Malcolm Wicks: It comes down to common sense. If a person is caring for someone who is clearly in their last weeks or months of a terminal illness, it would be totally inappropriate to insist that they had an interview. Guided by what has been said today, regulations, advice and the common sense of our staff—they are full of good common sense because they are at the interface of our communities day after day—I am sure that we can get this right.
Norman Lamb: And home interviews?
Malcolm Wicks: I dealt with that earlier, but I confirm that in appropriate circumstances we will be able to interview at home, or wherever the individual felt comfortable.
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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I am reassured on what the Minister says about the sensitivity with which matters will be dealt. I have a technical question. Perhaps I am not reading the clause properly, but why will the provision not apply in Northern Ireland? Do comparable provisions already exist under that jurisdiction, or will they in future?
Malcolm Wicks: I think that I shall be able to answer that shortly. If I cannot, I will write to my hon. Friend. Social security is a devolved matter, so it is not something for us, but we have good relations with our colleagues in Northern Ireland.
Rob Marris: I do not want to be too technical or create difficulties, but that had occurred to me. The provision appears to apply in Wales and Scotland so is this a case of a different aspect of devolution?
Malcolm Wicks: Social security applies in the same way across England, Wales and Scotland. The situation is a little different in Northern Ireland, but social security is a matter for Britain, not just England. I am sure that parallel provisions will exist in Northern Ireland. To further clarify, although we do not want regulations to be exhaustive of every case that we can think of, there will be a list of good cause examples—things to take into account—in the guidance.
Mr. Hammond: It has taken me a moment to catch up with that response. From being in Committees, I am familiar with Ministers saying that something or other is a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, and assuring Committee that there will be parallel and similar provisions. That happens because the Labour party has a large influence in those bodies. To my recollection, the Labour party does not control the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. How will the Minister assure the Committee that a parallel provision will be enacted in the devolved Northern Ireland arrangements when the governing party in the UK does not control them?
Malcolm Wicks: Where matters are devolved—we have satisfied ourselves that we are not talking about Scotland, Wales or England, but Northern Ireland—yes, devolution creates diversity and difference. However, my assumption is that after discussion with our democratic colleagues we will see similar arrangements in Northern Ireland. It may surprise the hon. Gentleman that people who are not necessarily paid-up members of the Labour party sometimes agree with us because of the sheer wisdom of what we are doing.
Mr. Hammond: I saw on the news last night that those democratic colleagues had been discussing these matters with the Prime Minister only yesterday.
Malcolm Wicks: Given that there appear to be no more relevant points, I propose that all members of the Committee vote to support the clause.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Use of information for, or relating to,
employment and training
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Malcolm Wicks: It may help the Committee if I outline the purpose of the clause, albeit briefly, owing to the time constraints on our proceedings.
The Government's strategy for reforming the welfare state is firmly founded on the belief that work is the best form of welfare. Our policies are increasingly focused on helping people to move away from benefits and towards the labour market. That philosophy is given substance through the development of innovative labour market policies such as the new deal, employment zones and the creation of the Department for Work and Pensions. Those reforms have been successful. Employment is at near record levels: more than 28 million people are in work—1.25 million more than in 1997—and recent figures show that unemployment is the lowest, in broad terms, since the mid-1970s.
However, although we know that our welfare to work approach is working, isolating the effectiveness of individual programmes and initiatives has been more problematic in methodological terms. For example, 30 per cent. of those who leave the new deal leave for unknown destinations. Once a client has left an employment or training programme, they are under no obligation to inform the Department for Work and Pensions of their activities. Although many clients do provide the Department, through its agencies, with the necessary information, a significant minority do not. Not knowing how many of that group are in work weakens our ability to judge the efficacy of the new deal and, incidentally, to respond as rigorously as we should like to parliamentary questions about it.
We want a more complete picture of how many people we have helped and are now in work. We should also like to know how well clients are doing at work, because we want to encourage them into jobs that last and in which they will progress. Under the clause, the Department will be able to obtain Inland Revenue data on whether the client has entered work, for how long and with what annual income. That will help us to evaluate the welfare to work programme.
Another important reason for obtaining that data is that many of our programmes are run in partnership with private and voluntary organisations. Those organisations are paid by results, and if they cannot confirm that a person whom they have helped has actually moved into work, they cannot claim payment. Access to Inland Revenue data will enable us to verify that the individual has moved into work, ensuring that delivery agents are properly rewarded for their efforts and giving my Department confidence in the integrity of the funding arrangements.
That aspect is likely to become increasingly important over time. In future, providers are likely to be rewarded not only for placing people in jobs, but
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according to how long they remain in employment and the progress they make while they are there. Such a funding regime would be practically inoperable if we were to remain reliant on current methods of information gathering. It would also be impossible to secure against false claims for payment. Developing more appropriate funding mechanisms will produce better outcomes for our clients, and acquiring Inland Revenue data will facilitate that.
I realise that new data-sharing provisions always, rightly, raise questions in relation to human rights legislation and the Data Protection Act 1998. However, I assure members of the Committee that the measures do not remove anyone's rights under that Act. They do not permit any disclosure of information beyond that which is required for the proper exercise of Government functions. The Department will abide by the Act when using the information. The provisions are in line with the article in the convention on the right to respect for private life. They will help to ensure the rational and effective use of public funds and are therefore necessary for the economic well-being of the country.
As well as enabling us to obtain new information from the Inland Revenue in the context of welfare to work programmes, the clause will allow the new Department to pool the data it holds for use in any of its purposes. That will further break down outdated distinctions between social security policy and employment and training policies, establishing a consistent framework for information management reflecting the business needs of the Department.
At individual level, staff dealing with a customer's employment and training needs will be able to access the customer's benefits and child support records. Similarly, staff dealing with benefit or child support aspects will have access to information on the customer's employment and training needs.
Having set out the purposes of the clause and given assurances about data protection and privacy, I hope that members of the Committee will support it.
Mr. Hammond: I start with a confession: I had not focused in any great detail on schedule 5. However, as I listened to the Minister I became increasingly alarmed. Any ministerial speech that seeks to authorise disclosure by the Inland Revenue of hitherto confidential information on a disaggregated, individual basis and includes the words, ''necessary for the economic well-being of the country'', makes me suspicious. The provision has been slipped into the Bill in a couple of lines because the Department will find it useful, but it gives rise to some of the concerns that the Minister mentioned.
I understand that he needs the information to pay his contractors by results. However, although he says that the information will not be shared or disseminated beyond what is required for the purposes of his Department, it will presumably have to be shared with the private sector contractors who are doing the work, because otherwise they will have no way of validating the Department's assessment of how much money is owed to them. Are we to assume that anyone who has contact with the Department will have to accept that
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their earning patterns thereafter become an open book to the Department and its private sector contractors?
I am sympathetic to the underlying need for the provision, but it is a rather drastic step. Can the Minister reassure the Committee by telling us about any areas in which the Inland Revenue is already required to make information available on a disaggregated, individual basis to support arrangements between a Department and a private sector provider?