcement. The information should not have been leaked, but should have been delivered in an orderly manner. I pay tribute to the chief executives of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency and to senior staff in the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Social Security; they have done an admirable and professional job in developing the proposals and in making sure they were communicated to staff at the proper time.

Mr. Fabricant: I am grateful to the Minister for expressing her regret. However, she said that the information was leaked to the press and that the press made speculative comments about it this morning. Can the right hon. Lady at least confirm that her Department and the Department of Social Security were not the source of the leaks, and, if they were not, will she say whether those leaks could have come from Downing street-or even from Alastair Campbell?

Ms Jowell: We all know that it is a characteristic of government that announcements are sometimes pre-empted in unexpected ways. Let me make it absolutely clear to the Committee that the Department of Social Security and the Department for Education and Employment had a clear strategy of communication with staff about the decision and about the Prime Minister's announcement. That information was properly and systematically communicated to staff and it is a process of which those who were charged with that responsibility can be proud.

Mr. Pickles: I shall not pursue the matter of who leaked what other than to say that I am dissatisfied. I want to pursue another matter instead. The right hon. Lady said that the order relates only to the pilot areas, but that is not true. She may have forgotten that the provisions, particularly with regard to the contracting out functions, are not restricted to the pilot areas, but can be used more generally by private and voluntary sector providers involved in the expansion of the ONE scheme in other parts of the country. Perhaps the Minister will qualify her statement.

Ms Jowell: I was talking about the regulations that set out the requirements for the work-focused interviews. The contracting-out order extends beyond the pilot schemes and will not be replaced, but it will allow a decision about participation in interviews to be taken by those authorised under the contracting-out order to exercise the function, if and when the model ONE goes national.

The Prime Minister announced earlier today the Government's plans to establish a new agency for working age people. I hope that I have made clear the distinction between that announcement, which is obviously a matter of interest to members of the Committee, and the regulations before us. The new agency will draw together the functions currently carried out by the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency. It will provide a framework that is purpose built for the delivery of our welfare-to-work initiatives, and it will directly support our objective of helping more people of working age who are able to work to do so.

We want work for those who can work and security for those who cannot. We want a modern work-focused delivery system that can develop and deliver its own culture, objectives and values based on the clear recognition of rights and responsibilities. It is our clear intention that the new agency, which will bring together the Employment Service and the parts of the Benefits Agency that relate to people of working age, will be more than the sum of its parts.

Mr. Fabricant: The right hon. Lady will know that the new approach is based on a model currently in use the United States of America. Does she believe that that model has been effective in ensuring that the poorest and weakest in society are protected? She will be aware of the huge gaps between rich and poor in the United States, and I do not have to remind her that in Britain, to our surprise, the gaps between rich and poor have widened over the past two and a half years. What makes her think that the model that has increased such disparity in the United States will decrease it in the United Kingdom?

 
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