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Clause 47

Work-focused interviews for partners

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

5 pm

Norman Lamb: I want to voice some concerns and put some questions to the Minister about the clause's impact. There has been concern about its impact on carers who are the partners of disabled people. Those concerns might be allayed by the way in which the regulations are framed.

I note that new section 2AA(6) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 provides for exemptions from the requirement to attend a work-focused interview. The concern is that to require a person who is the partner of a disabled person and their full-time carer to attend a work-focused interview as a condition for benefit to be paid at the higher rate would undermine the legitimacy of what they do, which is care full time for their partner. Furthermore, a partner may have learning difficulties and may not

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understand the request for the interview, or he or she may be unable to attend because of illness. Will such people be protected by the way in which the regulations are framed?

The explanatory notes state on page 32:

    ''There is no intention to set out in regulations the categories of people for whom this would be appropriate.''

In other words, regulations will not identify those people who will not be required to attend a work-focused interview. The notes continue:

    ''Such decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances of the individual.''

I do not know whether internal guidance to staff who will have to make such decisions will give the necessary information to protect people, particularly full-time carers who may feel that their role is undermined by the requirement to attend the interview. I understand that, provided the interview is framed correctly, it could benefit even the categories of person that I have described, enabling them to discuss the benefits to which they could be entitled. They may be given guidance on how to improve their position if work, in itself, is not appropriate.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): Has the hon. Gentleman thought that one resolution to his eloquently made point is to provide for certain categories of person, such as carers, to go through the interview process at home, rather than having to travel somewhere that is inconvenient for the purposes of caring?

Norman Lamb: That is an extremely sound and sensible suggestion. The explanatory notes indicate that in some circumstances it may be appropriate to conduct the interview at the person's home, and that would be appropriate for carers in particular. I am worried about the description ''work-focused interview'', because the guidance that carers need may have nothing to do with getting into work; instead, they might need advice about access to things such as benefits. I will be grateful for the Minister's reassurance.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): It is good to be here, Mr. Conway. I realise that my part in this drama is that of a small speaking role alongside the lead actor, but it is nice to join the Committee on a significant clause. I am grateful for the way in hon. Members have raised important issues, which I will address.

Clause 47 allows for the Secretary of State to require, through regulations, partners of recipients of social security benefits to take part in work-focused interviews when the benefit received includes an amount for the partner. That is not an onerous or unreasonable requirement. We are asking partners to discuss their situation and work aspirations with an adviser so that they are aware of the practical and financial help on offer. No other requirement will be placed on them and partners will not be forced into the labour market; they will be required only to attend the interview, and not to find work or join a new deal programme. The requirement will be introduced in a way that takes account of individual circumstances.

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The clause is a modest, common-sense way of balancing the rights and responsibilities of claimants.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Perhaps I am anticipating what the Minister is about to say, but I would be interested if he were to explain the genesis of the clause. It is clear that until the general election the Government planned to introduce work-based interviews for people who were unemployed. After the election, in which there was a clear manifesto commitment restricting the policy to unemployed people's partners, they broadened it on the basis of evidence that they had received from, for example, Martin Taylor and the Policy Studies Institute.

Malcolm Wicks: I know that all members of the Committee recognise the Government's success in bringing down levels of unemployment—

Mr. Hammond: They're going up again.

Malcolm Wicks: I am willing to debate the record of the previous Tory Government and that of the current Labour Government, but you may not wish us to enter into that one-sided contest, Mr. Conway.

Although we have high employment, we recognise that there is still a great deal of economic inactivity and that many people in the community who would like the opportunity to work either now or in the future need the support of a work-focused interview. That goes for several categories of people, potentially including the partners of some of those on benefit. That is the genesis of the clause.

The concept of work-focused interviews is not new to members of the Committee. Work-focused interviews and the Bill support the Government's continuing commitment to increased economic activity, which will provide more people with the best social security policy, namely, a job. The work-focused interview with a personal adviser is intended to encourage partners to take further steps, where appropriate, toward labour market participation by exploring ways in which they can overcome barriers that prevent them from looking for work. The partner will be provided with a personal and tailored service by a personal adviser and given access to a wide range of help and information on work, benefits—acknowledged by the hon. Member for North Norfolk—and services.

If a partner fails to participate in an interview without showing good cause for that failure, the claimant's benefit will be reduced by way of sanction. The clause introduces into the Social Security Administration Act 1992 new section 2AA, which provides for regulations to be made. I shall not go into detail, but the main powers are in subsection (1), which specifies that

    ''Regulations may make provisions for or in connection with''

the requirement to take part in such interviews. It is right that people take part in interviews with a personal adviser, and that they are made aware of the help that is on offer.

We will of course implement that requirement in a way in which takes account of individual circumstances. It may not always be appropriate to interview someone at the required time. In cases such

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as that of a partner who has recently been discharged from hospital following a serious illness, or that of a partner who has just given birth, the interview may be deferred until an individual's circumstances improve. If a partner has recently had an interview with an adviser as a benefit claimant in their own right, there will not be a requirement to have another interview.

Subsection (2) prescribes the benefits to which the provisions applies, which gets us close to the questions asked by the hon. Member for North Norfolk. Jobseeker's allowance, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income support, incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance and invalid care allowance are the main benefits payable to people of working age.

The Committee might believe that someone who is the partner of a recipient of incapacity benefit or severe disablement allowance, or whose partner is a recipient of invalid care allowance in their own right, would not be available for work because of their caring responsibilities; however, the concept of the work-focused interview is to provide partners with the opportunity to discuss their situation and aspirations. It is based on treating everyone as individuals, and not just according to their circumstances.

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister give way?

Malcolm Wicks: May I make more progress?

Mr. Hammond: You've made a fair bit.

Malcolm Wicks: Okay.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister, who has not been in Committee throughout its whole course. Our debates have been relaxed, and there has been a fair amount of exchanges during the course of ministerial speeches.

Does the Minister accept that some people may think that something jars or does not sit comfortably between the concept of compulsory interviews required by statute and the language that he is using about presenting people with opportunities to discuss their aspirations? People who are looking for opportunities and have aspirations will willingly and gladly undertake such interviews, so compulsion would not normally be necessary.

Malcolm Wicks: I am happy to hear the hon. Gentleman's interventions. I was not being discourteous—I thought that if I could make more progress, I would be able to allay some of his doubts.

The partners of people receiving benefits may not be aware that jobcentre plus is a facility that might be of benefit to them. The element of compulsion is very moderate and will not apply in difficult circumstances. We need to strike a balance between someone's right to receive a benefit, albeit through their partner who is the actual claimant, and their duties to the wider community. Most would agree that it is right that such people should receive money from the wider community through the state, and that it is not unreasonable that they should have to comply with the request simply to turn up and have a discussion. People want a more rigorous, tough-minded approach to that balance between rights and duties, and they

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would not quarrel if, as we intend, we deliver it sensitively.

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