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

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Jenny Willott: The Government said in their response to the SSAC that from 2013 onwards, 75,000 to 100,000 lone parents would be helped into employment. Will the Minister clarify whether that means that those people will be in employment by 2013, or that they will be helped into employment after 2013?
Kitty Ussher: By is the correct answer, I think, but as I said, the numbers are sensitive to the wider economic climate. It is not a target; it is simply an estimate based on the economic assumptions at the time. However, we will evaluate it on an ongoing basis in real time as well as during the normal two-year period in which all Government policies are evaluated.
There is a general point to be made. We are in an economic downturn. Our choice as policy makers is whether to accept that it will all get much harder, put our hands up and not bother, or to say that now more than ever, we need to keep people as near as possible to the labour market so that they can take what opportunities are there. I strongly favour the latter, so that people will be ready when the climate improves, as it will, rather than having to start from scratch when greater opportunities become available. However, there are many opportunities in the economy at the moment.
The hon. Lady mentioned training under the new scheme. There are two points to make. First, we do not want to force people to leave training by introducing a new scheme. That is why transitional arrangements will apply to people already in training. She also said that it is surely a good thing for people entering the labour market to have skills training. We agree 100 per cent., and there are training routes through Jobcentre Plus and the new deal. As part of the conversation with the Jobcentre Plus adviser, it will be entirely appropriate for the lone parent to undertake a relevant training course without losing entitlement to benefits, as long as they can remain available for work as well. That is normal. It happens anyway, and it will continue to happen. If a lone parent decides to go into a full-time higher or further education course, funding will be available through the normal routes. They will continue to be eligible for that, and most colleges and universities can support parents who go into full-time education, according to their needs.
The hon. Lady rightly mentioned sanctions and queried whether they would increase child poverty. I want to make it absolutely clear that the reason why we are introducing the changes is that they will help us meet our ambitious child poverty targets. We are determined to do everything that we can to reach them. We think that an extra 70,000 children will be lifted out of poverty as a result of the regulations.
It may help the hon. Lady to know that our internal data show that under the current income support regime, only one in 20 lone parents subject to the work-focused interview regime are sanctioned each year. At the moment, engagement in work-focused interviews is required even for those on income support. Of those sanctioned, more than half go on to attend a work-focused interview within six months. We feel that on the whole, people will probably engage well and that the number of people sanctioned will be small.
Across the whole JSA regime, about half those who end up being sanctioned say that they wish that they had not got themselves into that situation and will not do it again. The overall number of those sanctioned is low. We feel that sanctions are necessary to ensure compliance. We are confident that only a small number of people will end up being sanctioned, and, when they are, there will be an exception for lone parents such that the hardship regime will apply. The sanction will never be more than 40 per cent. of what they originally received in benefits, so they will continue to receive 60 per cent. However, all the evidence shows that the measure will prompt an abrupt change in behaviour, which is, of course, what we want. If we had a regime without sanctions, it would lead to far greater non-compliance, and we would not be able to achieve our goal.
Jenny Willott: Will the Minister confirm the Department’s estimate of how many lone parents it expects to be sanctioned in the first five years? I know she said that currently under income support, the number is one in 20.
Kitty Ussher: We had two relevant figures that can be used to infer an answer. Among lone parents on income support, one in 20 does not comply with the requirement to attend an interview, but once they are nagged and the situation is explained to them, half of them turn up. As we have not introduced the policy yet, our only other relevant fact is the figure for all people—whether lone parents or not—on JSA. About 60 per cent. of all customers on JSA had their claim referred to a decision maker for an entitlement or sanction during 2006-07. Of those, about half were sanctioned, and of those who were sanctioned, most—three quarters—were sanctioned only once and said that they would not repeat the behaviour that led to the sanction. That makes me think that the sanctions policy works and has precisely the effect that it was supposed to. Obviously, we do not know the corresponding figures for lone parents, because the policy has not been implemented, but with all the safeguards that we have built in, we have no reason to think that there will be a greater number of sanctions imposed, which is precisely why we have built them in.
The hon. Lady mentioned extended schools, which are an extremely important part of the story. The policy will be fully implemented in 2010. That does not mean that there will be a problem in areas where school provision has not been fully extended but the JSA regime has been introduced for parents with children under the existing cut-off age, because if appropriate child care is not available, it will be reasonable for the Jobcentre Plus adviser to concede that the individual cannot take up the job under discussion. The reasonableness test will solve the problem if child care is not available. We want appropriate child care to be available, and, to sort out such problems, that is where the feedback loop, involving information sent between the child care partnership manager at Jobcentre Plus and the local authorities, will be crucial.
Some parents will end up in in-work poverty, but our firm belief is that the best route out of poverty is to be in a job and to progress to a good job—one’s wages will go up only is if one is in work and progresses to higher paid work—so we are using blunt instruments. However, it would not be reasonable to make somebody take up a job that would lead to them being worse off, and that is also part of the reasonableness test that Jobcentre Plus advisers will apply, using the better-off calculator—a proven tool—to make those decisions. So nobody should end up worse off and everybody will end up better off as a result of going into work.
The hon. Lady mentioned flexible working. Our policy on that is as it is. My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is rightly considering all the issues, but no decisions have been made.
The hon. Lady also wanted precise information on the policy’s phased implementation. From next month, for new and repeat claims, lone parents of children aged 12 or above will no longer be on income support—apart from the exceptions that we have already made, which will involve a small number of people because we are talking about new and repeat claims. The stock of lone parents with children aged 12 or older will start being migrated in phases from March 2009. There is to be a phased process rather than a cut-off date purely to ensure that we can cope with it and introduce it in a way that works. So, we will then start with parents of 14 and 15-year-olds and, by the end of 2009, we will have migrated parents of children who are 12 or over. The process will be implemented for the parents of children aged 10 and over from October 2009, and for the parents of children aged seven and over from October 2010. I hope that helps.
Jenny Willott: Will the Minister write to members of the Committee on this point? I understand what the phasing is in relation to categories, but I wanted to know specifically about numbers. Completely different figures have been given in the impact assessment, the Jobcentre Plus presentation and answers to parliamentary questions. The situation quite confused, so I should be grateful if the Minister wrote to us giving the accurate numbers.
Kitty Ussher: I should be happy to write. I can also say that 58,000 lone parents on income support have a youngest child aged 12 or over; 32,000 have a youngest child aged 11 or over; 36,000 have a youngest child aged 10 or over; 38,000 have a youngest child aged nine or over; and 83,000 have a youngest child aged seven or over. That may answer the question, but we will check the Hansard report and make sure that letters are written. I am happy to send a beautiful diagram showing how the phasing will be implemented, if that will help.
To answer the question whether Jobcentre Plus staff have been fully trained: yes, that is happening right now and they will be ready. I have every confidence that appropriate advice will be given. The hon. Lady’s point about domestic violence victims leaving home and becoming lone parents abruptly was a good one. Obviously, at that point the parent would, one presumes, put in an entirely new benefits claim and would be supported through the system in doing so. They would go on to the benefit to fit the rules appropriate to their circumstances, depending on the age of their children.
That is another example of how the system is designed to support people as they work out what changes they need to make in their lives in their own interest. The test of reasonableness will obviously apply. If someone does not know even where they are to live and what child care is available in their area, as one would assume would be the case in such circumstances, it is unreasonable for them to start a job the next day. I shall look into the question and if there is more that should be said about it I shall make sure that I write to the hon. Lady.
I am getting slightly hoarse, but I believe I have answered about 30 questions. I hope that the Committee will therefore approve the regulations.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008.
Committee rose at seven minutes past Ten o’clock.
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