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My second point is that I cannot accept that single mothers with children as young as three should be transferred, as I understand it, from income support to JSA, at least in certain cases. I accept that, yes, it is right when the child is older—seven and above—that efforts should be made to get the single parent into employment,
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where there are jobs of course. Obviously, when the children are as young as three, there is no reason at all why there should not be ongoing discussions between the jobcentre and the person concerned. No one would object to that—I certainly would not do so—but to use undue pressure where the child is as young as three is without any justification, and I could not support it.

The last point that I want to make has been much commented on by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) in moving the new clause. Why will private companies be so deeply involved instead of Jobcentre Plus? I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), but Jobcentre Plus has long experience. I do not know whether it is some sort of sin that it should be in the public sector, which it obviously is, but I need to be persuaded that it is necessary that, as I understand it, 33 out of 34 contracts will go to the private sector. Why is that necessary? I could understand it if there was a Conservative Government. Indeed, we have been given a bit of warning today about what a Conservative Government are likely to do. I find it difficult to understand why a Labour Government have put such emphasis on the private sector instead of on the traditional public sector agency that is responsible for finding employment. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will respond to those three points.

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): Let me start by agreeing with the first comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and the tenor of some of the debate. The emphasis of the Bill is not that those who have the misfortune to find themselves unemployed are feckless, workshy or lazy. In fact, the evidence is entirely to the contrary.

The premise of the Bill and of the clauses that these amendments seek to amend is not that we will introduce Workfare for everyone or, indeed, sanctions for everyone in all circumstances. Those who suggest otherwise mislead the debate, and that is not terribly helpful in all circumstances. Nor is the Bill made for another time or another age. It is not fair that some hon. Members would rather leave those who are in the unfortunate position of being unemployed for any length of time to wallow in that position. That cannot be right for any hon. Member; it cannot be right as a matter of public policy. If we remove some of the elements of the Bill, suitably crafted, and allow some of the amendments to prevail, that would be the end result. That is not the intention of many hon. Members.

Nor does the Bill seek in any way, shape or form to stigmatise the unemployed or cast any aspersions on the lot of any unemployed individual. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North made the point that it is indeed the case, as experience shows, that most unemployed people seek to get back into work at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Winnick: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has just said, but he used the phrase “wallow in unemployment”. Will he say clearly that, far from wanting to be complacent about people being unemployed, the Labour party has a long history—indeed, as long as the party has existed—of fighting unemployment and of giving the opportunity of employment to everyone who wants to take it? We fought the Tories in the House,
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as well as outside, during the 1980s and for part of the 1990s. We are the last people to be complacent about unemployment.

Mr. McNulty: I certainly was not suggesting that my hon. Friend was the least bit complacent. All that I am suggesting is that if many—not all—of the amendments considered tonight prevailed, they would be the alternative that the hon. Members who tabled them would have to offer many unemployed people. Those hon. Members have not put forward a substantive alternative. They have not said anything other than, “In one instance, we’ll raise the benefit level a little bit.” As for help and support—the essence of the Bill, and elements of the White Paper and Green Paper—there is no advice on what the unemployed should do. It is important to put those elements on the record, because the Bill is far from having been designed for another age. My question is: if not now, when? Now is not the time to say to the long-term unemployed that there is no help or support for them at all, especially given the deteriorating economic conditions.

Lynne Jones: My right hon. Friend’s interpretation of the views that I and other Labour Members expressed is a travesty. We are saying that the voluntary approach has been shown to be more effective in engaging people in the world of work, and we should pursue that approach. We are saying that any schemes that involve sanctions or people losing their benefit should be subject to a pilot scheme that compares that approach with a voluntary approach, so that we can see which works best.

Mr. McNulty: Yes, and as I understand it, that position prevails. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said, whether the period is five or 25 years does not matter; the person concerned can languish on benefits, and the state or public policy has no role at all. That is not an active, interventionist state, and it cannot be the way forward.

Mr. Clappison: I support a great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he think that it would help the debate if we clarified that we are not necessarily talking about the unemployed? We are talking about people who are economically inactive, and have been on economically inactive benefits. That is quite apart from people who are on jobseeker’s allowance and the requirements in relation to them. There is a large number of economically inactive people, and a very large number of them—2 million of them—want to work. We should be giving them help.

Mr. McNulty: I agree that that is the starting point. That is the starting premise behind the Green Paper, the White Paper, the work that Freud and Gregg have done, and the work by many social welfare organisations and think-tanks across the political spectrum. That is right and proper. The wider starting premise of all the measures is that we will give as much focused, personalised help and support as possible to every individual, in all circumstances. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North, said, that starts with what we offer people as soon as they come through the doors of Jobcentre Plus, and goes on to include the six-month package that we will offer from 6 April.

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I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on his broader point. There should be a debate on where the more substantial support should come. I happen to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North that flipping the system over and having it all at the beginning is probably not appropriate, but the point made about whether the period should be three, six, nine, 12 or 18 months is fair—it is a fair point for debate. That point for debate, however, was totally missed in our discussion on the amendments about “work for your benefit” schemes. The illusion given was that we were talking about universal sanctions that start straight away, and that we were seeking to apply “work for your benefit” schemes to every single claimant, which is far from the case.

Paul Rowen: I accept the point that the Minister makes. Our point is that everyone should be assessed on day one. The assessment will determine the action taken, and then there will be a range of activity for that individual. Moving everyone who is on the flexible new deal to the 12-month arrangement, including young people, would, in our view, be a retrograde step, unless the Minister could give us an assurance that there will be a proper assessment of the person’s needs on day one.

Mr. McNulty: Increasingly there is such an assessment. I have gone on record saying that we may need to, and should, do more to assess people’s roles, especially given the downturn, from the time when they originally present. I said clearly in the previous debate that the woman who interviewed me who worked successfully for Findus for 20 years needs a slightly different approach, from day one, from someone who is dipping in and out of employment all the time, whether as a matter of choice or otherwise. I therefore take the point that the hon. Gentleman made earlier about Woolworths.

6.45 pm

It would be remiss of me if I did not refer at least to the lead new clause, if not to some of the other amendments. There has been a fairly extensive debate, but I thought it important to put my contextual points on the record. New clause 1 seeks to homogenise JSA rates across age groups. I express no view about why my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) seeks to do that, but I point out that jobseeker’s allowance is not, and should not be, a substitute for wages for paid employment. It would not be in anybody’s interest if benefit levels offered an alternative to work. That would fundamentally undermine what the benefits system and the welfare state are there for.

Notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), the majority of those under 25 have fewer financial responsibilities and lower earnings expectations than older workers. Paying the full adult rate would not therefore reflect the reality of the labour market and would erode the incentive to move off benefits and into work. For those reasons, I cannot support new clause 1. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, knows, it is important to remember that for those young people with additional financial pressures, such as those who are parents or who are disabled, there is additional support, for example from tax credits or disability living allowance.

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Lynne Jones: On that point, could my right hon. Friend have a word with the Prime Minister? It was certainly the Prime Minister’s view that keeping benefits so low was not an incentive to get people back to work; it did not help people to get back to work if there were no jobs available for them.

Mr. McNulty: The point that my hon. Friend misses slightly is that I think that the disparity between the amounts for different age groups should prevail. There is, of course, a perfectly legitimate wider argument to be had about the level of benefits, the relation to wage levels and the minimum wage, and how the two interact; I agree that that is perhaps a debate for another time. However, it is not germane to the Bill.

On the notion of paying wages rather than JSA under the “work for your benefit” programme, as I have said, “work for your benefit” will be introduced only after two years of sustained, long-term unemployment, and not in any other fashion, as was at least intimated. We think that paying wages rather than JSA would result in an erosion of the incentives to move into the open labour market and into paid employment. We genuinely do not want to create a system in which, after two years’ long-term unemployment, the “work for your benefit” programme is the end of a jobseeker’s journey to work; it should rather be a stepping stone. I hope that the more we focus on personalised help and support being offered to individuals far more readily, and far earlier—certainly after a year—the fewer people will come into the category of having been unemployed for two years or longer.

There is a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the “work for your benefit” scheme. It is not employment; it is an employment programme. It is designed specifically not only to give people the chance to develop work habits and experience through supported placements, but to deliver tailored back-to-work support. For those reasons, we cannot support amendment 15 or the broader array of amendments—that is, amendments 11 to 14 and amendment 16. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North, said, the scheme is clearly not Workfare in any way, shape or form. I agree not only with DWP research, which is rather handy, but with some of the comments made about those overtly Workfare-focused schemes in America and Australia that have not worked in all regards.

Amendment 36, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), seeks to ensure that jobseekers can be required to participate in the “work for your benefit” programme only if good-quality, affordable, flexible child care is available. As he moved the same amendment so eloquently in Committee, I understand where he is coming from, but it is unnecessary now, as it was then. I will do as he asks and raise the point about provision for older children, and the issues of child care more generally, with colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families and with the devolved Administration, but I can confirm that parents on JSA will not be sanctioned if they fail to participate in “work for your benefit” because they cannot access appropriate child care. I said that in Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said it on any number of occasions. That, rather like other aspects of the Bill, has been entirely—and wilfully, I think—misinterpreted as “Lone parents had
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better get a job. We’ll force them into a job regardless of the circumstances or the barriers.” That has never been the position, nor should it be.

On the broader issues that my hon. Friend raises about Scotland, I agree that it is high time that Scotland put its house in order and came into line with England and Wales in respect of child care provision. Sadly, even since the Committee, there remains no commitment from the Scottish Government to legislate in the area of child care or to make further investment using existing powers. Indeed, the latest pronouncement by the Scottish Government in December last year, although recognising the importance of child care, makes no mention of any new initiative or additional resources—a little bit of gesture politics from the nationalists.

John Robertson: Is my right hon. Friend telling me, then, that he has spoken to his counterparts north of the border and that they are not willing to do anything to try to help the children in Scotland by means of a similar obligation to that in England and Wales?

Mr. McNulty: I am not telling my hon. Friend that I have spoken to Scottish Ministers since our Committee finished, but I repeat that there is no commitment from that Government to legislate, and from their perspective, apparently, no more money and no further investment are needed. I do not see why Scottish parents should have to wait for that Government to catch up with everybody else and for the necessary legislative conditions to prevail. I hope that we can, in the end, prevail upon the Scottish Government to get their act together and, as my hon. Friend rightly says, put their house in order, although I fear that that may take some time.

John Mason: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty: I will, because the hon. Gentleman did at least speak once in Committee, for which we are grateful.

John Mason: I thank the Minister for giving way. I do not always agree that volume of words is better than fewer. May I press him on the point about Scotland coming into line with England? Does he accept that the point of devolution is that we do things slightly differently in the different nations?

Mr. McNulty: As devolution is dear to my heart, I fully accept that you do things differently, but we would rather like you to do it. That is the point. I am sorry about the “you”, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We would rather like broad agreement across all devolved Administrations that child care is a fairly important provision. It is quite right that it should be devolved. I have no problem with that, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West says, the Scottish Government should get their house in order.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) was spot on when she spoke on amendments 17 and 35. The child’s age at which lone parent obligations should start in respect of work-related activities is, as she described it, a red herring. The substantive point, which is at the centre of the Bill, is that the quality of child care, flexibility and sensitivity are crucial. The prescription suggested by the
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hon. Member for Rochdale, that there should be no help and assistance for lone parents until child care which meets a gold standard is offered everywhere, will not do.

Gregg was looking for such provision from the time the child was one. We do not consider that appropriate. It is appropriate for the parent to undertake work-related activities when the child is aged three to six, not least because of pre-school provision at three and four and full-time education at five.

Mr. Gerrard: My right hon. Friend has just said, in relation to lone parents, that age was a red herring. If it is so unimportant, why is it in the Bill?

Mr. McNulty: For the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North suggested. There may well be significant barriers, in terms of child care provision, for someone with a child considerably older than three, six or seven, and the personalised and tailored support package will take full account of that. All we are saying is that those lone parent obligations start at the earlier age. If the barriers still prevail, the sanctions and direction will not be implemented. In that sense, age is a red herring.

In the context of all that we are trying to do to reduce child poverty, it must be right that the lone parent obligations prevail. A child in a household where no adult is working has a 63 per cent. risk of living in poverty. That is much higher than the 29 per cent. risk of poverty for children in households where at least one adult is in work. This is not about compelling lone parents into jobs that are not appropriate. Like every aspect of the welfare reform agenda, the Bill’s provisions are about helping people back into work as quickly as possible, or giving them help, support and activity to enable them to stay as close to the labour market as possible.

I recognise that I have not touched on every amendment, and there is one more that I shall deal with, but it would detain the House too long if I went through every amendment. I will take back the detailed points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North about clauses 4 and 11. I shall examine them closely to see if they are as he describes them, but I do not think they are.

We say clearly, as we have done for the period of the present economic downturn, that all that Jobcentre Plus does is in the right direction. It is a network staffed by professional people doing a very good job at all times, increasingly in more difficult circumstances. As I have described it before, it is a learning organisation; it learns from the 30-year employee who presents for the first time, as we heard, and from those from professions and sectors who have not presented before.

We are told that we are privatising parts of the Jobcentre Plus organisation, but we are not. Contracting out—delegating out those contracts—is not the same as privatisation. Those contracts are going to the voluntary sector and the private sector to get them to carry out specific parts of the operation, to cover the journey of people who are long-term unemployed—areas in which they can develop expertise while Jobcentre Plus does what it does best on the front line, helping people from
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day one all the way through and retaining overarching supervision of the pathways developed under flexible new deal. Some of the descriptions of what Jobcentre Plus does verged on travesty.

Lynne Jones: I presume that my right hon. Friend is aware of the memorandum circulated from the DWP, which makes it clear that the provider-led pathways to work have been far less successful than the Jobcentre Plus-led pathways. We have there a clear example of Jobcentre Plus being more effective, so why does he assume that private providers will automatically be better at all the new services that are to be provided?

Mr. McNulty: I have told my hon. Friend and others by way of answers to parliamentary questions that there are emerging data on that. It is still early days. We are looking at the data and will present our findings in the fullness of time. If the performance is not appropriate, we will deal with it. As was said, the Gregg report and others certainly stand up the notions that sanctions work and that the voluntary sector can do the job. However, it is not the case, as is intimated, that a whole set of activities at present carried out by Jobcentre Plus will not be carried out by it in future. That is the impression given, but it is not the case. For that reason we resist amendments 26 and 29.

At the risk of sounding churlish and less than generous, I ask the House to resist new clause 1 and any other amendment in this group that is subsequently put to the vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

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