Fifth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 8 July 2003
[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]
Draft Social Security
(Jobcentre Plus Interviews for Partners)
The Minister for Work (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Jobcentre Plus Interviews for Partners) Regulations 2003.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson.
Work-focused interviews for partners, and, indeed, the overall concept of work-focused interviews, will not be new to the Committee. Indeed, hon. Members will recall that the issue was recently given detailed scrutiny when the Employment Act 2002, under which the regulations have been made, was debated in Committee. The general principle behind work-focused interviews was described as
''trying to ensure that those who can look, or should be looking, for work are focused in that direction, while those on whom it is inappropriate to apply pressure do not find themselves under pressure.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 22 January 2002; c. 566.]
Both sides of the Committee broadly supported that principle.
The Government welcome that scrutiny. In addition, we listened to concerns that were raised about disability and carers' issues, and we made a commitment to introduce, in a sensitive way, measures that took account of individual circumstances. That commitment is reflected in the regulations.
Since the Government came to power in 1997, there has been nothing short of a revolution in welfare policy. Our welfare-to-work initiatives have helped to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had given up hope of returning to work and resigned themselves to a life of benefit dependency. One of our greatest successes has been in helping lone parents into work. In the past five years, the percentage of lone parents in work has increased from just over 40 per cent. to nearly 54 per cent. That is a huge achievement in social policy terms, although we aspire to do even better. It is easy to forget that the increasing rate of lone parent benefit dependency was thought to be an insurmountable problem just a decade ago.
From 12 April 2004, the regulations will bring into force work-focused interviews for the partners of those who receive specified working-age social security benefits. The new requirement will apply where the benefit includes an amount for that partner, and where both partners are aged below 60. As a condition for the continued receipt of the full amount of benefit payable, the partner will be required to take part in an interview at or after the 26-week point of the claim. That is not an onerous or unreasonable requirement.
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The regulations will require partners to discuss their situation and work aspirations with an adviser so that they may be made aware of the practical and financial help on offer. No other requirement will be placed on them. They will not be required to find work or to join a new deal programme, and advisers will operate the scheme in a way that sensitively takes account of individual circumstances.
Work-focused interviews support the Government's ongoing commitment to increase economic activity and reduce the number of workless households. Such interviews are the keystone to our success with lone parents and the mechanism by which we can ensure that everyone of working age understands the opportunities available to them. In that way, those who want to work may do so.
The work-focused interview with a personal adviser is intended to encourage partners to take further steps towards labour market participation by exploring ways in which they can overcome the barriers that prevent them from looking for work. The partner will be provided with a personal and tailored service and given access to a wide range of help and information on work, benefits and available services.
To coincide with the introduction of work-focused interviews for partners, the voluntary new deal for partners programme is being revamped in order to offer an enhanced level of support to partners. That will provide real, practical and significant extra help to partners who want to work by offering them the training and support necessary to move them nearer the workplace; it will also offer direct help into employment.
If a partner fails to take part in an interview without showing good cause for that failure, the claimant's benefit will be reduced until such time as they comply. I shall deal later with the question of good cause, but hon. Members will be pleased to learn that the claimant and the partner will both have a right of appeal against the decision that the partner failed to take part in an interview without showing good cause.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): A moment ago, the Minister said that the new deal for partners—perhaps I am being lax, but I have never heard of it—is being revamped, a term with which I am not familiar. Will he tell us more about that?
Mr. Browne: I suspect that the new deal for partners has not come to the hon. Gentleman's attention because it has not been the greatest of successes in gaining voluntary participants. It will be improved as a result of the lessons learned from other more successful aspects of the new deal, principally the new deal for lone parents. Advisers will be trained in aspects of the new deal for lone parents and other new deals that have been more successful in order to encourage those who volunteer for the new deal for partners. It is hoped that some of the partners to be interviewed will volunteer and will thus benefit from the increased expertise.
I was dealing with the right of appeal against a failure to take part in an interview without showing good cause. We will, of course, implement that requirement in a way that takes account of
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individual circumstances; and the regulations contain a number of safeguards to protect those who may have difficulty with the requirement. It may not always be appropriate to interview someone at the required time—for example, if a partner has recently been discharged from hospital following a serious illness, or has just given birth. In such situations, the interview may be deferred until the individual's circumstances improve.
In other circumstances—for example, if a partner has recently had an interview with an adviser as a benefit claimant in their own right, such as claiming carer's allowance through Jobcentre Plus—the requirement would normally not apply while the partner continues to receive one of the specified benefits as a claimant in their own right. It may sometimes not be appropriate to call a partner for interview. Such circumstances will be considered on an individual basis, and the requirement may be waived; the most obvious example is if a partner is terminally ill. When partners have the interview waived or deferred, they will be treated as having met the requirement—until, if the interview is deferred, such time as may be appropriate for him or her to take part in an interview.
The specified benefits to which the regulations will apply are jobseeker's allowance, which is income based, income support, incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance and carer's allowance. Those are the main benefits payable to people of working age. The Committee will note that joint claim jobseeker's allowance is specifically excluded from the list of benefits to which the regulations apply. Both members of a couple in receipt of joint claim jobseeker's allowance are already subject to a requirement to be available for and actively to seek work, so do not need to be covered.
I would also like to make it clear to the Committee that partners of recipients of incapacity benefit or severe disablement allowance will also be invited for interview, even though they may not ordinarily be able to undertake any work because of their caring responsibilities.
The overall concept of the work-focused interview is to provide partners with the opportunity to discuss their situation and aspirations, and is based on treating everyone as individuals rather than according to the client group into which they have been placed. We therefore think it right that people take part in interviews with a personal adviser, and are made aware of the help that is on offer. The regulations will ensure that as many partners as possible are aware of, and benefit from, the opportunities on offer. Therefore, when a benefit recipient is entitled to an increase in benefit for more than one partner, in the case of a polygamous marriage, each of the partners will be required to take part in a work-focused interview.
In order to provide a high level of customer service and to avoid administrative burdens, we have ensured that, where the benefit recipient is entitled to a number of specified benefits at the same time, the partner will be required to take part in only one interview, not separate interviews for each benefit. We have also
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provided flexibility for an interview to be conducted in a location other than in a Jobcentre Plus office, including the arrangement of home visits in cases in which partners cannot be reasonably expected to visit an office. That will apply in particular to situations involving female partners from certain ethnic backgrounds.
I now turn to taking part in the interview and to good cause. The interview should be a meaningful two-way discussion between the partner and the personal adviser. Advisers are trained to provide information and advice and, by taking account of individuals' circumstances, will help partners explore ways in which they can overcome barriers to work and move closer to the labour market. In return, partners will be required to participate actively in the interview.
Both the partner and those who conduct the interview will need to be clear about the criteria to be used in judging whether a person has actually taken part in an interview. The test of whether partners have taken part will be whether they attend at the time and place specified, and whether they provide information in areas relevant to their employment prospects, such as their educational qualifications, their previous work history, and any barriers to work that they face. I reiterate that nobody will be required to do anything more than to take part in an interview.