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The noble Lord raised again the issue of childcare. Let me be clear that there will be no requirement in the White Paper for lone parents with children under the age of seven to look for work. The Gregg report looked at three categories: the work-ready group, those for whom progression to work was important, and those for whom there should be no conditionality—people in the employment and support allowance group. The noble Lord will be aware that we have invested well over £25 billion in childcare for the early years in England since 1997, and the Government have stated that by 2010 there will be a childcare place for all children aged between three and 14 in England whose parents want one, with that provision available on weekdays between 8 am and 6 pm. Again, as I said when we debated the regulations regarding lone parents, if no suitable or affordable childcare is available, there will be no requirement on a lone parent to take up work. I hope that that was very clear from our debates.

The noble Lord makes the point, and I agree, that we should not step back from this process simply because we face challenging economic times. What has fundamentally changed and developed in recent years is that there is a clear understanding that work is good, not only for people's financial well-being because it is generally their best route out of poverty, but for their self-esteem and health as well. Therefore, all the work that we are doing to help people get closer to the labour market, or to stay in the labour market, is very important. It is right to say that, notwithstanding what has happened to the headline unemployment figures and the rate of employment, some 200,000 people were taken off jobseeker’s allowance in each of the last two months. It is a dynamic situation. I am pleased that the noble Lord supports our approach to couples.

We remain interested in David Freud’s ideas for a single system of working-age benefit, but none of the options is straightforward and we would need a high degree of public acceptance before embarking on changes on this scale. We are considering the best way to initiate a public debate, and will put forward proposals when we are ready. Freud did not make any specific recommendations for reforming the benefits system. His main conclusion was that there were no obvious solutions and many difficulties in moving from where we now are. However, we remain attracted to the idea of a single benefit and continue to develop our thinking.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, welcomed the thrust of the White Paper, but with some reservations. She queried whether we were right to proceed in the

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current climate, but I would simply reiterate that we have learned lessons from the past. We need to keep people who find themselves out of work close to the labour market, and not languishing on benefits. We need to prepare people for the upturn. The noble Baroness made reference to sanctions and, particularly, the need for clarity. I absolutely agree and think that that point is dealt with in the White Paper. If we are going to sanction people, it is important that they understand what is involved, why it is being done and what to expect. That is a fundamental component of a fair system.

The noble Baroness took issue with the White Paper’s proposal to pilot people working for benefits. I think her point was that, at the end of a year on the flexible New Deal, the unemployed might be stigmatised or criminalised. I am bound to say that that is not how we see it. The whole thrust of this is about supporting people and helping them back towards the labour market and, we hope, into it. The noble Baroness was pleased that we are not proceeding with any suggestion that lone parents whose youngest child is under the age of seven should have to take up employment.

What does preparing for work mean? It could mean a variety of things. It could mean dealing with a skills need, family budgeting or childcare arrangements. It is important to have flexibility on this. The noble Baroness also referred to the fact that contracting arrangements need to ensure that people do not cherry-pick, and that the easiest to get into work are not addressed first while others are forgotten. Some discussion of the proposals for accelerated payments—so that the more people we get into work, the greater the payment—will help to address that particular issue. I am pleased that the noble Baroness supports our decision that carers should not be moved on to JSA before we see where the review is heading.

The noble Baroness addressed the case for an independent commission. The Government are aware that there have been calls for an independent commission, but are not convinced of the need for one, especially since there is a broad consensus that we should find ways to simplify the system and improve work incentives while maintaining flexibility to provide for groups with different levels of need. I hope that addresses the points raised and deals with Members’ queries.

4.04 pm

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I strongly support the Government’s policy of moving people from welfare into work, and accept the appropriateness of a degree of conditionality. However, is the Minister prepared to give the House three assurances?

First, on 25 November, I put it to the Minister that, in requiring people to take up work, it is essential to have regard to things such as the availability of accessible transport; the nature of the work itself; whether it is suitable for the person concerned, given things such as their impairment, previous career and work history; and whether it is reasonable to expect a person to take up a job that would lead to a fall in their family income. I think that the noble Lord was inclined to agree with me. Will he see to it that the legislation will prescribe that factors such as these are taken into account in requiring people to take up work?

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Secondly, will the Minister see to it that the legislation includes provision for statutory assessment of a person’s needs when they become disabled while in work, as called for by John Robertson MP in the Private Member’s Bill that he introduced in another place? Those needs could then be taken more effectively on board by employers, with a view to enabling people to remain in work rather than fall out of the labour market. Thirdly, will the legislation remove what I think the Government recognise as the disgraceful anomaly whereby people with severe sight loss are precluded from claiming the higher-rate mobility component of DLA?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, on that last question, the noble Lord will be aware that we have continued to look at the issue he has campaigned upon. We are not yet in a position to accede to the request that drives that campaign, but we will doubtless continue to engage with it.

On legislation, there is already a process embedded in the Welfare Reform Act 2007 requiring a work-focused health-related assessment. As IB customers are transferred on to that system, that will operate for them as well.

The noble Lord reminds me of an Answer that I gave on 25 November on suitable work, available transport and significant falls in income. All of those issues should be properly taken into account.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, I was having lunch with somebody on Monday who was involved in a company that was placing people in employment. The company was paid a retainer and then a success fee after 13 weeks if the person was still in a job. He rather surprised me by saying that one of the burdens put upon the company was to find the unemployed in the first place. He actually had to send people around areas where people might not have work and identify the unemployed. Is that a case of data protection? It is extraordinary that his company could not be helped by being given the list of people claiming benefits, so that it could at least visit them and ask about it.

To follow up on the point about sanctions made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, from the Liberal Benches, I am unclear what happens if somebody refuses to respond to any of these initiatives. Do they get all their benefit removed? Do they then find themselves on the street begging? I do not quite understand how the sanctions systems work and would be grateful if the Minister would make that clear.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am a little puzzled about the noble Lord’s first point, but would be happy to engage with him outside this exchange to understand the detailed and specific circumstances. Under the new proposals for the jobseekers’ regime, there will be three stages conducted with Jobcentre Plus. The flexible New Deal contractor would then kick in, but that would be via an arrangement involving Jobcentre Plus. I am trying to think of circumstances where contractors would just be asked to go and find the unemployed and deal with them themselves. That does not fit with the proposals that we are talking about, but I would like to understand it a bit better and see if there are issues that we should be addressing. It is not an integral part of these proposals.

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Varying sanctions apply in varying circumstances. If it is the employment and support allowance, it would be the withdrawal of its work-related component.

As regards the fundamental point that the noble Lord presses, there are protections for vulnerable people, which we debated in relation to the lone parent regulations. The level of the sanction withdrawal is restricted, particularly where children are involved. However, it is quite a complicated regime; hence the need for clarity in it. I shall be happy to write if the noble Lord wants more specific detail.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I consider that my noble friend is absolutely right to point out the benefits of work. It is also absolutely right for the Green Paper to emphasise that the longer you are unemployed, the more unemployable you become. That has been transparently obvious over the years. Therefore, the focus, even before a child is seven, of keeping a parent, particularly a lone parent, attached to the labour market, if necessary backed up by minor hassle, is absolutely right for the long-term investment in that family’s future.

It is sometimes easy for male authors of reports to underestimate how hard it is for a lone parent on a low income and often in poor health, coming out of a marriage or a relationship, to bring up children and hold down a job. It is seriously hard work and stressful, infinitely more so than the situation of a 20 year-old who does not care to get out of bed in the morning. I hope very much, therefore, that jobcentre staff will understand—I am sure that they will—the stresses and strains which somebody torn three ways at once faces. At the moment if you are either disabled or a lone parent, 16 hours’ work qualifies you for tax credit and therefore effectively counts as full-time work for benefit purposes, even though full-time work is normally regarded as 30 or 35 hours a week. Will my noble friend confirm that that is still the case and that we are not expecting lone parents to be sanctioned if they seek to work for less than the formal 30 or 35 hours a week; in other words, that the 16-hour regime will continue? Will he take on board very seriously the point by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that the longer our population lives, the more we shall need to support informal and family carers as an inexpensive and much more attractive alternative to very expensive residential care? Anything we do to make it more difficult to be a carer will have perverse effects on us all. Can my noble friend also give me assurances on that?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I can certainly do so as regards the latter point. The White Paper makes it clear that we will not seek to transfer carers from income support to any regime which requires conditionality for them, certainly until the Department of Health review is completed and we have a more holistic picture of how we should support carers. I very much take the point that they provide a huge service to many people in our country and that we should value them as much as possible. I absolutely accept the point about the difficulty of lone parents moving towards and going into the labour market.

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One of the key components of the White Paper is that rather than determining what people are required to do and how they go about that when they are dependent on benefit—whether it is employment and support allowance, income support or jobseeker’s allowance—there should be more flexibility to address their particular needs. In particular, the relationship with the advisory Jobcentre Plus in building a relationship and developing supportive help will be important. The noble Baroness referred to 20 year-olds having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. I am bound to say that as a 62 year-old, I sometimes suffer from the same problem.

The noble Baroness also asked about flexibility for people who wish or need to work only 16 hours per week. The JSA rules include flexibility around availability for work. This can be negotiated and discussed with the adviser.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, at the moment it is a right that for 16 hours of work you get tax credits which give you a workable income. It is a right, not something to be negotiated flexibly. Will that right continue?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the obligation under the regime will be to comply with conditionality. Depending on the lone parent’s circumstances, this will mean engagement with the job market and taking up employment. As I have said in previous debates, it would enable people to work only for 16 hours a week. I am conscious that that has probably not answered the specific question about whether, if that is an absolute right, it is being withdrawn. I think that the answer is no but I will have to write to the noble Baroness on that.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, I note from a very quick look that the White Paper requires people to take part in full-time activity in return for benefits. Who will provide the full-time activity? Will it be provided in the form of a government scheme or is it expected to take another form? I am not clear how this proposal will be implemented.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is probably referring to the four weeks of activity during the first year of flexible New Deal. That provision should be part of what the New Deal provider, which would be a private or voluntary sector contractor, would have to facilitate. I am looking to the Box for more support, but I believe that to be the case.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, I refer to the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, about the single working age benefit. It is not just David Freud who came up with this idea; Professor Gregg did as well. Would I be right in interpreting from the Minister’s reply to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that there is no likelihood that provisions for a single working age benefit will be in the forthcoming Bill? It would be very helpful to know that.

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Secondly, the Statement said that Access to Work was to be extended to 48,000 people with disabilities, but the scheme could assist nearly a million people. Getting people into work, assisting employers to provide work, and sustaining work so that it is not just “no pay to low pay” but no pay into a job with a career in prospect, are essential elements of this policy if it is to meet the needs of the client group it is seeking to serve.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, in terms of what the legislation is likely to contain, everything in the White Paper will not necessarily need to be translated into primary legislation. Some proposals can be dealt with administratively under current arrangements, some can be dealt with by secondary legislation and some will have to be dealt with by primary legislation. The proposal is for a power to be taken in that legislation to remove income support from the scene but no power, as far as I am aware, to go further than that currently. The implementation of that removal of income support depends on a range of things, in particular the issue around carers, which we touched on earlier.

Regarding Access to Work, we think that 48,000 people would be helped in 2012-13. The budget has been doubled; that is very significant support for disabled people and a very popular programme. Of course it is not all that needs to be done. There is the whole panoply contained in Pathways to Work. There are the new arrangements around psychological therapies to support people—the IAPT programme—and embedding advisers into that programme. There is the range of measures that Carol Black is looking at under the cross-government approach to employment and people with mental health conditions. There are, of course, obligations under the DDA on employers in any event to make reasonable adjustment. So Access to Work is an important part of the picture but not the whole picture.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I have two questions on younger children. First, the noble Lord will no doubt be aware of the great importance of the relationship between a very young child and its mother or other parent. This secure attachment is particularly important in the first three years. Can he give us an assurance that the Government will not in any way bring pressure on parents to leave their child and go to work or training during that period?

Secondly, will the Minister explain the logic of paying an 80 per cent grant for parents to send their child out to childcare so that they can go to work and not paying anything to the parent who stays at home to look after their own child?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, on the first point, the proposals that we have previously discussed and which are being put in train are for lone parents whose youngest child has reached the age of seven to engage with the labour market. The change that we are dealing with in the White Paper is for those lone parents with younger children to prepare for work, and we are going to pilot some of those arrangements. The proposal is that that would engage where lone parents have their youngest child between the ages of three and six, so it would exclude the very young children to whom the noble Lord refers.

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The issue of encouraging all parents to work if they wish to seems to me to be important. It seems right that we facilitate the opportunity, whether it is one parent or two parents who wish to work, for there to be good quality childcare provision. At the end of the day, the issue is, if there is reliance on the benefit system, who should engage with it. That is why, as part of these proposals, we are seeking broader engagement for situations where there is a couple, perhaps one of whom, sometimes the one who would need to engage least with conditionality, makes the claim. We want, in a sense, to reverse that process.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, will the Minister clarify whether, if there is no provision within the state, the 80 per cent can used in the private sector?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I assume that the noble Baroness is referring to childcare provision. It is not necessarily state provision that we are talking about; it could be any appropriate provision. I think that most of it is in the private sector, and some of it is provided by the wraparound arrangements at schools. It is for any provision that is qualified provision.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, who is responsible for making a decision about what is a serious condition? The noble Lord probably knows that I am going to refer to the ME community. At the moment, they are absolutely terrified of anything to do with social security benefits, because they fear that they will be made to go to work or to do cognitive behaviour therapy or graded exercises to get themselves better, when they know that the extra stress involved is likely to make them more sick.

I remind the noble Lord that both the Chief Medical Officer and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recognise ME as a serious condition in line with multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease. Far too often, ME people are made to feel that they are the scum of the earth, that they are scrounging and seeking attention. Please can I have a reassurance that these people will not be forced into employment when they cannot maintain it?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I believe that I can offer that reassurance. On the fundamental question of who decides, medical advisers are contracted to Jobcentre Plus who undertake the assessments for the purposes of the employment and support allowance. Certainly, if judgments are made that people are not able to engage with work and do not have the capacity to work, they will be put in the support group and there will be no conditionality attached to them. There is a broader issue around people with fluctuating conditions, and it is important that those who are engaged in these assessments are knowledgeable about these things, and we believe that the people who we use are knowledgeable. The noble Baroness raised that specific question on a previous occasion. Perhaps I can write to her further on that.

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Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I have been listening to this interesting discussion. In our area, I understand that we have apparently healthy couples who have not worked for years. Apparently, they have close knowledge of this complicated subject, and the clerk, who is dealing with a large number of people, cannot compete with them in putting these arguments. Is this the case?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me; I did not hear the first part of the question. Would he mind repeating it?

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, my question related to the people who deal directly with those who have not worked for years, and who are highly skilful in knowing all the ins and outs. Do they have the time to investigate?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, it is an issue of resources for Jobcentre Plus. It is an important point, particularly given the current economic situation and the strains that will be placed on Jobcentre Plus. The answer is yes. As part of the PBR, £1.3 billion extra was made available. Some planned closures of Jobcentre Plus offices have been put on hold, given the current challenges faced by Jobcentre Plus, but it is important that the resources are there. However, it is not only a question of resources for Jobcentre Plus; as part of the new contracting arrangements—and in particular the Freud proposal, which is about the AME/DEL switch—the intention is to draw in private sector investment, which in due course will be reimbursed, paid for out of savings in benefits. Those arrangements will be piloted and will also be part of the resource issue.

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