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Baroness Buscombe: I, too, thank the Minister for that full response. I am much encouraged by her reference to the regulations. She said that they will not be exhaustive but that, at the same time, they would be very comprehensive with regard to a good-cause provision. Again, I am sure that the noble Baroness will understand that we introduced this very much as a probing amendment to underline the importance of this aspect of the Bill. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that the sooner we can see the regulations in draft form the better it will be for all of us in that we shall feel comfortable and reassured that what she has said will indeed take place. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 108:

Page 60, line 18, at end insert--
("(g) prescribing that, where an interview has not taken place within three days of the initial claim, and unless this is due to unreasonable behaviour by the claimant, full benefit entitlement be paid until such time as the interview has taken place and entitlement can be reassessed").

The noble Earl said: This amendment deals with interim payments and relates to cases which, again, are too numerous for us to enumerate, especially at this time of night. I refer to cases where, for one reason or another, an interview cannot immediately take place.

If there is a delay in the interview process--there may be circumstances where that is the right thing to do from the point of view of all parties--our concern is that the claimant should not lose benefit because of such a delay, which is not his or her fault. Obviously, if that happens, there is a possibility not only of real hunger but also of the building up of debts, involving crisis loans from the Social Fund, leaving the claimants to start life on benefit carrying a burden which has already built up before they have started.

One needs to start life on benefit if possible with as clean a financial slate as possible. I hope that this amendment will be acceptable. Press publicity has suggested that it might be. I await the Minister's answer with optimism. I beg to move.

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9.15 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am happy to make positive noises. We are concerned here with the amount of time between the claimant making a claim and the work-focused interview taking place. Amendment No. 108 seeks to ensure that a claimant whose interview does not take place within three days of making the claim will have his or her benefit put into payment, unless this delay is caused by unreasonable behaviour.

I have every sympathy with the intent behind the amendment. It is regrettable that at present there are instances of claimants not receiving an appropriate service. We hope that the "one" system will make things better. For example, personal advisers will be able to help clients who have not filled in forms correctly rather than the forms having to be sent to and fro as at present, provide them with information on the evidence they need to show and be a personal point of contact if clients want to check the progress of a claim. As I say, we hope and expect that the "one" system will improve the service to clients. That is why we have made the commitment to the three-day period.

However, we recognise that there are always occasional circumstances--I do not always refer to computers when I say this!--in which we cannot achieve the targets we set. I reassure the noble Earl that, where holding an interview within three days is impossible for reasons unrelated to claimants, they will not lose money. I fully share the noble Earl's opinion that it would be wrong for someone to be penalised because of administrative difficulties, or through no fault of his own. I hope that the noble Earl will accept that his amendment is not necessary and will feel able to withdraw it.

Earl Russell: I thank the Minister for that reply. There is just one circumstance it does not cover on which I hope she can reassure me. That is where the delay in the interview is because of circumstances to do with the claimant but for which the claimant is not to blame. I take, for example, the case of a claimant who is overcome by acute appendicitis and is taken into hospital and immediately operated upon.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I shall write to the noble Earl if I am in any sense misleading him, but as far as I am aware, that would count as a deferred interview. The benefit would be in payment and the claimant would be expected to attend an interview at the appropriate point when he is well enough to do so.

Earl Russell: I thank the Minister warmly for filling in that gap. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 108A not moved.]

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 109:

Page 61, leave out lines 7 to 20

The noble Baroness said: This amendment asks the Government to think again with respect to the designation of the person who would provide services as referred to in this part of the clause. The Bill refers

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on page 61 to "the designated authority" or "a person providing services". The designated authority or a person providing services could be the Employment Service, the Benefits Agency or the local authority. However, we on these Benches believe that the relevant person is the Secretary of State, as we believe that he or she should be answerable to Parliament. Therefore we ask for clarity as to the identity of "the designated authority". We want a specific reference to the Secretary of State rather than to "the designated authority". I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I hope the Committee will forgive me for repeating that the "one" service is all about treating people as individuals rather than as categories. That is why we have resisted blanket definitions to exempt particular categories of people from the requirement to interview.

Amendment No. 109 would not allow advisers any discretion to defer or waive the requirement to take part in a work-focused interview. I believe that such discretion is essential. I am sure that the noble Baroness would want advisers to have precisely that discretion. Indeed more discretion was called for earlier today. The heart of the policy is that personal advisers will be able to make decisions about whether an interview is appropriate on a case-by-case basis. Our expectation is that the vast majority of people will have their interview immediately. But the personal adviser must be able to make a judgment as to whether the help and support he or she has to offer will be of immediate use to the client, or whether it might be helpful at a later date. The example that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, gave of someone suffering from sudden appendicitis would be an obvious example. As I say, we want the interviews to be as helpful as possible and for people to approach them as a positive measure where they can seek to explore the opportunities available to them. Personal advisers need the discretion to decide whether an interview is appropriate according to individual circumstances. For these reasons, I hope that the noble Baroness will not pursue Amendment No. 109.

I turn now to Amendments Nos. 110 to 112, which relate to the "designated authority" making decisions to defer or waive work-focused interviews. It may be helpful if I explain the purpose of the term "designated authority". This allows certain decisions in relation to work-focused interviews to be taken not only by the Secretary of State but also by local authority staff or by those contracted to provide services to either.

A key aim of the "one" service is to streamline the delivery of benefits; it is a one-stop shop approach. "One" will provide a single point of entry into the benefits system for those of working age and will improve the level of service we provide. Lone parents may very well have between six or eight sources of income and be juggling five different agencies. That is a full-time job over and beyond their caring responsibilities. By bringing together all those agencies involved in the administration of benefits--the BA, the ES and local authorities--in partnership with private and voluntary sector bodies, claimants will be provided with a seamless, efficient and modern service.

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In "one" pilot areas, a claimant whose first point of contact with the benefits system is with the local authority HB office will be able, from that very office, to claim the whole range of social security benefits to which he may be entitled. The local authority staff there--fully trained, of course, like all personal advisers--will also be able to decide whether an immediate work-focused interview is appropriate for the claimant or whether the requirement should be waived or be deferred to a more appropriate time.

The amendments would prevent one set of key players--local authority staff or their contractors--taking decisions in relation to the interviews. Instead, all decisions would need to be taken on behalf of the Secretary of State. So the amendments, if accepted, would leave us with two choices--and both run directly counter to the streamlined service we seek to introduce and which we believe that claimants deserve: either we could exclude local authorities from "one" altogether, which would perpetuate current piecemeal and inefficient delivery mechanisms; or we could implement a regime in which the local authorities, while retaining responsibility for the vast majority of aspects of "one" delivery, would refer all relevant decisions to the Secretary of State. Again, that would be administratively cumbersome and would certainly lead to delays in processing benefit claims.

I hope that Members of the Committee will agree that the amendments would inhibit one of our prime aims; that is, to make "one" an efficient integrated service for benefit claimants which is sensitive to the needs of the individual. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.

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