Employment

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Mr. Osborne: The Minister talked about training. According to the Library brief on the Bill, an early result of the evaluation of the ONE pilot scheme was:

    ''Staff were generally positive about the pilots . . . However, they identified a number of problems, including insufficient or untimely training, a lack of continuity in the PA service, and a lack of experience in defining and responding to the needs of claimants who are not ready to work.''

How is the Department approaching the problems identified from the pilot scheme of the earlier, similar, work-focused interview projects?

Malcolm Wicks: That demonstrates, as I said earlier and as the hon. Gentleman believes, the importance of a pilot. That is why the ONE pilots have been enormously valuable, as we now start to, to use that terrible phrase, roll out the ambitious programme of jobcentre plus. We are learning from those pilots and we place great emphasis on the importance of training and professional development, and also on consulting, nationally and locally, charitable bodies and voluntary organisations that represent some of the most vulnerable groups. We shall continue to learn. It is important that we do so.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North referred to people with learning difficulties, and I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister about another angle of this problem. I am thinking of those with dyslexia or dysphasia, who, on top of those difficulties, are expected to discuss their feelings and their needs in their second language. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I represent a Welsh constituency. Wales has the Welsh Language Act 1993, but problems have arisen with some benefits when SEMA has been unable to provide doctors who can speak in English and Welsh. A person who suffers from dyslexia has great difficulty in explaining their history and their need in

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their second language. That calls for even greater sensitivity.

Malcolm Wicks: A range of circumstances and cases may arise, some affecting large numbers, others affecting only one person, where we must prove that, when we talk about sensitivity, we can deliver in practice. Clearly we shall talk to people in the Welsh language, but across the United Kingdom there are others from different communities abroad who may not speak English, and we must be sensitive about the way in which we engage those people in a work-focused interview. One thing that we would want to address in an interview would be the ability of someone who had recently come to this country to acquire English language skills.

Norman Lamb: The Minister may be about say a little more on this subject, but may I press him on the way in which the regulations will deal with the difficult cases recognised in subsection (6), in which it would not be appropriate to hold a work-focused interview? The explanatory notes say:

    ''There will be certain people for whom a work-focused interview will not be appropriate. There is no intention to set out in regulations the categories of people for whom this would be appropriate. Such decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances of the individual.''

Where a carer is clearly working full-time to look after their partner, will it be down to the discretion of the officer or adviser concerned to determine whether it would be appropriate to require them to attend a work-focused interview? Or, rather, will there be guidance on that in regulations, or guidance by means of circulars in the Department? Can the Minister explain further how such a circumstance will be dealt with?

5.30 pm

I would like clarification on something else. I accept that there is a case for requiring people to attend such an interview, even carers. As the Minister eloquently said, there might be all sorts of ways in which they could be helped, including through raising the possibility of future or part-time employment. He has recognised the importance of dealing with such people with great sensitivity, which I welcome. Given the importance of sensitivity, is it appropriate to require such people to attend something that appears to be, as described in the Bill, ''work-focused''? Does that terminology need to be looked at to ensure that when those people are required to attend, they do not feel that the legitimacy of what they spend their entire life doing is being undermined?

Malcolm Wicks: I understand the hon. Gentleman's points, which are sensible. I do not think that we plan to change the term ''work-focused interview'', but when he was speaking, it struck me that much will depend on the nature of the letter that invites a person for interview and how we there present the possibilities for the interview. I have said that issues about benefit entitlement will also be properly addressed. Much will depend on how we draft that letter.

The adviser will make a decision based on regulations and guidance. A difficulty, and a common one, is that although it is tempting to

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include a range of details in regulations, there would then always be some case forgotten or not included, perhaps affecting a small group of people. There are always such dangers. We will, however, be guided by discussions with appropriate organisations such as Carers UK. We will also be guided by the issues that have been raised during this interesting Committee sitting. My colleagues will examine this debate to ensure that our advice is sensitive to the important issues raised by hon. Members in the Committee.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Work and Pensions is undertaking a review of the ONE pilot. I am sure that when our report is concluded and published, he and his colleagues will examine what we have to say as well as the reports from his Department.

I have a specific question. When a partner comes for a work-focused interview, will the personal adviser do a better-off calculation with that person? When I speak to my constituents, many are unclear about in-work benefits and do not always realise that, if one of them went back to work and if they have, for example, an entitlement to working families tax credit, they could be substantially better off than if they stayed on benefit. If they do not have an interview, they do not always realise that. Will my hon. Friend look at including better-off calculations in the work-focused interviews?

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, I will. Where appropriate, a better-off calculation is very important. As my hon. Friend says, many people are understandably ignorant—I do not use the term pejoratively—of in-work benefits. She has mentioned the working families tax credit and there is also the new child tax credit. As the Minister responsible for housing benefit, I know that many people do not understand that they can receive that benefit when in work, depending on their income level. Better-off calculations, which now feature in the jobcentre and jobcentre plus, will be part of the work-focused interview where absolutely appropriate.

I understand that I did not entirely respond to the point about whether a full-time carer should be allowed not to attend the interview. I would be reluctant to concede that, for the reasons that I explained earlier. We must think about a carer's future. Yes, many people care full-time for those with serious conditions, working longer hours than parliamentarians—sometimes literally around the clock. It would be absurd to assume that such a person could somehow bounce into the labour market on Monday morning.

As I said earlier, I am also aware from my experience of working with carers and talking to their representatives that the moment can come when the cared-for person dies and the carer has to move on. That can be very difficult. A common and understandable complaint from carers is that people pat them on the back and politicians make good oratory about them, but come the crunch no one is really interested and they are taken for granted. I do not want them taken for granted by jobcentre plus,

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and the provision will ensure that they are not. Even if the return to the labour market is several years away, they might be helped through training or education programmes.

On the issue of sensitivity, we will have got it wrong if a carer gets our letter and thinks, ''What's going on here? They think I can work?'' However, we will have demonstrated that we are not taking the carer for granted if they say, ''This is interesting. Jobcentre plus is interested in me. I had rather a good interview and I have some ideas now about the future. She said I can come back and see her whenever I need to.''

Mr. Simmonds: Can the Minister assure me that if a carer is unable to make a work-focused interview because of the needs of the individual for whom they are responsible, they will not be penalised through benefit reduction? Will that be in the regulations?

Malcolm Wicks: If a carer, because of her or his caring responsibilities, is simply unable to make the interview either on that appointment date or for ever, of course we will not push it, although I hope that we will make it clear that we are still there for the person if we can ever be of service to them. Clearly, there are some people dealing with the most extraordinary circumstances for whom that would not be appropriate. For every person like that, however, there are many asking why no one takes an interest in them. The work-focused interview will do that.

Norman Lamb: I am pleased to hear that the Minister will consult organisations such as Carers UK about such things as the wording of the letters. Has Carers UK given any views on this so far, and demonstrated support for the concept, provided that it is implemented as the Minister describes?

I do not think that the Minister specifically dealt with the point made by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness about home interviews. It is very important for carers to be able to have interviews at home. Will guidance advise us on that?

The Minister said that he would not want to concede that it would be inappropriate for carers to attend the interviews, and I accept that because I can see how attending could assist them. However, his Department must have thought of the circumstances in which subsection (6) will apply. In what difficult circumstances does he envisage that it would be inappropriate to hold the interview?

 
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