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As the Minister reminded us, life on benefits is a life of poverty, which we all want to see challenged, as this Bill does. I therefore support the intentions of this part of the Bill and believe that, in time, the children and lone parents involved will benefit considerably. Many years ago, I worked with single mothers as a social worker and I am well aware that many struggle to cope. Sensitivity to an individual's capacities will be essential. For this reason, I regard the Government's
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In considering this amendment, I hope that noble Lords will take account of the Government's considerable concessions, in my view, in relation to lone parents and what I hope will be a positive response on provision for home visits in appropriate cases, although at this point I cannot take that for granted by any means. Taking all this into account, I think that the Government are right, where good-quality childcare is available, to urge lone mothers to begin thinking about getting back into part-time work-that is all that they are really seeking in the early stages-as soon as they feel reasonably able to do so. Many years on benefits cannot be right for the great majority of lone parents or for their children, although we would all agree that parents with a disabled child are an exception to that rule. I understand the many arguments put by colleagues in support of this amendment but believe that the Government's overall objective deserves our support.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this well informed debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, that I accept that this is not a wrecking amendment. However, I think that it is ill advised. I accept his acknowledgement that the Government have moved towards an active labour market regime. The benefits of that are being demonstrated in the teeth of a tough economic situation.
The intended effect of this amendment is to prevent a financial sanction from being imposed on single parents with a child under five who fail to meet their work-related activity requirement. The practical effect of the amendment would be that lone parents with a youngest child aged below five would no longer be required to undertake work-related activity under Clause 2. This amendment would not affect the current sanctions regime for lone parents who can face a financial sanction for failing to attend a work-focused interview; it would affect only non-compliance with agreed work-related activity. I should say in response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that it relates only to income support, not ESA.
The position of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, on this is a little curious. When moving the amendment, he said that he thought it wrong for lone parents to suffer a cut in benefit, but he seems to accept that they could be sanctioned under the work-focused interview regime. There seems to be an anomaly in that position. Indeed, under the current regime for work-focused
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If this amendment were agreed to, we would have a position where lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four would be required to attend a work-focused interview every three months and agree an action plan but would not be required to complete any of the activities on that plan. Currently, they attend work-focused interviews every six months, but this is likely to be increased to every three months. For lone parents with a youngest child aged five or six, who would attend work-focused interviews every three months, we would require them to agree an action plan that included work-related activity that they were required to complete or face direction and, possibly, eventual sanction.
This would mean depriving lone parents with a youngest child aged three or four of the help and support that they may need to help them to start preparing for work when their children are older. This is the point to which my noble friend Lady Hollis spoke with her usual eloquence. In addition, we would be expecting many lone parents with a youngest child aged five or six, who may have been out of employment for six or seven years, to fit the extensive preparation that they may require to get a job or look for work when their youngest child reaches seven into two years or less.
Our alternative-the model that we wish to test in progression to work-is for lone parents with a youngest child aged three or over to start their planned journey towards being ready for work when their youngest child reaches seven. These extra two years will allow lone parents to build their confidence and skills at a pace that suits them. We expect many lone parents with a youngest child aged between three and six to be the hardest to help. They are likely to be some distance from the labour market and typically have multiple barriers to employment. Work-related activity should therefore be interpreted broadly. It should not be restricted to formal training or confidence building, although they would be qualifying activities.
There will be no daily requirement to undertake activity, but there will be a requirement to undertake reasonable activities that fit with the needs of the child and the lone parent's situation between work-focused interviews. These will allow advisers and lone parents flexibility in drawing up the action plans and tailoring activities to their individual needs and situations and the time to do that at a pace that suits the lone parent. For example, lone parents may start with activities addressing their own or their family's wider situation, such as starting to use a children's centre or seeking debt advice. They may then move on to improving their skills for work through mentoring or more formal training. As they move closer to the labour market, their work-related activity may focus on looking for job opportunities and the availability of childcare.
I must stress that the measures that we want to introduce under the progression-to-work model will not require any lone parent to be available for or actively seeking work. Instead, they will help lone
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We want to introduce the progression-to-work model to those lone parents who have a youngest child aged three to six so that we can test if this is the correct age range. After debates in Grand Committee, we are still convinced that starting this process with a lone parent who has a youngest child aged three is right. This is because of the strong foundation of childcare provision available for children in this age range. Parents can access free, part-time pre-school education when their children are aged three and four, while children aged five and six receive free education of up to 30 hours a week during school term time.
In Grand Committee, we outlined the safeguards that we wish to introduce in secondary legislation to ensure that lone parents are not penalised if childcare cannot be accessed. Since then, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, acknowledged, we have gone further by proposing to introduce provisions to enable lone parents to restrict the hours during which they undertake work-related activity so that they fit around their children's schooling or formal childcare and to ensure that the availability of childcare is taken into account for good cause. Additionally, when agreeing appropriate work-related activity in an action plan with lone parents, Jobcentre Plus advisers must have regard to the well-being of their child or children.
As in previous debates, I cannot stress enough that the progression-to-work model is not about penalising lone parents; it is about encouraging them to improve their lives and the social and economic well-being of their children. Lone parents and advisers will work together to agree appropriate work-related activity. Given the broad spectrum of activities that count as work-related activity, we hope that in most cases customers and advisers will be able to agree suitable activities that can easily be undertaken by lone parents. However, if lone parents fail or refuse to undertake such activities without good cause despite all of the safeguards, we would want the ability, as a last resort, to impose a sanction until they comply, with, of course, provisions relating to hardship.
In progression to work, we will move away from the models currently used in jobseeker's allowance and income support and instead introduce a model that relies on more upfront, in-depth engagement with lone parents before a financial sanction is imposed. The current Jobcentre Plus procedures ensure that, before a sanction is imposed on lone parents for failing to attend a work-focused interview, considerable effort is made to contact them to find out why they did not attend. If, following all the existing stages that Jobcentre Plus goes through to avoid imposing a sanction, a lone parent fails to take part in a work-focused interview or to undertake or complete work-related activity without good cause, under our new model that will not result in a financial sanction. Instead, a formal, final written warning will be issued. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pressed an important point, which will be
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The purpose of this stage is to provide a more in-depth review of the lone parent's circumstances and the reasons for their failure to comply. This process will ensure that no lone parent can be sanctioned for one failure to comply. Only if they fail to comply when given a second opportunity to carry out work-related activity or a rearranged work-focused interview without good cause will a sanction be considered. If, after this process has been followed, a lone parent still fails to engage, the last resort will be financial sanctions applied to their benefit. Where a sanction is applied, a lone parent can ask for it to be reconsidered or can appeal against it if they feel that they can provide extra information to show good cause. That is always subject, as I have said, to the hardship provisions. As soon as a lone parent with a benefit sanction attends a work-focused interview or re-engages in work-related activity, the sanction can be removed and their benefit restored to the previous level. Overall, this approach will provide lone parents with every opportunity to engage with work-related activity; it will lead to fewer financial sanctions but provide the necessary backstop to ensure engagement.
I think that noble Lords will agree that our model of a journey towards work, which is based on preparation over a longer period and at a pace set by the lone parent, is the way in which to prepare this group of parents for their move into work or to jobseeker's allowance when their youngest child is seven. This must be preferable to following what may be a long period of inactivity with hurried activity in a short time.
My noble friend Lady Hollis pressed the noble Lord, Lord Freud, on alternative sanctions. As she said, he did not indicate what they might be. Depending on what he has in mind, primary legislation may well be needed to deal with alternative sanctions, because the sanctions that are permitted under the Bill relate to the withdrawal of benefits, so I do not know how we would deal with that issue. Nor have we heard anything about what protections and hardship provisions may surround the sort of sanctions that he has in mind but does not feel able to share with us at the moment.
My noble friend Lady Hollis asked particularly about childcare. We have been very clear about that. If childcare is not available, no requirements can be placed on individuals. We see the progression-to-work strategy very much as that-as steps for lone parents that may become progressively more involved as the parents move closer to being required to be available for and looking for work. That is the right way to go. To accept, on the one hand, that it is quite okay to sanction lone parents who have children as young as
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Lord Freud: My Lords, I am utterly delighted to hear the enthusiasm of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Meacher, for the early activation of lone parents. We agree, although we want there to be protection against the full weight of financial penalty in that early activation.
The Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, made much of the fact that by having this protection at the age of five we would in practice be forced to compress all the activity in the five-to-seven period, but the gap is clearly not as big as two years. Even the whole process of a sanction regime as described by the Minister, in which there are written warnings, visits and so on, takes up time. We are not talking about a huge gap of time or halving the four years, which the Minister sees as preparation for work.
I was challenged by the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on what on earth the sanctions might be. The Minister described two: written warnings and visits-visits are hassle. There are, however, several others. Clearly, taking people's time is effective and I suspect that there are ways of doing that even under present legislation. Making the way in which money is collected rather more inconvenient is effective. Controls on how money is spent and in what form are another.
It has always seemed somewhat illogical to us on this side of the House to come in with the full force of financial sanctions against a community that subsists on the breadline in many cases. What are you doing? Are you taking their money away? Do you expect these people and their children to starve? It is illogical. There must be more imaginative ways of running a sanctions regime and I hope that the amendment will force a little bit of creativity on the other side of the House in managing that sanctions regime.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked whether the amendment would apply purely to the JSA or to the ESA. I should make it clear that I have been corrected by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, who is a total expert in the technology of these Bills and who has pointed out that, according to new Section 6B in Clause 4(1)(b), it will cross over from the JSA to the ESA, so it will cover both of those.
Let me deal with the other accusation, which is that there is an anomaly in having financial penalties in the WFI regime and not in the ready-for-work regime. The first regime is very light; it has been established and seems to be operating. We are now introducing extremely rapidly a whole new system that in this country is quite revolutionary in that it brings the age down. Last year, the child of a lone parent only had to be 16 for there to be virtually no interaction with state except for WFIs. If we are to change that system quite so radically and quite so speedily, we obviously need to put a safety break into it so that no one who has a youngest child under five-in other words, under school age-will face financial sanction.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Will the noble Lord reconfirm that he is still saying that, if a lone parent fails to attend a work-focused interview, it is acceptable to sanction the parent's benefit, even though the child is only one, and thus do the very things that he was talking about-starve the child and so on and so forth-but that, when that child is older and the parent has come to that work-focused interview and agreed a plan of action in good faith which she then refuses to go ahead with, it is not acceptable to sanction her?
Lord Freud: The plan of action clearly involves a far more elaborate set of requirements than the six-monthly visit to Jobcentre Plus that has been required up to now. There is a difference between an established system that is a very light regime and a regime that could in some circumstances be onerous and in which protection is therefore required.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: The noble Lord asserts that the action plan will be onerous. I have outlined what we see to be the progression through that plan and the fact that the action plan may occasionally require one activity between two three-monthly WFIs. What on earth is so complicated about that?
Lord Freud: I said that it may be an onerous requirement, depending on the view of the personal adviser and the plan thereby devised. It is a completely new system, which is why we need protection of the nature suggested in our amendment.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to open this short debate. There has been much media concentration on the problems of young people, school leavers and those recently graduated, and I support what the Government are trying to do in that situation, but older workers in the 50-plus category face particular problems when they become unemployed. Many find that age discrimination magnifies other barriers that they face. Eventually the hurdles become insurmountable. They begin to fear that they may never work again. With a fall in income from pensions and savings, many who lose their jobs face the prospect of a bleak old age. As one unemployed 50 year-old put it, "Age is the new disability".
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