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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Social Security (Literacy Etc. Skills Training Pilot) Regulations 2001

Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 16 July 2001

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Draft Social Security (Literacy etc. Skills Training Pilot) Regulations 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Literacy etc. Skills Training Pilot) Regulations 2001.

I welcome the opportunity to introduce the regulations, not least because before the general election, when I was at the then Department for Education and Employment, I had some ministerial responsibility for developing the Government's first national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills, which the Prime Minister launched on 1 March. An important feature of that strategy was our plan to pilot the introduction of a requirement that jobseekers should take action to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.

Improving the literacy and numeracy skills of 750,000 adults by 2004 is among the Government's top priorities. The key elements of our strategy are based on a voluntary approach that will encourage people back into learning to improve their skills. The strategy will help people with basic skills needs in all groups. Many of them will be from vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. They include prisoners and ex-offenders, lone parents, people in low-skilled jobs and those who are unemployed. To put it in context, we would surely agree that it is unacceptable in the early steps of the 21st century that as many as one in five of our adult population lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, so they are less likely to obtain work than others, and their jobs will be low-skilled and poorly paid. There are wider social impacts: for example, how can a parent without literacy skills read a child a bedtime story?

The strategy includes the introduction of literacy and numeracy screening for all jobseekers when they reach 26 weeks of unemployment. If they appear to have weaknesses in those skills, they will be offered a more in-depth assessment and, if necessary, will be given appropriate help to improve their literacy and numeracy. We have also put in place national standards, underpinned by a core curriculum, and hundreds of tutors have already been trained in the use of the new materials. We believe that the introduction of those approaches, with others outlined in our strategy, will make a real difference to the lives of thousands of people.

We also need to establish whether an element of compulsion has a part to play. We know that about one in three jobseekers have basic skills needs. That means that their prospects in the labour market are much reduced. As I said, when they do get work, it is likely to be low-skilled and low-paid, with few prospects for improvement, and they are more likely to suffer repeated periods of unemployment than those with better skills. The costs of that lack of skills are serious, as are its effects on the economy and on society more generally. Wasting the potential skills of the work force brings significant losses in productivity as well as higher benefit costs.

Despite those facts, many jobseekers continue to claim benefits without being given the chance to improve their skills, thereby diminishing their prospects of finding more secure work. That cannot be right when others are investing huge efforts in improving their position, often in their own time and over a number of years. We also understand that the needs of those whose standards of literacy and numeracy are low—often below that of seven-year-olds—are complex to overcome. They are often in vulnerable positions. It is important that we strike the right balance on the rights and responsibilities agenda, ensuring that those who can take steps to improve their position do so, while those who need additional help are offered it. The Government intend to be tougher with those who can make progress. Equally, however, we want to protect people in vulnerable groups, in particular those with learning difficulties and disabilities.

The draft regulations will allow the Government to establish pilots to test the effect of sanctions on jobseekers who refuse or fail to take part in training to improve their basic skills. Subject to approval of the regulations, we plan to try different approaches.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I seek clarification. My understanding is that the regulations establish only the pilots. Will the Minister confirm that there is no question that the Government can proceed to a full roll-out scheme without a separate and fresh set of regulations?

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, the regulations establish the pilots.

The North Nottinghamshire pilot will test the requirement that unemployed people must deal with the weaknesses in their literacy and numeracy skills or risk a temporary loss of benefits. The Leeds pilot will test the impact of incentives and sanctions. A further pilot, for which we do not need the regulations, will take place in Wearside to test the impact of incentives alone. Jobseekers with basic skills needs will be offered financial incentives to take part in training. If they still refuse to do so, they will be required to take part or risk a temporary loss of benefit.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I was pleased to note my hon. Friend's comments on people with learning difficulties, but will he give me some reassurance with regard to people who look for work through jobcentres or Employment Service networks and who are eligible for the scheme, but who have an educational deficit that the education authorities might not have picked up? They might have a form of dyslexia or another learning difficulty that has received no formal recognition but represents a significant barrier to numeracy and literacy training.

Malcolm Wicks: I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend a little later. She makes an important point. Almost by definition, we are talking about people who have gone through the education system, but who, for whatever reason, have left at 15 or 16 without being able to read or write. We are dealing with complex and, I agree, sensitive territory.

The introduction of the pilots will provide the opportunity to measure the impact of different approaches to meeting jobseekers' skills needs. We shall be able to assess the impact of the mandatory approach against that of the voluntary regime. We shall also be able to measure the impact on jobseekers of being offered incentives against the impact of being offered none.

Piloting incentives does not require new legislation, but it is necessary for us to seek powers to test sanctions. That is why we need the regulations. They will allow the Government to establish a pilot scheme to impose benefit sanctions on people who claim jobseeker's allowance if, without good cause, they refuse or fail to participate in literacy and numeracy skills training.

The pilots will involve jobseekers aged between 25 and 49 who have been claiming benefit for at least six months in the two pilot areas—North Nottinghamshire and Leeds—and who have been assessed as needing literacy and numeracy skills training. Those who refuse to take part will incur a sanction, which will involve the loss of jobseeker's allowance for two weeks in the first instance. The sanction for a further failure within 12 months will be four weeks' loss of jobseeker's allowance. Although that is a new use of sanctions, they have been part of the benefits regime since at least 1913.

We have referred our proposals to the Social Security Advisory Committee and have carefully considered its advice that the pilots should go ahead without sanctions. We welcome the Advisory Committee's support for our intention of improving skills and raising levels of employability among jobseekers. We also welcome its recognition that the Government should take action by launching pilots to determine the most effective ways of improving skills. However, we continue to believe that we are more likely to obtain robust evidence of the effect of the sanctions regime for jobseekers if the conditions in the pilots are real. Merely monitoring those who fail to participate in training, as the Advisory Committee has suggested, would not, in our judgment, provide such evidence. Nevertheless, we recognise the concerns about sanctions, and we are determined to ensure that all jobseekers will be dealt with fairly and sensibly in the pilots. We shall do so in various ways.

First, we shall put arrangements in place to ensure that the piloted provision will be of high quality. Employment Service advisers in the pilot area will receive appropriate training, including specific guidance on the handling and screening process and ensuring that clients are given fair and helpful advice. Subsequent assessment of individual jobseekers will be carried out by independent organisations under contract to the Employment Service. Every organisation will have or must obtain the Basic Skills Agency quality mark and must have a proven record of dealing with clients of all needs and abilities in an equal and sensitive manner. The training that selected jobseekers will then receive will be tailored to meet the specific needs of the pilots.

Secondly, we recognise that there are some people, and I think that this was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), for whom literacy and numeracy training will be inappropriate. Employment Service advisers will have discretion over whether to require a claimant to undertake training. That is an additional safeguard that we have incorporated into the draft regulations since the Social Security Advisory Committee produced its report.

Mr. Boswell: In response to the concern that I perhaps share with the hon. Member for Crosby, will the Minister clarify whether, if Employment Service officials are to make decisions on sanctions or participation in courses, they will be adequately qualified to assess adult literacy needs? Will they be able to make an informed and professional judgment in that regard and not merely a lay judgment about whether they like the look of the person concerned?


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