Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Will my noble friend tell me about the timing of the pathfinders, not just when they will start but how long they will run and when we could expect to see the report on their efficacy? How many lone parents will be affected and who might benefit? Given that we might see this scheme roll out, when might it be widely available?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I hope that I can help with at least some of my noble friend’s questions. As we have already discussed, we are looking to pilot progression-to-work pathfinders in about 10 to 12 areas. The pathfinders should start in October 2010 and run for two years, followed by an evaluation. That is the rough timescale. Until we have done further work on the full scope of the pathfinders, it is impossible to say precisely how many lone parents will be affected, but my noble friend will recognise from her experience that there is inevitably an evaluation process that follows. I can give no particular timelines about going through the process and completing the evaluation but the pathfinders will certainly start in October 2010.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: Does the Minister not need primary legislation for what he has just announced?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: No, we do not.

Lord Skelmersdale: Is it still the intention that pilots should last for six months? I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that the best preparation for work is to dip your toe in the water and do part-time work, but the trouble is that this will happen for only six months. You have your part-time job, you remain on JSA with all the advantages that the noble Baroness and, indeed, the Minister, described, but what happens at the end of six months? That needs thinking through as well.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: We should distinguish between the “work for your benefit” approach, where we envisage a six-month programme, and the progression-to-work group, where pathfinders will be running for two years. Within each of those pathfinders—

Lord Skelmersdale: The Minister has just said that pathfinders will run for two years. Does that mean that the individuals on those pathfinders will be on them for two years? That is the point I was trying to make.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: They may do, but it is not inevitably the case. They probably would be there throughout the two years, which precludes people joining. I was going on to say that people might start off in that progression-to-work group; they will undertake work-related activity and may try out mini-jobs, with the benefit of an increased disregard, and that may lead them on more quickly than would otherwise be the case to work of 16 hours a week or more. There is the chance to progress, although they would not necessarily stay on those pathfinders for two years.

22 Jun 2009 : Column GC359

Lord Skelmersdale: That does not alter the fact that there is a fixed period and, sooner or later, those who have been on it throughout will fall off the end. I referred to six months, and the noble Lord is right to remind me that he is not talking about six months in this case but about two years. I am trying to establish what is likely to happen under the noble Baroness’s proposal at the end of the pilot or pathfinder period. The Minister will probably not be able to answer now but he might like to think about it in his further consideration of the amendment.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: It very much depends on the evaluation of what comes from the pathfinders. If they prove successful and the judgment is to roll it out nationally, that is what we would do; that might include the £50 disregard, if that is proved to be a successful way in which to encourage engagement. But until we have been through the pathfinders, we will not know for certain.

4.30 pm

Lord Skelmersdale: I think perhaps I have explained myself rather badly. I am interested not in the result of the pathfinders but in the effect on the individual who has been working for six months of the two years, say, or even the full two years. When she comes to the end of the pathfinder, does she keep her disregard or does it disappear? What happens next?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: It is expected that we would have transitional arrangements in place to protect those who were in receipt of a higher disregard, but that is some of the detail that is still to be worked out. What we are doing is to test the approach; until we have done so, we cannot conclude in what direction we shall go forward. That is not unusual with pathfinders or pilots.

The noble Lord made a point about someone with the benefit of a higher disregard that might disappear quickly when they are undertaking their mini-job. We would need to look at transitional arrangements to cover those situations.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The Minister probably cannot tell me now—I suspect that this has still to be determined, so he would not be in a position to do so—but would he write giving me some details? He mentioned 10 to 12 pathfinders. What proportion of lone parents will be encompassed within those pathfinders? I suspect that he would have to have a minimum of 1,000 lone parents in them, but it could be as many as 2,000 or 3,000 per pathfinder. I do not know whether he has any sense of that, but I should like to see how far the possibility of mini-jobs, a £50 disregard and a real concerted effort on child poverty could be met and what proportion of lone parents would be affected by it.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I am happy to write to my noble friend, but I am advised that the pathfinders that we would roll out in October 2010 could include some 60,000 lone parents each year. That is a measure

22 Jun 2009 : Column GC360

of the number that would be involved, which my noble friend will recognise is a good number from which to make an effective evaluation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: So that would be about one-third or so of the total eligible lone parent population. I would be grateful if my noble friend could write with the details but, in the light of that, I shall reflect on what he has said and see whether there is any way in which we could expedite it more quickly. I am very appreciative of his comments and those of all the other Members of the Committee for recognising the value of mini-jobs and, therefore, the need for a reward for work for lone parents, the child and the employer. I wish my noble friend speed in pursuing the development of pathfinders, and I hope that he writes to all Members of the Committee as soon as he is in a position to do so. I realise that if he is not thinking about this for another 14 months, we are some way off. I had hoped for an earlier introduction of the pathfinders, but if he gives me the details I shall be grateful. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 72 withdrawn.

Amendment 73 not moved.

Amendment 74

Moved by Lord Lucas

74: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—

“Jobseekers who are home-educators

Regulations made pursuant to sections 1 and 2 shall be so drafted as to ensure that jobseekers who are home-educating a child or children shall not be required to take any employment or to attend any interview at a job centre or elsewhere which would significantly disrupt the child’s education and, if the jobseeker concerned is a lone parent, they shall be entitled to register for jobseeker’s allowance by post and shall be deemed to have met the conditions of receiving jobseeker’s allowance.”

Lord Lucas: My amendment coming after that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, must seem terribly badly drafted, and indeed, it is. This is strange territory for me. Education is where home educators and I belong. I have drifted into this because of the Badman review and how home education is being handled from an educational point of view. I take an interest in that and therefore one of the related questions: how are these people handled by the welfare system?

The home education community is immensely diverse. I do not think that it can be categorised in any useful way. Clearly, a number of people home educate out of conviction—either that is their educational philosophy or they have a religious requirement which is not met by the state system. The majority are there by default because the state system has failed their children. They have children with special educational needs. I am sure the noble Baroness will recognise that many schools do not deal with such children properly. That is just a fact of life. If your child is disappearing down a whirlpool at school, it is noble and honourable to pick him out, take him home, look after him and make sure that he is educated properly. Some have children who,

22 Jun 2009 : Column GC361

rather than having a diagnosable special educational need, are just shy, have been bullied, have become school phobics or in some way or another have become children who are extremely difficult to educate at school.

As regards the state, these parents are doing something supportive. In educating their child at home, they immediately save the state £4,500 a year—the cost of educating a child in the state system. The Government do not have to pay that money to anyone when a child is home educated. The parents do not receive any support in any way from the local authority. They pay for GCSE entrance fees, swimming lessons and all sorts of other things which are provided as a matter of course to children in the schooling system. These parents are not living off the state. They are taking a substantial burden on themselves which the state would ordinarily assume.

It seems to me that the welfare system should deal properly and sympathetically with such parents, which is by no means always the case. It appears to be the habit of some officers at jobcentres to say that if the parents cannot get childcare, the children have to go back to school. That is an extremely rough thing to say in front of the child, who is always there because if you are home educating your child would be with you. That can cause extreme harm to the child if it is done under the wrong circumstances. Anyway, it is not the right thing to do. There needs to be an understanding that the childcare provided should be appropriate to the child. A child with special educational needs—for example, on the autistic spectrum—will need to have predictability and regularity about the way in which childcare is provided. They cannot just hop from one childcare provider to another. The childcare provider will need to have an understanding of a child’s condition. For these parents, signing on is burdensome. Because they have their child traipsing backwards and forwards to the jobcentre every other week, often on a long train or bus journey, several hours of the schooling day are taken up by useless transporting.

These conditions are not imposed in relatively parallel circumstances. If a child is excluded from school or if you are the subject of a school attendance order, the system makes allowances for it. It does not make you travel to the jobcentre. It allows you to sign on by post. It makes other concessions which make the job of looking after children in those circumstances easier. But the Government are not prepared to extend those familiar ways of working to home educators. Again, if you are asking a home educator to look for work, that work must be something that they can fit around their child, particularly if child-minding is a difficult thing to come by. Training as a child-minder and child-minding might be a pretty good way of helping these parents, but the Government have cut back enormously on the number of places on such training schemes.

Home-working is another good way of getting these parents back into the job market, but home-working opportunities are not generally available through jobcentres. Many of these parents are quite active and intelligent, and if you were not that you would be foolhardy to take on educating your own child. They are quite capable of running their own businesses

22 Jun 2009 : Column GC362

from home, given a little advice and help. Again, however, the jobcentre does not seem to be in the business of pointing people in the right direction.

I would like to see an understanding and supportive attitude; not bending the Government’s objectives of getting people back into work for all the benefits thereof, but being prepared to use the flexibility that they extend to others to make the whole business of being a home-educating parent looking for work easier. I would like to see them adapt what they are doing with the sort of jobs they are prepared to offer and the sort of opportunities they are prepared to support in the circumstances of home-educating parents.

We will come back to this in other contexts and other fora over the next year or so, as the Badman review works itself out and we get into the business of how home-educating parents are to be integrated into the system, which is clearly going to happen. They are likely to have a register and be known to the authorities. There is even talk of some kind of local authority support. Since we now have the Bill in front of us, we should at least begin to think about how the welfare system should treat home-educating parents, and what concessions and additional facilities can be extended to them so that the Government’s objectives, which I by and large share, are achieved in a way that benefits both the Government and the parents concerned. I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne: I strongly support the amendment, particularly because it raises a fundamental principle: do we or do we not believe that parents are responsible for procuring or providing the education for their child? I also support it because it is a specific example of the general principle enshrined in the amendment that I moved in Committee several sittings ago, that the implementation of these arrangements should always be sympathetic to the best interests of the child.

My hope and belief is that that was the Government’s intention, because if it is not it is simply a back door to doing away with home education. I ask the Minister whether, as it seems to me, home education would fall within new Section 2F(2) in Clause (2):

“A direction under subsection (1) given to any person ... must be reasonable, having regard to the person’s circumstances”.

Would “the person’s circumstances” include home education? Would the new section be sympathetic to it?

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on an ingenious amendment that opens up the whole topic of the status of home educators who are lone parents on benefits. In view of the announcement last week, it is extremely topical, as the noble Lord said.

We know that the Government will not accept that home educators who are lone parents on benefits should be exempt from the provisions of the Bill to attend Jobcentre Plus for work-focused interviews or work-related activity. This is presumably because they think that there is a lot of flexibility built into being a home educator and, therefore, that lone parents who are home educators can attend Jobcentre Plus for work-focused interviews, and possibly work-related

22 Jun 2009 : Column GC363

activity, around their home-educating responsibilities. But why can that not be regarded as work-related activities, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said? As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, many lone parents who home educate their children do so for practical reasons, such as the presence of a disabled child for whom it may be very difficult to get the appropriate childcare.

It seems to me that if new rules are to be brought in, including registration, right of access of local authority officials and more support for home educators—those points were in the Badman report—there is no reason at all why the Government should not also agree that home education is, at the very least, work-related activity. They cannot have it both ways. The Minister’s erstwhile colleague in the department, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, said that they have always been clear that parents should retain the right to educate their children at home, that most home educators do a fantastic job and that she wants to ensure that they get more support from local authorities. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.

4.45 pm

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: This afternoon we have heard much about ballots and those Members of the Committee who have been here most of the time—I apologise to the Committee for not being able to include myself in their number—will appreciate that in the Bill a balance has to be struck and even an occasional participant like myself becomes quickly aware of that underlying all the debates on the Bill. That balance revolves around the fact that the longer an individual is out of work the more difficult it becomes for them to return to work. The Bill seeks to address that essential feature. In that context, we must be certain that any exclusions to the proposals in Clause 2—the progression-to-work group—on which we settle do not end up with a financial and psychological downside to the entire family.

Those thoughts bring me to Amendment 74, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas. It seeks to exclude parents—I am not sure whether it is one or both—from the progression-to-work group on the basis that they are educating their children at home, perhaps because the latter are subject to school exclusion or have been bullied at school and have subsequently been withdrawn or simply because the parents believe that their children will be better educated if that education were conducted at home rather than in a conventional school setting. I have to confess that a department of state which I have had nothing to do with in my relatively short time in this House is the Department of Education and Science as it used to be called, or in the modern idiom the Department for Children, Schools and Families. My noble friend Lord Lucas should not feel unnerved by finding himself drifting, to quote his words, into this Bill and this Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, have said, his interest is an important one for the Committee to consider.

I support the view that parents should have the right to support and educate their children as they feel fit, subject of course to the necessary safeguards.

22 Jun 2009 : Column GC364

However, as well as an education, I believe that a child will benefit from being exposed to an environment in which there are working adults in the family or at least adults progressing to work. Of course, that must be a judgment but I know where my opinion sits. While I would not deny the right of parents to educate their children as they want, it would be wrong for taxpayers to finance, admittedly at a fairly low level of income, the living of a family who chose to educate their children at home.

The likely response of my noble friend to this matter is that by educating the children at home they are saving taxpayers’ money. In the short term that is undoubtedly correct but I ask my noble friend to think of the longer term as it applies to the children and to their parents after what may well be 11 years out of the workplace. How likely are those parents to get into work? Will taxpayers have to support them through the rest of their lives? What effect will that have on the children? How likely are they to end up in the world of work? No doubt the Minister will give us some statistics, if she has them, of the propensity of that. I shall await her response with interest.

Lord Northbourne: Does the noble Lord believe that educating children at home is not work?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: It may be very hard work. I am the father of two children—both are now adults. Looking after children in any capacity is very hard work. We can talk about parenting and motherhood or fatherhood as a job, but that considerably expands the discussion of the Bill, and I do not believe that is the background against which it is being proposed. I hope I have explained the downside of an environment where regular work is not part of the family’s background. I am sure that one reason why the Government have brought forward the Bill is to increase the number of families, both single parents and married couples, who find themselves with an opportunity to work because it is the framework in which children may find a more fulfilled life.

Baroness Crawley: I rise to dip my toe into the Welfare Reform Bill in front of my far more experienced Peers, but that is the lot of the lowly Whip. We have had a good, wide-ranging and useful debate on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I begin by repeating the quote from my noble friend Lady Morgan, the children’s Minister, used by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, which demonstrates how the Government have to strike a balance in our response. It was from my noble friend’s immediate response to the Badman report and its recommendations. She said:

“We’ve always been clear that parents should retain the right to educate their children at home. Most home educators do a fantastic job and I want to ensure they get more support from Local Authorities. But we can’t afford to let any child slip through the net — in terms of their education, or safety”.

That is the balance that we are looking for.

As we discussed, the work-related activity a parent will be required to undertake under Clause 2 will be specifically tailored to the needs of the parent who is

22 Jun 2009 : Column GC365

undertaking it. While I recognise that parents can choose to home educate their children, it remains the case that paid work is the best way out of poverty for parents and their families, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, intimated. Parents who choose to educate their children at home will need to be able to balance home educating activities with the steps they need to take to improve their long-term labour market prospects.

In addition, funding is not provided by government by way of benefits or otherwise to undertake home education. We believe that about 20,000 children are being educated at home, but it could well be double that, and we will discuss that when we come to the Badman report. The Government do not consider that parents who choose to educate their children at home should be treated more favourably in benefit terms than those whose children attend school. It would therefore be inconsistent with current government policy if benefit recipients who were also home educators were not required to participate in “work for your benefit”, as outlined in Clause 1 or to undertake work-related activity under Clause 2, if it was required of them. Nor do the Government think it is right to exempt home educators claiming JSA from signing on at a Jobcentre Plus office. However, as we have already stated, some parents will be exempted from work-related activity, as they are now from seeking work, because of the extra caring responsibilities that they have. We spoke about the higher proportion of children with SEN who are being home educated; those parents who are in receipt of carer’s allowance or who have a child who is in receipt of the middle or highest rate care component of disability living allowance will not be required to undertake these activities.

In addition, unlike many parents who send their child to school, parents who choose to educate their child at home do not have to observe school hours, days or terms and may therefore—and this is the other side of the coin from the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made about time constraints—have greater flexibility to fit paid work or work-related activity around their children’s education. Therefore, home educators, like other parents, should be able to identify times which fit with their family and other commitments so they can undertake work-related activity or participate in “work for your benefit”. As with all other people subject to these new arrangements, home educators will not be penalised if they have good cause for not taking up a job—I think that that was the gist of the question that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked; the availability and suitability of childcare will be central to such a decision. The jobseeker’s allowance regulations were amended last year to make this clear. We will, of course, listen carefully to the responses to our public consultation on elective home education currently underway in response to the Graham Badman review.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page