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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for explaining these amendments. We have had a number of debates on the question of 16 and 17 year-olds, as the Bill has moved through its various stages. The noble Earl has returned to this general proposition on a number of occasions. I fear that we will probably not agree on this issue, but I should like to explain once again how we see the treatment of 16 and 17 year-olds.
My noble friend and I have explained before that we believe it is important that young people should get the best possible start on their career path as early as possible through education, training or employment. I do not believe there is much disagreement on that. To that end we guarantee every 16 and 17 year-old who wants one a suitable training place, a training wage or an allowance. In general this means that there is no need for 16 and 17 year-olds to be unemployed and claiming benefit. However, as we have explained on a number of occasions, we recognise that there are exceptions and we provide for them.
First, certain 16 and 17 year-olds, such as disabled young people and lone parents, are able to claim income support without having to be available for employment, actively seeking employment or registering for employment or training. This will continue after the introduction of JSA. Secondly, certain other 16 and 17 year-olds in prescribed groups such as those leaving local authority care and couples with children will be allowed to claim JSA in their own right by virtue of Clause 3, subsection (1) (f) (iii). Thirdly, other 16 and 17 year-olds will be able to claim JSA if they can show that they would otherwise suffer severe hardship.
The first amendment we are dealing with, Amendment No. 2, would restore entitlement to benefit to all 16 and 17 year-olds who were registered for but not receiving training. That would run counter to the policy that I have described. Not being provided with training covers an enormous range of circumstances. The young person might have walked out of a training course or might have refused training. I have repeatedly said that, only exceptionally, should young people be eligible for benefit. The amendment would seriously
I have explained our general policy and should now like to say a few words on Amendment No. 3. The amendment would affect 16 and 17 year-olds in the prescribed groups who will be able to claim JSA without having to prove severe hardshipcare leavers and lone parents, for example. It would remove the requirement for them to register for training and employment. I cannot see how that would help those young people. The purpose of registration is to ensure that they receive the best possible help and advice from the careers service, especially advice on training opportunities. Registration is not onerous or burdensome. It enables the young person to discuss his career aspirations with a trained counsellor and will help him to make a start on the career ladder. Surely the House will agree that that is preferable to becoming dependent on benefit at an early age.
Most of the young people in this group are entitled to receive JSA only for a relatively short period. By the end of that period, most will be in training or employment. That is the measure of the success of our policy. As I explained, the few young people who are not in a training place, education or employment at the end of that period will be able to claim JSA if they would otherwise be at risk of severe hardship. In order to do so they will have to be registered for employment and training. So it makes good sense that they should have been registered right from the start. I hope that I have reassured the noble Earl that there is nothing sinister in the requirement to register for training and employment. It is not a burden; it is a means of helping young people get started in the world of work.
I turn now to Amendment No. 4. I must say that I was not entirely clear about its purpose. However, now that I have heard the noble Earl's explanation, perhaps I may explain our intentions in a little more detail. Our intention is that regulations will prescribe certain groups of 16 and 17 year-olds who will be able to claim JSA by virtue of Clause 3(1) (f) (iii) without having to show severe hardship. We intend that they will be the same groups as are now able to receive income support on similar conditions. They include couples with children, those who are forced to live away from home due to the threat of abuse, and young people leaving care or custody.
The regulations will also prescribe the period for which they are allowed to claim JSA. In most cases the young person will be eligible to claim during the child benefit extension period (CBEP). That is the period for which a parent could claim child benefit for a child who has left school but has not started training, employment or education. That depends on the time of year at which the child leaves school. The period starts on the Monday after the "terminal date", which is the official date for the end of school; for example, for summer school leavers, the date is the first Monday in September. It continues for about three or four months. For summer school leavers, it ends on the first Monday in January.
Other 16 and 17 year-olds, such as those who leave local authority care and are forced to live away from home, and discharged young offenders, will be able to claim for up to eight weeks. The purpose of subsection (3) is to make clear on the face of the Bill how the period may be defined. In most cases that will be in terms of the number of weeks, but in a few cases the length of the period will be fixed in some other way. For instance, the period could be from the time of registration until the young person reaches the age of 18. There is no hidden intention in the subsection. It is intended simply to clarify how the prescribed period may be defined. I do not believe that it would be helpful to remove that clarification from the face of the Bill.
I turn now to Amendment No. 27 which is the final amendment in the group. It seeks to divert government policy relating to young people from its current path. I recognise that there are differences between the noble Earl and ourselves on the question of universal access to benefit. But it must surely be right for the Government to help unemployed young people into training or employment rather than to create the conditions in which they can drift into benefit dependency. I must emphasise yet again that the Government guarantee every young person who wants one a suitable youth training place. That is our policy and that is why access to benefit for this group is on an exceptional basis.
We recognise, of course, that there must be exceptions; and we provide for them. I have explained that young people in certain specified groups will continue to have access to income support following the introduction of JSA, and that provision will be made in JSA for those who are currently required to be available for work in order to receive benefit.
The amendment seeks to allow young people access to hardship payments where they are not registered for training. That is not a proposition with which I can agree. JSA is not made available to 16 and 17 year-olds unconditionally. They must show that they are prepared to take steps to help themselves out of benefit and into suitable training or work opportunities. The amendment seeks to bring young people within the ambit of the mainstream JSA provisions, which apply to claimants aged 18 and over. We reject that approach which cuts across our policy that young people in risk of severe hardship obtain benefit on an exceptional basis following a discretionary decision by the Secretary of State.
The noble Earl asked about young persons who complete a training course before their 18th birthday. However, very few young people will actually do so. Most complete training courses that last two years. If someone does complete training before his 18th birthday and has not found work, he should re-register for training at the career service. That person will be covered by the Government's guarantee. He may claim JSA while he waits for training if he would otherwise suffer severe hardship.
I apologise if I have gone on a little regarding this group of amendments. I appreciate that some of your Lordships feel most strongly about the position of 16 and 17 year-olds. We have covered the ground on a number of occasions but I thought it only right on Third Reading to set out as clearly as I possibly can the arrangements that we believe are the right ones for 16 and 17 year-olds. I repeat what underlies our whole view on the issue. We believe that young people should not be given any encouragement to start off on a life of benefit dependency. The education is thereboth at school and in the form of further educationtraining is there, and the possibility of employment is there. We believe that we should take all possible steps to make sure that people are encouraged in every way to take up those opportunities and not depend from the early age of 16 on the benefit system.
I appreciate that the noble Earl feels strongly on the matter. I hope that I have at least put one or two things on the record which will show him that we do take into account those young people who fall into vulnerable groups or those who are subject to severe hardship. Nevertheless, I realise that there is a gulf between us. If the noble Earl decides to press the matter to a vote, I hope that my noble friends will support me.
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