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Some of the concerns of Government Back Benchers might be allayed when they see how little the Bill requires of claimants. There are some 2.6 million existing incapacity benefit claimants, 1.5 million of whom have been on that benefit for five years or more. For those aged under 50, the requirement made under the Government’s plans is that they attend three interviews, and that is it. For incapacity benefit claimants aged over 50, of whom there are sadly too many, the only
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requirement that the Government make is that they attend a single work-focused interview. They are not required to do anything as a result of that interview; they are simply required to attend.

We think that that is far too little help to offer people who need a great deal of help to get back to work, particularly in today’s circumstances, when they will be competing for work against so many newly unemployed people. We did not choose the timing of the Bill; it was chosen by the Government. After 12 years of dither and delay, the Government have at last embarked on welfare reform, just at a time when there are difficult circumstances in the economy and when, sadly, queues at the job centres are being swollen by people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and who in many cases have long records of work.

Amendment 35, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, relates to a completely legitimate issue to take up with the Government—the work-related activity that may be required of single parents. Clause 2 deals with the work-related activity that may be required of certain benefit claimants, including those on income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or income-related employment and support allowance. Amendment 35 would prevent those requirements from applying to a single parent with a child aged under five. An amendment standing in the names of Government Back Benchers would raise the age to seven, but for reasons that I will explain, we prefer five as the age at which to make those requirements.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Clappison: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I think that I know what he is going to say.

Mr. Plaskitt: Is the hon. Gentleman telling the House that he has junked the policy of the social justice policy group, which is headed by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), his former party leader, and which called for parents whose youngest child was under five to have between five and 10 hours a week preparing for work? Has he now dumped that policy?

Mr. Clappison: I was going to turn to that point, but as the hon. Gentleman is there already I will deal with it now. If he studies the Green Paper that we issued last January, he will see that it mentions the age limit of five and that there is no age limit set below five. We can be judged only on what we propose in a Green Paper as a statement of our policy. The question that he and his colleagues on the Labour Benches have to answer is: why, when the Government published their Green Paper last July—six months after ours—did they chose five as the age at which those requirements should be made and why was there a change from five in July to three in December? What changed between July and December to bring that about?

As the hon. Gentleman is interested in this matter, may I take him through its history? It was not until June 2007 that the Government announced that they were moving single parents with children over the age of seven from income support to jobseeker’s allowance, where the receipt of their benefits would be subject to
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conditionality. For many years under this Government, and until very recently, single parents were entitled to remain on income support until their youngest child reached the age of 16.

The Government’s proposals of June 2007 began to be implemented last autumn. It is being done in stages, and single parents with children over the age of 12 are already being moved from income support to jobseeker’s allowance. From October 2010, single parents with children aged over seven will receive jobseeker’s allowance rather than income support.

Let me make it clear that we support these changes. We have no problem with them—we did not demur when they were first announced in June 2007—but the Government have since proposed to go further. In December last year, in their response to the Gregg review on conditionality, they proposed making further requirements of single parents with children aged over seven. These are the really important points for this debate. The Government’s proposals were clearly set out in their response to the Gregg report.

The Government said that, when the youngest child is aged under 12 months, the single parent is not to be subject to any conditionality requirements. When the child reaches one year old, the single parent becomes part of what the Government term the progression to work group and, at that point, the single parent will be

When the youngest child reaches three, another distinct stage is reached. According to the Government’s document, when the child turns three, the single parent is

Clearly, there is a significant stepping up of requirements when the child reaches the age of three, and the Government will have to explain that. Receipt of benefit for the single parent of a child aged three or over is conditional on undertaking work-related activity. There is also the possibility of direction being given to the single parent about such work-related activity, and it is evident that the single parent could face a sanction of a reduction in benefit as a result of failure to comply with the requirements.

It seems curious that, for more than 10 years, the Government were content to permit single parents to remain on income support until their youngest child reached the age of 16, yet, in the space of little more than 18 months, they introduced proposals to move single parents from income support to jobseeker’s allowance when the youngest child reaches seven—which we support—and proposed to go further still in imposing this degree of conditionality and rigour on the single parent from the time their youngest child reaches three. Is the correct balance being struck between conditionality and the age of the child? That is a legitimate question to ask. It is particularly legitimate to ask whether three is the appropriate age for these purposes.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a persuasive case, and I hope that those on my Front Bench will listen to him. Does he agree that
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his case is strengthened by the suggestion in the Work and Pensions Committee’s recent report that the customer must have the final say on whether child care is suitable and affordable at the age of three? The Bill leaves that decision with the adviser, but is not the parent of a child aged three or four the best person to make that decision?

Mr. Clappison: To be fair to the Government, they have said that they foresee that there will be discussions and interviews. Behind those interviews, however, there will be requirements and the possibility of sanctions and of directions from advisers to single parents. The Government have to face the fact that, under this scheme, a single parent with a child aged three or over will face the possibility of sanctions.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison: Yes, I will. Perhaps the hon. Lady is going to tell us that they will not face such sanctions.

Meg Munn: On the issue of the age of three, I have certainly visited a number of child care and Sure Start centres where many parents benefiting from the free child care offered by the Government said that they now had the time to start thinking about employment and training. One of the benefits of putting that into legislation is that the schemes will be in place to enable parents to get the help and support, which they have not always had in the past, to enable them to get back into work.

4.15 pm

Mr. Clappison: Such places may be available, but the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform conceded in Committee that such places were not available throughout the whole country. The Government looked into the issue themselves and published a Green Paper, which I adverted to earlier following a helpful intervention. In that Green Paper of July 2008, the Government said that they were

The Government’s Green Paper thus seemed to view the age of five—the age at which a child starts school—as the natural age to support for these purposes. It was only when the Government moved from that position that we began to look further at the question ourselves. Our amendment legitimately asks whether the balance is being correctly struck. The proposals to require lone parents to carry out work-related activity are right in principle, but is the balance being struck in the right place and is the age appropriate to the requirements? I believe that Government Members should think long and hard about that in the light of the full history that I have set out and particularly when they consider the nature of the regime to which single parents with children as young as three will be subject.

Let me make it clear again that we do not demur from the general principle of conditionality for single parents, or from the proposition that work is beneficial for both parent and child. However, there has to be a question of age appropriateness. We believe, quite simply, that in all
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the circumstances it would be more sensible if the age of the youngest child for these purposes were set at five, which is, after all, the age for starting school. We think that the Government have not got the balance right; if they press ahead on this, we would have to consider our position.

We will be seeking your leave, Mr. Speaker, to vote on this matter when we have had the opportunity to hear what the Minister has to say. I do not know whether, at this late stage, he is prepared to accept our amendment, but if not we will certainly press it to a vote because we consider that the Government have not got this issue right. It may be that they have wider objectives in mind; I do not know. They may wish to say, as has been implied, that because we do not agree with the Government’s original proposals on the appropriate age of the single parent’s child, we are opposing the whole of the Bill. If they want to say that, let them; but we are not. We support the Bill in principle, as we have indicated.

Mr. Tom Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something for me? He said a few moments ago that his party will have to consider its position, but a few seconds later he said he wanted a Division on it. Does that mean that in those few seconds he has considered his party’s position and decided that the party is against it?

Mr. Clappison: I give Ministers the credit of thinking that they want to listen to the debate. They may want to hear what I have to say; they may want to listen to what their hon. Friends say. What I am saying is that if the Government press ahead with this provision, we will press it to the vote. I hope that I have made that clear, just as I have made everything else I have said absolutely clear. We are not against the Government on the Bill. We think that it does not go nearly far enough, and anybody can see that. On this issue, we are going to have to disagree with the Government and, if it comes to it, we shall seek to press the amendment to the vote.

John McDonnell: This is a large group of amendments and new clauses, some of which I shall wish to press to a vote. I shall deal with them in a bureaucratic fashion, for which I apologise.

The first block consists of amendments 11 to 14 and amendment 16, which seek to make Workfare voluntary. I shall wish to press them to a vote at some stage. I shall also wish to press amendment 15, which seeks to ensure that if people are forced on to Workfare they should be paid the minimum wage and/or the rate for the job, unless the Government concede. I live in hope.

Amendment 17 exempts lone parents with children aged seven and under from the conditions placed on them in relation to work-related activities. The choice of the age of seven can be discussed further later, but it is based on practice. I shall be happy not to press the amendment to a vote if amendment 35, tabled by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)—which proposes the exemption of lone parents with a child under five—is pressed, and in that event I will support amendment 35.

The next block consists of amendments 18 to 25, which seek to make work-related activities voluntary. I wish to discuss those amendments, but not to press them to a vote. Amendments 26 and 29 deal with the privatisation of jobcentres’ role in relation to the long-term unemployed and others. I shall wish to press those to a
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vote if possible. It is, of course, open to you, Mr. Speaker, to decide whether that is appropriate. This is a large group of amendments, but they concern key issues involving the future of the welfare state, the welfare system and the administration of welfare. I fear that the system will not merely be amended in the short term, and that this Government or their successors may build on it in introducing elements of compulsion beyond those in the Bill, along with more sweeping privatisations. That is why I consider that the amendments concern matters of principle.

I shall try to be brief, because we have many other matters to discuss today. I tabled the amendments because, in my view, the Bill is an anachronism. It appears to have been designed for another age: an age when employment was available, and it was argued that people were not taking advantage of that. It seems to pursue the Government’s twin obsessions with targeting lone parents and privatising public services, at a time when 2 million people are unemployed and 3 million could be unemployed by the end of the year. Ten people are chasing every vacancy. People are desperate for work. It is hard to comprehend why the Government are focusing on introducing Workfare, a “work for your benefit” scheme piloted for the long-term unemployed and other groups, forcing them into work. Unless my amendment seeking payment of the minimum wage is passed, people will be forced to work 35 hours a week for £1.73 an hour in jobseeker’s allowance, while, unless new clause 1 is passed, the under-25s will be paid £1.37 an hour. That is not voluntary; it will be used as a sanction. If people refuse to comply, they will lose their benefits.

The argument for welfare reform initially advanced by the Secretary of State was the need to help people back into work. My amendments seek to turn a demand into an offer and a requirement into an opportunity. If Workfare constitutes an offer of assistance in work, why does it include an element of enforcement? When the PCS parliamentary group met the Secretary of State last week, he had changed his emphasis, and was more concerned with the need to tackle fraud and deal with people who claimed benefits without being willing to work. The media view of the Bill’s objectives seems to vary according to which newspaper Ministers have spoken to. If it is The Guardian, the main thrust of the legislation is support and advice; if it is the Daily Mail, it is tackling fraud and scroungers. In my view, the linking of these two issues is stigmatising.

Paul Rowen: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the big issue these days is not fraud, but mistakes committed by the Department for Work and Pensions, and that certain clauses of the Bill will condemn some people—such as those who may not be very articulate—to sanctions to which they should not be subject?

John McDonnell: I think the Bill introduces sanctions that, as we all know from our weekly advice surgeries, are usually applied against the most vulnerable and confused and those who live the most chaotic lives. In addition, they introduce a stigma to the process: under this Bill, support, advice and assistance are provided not on a voluntary basis, but on a forced basis, stigmatising claimants as workshy or scroungers. That is my big fear; I fear that this runs counter to everything the Government have been arguing for in the direction of welfare reform
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policy. If this is about fraud, we must recognise that according to a ministerial statement last month, there is now the lowest level of fraud in recorded history. As a result of the work undertaken by dedicated DWP staff, fraud has been reduced by two thirds since 2001 and it accounts for only 0.06 per cent. of the overall budget. If we are to tackle fraud, that is not about introducing sanctions and enhancing the stigma on claimants; instead, it is about following the tested route of having informants and conducting investigations.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): If the intention of Workfare is to help people into work, would my hon. Friend expect some evidence to have been produced of the effects of schemes being introduced in other countries? Has he seen any such evidence?

John McDonnell: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I want to come on to that. I have trawled the different pieces of research the Department has undertaken to find evidence for developing this policy and establishing its potential success.

I have been trying to discover the genesis of the policy. I looked back to some of the debates in this House and some of the policy statements Ministers made in the mid-1990s. In 1996, the Conservative Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), told the Conservative party conference:

In 1996, they introduced “project work”, as it was called, which contained a compulsory work element for claimants of benefits of up to 13 weeks for those unemployed for two years or more. This sounds familiar, does it not? However, at that time, although it was compulsory, participants received an extra £10 week on top of the jobseeker’s allowance for participating in the scheme, so there was also an incentive. The reaction at the time from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who went on to become the Deputy Prime Minister, was condemnatory. He said that under that Government, who had said in 1979 that Labour was not working, unemployment had now grown to 2.5 million, even on the Government’s fiddled figures, and that their proposals were a form of Workfare involving chain gangs and that they were not the same as proper jobs. It was, therefore, condemned outright at that point by the person who went on to become the Deputy Prime Minister of this Administration. Another Labour Member said that the Government’s Workfare proposals were taking us back to the days of the work house. It was not satisfactory then, and I do not believe that it is satisfactory now. It was condemned outright.

What is the evidence? What judgments have been made? Reference has been made to some of the expert studies. The DWP commissioned the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research to conduct research on workfare programmes in Australia, Canada and the US.

The resulting report concluded:

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It continued:

That is exactly the scenario that we are facing.

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