Employment

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Mr. Osborne: I am a little confused about the genesis of the measure. In June, the Secretary of State said in a press release that there was to be a welfare reform Bill that would make work-focused interviews compulsory for partners of working age benefit recipients. Was he referring to clause 47 of the Employment Bill to be debated six months later? Will there be a welfare reform Bill, or is this it?

Malcolm Wicks: There is legislation before the House that falls broadly under the banner of welfare reform, some of which deals with the integrated child tax credit—[Interruption.] That is welfare reform in the sense that most people understand the term. There is also legislation dealing with the pension credit. We have made use of the Employment Bill, which is mainly about other matters, to introduce two clauses that relate closely to welfare reform. In the fullness of time, other measures on welfare reform may need to be brought before the House. The hon. Gentleman should not be puzzled about that. The job of the Committee is to deal with the substance of the matter and to judge whether it is a sensible way of proceeding. We believe that it is.

Mr. Hammond: I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) is trying to establish whether the welfare reform Bill that he mentioned is dead or is sitting in somebody's drawer waiting to come before Parliament later in this Session or during the next.

Malcolm Wicks: We have a full legislative programme to deal with welfare reform through various Bills, and there is no need to speculate about the future. I am happy to discuss this all night, Mr. Conway, but you may not be. We are here to scrutinise the Bill and that is what I am trying to do, not least because the hon. Member for North Norfolk asked some serious questions about carers that I am anxious to deal with.

The extension of the work-focused interview scheme will ensure that as many partners as possible are aware of and benefit from the opportunities on offer. The interview will be a meaningful two-way discussion between the partner and their personal adviser. Advisers are trained to provide information and advice and will help partners to explore ways in which they can overcome barriers to work and move closer to the labour market. In return, partners will be required to participate actively in the interview.

5.15 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I am a little puzzled. Recipients of invalid care allowance are included, yet one receives that allowance on the condition that one does not engage in full-time work and the care provided exceeds 35 hours. Will the interviews to which the Minister refers be prospective, taking into account future possibilities? If so, will he bear in mind that many who are in receipt of invalid care allowance are in fact long-term carers who might be unable to return to the labour market for an extended period?

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Malcolm Wicks: Recipients of ICA often care for people in the long term, but their role as carer might also relate to a short-term condition.

I am sensitive to this issue, not least because I had the good fortune to sponsor, with all-party support and the support of the then Government, the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, which enabled carers to have their needs assessed for the first time. I am proud of that legislation and its impact. Perhaps I should declare an interest, in that I take an active interest in these matters and remain vice-president—albeit largely inactive—of the Carers National Association, which is now known as Carers UK.

We need to be sensitive to the needs of carers and their role in the home. We all realise that they are our most active citizens, and some of them exercise their caring responsibilities in very onerous circumstances. In making absolutely clear the right of carers to fulfil that role and to enjoy the associated benefits and services, we must be careful not to make the mistake of typecasting them as purely carers for ever. I am conscious that, when the nature of the care provided permits, many carers now want the opportunity to combine caring with part-time participation in the labour market. That might be possible, for example, if the cared-for person is looked after in a day centre, or respite care is provided. The fact is that many carers in Britain today are already carer-workers: they have a caring responsibility but they are already in the labour market. Yes, such people have rights in terms of care and the associated benefits and services, but they also have the right to participate in the labour market.

When the carer's responsibility ends—because a cared-for person recovers or, sadly, because a spouse or elderly parent dies—many find it enormously difficult to get back into the labour market. Such people might be in their 50s, and have been carers reliant on benefit for many years. The new powers in the clause will enable the welfare state, in the form of jobcentre plus, to engage those people in a discussion about their future, perhaps several years before they are able to take advantage of it. The fact that someone is interested in their future could boost carers' confidence in the interim, and attending an appropriate course at a further education college might enable them to get back to work in future. That is why I am a great supporter of the clause, and I recommend it to the Committee.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I strongly support the Government's action because many people in my constituency—especially women, who were previously ignored by the system—have already benefited greatly from the voluntary scheme. However, it worries me that advisers must deal with many people with different responsibilities and needs. I am particularly concerned about people with learning difficulties, a point raised by the hon. Member for North Norfolk. I have seen a couple of tragic examples of people who did not understand what was happening and lost benefits as a result.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that, when the work-focused interviews for partners go ahead, he deals with this matter through regulation, perhaps by ensuring that the letters that go out are clear, and by

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making it clear that those with learning difficulties have the right to be accompanied to an interview, so that they understand fully what is going on and their needs are met?

Malcolm Wicks: That is a useful point. I shall ensure that such people can have with them at such interviews their carer, or someone from a voluntary organisation, or a social worker where appropriate. However, referring to particular cases, I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that we must resist the prejudice that says that, for example, a benefits recipient's partner who has serious learning difficulties such as Down's syndrome will never work. I have seen shining examples in my own borough of Croydon of young people in their 20s with Down's syndrome who, with the right support, have been enabled to secure a job. That is crucial.

I understand that members of the Committee want to be reassured that we are not being draconian. We will approach these matters with great sensitivity, so that a person who needs to take a companion to the interview is able to do so. Furthermore, in cases where, because of a caring responsibility, the interview is best held in a person's home, that, too, should be allowed. We must act with great sensitivity.

Mr. Osborne: The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) referred to the successful pilot projects that have been conducted on work-focused interviews for individual claimants. Why have the Government decided not to proceed by a pilot-based project in the probably more complex area of work-focused interviews for partners of claimants?

Malcolm Wicks: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we pilot where we think it appropriate. Pilot exercises have greatly informed our approach to welfare reform, if I may use that phrase without the hon. Gentleman asking me about genesis again.

Mr. Osborne: Or exodus.

Malcolm Wicks: Or any other group.

We have now had a great deal of experience of personal advisers helping young people who are out of work, the long-term unemployed and others, which we think will enable us to roll out the policy for this extra group. Our personal advisers, many of whom I meet in my work, have a great deal of experience of helping people in different circumstances—those with learning difficulties and so on, and I am confident that we can implement this policy with sensitivity. I am anxious to give way to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.

Mr. Hammond: As the Minister is anxious to give way, I shall stand up and give him somebody to give way to.

Clearly we can support much of the principle here, and I accept that the Minister is trying to ensure that those who can look, or should be looking, for work are focused in that direction, while those on whom it is inappropriate to apply pressure do not find themselves under pressure. He said that we will need to implement the scheme ''with much sensitivity''. Does he accept that his Department has not always been as effective as it would like in implementing rules of this kind with

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much sensitivity and that there have been cases where people who should not feel under pressure have felt under pressure? Does he acknowledge that this huge machine has difficulty in operating with much sensitivity?

Malcolm Wicks: I acknowledge that, in the current job market, for those who have had difficulty in finding work or who, because of personal circumstances, learning difficulties and so on, are less able to enter the labour market and feel less confident about it, much of the future lies in the face-to-face interview through the personal adviser, who must often deal with quite complex individual circumstances. That is why the training that we give our staff and—yes—sensitivity are at a premium.

If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether my Department has always got it right in the past, the answer must be no, we have not always got it right. All institutions make mistakes. Where mistakes are brought to our attention, we investigate, try to remedy the individual mistake and learn the lessons. Are we perfect? No, we are not, but we are striving to be as sensitive as we can be about these issues. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall monitor the situation carefully in future.

 
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