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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Jobseeker’s Allowance (Jobseeker Mandatory Activity) Pilot Regulations 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Alexander, Danny (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD)
Cable, Dr. Vincent (Twickenham) (LD)
Clapham, Mr. Michael (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)
Crausby, Mr. David (Bolton, North-East) (Lab)
Efford, Clive (Eltham) (Lab)
Greenway, Mr. John (Ryedale) (Con)
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)
Heppell, Mr. John (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Keeley, Barbara (Worsley) (Lab)
Key, Robert (Salisbury) (Con)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
Pelling, Mr. Andrew (Croydon, Central) (Con)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Vaz, Keith (Leicester, East) (Lab)
Vis, Dr. Rudi (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 26 March 2007

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft Jobseeker’s Allowance (Jobseeker Mandatory Activity) Pilot Regulations 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Jobseeker’s Allowance (Jobseeker Mandatory Activity) Pilot Regulations 2007.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this spring afternoon, Mr. Atkinson, and I welcome the opportunity to introduce this debate. The regulations use the power contained in section 29 of the Jobseekers Act 1995, which enables regulations to be made in order to pilot changes, but limits the duration of such regulations to 12 months. At the end of that period, the regulations may be replaced, if appropriate, by similar provisions that extend for a further 12 months.
I introduced the pilot scheme in Committee on 7 December 2005 by way of the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Jobseeker Mandatory Activity) Pilot Regulations 2005. At that time, I indicated that the pilot would last for two years commencing in April 2006, and that it would be necessary to submit further regulations to enable the pilot to be completed. That is why the regulations are before us today; they will enable the pilot to continue as planned for the further 12-month period.
The need for and objectives of the pilot remain unchanged since the Committee considered and endorsed the previous regulations in December 2005. Most jobseekers find work in well under six months. However, research evidence suggests that self-confidence and the drive to find work begin to tail off sharply for jobseekers who are still without work after six months. The new deal programmes that have been so beneficial in helping many people to move into work assist mainly those who have been out of work for more than 18 months. The present pilot is intended to test whether an earlier intervention—at the six-month stage for jobseekers aged 25 and over—would prove beneficial and increase the flow of jobseekers into work.
The pilot provides two main activities for jobseekers who have been claiming benefit and seeking work for more than six months. The first is a three-day motivational course delivered by external organisations under contract to the Department for Work and Pensions. The course focuses on examining job aspirations and motivation, and emphasises rights and responsibilities. It focuses also on finding routes into work and on job-search skills. All jobseekers leave the course with an action plan that is focused on their ongoing commitment to gaining employment. The second activity consists of three follow-up interviews that are carried out by Jobcentre Plus personal advisers in their offices. The advisers encourage jobseekers to use their agreed action plans to focus their activity on seeking work.
I understand that, after a period of out of work, some jobseekers might be concerned about their ability to adjust to new types of work, working practices or working environments. It is therefore important that all eligible jobseekers take this opportunity to avail themselves of the practical assistance that is available to them through the pilot. The regulations therefore make it mandatory for eligible jobseekers to participate in the programme provided for them. A one-week sanction is applied for each failure to attend either the course or any of the three follow-up interviews. A one-week sanction is considered appropriate to the short duration of the pilot programme, rather than the longer sanctions for non-attendance that apply to other parts of the new deal programme. Safeguards are already in place to ensure that those who have good cause for failing to participate are not sanctioned. Jobseekers will have the standard right to reconsideration of and appeal against any sanction decision.
The pilot has now operated for a little less than one year. It is important that we do not terminate it prematurely, before we have sufficient data to make well founded judgments about its success or otherwise, and there are not sufficient data yet. Detailed evaluation, both qualitative and quantitative, continues. We expect to publish a report of the qualitative evaluation in July 2008, following publication of the report covering quantitative evaluation, which we anticipate will be ready in the months before then. The results of the pilot will be used to inform future policy development and any decision on whether such activity is of sufficient value to justify its introduction nationally.
Initial qualitative evaluation evidence suggests the following. Jobseekers have most valued the practical support provided to them during the three-day courses. That has included help with writing their CVs, preparing for interviews and writing application letters. Many jobseekers feel that the action plans have helped to increase their self-confidence and have improved their motivation to find work. Our planned quantitative evaluation will identify appropriate comparison groups to the pilot areas and compare the off-flow rates of the pilot and control groups. We shall focus on the immediate destinations of claimants after they leave benefit.
The pilot utilises resources in both the public and private sectors to ensure that jobseekers are provided with high-quality assistance to help them find work. That is an example of the Government’s determination to develop the most effective manner of delivering public services. We have consulted the Social Security Advisory Committee regarding the draft regulations, and it advised that it did not wish to have them formally referred. I am also satisfied that the regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights.
I hope that I have been able to explain clearly the purpose and scope of the regulations. They will enable an important pilot to continue to its conclusion and facilitate a full evaluation thereafter. On those grounds, I commend them to the Committee.
4.37 pm
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair on this fine, early spring afternoon, Mr. Atkinson. I also thank the Minister for his introductory remarks.
It is slightly odd that the Committee is being asked to grant another year’s running time for the pilot without any feedback at all on what has happened in the past year. We know from the acerbic probing of my noble Friend Lord Skelmersdale and the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman when the draft regulations were taken through another place on 15 March that some 16,000 people have been through the JMA pilots in the 10 areas to which the Minister referred. We also know from the report of that Committee in the Lords that 111 sanctions have been applied. We can therefore see straight away that a pretty small number of sanctions have been applied, as a percentage of the total number of people who have been through the course. I have no problem at all with a regime of sanctions. Where the state is paying someone money and trying to help them get back into work, an element of sanction is fine in respect of the balance of rights and the responsibilities of the state in its relationship with the citizen, provided that it is applied sensitively and intelligently, and focuses on the individual needs of the jobseeker concerned.
I have a number of general questions to which I should be grateful for a response from the Minister. In a sense, the whole policy debate has moved on a little since the pilot scheme was introduced in December 2005, particularly given the report of David Freud’s review, on which the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a statement to the House earlier this month. My first question for the Minister is: why is this type of work not being done on day one? Why are we waiting six months? He has told us that the data show that six months is the point at which the off-flow from JSA begins to plateau and people appear not to find work so easily. However, page 127 of the Leitch review, which reported in December last year, states:
“Around two thirds of all JSA claims each year are repeat claims”.
The Secretary of State, too, has told us in the House that the Department intends to focus more specifically on trying to help people to stay in jobs. It is a waste of everyone’s time if there is churn whereby people go into a job for two or three months, lose their employment and re-present as a JSA claimant. It is disillusioning for the worker concerned and causes extra work and administration for the Department.
In relation to that churn and the six-month start date, why is the Department not looking at those people on day one to assess some of their basic skills needs? It seems perverse that the Department can pay JSA for six months without being aware before the end of that period that the person perhaps cannot read or add up to a sufficient level to hold down a job. That person might be getting a job for a few months, losing it and then re-presenting as a JSA claimant. I would be grateful if the Minister could address the point about churn and explain why we have the six-month wait, particularly if the Department is unaware of basic skills needs until then.
My second point relates to the content of the three-day courses. We know that quite a lot of money has been spent; in the Hansard from the other place, it is stated that it was about £3.5 million. Some 16,000 people have been through the courses, so roughly £220 is being spent on each person. That is a not inconsiderable sum at just under £80 or so a day for each person. Clearly, good and useful things are being taught, such as motivational technique, preparing CVs and interview technique, but my question returns to my earlier point about basic skills. Page 2 of the guidance notes issued to JSA districts speaks about training being provided, without being specific. Will it be possible to provide some basic skills training? Would that be identified during the three-day course, and could someone be helped—or start to be helped—with basic skills provision if that is what they lacked?
I want to press the Minister on whether a slightly more flexible approach could be tried in the remaining time for the pilot. We know from the guidance notes that JSA districts are looking ideally for groups of 12 people to go through the courses. Those 12 people might have vastly different needs. They might need help in different areas and there is a danger that what is appropriate for some people will not be appropriate for others, and therefore might not lead to the increase in motivation that the Department wants. What provision is there for flexibility? For example, could people be assessed at the start of the course, separated into different rooms and broken down into smaller groups of people with similar needs? That would be useful and would be along the lines that the Secretary of State suggested he wanted to follow when he responded to the question on his statement asked by the hon. Member for Twickenham. I refer to column 1292 of the Official Report of 5 March.
Lastly, it so happens that one of the pilots is taking place in my constituency; I spoke to someone at my local office about it a week or so ago and was kindly provided with a bit of briefing on what had happened so far in the Bedfordshire district. The briefing described the management of unco-operative and disruptive behaviour as a “key challenge”. I should be grateful if the Minister said a little about that; it may well relate to my earlier point about the need to break down groups of 12 or more to deal with individual issues. The preliminary evaluation also commented that there was reluctance to acknowledge weaknesses, especially in the presence of other men. We can all understand that. None of us likes to be shown up in front of our peers; that can be embarrassing or difficult.
4.46 pm
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I apologise for having missed the first couple of minutes of the Minister’s opening speech.
Like the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, I have no objection to the order or to the principle of sanctions that underlies it; they seem entirely right in principle. However, the issue centres on how the system has been administered. The hon. Gentleman made the two key points about flexibility and content, and was kind enough to refer to the question that I put to the Secretary of State following his statement on the Freud report. The Secretary of State invited me to write to him with case studies on how inflexibility and poor content are occurring in practice. I have done so, but it might be useful to go over one or two of the instances that illustrate the difference between aspirations at Government level and the often foolish insistence on procedure at local level, which effectively disqualifies much of the benefit of the programme.
My first case involves someone who came to see me a few weeks ago. She was a high-powered personal assistant who had been made redundant from her job in central London. She was trying to get back into the labour market and knew exactly what she needed to do. She had a perfectly professional CV and had to be a bit selective or she would not have had the salary to pay her housing costs. She was highly motivated and professionally organised.
The lady in question was sent on a mandatory course of the kind that we are discussing and came to me not because she wanted me to do anything but simply to remonstrate about the sheer waste of resources involved. She was put in a class, from which she got no benefit, with somebody from the building trade—an industry that does not use CVs; building sub-contractors operate through word of mouth and the use of skills. A couple of other people in the class did not speak a word of English and did not understand what was going on. Of course, the private providers were getting their fee from the Government, but the people on the course derived no benefit from it.
Andrew Selous: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the name of the training provider in his area? In mine, it is a company called Seetec. Is it the same as the one in his area? Perhaps we could compare notes on how training providers are coping.
Dr. Cable: I cannot confirm whether it is the same; in the absence of clear evidence, I shall not libel that company.
The second case was slightly different but illustrates the lack of flexibility in the system. A woman who had been unemployed for some time was trying to get back into the labour market by building up a portfolio of part-time jobs. She had signed on not to get JSA but to continue payment of her national insurance. She was told that to continue to qualify, she needed to go on a mandatory course. The problem was that she had already built up about eight to 10 hours of child-minding work, which she did part-time to get income. She was allowed to do so under benefit rules. She was told that she had to go on the course and said, “Well, there is a problem: how can I come on the course when I have responsibility to the parents of the children whom I look after part-time?” The answer was, “Sorry, you have to give up your child-minding work to attend the course. We cannot be flexible.” She also said to Jobcentre Plus, “If I am given a job interview, can I attend? I am keen to get out of the benefit trap and I just want to get back to work.” Again, the answer was, “You must give priority to the mandatory course over the job interview.” There is a basic lack of flexibility, and I do not know whether that is because of national regulation or local practice, but for many people the system is not working.
The third case was that of a woman who came to see me at my surgery on Friday evening last week. She, too, was a personal assistant with a good track record, and she had been out of the labour market for quite a long time because of a combination of redundancy, family breakdown and the usual difficulties that people can encounter. She is now desperately keen to get back into work, and she has a perfectly serviceable CV and knows exactly what she has to do. She realised that her problem was a lack of IT skills, so she asked Jobcentre Plus, “Can you help me improve my IT skills?” The answer was “No, we cannot help you with that. We will send you on the mandatory course.” That course was completely irrelevant to her needs. Jobcentre Plus said that it could not help her with the one thing that she needed but could not afford because she no longer had any savings—an IT course.
There are issues on flexibility and appropriateness, but they are not being signalled by the private providers, because they are receiving their payments. The only way in which such issues can be signalled is through frustrated members of the public. The fact that I have now encountered three such people in three weeks at my surgery suggests that, even in my area, which is by no means one of high unemployment, severe difficulties are being experienced.
I got a sense from the Secretary of State that he recognises that there is a problem. I am not entirely sure how we should get around it, but I suspect that we should allow freedom within the pilots for jobcentres to have a job adviser who can negotiate some flexibility with claimants. Jobcentres should be satisfied that jobseekers are making a genuine effort to find work and can qualify for benefit, but they should allow claimants to treat the mandatory courses flexibly and in a way that reflects calls on their time, whether for part-time work, interviews or whatever. We should build a bit less rigidity into the system. If that could be done, I think that the endeavour would prove successful and popular; without it, there is a danger of creating more problems than we are solving at a grass-roots level.
4.52 pm
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. However, I am about to break this afternoon’s happy consensus and good will, because I remember from when the Jobseekers Act 1995 went through the House that the regulations before us are not the kind of thing that the Act was thought to be about. Indeed, I would go further: what we have heard this afternoon shows us that we are considering a system that for some does not work at all, and for others is unavailable or inappropriate.
I shall concentrate on the schedule to the statutory instrument. My main problem—of course, I do not want to understate it too much—is that the system is unfair, unjust, divisive and arbitrary. It is unfair because the 1995 Act did not envisage that only some parts of the country would benefit from the Act and from schemes and regulations flowing from it. It is unjust, because things are fine for people lucky enough to live in one of the pilot areas, while people just over the border lose out completely. It is divisive because there is effectively a postcode lottery; depending on where people live they either get help or they do not. It is arbitrary because the schedule sets out an extraordinary list of places where the scheme is being tried, ranging from the leafy suburbs of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey and Sussex to very deprived areas elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
It is all right if one is the hon. Member for Twickenham or indeed my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire, who happen to have such schemes in their constituencies. However, the constituents of all those silent hon. Members here who have not yet spoken this afternoon—for example, the hon. Members for Bolton, North-East, for Jarrow, of all places, for Nottingham, East, for Finchley and Golders Green and for Barnsley, West and Penistone—will, like mine, receive no benefit whatever from the scheme. That is arbitrary, so I should like to ask the Minister on what basis the list in schedule was drawn up, because it is not in the spirit of the 1995 Act at all.
One could not claim that the scheme was poverty-focused. It clearly is not, if it focuses on employment-rich parts of the country. One could not say that it focused only on deprived wards, because it clearly does not. On the other hand, only last week I received a letter from a Minister pointing out that one of the most deprived wards in the country is in my constituency and offering Government assistance for the installation of cash machines, to make cash more available in dispersed communities in rural Wiltshire. Also, many of the constituencies that are not in the scheme have low density populations, high transport costs and, in dispersed rural areas, little public transport available. That is specifically what the regulations are supposed to address.
In addition, the Department has in many instances made matters hugely worse, such as in reorganising assistance to small business employers. The removal of Business Link from my constituency to Bristol, for example, is a move in exactly the opposite direction from what the policies are supposed to address, so I am very loth indeed to give the regulations a fair wind. It will have to be said that the Committee has considered them. As part of that consideration, I have sought to illustrate briefly that there is a big downside to the policies that the Government are pursuing. My constituents and those of other hon. Members present are the recipients of the downside of the 1995 Act and the regulations. Will the Minister therefore at least seek to justify the apparently arbitrarily choice of Jobcentre Plus areas that are to be the beneficiaries of the regulations?
I have an extremely high regard for the people who work in the jobcentres in my constituency. For more than a quarter of a century, they have built up expertise in dealing with precisely those difficult cases that the regulations are an attempt to address. I refer in particular to the mobile populations, otherwise known as the Travellers, who have made life hell for some of the jobcentre employees over the past 25 years. I have the highest regard for the people throughout the country who work in difficult jobcentres. When I was a Minister I visited them in north-west England—in Manchester and the towns round about, for example—and saw that they had to have armed protection. The new policy is to remove that and to make the offices open plan. I hope that that works, but those employees do frightening jobs for little money. I do not think that the regulations will help either the people working for Jobcentre Plus or the apparent beneficiaries, so I am deeply sceptical. However, at the end of the day, it will undeniably be true that the Committee has considered the regulations.
4.58 pm
Mr. Plaskitt: We were doing so well until we got to the hon. Member for Salisbury. I shall deal with his points first and then with the contributions of thehon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire and for Twickenham.
The 1995 Act specifically gives us the power to pilot, and that is what we are doing. I suggest to the hon. Member for Salisbury that a prudent way to proceed when we are looking to make further refinements and improvements in Jobcentre Plus or the new deal is, first of all, to pilot schemes. The prudent thing to do is to see what schemes are like in practice. In this case we chose to pilot the schemes in a variety of areas, ensuring as far as possible that that variety covered different types of employment area, to give a fairly thorough cross-section of the UK. That is why the project was not concentrated in areas that one might think of as areas of high unemployment. In some of the areas in the scheme, which are quite wide areas, there are pockets of unemployment, as I think mightbe the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency,with people experiencing quite lengthy periods of unemployment. Although an area might look leafy, as he might say, there could be found within it issues of long-term unemployment. It is as important to address problems in such places as it is elsewhere in the country, not withstanding the fact that overall long-term unemployment is a lot lower than before we started—thankfully.
A final reason for choosing the areas—this might help the hon. Gentleman, and it sits alongside the reason that I just gave—is that quite a lot of different pilots are running across Jobcentre Plus already. We want to share them around. Some of the areas suggested themselves because they were not operating others pilots on other reforms.
Robert Key: I am grateful to the Minister for the calm and measured way in which he is responding to my diatribe, but I should point out that, in spite of what he just said, this statutory instrument does not provide for a single pilot scheme in any of the counties of the south-west economic region or the Government office for the south-west—neither Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall nor Bristol. There is not one in the whole south-west.
Mr. Plaskitt: That might well be because we are running other pilots in that region and could not load this scheme on top of other pilots. Staff in Jobcentre Plus offices in the hon. Gentleman’s region might be undertaking other forums. I hope that he would agree, therefore, that there are sound reasons for taking the piloting approach. I tried to explain why the allocation is as it is. I hope that he accepts that when considering a change on this scale it is important to test the ground before rolling out a scheme nationally. I think that if we did not test it we would be subject to some poignant criticism.
I shall turn now to the points raised by the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire and for Twickenham. The former said that we are seeking from the Committee a renewal for the scheme on the basis of no feedback at all—I think that that is what he said. That is not quite accurate. In my opening speech, I indicated some such feedback, but I am happy to elaborate if he would like me to. As I think he will have learned in his own area, the provisional evaluation found that many respondents thought that the length of the course was about right, which is obviously encouraging.
We heard also from the feedback that the diversity within the groups is an issue, as the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned. That is precisely the sort of thing that we need to pick up from pilots before we consider rolling out the scheme, and I shall say a bit more about diversity within the groups in just a moment. The provisional evaluation found also that the practical support offered by the courses is valued by those attending them. We are getting confirmation that the action planning process gives many customers a sense of ownership of their plan, and so is improving their self-confidence and motivation.
At the moment, that evaluation is provisional, but it is encouraging and goes counter to some of the reservations that the hon. Member for Twickenham heard about in his constituency. Those need to be laid in the balance. I think that he cited the experiences of three constituents, as against all those who have been through the programme—about 17,500 to date and possibly as many as 70,000 by the time the two-year pilot is finished. There is bound to be a mix of experiences. Some will have had problems, but we have had encouraging results as well. However, we need the two years and a full evaluation—qualitive and quantitive—before learning from it and deciding on any scheme of this nature that could be rolled out nationally.
Andrew Selous: It would be helpful to the Committee if the Minister reflected on some of the individual case studies given by the hon. Member for Twickenham, who has the advantage over me; although I am lucky enough to have one of the pilots in my area, none of my constituents has come to tell me good or bad things about it. The hon. Gentleman raised some valid points, and I would hate to think that the scheme was merely going to chug on for the remainder of its second year without taking into account some of the points that have been raised at this halfway stage.
Mr. Plaskitt: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not do chugging. The point of checking things mid-term and doing the evaluation is to learn from the pilots. We certainly do not want to plough on regardless. We are heeding what we learn, and that is the point of the exercise. I shall say more in a moment about some of the things that we have found.
The hon. Gentleman went on to ask why we did not give such support earlier. In fact, we do. It is important to stress that claimants are given job advice as soon as they come forward to claim JSA. Their basic skills are assessed at the outset, they submit to a job-search review every two weeks and 13 weeks into the claim there is a more intensive review with an adviser to assess the individual’s position in respect of the benefit and their attempted job search.
Andrew Selous: I am grateful to the Minister, but I am having a little difficulty in reconciling what he has told the Committee with what Lord Leitch published in his report in December, in which he talks about
“a new programme to screen all benefit claimants for basic skills needs. This screening is currently done at the six month point of a claim.”
Can the Minister say a little more on the point about the churn? I am concerned that people who cannot read or count are getting jobs. He is right on that point. I think that the Department is worried about the dead-weight costs, but it should be part of the skills agenda, joining up with the Department for Education and Skills so that people are not in the system for six months when they could be helped sooner to read and to gain basic maths skills.
Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman is right. That is very much the point that is emphasised by Leitch. That is why we asked him to consider the issue. It is right to join up the services. I was merely trying to correct the impression that I thought the hon. Gentleman gave, which I understood to mean that there was nothing in the way of establishing the basic skills level of an applicant when they came forward for JSA. I do not think that that is accurate. That does not mean that more cannot be done, and that is the agenda that comes from Leitch. However, it is not true that nothing is done to assess the basic skills or job-search attributes that JSA claimants might need.
The hon. Gentleman went on to discuss the important issue of the content of the courses under the pilot. He made some fair points and asked some good questions. Of course, the individuals referred on to the courses have a great variety of background skills and aptitudes. One of the initial evaluation points that comes back to us from providers is that if the classes or sessions are done with large groups, the problem is how to pitch what is offered in a way that is suitable for someone who might have profound barriers to seeking work as well as someone who has high employability skills but other reasons for having been on JSA for a long time. Of course, that point is right; otherwise, it would be like trying to teach a mixed-age class of 50 students in a school. That would not be achievable.
The eight providers are approaching the issue in different ways; a mixed approach is being offered. That is good in a way because it will give us many different experiences from which to make the evaluations. There is not just one way. We are finding that providers that subdivide their groups to create much smaller sessions do better targeted work. One provider has subdivided down to groups of three; the training is not all being done in large groups as part of a one-size-fits-all offer.
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): How do the providers get paid? Do the clients pay them or is it contractual? Are contracts in certain areas different from those in other areas?
Mr. Plaskitt: The providers have a contract with us at the Department for Work and Pensions and are paid for each individual who completes the course at an average fee of about £200.
Dr. Vis: In view of what the hon. Member for Twickenham said, may I ask another question? If the providers are paid through a contract with the Department, are they inflexible or is what is being put to them inflexible?
Mr. Plaskitt: What we are putting to them is certainly not in any way inflexible. What we are aiming to achieve through the pilots is clear in the contract, which is drawn in such a way as to encourage providers to make different kinds of offers. We will learn more from piloting if we can consider different ways in which the training has been done. There is a clear objective and the structure is clear—there is a three-day course and a fortnightly follow-up interview. Everybody has to comply with that. However, there are different ways of training within the individual offers of the individual contractors—different skills sets and different approaches are used. Some providers do cognitive work with people and some do far more practical work based on job-search approaches. That is useful for us because we can measure the different responses to different ways of doing the programme and delivering the course.
That brings me to the points made by the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire and for Twickenham about the importance of flexibility. I am sure that after two years of piloting we shall know a great deal more about how much flexibility and tailoring we can build in so that we can achieve our objective of getting more people who would otherwise find it difficult to come off benefit and get into work to do so. A substantial degree of tailoring will be important.
Dr. Cable: I do not want to set the three individual cases that I mentioned against the sample of 17,000 or so that the Minister has; I want to talk about some of the systemic issues. Is it the demand of the Department or the individual providers that people must sacrifice job interviews or part-time work to attend a mandatory course? If so, what is the rationale?
Mr. Plaskitt: No, there would not be much sense in that arrangement and the course rules should be sufficiently flexible to allow an individual to attend a job interview.
I wanted to deal with a remaining point made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire about disruptive behaviour. That point also came up in the evaluations. Interestingly, however, we are hearing from the course providers that although they encounter such behaviour in some instances with some groups, there is not as much as they had expected. We know that such behaviour will be an issue with some of the groups that we are dealing with. That is anticipated. Obviously, when we considered the award of contracts, we were looking for what providers would offer to deal with and approach the problem. It is a tough part of the job that we ask them to do; hopefully, however, we have taken on providers who are skilled at handling such behaviour. The point about peer pressure has also come back from the initial evaluations.
I hope that I have dealt with the points that have been raised. I confirm that the evaluation done on the pilots is entirely independent of the Department, and it is important to us that that evaluation should be as thorough as possible. We are satisfied that the pilots are an important exercise and that they should continue. I hope that they will do so and that the regulations will be accepted. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Jobseeker’s Allowance (Jobseeker Mandatory Activity) Pilot Regulations 2007.
Committee rose at a quarter past Five o’clock.

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