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The changes form part of the Government’s ongoing package of welfare reform and strategy to eradicate child poverty. In Budget 2008, the Government invested an extra £950 million in measures to continue to tackle child poverty. More than one-third of children in lone-parent households live in poverty. Fifty-eight per cent of children in workless lone-parent households live in poverty. This figure decreases to 19 per cent when the lone parent works part time, and to 7 per cent if the lone parent works full time.

The Government believe that the regulations create the right balance between providing financial and other assistance to support families, and their wider responsibilities to lift individuals, families and children out of poverty. To delay implementation, as some have suggested, would mean that lone parents who can undertake paid work may not take up the assistance available to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Of course, in addition to the financial return, paid work provides far-reaching social, health and personal benefits for both the lone parent and the children in their household. The regulations are intended to open the opportunities of paid work to more lone parents and support them to have a better standard of living for themselves and their families.

We know that some of our customers face greater barriers in obtaining paid work than others, especially parents who may have extra challenges because of their children’s needs. To recognise this, the Government have provided extra support to lone parents to assist them to find and keep a job and to progress once they have settled into employment. Support to help lone parents find work includes the New Deal for Lone Parents, which offers access to a specialist Jobcentre Plus personal adviser and a range of additional services such as extra financial support and access to training.

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Since its introduction in 1998, the New Deal for Lone Parents has helped more than half a million lone parents to find work.

In-work credit is now available nationally to help lone parents make the transition into employment, as well as help sustainability and progression in work. This is an additional payment of £40 a week—or £60 in London—for 52 weeks to lone parents who leave benefits for work of at least 16 hours a week. Lone parents are also able to access help when they are settling into their job. Jobcentre Plus can provide financial help to overcome any unexpected financial barriers which might otherwise prevent them remaining in paid work. Lone parents can also access in-work advisory support provided by Jobcentre Plus Advisers to help resolve any difficulties and guide individuals towards any support needed, such as skills and training.

Some stakeholders have raised concerns about the availability of childcare. We have substantially improved childcare options for working families. More than £3.5 million a day supports lower and middle-income families with their childcare costs through the tax credit system. We have more than doubled the availability of childcare provision in England since 1997, with the stock approaching 1.3 million places. As a devolved issue, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have in place childcare strategies which aim to extend access to high-quality, affordable and flexible childcare. The Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on local authorities in England and Wales to secure, so far as reasonably practicable, sufficient childcare to meet the requirements of parents in their area who require childcare in order to work or to undertake training or education to prepare for work. A key element of this in England is extended schools, offering affordable, school-based childcare on weekdays between 8 am and 6 pm, all year round. More than 14,230 schools are already offering the core extended services.

We recognise that lone parents who do not have the support of a partner may require extra help in balancing the needs of their families and looking for paid work. The regulations give Jobcentre Plus staff additional flexibility to help and support lone parents who are actively seeking work while often facing challenging circumstances. Importantly,Jobcentre Plus staff must consider whether it was unreasonable for the person to stay in a job or to take up a job because appropriate affordable childcare was not available. That may help lone parents facing particular circumstances, such as those who educate their children at home.

It is clear that the current global economic climate means that we shall face challenging times. It is important that we do not repeat the mistakes of previous slowdowns and allow people to slip into long-term inactivity. This is bad for the individual and their families, trapping them into dependence and poverty. The labour market is dynamic, with millions of moves between employment and unemployment every year. Job opportunities will continue to become available; for example, there are around 600,000 job vacancies in the economy. Our active labour market policies will ensure that lone parents do not become further detached from the labour market and are well placed to benefit from current jobs and other opportunities as the economy picks up.

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I firmly believe that the regulations will result in more people obtaining a better life for themselves and their families and will lift more children out of poverty. The regulations will make sure that the right help and support will be available for lone parent customers who are able to undertake paid work but often face challenges to do so. At the same time, we will ensure that those customers for whom work is not an option are supported in a way that best suits their circumstances. The Government believe that the additional flexibilities to jobseeker’s allowance contained in the regulations, along with the operational safeguards and Jobcentre Plus guidance and training, offer protection for all lone parents, particularly the most vulnerable. I commend the regulations to the Committee. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008. 27th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 30th report from the Merits Committee.—(Lord McKenzie of Luton.)

5.45 pm

Lord Skelmersdale: The Grand Committee will be most grateful to the Minister for his careful explanation of these regulations. So careful was it that I was tempted to think that the noble Lord did protest too much, but perhaps that would be unfair to him. I am grateful also for the letter that he sent me explaining briefly—very briefly indeed in comparison with the speech he has just made—the regulations before us today. I was slightly less pleased that I received the letter only after Questions today. I know it is not the Minister’s fault, but somewhere in the system something has clearly gone wrong.

The Minister will be pleased to know that I find the second set of regulations that we are discussing this week quite a different cup of tea from the first. That said, like the Government, we believe that the best way out of poverty, and often ill health, is work. I therefore have no difficulty with the policy behind the regulations. There is no logic in continuing to pay income support to lone parents with school-age children until their youngest child passes compulsory school age.

However, the Minister will have read, as I have, the Social Security Advisory Committee’s comment that:

“Overall, we have considerable reservations about the proposals, both in terms of their potentially negative impacts and their potential to improve the situation of lone parents and their families and to reduce child poverty”.

Although I do not agree with that committee in total, it is right when it says that success in getting lone parents into work depends on the availability of out of school activities, whether in conventional childcare or in school activities out of school hours, especially in the holidays. We do not want to end up with an increasing number of latch-key kids or children wandering the streets in gangs and getting up to all kinds of trouble.

There is also the potential for the breakdown of family relationships. This will be particularly important when we get to the post-October 2010 period, when income support will remain only for lone parents whose youngest child is less than seven years old. It is

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about the seven to 10 year-old age group that I am most worried. Naturally I read the report of the discussion of this order in another place and observed that the Minister’s colleague agreed with the point that I have just made, saying that,

She had said earlier that the Government had,

The Minister has just repeated that figure.

My questions on this are twofold. Are these places currently filled? Will they cope with the extra number of children that these regulations will bring into the need for childcare? Are these places evenly spread around the country, especially in rural areas? Is every primary and secondary school open in the school holidays? I observe that page 4 of the SSAC document says, in paragraph 21, that services are increasingly available. That does not strike me as a satisfactory answer to those questions, nor does it help lone parents very much.

According to the Minister’s colleague, the figures are quite large, with 58,000 lone parents apparently having a youngest child aged 12 or over, 32,000 a youngest child of 11 or over, 38,000 a youngest child of 10 or over and 83,000 a youngest child of seven or older. Can the Minister say how many children all those people have? Doubtless it will average out at more than one.

There are other points of concern on which I should question the Minister. First, there will be a gap in lone parents’ income when they are automatically transferred from income support to jobseeker’s allowance, or employment support allowance, as the case may be. These individuals are, by definition, among the poorest in the country and an absence of income, if only for a week or two, will make them temporarily poorer still. “Oh well, they can get a temporary loan from the Social Fund”, I have heard Ministers say. That may be so if the local Social Fund has enough money in its coffers. Will the fund get an increase in subvention to cope with the undoubted calls upon it? In addition, is it wise to place lone parents into debt—perhaps even further into debt? Is it really not possible to speed up the transfer process and pay the money over immediately, and then to get the jobseeker’s agreement form signed later or even make the single parents come into the jobcentre and complete the whole process then and there? Only if they do not come should there be a gap in their benefit income; in other words, it would be an extra sanction to the ones the Minister mentioned.

I noted on page 5 of the SSAC report that arrangements had been put in place between the DWP and HMRC to encourage lone parents to claim child tax credit at least six months before the date on which they would lose their entitlement to income support. I do not pretend to be an expert or, indeed, to have any knowledge whatever about child tax credit, but the fact that it has the words “tax” and “credit” in its title

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must mean that at some point during the year the lone parents in question must have been paying tax—otherwise, they could not get a tax credit.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: No.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: No.

Lord Skelmersdale: No? In that case, I shall have the answer in due course. I know that those credits go on for a full year. Nevertheless, many of those lone parents will have been out of work for some considerable time—I would guess at least seven years, and probably seven years plus maternity pay, possibly even longer. Some will never have worked at all.

The subject of jobcentres brings me to the training of officials, who are particularly stretched at the moment by a reduction in numbers at a time when unemployment is on the increase—to 1.82 million—and only 589,000 jobs are available. I noted that the Minister’s figures on that particular item drifted a little between Question Time today and the speech that he has just made. There was a difference of 2,000. That is a tease that I could not resist. One wonders how long this will last, with small and medium enterprises failing at the rate of 50 a day, according to the Federation of Small Businesses. What extra training have officials been given to cope with the extra demands being placed on them by this order? How much will they know, and inform parents, about what childcare is available locally, for example? Presumably, the parents will be expected to pay something towards the childcare that their children receive; if so, to what extent does the Minister expect lone parents to be better off when paid the minimum wage?

Lastly, and on a more general point, I said at the beginning of my speech that the Official Opposition believe that the policy of getting more people into work, whether lone parents or others, is the right one. I did not, however, say how pleased we are that the Government have adopted a fair proportion of our welfare to work policies, as shown by their acceptance of the Freud report. However, the way in which the Government are going about it makes me ponder. Do they have any intention at present of doing away with jobseeker’s allowance altogether in favour of the lower rate of ESA? Although I see a certain logic in that, now would not be the time to do it. Nor am I certain that, at a time of deepening recession, now is the time to move lone parents with children aged between 10 and 16 from income support to jobseeker’s allowance. Will the Minister tell us why the Government have introduced this order now, with unemployment rising as fast as it is?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Like the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I welcome the philosophy behind the regulations, not because I do not value parenting but because I do. I am reminded of the story that Frank Field used to tell about visiting a school in Birkenhead. He asked a 10 year-old what he was going to do when he grew up, and that 10 year-old said, “I’m going to get my benefit”. That image of children living in a home in which two or three generations have not

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worked is the worst possible dowry we can hand our children. I suspect that none of us in this Room doubts the need to encourage lone parents, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, rightly said, to remain attached to the labour market and to help them to prepare for that by investment in training so that they do not permanently bump along at the bottom on the minimum wage, relying on tax credits to improve their income. Therefore, the move from IS to JSA is fine. I hope that ultimately this will be one of the most effective levers with which to address child poverty, which is what matters above all.

I wish to raise a couple of points, the first of which concerns language. Throughout the document, lone parents are referred to as “he”. I understand that in law “he” includes “she”. It would be quite nice, given that 95 per cent of lone parents are female, for “she” to include “he” on occasion. There is no linguistic reason why that should not be the case. I do not know whether the blokes in the Room have noticed this, but it does rather hit one.

The substantial point is to give assurances about the nature of the conditionality of JSA and the conditionality attached to resuming JSA, should one lose a job. Those are the areas that we are concerned about, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has mentioned.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5.56 to 6.06 pm.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I had been praising the policy and deploring the language. Perhaps I could now explore conditionality, which is the core of this. I am sure that my noble friend will be able to give us the reassurances that we need to feel entirely comfortable about this policy.

On the conditionality of JSA, my noble friend was very sensitive about the different situation faced by lone parents juggling childcare compared with the average people on JSA who tend to be younger, single people, three-quarters of whom are on JSA for less than six months and who will move very quickly into the labour market. That will not be the case for many lone parents who have had many years away from the labour market, particularly as they face limitations which the younger, single people on JSA will not face. The first is the suitability of a job. Jobs between the hours of 9.30 am and 2.30 pm are like gold dust. In my experience, they seldom exist, unless you are lucky enough to have a very supportive employer. Increasingly, lone parents take jobs which, in previous years, we used to call “unsocial hours” jobs. They are in catering or cleaning, retailing on a Saturday, or working Friday evening in the newsagents, the chip shop or the launderette. Suitable formal childcare is not available with such jobs. So there is a problem about the availability of suitable jobs with the backing of childcare.

Secondly, lone parents, particularly in rural areas, may have a very real problem with juggling transport. Most lone parents are not able to afford a private car and public transport will be weak. A lone parent has to juggle taking a child to school or to the childminder or wherever, along with getting herself to work. All that will bite into the time available for part-time

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work, and hence the wage, which will affect both the conditionality of JSA interviews and the ability to hold down a job under pressure.

There is also the problem of reclaiming JSA if a job folds for whatever reason. Conventionally, you do not easily reacquire JSA if you have voluntarily left a job. That is understandable in most circumstances, but not here. If your child is sick and cannot go to school and the childminder will not look after him as he may infect other children, as the child’s carer—the European Court has already established what that would mean—you cannot work. That is understandably inconvenient for the employer and, therefore, the job may fold, as a result of which there may be a question about reaccessing a JSA claim as it could be perceived that you have voluntarily left the job because you were not able to fulfil the perfectly reasonable requirements of the employer. There will be conflicts here in which both sides are right, and that will require sensitive negotiation.

The problems of reclaiming JSA will be at least as hard for many lone parents as they would be if they were going from JSA into the labour market. Alongside that will be the ability to reclaim housing benefit, which often takes weeks and weeks. I suspect that something like the linking rules that currently apply to disabled people will need to be applied to lone parents who have no income and are reliant on JSA—if they have been able to reclaim it—as part of the New Deal framework. That would be necessary to smooth the transition and avoid finding not just the lone parent but, even more importantly in my view, the child exposed to serious poverty.

Lone parents’ advisers who are handling the New Deal have a wonderful track record in acting as sheepdogs for their sheep, taking the lone parent to job interviews and helping them to buy clothes and so on. Will the task of encouraging lone parents to go not only on to JSA but into the labour market be entrusted to those selfsame lone parent New Deal advisers? If not, what additional training will be given to what are often young single men who are well intentioned, I do not doubt, but have no experience whatever of trying to juggle difficult issues where there is absolutely no financial margin with which to play?

I would be much more comfortable with the regulations if we had already securely banked the right to ask for flexible working for parents with children over the age of six. The Government are intending to introduce that but it appears to have been deferred at the moment. I would also feel much more comfortable if I knew that we could support the childcare of choice of most lone parents, which is that provided by grandparents. Twenty-six per cent of all childcare provided for women in work comes from grandparents. That is even more important in rural areas and for lone parents who work unsocial hours. Whatever the JSA regulations say, lone parents will often feel guilty about going into the labour market unless they have childcare they trust, and the childcare they trust is the sort that they themselves give the child, which is very often that provided by their own mother. They know that that childcare means that the child will be taken to the doctor if he is feeling poorly or be hugged if necessary,

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and it will be available if the mother is running late because the trains are late or the bus is not running, or whatever.

I am delighted that from 2010 we shall be giving carers of older people a national insurance credit if they care for 20 hours a week. I understand the argument that going for a childcare tax credit for grandparents in their 50s to pay for the childcare that would otherwise go to a childminder may produce a dead-weight loss. However, if a grandparent enables a lone parent to work, that lone parent, who would have been entitled to HRP, will not be claiming it but will be paying their own NI credits instead. Therefore, in a sense, it amounts to a transfer of the NI credit. I hope that my noble friend can take that away and look at it, because that would be one way of making the system easier. A lone parent would feel more guilt-free about entering the labour market and sustaining a job—which, after all, is the point of JSA—if she had childcare which she trusted, was stable and would strengthen family bonds. That can be provided by a grandparent. If we decide that we cannot afford to pay for it, we can at least ensure that that grandparent in their 50s is not penalised by losing access to their pension.

We should remember the problem that we had with tax credits. From the latest statistics that I saw, the core problem was that 50 per cent of lone parents experienced more than 10 changes of circumstance in any one year. As a result, the computer system toppled—it simply could not keep up with the continuously changing circumstances. For lone parents, the job contours may have changed or they may have a new partner in their life. But the primary cause of the changes of circumstances which toppled over the tax credit computer system was changes in childcare.

I have no confidence that we have fully addressed that problem. We may provide after-hours care, but if the child is tired, the child wants to go home and does not necessarily want to stay at school until 6 o’clock when the mother can come. That applies to weekends, if the mother has to work in Debenhams, for example, on a Saturday, and to holidays. Unless we can ensure that there is childcare that is stable and reliable and which the mother trusts, the lone parent will be in a revolving door situation between JSA and work, JSA and work. Every time the childcare collapses, which, from the tax credits records appears to be once a month on average, that lone parent will be out of the labour market. At that point, the employer will understandably get increasingly pressured, particularly in small firms, and lone parents will find themselves back on JSA again.

I am not confident that we have fully taken on board the ramifications of what that means. Having said that, I remain supportive of the policy. The most important thing we can do to address child poverty is to encourage the lone parent, as soon as is possible, back into the labour market, without having her fray under the pressure we put on her.

I hope that my noble friend can give me the assurances I seek on suitability of jobs, issues of transport and, above all, supporting the childcare the lone parent most needs to have available to her, which is probably that provided by her own mother.

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6.15 pm

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. She is an expert in these matters and I concur with just about everything that she said. I, too, have no rooted principled objection to these regulations, but it is worth remembering that the Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that the Government did not proceed with the regulations for a variety of operational and administrative reasons, rather than those of principle.

I pay tribute to the Merits Committee for its work on these regulations; it has helped the work of the Grand Committee considerably. The same applies to the Social Security Advisory Committee, whose report is instructive and informative. The Government’s Explanatory Memorandum is also a very useful document. As the department develops its policy, documents of that kind and in such detail help us all get a framework within which these changes can be judged.

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