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Paul Rowen: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It clearly does not. There could be a whole set of individual circumstances in a particular family. There might be a child who is disabled or has other problems, or a parent who needs additional training in skills and confidence-building. Someone who has been raising a family will have been out of the job market for a while, so what guarantee is there that she or he will automatically be able to go back? Again, it is conditionality that causes us concern. The problem is not whether people want to
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go back to work, because as we have said and as Gingerbread’s evidence showed, nine out of 10 lone parents want to do that. It is whether the means are in place to enable them to do so.

I turn to amendments 49 to 56, which are in my name. They would remove the power of the Department and private contractors to issue mandatory directions to income support claimants and their partners. Again, Child Poverty Action Group believes that a parent with the primary child care responsibility, whether a lone parent or a partner of a claimant, should have a choice about entering work, and that such choice requires far greater support than is currently available.

Child care provision is patchy and we know that it is inadequate for older and disabled children. Child Poverty Action Group opposes an increase in conditionality and the consequent sanctions, which will create hardship for parents and their children and fail to tackle barriers to employment.

What will be the net effect of imposing conditionality on a lone parent? As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, stopping a lone parent’s benefit will mean an additional cost for local authorities. Will that family be split up because the parent is no longer able adequately to provide for her or his children? That is not the way forward.

It is important to have high-quality, tailored employment and support to partners as an entitlement that they may take up voluntarily. Many claimants and their partners have a strong interest in work, but where, in the current economic climate and in many of the areas that we represent, are the jobs that will make the conditionality operate? Clearly, it will not work, and there will be genuine problems. It will be a distraction from what, in our view, should be the main task of jobseeker’s allowance: to help as many people as possible back into work. The increasing numbers of unemployed will present a challenge to the Department.

Amendments 57 and 58 deal with the factors that should be taken into account when considering what is reasonable in relation to loss of benefit for not participating in a work-related activity. The Bill states that regulations may provide for reconsideration of an action plan, but imposes no statutory duty for such reconsideration. Amendment 57 would insert a legal right for a claimant’s action plan to be reconsidered, provided that the request is reasonable. In the discussion on clause 2 in Committee, Ministers and the Conservative Opposition presented two main arguments against that.

First, the Government and the Conservatives argued that our amendments would make reconsideration mandatory, but amendment 57 clearly provides that such a request must be reasonable. Hon. Members might reasonably ask what is meant by “reasonable”. Numerous clauses refer to reason and good cause, yet the Bill contains no definition of them. If it is okay to provide that there must be a good, reasonable cause for making direct payments to a disabled person, and that a local authority can refuse to do that if the request is not reasonable, why cannot the amendment make the same provision of reasonableness? Both the clause and the amendment are either reasonable or not, and it is up to the Bill to provide a definition of reasonable.

Secondly, Ministers claim that amendment 57 would shift the balance of power in favour of the claimant. It would not. The amendment would not give claimants
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carte blanche to refuse to accept the responsibilities that are set out in the action plan. Rather, it would give the claimant who is concerned about what may be in the action plan an opportunity to reconsider that action plan, which would be drawn up in the context of Jobcentre Plus staff being under severe pressure, with a lack of time. Will we get the personalised agenda that the Government talk about or will claimants be presented with a standardised action plan and told, “Take it or leave it”? That would not be acceptable. It is also said that there is no definition of what is reasonable, which is true, but that will be set out in regulation and amended by case law. As I have said previously, that is clearly what applies elsewhere in the Bill.

Amendment 56 would ensure that children are never harmed by any financial sanctions applied to their parents’ benefit. We already know that, compared with many other countries, the levels of benefit paid to claimants here are below the poverty line. We do not want the imposition of sanctions to cause or increase child poverty. The Government have a good record on eliminating child poverty and in recent years they have taken additional steps to eliminate it. Why go down the route proposed? The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington cited the example of the Ministry of Justice abandoning the idea of conditionality and imposing sanctions, which clearly do not work. If we are going to do something, where is the evidence base? Clearly it is not there.

Let me deal with amendments 29 and 26, which deal with privatisation. We are not opposed to privatisation per se and we will not support the amendments dealing with it. Equally, however, we will not support wholesale privatisation. Where is the evidence that privatisation works? We all know that there are third sector organisations that can deliver a much better service, particularly in highly specialised circumstances, for those with learning disabilities or a mental health problem, for example, than Jobcentre Plus staff or private contractors can. We want any move towards privatisation to be evidence-based, with a clear rationale and with competition.

We see no reason why Jobcentre Plus could not also compete for those contracts at the same time as the private contractor. However, I return to what I said earlier. If, when the Minister finally reveals his evidence about the operation of the pilots, that evidence shows that Jobcentre Plus outperforms the private contractor, what will the evidence base be? The evidence base would clearly be that Jobcentre Plus staff have outperformed the private sector and should therefore get the contract. We cannot and should not go down either route for purely dogmatic reasons. We should have the flexibility to pick what works best for the constituents whom we seek to serve.

This is a large and complex group of amendments. We are not seeking to press any of our amendments to the vote, but we will certainly support the first three proposals made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and the Conservative amendment dealing with child care, because we believe that they would considerably improve the Bill. They also underline the clear danger with the Bill, which is its reliance on dogma and conditionality. The Bill does not deal with the one issue in the real world that we all want to do something about, which is rising unemployment. The Bill is an example of yesterday’s problem being dealt with by, I am afraid, some of yesterday’s Ministers.

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5.30 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I want to speak primarily to new clause 8, which stands in my name and which delves back into the arguments that we have been rehearsing for the past couple of hours on the balance between incentives and sanctions, particularly with respect to lone parents. Before I do so, however, I want to spend a few moments talking about two arguments that have emerged in the debate with which I fundamentally disagree and which need a response.

The first relates to the comment with which the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) closed his speech—namely, that the Bill represents yesterday’s agenda and that this is the wrong time for it. I fundamentally disagree with that. It is absolutely correct that we should have a new, or revised, agenda as a response to the recession. There is a desperate need to work with businesses to halt the flow of job losses, and to ensure that newly unemployed people are given a different kind of assistance to get back into work from that offered by Jobcentre Plus and other organisations.

It is also essential, however, that we should not repeat the catastrophic mistakes that we made in the past, particularly in the 1980s. The recession at that time led to long-term unemployment, and the people involved were utterly abandoned. I say that with some knowledge because, in the early 1980s, I was working for an organisation that ran Manpower Services Commission employment programmes. They were an example of brutal Workfare. They were deeply under-administered, and offered very little in the way of additional payment for those working on them and virtually no training. The fact that huge numbers of people could not even get on to those schemes shows how desperate the situation was.

It is essential that, at every stage, we prevent those people who join the jobless queue from drifting into hopelessness for years and years, because we know that that is closely correlated with depression and with exactly the loss of skills and confidence required for job re-entry that the hon. Gentleman referred to. At this juncture, it is therefore critical that we put in place measures—about some of which I must enter caveats—to ensure that people who have been out of the labour market for some time have the means to reconnect and stay in touch with that market.

Paul Rowen: Does the hon. Lady not accept that many of the amendments do not ignore such people, in that they propose to increase jobseeker’s allowance, to give lone parents a choice or to run certain pilots? They would ensure that what works works, rather than going headlong down a route that might lead to our repeating what happened in the 1980s.

Ms Buck: I am not seeking to rubbish the amendments, many of which I agree with, either wholly or in part. However, the fundamental principle of adopting a strategy and measures to reconnect people with the labour market and to prevent them from remaining distant from it over a long period is absolutely right.

That leads me to my second point, which relates to the age that the youngest child of a lone parent should reach before we expect the parent to engage in some
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form of work-related activity. That is a total red herring. The parents of three-year-olds, particularly in this day and age when 95 per cent. of children enjoy the nursery provision available for three and four-year-olds—some of them part time, certainly, but at least the provision is there—could be in a better position to take advantage of some form of work-related activity than cohorts of other lone parents whom I know, although I have some caveats about the quality of the contact involved.

For example, I have expressed my concern many times in the Chamber about the availability of child care—perhaps it is wrongly called that—for older children. Strangely enough, young children under five have more opportunities to obtain, and gain greater access to, the quality child care that gives their parents the security that they desperately need when trying to ensure that their child is receiving quality provision. They are better provided for than many parents with older children.

I speak with feeling on this subject as a parent with a teenager, and I know that other hon. Members also know perfectly well that if they are out at work or not available during the day, their older child will not necessarily be safe or be occupied in a way that they would like. I ask the Government to continue urgently to address the issue of access to extended services or other out-of-school provision, because it is really critical for that significant minority of lone parents with older children for whom regulations have recently changed to be monitored in respect of the services they rely on. We must ensure that they are able to be confident about taking up job opportunities in the knowledge that their children are safe. Even more critically, they must know that their child will be properly and securely looked after in their absence.

To come to what is probably the heart of the matter, the issue is less a concern about age cohorts and defining whole groups of people than it is about the quality of delivery and the tailoring of the personal intervention to the individual. I know plenty of lone parents of three and four and five-year-olds who are more than ready—and, indeed, willing and welcoming of the idea—for work or training or preparing themselves for moving some way down the path towards employment. I also know lots of parents of older children, as well as some who are not parents at all, who have very specific and important needs that must be addressed before they can be ready for any kind of activity.

I am reminded of a woman who came to see me a couple of weeks ago who was in the process of adopting her dead sister’s child. Her circumstances completely occupy her mind and her mental energies and she is likely to be unwilling to take up work opportunities for the time being. She is the parent of an older child, whereas as I have already said, some parents of a three-year-old child might be more than ready for work. As we know, large numbers of parents—lone parents and in couples—are already going back into employment at the end of their statutory maternity leave.

The critical task for all of us—the Government have gone a long way towards addressing it, but have not convinced me absolutely on every front—is making sure that the service is able to take a decision that is properly tailored to the individual person’s needs.

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Lynne Jones: I speak as one of those parents who went back to work when my children were only a few weeks’ old, but does my hon. Friend agree that society should have respect for a parent’s decision? If a child needs the parent to be at home, we should actually value the fact that parents want to take care of their children, while at the same time we should allow them to avail themselves of opportunities to get back into the world of work if they want to.

Ms Buck: That is absolutely right. The issue, as always, is finding a way through a number of conflicting objectives. Parenting is without doubt one of the most important things that any of us ever do. Virtually every parent will put their child at the heart of virtually everything they do in their life; it is sad if they do not, as the child will be damaged. Choice is absolutely important, and parents will make choices.

Plenty of children have a non-statemented special need—attention deficit disorder or dyslexia, for example—and their parents are very conscious of the fact that although their child does not have a statement, they will have to spend more time and invest more of their emotional energy in supporting that child. On the other hand, it is also true that children tend to thrive when their parents are properly occupied through work. There is plenty of evidence that being based outside the home is also good for children and that quality child care—the emphasis being on quality—is good for children and improves their attainments. That is particularly the case when the children’s families come from disadvantaged backgrounds. My hon. Friend is right, but it is a complex issue.

Lynne Jones: I agree that a child’s well-being depends on the well-being of its parent. A parent who is happy and fulfilled, and not subject to undue stress, will be a better parent. When we are devising mechanisms such as this, it is important that we do not put stress on parents who may already have a difficult job because of their personal circumstances or the circumstances of their children.

Ms Buck: I do not think that there is any difference of opinion between us. We should not get hung up on whether the threshold is 16, 11, seven or three, but we should get totally hung up on whether the service is sufficiently flexible and sufficiently sensitive to the variation of needs within families, in the context of employment.

In tabling new clause 8, however, I was principally concerned not with employment but with work-related activity. I think that that can be even more easily accommodated within the capacity of most parents—again, with the vital qualification that it must constitute an opportunity, and that Jobcentre Plus staff should not be frowned upon or penalised if they allow certain parents of 15-year-olds, or in some cases three-year-olds, to opt out because it does not fit their circumstances.

John Mason: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so generously. Once or twice in her speech she has used words such as “tailored”, “personalised”, “sensitive” and “flexible”. Is she convinced that Jobcentre Plus, as a large bureaucracy, is capable of offering as sensitive and personalised a service as she and I—and, I am sure, everyone else—would wish?

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Ms Buck: I think that Jobcentre Plus is capable of doing so and that it often does so, although it sometimes fails. The service is certainly dramatically better than it was when I first came to the House. I spent a great deal of time with Jobcentre Plus staff at that time, because the Government were rolling out the new deal initiative very quickly after 1997. I remember what jobcentres were like, physically and in terms of the capacity of staff to respond. But have we got it entirely right now? No, and I shall explain why, very briefly, in the context of new clause 8.

As has been said by one of two other Members, the balance between incentives and sanctions, or conditionality, is critical. Claimants of the work-related activity component of the employment and support allowance can receive an additional premium of £24 above jobseeker’s allowance in return for participating in work-focused preparation, but that does not apply to lone parents. Although the principle that incentives work is enshrined in the Government’s programme, that incentive is denied to them.

We know very well that incentives work for lone parents, and we know that their employment levels have risen sharply in recent years. We know that most people want to work, and we know that one of the clear judgments they make when deciding whether to enter employment is whether they will be better off in work. That is at the heart of the matter. Although incentives work, however, they are often not tried out properly. The whole tax credit regime has been crucial in making work pay, but, in various degrees, various parts of the country and various circumstances, the “better off” calculations, or the incentives that underpin them, are not effective enough.

It is entirely sensible to ensure that the people we wish to encourage to participate in work-related activity can enjoy a premium for so doing. As was spelt out so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), all the evidence suggests that if people can be incentivised into participation, outcomes are better. People feel more in control, which makes them more likely to be able to manage other aspects of their lives. They feel more positive, and can therefore take advantage of what work-related activity should do: enable them to assess and develop their skills, and to overcome the confidence-related barriers that have prevented them from moving closer to employment. It does not really matter whether that happens now, in the midst of an economic downturn, or a little further down the road.

Equally, and set against this, without a premium we rely on work-related activity being a requirement underpinned by a sanction only, and sanctions do not work. We know that the impact of sanctions is only marginal in terms of people deciding not to participate, and, worse still, they can have an utterly catastrophic impact on individuals. The Department’s own research shows that the application of sanctions is closely correlated to poor health among both parents and children. We do not want to inflict that on people.

5.45 pm

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