Draft Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008

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Kitty Ussher: I am grateful for the cross-party support for the overall policy thrust, and I firmly believe that the regulations are the right way to proceed. Members will have noticed that I have an extremely long list of questions. The Opposition are right to have asked them, and, with your permission, Mr. Key, I shall attempt to answer as many as possible, in the order that they were asked.
On the apparent discrepancy between the figures that I used and those in the SSAC explanatory memorandum, my figures are correct—they are more up to date than the others. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hertsmere will be delighted to hear that.
The hon. Gentleman requested that I go into a little more detail about circumstances of exceptions and the additional protections that we are introducing for lone parents. I will run through those.
When a lone parent completes a Jobcentre Plus adviser agreement—the contract between the client and the Department for Work and Pensions—they will be able to restrict the hours of availability to 16 hours a week. Other claimants will not be able to do that. The period for taking a job is extended to 28 days if the parent can show that seven days is not reasonable—for example, they may need more time to arrange child care. The period for attending a job interview is extended to one week if the parent can show that 48 hours is not reasonable, presumably because of child care arrangements. Jobcentre Plus staff will also consider whether travel time to a job is reasonable, taking into account health and caring responsibilities, and will include any reasonable time required to drop off and pick up children from school or child care. That is an additional flexibility.
The hon. Gentleman asked what principles would guide Jobcentre Plus staff when assessing individual cases. The principle is one of reasonableness. We need not drill down further into that—a sensible person knows what is reasonable. It is right for the adviser to debate that with the claimant on a case-by-case basis. It is not for legislators to try to define reasonableness; it is a term commonly understood in law.
The Conservative and the Liberal Democrat spokespeople rightly raised the issue of home educators. That gives me an opportunity to clarify our views in that regard, which is important. We completely respect the right of parents to home educate their children; however, we do not pay for them to do so. They carry on receiving income support if they wish to home educate their children. When I say that we accept the right of parents to home educate their children, that is as long as the local authorities consider the education to be suitable. That was tested through the courts; the case was Phillips v. Brown in 1980. If the education is not suitable, the local authority has the power to issue a school attendance order, but none of that is relevant in this case. I am simply clarifying that we are not attempting to make it harder for lone parents to home educate their children if that is what they seek to do and the provision is suitable.
I see no reason why a parent of a child over seven cannot successfully home educate their child and work part time. It is not common sense to presume that just because a child is at home, they are being educated all the time; nor should one presume that just because a child is home educated, they are unable to be cared for or appropriately looked after in child care when they are not in their lessons at home. That is why the provision applies to home educators.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is something of an anomaly, albeit perhaps an understandable one, that individuals can receive income support when they are working—namely, home educating? If they are taking the home education of their children seriously, that is work, yet they are also drawing income support.
Kitty Ussher: Perhaps the logical conclusion to the direction that the hon. Member for Hertsmere is going in is that someone should be paying the parent to home educate their child. We do not think that appropriate, although we recognise the right of people to home educate their children. An important point, however, is that at the moment appropriate child care may not be available for the hours of the day when home educators seek it in order to be able to take the work that is available. We consider that there will be a feedback loop involving Jobcentre Plus, the child care partnership managers and the local authorities to ensure that suitable child care is available for everyone seeking work, including home educators. I hope that that will lead to local authorities considering what atypical hours of child care they might be able to provide.
Jenny Willott: Will the Minister clarify whether Jobcentre Plus advisers will be given the discretion to take into account the fact that a parent is home educating a child? When considering what would be a reasonable job for them to take, will advisers be able to take into account not just child care issues, but the fact that parents are spending time home educating?
Kitty Ussher: Yes, but advisers will also take into account the fact that home educators have more flexibility in the hours in which they educate their children. However, there is no attempt for Jobcentre Plus advisers to say to people that, because they have to work, they cannot home educate. That is absolutely not the intention of what we are doing. None the less, home educators obviously have some flexibility in the hours that they are teaching compared to other hours when the children are at home and that will be taken into account when a Jobcentre Plus adviser considers the jobs that are available and the working hours for those jobs.
The Conservative spokesman asked if we were encouraging more lone parents to get into debt. I absolutely refute the tone of those remarks, which I think is misleading. It is simply the case that income support is paid weekly in arrears, whereas JSA and ESA are paid fortnightly in arrears, so there is a slight transitional problem. However, the entitlement remains the same and there is not a gap in the way that people will receive their benefits. That is why Jobcentre Plus, anticipating that problem, will provide early advice on budgeting to everybody affected by the change, which we hope will solve most of the problems, because the amount of money received will not decrease. It may therefore be possible for people to make their own arrangements, so that the phasing of the payments does not cause them a problem.
Where people are not able to budget for what I would call a cash flow problem for a week, starting from next month phase 1 applicants will be able to apply, as hon. Members have said, for a lone parent transition loan. That will be organised through the crisis fund, because that is simply the easiest way to do it. However, it may be that people can pay the loan back a week later. We are talking about a cash flow problem, not a major debt.
The next relevant point is that the Department is quite rightly considering the periodicity of how people receive benefits, to ensure that it is not a disincentive for people to work and that it does not create extra complexity when people move between benefits and work, as is, of course, extremely common. This project will be implemented from April next year to cover the gap, and many more people will be affected by the wider project. People will be entitled to a one-off payment of 75 per cent. of their weekly benefits; that will be the case for all those people to whom this change applies. That money will then be repaid through the benefits system over 12 weeks, which is reasonable. The alternative would be potentially to leave people with a temporary hole in their finances. Our proposal is a sensible way forward.
Mr. Clappison: I think that many people on low incomes would feel that they got into debt as a result of cash flow problems. However, the concern that I want to express to the Minister is that the Government are designing a system that appears to envisage people getting into debt.
In their response to the Social Security Advisory Commission, the Government said:
“Jobcentre plus is developing arrangements to streamline the administration of the Lone Parent Transition Loan under the Social Fund provisions, so lone parents have quick access to the financial support for which they are eligible.”
The Minister has conceded that in her remarks, so I want to ask her if we cannot do a little better than a system that envisages lone parents getting into debt as a result of the change that the Government themselves are making to the system. Perhaps she can tell us whether the Government have any estimate of the number of lone parents who will take out social fund loans.
Kitty Ussher: We accept that there is a wider question about periodicity than the hon. Gentleman is raising, which is why an enormous amount of work will be carried out to change the system, starting from April 2009. However, I dispute the claim that we are encouraging people to get into debt.
Mr. Clappison: This is the design of the system.
Kitty Ussher: The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, says that we are designing the system inappropriately. We are where we are and we have decided to implement wider improvements to the way that benefits are paid in order to solve that problem. The problem is, in a sense, already in the process of being fixed.
It is simply a fact that income support is paid weekly and JSA and ESA are paid fortnightly. We are not encouraging people to get into debt; we are simply creating a mechanism to ensure that people do not automatically have a gap in payment for a week, on the presumption that, when they get the first two weeks of their JSA payment, they will be able to pay back the loan. That is extremely different from mounting up a debt through reckless decision making on the part of the individual, which the hon. Gentleman is implying we are trying to do.
Mr. Clappison: I am not implying that at all. I am implying that the people concerned will incur a debt as a result of the system that the Government are putting in place. Those people are on very low incomes and the Government should take that into consideration. We know from what has happened with tax credits that the problems that people get into when systems are designed to put them into debt can have long-lasting consequences. Surely the Government owe a duty to those people to try to prevent them from having to get into debt as a result of the system itself, rather than as a result of their own decisions?
Mr. Clappison: The Minister has been generous in giving way, but if she does not have the figures available today, perhaps she could write to me to state how many people the Government expect to have to take out social fund loans. The Government have obviously been planning for that to happen, so would she tell us how many people will fall into that position?
Kitty Ussher: I do not have those figures because cases will be considered individually, according to the circumstances. The general principle is that we are supporting people to make those changes, doing everything we can to ensure that that is made as easy as possible for the client, and supporting them to improve their family income both for their benefit and for their children’s.
Rob Marris: Is any interest charged on social fund loans?
Kitty Ussher: At present, no.
On the question about DLA paid at the lower level, the hon. Member for Hertsmere is right to say that the exemptions apply when DLA is paid for the child at the middle or higher rate component. That is not the case for the lower level simply in recognition of the fact that less support is required for such children. However, the crucial point is that the whole system depends upon appropriate child care being available, and the test of reasonableness is used when that is being discussed. If a child has a particular need owing to a disability or to other factors and appropriate child care is not available for them from the local authority, that would be considered a reasonable reason for being considered unavailable for work by the Jobcentre Plus adviser. We think that that will cover children on the lower level of DLA.
The hon. Gentleman asked about fostering versus adoption. The exemption for fostering does not apply to adoption simply in recognition of the fact that foster parents often, although not always, end up dealing with a relatively complex and chaotic situation of a child with complex needs. That might be for a short or long period of time, so we felt that it was not appropriate that the regime should apply to foster parents because of the variety of circumstances that could be presented. Adoption, by definition, is a long-term situation, and we think that it is right that the parents should be considered as though they were the natural parents of the child.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the effect of devolution on the policy. I am a supporter of devolution, but it follows that it is the responsibility of the devolved Administrations to make appropriate arrangements. Both the Scottish and Welsh Administrations have said that they do not anticipate any problems. If problems arise, it is for them to solve, and I am sure that the electorate in those nations will make their views clear.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central for the excellent points she raised. She asked precisely how many parents will move into work, over what time frame they will do so, and to what extent that will change in the changing economic circumstances. I am loth to put a precise figure on it, because this Government’s policies will have an important and extremely positive effect on the number of lone parents who are able to move into work and raise themselves and their families out of poverty, but it is not the only factor that will determine whether they end up in work. We think that it is a significant factor—indeed, external research suggests that about half of success in getting lone parents into employment is due specifically to the work done under the new deal for lone parents. However, the other half is due to external economic factors. The Government publish economic forecasts twice yearly, and they change, so I do not want today to put a specific figure on what the situation will be in 2013.
We have, however, estimated that the changes will help at least 75,000 extra lone parents into employment over five years. Lone parent employment has increased by 11.6 per cent. since 1997, or an extra 320,000 lone parents. The new deal for lone parents helped 500,000 lone parents into work, of whom 60 per cent. entered sustained employment. We feel that our policies could have a positive impact, but we will review the situation continuously as the measures are implemented.
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Prepared 3 December 2008