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Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I am reluctant to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, given his expertise on the subject, but does he not agree, with his undoubted
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knowledge of the issues, that it would have been faintly ludicrous to reform something as complex as the British benefit system in one fell swoop?

Steve Webb: The hon. Lady is very gracious. What I am really saying is that I do not sense that there is a strategic road map, and incremental moves towards a carefully honed goal. It is more a case of a series of botched reform attempts that have come unstuck. The rhetoric has been the same all the way through, but it has been applied to half a dozen different policies. Even now, we are introducing great complexity into the system. What the Government call simplification means cutting the money for carers, maternity benefits and so on; that is what they mean by simplification. As the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee said, we are introducing employment benefits with multiple rates and multiple sets of eligibility criteria. As Citizens Advice has said, there will be a real chance of genuine official error and claimant error. Complexity has bedevilled the whole subject. What people really need to know is simply and straightforwardly where they stand.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The hon. Gentleman will know that I was on the Front Bench when he held one of his earlier Front-Bench positions. Does he not accept that one of the biggest problems in the past 10 years has been one particular person? People have produced what might be called comprehensive reform packages, but they were thrown out because the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, was intent on a very narrow form of change that made things intensely complex. That change narrowly targeted groups of people, which caused the whole system to shunt around. Now we are faced with another reform package, but the Prime Minister will not allow real benefit reform, which would change everything, to take place.

Steve Webb: Indeed, we have suffered from the curse of incrementalism. Earlier, a Minister was at the Dispatch Box talking about support for industry. He said something like, “We’ve had so many initiatives; we ought to get round to telling people what they are.” One gets that feeling with a lot of employment-related programmes. I was taken back when the Secretary of State spoke about complete maintenance disregards for child maintenance—something that I very much support. He must have been reading my maiden speech in this House, in which I called for that very thing. It has been a long time coming—11 years—but it is very welcome.

I want to give a somewhat philosophical perspective on the debate, because as the Child Poverty Action Group put it, the Bill is not so much skeletal as invertebrate. It is not entirely clear what powers the Government are giving themselves. What with the 384 regulations, I sense that we will have years’ worth of statutory instruments, and many happy hours upstairs on the Committee corridor. I wanted to try to take a strategic approach to the Bill.

To start on an issue on which we can make common cause, I agree with the Secretary of State about the clauses to do with empowering disabled people and giving them control over individual budgets. Broadly, I very much agree with that. We also support the language that he used in speaking of enablers, not carers; we support that change in the power relationship. There is
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just one concern that I want to register with him on that. Individual budgets cannot buy collective provision in quite the same way as collective budgets. For example, if a group of people are being provided for in a residential setting, and provision is made for them all en masse, it may not be tailored and personalised, but it is an awful lot cheaper than one person buying a package for themselves.

To give a simple example, there is a day centre in my constituency, and when I visited it, an outside person came to entertain, or give a talk to, 20 people, and it was economic to do that. When individuals have their own budgets, they cannot buy that shared provision in the same way. The danger is that what they can buy is less varied and of lower quality. I ask the Secretary of State to look at whether we lose something when individuals are solely in charge of individual budgets, and if we do, to consider how it might be replaced.

Miss Begg: A Liberal council in Aberdeen closed such a centre. If people had been given their individual budgets, they would have bought what that centre provided. The council in Aberdeen did not give them that opportunity.

Steve Webb: Obviously, I do not know what happened in Aberdeen, so I cannot comment, but my point would apply in the case that the hon. Member cites. It simply would not happen that the dozen or so individuals would co-ordinate everything carefully and organise something collectively. It is 10 times more difficult to do things that way. That is what I worry will be lost if we go down that avenue.

I have set out where we agree, but we Liberals are in profound disagreement with the Bill on the coercive power of the state and the extent to which it is to be used. I want to apply my point specifically to the provisions relating to people with drug problems. The Secretary of State envisages that people on benefits with a drug problem will be, shall we say, encouraged to go down certain paths—to have treatment and rehabilitation. I am sure that none of us would have any problem with that, but at the end of the line, if the person will not do what is proposed, the Government will take their money from them. The question is: what does the Secretary of State think that somebody with a drug addiction does when we take their money from them? What is the consequence?

The issue of what happens after the sanctions are applied was missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s entire speech. Of course we do not want to get to that point, but we absolutely, certainly will get to that point, particularly with the group of people that we are talking about. What happens next? We never get the answer to that question from the Government. What happens to a lone parent who is sanctioned and goes off benefit? They go off the welfare roll, so that is a tick in a box, but what happens to the mother and child? What happens to the person with a drug addiction who ends up off benefit?

John Mason: That issue is of particular concern to me, especially because of the children. What happens to the children? Do they suffer, and how does that tie in with child poverty?


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Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In my previous incarnations, when I have asked Departments about sanctions, they have said, “You don’t have to worry—we apply the sanction to the adult bit of the benefit only,” as if the household pot is ring-fenced. It is as if they assume that the children’s bit will go on being spent at the same rate, and the adult will not touch it. That is nonsense. Not only will the benefit claimant suffer, but so will the children. Our concern is not about the idea that we should encourage and stand alongside people, engage with them early and give them quality choices that have all too often been lacking. Our fundamental point of concern is the heavy-handed, stick approach, particularly when it is taken early in the process.

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): What the hon. Gentleman fails to see is that there are 100,000 drug addicts who are not on any programmes. Many of them have children. There is no compulsion on them. Their lives are often chaotic, and there is no order that requires them to take responsibility. One of the reasons why people in Edinburgh who work in the field—I will name them if I catch Mr. Deputy Speaker’s eye—support the measure, as do I, is that if there is a degree of compulsion, there is a chance that the drug addicts will get into parenting and other schemes. However, frankly, if their No. 1 priority is not keeping a roof over their children’s heads and giving their children a decent upbringing, their children would be better off in the hands of those who care more about them.

Steve Webb: These are profound issues that raise questions to do with drugs policy and other areas of policy. We have to ask ourselves why so many people are in that position in the first place, and whether coercion from the Department for Work and Pensions will get them on to programmes. How far have we tried supportive and effective medical intervention and the intervention of social services? If such programmes were resourced properly, we would not have the massive problem that the hon. Gentleman describes. The idea proposed is that we pick people up at the end, when it has all gone horribly wrong, and threaten to take their money away if they do not accept treatment. He described such people’s lives as chaotic. Someone who is chaotic might say, “I’ve got to go on a rehabilitation course” and fail to turn up three times out of four, because they are chaotic. The Secretary of State would then come along and say, “You haven’t attended your course; we’re taking your money away from you.” How does that help the situation?

James Purnell: Surely it is right to break the cycle, so that people take up treatment. We are asking people to come up with an action plan to do that, and to make their best efforts towards it. We recognise that coming off drugs is difficult, but it is right to say to people that in return for that support, they should get treatment. Many experts on the subject support that. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he opposes the policy? I would be very surprised if he genuinely thought that it was right to do so.

Steve Webb: I have grave reservations about the policy, and about the people who will implement it. The Bill assumes a person who is drug-dependent, as though
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that is a neatly defined category. Who will determine who is drug-dependent and falls within the scope of the relevant clause? Presumably they will be Jobcentre Plus staff, who, with the best will in the world, will not necessarily have the relevant specialist knowledge. Presumably such staff will have to be in every single jobcentre. Who will categorise someone as drug-dependent? Where will they get the skills to do so? Will they categorise someone on the basis of one interview, a conversation or rumours from the neighbours? How will all that work?

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Is there not a wider problem? Two thirds of employers would not employ somebody with a known drug problem, so somebody considering going along to Jobcentre Plus and admitting a problem may be trying to get help—it is not easy, and the success rate is not good—but may be deterred because that is not kept confidential. The fact that they have been on a programme will be a matter of record. How can we reassure people that a future employer will not be put off by something that they have been encouraged to do by the Government?

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend makes an important point—one of many issues concerning people’s civil liberties, right to privacy and right to decline treatment that they do not think is in their best interest. Those are profound matters. I have a feeling that the DWP is crashing around, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The policy towards lone parents is a classic case of departmentalitis. The Department wants to get lone parents off the benefit roll. By excluding, first, lone parents with children above 11, then above seven, and now above three or even one, the Department achieves its departmental goals, but who else has to pick up the pieces when it has done so? When a lone parent with pre-school age children is coerced into employment to tick a box to satisfy a Government Department, how do we know what impact that has on the family and on the welfare of the children? What research evidence is there on the impact on families with very young children if lone parents who would not otherwise choose to be in paid work start working? [Interruption.]

The Secretary of State says, “We are not doing that,” but the environment envisaged by the Bill is one of coercion and conditionality. He spoke about personalised conditionality. That was the jargon phrase that he used. My party has grave concerns about pressurising lone parents with young children into paid work when they would not otherwise choose to take up paid work.

Meg Munn: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when I visit Sure Start in parts of my constituency, there are often lone parents with young children who are looking for opportunities to do more than just care for their child, because they are looking to that child’s long-term future. Where Sure Start is able to develop training and support for parents, their child is cared for, they know it is a good environment, and they gain experience and training, which can lead them into work. It is a win-win situation. That is what we should aim for.

Steve Webb: The hon. Lady made the point very well—there are lone parents who want that, who can already seek it and whom we should assist. But we are
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not talking about that. We are talking about coercing those who do not choose to work, with the ultimate threat of benefit sanctions. Those who want it already can seek it.

Since 1997 the Government have regarded bringing up young children as a second-class activity. It is not job search— [Interruption.] That is absolutely true. The first new Labour Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), who was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, have admitted that new Labour got it wrong in its language on parenting.

Initially, the only thing that mattered was paid work. I thought Labour had learned that spending time bringing up a young child—as mum or dad—is an incredibly valuable thing to do. It is unacceptable that someone cannot say, with the support of society, “That’s what I’m doing.” I am extremely alarmed. I understand that the Secretary of State is tacking to the right on some of these issues, and this is one of them. He is missing the point about the value of parenting and the signal that society sends when it says, “As soon as your child is one year old, we are going to start checking up on you and whether you are looking for real work.” That is not my policy or that of my party.

Mrs. McGuire: Does the hon. Gentleman accept, though, that in order for lone parents to have the potential to go back to work, to take up a career or to take up a job, it is important to offer them support to enable them to keep in contact with the job market and to keep their skills upgraded? At what point does he suggest that the Department for Work and Pensions or Jobcentre Plus should engage with lone parents?

Steve Webb: As I said at the start of my remarks, I have no problem with the Department engaging constructively alongside people as soon as they engage with the system, but not in a coercive way. That is the distinction. What is backing the Government’s policy is threats, otherwise they would not need legislation. We would not be discussing the Bill today if there were no threats, because it would not be necessary to legislate. It is about coercion, which we object to. We as Liberals support the principle that mothers and fathers make their own choices about their family arrangements, child care, work and the balance between those things. We do not believe that the state should make that decision on behalf of parents, particularly when children are young.

James Purnell: On a point of clarification, we are not coercing parents to take a job if their youngest child is under seven. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his first comment as shadow spokesman was to say that we should not be bringing in these reforms for lone parents because

That is a quote from the Press Association. That is the opposite of what we should be doing. We should help everybody get into work, not say that we will help one category and then abandon lone parents, which seems to be the hon. Gentleman’s policy.


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Steve Webb: I am happy to respond to that point, because it raises the question of what we do during a recession. The Secretary of State’s policies are ratcheting up the coercion on sets of people who are legitimately on benefit, including lone parents and disabled people, increasing the pressure, the threats and the anxiety for that group, at a time when there is huge pressure on jobs. That is the distinction that I would make—the approach of the state. People who are legitimately in receipt of benefits should be entirely welcome to make their own choices and be supported by his Department when they make their choice. What I object to is coercion. That is the distinction between us.

We have heard about the Bill’s provisions on the social fund. The Secretary of State says, “We need more legislation to charge interest,” but he knows that his own consultation paper envisaged the charging of interest at credit card rates, and he has not ruled it out. He simply said that we would have to legislate further. I am happy to give way for him to say explicitly that if private providers offer these services, they will not be allowed to charge interest.

James Purnell: Yes.

Steve Webb: That is very good to have on the record. It would be interesting to know why he floated the idea in the first place. One thing that drove me into politics was the Tory Government scrapping single payments for people on benefit and replacing them with loans. The idea that a Labour Government would even float high interest rates for poor people was pretty shocking. I know that the Secretary of State said no, but why did he say yes in the first place? That is what is so worrying. It even became a policy for a weekend, until it was stamped on by an adverse press reaction. We have to make sure that that does not happen, as he says.

On child support and child maintenance, we had a bizarre exchange about driving licences and passports, as though such sanctions cannot be imposed at present. It does not happen very often, as far as I am aware, but the Government have had the power for many years to take driving licences and passports, so what is new in the Bill? Presumably the fact is that there is a bit of due process to go through and it takes a bit of time, so the Government, in characteristic new Labour fashion, want to sweep away the due process because it gets in the way and slows things down.

By and large, before the Government get to the point where they threaten a father, typically, with taking away his driving licence or passport, the Child Support Agency or the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission have been engaging with that person for years. The idea that a few weeks, or however long due process takes, is some insurmountable barrier is absurd.

Mr. Russell Brown: We are not speaking of just a few weeks’ delay. If the hon. Gentleman has had anything like the casework that I have had, he will have encountered cases where people have gone to appeal not on one occasion or twice, but three times, and won their case, but the entire process has been frustrated by the courts and solicitors who, in my view, should hang their heads in shame for leaving a mother and three or four children with nothing, because a father who may have two national insurance numbers is up to all sorts of antics. That is no way for a court in this country to behave.


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Steve Webb: And whose fault is it that someone has two national insurance numbers? Which Government administer a system that allows such a thing to happen? The idea that they respond to that by curtailing appeal rights— [Interruption.] Will the hon. Gentleman listen to the response to the question that he asked? He said that the process is slow because of all those appeals. Is he suggesting that appeal rights get in the way? This pesky right of appeal, people’s right to appeal to an independent body and challenge what has been done—I do not consider that a problem. People should have a right to legitimate appeal where they can challenge a decision.

As a constituency MP, the hon. Gentleman knows, as do I, that the CSA makes mistakes. What if the CSA wanted to take his driving licence away, because the person that he just mentioned was using his national insurance number, but he did not get his day in court because somebody in the CSA, whom he could not speak to, was able to take his driving licence away? What would he do in those circumstances? [ Interruption. ] The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society says that he could appeal and get the decision revoked—after however long that would take. The Government are saying that there is no reason to go through a court, that an official can take driving licences away and that people will be able to appeal, which is presumably akin to a judicial process. So what would we gain? The state would be allowed to take people’s driving licences away without going through a court while allowing people to appeal to a tribunal. That would be a really big step forward.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the position in the European Union on passports? The countries that he has cited where people had their passports taken away, or where they were threatened and then began to contribute to maintenance payments, are outside the EU. Will he clarify whether withdrawing passports would threaten people’s freedom of movement within the EU—I wonder whether he has got the legal position on that—or is the policy empty posturing once again, which involves sounding tough but not delivering?

We will not oppose the Bill tonight, because of the provisions on disabled people. We do not want to stand in the way of the chunk of measures that will enable and empower disabled people. The philosophy, if one can grace the measure with such a term, of coercion, as against support, and making people take up packages—if the packages were any good, people would take them up anyway—is fundamentally coercive and illiberal, and it does not command our support.


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