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Lord Swinfen: I add my voice in support of these amendments. If my noble friend does not like the exact wording of them perhaps he will come back at the next stage with a revised version. I believe that when he looks at the moral question, he will not be able to refuse the amendments.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I understand the concerns expressed both in this short debate and in other debates that we have had to date on this issue. These are important matters. JSA hardship payments will indeed be the safety net in the benefits system for those
I turn first to Amendment No. 71. I can assure the Committee that hardship payments will be available to claimants who need protection in the circumstances set out in the amendment. Under the Government's proposals, where a question has arisen over someone's availability for work, a claimant will be able to be considered for a hardship payment under JSA throughout the period of consideration if he is in one or a number of prescribed vulnerable groups. Where the adjudication decision is taking longer than two weeks, claimants outside the vulnerable groups will also be able to receive JSA if they demonstrate hardship. We believe that is a reasonable and fair approach. The claimant has not demonstrated that he meets the normal conditions for benefit, therefore it cannot be awarded under normal conditions. But the hardship payments will provide the protection for those in vulnerable groups who need this right from the start, and we will extend this to all other claimants if the decision-making process is a lengthy one, and no decision has been reached that they have failed the labour market tests after a fortnight.
Where a decision has been reached that a claimant is not available for work, he will not be entitled to JSA unless he is in one of the prescribed vulnerable groups and demonstrates that hardship would result if no benefit were paid. This is exactly the situation which applies now in cases where a claimant is judged not to be actively seeking work. Hardship payments will protect the vulnerable but there is no reason at all why a healthy, childless claimant should receive benefit if he is not prepared to meet his basic obligations. The taxpayer should not be asked to provide funds to those who refuse to make themselves available, or to look, for work.
Paragraphs 8 and 9 of Schedule 1 contain the regulation-making powers to award benefit to people despite their failing to satisfy the labour market conditions. In addition to these provisions, as my noble friend has already indicated, we intend to bring forward amendments to the Bill in the current sitting which will allow payments to be made during the decision-making process, both at the outset of a claim and when an existing award has been suspended because of doubt as to whether a person is continuing to satisfy the jobseeking conditions. I have no doubt that we shall
Amendments Nos. 180 and 182 seek to define on the face of the Bill matters of detail concerning the definition of groups which will have access to payments and the definition of hardship itself. These are highly detailed matters which are more appropriate to regulations. The regulations in JSA which define the vulnerable groups with access to hardship payments will build on those currently applying in income support to claimants who fail to look for work. That includes households where the claimant or partner is pregnant; where the claimant is a member of a couple with responsibility for a child or young person; and where the claimant or partner qualifies for a disability premium.
We announced in the JSA White Paper that in addition to disabled claimants we would also include those who are sick. People who are incapable of work should normally be claiming an incapacity benefit. However, some claimants who suffer from a serious underlying medical condition, rather than a disability, may be fully capable of work, but may for dietary or other reasons be particularly seriously affected if all benefit is withdrawn. Consequently, we propose that where the claimant or partner has a serious medical condition of that type, they will have access to JSA hardship payments at all times, if they meet the normal hardship tests.
We are also widening the groups who can receive hardship payments to include those with caring responsibilities. We have looked carefully at how to define the group we are concerned to protectthose who provide substantial care to sick, disabled or elderly people. We wish to strike a sensible balance which recognises real need but does not include cases where the care provided is negligible. The clearest point of reference in the benefit system is the qualifying threshold for invalid care allowance, where there is clearly a significant caring responsibility for those in need.
The qualifying condition to ICA is that the person being cared for must be in receipt of the middle or higher rate of disability living allowance care component or of attendance allowance. We propose to set the same condition for carers' access to hardship payments. However, in view of the fact that the claimants involved are claiming a jobseeker's benefit rather than a carer's one, we do not propose to apply the additional ICA qualification of at least 35 hours a week caring. To qualify for access to JSA hardship payments the claimant will need to be providing regular care, but there will be no specific hours rule. Of course, if a carer qualifies for ICA he or she can choose not to be a jobseeker and can qualify for income support as a carer.
The test of hardship will be in relation to the effect on the person cared for, in the same way as the hardship assessment is made in respect of the effect on the child or young person currently in income support. We are confident that those definitions will strike the right balance between protecting the taxpayer from subsidising those whose unemployment results from their own choices and protecting those in vulnerable
I am assuming, as I do in most cases, that the Committee want to hear responses to all amendments in the group. I do not believe the noble Earl spoke to them all but I am sure that what I have said will be considered important by those Members of the Committee who are concerned about this matter.
I turn to consider "hardship". Perhaps the noble Earl will indicate whether or not he wishes me to address the definition of "hardship", which I am happy to do though technically he did not speak to it.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, will appreciate that I introduced this group of amendments on behalf of my noble friend. Perhaps I may say a word or two about the amendments, since he raised the issue, before he concludes his remarks.
Though I recognise from his earlier remarks that the Minister thinks that we on this side of the Chamber are going for a weak definition of "hardship" and "vulnerable person", Amendments Nos. 180 and 182 express those definitions in extremely tight terms. For example, we make it plain that somebody who claims sickness or disability must have that condition confirmed by a doctor; we make it plain that somebody who is pregnant or has dependent children under the age of 18 should be considered within the group of vulnerable persons.
The Minister kindly said that we would come back to this matter both on the schedules and at Report, and perhaps I can press him on two points which concern Members on all sides of the Committee. The first relates to a consistent problem of what has sometimes been described as "falling between two stools"; that is, those who satisfy our hardship definition but not the Minister's. In other words, they fall within the grey area between qualifying for disablement allowance and qualifying for JSA. We are extremely concerned about that group, and the amendments meet that point.
Secondly, I want to raise with the Minister the remarks he made regarding the people caring for dependent relatives or friends. I was somewhat worried by what he said, though I may not fully have understood it. I believe he said that the definition of caring must fall within the terminology of what is described as "regular" care, which has a requirement of a certain number of hours per week attached to it.
Perhaps I may bring to the Minister's attention that many people who care for elderly or dependent relatives, especially women who care for dependant parents, may do so on a basis that varies from week to week depending on the state of health of the parents. A rigid definition would therefore be extremely harsh. I am sure that the Government recognise, as do many of us in this Chamber, that caring for elderly relatives is a significant contribution to the well-being of this society and that nothing in the Bill should do anything to discredit it.
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