Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Haskel: I was rather worried that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, expressed concern about the value of interviews. Interviews have been standard practice in the private sector for many years. It is the way in which the private sector sets about empowering its people. Staff are interviewed regularly to find out what is necessary as regards training, prospects and people's needs. Over the years it has been found that, as a result, people perform much better and receive far better satisfaction from their work.

I welcome the Government's attempt to introduce this practice into the public sector. The Government are trying to encourage people to move from welfare into work. This system is well tried in the private sector and over the years has been shown to work. There is no

13 Jul 1999 : Column 199

reason to believe that it will not work in the public sector. I applaud it. It enables people to make informed decisions and has been highly successful. It is common practice in most well run companies in this country.

Baroness Buscombe: We are not against the principle of interviewing. Indeed, in principle, we are supportive of the whole process. However, we are deeply concerned about the detail of this provision. We should be looking to see how the pilot schemes "pan out" before the scheme is fully implemented. That applies particularly to people who have multifarious problems, especially the disabled. As presently drafted, the Bill does not take account of those people. That is what we want to discuss in some detail.

Lord Haskel: The disabled and those with particular problems are the very people who probably need the interviewing process most.

Earl Russell: If I may save the Committee some time, what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has said for her Benches, I say for these Benches too. No objection is raised to the principle of the interview. The concerns about the practice will be addressed shortly by my noble friend Lord Addington. The amendment addresses our concern about what will happen to those who do not attend an interview. The amendments request no more than information. I hope that that clears the air a little.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: That is a helpful addition to the debate.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to the worrying loss of young people who are not in work, not in education or training, and not on benefit. He therefore suggested that given that they will, as he told the Committee, insist inconveniently on living, they will find their source of support elsewhere. The noble Earl also agrees--I am glad that he does--that people should not be entitled to draw benefit, in his words, simply for doing nothing. As my right honourable friend said in the other place, there comes a point with wilful non-compliance when people must take responsibility for their actions.

I share the noble Earl's concern about such young people. We know the background that they are likely to come from. They are more likely to come from fractured homes, to be in care, and to have a school record of truanting. That suggests that if we are to rescue them, intervention has to occur at a much earlier stage than merely at the point of entitlement to benefit. That is one of the reasons why the Government are currently investing--I use the word advisedly--£540 million in the Sure Start programme, so that children do not start school ready to vote with their feet if they come from the kind of background I have described.

As the noble Earl will be aware, Clause 52 deals with every group that may come before the Benefits Agency except young people; those come within JSA. In other words, it deals with those who are disabled, lone

13 Jul 1999 : Column 200

parents, widows and the like. It does not deal with the young people to whom the noble Earl refers. The noble Baroness--

Earl Russell: If the Minister will forgive me for intervening, I was drawing on evidence from young people simply because there is more available. The problems, the alternatives for those who have no benefit, are general.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I was merely saying, in so far as this has become almost a clause stand part debate, that the clause does not affect young people who are JSA claimants; it affects the other groups.

I welcome the thoughtful speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. It was an impressive debut on this subject. The noble Baroness referred to the New Deal for lone parents. I contest her figures. She mentioned a success rate of one in 10. That is not true. The scheme is voluntary; therefore, people do not have to reply to an invitation to attend for interview. But of those who do, 88 per cent--not one in 10--join the programme. Figures up to March 1999 indicate that some 12,700 jobs have been found by them as a result.

This is a new programme. Inevitably, the costs are front-end loaded and therefore they will inevitably be high at the beginning. There will be a formal evaluation in autumn 1999 which will indicate the cost-benefit figures. By that stage we should have a more realistic assumption of the actual costs.

The programme is a success. I know that, having met many of the lone parents and their advisers. As many have said to me time and again, the New Deal programme has turned their lives around. Without it, they and their children would have been much worse off.

Many of the points I proposed to make were eloquently made by my noble friends Lord Davies of Coity and Lord Haskel. On the wider issue of interviews, I am glad that the notion of the interview as part of the process of first claiming benefit has been widely accepted by the Committee. This group of amendments seeks to delay the introduction of mandatory work-focused interviews or, I am afraid, to dilute their impact. Amendment No. 108A would ensure that a person who failed to take part in a mandatory interview would remain fully entitled to benefit if the impact of any penalty would cause the claimant or his or her family any hardship. Amendments Nos. 92E, 162A and 163A would delay the introduction until further research has been conducted on the action and income of those disentitled to benefit. Amendment No. 164 would delay introduction until the voluntary phase of the pilot schemes had been properly evaluated.

Before turning to evaluation research, perhaps I may first deal with Amendment No. 108. I share the concerns that have been expressed about the impact of the provision, particularly on groups of disabled people. But, as my noble friends rightly said, this is not a threat; it is an opportunity. It is not about being forced into work or being disentitled to benefit; it is about providing people with the help that they need: possibly to help

13 Jul 1999 : Column 201

them plan to return to work; to claim benefits that they may not know about; or, for example, to engage the support of organisations of which they may not be aware.

Perhaps I may give one example. Research suggests that some 60 per cent of people who use the social security system, who are unemployed, disabled or whatever, believe that if they were to go to work they would lose their housing benefit, full stop. Therefore, they are not willing to risk going to work. However, that is not true. They will not lose their housing benefit. Their housing benefit will be adjusted accordingly. The opportunity of an interview during which some of those concerns can be explored and addressed is vitally important if we are to ensure that people know what are the opportunities for work; what benefits they are entitled to but are not currently claiming; and what support organisations, advice and help may be available to them. That is what we are doing.

The regulations under Clause 52 would simply impose a requirement to participate in a work-focused interview. We do not believe that to be an onerous requirement. We are only asking people to participate in the interviews so that they will know what they hitherto possibly did not know.

There will be sanctions for those who refuse to participate. But we believe that if they do not take part in the interview, they will not, so to speak, have signed up for their benefit. To avoid any penalty, a person who has refused to participate without good cause has only to change his behaviour to become entitled again--in other words, attend an interview. The provision is not about penalising people; it is about helping them. But we believe that the interview is the gateway through which they should pass in order to receive their benefits.

I should like reassure Members of the Committee that we have put in place numerous mechanisms to protect the most vulnerable claimants. I do not doubt that they will be explored during our debates today. We believe that we have the mechanisms in place to ensure that everyone has an ample opportunity to participate, and to protect them if they have good reason not to do so.

First, "one" service staff will be able to postpone the requirement to have an interview where it would be inappropriate to expect someone to have an immediate discussion about work with a personal adviser. The individual may be recovering from an operation or perhaps has recently had a child or been bereaved.

Secondly, where a claimant is required to have a work-focused interview, it can take place in the claimant's home where that is more appropriate. If he or she wants to have an advocate at the meeting, that is perfectly acceptable. The claimant is entirely within his or her right in that regard.

Thirdly, we shall not cut off benefits arbitrarily. Only after a third failure to attend and take part in an interview will benefit be withdrawn. Claimants will have clearly explained to them the consequences of failure to participate and they will be encouraged to take part.

13 Jul 1999 : Column 202

Fourthly, there will be a comprehensive, and non-exhaustive, "good cause" provision to ensure that claimants are not penalised if there are reasonable grounds for failing to take part.

Finally, where a decision is made that a claimant has not taken part in an interview, he or she will have the ability to appeal it under the new dispute resolution procedures introduced by the Social Security Act 1998. The claimant will also have a further right of appeal against the decision to an independent appeal tribunal. We believe that that balances rights and responsibilities.

I deal next with Amendments Nos. 92E, 162A and 163A. These amendments seek to delay the introduction of compulsory interviews until further research has been conducted on the actions and incomes of those who are disentitled to benefit. The noble Earl made clear that he was talking primarily about young people because that was where there was the greatest evidence to that effect. I have a great deal of sympathy with the focus of the amendments on research and evaluation. I agree that we must evaluate the pilots properly and take account of research before taking decisions about national roll-out. We want to provide the best possible service to claimants. For that reason, we shall see what works and the effect of our policies on the development of the service.

We have already spent considerable sums on evaluating related policies and have published the research. I refer to statistics on the New Deal and research into the operation of JSA, which includes data on those who are disallowed, for, for example not meeting labour market conditions. The research was designed to provide a detailed understanding of the attitudes of disallowed and sanctioned people, their knowledge of the benefit rules, and the consequences of disallowance and sanctions. Some of that research, which I have read recently, shows that what clients particularly want is the opportunity to have face-to-face contact and better information about what is expected of them and to be talked through the implications of what happens if they do not follow a particular path. In the light of that research, that is precisely what we aim to provide through the "one" service. We hope that the first qualitative findings on non-compulsory pilots will be available by the summer of next year. Information on the compulsory pilots will come somewhat later. The quantitative findings from the compulsory schemes will be available from the summer of 2001.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked me where the schemes were taking place. We are starting with four basic model pilots in south-east Essex, Warwickshire, the Clyde coast and Renfrew and Lea Roding. Together, they involve some 147,000 people respectively. In November, we expect to enter into the two other kinds of scheme, one concerned with the private and voluntary sectors and the other with the call centres. They will deal with 164,000 people and 174,000 people. In that way, we can learn from the telephone responses and the involvement of the voluntary organisations in comparison with the basic model run by BA/ES and local authority staff. Those schemes started in late June. Therefore, we hope to have the qualitative findings by

13 Jul 1999 : Column 203

the summer of next year. Given the number of people involved, reliable quantitative findings will not be available until the summer of 2001.

I turn to Amendment No. 164. We are spending a substantial amount on the evaluation of the pilots which do not merely count the numbers who go in to work but look also at qualitative research. We shall follow it through carefully. I understand the concern of the noble Earl that failure to meet the entirely reasonable requirements as a condition of claiming benefit could lead to disentitlement, crime and social exclusion. However, we are placing numerous safeguards in place. We believe that the impact of penalties will be properly monitored during our evaluation of the "one" pilots. We are satisfied that the requirements of Clause 52 are reasonable. If, on the basis of the pilots, we believe that we should not go ahead with national roll-out, we shall not do so. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay said, that is the point of pilots. We want to see whether this works and whether we can get a loop of learning back into practice and process before any decision is made on how to go forward.

At the core of it is our belief that for too long the benefits service has been a passive service in which people have not been given the opportunity to have the information they need to make informed choices, particularly if they are disabled, lone parents or have been widowed. We want to provide that information, and to that end we want them to attend interviews. As my noble friends have repeated, for disabled people and lone parents no action needs to be taken following that interview. The only requirement is to turn up at the interview itself. But we want to be sure that people know what the options are so that when they come to make choices, they are informed ones. We shall evaluate this matter both qualitatively and quantitatively under the "one" scheme. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

5 p.m.

Earl Russell: This has worked as a Committee stage should. A Committee stage should be a negotiating process, and we have been doing that to very good purpose. Before I turn to the remarks of the Minister, many of which I found extremely helpful, I should like to refer to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Haskel. There is nothing in those speeches which is incompatible in any way with these amendments and, therefore, nothing on which I need take issue.

We on these Benches do not in any sense object to the process of interviews or the idea that people should do something in return for benefits. We are concerned with what happens if they do not. Once one says that as a matter of moral principle they should attend these interviews when asked to do so, the decision as to what to do instead must depend to a large extent on assessing the consequences of any action that is taken.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page