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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates
Welfare Reform Bill

Welfare Reform Bill



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Jim Hood, † Mr. David Amess
Banks, Gordon (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab)
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Jones, Helen (Warrington, North) (Lab)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
McKechin, Ann (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
McNulty, Mr. Tony (Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform)
Mason, John (Glasgow, East) (SNP)
Munn, Meg (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
Robertson, John (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Shaw, Jonathan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Ussher, Kitty (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Liam Laurence Smyth, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 3 March 2009

(Afternoon)

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Welfare Reform Bill

4 pm
The Chairman: At the end of the morning, when I was only with you in spirit, we had reached new clause 9, and Mr. Robertson was in the process of moving his new clause.

New Clause 9

Grandparents national insurance credit
‘(1) The Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (c. 4) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 23A(3)(c) (Contributions credits for relevant parents and carers), after first “in”, insert “unpaid care for 20 hours in that week or more of a grandchild under the age of 12 or of an ill, frail or disabled family member, friend or partner, or (d) otherwise in”.’.—(John Robertson.)
Brought up, read the First time, and motion made (this day), That the clause be read a Second time.
John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): This is the first time I have spoken under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I feel I should have something like in a Perry Mason court case, where one can ask the stenographer to repeat the last sentence the last person said. I was getting so enthusiastic about my speech that I forgot to mark exactly where I did finish. I know you have missed the whole thing, so perhaps I should start from the beginning—and then again, perhaps I had better not. I suspect that people have heard it before.
But let me just recap what I was trying to say: “Government wrong, me right” would be a short summary. Grandparents are most important: as one myself, as I said earlier, I may have a vested interest, but I think that interest has certainly opened my eyes to something important. I was going to say that there is obviously a question of fairness and equality to be looked at.
When a person is caring for a child in a family instead of working, whether it is a parent or a grandparent, why should we discriminate in regard to their pension? I know that has been said, but it should be repeated: why do we discriminate against grandparents? Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell me in his reply. This new clause is not about paying someone for the care; after all, there is no gain for someone who is already receiving the full state pension.
The current situation means that, if a mother stays at home to care for a child, she will get a weekly credit toward her pension. But if she returns to work and her own mother provides the child care, the grandmother will get nothing. It is not clear to me why that should be the case, and I hope my right hon. Friend will explain. The mother in that scenario is in work, and will probably be paying tax and national insurance, and not claiming. Working parents also help to raise the family’s income and tackle child poverty, one of the Government’s fundamental goals.
It might be suggested that there is an element of double claim here. But grandparental child care means that the mother will not be claiming child care tax credit, because informal child care does not qualify. It seems as though we have got the incentives wrong.
The Pensions Act 2007 was groundbreaking, giving unpaid care the same status as paid work for the first time. That was particularly welcome to women, who bear the brunt of caring roles in our society. Only 35 per cent. of women currently retire with the full basic state pension. That is a shockingly low percentage, and I am glad to say that my Government and my party are trying to do their best to alleviate the problem. This is the kind of reform for which we sometimes do not receive the credit we deserve. I am now looking for my Government and my party to pass this new clause, in order to look after grandparents in the same way we look after everybody else.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): It is a great pleasure to welcome you in the flesh as well as in the spirit, Mr. Amess, as I am sure you were with us this morning. As my hon. Friend has said, new clause 9 seeks to give contribution credits to help people caring for a grandchild under 12 to build up their state pension. It seeks also to give similar rights to people caring for 20 hours a week for a partner, relative or friend who is sick, frail or disabled, which is in fact already Government policy.
I would say to my hon. Friend in the nicest way possible that his new clause is deficient in a number of ways on both counts—in terms of grandparents and carers of the disabled. Let me explain why and review them both in turns. As he said, a wide power exists in section 23A of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. That allows regulations to be made to define people engaged in caring with a view to awarding them credits. He also perfectly fairly said that regulations are currently being drafted under the provision, which will be laid before Parliament this year. We think those draft regulations will go further than his new clause does in terms of the part about caring for a sick or disabled person.
The regulations propose that contribution credits be awarded to someone caring for one or more persons for a total of 20 hours a week where each person is receiving one of a range of attendance-related benefits, or where the need for care is certified by a health or social care professional. They also propose cover for periods when care ceases for a time to allow for, among other things, holidays, respite care and sickness. In that respect, therefore, the new clause offers nothing more and will almost certainly restrict the conditions under which credits can be given to someone caring for a sick or disabled person.
I turn now to the proposals to award credits to grandparents caring for a grandchild under 12. We recognise the significant contribution—as my hon. Friend has said—that grandparents make to the community. However, they are not a homogeneous group. Many grandparents will be over state pension age and unable to benefit from credits; many of the younger grandparents will be combining caring with employment. We sincerely believe, like my hon. Friend, that the improvements we have already introduced will greatly increase the likelihood that those younger grandparents will qualify for a full basic state pension. In most cases they will have received home responsibilities protection when bringing up their own children, and that is to be converted to qualifying years of credit from 2010. That, together with the reduction in the number of qualifying years for a full basic state pension to 30, and the opportunity introduced in the most recent Pensions Act to buy voluntary contributions for past periods, will mean that very few grandparents will need additional credits. It is estimated that by 2025 almost half a million extra women over state pension age will be entitled to full basic state pension as a result of these reforms. I will, therefore, ask my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West to withdraw the clause.
I am, however, aware of the strength of opinion favouring some special recognition for grandparents who may, in some cases, give up their own prospects so that they can help their children. We are considering whether any further provision is needed for them and we will not limit that consideration to grandparents since similar care may equally be given by aunts, uncles and older siblings. We are satisfied, though, that if we do conclude that such provision is useful, there is already scope to provide that within secondary legislation. I am happy to work with my hon. Friend both on the forthcoming regulations and on any consultations we make in terms of a special recognition of grandparents and other groups. In that spirit I ask that he withdraw the new clause but am happy to continue working with him on the matter because I agree with the sentiment and thrust of his argument.
John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his gracious offer, which I am glad to take up. I will consider what he has said and in the same spirit of helpfulness, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 11

Claimants’ Charter and Employment Services Ombudsman
‘(1) Regulations under this section shall make provision for the extension of the powers of the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 (c. 13) to administer disputes between claimants and bodies exercising powers under this Act, with particular reference to the Claimants’ Charter as under subsection (2) below.
(2) Regulations under this section shall make provision for a Claimants’ Charter to set out the rights and duties of Claimants under the provisions of this Act.
(3) Regulations under this section must, in particular, make provision for the following—
(a) a copy of the Charter must be given to each claimant upon initial contact with providers exercising powers under this Act, together with information concerning the independent employment services ombudsman,
(b) claimants not in employment should not be forced to live below the poverty line which shall be defined in further Regulations under this section,
(c) claimants must be treated with dignity and respect by all providers exercising powers under this Act,
(d) claimants must not be subject to degrading or discriminatory treatment in all of their interactions with providers exercising powers under this Act,
Brought up, and read the First time.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to see you here in the flesh, Mr. Amess, as well as having you here in spirit this morning. Members will recall that on Second Reading, the Secretary of State, in answer to a point by another hon. Member, said that he would consider the idea of a claimant charter. He said:
“I am aware that the idea has been suggested by Gingerbread, as well as by my hon. Friend, and it has a lot of promise. We want to consider how we can make sure that it is not restrictive and does not become a lawyer’s charter. As I will argue, we want to move towards a more flexible system based on personalised conditionality. If we are to do so, we need to look at how individuals can know that they will be treated fairly.”——[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2009; c. 182.]
That last statement from the Secretary of State is pertinent to the new clause which has been prepared in conjunction with the Disability Alliance, which includes Gingerbread, Citizens Advice and Child Poverty Action Group. With the new clause, we seek to set out clearly the rights and obligations of the jobcentre and the various private providers and voluntary organisations that work under contract with Jobcentre Plus. It would also set out clearly the claimant’s rights and responsibilities.
The second provision concerns an issue that we have discussed this morning—how any sanctions that are imposed might impinge on a claimant’s ability to subsist. We think it important to set out that sanctions should not force a person into a situation in which they or their family are unable to subsist. If that happens, the sanction system is not working.
The third provision is about being treated with dignity and respect. That is the kind of treatment that one should expect from JCP officers anyway, but such expectations are clearly stated in most charters. Again, the next provision states that claimants should not be subject to degrading or discriminatory treatment. During these debates, we have discussed how people with disabilities, and people with drug and alcohol problems, might be treated. The Minister has assured us that agendas will be personalised and will take account of such issues. If so, there should be no problem with stating up front that that should happen.
The next provision is about what should happen after the initial meeting and after the contract has been agreed. Once it has been set out what must happen in the next few weeks, which of the three categories the claimant might be put into, and what action is required, there should be a clear, written statement setting out what will happen next. A big and common complaint of people dealing with Government Departments is that it takes an age for paperwork and agreements to be dealt with; I am sure that other hon. Members have experienced that. What we are saying is that once someone is registered and an agreement has been made, they should be provided with timely and accurate information and benefits, so that they do not end up in the situation that currently occurs with benefits and other payments such as housing benefit, in which applicants are forced to take out crisis loans because of delays. Clearly, the system is not working if that situation arises.
The next provision is about monitoring the process. I know that it is common practice for Government Departments and bodies such as Jobcentre Plus to monitor and record phone calls. From my experience of dealing with such issues, recording such calls has made it possible to resolve disputes, so we want that to happen. One slight change is something that I feel strongly about—the use of 0845 numbers. Currently, people who need to phone up to get information about their benefits spend disproportionate amounts of money getting through. The Government are reviewing the use of freefone and 0845 numbers, but the new clause states that such phone calls should be free, so that exercising a claim or dealing with a query does not cost the claimant any money.
4.15 pm
The next provision is about an appeal against a decision—when the claimant feels that the sanction or the agreement is unfair. Members of the Disability Alliance want the establishment of a separate employment services ombudsman, but we think that that would be a duplication. The parliamentary ombudsman’s remit has this year been extended to include health care issues, and when a claimant feels that they have been hard done by they should be able to go to the parliamentary ombudsman. She would be able to set out the situation clearly. The ombudsman would not deal with day-to-day issues; they would be dealt with through the internal appeals process.
I am sure that the Minister will agree with the next measure, which would ensure high-quality provision that was tailored to the individual’s needs. During the passage of the Bill, we have raised many concerns about the ability of JCP to deliver that high-quality, personalised service, so the charter should say clearly, “This is the level of service and this will take full account of your needs. If not, there is a process through which you can go in order to appeal.”
The next provision in the charter would deal with the issues surrounding someone who was involved in the process. Will there be adequate child care? On the issue of including lone parents, we have voiced concerns to ensure that there will be adequate child care with which the parent is happy, not something that the Department imposes. If the parent has to travel to an office, reasonable transport costs should be reimbursed, and the measure sets out provisions for any interview costs that might be incurred.
The next provision deals with the situation when appropriate child care or support is not in place. If the claimant is a carer, they should not be forced into undertaking an activity that prevents them from discharging their wider activities.
The next point, which the TUC raised in its submission, refers to the situation in which work experience becomes work. No one on work experience should substitute for a real worker. If they do, they should receive the going wage for that job. That is a reasonable point to build into a claim.
Finally, the claimant should be able to get free, independent and appropriate advice. If a claimant were involved in drugs or had a mental health problem, organisations such as Mind would be appropriate for the provision of independent advice to the claimant. It often does so already, and the claimant should get advice on where to go.
The provisions of the charter are not fixed. I hope that the Minister will accept the way in which the new clause has been introduced. Given the Secretary of State’s willingness to consider a charter, I hope that if the Minister is not able to accept the measure, he will advise us how it will be put on the statute book, so that we have a clear claimants charter that sets out those rights and responsibilities by Report stage or by the time the Bill completes its stages in both Houses and the scheme is in operation.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab) rose—
 
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