Draft Social Security (Literacy Etc. Skills Training Pilot) Regulations 2001

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Malcolm Wicks: The regulations are part of a major national strategy to tackle adult basic skills. This is the first time that any Government have taken the matter seriously, and we are naturally putting a lot of effort, thought and resources into ensuring that the service is first class, the advisers are well trained and the other professionals involved in the assessment of literacy or numeracy needs, and teaching, are of the highest quality.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. An adviser will have to reach the view that literacy and numeracy skills training would be appropriate for the individual concerned before requiring him or her to participate. Those for whom the training would be completely inappropriate, such as people with serious learning disabilities or difficulties, will not be forced to take it up on pain of lost benefit. Ensuring that a pilot can be applied that is appropriate to an individual should ensure that there is no direct or indirect discrimination contrary to Community law or the European convention on human rights.

There will be safeguards to ensure that those who have good cause for failing to attend training will not be sanctioned. Jobseekers will have the opportunity to explain their actions before any sanction decision is taken. The decision will be made by impartial decision makers and benefit will continue to be paid in full the meantime. Sanctioned jobseekers will have the standard right of appeal to an independent social security appeals tribunal against any adverse decision. The rights of the individual will therefore be safeguarded.

Even where training is considered appropriate and refusal to undertake it leads to a sanction, hardship payments will be available as a safety net. Jobseekers can claim payment of jobseeker's allowance at a reduced rate, if they can show that they or a member of their family would otherwise suffer hardship. Such hardship payments will provide immediate protection for vulnerable groups such as those with dependent children.

Alan Howarth (Newport, East): What is or will be the level of the hardship payments?

Malcolm Wicks: If someone has children, the child rates of JSA will continue to be paid. The sanction is 40 per cent. of the individual's benefit. I shall verify the details later. People so sanctioned will still have the right to claim housing benefit and council tax benefit. The sanctions regime currently operating for people who, for example, fail to seek work, will be applied.

The safeguards reflect our determination that jobseekers should be treated fairly and sensitively in the light of their personal circumstances. However, we firmly believe that they have the responsibility to acquire the skills to enable them to obtain, and remain in, sustainable employment. The time has come to test ways of ensuring, whether through incentives or sanctions, that jobseekers face their responsibilities by doing literacy and numeracy skills training if necessary.

The draft regulations will last for a year. The Social Security Advisory Committee has recommended that there should be no national roll-out of the pilots, involving sanctions, until we have clear evidence of their success in improving skills and employability. We have already made it clear in our response that we accept that recommendation. The purpose of the pilots, and hence the regulations, is to enable us to test whether a sanctions regime will be effective in improving jobseekers' basic skills and employment prospects.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill): Will my hon. Friend explain the procedures in more detail? Does he regard it as sensitive and sensible to send a notice in writing to someone who lacks literacy skills?

Malcolm Wicks: No, I do not regard that as sensible. I assure my right hon. Friend that we have thought of that detail. If people who lack those skills want to object, and to state their reasons for objecting, they will be helped to provide a written text. We will do our utmost to help someone who is in difficulty and wants to appeal.

Mr. Davis: But how can someone know whether they want to appeal against a decision that they cannot read? I draw my hon. Friend's attention to regulation 3(2)(e), which states only that a notice will be served in writing. How can someone who cannot read it know that they should appeal against it, especially since, in my experience, such people are often embarrassed and reluctant to seek help from others with reading?

Malcolm Wicks: If, during an interview with the adviser, someone did not take the option of improving their literacy and numeracy, it is to be hoped that much of the discussion would be taken up in trying to persuade them to do so, and of the benefits to them and their family. However, if necessary, the sanction will be verbally explained by the adviser. Similarly, we will do our utmost to ensure that people understand their obligations and rights, without relying merely on written communication.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister will know that problems arise about alleged verbal advice with respect to many matters, such as housing benefit, not to mention planning permission. I accept that there is a dilemma, but is not there a difficulty in the present case? Written information or a written warning may not be understood, but verbal information or a verbal warning may not be legally provable, in a matter where what is or is not notified to the individual is critical in determining entitlement to benefit or bringing about its removal.

Malcolm Wicks: In any adjudication process we need certain things in writing. The people involved would object if they were not in writing. However, we will do our utmost to help the person concerned to understand. I gather that that is standard practice. If people without basic skills want to provide a written explanation of their reason for not wanting to proceed with a course, jobcentre staff will help in drafting it. That will then be read back to the jobseeker who will sign to agree that it is correct before it goes to the decision maker.

My right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) have raised serious points. I reassure the Committee that we have thought through those issues. The whole purpose of the strategy is to be sensitive and to help those without basic skills. If our process fails to do that, we will be in some difficulty.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): What will be the safeguards for people who have agreed to do a basic skills training course in good faith but who drop out and incur sanctions because they find that it is too difficult, that they cannot benefit from it or that they are daunted by the standard? The real reason may be not that they are unwilling to do the course but that it has proved to be too difficult for them.

Malcolm Wicks: That is an important question. The majority of people make a proper effort to undertake the course, because they want to help themselves. They eagerly take up the first opportunity for a high-quality course. There will not be sanctions for those who take up a course with good will and who make every effort, but have to drop out, for whatever reason. They will be treated sensitively. As we develop good practice, in the fullness of time, another approach to the teaching of literacy and numeracy may be suggested for that individual.

The Government seek to incorporate safeguards to ensure that jobseekers are treated fairly in the light of their individual circumstances. I am satisfied that the regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights, and I commend them to the Committee.

What we are suggesting is only a pilot. However, one can learn lessons from a pilot, and this pilot represents a proactive—some might say tough-minded—approach to the terrible problem of illiteracy and innumeracy, which has bedevilled the life chances of individuals in this country for decades. The alternative would be, more or less, to do nothing, which could well do more harm to the prospects of those individuals than the positive form of support that we are suggesting.

4.52 pm

Mr. Boswell: I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths.

Our exchanges, our questions and, to some extent, the answers have helped to explain why the regulations should not go through simply on the nod. In no sense do I wish to question the bona fides or motives of Ministers in introducing the regulations that provide for what, as the Minister said, is only a pilot. I also do not want to minimise the importance of the subject. He and I in our former capacities, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who has deservedly become a Minister, have taken part in debates on basic skills. The three of us would not find a fag paper between our attitudes to the importance of the subject. We regard it as extremely important and want to do everything reasonable to ensure that people, particularly those on the fringes of the labour market who may be unmotivated to take up a job, are encouraged and equipped to do so. They should also be encouraged and equipped to stick in the labour market and to benefit from the economic, psychological and social advantages of being able to take a regular job.

Some Committee members have been thinking recently about primary elections for political leadership. I have always commended to my colleagues as a training video the film ``Primary Colors''. Although the film should be viewed with some cynicism, it is impossible to watch the opening scene—in which a presidential candidate, on a visit to an adult literacy class, makes a somewhat mawkish, but nevertheless moving speech—without realising that adult literacy and numeracy matter intensely.

You would not be pleased, Mr Griffiths, nor would the Committee advance much, if we had a long debate on historical responsibility, which has been shared by Governments over many years. My only reservation is that if, as Lord Moser did, the Minister identifies some 7 million people in the adult population with a serious deficiency in basic skills, the Government's proposals to tackle only 10 per cent. of the problem over the next three years may not be ambitious enough.

The more I have studied the proposals, the greater my worries have become over the way in which the Government are approaching the subject. No doubt the Minister will tell us that it is only a pilot scheme, that the scheme is for the user's own good, that good will come of it, that something sensible will be achieved and that the Government can then move forward to a beneficial national scheme. However, we have to reach that situation according to law, and there are some serious pitfalls on the way and at least some points that need careful consideration.

I shall first to refer to technical concerns and then progress to wider concerns that are political and quasi-legal, and judicially reviewable. I shall then sit down and let other hon. Members make what I sense will be cognate contributions.

I have concerns about the design of the pilot schemes themselves. The Minister explained that only North Nottinghamshire will be a sanctions pilot area and Leeds will be an incentives pilot area. He referred to other measures in Wearside, and a fourth location, I believe. He will know better than I do that social sciences are complex and experiments in social sciences are difficult to determine. It seems to me that the design of the pilot may not be the optimum one, because the culture, economic conditions and job opportunities in different areas may vary considerably. Although I am something of an economist from a long way back, and only a tiny bit of a statistician, I know the importance of properly replicated trials. I cannot help feeling that a randomised trial between individuals in one travel-to-work area, some of whom were being offered incentives and some of whom were being offered sanctions, followed by a similar trial in another area, might have been a statistically more defensible way of proceeding.

I also have concerns about selecting just one area of the country. There are varying problems in different areas—for example, in deep rural areas in which there are travel-to-work and travel-to-education difficulties or in inner-city areas where there are problems in providing viable facilities. Such areas might also have been considered, so I am concerned about the design of the pilot system.

I would like the Minister to say more about the arrangements for evaluating the pilot schemes. Our joint experience on education matters shows that Ministers are not always good at evaluating the pilot schemes that they have set up. There is no point in saying that lessons need to be learned and the best scheme chosen, if there is then pressure, possibly because of a change in the political climate, to get on with it, irrespective of what the pilots have produced. In such a sensitive area as this, it is important to explain the arrangements for evaluation and how the lessons will be learned.

What arrangements are in place for appeals against the withdrawal of benefit? The Minister needs to show us that the requirements of natural justice have been met in every case and not merely sometimes. He should not make reference to broadly getting it right—it has to be right in each case.

I refer to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made about the schemes. If students take part in a scheme, and it does not work, that is not necessarily their fault. It is even possible that a scheme may fold, against the wishes of the student. It is also possible that the person who assigns individuals to a course and tells them that they may face sanctions if they fail to go may not be well informed as to which courses are appropriate, or may not understand the underlying need. That is particularly so, as the hon. Member for Crosby said, in cases of dyslexia, or other difficult situations that it may require an educational psychologist to unpick. A lot of things that could go wrong are not necessarily the fault of individuals, and if they find that the big stick is being wielded, that would be of some concern.

On the assumption that something good will come out of both the incentives and the sanctions pilots, the Minister should confirm the time scale of rolling out whatever is discovered into national arrangements. Conservative Members do not object in principle to the concept of pilots. We are not even necessarily objecting—although I have some reservations—to pilots with sanctions attached. However, they must work effectively. There are precedents, as the Minister would no doubt say, where sanctions have been applied, for example, in conjunction with jobseeker's allowance. That has been in place from the beginning, even though those currently on the Government Benches were not too keen when we introduced that about a decade ago. They seem to have learned to live with it.

There are wider issues. One of the candidates in the Conservative party leadership contest coined a wonderful phrase many years ago about a commitment made on a wet Wednesday evening in Dudley, concerning something that he now wishes he had not said. It is interesting that Ministers have rushed ahead with the plans and introduced them to the House, and ultimately to the other place, which I suspect will take a stuffy view of them, right at the end of the parliamentary Session. They have not done this on a wet Wednesday evening in Dudley, but a dampish and slightly humid evening in July when we all have our mind on other things.

 
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