House of Commons
|Session 2008 - 09|
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Public Bill Committee Debates
Draft Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee
Thursday 30 October 2008
[Robert Key in the Chair]
Draft Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008.
Mr. Key, I am sure that as we move into our discussion, the Minister, who has just arrived, will catch your eye and give a far better explanation of the regulations than I could.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I apologise for not being in my place to move the motion. I was misadvised as to the start time.
It is a requirement that I confirm to the Committee that the provisions are compatible with the European convention on human rights, and I am happy to do so.
The purpose of the regulations is to implement new arrangements for lone parents with older children, who can currently claim income support solely on the grounds of being a lone parent. Instead of continuing to receive income support until their youngest child turns 16, those who are able to undertake paid work may claim jobseekers allowance when their youngest child reaches seven. They will be required, with support and assistance, to look for paid work appropriate to their situation.
The measures are consistent with the Governments approach that people should make full use of the support available to them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. On that basis, the Government are committed to the principle that once their children are older, lone parents claiming benefits should be expected to look for paid work if they are able to do so.
The regulations are intended to help lone parents to move into paid employment. The Government believe that the measures are a balance between providing financial and other assistance to support families and fulfilling our wider responsibilities to lift individuals and children out of poverty. The Government consulted widely on the regulations and, after careful consideration of the views received as well as those of the Social Security Advisory Committee, decided to lay the proposed legislation before Parliament, with clear provisions and safeguards to ensure that vulnerable lone parents are protected.
To ensure a smooth transition for both lone parents and Jobcentre Plus, the changes will be phased in, starting first with lone parents with older children.
To ensure that the welfare of children is not compromised by the change, the regulations also make lone parents a vulnerable group, so the jobseekers allowance hardship regime may apply in certain circumstances. We are also aware that due to health issues, a number of lone parents have a limited capacity to work and are better suited for ESA than for JSA. To support lone parents in those circumstances, we have included amendments to the ESA regulations to allow eligible claimants to receive the work-related activity component from the start of their claim.
The regulations also include transitional protection for lone parents who receive income support and are students undertaking a full-time course of training on the new deal for lone parents or an approved scheme that meets the objectives of the new deal for lone parents. We propose that lone parents in those circumstances will remain entitled to income support until their youngest child reaches the relevant age in force at the time that they commenced their studies.
Currently, lone parents claiming income support are required to attend a work-focused interview at six-month intervals. To provide the necessary opportunities to prepare and support lone parents for the change in their last year of eligibility for income support, the regulations introduce mandatory quarterly work-focused interviews.
The changes form part of the Governments ongoing package of welfare reform and our strategy to eradicate child poverty. In Budget 2008, the Government invested an extra £950 million in measures to continue to tackle child poverty. More than a third of children living in lone-parent households are living in poverty, as are 58 per cent. of children who live in workless lone-parent households. Crucially, that figure decreases to 19 per cent. when the lone parent works part time, and to 7 per cent. if the lone parent works full time.
The Government believe that the regulations create the right balance between providing financial and other assistance to support families and our wider responsibilities to lift individuals, families and children out of poverty. To delay implementation, as some have suggested, would mean that lone parents who can undertake paid work will not take up the assistance that is available to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Of course, in addition to the financial return, paid work provides far-reaching social, health and personal benefits for both the lone parent and the children in the household. The regulations are intended to open up the opportunities of paid work to more lone parents and to support them and their families to have a better standard of living.
We know that some of our customers face greater barriers to obtaining paid work than others, especially parents who may have extra challenges because of their childrens needs. In recognition of that, the Government have provided extra support to lone parents to assist them to find and keep a job, and to progress once they
In-work credit is now available nationally to help lone parents to make the transition into employment, as well as help sustainability and progression in work. That is an additional payment of £40 a week, or £60 in London, for 52 weeks, to lone parents who leave benefits for work of at least 16 hours a week. Lone parents are also able to access help when they are settling into their job. Jobcentre Plus can provide financial help to overcome any unexpected financial barriers that might otherwise prevent a lone parent from remaining in paid work. Lone parents can also access in-work advisory support, which is provided by Jobcentre Plus advisers, to help to resolve any difficulties and to guide individuals towards any support needed, such as skills and training.
Some stakeholders have rightly raised concerns about the availability of child care. We have substantially improved child care options for working families: more than £3.5 million a day supports lower and middle-income families with their child care costs through the tax credit system, and we have more than doubled the availability of child care provision in England since 1997, with the stock approaching 1.3 million places. As this is a devolved matter, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have in place child care plans that aim to extend access to high-quality, affordable and flexible child care.
The Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on local authorities in England and Wales to secure, as far as is reasonably practicable, sufficient child care to meet the requirements of parents in their area who require child care in order to work or to undertake training or education to prepare for work. A key element of that in England will be extended schools, which will offer affordable, school-based child care on weekdays between 8 am and 6 pm, all year round. I am advised that more than 14,230 schools already offer the core extended services.
We recognise that lone parents who do not have the support of a full-time partner may require extra help in balancing the needs of their families and looking for paid work. The regulations give Jobcentre Plus staff additional flexibility to help and support lone parents who are actively seeking work in what are often challenging circumstances. Importantly, Jobcentre Plus staff must consider whether it is unreasonable for the person to stay in or take up a job because appropriate, affordable child care is not available.
Clearly, the current global economic climate means that we are going to be facing challenging times. It is important, in my view, that we do not repeat the mistakes of previous slowdowns and allow people to slip into long-term inactivity. That is bad for the individual and their families, and it traps people into a lifestyle of dependence and, often, poverty. The labour market is dynamic, with millions of moves between employment and unemployment every year. Job opportunities will continue to become availablethere are about 600,000 job vacancies in the economy according to the latest published statistics. Our active labour market policies,
I firmly believe that the regulations will result in more people obtaining a better life for themselves and their families, and that they will lift more children out of poverty. They will ensure that the right help and support are available for lone-parent customers who can do paid work but who often face challenges to their efforts to do so. At the same time, we will ensure that the customers for whom work is not an option are supported in the way that best suits their circumstances. The additional flexibilities in relation to jobseekers allowance in the regulations, along with the operational safeguards and Jobcentre Plus guidance and training, offer the best protection for the most vulnerable. I therefore commend the regulations to the Committee.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Key. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I also welcome the Minister.
As the hon. Lady said, the regulations are of some significance. We need to bear in mind the fact that they will affect hundreds of thousands of lone parents in receipt of income support. They have, among other matters, been the subject of consultation and a detailed report by the Social Security Advisory Committee. I shall raise a number of points that were made in that committees important report.
The Conservatives have a number of questions about the regulations, but let me make it clear at the outset that we share the objective of getting lone parents into work. I shall say this gently: we have proposed our own ideas in this area, and we are pleased when the Government follow them. I pay particular tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). We, too, accept that it is desirable, from the point of view of both the parent and the child or children, that the parent should get into work if possible. We accept the case that has been made that there is a lower incidence of poverty in lone-parent families where the parent is in full-time or part-time work than in families where the parent is workless.
The rationale for the changes is set out in the explanatory memorandum for the SSAC from the Department for Work and Pensions, although the figures given there are somewhat different from those given by the Minister. She said that 19 per cent. of children in lone-parent households in which the lone parent works part time are living in poverty, whereas the explanatory memorandum puts the figure at 17 per cent. She said that 55 per cent. of children in workless lone-parent households are living in poverty, whereas the explanatory memorandum puts it at 56 per cent. However, the important point is that there are far more children living in poverty in workless lone-parent households than there are in lone-parent households in which the parent is in full-time or part-time work, so we accept the rationale that has been given.
At the same time, we have questions to ask, because we want to ensure the welfare of children of lone parents in all respects. We want to promote good parenting, and it is important from the point of view of good parenting that we go into detailed questioning about the regulations.
We want the regulations to be reasonable in their application to lone parents. We note that the explanatory memorandum acknowledges that lone parents face unique and varied circumstances. It states:
To accommodate the small number of customers who require additional flexibility in specific circumstances, the proposed changes to Regulations allow for Jobcentre Plus to agree to additional flexibility for those parents who are treated under the existing JSA Regulations as being responsible for caring for a child who is part of their household or a close relative and who have genuine limitations around: reasonable prospects of getting a job; taking up and actively seeking employment; dealing with the impact of bereavement or domestic emergency; caring for their children who may be excluded from school or who have an outstanding parenting order or contract; and availability for employment.
Those are the criteria applied to parents in two-parent households under existing regulations. We are told that the same considerations will be borne in mind for lone parents, but what, if any, additional flexibility will there be in the case of lone parents? How much further will flexibility extend?
Lone parents, by the very nature of their parenting, sometimes face challenges that parents in two-parent households do not face. The list given is a reasonable list of the challenges that those parents face and the things that can happen in their lives. To take one example from it, will there be additional flexibility for a lone parent in dealing with bereavement or domestic emergency over and beyond the flexibility that is shown to other JSA recipients in two-parent families? We know that dealing with bereavement was one of the issues highlighted in the responses to the Social Security Advisory Committee. It was felt that it was particularly important that the needs of the child should be met in such circumstances.
The responses to the SSAC highlighted other circumstances that arise in the lives of children and families that can be of particular importance in families with lone parents. They include bullying, family breakdown, the breakdown of informal supportone thinks particularly of grandparents who offer informal support, as well as other friends and relativesand sickness. Those circumstances and probably many others affect lone parents particularly. When those effects are felt in their lives, the needs of the child are important, and I would like the Minister to say how much extra flexibility there will be in such cases for lone parents.
Availability of child care is also important. We heard what the Minister had to say about that and we note what the explanatory memorandum says. We are told in paragraphs 4.37 and 4.38 that the onus is put on parents to identify appropriate child care. We are told that
where a parent considers that he or she cannot take up a job to which they are referred by a Jobcentre Plus Adviser because appropriate childcare is not available, a Jobcentre Plus Decision Maker will consider, on a case by case basis, whether the steps the parent has taken and the reasons they do not want to use available services are reasonable.
We are told, in effect, that when a parent says the child care is not appropriate, there will be a referral to a Jobcentre Plus decision maker, who will sit in judgment on the parent and decide whether their approach is reasonable.
We should like to be given an idea today of the principles that will guide what we are told is the case-by-case decision making that will happen. It is all very well to be
We are told in the Governments response to the Social Security Advisory Committee that there will be additional training and guidance for personal advisors and decision makers on this very subject, and that they will have
specific learning on how the additional JSA flexibilities and decision-making relating to lone parents who do not consider they have access to appropriate and affordable childcare should be applied.
In the same vein as before, I ask the Minister to set out those additional jobseekers JSA flexibilities that will be applied in the case of lone parents. Can she give an idea of the instructions that are to be given to JSA advisers, who will deal with those parents on a regular basis, and to the decision makers, who will make decisions on matters referred to them by advisers? Child care is an important subject and the welfare of lone parents and their children in that respect should be ensured as far as possible.
I want to press the Minister on some other issues specifically identified by the SSAC. First, home education is important to a number of people. There is obviously a tension between the requirement that a lone parent should work and the home education that a lone parent provides. Those parents are of course in receipt of income support and would be moved in the same way as other parents. How many lone parents fall into that category? What principles will be applied throughout the system in dealing with their cases? We are not told a great deal about that in the explanatory memorandum or the Governments response to the SSAC. I am sure that many lone parents who are home educating their children will want to hear more on that subject from the Government. Having taken the important decision to educate their children at home, they will want to know what principles will be applied in their cases and what requirements will be placed on them, and how such conditions might affect the home education of their children.
The SSAC said:
The planned process for benefit alignment also raised concerns.
In their response to the SSAC, the Government appear to defend the use of lone parent transition loans under the social fund provisions as a way of aligning benefits when there is a gap between the benefit that has been received on income support and the benefit that will be received under jobseekers allowance. That strikes me as discordant. By its nature, the social fund is an emergency fund, and it seems a little strange for lone parents to be required to have access to a social fund in some circumstances. Will the Minister tell us exactly how that situation might arise for lone parentsthe Government seem to envisage it themselves in their response to the SSACand will she say whether the Government expect lone parents to take out such loans?
To put it simply, does the Minister think that it is a good idea for lone parents to be put into debt as part and parcel of the system that the Government envisage? We must remember that we are talking about people who are in receipt of social security benefits and for
Will the Minister say a little more about cases involving children for whom disability living allowance is paid at the lower level? In her opening remarks, she adverted to the case of children for whom disability living allowance is paid at the higher and middle ratestheir parents will be exempt from the system and will be able to remain on income support without being subject to the JSA regime and its additional requirements. However, that is not the case for parents of children for whom disability living allowance is paid at the lower level. Will she say more about the justification for that? Will she also give us some idea of the number of children who will be involved and whether there will be any additional flexibility in the system for lone parents of children for whom disability living allowance is paid at the lower level?
Will the Minister say a little about the anomaly noted by the SSAC in relation to children who are fostered and then adopted. In her remarks the hon. Lady adverted to the case of children who are being fosteredin such cases there is an exemption and the parents of those children will remain on income support. However, once a foster child is adopted by a lone parent, the exemption ceases, and the lone parent must either claim JSA or ESA. The SSAC notes that
the familys circumstances would not have changed materially with the change of status from fostering to adoption.
Will the Minister give us her reflections on what the SSAC, in its wisdom and experience, felt to be an anomaly in the regulations?
Finally, there is the question of the application of the regulations outside England. The SSAC notes that
for Wales, and to a greater extent, Scotland, these proposals may interact with child care arrangements that differ from the prevailing model for England, and we have some concerns that the proposed new arrangements may not operate consistently and equably across GB as a consequence.
How does the Minister respond to that?
I am sorry to bombard the Minister with a number of detailed questions. I appreciate the fact that she is taking a careful note of them and I look forward to her response. However, I say once again that the new system will affect many hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who are lone parents. The rationale for the policy change is good, but inevitably with such regulations, a number of important questions must be answered about their implementation. The Government must show flexibility and consideration for those families.
Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): Like the Conservative spokesman, the Liberal Democrats have a number of concerns about how the proposals will be implemented, although we welcome the broad approach. We have said for a long time that it would benefit a
However, as both the Minister and the hon. Member for Hertsmere said, the Social Security Advisory Committee issued a report on the measures, and the Government have not taken up a number of its recommendations. Like the hon. Gentleman, we have concerns about some of the issues highlighted by the SSAC that we believe have not been taken fully into account.
One thing worth flagging up at the start is that the lone parent employment rate in the UK is very low compared with a lot of similar countries. It is about 20 per cent. lower here than in Denmark, 15 per cent. lower than in France, and so on. There is clearly potential for more people, with the right support, to find work. However, thousands of families may suffer under the proposals.
The first problem relates to the economy and the labour market, which the Minister mentioned in her opening remarks. Unemployment is rising faster now than at any time since the early 1990s, and the claimant count is expected to hit 1 million by the end of this year; at the same time, vacancy rates are falling dramatically. So far, the conditions have hit lone parents harder: the number of workless lone-parent households has risen faster and the employment rate of lone parents has dropped faster than almost any other group in the economy. It is clear that lone parents are being affected more seriously than many others.
In their response to the SSAC report, the Government say that from 2013 onwards, they expect
an increase in the number of lone parents in work of between 75,000 to 100,000
about a third of those who fall into the category that we are discussing. Will the Minister clarify the time frame? From 2013 onwards is vague, to put it politely. It is very open-ended. What estimates does the Department have of the numbers involved over what period, and how many lone parents does it expect to be employed as a result of the changes in each of the next few years? That would give us a better idea of what is expected.
Given the contracting labour market and the fact that lone parents are being affected worse than other groups, far fewer jobs are likely to be available to lone parents specifically than when the Departments original estimates were made. Will the Minister clarify whether the current economic circumstances have been taken into account and whether some of the estimates have been revised to give a clear picture of the Governments expectations?
Many lone parents will have been out of work for a long time and have low skills levels, and lone parents have a much greater need for flexible working, so they are in a difficult position in a contracting labour market. What estimate has the Department made of the types of job that lone parents will find? How many lone parents does the Minister expect will find jobs with reasonable prospects and opportunities for promotion and personal development, and what proportion are likely to go into low-paid work with few prospects?
The Minister mentioned in her opening remarks that lone parents who are already in full-time training will be able to continue on income support until they have finished it. However, I understand that that will not be the case for new cases of people going on to the JSA regime who are not already in full-time training. One problem for a lot of lone parents, especially those who have been out of work for a long time, is that they have quite low skills levels and greater need of training to bring them up to date, so that they are able to compete in the job market. What impact will the fact that people are not able to take advantage of full-time training opportunities under the new regime have on their ability to get the better-paid jobs rather than those at the bottom of the labour market? What estimates has the Department made of the number of people who are likely to be affected by that problem? Currently, they would probably go into full-time education or training, but they will not be allowed to do so under the new regime.
The worrying issue of sanctioning was raised by the hon. Member for Hertsmere. A lot of research shows that sanctioning is far less effective at helping lone parents to get into employment than early and tailored support for individuals. The Departments own research shows that the current sanctions regime has had a negligible effect on helping lone parents, and SSAC research tells us that the sanctions regime is confusing for both claimants and personal advisers. Clearly, it is welcome that measures in the regulations allow Jobcentre Plus advisers to give consideration to the specific needs of lone parents when deciding whether to employ sanctions, so they can take into account whether someone has good cause to refuse a job, fail to carry out a jobseeker direction, or leave employment. However, if sanctions are put in place, they could be disastrous for a family or for the welfare of a child.
The sanctions, as I understand it, could be of up to 40 per cent. of JSA, which could have a significant impact in terms of hardship. Will the Minister clarify what is being done to monitor the impact of the proposals on child poverty and reassure us that if there is any evidence of negative impact on children, however small a number, the measure will be reconsidered? Clearly, it is in no ones interest to increase levels of child poverty in this country. Although the proposals overall are designed to tackle that problem, sanctioning could end up worsening the situation for some families.
Child care is clearly crucial for lone parents affected by the regulations. There is a lack of appropriate and, specifically, affordable child care in large parts of the country. For a lot of parents, the child care element of tax credit does not cover full costs of child care. The Minister mentioned wraparound schools, but my understanding is that that policy will not be fully in place until 2010, which means that there will be a gap following the implementation of the regulations. I also understand that it applies specifically in England. I have been contacted by lone parents in Scotland who are concerned about the fact that there is not the same wraparound school care in Scotland. I appreciate that that is not the Ministers responsibility, but there are clearly interrelations between the regulations and the child care provision that is available throughout the UK.
I would be grateful if the Minister told us what is being done to ensure wide availability of child care for older children, for whom care is difficult to access, and especially for disabled children. In the latter case, there is a great need, but care tends to be much more expensive and harder to find. For parents of a disabled child, availability of child care could be a real problem.
I would also be grateful if the Minister provided clarification on in-work poverty. Given that the cost of child care is very high and that, in a contracting labour market, there is increasing pressure on wages, lone parents could have to make a pretty invidious decision. They might have to take a job that does not pay for child care, and there is a question about what Jobcentre Plus will accept as the reasonable cost of child care. That could push lone parents from out-of-work poverty to in-work poverty.
The Governments figures support that suggestion. The figures in the explanatory memorandum show that the Government expect 75,000 to 100,000 lone parents to get into work, but only 70,000 children to be lifted out of poverty. Clearly, there is a gap in those figures. Do the Government believe that some parents will go into work, but will remain in poverty or end up in poverty in work? Will the Minister confirm those estimates and clarify what she thinks will happen to these families? The suggestion that we are expecting them to move to in-work poverty, is very worrying.
For many lone parents, a key requirement to being able to consider going to work is flexible or potentially part-time working. Recent press reportsI believe they appeared last weekare worrying, because they suggest that the Government might review and decide not to implement the proposal to extend flexible working to parents with children under the age of 18 that was announced in the draft legislative programme. Will the Minister reassure us that that will not be the case and that those proposals will be brought forward in the next parliamentary Session? Such measures are a crucial part of helping lone parents get into work. To implement the punitive side but not the enabling side of the proposals could be damaging for a number of families.
I would be grateful if the Minister answered some questions about the capacity of Jobcentre Plus to implement the changes. The available figures on the number of parents who will transfer from income support to JSA are confusing. There seem to be a number of discrepancies in the figures that the Government have provided in the past few weeks. The impact assessment states that the initial impact from November onwards will be 1,677 new and repeat claims every month from those moving onto JSA, and 287 from those moving on to ESA. That is about 6,000 transfers before March 2009. However, a recent presentation by Jobcentre Plus to stakeholders indicated that, from November, between 2,000 and 3,000 new and repeat claimants would move per month. There is a big difference in the numbers being used and I would be grateful if the Minister made clear which figure is correct. Exactly how many people do the Government expect to move from income support to ESA and JSA each month?
The discrepancy in those figures suggests that the impact of the measures on Jobcentre Plus and its advisers is not clear. I tabled some parliamentary questions on the matter and the answers I received suggested that 110,000 people would be affected in the first year and
Will the Minister also confirm that the capacity to process the claims is definitely in place in Jobcentre Plus? That is a point of concern given that changes to the ESA are being brought in pretty much at the same timethere is only about a months difference between the introductions of the two measures. Clearly, a lot of welfare reform changes are being implemented at the same time and that will have an impact on Jobcentre Plus staff. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that has been taken into account and that the capacity is definitely there.
The training provided to Jobcentre Plus staff to prepare for the implementation of the measures was an issue raised by the Social Security Advisory Committee. Many people are concerned about the level of training and guidance available to personal advisersparticularly given the flexibility and discretion needed to enable personal advisers to work with lone parents. A response to a question I tabled in October suggested that, by the time these measures are introduced in November, less than half of Jobcentre Plus customer-facing staff will have been trained. That is very worrying: if many people will be moving on to the new regime, Jobcentre Plus staff must be adequately trained and supported. Will the Minister confirm whether one of the reasons why so many people are being transferred later in the year is that there has not been adequate training so far? Also, will she confirm when she expects all the customer-facing staff in Jobcentre Plus who need training to be trained in how to implement the measures?
There are several areas where training and guidance will be crucial in allowing personal advisers to exercise discretion. Several of them were picked up by the hon. Member for Hertsmere. On home education, I would be grateful if the Minister clarified whether Jobcentre Plus personal advisers will be able to take into account individual circumstances when deciding whether sanctions are appropriate, what activity is being undertaken by the parent and what job would be appropriate, given the particular circumstances of a parent educating at home.
Many other countries that have similar systems have a calming-down period, so that women who have suffered domestic violence are not automatically moved to a job-seeking regime but are allowed a breathing space on income support. Due to the particular circumstances of victims of domestic violence, it takes time before they are prepared and able to go into the work force. Will the Minister confirm that personal advisers will have the discretion and the training to be able to work with lone parents in that position?
Finally, I want to raise an issue that the hon. Member for Hertsmere raised, which is the use of the social fund as a mechanism for benefit alignment. I agree that that
There is evidence that the social fund is struggling at present with increasing demand. Crisis loans have gone up by 50 per cent. over the past two years, and clearance times are already rising. What is being done to ensure that the system can cope with a potentially large influx of lone parents coming on to the new regime. If the system does not work properly, it could be a disaster for them and their children. We are talking about particularly vulnerable families who need special care.
Overall, we support the proposed measure, but there are several questions about its implementation by both the Government and Jobcentre Plus staff. I would be grateful if the Minister provided clarification on those matters.
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