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Lord Davies of Coity: I believe that each of us will be sympathetic to the arguments that have been advanced in support of this amendment; but I fear that it presents one or two difficulties. The first is that it says,


Why not 32, 30 or 25 hours per week? In fact, there may be people caring on a shared arrangement and working very much harder and having greater caring responsibilities, but who may not be working 35 hours per week. That presents an anomaly which would create difficulties for people in caring situations.

The second problem is that if we put into the Bill the provision that anyone with caring commitments of 35 hours per week or more--

Lord Rix: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am sure he is aware that one cannot be in receipt of the invalid care allowance unless by definition one is caring for more than 35 hours per week.

Lord Davies of Coity: I certainly understand that. But I believe that if this amendment is put into the Bill, it could create difficulties. It would discriminate between different carers as regards the interview process.

The second problem is that if the amendment is incorporated into the Bill, presumably someone will say to the benefits office, "I am caring for a person for more than 35 hours a week". Does the matter remain there and is accepted, or are further inquiries made to see whether or not that is correct? It seems to me that the arguments that have been advanced on behalf of carers would come out very clearly and plainly at the interviewing process. They would demonstrate clearly that the person would not be available for employment.

Earl Russell: I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said what she did about the effect of this amendment. I understand that its effect would not be to deny an opportunity of an interview to someone who wants it. The amendment deals only with the compulsion. That is the theme to which we keep returning. We on these Benches--by that I refer to my honourable friends as well as my noble friends--have accepted the principle of the interview in the single gateway, subject to a very considerable concern about exceptions for vulnerable people of various sorts.

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We do not seem to be having much success as regards the exception for vulnerable people. Perhaps I may stress again that it is not our intention at any stage to exclude them from the opportunity; it is our concern to protect them from compulsion. If that concern is not to be at all satisfied, we shall have to reconsider our attitude to the whole process. I would not wish to predict what the outcome of such consideration might be, as it will involve many people other than myself who have not yet had the opportunity of finding out what has taken place in this debate.

Before we leave this subject, I would like to ask the Minister to do a little more thinking about exceptions and about whether she really wishes to move quite so much in the direction of work conscription. It is beginning to look rather perturbing and the language of opportunity, which we have heard and with which we agree, is beginning to look increasingly disproportionate to what is actually being done.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I shall deal with the noble Earl's remarks in a moment. However, I have to say that his choice of the word "conscription" was both misconceived and inappropriate, especially as I spent a considerable time when responding to the previous amendment explaining that disabled people, lone parents and the like are entirely free, following the interview, to do nothing at all.

As the noble Lord explained, these amendments seek to exempt from the requirement to attend work-focused interviews people claiming invalid care allowance and others providing care for more than 35 hours a week. Perhaps I can explain why the Government think it right to include carers within the "one" service. In no sense is there any challenge to the extraordinary and valuable role performed by carers who, very often, impoverish themselves and break their own health in the very process of caring, as my noble friend has explained to us on many occasions. Indeed, quite the opposite.

As I am sure all Members of the Committee will agree, the six million carers--only some 300,000 of whom are entitled to claim ICA--make a vital contribution to the well-being of this country and, above all, to the well-being of our people. The Prime Minister has already announced the allocation of £750 million over the next three years to promote independence through the prevention of illness and disability through rehabilitation. Carers and those they care for will benefit from this. In addition, we are making £140 million available to allow carers to take well-earned breaks from their caring responsibilities. At this point, I should like to pay tribute to the Carers National Association and to the work of my noble friend in achieving that response.

The proposals in this clause will, of course, require those carers making claims to social security benefits, including the main carers' benefit, ICA, to take part in work-focused interviews both at the point of claim and at various points thereafter. All they will be required to do is to take part in an interview, which is designed to be of real assistance to them.

There will be three main purposes for carers. First, as I emphasised previously, the interview will not deal exclusively with work-related issues. The personal

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adviser will be able to offer a wide range of advice and support that can be valuable to the carer. This will include advice about other benefits to which he or she may be entitled. In addition, the personal adviser may be able to provide information on other organisations which support carers, in areas such as respite care. Such links may be crucial in helping carers avoid the isolation which often follows the onset of their responsibilities.

Secondly, as I am sure Members of the Committee will acknowledge, some carers may be able to do some work despite the fact that they have heavy caring commitments. To receive ICA, someone must have caring commitments of at least 35 hours a week. Even so, around 10 per cent to 15 per cent of those who claim ICA do some work. So caring duties and part-time work are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We want the opportunity to discuss with carers whether they wish to consider part-time work, and, if they do, to give them the full range of help and support that they deserve to allow them to realise that ambition. However, I should like to stress again that we will not be forcing carers to follow this route, or any other.

Thirdly, caring duties do not last for ever. Over one-third of those on ICA care for less than a year. The median length of claim for ICA is two years. Many carers move straight from ICA to jobseeker's allowance with its full range of work-focused conditions. We want to ease that transition by helping carers take what steps they reasonably can to stay in touch with the labour market or improve their employability throughout their period of caring responsibilities. Again, this will be subject to what is feasible, given the extent of their caring commitments.

These are sensible proposals and ones which we hope many carers will welcome. However, for many people who have spoken today, the argument seems to hinge on the issue of compulsion. Members of the Committee have again suggested that the "one" service should be on an entirely voluntary basis for carers, as with others. I can understand why the noble Lord and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, have made that suggestion, but I am afraid that I simply do not agree with them philosophically.

As I said on Second Reading--and I hoped then that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, actually agreed with me--a key issue here is that you do not know what you do not know. If the noble Earl really believes that the interview can be valuable and helpful, I should point out to him that very often the people who will be in need of that help will be precisely those who will not learn of that help if the interview is voluntary. Therefore, they will not be available to take advantage of such assistance. The whole point about making the interview compulsory is that it is a way of actually empowering people to go on to make subsequent choices. If they do not have that first exposure to appropriate information, support and help, they will not be able to go on and make other choices, which may be more satisfying to them in their lives. That is the reason for it.

If, following the interview, we were saying to carers that they must work even though they are caring for 35 hours a week and even though they are disabled and receiving incapacity benefit, I could take the noble

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Earl's point. However, people do not know what they do not know. Unless we empower them through the compulsory interview, they will not have that information and will not be able to make such choices. People cannot choose if they do not know about the choices available.

Earl Russell: I hear what the Minister says. If she will not give up the compulsion, will she consider a reduced penalty for those in vulnerable situations?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: If someone is claiming benefit for the first time, the interview is part of that benefit claim unless it is deferred or waived in certain situations following guidance. If that person has had a repeat interview and failed to attend--for example, a trigger interview where the child is five or 11--obviously we are talking about sanctions of 20 per cent to 40 per cent. But people are coming into the system at the point at which they claim benefit. We are embedding that benefit claim in an interview. Indeed, many noble Lords will be quite surprised to learn that people can get benefit without actually having an interview.

I really do not understand why the noble Earl is so resistant to the notion of a compulsory interview when he values the interview. Indeed, those it would most help would be those least likely to take advantage of such assistance were the interview not to be compulsory.


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