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

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Mr. Boswell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Governments are sometimes tempted by the superficial appearance of talking tough rather than by real success? That is perhaps an underlying motive in the choice of sanctions, even if they do not work.

Mr. Heath: I absolutely agree. The proposals are an exercise in pointless machismo, which, I am afraid, has been a characteristic of the Government since they were re-elected. They want to sound tough, irrespective of the consequences. The experts in the field have set out what those will be, but the Government have chosen to ignore them. That is a wrongheaded approach, and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have rightly noted why it is dangerous.

The lack of literacy or numeracy skills comes in a legion of different forms. The hon. Member for City of Durham knows exactly why so many children have difficulties. Some have basic learning difficulties that go wider than simple literacy and numeracy and have difficulty engaging in the learning process. Sometimes events in their childhood have prevented them from adequately taking advantage of opportunities to learn. Those events might have long-standing psychological effects, which carry on into adult life. Sometimes, people have a range of mental or physical conditions, which might be chronic—I think, for instance, of the autistic spectrum. Some children have a form of Asperger's syndrome and have great difficulty acquiring basic skills. They will be no different when they are adults and will not change because they have passed the age of 25; they will still have difficulties learning when they attend an adult basic skills course.

The issue of carrying diagnosis through into appropriate courses and support is desperately important. The Minister makes reassuring noises about that and says that everything will be done in the best possible way in the best of all possible worlds. I take that at face value and accept that that is his intention. However, if the intention is to diagnose and then support, why do we need sanctions? Why do we need the stick, which could upset the whole process? That is no assistance. People who, for good reasons, had difficulties learning in childhood might find that they cannot adjust to the rigours of a course and might become disruptive or be unable to pay attention. Eventually, a course supervisor might say, ``No, you are not getting anything from this course. Go home.'' Is a sanction to be applied to those people because of exactly the same problems that prevented them from learning at school in the first place?

There are also physical barriers to participation, and the hon. Member for Upminster drew attention to the list of good causes. However, it is not comprehensive. Many circumstances can prevent people from getting to a course, as we all know. We all have busy timetables and often do not get to events when we are supposed to. Sometimes, the causes are not good ones—some of them would certainly not be suitable to list in an appendix or an annexe to a Government report. None the less, there are circumstances in which people will still have difficulties getting to courses.

One issue is rurality. Provision is made for transport, but there are differences between people who live in North Nottinghamshire. It is quite a rural area when one gets outside the bigger towns, such as Mansfield. Whether people have access to courses and whether they are subject to the sanction will depend entirely on whether they have an adequate public transport system. One person in a village in North Nottinghamshire will be subject to a sanction regime, while another person in a similar village will not be. Nowhere in any of this is there a reference to the psychology that we understand—the difficulty that many people have in accessing basic skills training and the fact that there is pressure from their peers. Imagine a 25-year-old man who has trouble reading and writing and is told at the jobcentre that he must go on a course. How will he feel when he goes back to the pub in Mansfield and says that that is what he has to do, and his friends turn on him and make fun of him? He will not want to do it. He might not understand the consequences of the sanctions that are imposed on him; if he is innumerate he might not know what a 40 per cent. loss of benefit will be, but his family—which depends on that income—will quickly understand.

We have glossed over the issue of human rights because the Minister has assured us that the legislation is in accordance with the provisions of the Human Rights Act. I am not so sure that it is, and nor was the Social Security Advisory Committee, which had objections in principle to the proposal that adults should be compelled under threat to follow a particular course of education and that disadvantaged people with educational and skills deficiencies could be singled out for benefits sanctions.

I agree with that view. It is backed up by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which has made a useful analogy. It makes this point:

    ``It is right for the Government to promote healthier life styles, but it would be wrong for social security regulations to penalise benefit claimants who choose not to take regular exercise.''

If we were in a Committee that said that people who did not go out and jog every morning should have their benefits stopped, I hope that we would all consider that ridiculous. I see no basic difference in human rights terms between that proposal and this. It is an exercise in pointless machismo and we should vote against it.

5.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): I am delighted that you are presiding over our proceedings, Mr. Griffiths. I know how much you have contributed to the success of the new deal in your own area and how closely you follow developments in employment policy.

Although, as a second Minister, my membership of a Committee such as this might be unorthodox and might overload the Front Bench, I was keen to be a member of this Committee for two reasons. First, I wanted to pay tribute to the part that my ministerial colleague has played both in the design of our national strategy and in the drive to win backing across Whitehall for its implementation. Secondly, I wanted to emphasise that my own Department and the Department for Work and Pensions are bending our efforts together to make a success of the strategy.

I want to contribute to the debate, rather than to address earlier arguments, but hon. Members have spoken in favour of completely leaving aside sanctions in the pathfinders and pilots that we propose and of leaving them until later. My hon. Friend the other Minister has said that without sanctions we shall not have the evidence necessary to take a long-term view on whether they should play a part.

Individuals often find a reason avoid tackling their long-standing problems with literacy and numeracy. They have always found ways to get around their difficulties and deficits, so they have not taken up the opportunities that have been made available to them. For too long, our agencies have fought shy of forcing the issue. However, when poor literacy and numeracy are factors in preventing one third of those who are unemployed from finding and keeping work, it is time to act. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham will recognise in today's debate the arguments we had four years ago over the new deal, when there was a balance between sanctions and support.

If the Government were simply proposing sanctions, I would consider my hon. Friend's concerns to be justified. However, there is significant support in place alongside those pilot sanctions. That exactly mirrors the arguments we had in the House three or four years ago with the advent of the new deal.

I would like to save my ministerial colleague from having to answer about the pilots by pointing out that, although we have talked about sanctions, our proposals for pilots are located in six of the existing nine pathfinder areas. We are proposing to pilot sanctions and incentives together. In Leeds, there will be sanctions as well as incentives, while the scheme in North Nottinghamshire will use only sanctions. We will also pilot a training period of eight weeks rather than four, and fast-track screening techniques with new deal advisers. There is a mix of kinds of support being piloted of which sanctions are a part, but only a part. I appeal to the Committee to help us to pilot the new provisions during the next year for 7,000 jobseekers in North Nottinghamshire and Leeds. In doing so, hon. Members will help us to provide assistance during the next three years for 750,000 people who need basic literacy, numeracy and language skills.

5.46 pm

Mr. Wiggin: My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry spoke rather better, perhaps, than I could on what was bothering me. I am grateful for his comments. However, we are dealing with the most vulnerable people, who are the least capable of fighting back. Such people are not as sharp as some Ministers, and when facing the loss of their benefits would, perhaps, forget to mention an accident at sea. Considering where the pilot schemes are located, I was amused to see that included in a list of possible excuses for claimants who have lost their benefit.

If the scheme is crucial—and I think that it is—why is it being run in tandem? Why cannot we consider incentives first, then sanctions?

5.47 pm

Mr. Terry Davis: All members of the Committee praise the Minister for his wish to help people who lack literacy and numeracy skills—I do not think that there is any difference of opinion about that. However, some of us have reservations about the sanctions part of the programme and the pilot projects. I would like to ask the Minister two questions. If he does not have time to answer them I shall understand, but I hope that he will then write to me, giving a detailed response.

First, what guidance will be given to officials regarding appropriate levels of literacy and numeracy skills? The regulations refer to language skills as part of literacy skills. Will the required level of language skill be higher than the level that is required for someone to claim British citizenship? That could be important for many people from ethnic minorities.

Secondly, what guidance will be given to officers to help them to decide what is an appropriate course? A course that is appropriate for one person may not be appropriate for someone with identical levels of language skills. I would like to give one example, which I hope the Minister will take on board, although I am not suggesting that he wishes to discriminate in any way against people from ethnic minorities. However, a course that is appropriate for, say, a man from an ethnic minority might not be appropriate for a woman from the same ethnic minority. As we all know, Muslim women in particular are often very cautious about having contact with men outside their families. It would, therefore, be a serious matter to require them to attend courses where men were present. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point. Who will decide, and how, what is an appropriate course for the claimant?

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