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

[back to previous text]

Alan Howarth: My remarks go with the grain of the interventions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby and the hon. Member for Upminster. I accept the importance of the Government doing all that they can to assist and encourage the improvement of basic skills and the development of literacy and numeracy. I also acknowledge the genuine good will shown in the matter by the hon. Member for Daventry when he was a Minister.

I think that it is fair to say, however, that no one has done more than the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North, to grasp the problem and drive forward the serious effort to make real headway in the matter. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth, will be equally committed to ensuring that we do well in this. It is right and proper for the Government to make such a commitment.

Having said that, one must also acknowledge the draconian potential in the sanctions, which will be tested under one or more of the pilot schemes. I welcome the ready acknowledgement that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made of the possible vulnerability of individuals and their families who find themselves under consideration for sanctions and his recognition of the need for balance and sensitivity in the administration of a scheme such as the one to be piloted. I welcome the Government's decision to adopt a carrot-and-stick approach. It is thoroughly sensible to have a variety of pilot schemes, the findings of which can be compared with one another. I made that proposal to the Government earlier in the year and I am pleased that they have adopted it.

We must recognise that people who are caught in the toils of unemployment and who lack basic skills will have enormous difficulties, even with the best will in the world, in taking advantage of any assistance offered to them. Teaching methodologies in this area are imperfect and underdeveloped. My hon. Friend the Minister alluded in his opening comments to the high incidence of illiteracy among prisoners, for example. Some people for whom a sanction could be proposed might feel impossibly daunted if they were asked to undertake a formal course of training and education because their experience of formal education over many years may might been profoundly discouraging for them.

Mr. Boswell: I want to give an example in support of the hon. Gentleman's argument. My wife is a practitioner in adult literacy and often tells a story, which is not unprecedented elsewhere, of a lady who came to the college but ran away and did not return for 12 months precisely because of disaffection with and scarring from the formal process that she had encountered at school. It took a whole year for her to pluck up the courage to return.

Alan Howarth: That is important, because it reminds us that such difficulties arise even when maximum sensitivity and sympathy and the best skills are in play.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that I was the head teacher of a special school for a number of years before coming to Parliament. The suggestion before us terrifies me. Children in my special school suffered the hassle of problems with reading and writing, but now they will have to go to a jobcentre. It is bad enough for people to have to look for a job when they lack basic skills, but it is totally unfair if they are then threatened with a sanction because they cannot do something that they have struggled all their lives to do.

Alan Howarth: My hon. Friend speaks with the authority of his professional experience. I differ from him in that I believe that it is justifiable to run limited pilot schemes to test whether incentives or sanctions, or a combination of them, are effective in encouraging people to undertake basic skills education which they may otherwise be unwilling to do. However, the Government should embark on that course with the warning of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) ringing in their ears. He underlined the extreme difficulty and delicacy of the task faced by staff of the Employment Service--or contractors if they are used--as they operate the pilot schemes. Not only will they need knowledge and personal characteristics of sympathy and sensitivity, but they will have to make judgments on the circumstances of the families in question. The sanction of 40 per cent. of jobseeker's allowance will result in households being near destitute for the period during which the sanction applies. I acknowledge all that my hon. Friend the Minister said in response to my intervention, but that is austerity of a pretty demanding kind. We must be fully sensitive to that as we consider whether to approve the regulations.

It will be incumbent on officials who are responsible for making such judgments in the field to look at the circumstances of the household in question, and to be sensitive to a range of obvious factors. That raises the question that the hon. Member for Upminster also raised: if we are to show sensitivity by applying an element of subjectivity to judgments case by case, how can we also ensure some consistency and evident fairness in the operation of the regime? I do not say that that is impossible; I am merely emphasising that it is extremely difficult. I hope, therefore, that the Government will ensure independent evaluation. A research study should monitor the conduct of the pilot schemes and evaluate the extent to which they have proved beneficial.

Angela Watkinson: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we must ensure that the pilot schemes, the content of the courses and the standard of teaching and training are the same, so that we can decide which method—if any—is the most effective?

Alan Howarth: The hon. Lady makes an important point, on which my hon. Friend the Minister and his officials have doubtless already reflected. We can distinguish between the inevitable subjectivity involved in determining whether it is appropriate to impose a sanction in particular cases and the need for consistency and objectivity in the training programmes. We should certainly seek consistency, and that is relatively easy to do in the compass of a single pilot area. It would be much more difficult, however, in the event that the Government decide to extend the scheme across the country.

As I said, it is exceptionally important that there be independent and expert evaluation of the pilots. My hon. Friend the Minister said that clear evidence of success must be demonstrated before a decision on the further application of the scheme can be taken. I hope that he will ensure that any research and any evaluation are published, and that all interested parties are able to examine that information carefully before the Government decide whether to extend the scheme universally.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Does my right hon. Friend agree that introducing sanctions because an individual has failed to take a required course placement would have a punitive effect on the children of the family concerned?

Alan Howarth: My hon. Friend draws attention to a very real risk. In responding to the debate, perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify his earlier reference to an element of compulsion. At this stage, I am not entirely clear about the discretion of officials in determining whether the sanction should apply. I note that they might impose a loss or reduction of the jobseeker's allowance. Again, I am not sure whether they will have the discretion to decide whether to apply the sanction or what the extent of the sanction will be. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify that matter.

5.29 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths, for, I believe, the first time. That pleasure does not, however, extend to reading the regulations. The disquiet that we have already heard from hon. Members behind the Minister indicates that it is not a foregone conclusion that this is the right way forward for the Government.

Only a week ago, the Minister told me that his intention in the new Department for Work and Pensions was not to extend benefit sanctions; nor was that the purpose of the Government's plans. However, on the first occasion we meet afterward, benefit sanctions are extended. There is nothing with which I disagree in the analysis of the problem by the hon. Member for Daventry, but I would like to express a more visceral opposition to benefit sanctions. I simply do not think that they are the right way forward or that the Government should go down that route in dealing with the most vulnerable people in our society. Regardless of whether those people are confined to North Nottinghamshire, or one village therein, I would make the same argument: we do not want such a policy from the Government.

That is not to say that I do not recognise the importance of adult basic skills. It is enormously important that we have a much enhanced process for dealing with people from school age, ensuring that basic literacy and numeracy are inculcated, and for dealing with those who fall through the net and are not able to succeed because of the limitations of what they have learned at school. Such people need a second, third, or any number of chances to learn skills. The question is not whether the Government are right to be addressing the issue of giving people who are looking for employment the opportunity to attain skills; it is whether they should be compelling people to go on skills and education courses to ensure that they find jobs.

I am concerned that sanctions will not encourage people to go down the route of improving their basic skills, but will deter them from that path. I am supported in that view. The hon. Member for Daventry referred to the Government's response to the Social Security Advisory Committee report. I will refer to that report because hon. Members need to know what that Committee, which was set up to advise the Government and Parliament on the effect of social security measures, says:

    ``We do not find persuasive the case for including a sanctions regime in the proposed pilot . . . This in turn would compromise the evidence emerging from the pilots for use in any consideration of the extension of the discretionary regime to give national coverage. Set against the risk that a punitive regime implicit in the threat of sanctions might deter those who already find it hard to engage with society, we do not believe that the potential benefits outweigh the disadvantages.''

It would be hard to find a report that more clearly sets out an appropriate criticism of the Government's policy than that, yet the Government choose to ignore it.

If the Government were to set aside that Committee's views, surely they should not set aside the views of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Again, it is an expert in adult basic education, set up by the Government. It says:

    ``We are concerned, however, that the imposition of benefit sanctions represents neither a necessary nor an effective lever for change and are actively unhelpful in redressing the nations basic skills problem.''

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 16 July 2001