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Orders of the Day

Child Benefit Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Regulations made by the Treasury: qualifying courses

"(1)   Regulations made by the Treasury under section 142(2) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 and section 138(2) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 shall include provision that a person (who has not attained such age as is prescribed in the regulations) shall be a qualifying young person if he satisfies the condition that he is attending an unwaged training course of a description specified in a list published by the Treasury.

(2)   The Treasury, working with other Government Departments as required, shall ensure that reasonable steps are taken to publicise this list, to assist people in understanding the courses a person may attend whilst continuing to be a person in respect of whom another person may be entitled to child benefit.'.—[Mr. Francois.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.39 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Regulations made by the Treasury: qualifying training—

"(1)   Regulations made by the Treasury under section 142(2) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 and section 138(2) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 shall include provision that a person (who has not attained such age as is prescribed in the regulations) shall be a qualifying young person if he satisfies the following conditions—

(a)   that he is undertaking training of a description specified in the regulations that is not provided through a contract of employment, and

(b)   that the person responsible for the organisation of the training certifies in the manner prescribed by the regulations that the training can be expected to result in increased skills being acquired by the trainee.".

Mr. Francois: In speaking to these new clauses, I should reiterate our view that this is a brief but none the less important Bill. We examined it in Committee and explored a number of issues, including why the proposed age limits have been set as they have. We gave notice that we would want to pursue two particular issues on Report, both of which I intend to touch on this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) will then make some more general comments on Third Reading. Incidentally, when we reach that stage we hope to discuss an idea first suggested by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on Second Reading. We hope to hear more from him in due course—if he manages to return in time from a conference on pensions that he is attending. We shall see whether he manages to join us and to make that contribution.
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I turn to new clause 1. The Bill extends the payment of child benefit to the families of young people who are in unwaged training. In seeking to define the qualifying young people to whom the Bill will apply, the Government had two options. They could have included all unwaged trainees in the extended benefit qualification, or defined those who would qualify according to specific programmes of activity. They chose to use the second and narrower of the two approaches, even though it could exclude a number of people undertaking voluntary work or work experience. I shall say more about that in a few minutes' time when we reach new clause 2, but assuming for the moment that the Government remain committed to their present policy of defining entitlement by qualifying courses, it is important that as many people as possible understand exactly which courses will qualify for the extended payment of child benefit.

It is fair to say that there was near unanimity on Second Reading that the existing system of financial support for young people is already very complex. Indeed, the Government's own social exclusion unit, in a report from a few years ago entitled "Bridging the Gap" summarised the problem in these terms:

That broad area remains a live issue up to today. In fact, as recently as yesterday, in the context of educational courses available to young people, the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, said:

We tabled new clause 1 with that in mind. It requires the Government of the day to publish a specific list of the courses that will qualify in future for the extended payment of child benefit. In addition, the new clause requires the Treasury, working with other Departments, among which the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions spring readily to mind, to take reasonable steps to publicise the list to make it as obvious as possible which courses qualify.

I understand that the Government are already working on revised guidance notes for parents and advisers, in time for the scheduled roll-out in April 2006. In fairness, I welcome that, but given the relative confusion that currently exists in this area, we need something beyond it in order to get the message across more broadly. On that point, given that the overall advertising budget has expanded tremendously under the Government, could not just a little of it be diverted to the very practical purpose of helping to publicise the list of courses that will qualify under the Bill? That seems to me to be a more profitable way of spending some of the Government's advertising budget than having a 160-page supplement of public sector non-jobs in The Guardian once a week.
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The new clause should not just assist young people who are considering whether to undertake periods of unwaged training and trying to work out the financial implications of their choice but should be of material benefit to the organisations that work with them, such as Connexions, Barnardo's, Centrepoint, the Prince's Trust and others to whom young people look for advice in seeking to make their choices. I put down a marker on the matter in Committee and asked whether the Paymaster General would say more about it on Report. If the Bill is to have the desired effect, it is important that its provisions are clearly understood in what already amounts to a complicated field. I look forward to hearing what she has to say, before deciding whether to press the new clause to a Division.

New clause 2 relates to volunteering and the types of training that would not qualify for the extended payment of benefit under the Bill and the present draft regulations, but that might qualify in future if the regulations were to be amended. The Committee also touched on that matter, but our purpose in tabling the new clause for debate this afternoon is to expand the discussion and ascertain whether the Government are minded to be flexible about the subject.

The issue of extending the provisions of the Bill to encompass voluntary work or work experience has been raised by the Prince's Trust, among others. I paid tribute in Committee to the work of that organisation, and I do not intend to repeat all of that now. Suffice it to say that it does very good work in this area, which I hope the whole House will commend.

3.45 pm

I remind the House of the point made by the Prince's Trust in connection with this element of the Bill. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, it stated:

That seems to me to be a very reasonable and measured way to put a case.

In addition, Barnardo's raised the issue in its briefing note in connection with the Bill. It stated:

In Committee, we pressed the Government to provide some financial estimate, however broad, of the additional cost of extending measures to include those
3 Feb 2005 : Column 1050
additional categories of young people. We appreciate that some definition issues are involved, and that there are also problems arising from paucity of data, and we acknowledge that this is not an easy question to answer. Nevertheless, I specifically asked the Paymaster General if she might be able to provide us with such an estimate on Report.

In addition, I presume that there must have been some outline costings when the two alternative policy options were being considered—not least because this is, after all, a Treasury Bill. So what was the higher estimate, and therefore the additional cost, of widening the scope of the Bill? The House needs to know that estimate if it is minded to accept it. It would be rather odd if a Treasury Minister, of all people, were not able to answer such a financial question, so I hope that the Paymaster General will be able to enlighten us on the matter in a few minutes.

Although I am requesting further financial information about the implications of such a change, fairness demands that I point out that the Paymaster General indicated a willingness to consider the matter further. She will recall that she told the Committee:

This Bill is essentially an enabling measure whose details will be fleshed out in subsequent regulations that can be updated from time to time. It is not inconceivable that, at some future date, the Treasury of the day could change those regulations, away from the draft that exists already, to facilitate such an expansion. The Paymaster General has indicated already that her mind is not closed on this subject, so does she have anything further to add this afternoon? Have the Government considered the matter further between Standing Committee and Report?

We are unlikely to press new clause 2 to a Division, as it is largely intended to air the issue on behalf of certain voluntary groups that have made representations to us, but we seek to ascertain specific figures for the likely costs of any such change, if any Government of whatever colour considered making it in future. I would therefore be pleased to learn of anything further on the subject that the Paymaster General can add, bearing in mind her intimations in Committee only a couple of weeks ago.

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