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

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Alan Howarth: Disgraceful.

Mr. Boswell: I am now being barracked, so I will quit while I am ahead.

I am slightly surprised that the legislation has to be trickled through. Those of us who have ever been in the Whips Office may smell a fairly large rat at this point. For goodness' sake, if it is such a good idea, and Ministers have such clean hands, they might be a little more open about the process. The report of the Social Security Advisory Committee, and the Government's response thereto, dated 6 July, are like gold dust. We acquired a copy from the Government Chief Whip's office but the report is not exactly in wide currency among the persons to whom these sanctions may be applicable—or indeed well read in the pubs of Dudley on Wednesday evenings. To my mind, this is an attempt by the Government to slip through a nasty measure before the summer holidays are upon us.

The first question is, why such a hurry, and the second is, why do we have to have penalties at all? It is not appropriate for me to speak at length about the psychology of Ministers, but it is interesting that, too frequently, they have a tendency to impose the stick instead of offering the carrot. The measure relates to people in difficulty—as do the Government's extraordinary proposals on incapacity benefit, where the approach seems to be, ``Now let's find a way of taking away your benefit'', rather than, ``Let's look at the matter dispassionately and try to find ways of encouraging people back to work.'' I shall not discuss that subject this afternoon, but my response in this case would be, ``Ditto'', in that Government policies place a strong emphasis on looking at people who are in receipt of benefit and questioning—perhaps reasonably—why they are in receipt of it and whether something could be done to get them off it, then having recourse to the stick, not the carrot. I worry about that.

I ask the Government to respond more fully to the deliberations of the Social Security Advisory Committee. I draw the Committee's attention to the Government's summary of the committee's report, in paragraphs 4 to 6 of their responsive statement, which, having pointed out that the Committee was on side with the Government in wanting to improve basic skills, went on to say that it felt that

    ``the proposed new arrangements represented a new development in benefit conditionality''

and believed that

    ``the pilots should initially be launched without a sanctions regime.''

That is a pretty damning conclusion. I notice that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) is nodding in assent—and it is for the Government to explain why they are taking the route of the stick rather than that of the carrot and what added value they will achieve by that. Have they thought long and hard about the implications?

For example, there may be a person in North Nottinghamshire whom the officer has decided is not serious about getting back to work, and is indeed so unserious about it that they will not go on a training course to remedy their basic skills deficiency. That person will be subjected to the regime, but similar people in the constituencies of every single member of the Committee will not. Two people might have identical circumstances and be equally bloody minded in their refusal to go on a training course, yet person A, who happens to live contingently in one of the relevant parishes in North Nottinghamshire will suffer, while person B, who lives in one of our constituencies, will not. The Minister rather gabbled through that bit of his brief, but it represents an element of discrimination. The issue turns on whether the measure is justified, whether it is adequately conditioned and controlled and whether it is really for people's overall benefit.

I appreciate that some of these matters may be matters of law on which members of the Committee are not generally qualified to comment. However, having an interest in the issue of judicial review, not least as an ex-Minister, I find my ears twitching with concern.

Alan Howarth: Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is a good idea to have a pilot scheme or would he prefer that the new regime were introduced in a blanket way throughout the country without there having been an opportunity to see whether its provisions make sense?

Mr. Boswell: That is a reasonable challenge from the right hon. Gentleman, who has been a Minister and whose knowledge of the matter I respect. I have made it clear to the Committee that I am not opposed in principle to pilots, but I am concerned that if pilots impose sanctions they should be carefully considered and appropriate. I was merely drawing attention to the views of the Social Security Advisory Committee. I understand the ex-Minister's exasperation at the thought of some barrack-room lawyer saying, ``By the logic of this we could never try anything.'' Perhaps that is the conclusion that the Committee will reach, but it is worth testing the waters.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Can my hon. Friend throw some light on the way in which the ages of 49 and 50 have been picked as barriers, either for good or for bad? Why was that age group chosen as the upper limit?

Mr. Boswell: I am not sure that I can, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the point. That is the kind of thing that must be right. It is reasonable to say to the Ministers that there could be two people in the same travel-to-work area of North Nottinghamshire: one could be 51 and have been extremely obstructive, to put it mildly, and the other person could be 49. An officer could say to the latter, ``We've got you, because you are under the qualifying age, and we will impose sanctions.'' That might seem inequitable.

Ministers will no doubt say, ``Ah, but if we do not have rules and sticking points we shall never be able to decide anything.'' I understand that argument, but when it comes to judicial review or the European convention they must show that the bounds that they have set are reasonable, proportionate and sensible, and deal with the matter in hand. It was for that reason that I emphasised the importance of the officer who is imposing the sanctions regime being an appropriately qualified person. It is no good, even if, as I believe, there are many excellent people in the Employment Service, jumping to the conclusion that this is a basic skills problem, when it could be several other things. Furthermore, the basic skills prescription, if I may put it that way, may not be appropriate to the individual. There must be a clear sign that the process of assessment for sanctions is properly founded.

Earlier exchanges have already exposed the problem that the process of imposing sanctions must be seen to be fair. I mentioned warnings, because if those are given in writing and are difficult to understand, they must be explained, in which case a log will have to be kept of the activities of the officer who explains them. The claimant may need a witness to explain what the officer said or the officer may have to take a tape recording. Ministers would be well advised to make provision for the claimant, whose benefit may be at risk, to have access to an advocate to explain what the officer is saying. The claimant may not be the brightest star in the box and may need help to understand the case. The withdrawal of a benefit and entitlement that, on normal presumptions, the individual claimant would expect to have, and in other parts of the country would continue to have, is a serious matter.

I shall give an example that I hope is not too close to home. Some of us may be considering eventually drawing our parliamentary pension. I am unsure whether we would want a kind of Star Chamber that said, ``Well, I don't like the speech you made in the Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation on 16 July 2001. I think you should be disqualified from your pension, Mr. Boswell.''

Malcolm Wicks: Do not tempt us.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister is now threatening to extend the sanctions to me. I take the hint.

I appreciate that the Minister tendered that remark jocularly, but my essential point is that it is extremely important that an individual is treated fairly, in the assessment of the way in which he has behaved and in the provision of the support that he needs to make his case—he should not be rolled over by an official with whom he may well have had words. Fair treatment is especially important when the removal of benefit is possible and also when removal of that benefit is being piloted in his area and not anywhere else. The Committee should address such matters and it has begun to do so. They lie at the heart of our concern.

Angela Watkinson: I have been casting my eye down the list of good causes that are acceptable justification for non-attendance or dropping out. Some of them are very subjective. Who has the final say on the merits of any good causes put forward? For example, what constitutes a domestic emergency? I could pick out other examples.

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend makes a characteristically helpful remark, and I am glad that she singled out domestic emergencies. Some of us will be at least partly familiar with employment law and the new legislation on employment relations. That allows employees to self-certify themselves as having taken time off to cope with a domestic emergency. The burden of proof is, in effect, turned on the employer, if he wants to show that there was no real domestic emergency—for example, that the washing machine was working all the time.

In this case, the opposite would seem to apply—if it could be deemed that there had not been a domestic emergency, there would be no case to answer. I might be wrong about that. However, my concluding point is that Ministers have good intentions on this important subject, but to remove benefits from anyone, as part of a sanctions regime, requires long and careful thought about the criteria to be applied and the process to be used, as the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee suggested. I am far from confident that a rather hasty consideration of the regulations will provide the necessary safeguards. Ministers have a continuing case to answer before the Committee can let this go forward.

5.17 pm

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