|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Amendment 68 relates to the claimants who are subject to no work-related requirements. The Government said that they would make that subject to the affirmative procedure for the first regulations. Once again, the Regulatory Reform Committee asked whether the Government would confirm that there would be only minor adjustments after that first set, and I think that we might be content with that.
With Amendment 69, it is exactly the same process. The Government have put in the affirmative procedure for the first time. If they can assure us that the regulations set out in the first instance are unlikely to change a great deal thereafter, I think that that will be satisfactory as well.
Amendments 70 and 99 would remove the words "Scottish Ministers". That would not only create equality between the rest of the country and Scotland but ensure that, because Scotland would be doing these regulations by affirmative procedure, the rest of the country would be doing them that way as well. I did not understand why it was not.
Clause 47 provides that regulations under Sections 6 and 7 of the Jobseekers Act 1995 should require only the negative procedure. As of now, they have the affirmative procedure, and the regulations concern claimant conditionality and the requirements for claimants to be available for and actively seeking work on which their jobseeker's allowance is dependent. The predecessor committee that looked at the matter in 1995 for the Jobseekers Bill considered the provisions concerning availability for work and actively seeking work to be of fundamental importance to the Bill and recommended that regulations about them should require the affirmative procedure whenever made. The DWP memorandum on this topic says:
"Regulations such as this are generally advantageous to JSA claimants. The Department has increasingly found that having to use the affirmative procedure makes implementing the changes more onerous than it needs to be".
Can the Minister say what "more onerous" means? Does it mean that you have to have open consultation, which seems to me important? The Government rejected the recommendation from the Delegated Powers Committee, saying that moving to the negative procedure was absolutely necessary. I think we would like to know a bit more about what was absolutely necessary.
With the introduction of universal credit, there are bound to be uncertainties that really should not be left to the negative procedure in this matter. Some changes are envisaged in the regulations using the negative procedure, meaning that the Secretary of State can restrict the conditions on a claimant so that they are searching for a job that they want or may not want or one that is near them or is paying well. The precedent set by the previous legislation in this area-in fact, all legislative matters in this area in the past-has required the affirmative procedure to be used for issues of this kind. I wonder whether the Minister can convince us that we need to move in a different direction.
With a Bill of this magnitude, which has such importance for a great number of people, over the years to come we should be absolutely clear that we are going to have a fully transparent process to allow the debate to occur, not just this year or next year but for the length of time that this Bill survives before changes are made and whenever these matters become important to the public. We need to have that public debate, and I think that Parliament deserves the affirmative resolution in the areas that I have outlined.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, I find to my surprise that I have an amendment in the middle of this group, Amendment 71, which I am sure I conceived of in a reflective moment in my bath a long time ago. The amendment proposes a new clause entitled "Universal credit: requirement for simplicity". It says:
I do not think that anyone in the Room is in favour of avoidable complexity. However, the point that I wanted to make, as we come to the end of the universal credit part of the Bill, was that, with a bit of determination, for the first time you can achieve simplicity. Even if unavoidable complexity were engrained in the legacy systems and the rest of it, perhaps it would be positive to have a statutory duty. There might be another Government in due course-you never know what might happen-and you could foresee circumstances in which there might be some back-sliding in terms of some of the gains that we have made with universal credit. If it is possible to do it-and I think that there have been signal successes in this direction, and they are demonstrated in the legislation that we have in front of us-maybe it would help to put in perpetuity for future Ministers a duty to avoid unnecessary complexity. It is something that could always be argued if future Governments came up with other unnecessarily complex systems. Perhaps I am talking to myself here, but the point is at least worth considering.
This is, rather obviously, a probing amendment, but I would like to hear the Minister's thoughts: is it a completely daft idea, or might there be some merit in trying to get Ministers-the noble Lord's heirs and successors-always to think carefully about unavoidable complexity in future iterations and reforms, particularly of the universal credit? It would be so easy to lose a lot
3 Nov 2011 : Column GC509
Lord McKenzie of Luton: How does the noble Lord envisage definitions of avoidable complexity being built in to the legislation-by regulation, perhaps, or a bit of guidance here and there, or perhaps even something in primary legislation?
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I have no idea-it was a thought in my bath. I confessed that at the beginning. However, it is worth reflecting on. Of course the noble Lord is absolutely right-as soon you start thinking about it, you start putting in layers of complexity. I think a challenge to Ministers is not a bad idea, even if it was just on the wall or behind the desk-I would settle for that. I beg to move.
Lord Freud: My Lords, in some areas I broadly agree with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee's suggestions, and the Government have brought forward amendments to make these changes. Where key principles are established the first time the powers are used, these amendments will make the regulations subject to the affirmative procedure in the first instance. As to Amendment 66, Clause 6(1)(a) allows for regulations to set out circumstances in which a claimant will not be entitled to universal credit even though they meet the conditions of entitlement. I am grateful for the opportunity to reassure the Committee that the negative procedure will afford Parliament adequate control over the use of this power.
As I set out during our debate on Clause 6, there will be a number of specific groups who will not be able to access universal credit. These may include certain prisoners and children leaving full-time care who remain the responsibility of the local authority where payment of universal credit would lead to duplication of provision. This will broadly reflect similar rules in current benefits.
Similarly, I would like to reassure noble Lords that it is appropriate for the regulations on hardship and claimants falling into the no work-related requirements group to be subject to the affirmative procedure only in the first instance. In both cases, our intention is that the initial set of regulations will clearly establish the key principles of the new system. We have already provided noble Lords with a draft of the regulations to be made under Clause 19(2)(d). We have also published a briefing note on the conditionality threshold. We have debated these matters at some length earlier in Committee. Once the system that we have set out is in place, it is unlikely that the regulations will change significantly, and I hope that is the assurance that my noble friend Lord German was looking for.
There are three areas where I am unable to accept the committee's recommendations or the noble Lord's amendments. First, the committee and the noble Lord have suggested that Clause 47 should be removed from the Bill. Clause 47 relates to the parliamentary procedure for regulations relating to the requirements on jobseeker's
3 Nov 2011 : Column GC510
These powers were groundbreaking when first introduced in 1995, as the noble Lord pointed out. However, the House now has had more than 15 years experience of how these powers are used. There is a wide understanding of what the phrases "actively seeking" and "available for work" mean; in fact, it fundamentally underpins our active labour market approach. We believe that this experience means that it is now far more appropriate that this power is subject to the negative procedure. Their use is now well established and we have no intention of departing from that precedent.
Secondly, Clauses 33 and 89 allow for supplementary, incidental, transitional and consequential amendments to other legislation to be made through regulations. To pick up on the point that my noble friend made about the Scottish Government, who have powers under Clause 33 to make consequential amendments in their area of remit, they specifically requested that these regulations be made by affirmative procedure in the Scottish Parliament. This was the result of one of our helpful non-statutory discussions, which I am sure an FOI request will show in all its glory. Amendments 70 and 99 would make any regulations that amend primary legislation subject to the affirmative procedure.
It is likely that a large number of minor amendments to other legislation will be necessary as a result of the importance and scale of the changes that the Bill introduces. It is not unusual for some of these changes to be made through secondary legislation, and such consequential powers are usually subject to the negative procedure. Moving away from this precedent would take up a very significant amount of parliamentary time and could pose a risk to the timetables for both universal credit and personal independence payment. We therefore feel that the negative procedure remains appropriate.
Amendments 55E to 55G and 69ZA seek to make regulations that contain definitions of "disabled", "severely disabled" or "work" subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It inserts a new subsection into Clause 43 and consequential amendments to the terms where they arise in Clause 41. I can reassure the noble Lord that these amendments are not necessary. Clause 43(3) already provides that a wide range of regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure the first time that the power is exercised. This includes the regulations to be made under Clause 12 providing for additional amounts that will include the definitions of the terms mentioned in the amendment. Noble Lords may recall that the illustrative draft regulations on elements provided to your Lordships already contain a draft definition of "disabled" and "severely disabled".
Under Amendment 69ZA, the noble Lord seeks to significantly widen the scope of regulations subject to debate in both Houses, covering consequential amendments and changes to working age benefits and pension credit. It would be completely impractical for this House to debate the numerous consequential amendments being made to both primary and secondary legislation, and a poor use of parliamentary time.
3 Nov 2011 : Column GC511
With regard to universal credit, I should also point out that all the regulations on entitlement, awards and claimant responsibilities will be in a single set of regulations. They will necessarily be affirmative in the first instance because if any regulations within a set are affirmative they all are. So, even if the Bill does not require the affirmative procedure for specific points, it will apply in practice.
Amendment 71 would introduce a different form of scrutiny for universal credit regulations requiring the Secretary of State to avoid creating any unnecessary complexity into the system. I strongly support the spirit of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. A key aim of universal credit is to simplify the benefit system. Simplification is a publicly stated, fundamental principle that has guided the design of the new system. Any requirement for simplicity would have to be finely balanced against other considerations, such as affordability or easing the transition to work. I acknowledge that this is a probing amendment, but perhaps a duty to consider the simplicity of any changes, as suggested by the noble Lord, would be a better approach than that in the amendment. However, any Government would clearly have to be concerned about the detailed interpretation of simplicity, which, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, took delight in pointing out, is a subjective term.
Nevertheless, I will look at this idea very closely. I can assure the noble Lord that we will put in place a number of non-legislative safeguards to protect universal credit from unnecessary complexity. These include governance processes to ensure simplification and consistency in policy design, and working with claimants to ensure that universal credit is simple to understand and administer.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am happy to do so. However, I should like to comment on the issue of avoidable complexity. The Minister said that he had to balance that against issues of affordability and ease in transition. I accept that, but you also have to strike a balance around issues of fairness. One of the problems of simplicity and standard systems is that they do not necessarily take account of some of the individual circumstances that have to be addressed. You see it perhaps more acutely in the tax system, but it applies equally to the benefits system. Although I clearly support getting things as simple and straightforward as they can be, fairness should also be one of the balancing factors. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Nothing in this Part shall be introduced until a claimant regulatory authority is established to oversee the professional standards being observed by those government departments and other agencies delivering universal credit and other benefits."
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, I hope that in the remaining few minutes before the Committee considers wrapping up for the day we can deal with my two amendments in this group, which are quintessentially simple ideas. Amendment 56 suggests having a benefit regulator, and Amendment 113 proposes an office for social protection. I freely confess that these ideas can be criticised for increasing quangocracy, but before the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, attacks me for creating new quangos, it is certainly not my intention to do that. These are very simple quangos.
I have tabled Amendment 56 because we are coming to the end of an important piece of Committee work that will transform the way that people think about benefit delivery in the future. I see in other aspects of my work that there has been a general increase in public discontent with the services that they are getting across the public waterfront. Complaints against doctors and public servants are increasing. That may be for the beneficial reason that people are more active in demanding a proper service. If you look at the changes that we are making-and the Government argue rightly that this is a culture change if it is to be successful-perhaps we should be looking at the provision of public services delivered by professionals within the Civil Service, in government departments and in the plethora of government agencies. It applies not merely to the DWP or the Child Support Agency, but to prime providers in the Work Programme. There is a very complicated set of hierarchies, which I am sure are doing their best, but they all need to be invested with a culture that underpins the ethic of good service to the public. A regulator may not be the right word and an office or new organisation may not be necessary, but I feel strongly that we should be looking to the Government and the department to set clearly some new paradigms about how they will deliver universal credit as we go forward.
If I thought that previously, I was reinforced in that view by looking at the recent White Paper, Open Public Services, which contains some of the principles of good complaint handling in terms of the need for public services to be accountable to users and taxpayers, and to be responsive to the people whom they serve. That White Paper sets out the principles clearly for all to see and sets the high standard that we should all aim for. I also carefully considered the work of Ann Abraham-the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman-of whom I am a fan. Last month, she produced a very interesting report, Responsible and Accountable? It repays careful study for some departmental Ministers in the DWP because Work and Pensions and the subsequent agencies are at the high end of most of the complaints.
There are two examples in here of Jobcentre Plus failures of public service that were dire in their effect on the individuals concerned. This can be used positively. What is so good about Ann Abraham is that she drives the driver to improve services through the complaints procedure. She is positive about how she attracts people to make their experiences known and she tries to encourage the Government at all levels to react positively to those complaints as a way of driving up standards in public service.
Two sentences in her report caught my eye. The Parliamentary Ombudsman Service is well developed-you have to complain through your Member of Parliament-well known and well tested. I always thought that she had an oversight that went beyond the individual complaints that were placed on her desk through that route. However, given this quote, which I shall share with colleagues, that is clearly not the case. At page 3 of the excellent report called Responsive and Accountable? she states:
"In terms of measuring and improving performance, departmental complaint handling is not subject to any systematic external audit or similar scrutiny. As Ombudsman I consider complaints that reach my Office but I do not have the legal power to undertake systemic scrutiny on my own initiative. So I do not have the mandate or the mechanisms to provide assurance on complaint handling efficiency and effectiveness across government".
That was news to me because I believed-wrongly-that she was, on her own initiative, able to work with departments, across departments and within departments to try to drive up the standards of public service that are currently being developed. We should be looking at that.
The trouble is that Ministers are far too busy to do this. The textbook says that the Minister has oversight of everything and, therefore, he is the champion of making sure that the complaints procedures are coherent and work. This report shows that he does not because different parts of the department use different handling systems for complaints. There is a central complaints department. I know it works and I know that the people there earn their pay because they have a lot of work to do. However, I have no confidence that we are taking advantage of this change of culture to determine the leadership that is necessary to drive up the standards of public accountability.
I am a lay member of the General Medical Council and medical regulation is completely new to me. However, it is fascinating to see-there are colleagues in the Room who know more about this than I do-how good medical practice and the sharing of best evidence goes on throughout the profession. It is probably easier with doctors because they are a more coherent group, but across civil servants a lot more could be done, not only in establishing a coherent, transparent and easily explainable procedure for handling complaints but in changing the practice and culture. That has to be driven at a ministerial level.
If we cannot have a benefit regulator, can the Minister assure me that the questions behind the need for driving up standards and the questions that are
3 Nov 2011 : Column GC514
Amendment 113 can wait until we get to the part of the Bill dealing with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. However, there is a strong case for it. I see it as an equivalent to the Office for Budget Responsibility. You would have an independent body saying to the Treasury, "We have looked at your plans and we think this and we think that", and you can measure that against what the Government of the day are saying. Social protection is an important, equivalent and equal part of the public policy domain and we should have an independent group of people. For me, the commission is not independent enough, but we can have arguments about that.
We could do more to obtain a balance, particularly in relation to CPI versus RPI, over the long term. Someone will need to hold the ring and look at the long-term changes that will come into being as a result of these matters. If we cannot have an office for social protection then perhaps a body under the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission could be spun into the remit in a way that would give me the assurance I am trying to find without the bureaucracy of setting up an extra quango. I beg to move.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, I shall speak briefly in support of Amendment 113. I do not know whether this was another amendment cooked up in the noble Lord's bath-I forgive him for "going forward"-but I like the idea of an office for social protection. The notion of social protection is one that we do not use enough in this country; it is very much a continental, European concept, and a very important one. I am not arguing for a new quango either but the spirit of noble Lord's amendment is very important. I have lived through more fundamental reforms of social security than I care to remember, and not one of them has addressed the points made in this amendment about the adequacy and the sustainability of the different parts of the system. If nothing else, there should be a requirement on the Government that when they bring forward reforms of social security they should consider these fundamental questions.
We have touched on these points in Committee already. One noble Lord asked questions about the principles underlying social security. I intend to come back to them under an amendment to Clause 51, when I will to talk about a contributory principle. I am slightly reluctant to think about this as being part of the responsibility of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission because social security is not just about poverty. The whole point about social protection is that it broadens it out beyond poverty-a group "over there". One possibility to think about is whether to broaden the remit of the Social Security Advisory Committee so that periodically it reports on the adequacy and sustainability of the different parts of the system.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, I declare an interest in regulatory and professional services, having chaired the Legal Services Consumer Panel, sat on the Board for Actuarial Standards, overseen insolvency
3 Nov 2011 : Column GC515
I am less afraid of the idea of quangos-although I am sure that that is not a general view-but what these kinds of regulators do is to adopt codes of conduct; set good practice guidelines and minimum service standards; and then ensure that quality assurance by way of setting minimum training or entry qualifications, CPD requirements and the monitoring of services. That monitoring is not just about compliance, important though that is, but also provides a feedback loop so that lessons are learned, either for standards and the way they are defined and set, or for the way staff are trained, or, as was discussed this morning, to allow systems to continue to be developed in the light of the way the service is delivered.
This kind of standard-setting is particularly important in view of the ending of legal aid to assist complainants and users because the only other monitoring will be via this kind of organisation. This kind of regulator-for want of a better word-can identify whether particular groups are underrepresented in any category and whether all groups are being properly serviced and properly served. As the Minister has stated on a number of occasions, some decisions must be taken on a case-by-case basis-in-work conditionality is a particular example. This will involve tremendous discretion in the hands of thousands of decision-makers across the country, so clear guidance, good and consistent training and ongoing monitoring of decisions by some kind of regulator with authority will be crucial to ensure that the service is fit for purpose.
Unfortunately, the Government refused to accept our earlier amendment that the Jobcentre Plus side of the claimant commitment should be laid down. It is therefore even more important that this standard-setting will be open, transparent, raise standards and, most importantly, create confidence in the new system. This proposal has some merit. I am not sure whether or not the formula will achieve it, but we look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, perhaps I may make one brief point. In common with others around the table today, I have had long and-I hope-harmonious working relationships with DWP staff, who have been almost universally helpful, constructive and anxious to take policy forward. However, I believe I am right in saying that in the DWP, more than in any other area of government,
3 Nov 2011 : Column GC516
Lord Freud: My Lords, I share the noble Lord's concern that the benefits system must be fair, efficient and affordable, which is indeed why this Bill is before the Committee today-to ensure that benefits are well targeted and fair and the system is simple to understand and simple to administer.
The first of these amendments would introduce a claimant regulatory body for universal credit. We are committed to involving claimants throughout the development of universal credit. This involvement will ensure that issues are known, understood and mitigated as universal credit is being built. As part of this, we are already conducting a programme of research among a broad range of future claimants and are testing the design of the claimant commitment with claimants, front-line staff and stakeholders. This process will continue over the coming months to ensure that claimants have real and sustained input into the creation of the new benefit.
The other amendment in this group would create a wider office for social protection, looking at the benefits system as a whole. There are already a number of other bodies with oversight of the benefits system and any changes made, not least the Social Security Advisory Committee. As well as scrutinising regulations, the committee comments on a range of operational matters, especially in relation to claimants' interests. While I am grateful for the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and my noble friend Lord Kirkwood, I am not convinced that another body is needed. The coalition Government are committed to reducing the number and cost of quangos, and increasing accountability by transferring the responsibility for key decisions on public policy back to Ministers. Ministers are held to account in Parliament, including by powerful committees such as the Public Accounts Committee and the Work and Pensions Select Committee, not to say the Chamber of the House itself.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, before the Minister sits down I would like to make clear that I was not arguing for a separate body. I was arguing that Social Security Advisory Committee could perhaps be asked specifically to consider, on a regular basis, the issues contained in the noble Lord's amendment-possibly in its annual report-namely the adequacy of the different elements of the system, the sustainability and the way the different elements of the system fit together. It would be very helpful to have that kind of annual overview. Perhaps the Minister can take that away and consider it.
Lord Freud: My Lords, I know it is not our House, but I point out that the Work and Pensions Select Committee has that remit-a very direct remit to look at the system overall. If you are looking at how individual claimants are treated, we have a process of tribunal and independent review. There are a whole number of different processes.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: Can the noble Lord tell us who would be responsible for promoting and funding research into these questions? If there is not a body which is taking an interest in evaluating the impact of changes in social security, who will be funding, gathering and evaluating independent evidence looking at the impact of these changes or changes like this?
Lord Freud: My Lords, how we research changing universal credit is something that I am taking an active interest in getting on top of now, as I discussed on a previous day. Clearly there is a lot of research. The department puts out an enormous amount of research every year. Huge tomes come out monthly, and I know noble Lords enjoy reading them all. There is no lack of adequacy of independent research on DWP matters.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, my main priority is to get back to my bath as soon as possible. If I do not get my 7 pm train I will not do that, so I thank the Minister for his reply, and I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
(a) regulations under this Part,
(b) regulations under the Social Security Administration Act 1992 relating to universal credit, or
(c) regulations under the Social Security Act 1998 relating to universal credit,
may be exercised so as to make provision for piloting purposes.
(a) the extent to which the provision is likely to make universal credit simpler to understand or to administer,
(b) the extent to which the provision is likely to promote-
(i) people remaining in work, or
(ii) people obtaining or being able to obtain work (or more work or better-paid work), or
(c) the extent to which, and how, the provision is likely to affect the conduct of claimants or other people in any other way.
(a) one or more areas;
(b) one or more classes of person;
(c) persons selected-
(i) by reference to prescribed criteria, or
(ii) on a sampling basis.
(a) the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument provide that the pilot scheme is to continue to have effect after the time when it would otherwise expire for a period not exceeding twelve months (and may make more than one such order);
(b) a pilot scheme may be replaced by a further pilot scheme making the same or similar provision.
"( ) section 4(7) (acceptance of claimant commitment);"
"( ) section 18(3) and (5) (work availability requirement);"
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|