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Standing Committee Debates
Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 29 February 2000

(Afternoon)

[Mr. William O'Brien in the Chair]

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Clause 49

Loss of benefit for breach of community order

4.30 pm

Mr. Erick Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I beg to move amendment No. 321, in page 52, leave out lines 34 and 35 and insert--

(2) The restrictions mentioned in subsection (1) are:

    (a) The relevant benefit shall not be payable to the offender for the prescribed period and shall be replaced by the presentation to the offender of vouchers to the value of the relevant benefit which may be redeemed by the offender in exchange only for such goods and services as may be prescribed; or

    (b) A proportion, determined at the Secretary of State's discretion, of the relevant benefit shall be replaced for the prescribed period with vouchers of the type mentioned in (a); or

    (c) Subject to subsections (3) to (5), the relevant benefit shall not be payable in the offender's case for the prescribed period.

    (3) the Secretary of State shall upon receipt of notification in accordance with regulations under section 51 that the information has been laid elect which of the restrictions mentioned in (2) shall apply in the offender's case.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 323, in page 53, line 21, at end insert

unless the restriction applied was imposed under either subsection 2(a) or 2(b) in which case no adjustments shall be made and no compensation shall be payable.

Mr. Pickles: The amendments are a tribute to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Social Security, who laid down the doctrine that benefits should be conditional on the fulfilment of responsibilities to society--a view that we share. The amendment's intent is almost identical to the Government's, with the exception that we suggest the use of vouchers as payment in such circumstances, rather than, for example, cash.

Before we embark on consideration of the specific use of vouchers, I should say that the amendment, like the clause, would remove people's benefits if they defaulted on, for instance, community service orders. I shall not repeat everything that we went through this morning--I shall take that as it stands.

The amendment has been tabled to explore the matter. I meant to check before I came to Committee, but I am almost certain that a character in the George Bernard Shaw version of the Anthony and Cleopatra says that, if someone is about to embark on a foolish course, they always say that it is a matter of national duty. We must ensure that neither Government nor Opposition Members embark on a foolish matter on the basis of responsibility and duty.

The Under-Secretary mildly disappointed me this morning because she sought to persuade us that there was nothing new about the plan--that it was common practice to place conditions and was part of a trend. It is not. It is an extension of something that has existed for a while, and which is part of the Government's general philosophy. It has its roots way back when the Labour party was in Opposition, and owes much to the Prime Minister's lecture for The Spectator. I cannot understand the Under-Secretary's reticence about saying that it is one step beyond what already exists.

I recall the Secretary of State for Social Security saying that he was trying to create consensus around welfare reform, and that might be possible on clause 49. Admittedly, our amendment goes further than the Government's proposal: it would extend the conditions, to use the Under-Secretary's words. Nevertheless, it is in the spirit of what has been suggested. I want Labour Members to understand that the amendment is serious. It is not an attempt to go slightly to the right of the Government on welfare reform and penalties. The Opposition have long understood that it is virtually impossible to go right of the Government, but we enjoy the race.

The amendment would improve the current system because it would go furher than basic conditions. It relates to social responsibilities that may be outside the particular circumstances of the benefit. We are considering such an approach for the first time, and it is to be welcomed. The amendment is not only about compliance, fraud or single parents and cohabitation, which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). Nor does it relate to attempts to seek work--a condition of the benefits--or to proposals made by the previous Government on truancy. We have tried to build a consensus.

I referred to the Prime Minister's lecture for The Spectator, which was the precursor of the clause and, to some extent, of the amendment. In preparing for this debate, I paid particular attention to ``New Labour, New Welfare State? The Third Way in British Social Policy''. The book was edited by Martin Powell, who comments on the Prime Minister's speech, and says that the third way for Labour has meant articulating a philosophy of citizenship that conjures up notions of rights and duties.

That was more explicitly stated in the Prime Minister's 1995 lecture for The Spectator, in which he spoke of the rights that we enjoy and the duties that we owe. Mr. Powell suggests that, in the light of that, Labour has adopted a more conditional approach to citizen's rights on social security, retaining many of the ideas that surround the Tories' jobseeker's allowance. Many of us rather welcomed the Prime Minister's lecture, which contained more than a grain of truth. It led to the appointment of the Minister of State's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), to start the whole process of thinking the unthinkable. I suspect that provisions such as the clause would have been unthinkable five years ago, at the time of the lecture.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead began to consider the paternalistic welfare approach of the American model. I was especially struck by a contribution that he made to an Institute of Economic Affairs health and welfare pamphlet, No. 39 in the institute's ``Choice in Welfare'' series, entitled ``From Welfare to Work: Lessons from America''. The leaflet had a number of contributors, the most notable of whom was the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, who wrote a response to an analysis conducted by Mr. Lawrence Mead. He wrote:

One of the arguments he puts forward for his ``paternalist welfare'' is that the taxpayer will only be willing to fund a system that helps the poor on the explicit basis that the poor behave themselves, or rather behave in ways of which they approve. Those are the words of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, and they tell us something that is probably right. He speaks of why people should earn benefits, but states:

On the other hand, perhaps the reason social security is sacrosanct is because people feel that they have a real stake in it, and a say in how it operates. If the contributors have a bigger role in drawing up the rules, the system will become more stable and more sustainable, so it can draw directly on the deep natural resource of civic values. The key goal of welfare reform is inclusion: giving all of us a stake in our nation's future.

The Chairman: Order. I do not want to disturb the trend of the hon. Gentleman's thought, but I remind him that the amendment is about vouchers. I am waiting to hear him refer to them.

Mr. Pickles: I shall get round to vouchers, but as you will see, Mr. O'Brien, the amendment seeks to impose vouchers on the model proposed in the clause. It is intended to explore the Government's policy and to ask why they are introducing the new duty. I am following a useful practice by trying to avoid a stand part debate and to explore only the matters of concern. Indeed, the Minister of State was kind enough to say that there had been no time-wasting in the Committee. I said that we wanted to debate two items, and I am speaking about the second.

I want to put on record the Government's reasons for thinking that a duty exists and to obtain an explanation of the ways in which people should fulfil it. The clause makes an important change that we want to support, but we want to be clear on it. One thing is certain: if we can formulate a clear statement of the citizen's duties, our actions will be running with the grain of society. It makes a pleasant change for us to do something of which the public approve. We spend most of our time passing laws that make us more and more unpopular, so why not do something that will make us popular? The add-on proposed in the amendment would ensure that we go with the grain of society. I know that it is fashionable to do something that the public dislike, but I cannot see a problem if they think that it is a good thing. Our voucher system is appropriate.

4.45 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West cited two interesting examples when he discussed whether benefit should be withdrawn. There are distinctions to be made. He talked about the receipt of social security benefits that are subject to satisfying certain conditions--they are often linked to entitlement--and the receipt of benefit by single parents and those who cohabit. To receive jobseeker's allowance--a contributory benefit--claimants have to satisfy three conditions: they must be available for work, actively seeking work and willing to enter into a jobseeker's agreement. A jobseeker's direction may be issued to require claimants to apply for a vacancy, to make a speculative approach to an employer or to attend an interview. As we know from our discussions in January, sanctions can be applied to income support or income-baseed jobseeker's allowance for non-co-operation with the Child Support Agency.

The decision to introduce vouchers builds on the new welfare contract. The part of the contract entitled ``Duty of us all'' sums up the genesis of the amendment and the Government's approach as being:

To help all individuals and families to realise their full potential and live a dignified life, by promoting economic independence through work, by relieving poverty where it cannot be prevented and by building a strong and cohesive society where rights are matched by responsibilities. I commend in particular the words

building a strong and cohesive society.

Why are vouchers, which are used in some parts of the United States of America, worth while? We are concerned about how family budgets are allocated. What seems to happen is that the man of the family decides what he needs from his income and the family shares out the rest. The Association of Chief Officers of Probation is also worried about the effect that the proposals will have on the typical household. Its submission to us states:

research shows that for many households the typical pattern is that the man takes what he considers he needs and the woman is left with the rest for the children and herself. Loss of benefit will clearly have a significant impact on the rest of the family's income. That is clearly not desirable. Neither we nor, I suspect, the Government intend to hurt the family. That is the reason for the amendment, substituting vouchers for cash or other payment. It is intended that the money should be spent on necessities for bringing up the family.

The Under-Secretary said that the relevant period would be only a month. Amendments have been tabled that would give the Secretary of State some discretion to extend it a little. We want to ensure that even with so short a period as a month, there would be no possibility of the family's suffering because an individual defaulted on a community service order. After all, they would have been through the process of that family member's committing a crime, being caught, appearing in court and being sentenced. They would have wondered whether they would be separated from the man of the household--and the offender is usually a chap, as the Under-Secretary said; we should not shy away from that fact. I do not see why, following breach of the community service order, the family should face additional punishment, should the man decide just to keep the amount suggested by the probation officer. The real losers would be the family and children.

The voucher would be redeemable only against necessities. It would not be exchangeable for money. If the Under-Secretary accepts the amendment we shall co-operate in the introduction of regulations to make it an offence to cash the voucher. We would ensure that it could not be exchanged for cigarettes or alcohol. It could be exchanged only for necessities for the children.

In the process that is being set up under the Bill, there would be one shot across the chap's bow when he was told, ``One more mistake and your benefit will be cut, and you will be back before the courts''. Then a second shot would be fired when he would be told the consequences of not co-operating with the courts or the order. The third shot across his bow would be making him face his responsibilities by seeing that purchases were made for the family. That would help to bring people back to be useful in society, in much the same way as a community service order.

We would not for a moment describe our amendment as elegant and we know that it would require some attention. However, it is right to protect families and children from the consequences of cutting the father's benefit. We know that the measure would affect only the element of benefit pertaining to the individual concerned. The Under-Secretary said that there was no intention of extending the provision to council tax or housing benefits.

 
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Prepared 29 February 2000