Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC285

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC285

Grand Committee

Wednesday, 26 October 2011.

3.45 pm

Welfare Reform Bill

Committee (8th Day)

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Fookes): My Lords, the Grand Committee is in session. If there is a Division in the Chamber, as Members will surely understand by now, we have to adjourn immediately and resume after 10 minutes. There is an additional arrangement. I remind noble Lords that those Members who have registered with the Clerk of the Parliaments may vote in their places in the Grand Committee, provided that they are present in the Grand Committee three minutes after the Question is put in the Chamber. Members who have not registered to do so or who are not here at the three-minute mark must then vote in the usual way. I also remind Members that although they must speak up, please do not touch the microphones.

That deals with the household notices. Let us turn to the Bill.

Clause 15: Work-focused interview requirement

Amendment 51CDZA

Moved by Lord McKenzie of Luton

51CDZA: Clause 15, page 7, line 10, leave out "(or more paid work or better-paid work)"

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, this is a probing amendment designed to focus on issues of in-work conditionality. We attach it to Clause 15, which is just on the "Work-focused interview requirement", but it is intended to cover work preparation requirements as well as work search and work availability requirements.

The Minister will be aware that some of us were able to attend a briefing session with officials yesterday-I thank them for that. It is clear from that session that much of the thinking about in-work conditionality is at best embryonic, notwithstanding that we are being asked to give considerable powers to the Secretary of State in this primary legislation.

The proposition that conditionality should not stop when someone accesses work is not of itself unreasonable. The progression from a mini-job to a full-time job is to be encouraged for those whose health, family and caring commitments permit. How it will work in practice is what matters. We have only a few parameters at the moment. It is the express policy intent that conditionality will cease to apply for claimants without caring responsibilities or health conditions at a level of gross earnings equivalent to 35 hours per week at the national minimum wage, currently £212 per week, or £11,000 a year. Obviously, other things being equal, that would put someone within the tax and national insurance net and therefore into the higher tapers. Someone being paid twice the national minimum wage would have to work only 17 and a half hours per week; someone on

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC286

lower pay twice that long. The threshold for an equivalent couple is double that for an individual, so the family income would need to be £22,000 before they escape conditionality.

It is not clear how well those parameters have yet filtered into the public consciousness. Perhaps the Minister can point us in the direction of the equality impact assessment which covered that issue. We welcome the fact that the Government have given some assurances about easements-for example, for lone parents with young children and for those with health challenges and caring responsibilities. There is also the flexibility promulgated for ways in which claimants can increase their earnings by supposedly increasing hours or pay, changing jobs or taking on a second job. That is nice in theory but likely to give rise to all sorts of practical problems.

The vagueness around the provisions, the extent to which providers or Jobcentre Plus staff will be making the determination, and the sources of capacity and training are a real worry. Affirmative regulations are all very well, but we know that they provide limited parliamentary oversight of what is a significant change.

A number of points arise: we know from the briefing that the ultimate requirement in terms of hours or overall remuneration will be included in the claimant commitment ab initio. How will this help those who wish to have a staged return to the job market? How will employers who are able to offer part-time work react to someone whose claimant commitment accepts that they are to achieve full-time work? It seems to me that this could damage their job prospects.

The test is apparently to be on gross earnings, so where does this leave, for example, employer pension contributions? These will be a significant feature, given auto-enrolment, which we know the Government are committed to introducing next year. What capacity will there be in the system to do the appropriate kinds of comparison? These will be complicated matters.

How will this work for the self-employed? What happens if the profits of the business are slower to materialise than hoped for, margins are squeezed beyond expectations, or the business operates in a fluctuating market? If it is a seasonal business, one can see the prospect of fill-in work, but on what analysis will Jobcentre Plus or providers seek to divert individuals from the sometimes painful process-particularly in the current economic climate-of building a profitable and sustainable business? What expertise will they be able to bring to bear?

Our discussions yesterday raised a number of issues about how the work programme fits with this, as well. There seems to be a potential conflict between work programme providers, which are remunerated by sustaining individuals in work for at least 16 hours per week, and in-work conditionality, which seeks to move people to 35 hours a week, if remunerated at the national minimum wage.

It is understood that there is scope to renegotiate outcomes with existing providers, but this could be a significant change of focus. What evaluation has been undertaken of the potential to renegotiate? Can the Minister tell us what discussions have taken place with

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC287

the business community and, indeed, the TUC, on how this novel interaction with the labour market should proceed?

We acknowledge what the Government are seeking to achieve, but there appear to be so many unknowns-unless the Minister can give us comfort this afternoon-that it is difficult to accept that we should give the powers that the Government are seeking in this Bill. At the least, this looks to be a case for a sunset clause. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, first of all, I should apologise to the Committee for not being here when it last discussed this Bill on Monday, and accord my grateful thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for speaking to some of my amendments in a large group which was somewhat precursored-I think that is the word-by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie.

The noble Lord, in his speech to this probing amendment, asked a whole string of questions which I am not in any sense qualified to respond to. I am able to respond to the amendment, which leaves out,

The object of the exercise, we all agree, is to get as many people as possible into work, through this system. The trouble is, if the words I have just quoted from lines 10 and 11 on page 7 of the Bill are left out, then once the claimant has got paid work that is the end of the Secretary of State's responsibility.

What happens if the claimant decides that the hours he is doing are not sufficient for his needs, even with the universal credit? I accept there are the pension commitments and various other commitments that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, spoke about. Is the claimant going to go back to the provider or to Jobcentre Plus and ask how he is to increase his earnings? If so, there is very good reason to have these words remain in the Bill. The question-

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords-

Lord Skelmersdale: Can I just finish? The key question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, is to what extent there will be bullying, by either the provider or the Jobcentre Plus officials. I hope to goodness that there will be none.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: The amendment, as I explained, was a probing amendment and was not of itself meant to be taken literally. It was the peg on which to hang the argument and this very important debate, which we should have. The noble Lord was musing about what would happen with claimants who wish voluntarily to increase their hours. There is nothing to stop them doing it, and we would all applaud that if they were able to, and to do so without further pressures on Jobcentre Plus or the providers. There is nothing wrong with that.

Lord Skelmersdale: No, my Lords. The reason I added my last sentence and prevented the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, from rising to interrupt me was for

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC288

the simple reason that the claimant may well need guidance and help in order to get the extra hours or money that he requires. Therefore, I am asking the Minister to what extent this is going to be driven by the claimant, or by the job provider, education or Jobcentre Plus. I said that I hoped it would be claimant-driven, and nothing else.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I wonder whether I could add to the burden of questions that the Minister will be facing. This will appear somewhat on the tangent but, in my view, it is not, as it feeds into a lot of our other discussions and is related to work conditionality. At the moment, as I understand it, a lone parent is regarded as being in full-time work for the purposes of conditionality or eligibility for tax credits if she is working 16 hours a week, and is then topped up. With a child under, I think, 12-although coming down to 10, seven et cetera-that 16 hours kicks in at an earlier stage. As far as I am aware-and I stand to be corrected on this-there is no point at which the lone parent is expected to increase her hours beyond that as the child gets older. With a couple, the main claimant, as we know, may claim on behalf of both. I have no objections at all in principle with expecting either claimant in a couple relationship to be available for work; and, in certain circumstances, both.

What concerns me, and what I would like to ask the Minister about, is the impression that the support papers that I have read so far seem to give: that when a child is 12, whether you are a lone parent or in a relationship as a couple, all such people must work a full-time job, which is now defined as 35 hours a week. If I understand it correctly, it could mean that a lone parent with a 13 year-old could be expected to move from working for 16 hours to 35 instead, as part of work conditionality; and a couple-a husband and wife, or two partners-with children of 13 and 15 might each be expected to work 35 hours a week. If I have understood the proposals correctly, then I would like to come back on that because I find it antithetical to everything we know about the need for children to have support. I have no problem at all with couples and the second partner, or a lone parent, being asked to find work within school hours. However, if the Minister is saying that at the age of 12, both partners in a couple, as well as a lone parent, are expected to be in what we would traditionally regard as full-time work of 35 hours-plus, then this is certainly something that we would like to revisit. I would be grateful if the Minister could help us to be sure that we have the facts right, as this is part of a wider debate on conditionality.

4 pm

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, like others, I was absent from the last sitting of the Committee, unavoidably. I was having my gardening wound attended to in a magnetic resonance machine; I think I am still radioactive but I hope it is not affecting other people.

I am in favour of these amendments. Conditionality is an important part of this and I am not sure that we have got it right, although the principle of conditionality was hammered out almost to infinity over the last two

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC289

welfare reform Bills and it is now a more or less agreed policy. That is not to say that we have not got to get some of these important questions right. The expertise of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, is acknowledged in this field. It was demonstrated beyond any doubt in the last two welfare reform Bills and the Committee is the better for having his experience. Having buttered him up, I should say that this debate is at risk of being incoherent. I would much rather have had a conditionality debate over a solid period without a whole list of disaggregated amendments.

I am about to lose my well established credit with the Committee because I am going to repeat myself. I was looking at this last night when I came in. The Marshalled List was substantially different and I was looking forward to an all embracing principled debate, because we all know that if you have to resort to conditionality this policy is not working. I know this because I am a director of the Wise Group, and colleagues know that. If you have to inflict penalties in big numbers in circumstances that are not clearly defined, there is something wrong that needs to be fixed further up the food chain.

I want to continue with my whinge for another moment if Members will indulge me. I am very worried that there are four or five big issues here, one of them being disability, that we are not going to give proper time to if we disaggregate the amendments to the extent they were overnight. It is not for me to tell people how they do their business and I am speaking for no one but myself but I notice how far we are down the sitting stage. I have been here before-as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said famously in the Chamber the other day, I didn't come up the Clyde on a bike-so I see that we will end up doing three days on the trot, something disabled colleagues might find quite difficult to deal with, never mind the rest of us, to cover everything between Clause 15, which is where we are, and Clause 136.

I cannot do anything about any of this and I am willing to take part in debates. I do not want anyone to say that I am saying anything like conditionality is not important, because it is. As a matter of process, however, I appeal to all colleagues to try to make sure that we get to the important things. To be brutally honest and tell you the unvarnished truth, I want to put pressure on the coalition Government on four or five issues here. I may run out of time because we are doing things in a way that is disaggregated to the extent that it is. So I am appealing to my colleagues on all sides of the Committee-even from Rutherglen-to think carefully about that. We are having very good debates and we are getting very good responses from the Government and I make no complaint about that but we have to be realistic about making sure that we get to the really important political things in this Bill, otherwise the Committee will not do as effective a job for the House as it would otherwise.

Lord McAvoy: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for drawing attention to that sort of matter because, with the exception of the first two Committee meetings, at every sitting half the time has been taken up by the Labour Opposition and the rest by others. There is no question of anything deliberate on this side; that was a

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC290

clear inference. This side has taken up half the time and half the time has come from others. I do not complain because on at least seven occasions the Minister, who is extremely able and competent-I can also butter up-has had to say "I will write to you" because of the complicated nature of the questions from my noble friends on this side of the House. It is a point that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, should make but I do not think he should make it to this side.

Lord Wigley: My Lords, I think that I have attended every sitting of this Committee. I find it immensely frustrating that, when one sitting ends, one finds that by the beginning of the next a wodge of new amendments has come on board. It does not mean that the points raised are not important or that there has been time-wasting. However, it is immensely difficult for people, particularly those with responsibilities to organisations outside the Chamber, to organise themselves to put the points that they need to put in debates. It is not just for this Committee but for the House to consider how to get a more orderly way of doing business.

Baroness Drake: My Lords, I support the amendment and come back to its detail; my noble friend indicated that it was a probing amendment. This is an opportunity to raise significant issues about in-work conditionality. Where a welfare system has to balance rights and responsibilities, under universal credit those in work will be embraced by an in-work conditionality of some complexity which neither they nor their employers will previously have experienced. From the emerging details of in-work conditionality it is clear that it will give the Government significant discretion over a sizeable section of the workforce, and powers to follow through with sanctions that will affect people's lives very significantly.

This is a novel discretion for three reasons. It will impact on a much greater volume of people; it will impact on existing in-work relationships; and it will require Jobcentre Plus people or any outside providers to engage with large numbers of companies with which they have previously had no engagement.

Setting and enforcing what is a reasonable condition, particularly in terms of increasing hours or requiring people to seek and change their jobs, must be sensitive to a range of factors: for example, local and regional labour markets, and different sectors and their employment practices. If an employer puts their employees on short-term working rather than making them redundant, is that a good thing or will it attract conditionality requirements? How will it be handled? What will happen when people have atypical or variable hours work contracts? Over what period and in what manner will earnings be averaged to assess compliance with income thresholds on conditionality?

In requiring people to work more hours or seek a higher-paid job, it is important to ensure that childcare and conditionality interact fairly. Parental need for confidence in the care of their children needs to be respected. My noble friend Lady Hollis moved in on some detailed concerns in this area. Any casual observation of female labour market statistics will show two peaks of part-time working by women. They coincide with

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC291

key caring periods. Part-time working in the UK is part of the systemic solution to childcare, particularly for single parents. One cannot look at conditionality on the one hand without looking at the nature and characteristics of childcare in the nation as a whole. How will the sanctions regime be applied? How will it impact on the children of those who are subject to sanctions? How long will people and families be given to adjust to any new requirements and conditions, particularly if they come on top of a period of compulsory redundancy?

What we see from the details coming forward is the micromanagement of the work patterns of potentially millions of people, and the application of wide discretion that will need a considerable set of guidance notes and competences to apply the conditionality. The staff making these in-work conditionality assessments will have no previous experience of doing this. It is a novel area in its scale and complexity. No doubt in answer to my questions the Minister will say what is intended or that the matter is work in progress. It is pretty clear that an awful lot of work is still in progress. I say that not to appear negative but to say that the Bill has the effect of giving the Government considerable discretionary power over people in work.

Parliament needs to be satisfied on three issues: that the capacity and capability to implement the proposed in-work conditionality is there; that there is confidence that the discretion will be applied consistently, fairly and proportionately; and that there is a high level of confidence that there will be no inequalities of treatment or impact in the outcomes of applying that discretion. Because conditionality is now going to be applied to people who believe that they are already making a contribution, they will have to experience a different perception of the contribution they should make in terms of being in work.

I want to pose two questions for the Minister. First, do the Government intend to pilot in-work conditionality before they introduce it nationally? Secondly, would any introduction consequent on those pilots be both gradual and incremental so that experience, knowledge and skill can be built up by those assessing claimants? Thirdly, what will be the reporting to Parliament about the level of confidence that this complex system of in-work conditionality can be applied fairly and proportionately?

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, I would like briefly to follow up on that because this takes us into largely uncharted waters, so we have to be sure of what it is that we are doing. I was struck by the research report, Perceptions of Welfare Reform and Universal Credit, which states that:

"Many part-time workers were surprised that the Universal Credit proposition addresses them as they tended to perceive that they were already doing their bit and felt a strong sense of entitlement to tax credits".

I think that they found the idea that conditionality was going to apply to them quite disturbing. There is a real danger here. The Government talk a lot about not wanting an overly oppressive state, but I fear that many workers will experience this as just that.

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC292

I have two questions for the Minister. First, my noble friend Lord McKenzie mentioned the equality impact assessment. I understand why the Government are using earnings rather than hours as the threshold-because they want to get away from the in-work/out-of-work distinction-but in doing that, as my noble friend said, someone who can earn more will find it much easier to meet the threshold. We know from all the evidence that men are more likely to be able to do this than women, non-disabled people are more likely to do it than disabled people, and white people are more likely to do it than minority-ethnic people.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: People without children.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: Yes. Is there not an issue here in terms of the equality implications? How does the department see those implications?

Secondly, I know that the Minister likes evidence-based policy-making and of course will be very aware of the research report UK Employment Retention and AdvancementDemonstration, which has found that gains are made by providing support for people to advance in work through this programme. It states that,

In what way is the department building on this? To me, it seems that it is going down the in-work conditionality route instead of developing the support provided in this programme.

4.15 pm

Baroness Donaghy: My Lords, I would like to raise a philosophical point about the Government wandering into the world of employment relationships. I am not sure whether philosophy is allowed but I will have a go. Employment relationships are complex, and I am not just talking about the legal implications. A bargain is reached between the employer and the employee about how each will conduct themselves. Any external factor can easily upset the applecart. I give a hypothetical example to illustrate that. I know from being a former chair of ACAS that its helpline receives a million calls a year from both employees and employers. ACAS staff outline what avenues the caller can pursue but stop short of giving actual advice. Human nature being what it is, this is often interpreted as strong advice. If the information is used in the wrong circumstances, it can cause trouble rather than solve a potential problem.

We all sift the information that we hear, so an employee who has had a work conditionality interview, as it were, with the local Jobcentre Plus could go straight to their employer and say, "The social says you've got to give me more money or increase my hours". There may well be thousands of philanthropists out there just waiting for the opportunity to pour largesse over their employees' heads, but this situation could also lead to real difficulties in the employment relationship. Some employees are clinging on to work

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC293

by their fingertips right now. I cannot help thinking that this measure is a precedent in terms of government relations with the world of work.

I read what Chris Grayling said in the other place and it all sounded terribly reasonable. He said that "they"; that is, claimants,

An example was given where a lone parent could move to a job with longer hours as the children grew up. That was called,

How grown up would the children have to be? Would the extent of unemployment in the area be taken into account, as the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, has asked? Is it really the Government's intention to force people to give up one job to pursue another? How would this affect self-employed people? Would they be in danger if they showed that they had made no profit in a particular year? Would they be advised to give up their business in order to take up higher-paid work elsewhere? I know from my seven years in ACAS that the employment relationship is a very delicate one. I worry about how this issue is going to be handled.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, I wish to pick up the points raised by a number of noble Lords about how we manage ourselves in this Committee. One of the issues is that the briefings that we are supplying are arriving shortly before the sitting when we are debating the relevant matter, so that noble Lords get to see changes and new amendments too late. I will try to ensure that we run background briefings a week in advance, say, of the relevant Committee sitting rather than immediately before it. I think that might sort out some of the problems and maintain the depth of our discussions. I know that that is rather a two-edged sword, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, warned me that it would be, in that supplying more briefing leads to better questions being asked, or at least more questions being asked. However, I accept that that is part of the process.

I turn to the amendment, which I understand is a probing amendment. We believe it is critical that this Bill provides the framework to apply conditionality to in-work claimants. I take this opportunity to explain exactly why that is. One of the things that I know all noble Lords from all round the Committee welcome is that universal credit will remove the distinction between in- and out-of-work benefits. That is at the heart of what we are doing here. In particular, it will remove what have been described by many noble Lords as the arbitrary hours rules, particularly the 16-hour rule in jobseeker's allowance. Under universal credit claimants will have entitlement regardless of the hours that they work. This is clearly a positive but it does mean that we may be paying benefit to claimants who are clearly capable of working or earning more. We think conditionality can play an important role in encouraging and supporting such claimants to do more to support

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC294

themselves. In practice, we are looking for conditionality to take up some of the impacts that before we were relying on the separation between tax credits and benefits to provide.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, raised the question of micromanagement. In our briefing on in-work conditionality, we said that we would be guided in the main by claimant choice, in particular whether claimants want to increase their work with their current employer, look for an additional job or look for an entirely new job. It is not about micromanagement of claimants' careers but about supporting and encouraging them to progress. I would turn round the evidence presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, about how, with the right encouragement, people can increase and sustain their earnings, and say that this is the kind of impact that we want. Indeed, when we look later at how this is interrelated with the work programme, there are clearly opportunities in the medium term to help people improve their lives.

You only have to think about this for a few seconds to realise what the issue is. Once we have got rid of the distinction between in-work and out-of-work benefits, if there was not some kind of conditionality regime, we could get into a position where a claimant who is doing literally one or two hours of work but who is capable of working full-time would receive their benefit condition-free. This is obviously way softer than the current regime. The current regime means that you can work up to 16 hours maintaining full conditionality and losing all the extra hours. It is not surprising that not many people actually do that. That is the issue.

The question then becomes when conditionality should cease. With no break between the different benefits, there is no obvious point for this to happen. As noble Lords know, we have published a briefing note explaining how we intend to set those conditionality thresholds, and we are defining those by the number of hours we expect each individual in a benefit unit to work, taking account of their particular capability and circumstances, and multiplying it by the relevant national minimum wage. Otherwise, we are left with the tyranny of an hours rule and all the complications of reporting, testing and checking, and the intrusiveness of that, which is why we as a department have gone towards doing it in this way as a clean earnings figure.

For a single claimant who we expect to work full-time, this would give a threshold of around £210 per week. For a lone parent, who we might expect to work only 20 hours a week because of caring responsibilities, the threshold would be around £120. To pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on lone parent conditionality, already with JSA lone parents must be available for work for as many hours as their caring responsibilities allow. If their child is in school we would expect this to be something like 20 or 25 hours. For lone parents with a child over 12 on the universal credit, full-time work will be the default as now, and we will allow limitations to this on a case-by-case basis, as required by the claimant's circumstances.

I shall pick up the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, on self-employment. If a self-employed claimant falls below the threshold, then we will expect them to take steps to increase their earnings and

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC295

reduce their dependency on benefits. How we do this will in large part depend on the claimant. If they want to focus on their self-employed business, we expect to give them an appropriate time to do this; alternatively, we may expect them to look for employment to supplement their earnings. As with all such issues, this is an area we continue to consider and develop.

Where the benefit unit earns more than the threshold amount, we will not impose work-related requirements on either member of that benefit unit. Where earnings are lower, we will have the ability to do so. This means that we will be able to impose work-related requirements on claimants working less than we could reasonably expect in benefit units falling under the threshold. We believe this is the right approach and the right way to define the cut-off point for conditionality.

In answer to a question put by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, I say that we have chosen gross earnings because that is easily understood and simple to assess. If we were to take off elements such as pension contributions, that would only add to the complexity of the system. That said, we are only too aware what a difficult area this is. It is worth stressing that although we will be able to impose conditionality on those in work, we will not be obliged to do so. Clearly, that is important. Although we believe conditionality can play a key role in getting in-work claimants to progress, we do not yet have a final view as to how or when this is best done.

As noble Lords clearly appreciate, there are a range of complicated issues to work through. Critically, we will need to build our understanding of what can help claimants progress-when we should require claimants to look for more work and what role other interventions, such as skills assessments or career advice sessions, can play.

I turn now to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, on the work programme and the conflicts there. I can assure him that it is not the case that, by setting a higher threshold, we make the current work programme structures invalid. The programme can continue as now, looking to move claimants from being out of work into some work. Once claimants have left the work programme, we could then look to continue working with them to help them progress. We are currently considering the interaction with a future work programme and the timing of migration. That will be an area of considerable opportunity when we have the system in place and we start rolling over to the second set of work programmes.

Clearly, we need to look at the skills and training our advisers will need. Indeed, we need to consider whether there is a role for third-party providers. To respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, I say that we will need to consider what we can afford in that area. We recognise that the circumstances in which we could require a claimant engaged in some work to move to a new job are particularly sensitive. We are clear that any actions that we impose will be reasonable and proportionate. We have made a public commitment that advisers will take into account other benefits of the claimant's current employment before imposing any requirement to take an alternative job. This is

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC296

especially important where those benefits are particularly relevant to the claimant's circumstances: for example, where someone with caring responsibilities has an existing flexible working pattern or where someone has built up a significant pension entitlement. We are developing our proposals in this area and in due course we will provide more detailed guidance on how the system will operate in practice.

4.30 pm

We are not rushing in here. We need to take time to get the issue right. Given the scale of the issues, it may be that in October 2013 the conditionality system in universal credit will remain focused on those who are out of work. However, we may pilot options for in-work conditionality to build up our understanding. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, about our approach in this area.

I will add that our approach as we test and examine how best to do this will not stop in October 2013. In this area there is a constantly changing and improving evidence base and I foresee constant evolution to improve the position. There will not be a sudden point where we freeze what we are doing. I imagine that it will evolve indefinitely. However, I am clear that the Bill needs to provide us with the powers to apply conditionality to in-work claimants. I hope that I have spelt out in as compelling a way as I can why we need to do that in this system. We recognise that we need to tread carefully in this new area. I hope that I have reassured noble Lords that this is exactly what we are doing. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Sherlock: My Lords, perhaps I could say a word. I am sorry to intervene. However, having been to the briefing yesterday and having heard the Minister respond to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, I cannot in all conscience let this go without pushing it further. I am particularly concerned by the position of parents with teenage children. I understand what the Minister has done. After removing the barrier and artificial threshold between "in work" and "out of work", he has been forced to compensate by reintroducing a form of conditionality for people who previously did not have it. I understand why he chose to do that. However, the big problem is the way in which it has been set. I read the notes, listened to him and went to the briefing. My understanding from what he said-I hope that he will correct me if I am wrong-is that the default setting for a parent whose child has reached their 13th birthday is that they will work full-time. That means 35 hours a week in addition to travel time. If that is standard travel time, it is up to 90 minutes each way-another three hours a day, 15 hours a week, on top. That will be 50 hours a week. If they are in the kind of job that has a one-hour lunch break, that will be an 11-hour day. Therefore, the parent will be expected to leave home at 8 am and not return until 7 pm.

I invite noble Lords to imagine for a moment that they have a teenager who has just turned 13. I have asked people I know who have or have had 13 year-olds whether they would leave them alone in the house for that period. When they had picked themselves up

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC297

laughing from the floor, they said: "No-have you met my teenager?". The general conclusion was that they would not. I asked whether they would be able to get childcare. They said: "What kind of childcare would I get for a 13 year-old?". They said, first, that it is very hard to find; secondly, that it is quite expensive; and thirdly, that it is very hard to persuade a 13 year-old to take it. My question is: do we think that that is a reasonable requirement as a default setting before we get into exceptional circumstances? I think that it is simply wrong and I would be very grateful if the Minister would either correct me or tell me that he thinks it is a good default setting.

My second question is: even assuming a lone parent or couple in this situation could find appropriate childcare, could they afford it? If they were working full-time on minimum hours, they would still have to pay a portion of that childcare, and that plus other costs could negate the gains from work. Will the Minister explain how that would be taken into account?

I have two final questions. When I worked with lone parents, I often found someone doing a 25-hour job who was underemployed for her qualifications but who had found an employer who would not sack her if she took a day off because her kids went sick. She was willing to stick it out when she could probably have earned a bit more but would have ended up being in and out of employment. Having found a job that was safe and reliable and which she had had for a few years, she was not willing to risk it by moving to slightly better paid but more insecure employment.

If she had a 25-hour job in that circumstance, and the assumption was that she had to find another 10 hours, she would then have the three choices the noble Lord set out. She could go and find another 10 hours on top of that, which would mean finding 10 hours to fit around the 25 she already has, and adding in another set of travel times to all those different bits of hours, assuming this would even work out. She would have to assume also that that job would remain stable.

When I asked the question in the briefing-and I am probably not meant to refer to this, so forgive me if I have the protocol wrong-my understanding from those who support the Minister was that in practice she would have a conversation with a friendly adviser, and they would say, "No, we totally understand, don't worry". But every time I asked, in a theoretical sense, the question, "What would happen in this circumstance?", the answer was, "It depends".

The assumption is that she will sit down with an adviser who will say, "Don't worry, we understand all of that. We understand that you have a difficult teenager. We understand that they have GCSEs coming up and you're worried they will drop out of school. We understand you're worried that he is going to get into trouble. We understand that you've got a daughter who has an eating disorder and you want to make sure she eats". That is a huge risk to take.

The final point is a more general one. Can the noble Lord tell me whether he has had discussions with other government departments about the public policy implications of encouraging the nation's 13 year-olds to be latch-key children?

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC298

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I apologise for coming so late into this Committee debate. Earlier in the discussions on the Bill, I referred to research in the United States which looked at the effect of parental employment on educational outcomes for children. It found that within the younger group, five to 12 or so, outcomes were better when parents were in employment, but that in the older age group-and I am not quite sure of the cut-off point-outcomes for children in school were poorer when their parents were in employment.

I do not have the details, and I am sure there is much more context to it than this. Does the Minister know what the research says about the impact of parental employment on children's outcomes at school, and is there separate research into the impact of lone-parent employment on the outcomes for children in school, post-13?

Lord Freud: The first point I make to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is to assure her that full-time is not the default setting. The default setting is that we look at the circumstances of the claimant, particularly taking into account their caring responsibilities and available care, and reach a reasonable position. That is the position. On that basis, a lot of her concerns surrounding her point fall away. Of course we are not looking to have latch-key children.

On flexible working, I made the point earlier that we understand that when we look at the value of a job, the monetary implications are not the only measure; and that the gains of flexibility, in terms of how the employer behaves, and the relationship, are key and critical factors and have to be taken into account.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I do apologise, as I know the Minister has taken care to answer my noble friend. Does that mean that conditionality would not apply where a lone parent or a partner in a couple with primary caring responsibilities was able to work-or felt they could or should work-only during school hours, given the suggestion from my noble friend of the situations families find themselves in? Most of us have been through that. Therefore the default position for a lone parent of a teenager or, to gender-stereotype, the mother in a couple would be that one of those two need be available for work within school hours only?

Lord Freud: No, my Lords. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, knows how the legislation works. That legislation now goes up to that 12/13 point and the formal protection around school hours. However, as I explained, the default setting remains that it depends more generally on the caring requirements of that parent, whether lone or in a couple, and their particular circumstances.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: How then do you avoid the question posed by my noble friend of latch-key children if you cannot ensure that the homecoming of the parent with primary care for the children coincides pretty approximately with that of the teenaged children?

Lord Freud: As I say, that will depend on the particular circumstances of that family. That is the point I am endeavouring to make.

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC299

I would like to finish with the point about the cost to the claimant of being employed. That is an issue that we are going to pick up in later amendments so I will not go into it in great detail. However, we recognise the need to take account of those employment costs, and I will pick that up more generally later.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his responses to a lot of detailed questions. I will just touch upon the issue of the management of our affairs. As the noble Lord has said, the proximity of briefings to Committee sittings has not helped. The situation was not helped by accelerating our start in Committee. I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, that putting amendments down late in the day does not help our deliberations. I suggest-and this will send shivers down the spine of usual channels-that we ought to defer next Tuesday's sitting so we could spend the time getting on an even keel and perhaps get back to business as usual. I offer that to the Minister without any great expectation that he may be tempted by it.

I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, posed the question of whether this would be claimant-driven or Jobcentre Plus- or provider-driven. I understand, and I think the Minister confirmed, that this goes into the claimant commitment right on day one. There might be a discussion around that but it is something that is very much going to be driven by Jobcentre Plus or the providers.

4.42 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.55 pm

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I was responding to the Minister's reply and saying that I am sure we are all glad to hear that there is no intention to rush into these things. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood-when he is in his place-

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: He is behind you.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: It is always good to know that the noble Lord is behind me and I thank him for his kind words. I want just to say, on the nature of our debates, that we could have had a big debate around conditionality as a whole, but in Committee surely what we should be doing is going line by line through this legislation, challenging and probing it in order to try to understand its full intent. But even in itself, in-work conditionality is a new and big topic, as a number of noble Lords have said.

The key issue which has emerged is: what is the default position in respect of lone parents with children aged 13 or older? Certainly our understanding from the briefing is that the default position would be the 35 hours national minimum wage. If the noble Lord is now in a different position on that, or perhaps we have misunderstood it, it would be good if that is put clearly on the record. That would deal with the points

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC300

made by my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lady Sherlock. However, in their different ways, my noble friends Lady Drake, Lady Lister and Lady Donaghy have pointed to the newness of and some of the risks and challenges posed by issues around capacity, how the discretion is going to be exercised and what it does to the employment relationship. We are in uncharted waters and these are issues of real concern.

In respect of using gross earnings, I did not object to this and I understand why that might be the basis on which it would be done. I said simply that where there are other features of someone's employment terms, particularly employer pension contributions-someone might have lower pay but a good employer pension contribution-to try to force them away from those would not make any sense. I am sure that is not necessarily in the Minister's mind, but those sorts of issues are associated with the capacity that is needed to make these evaluations. They would mark a departure for Jobcentre Plus and providers.

We remain concerned about providers. I understand that we may be close to negotiating the next round of contracts and that it can be addressed in those, but I think we would hang on to the point that, as it is currently structured, there is the potential for real conflict where providers are remunerated on getting people into work-at least 16 hours a week, I think-and keeping them in work. What in-work conditionality will do, if the noble Lord says it has to be done outside the work programme, is take people off that scheme, possibly before they have enabled the provider to earn their full remuneration for keeping them there long enough. It is those sorts of conflicts with which we have some difficulties.

I think that we have given this a good airing. I hope that we have put down a marker about our concerns, and certainly our concerns about taking up a framework for legislation. We know that this type of legislation inevitably has a framework basis to it, but with something so unformed and in many respects as vague as this, it is quite difficult for us to say that we will support it. That is why I return to my point that we may look for some sort of sunset provision here in order to see how it all works out in practice. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 51CDZA withdrawn.

Clause 15 agreed.

5 pm

Clause 16: Work preparation requirement

Amendment 51CDA

Moved by Lord McKenzie of Luton

51CDA: Clause 16, page 7, line 23, leave out paragraph (b)

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I shall speak also to Amendments 51CEA and 51CDB. I start with the latter. This started out as a simple probing amendment, but the more we looked at it, the more we considered

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC301

that it had wider implications. Clause 16 deals with work preparation requirements. A claimant can be subjected to work preparation requirements if they have limited capability for work. A limited capability for work is defined in Clause 38 and will be determined in accordance with regulations. For a start, can the Minister confirm that the regulations will reflect the work capability assessment as updated by the Harrington reviews? We will of course have an opportunity to discuss this in greater depth when we reach the clause, but for the present, our understanding is that universal credit will adopt existing and emerging criteria which, among other things, differentiate between those with limited capability for work and those with limited capability for work-related activity. The latter would currently fall into the support group for the purposes of ESA and not be subjected to work-related requirements of the universal credit by virtue of Clause 19. Those not falling into either category would currently fall within the scope of JSA and, for universal credit purposes, be subject to work search and work availability requirements. Claimants under the universal credit subject to work preparation requirements cannot be subject to any other work-related requirements-other than a work-focused interview, of course.

The issue we probe is the nature of work placements, of work experience and the extent to which that encompasses activity currently accepted as beyond work-related activity or work preparation and is equivalent to the world of work. In short, is the Bill extending what have hitherto been the boundaries of work-related activity? Clause 54 suggests that it does, as, for ESA purposes, it adds work placements and work experience to the definition of work-related activity in the Welfare Reform Act 2007. Why is that change proposed? The WCA process seeks to differentiate between those currently fit for work and those who are not but who can move closer to the labour market. Can the Minister give us more detail of what is encompassed within work placements and work experience and the essential difference between those and work itself? We are aware that mandatory full-time work experience was to be tested as a result of the provisions of the Welfare Reform Act 2009, but those provisions related to those required to meet the jobseeking conditions. Has any testing been done with those not subject to the JSA regime; and, if so, under which provisions? Is it envisaged that work placements and work experience will be time limited? If so, what time period is envisaged?

How will that operate within the work programme? Are providers currently precluded from imposing work placements and work experience on those not subject to the JSA regime? Does work placement for 16-plus hours a week which goes on to become a more permanent job count towards the outcome for which providers are remunerated? Can the Minister confirm that the same type of protection for, say, lone parents and those with caring responsibilities will be applied for work preparation requirements as for those who are subject to all work-related requirements?

What assurances can the Minister give that activity to meet work placement requirements will not squeeze out opportunities for claimants to attend skills assessments and to undertake training? What sort of quality assurances will be sought by Jobcentre Plus or providers in respect

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC302

of those offering work placements and work experience, especially to avoid a constant churn of individuals in place of permanent paid jobs? I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Having said that, I have not spoken to the other two amendments in this group-Amendments 51CDA and 51CEA. These are both probing amendments as well. As we have noted, Clause 16 is concerned with work preparation requirements and in individuals subject to such requirements if they have limited capability for work. The requirement is for them to undertake particular actions. Included in the actions that might be specified is "improving personal presentation". It is presumed that this would encompass such activities as CV writing and presentation skills but we wonder if the Government have anything else in mind.

Clause 17 refers to "work search" and Clause 17(3)(c) lists as one of the actions which might be specified,

The briefing pack indicates that this is to facilitate job matching and making applications. It says:

"We expect that the new IT systems underpinning Universal Credit will support effective monitoring of work search activity. We expect to establish an online portal where claimants can set up their own 'profile'. The system will provide claimants with access to job vacancies (including jobs automatically matched to the claimant's profile) and the ability to ... search for work and we anticipate the system will provide advisers with information and updates as to what the claimant has done".

What training will be available to support claimants who will be less adept at using this technology to ensure that they have equal access to job applications? I beg to move.

Lord Wigley: I shall speak briefly in relation to the third of the amendments that has been put forward to Clause 17-that about, on page 8,

I can see the merits of having that available but it might become an imposition. Many people who may be looking for work would be scared stiff of that approach, particularly the older ones or those who have restricted abilities. To be imposing or suggesting that this is a requirement surely should not be written on to the face of a Bill. I would be glad to hear the Minister's justification for it.

Lord Freud: My Lords, not all claimants will be required to carry out all or indeed any of the actions listed in these clauses. They are meant as illustrations of the type of actions that may be imposed. Taking "improving personal presentation" first, we already require this of jobseeker's allowance claimants where their appearance is proving to be a significant barrier to work. Advisers handle such cases sensitively and directions are used sparingly and as a last resort. It is not about impinging on an individual's basic right to express themselves with their appearance but, where a claimant is actively putting off potential employers, such as with poor personal hygiene or turning up to interviews with holes in their clothes, we need to be able to address it.

On work experience and work placements, I would like to emphasise how valuable these can be as an opportunity for claimants to experience all aspects of being in a work environment, to develop skills and

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC303

confidence in preparation for future employment or further work preparation, and to improve their CV and marketability to employers. This is particularly important for jobseekers who have limited or no experience of the workplace. For many it represents the main barrier preventing them from getting a job.

For claimants who have limited capability for work, we believe that appropriate work experience and work placements can help them to understand more about their career options and skills, increase confidence and provide valuable experience that they may need to get started in a job in future. The amount, duration and timing of any work experience or placement will be tailored to the needs of the individual and will not necessarily be more demanding than other actions they might be expected to take to prepare for work.

These activities could take many forms and do not need to be full-time; for example, work shadowing could be suitable for some claimants with limited capability for work. We want to ensure that claimants in the work preparation group can access valuable support and experience that could help them move into work in the future. To do this, advisers need to have the flexibility to specify the actions that they think give a claimant the best prospects of moving towards employment and be clear that in some cases this may include work experience or a work placement.

Finally, as you know, we are developing our own online service that will enable the claimant to create and maintain a personal profile, complete job-search activity including automatic job-matching when new vacancies are registered, and apply for jobs. We intend that this information will be available for the department to monitor the claimant's activity and assist in checking compliance with their claimant commitment. There will be robust data protection, security and privacy measures in place; for example, claimants applying for jobs would remain anonymous from employers and recruiters until they accept an invitation to interview or contact them directly themselves. Access to jobseeker records by DWP staff will continue to be audited and existing user restrictions and business needs will determine which members of staff can see customer data.

It would be a waste of investment in a quality service for claimants, and severely hamper our ability to monitor compliance, if we were not able to require claimants to use the system. However, taking out this requirement would apply not just to our system, but to other online job-search sites. Increasingly, as many employers only recruit online, it is critical that claimants engage with online services that increase their chances of finding and moving into work. Of course, if a claimant is in the minority who cannot use or be helped to use online services, or if there is another compelling reason, this requirement will not be imposed. I hope that gives the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, some small reassurance.

Lord Wigley: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may press that a little further. I am interpreting what he says as implying that there might be circumstances where someone refuses to use the online system and could lose benefits as a result. Is that the case?

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC304

Lord Freud: My Lords, clearly there are circumstances where the main barrier to an individual getting work is an inability or reluctance to interface with online systems. They may need some pressure, because people sometimes do need pressure. We find that mandatory processes get much higher outputs that voluntary ones in many cases. In those circumstances, I can imagine that outright refusal could earn a sanction. However, it will not be used in circumstances where clearly it is not appropriate or where there is a genuine inability to use those services. On that basis, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation but I would like to press him on a few points. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, concerning the online profile. The Minister said that this would not be imposed on somebody, but if it is going to be such a valuable tool to help people into the labour market there is still the residual question of what support is going to be given to people who do not have the innate ability.

Lord Freud: At the risk of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, saying that we have not developed the whole system, I should say that it has not sprung, like Athena out of Zeus's head, fully formed.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It makes a change from Aphrodite.

Lord Freud: Aphrodite was in the seashell. I think Athena was the daughter of Metis, who was swallowed by Zeus, but there we are.

We are working really intensively now to get the customer interface with our IT system for the universal credit right. We are spending a lot of time on the support that we will be providing for that and the categories of people who cannot be expected to do it themselves but need other ways of being helped. In practice, we will wrap this up with the much bigger exercise.

5.15 pm

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I thank the Minister for that and I understand his explanation of personal presentation. However, I press him on issues of work experience and work placement, because I do not believe that he Minister dealt with the question I posed about Clause 54, where an amendment to the Welfare Reform Act 2007 states:

"The reference to activity in subsection (7) includes work experience or a work placement."

That adds something to that description, which presumably is done for a purpose. We would all, I am sure, recognise the benefit of work experience and work placements; but the issue is the extent to which those people who have limited capability for work, but are capable of work-related activity, can be caused to undertake them. That would be a departure from the current position. Are those part of what ESA claimants can be encouraged to do? I am trying to understand what the distinction between those and work is. When we debated issues of work for benefits under, I think,

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC305

the Welfare Reform Act 2009, we debated workfare and the benefits or otherwise of all of that-generally otherwise-and the extent to which that was close to or tied up with work placements and work experience. If those issues relate to those who are fit for work, that is one thing; but is there not a risk that, under this legislation, we are importing that into another group, after those people have gone through the WCA assessment? That is my concern.

Lord Freud: My Lords, clearly preparing for work shades across a number of aspects. Perhaps the most interesting area here is the way that some work providers in the work programme actually help people. One of provider actually sets up the whole experience of work in its own operation. The actual experience of work for people who are in the WRAG group, if it is properly controlled in terms of work experience and work placement-I know the noble Lord will have concerns on this-and does not become a work substitute, is part of the building-up for that person; just as developing some skills would be. That could be an immensely valuable stepping stone for people, and that is the stepping stone we are aiming to introduce in this legislation.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I understand that point, and I think we share an understanding of the benefits of those sorts of arrangements. However, we are here introducing a term that has hitherto largely been attached to those who are in work, without any protections around it. In so far as work placements can effectively be the same as work-at least at one end of the spectrum-what is to stop providers putting people in the WRAG group through that process, and thereby effectively causing them to work, when the designation under the WCA is that they should not be in that group?

Lord Freud: My Lords, I cannot write in protections today but I give the assurance that this measure is intended to be a building block for the individual, not a substitute for work. I will think about how we can make that absolutely clear to offer comfort in that regard. I might be able to do that through a formal statement. I want noble Lords to be absolutely clear that this measure is a supportive element. It is not designed to be anything but supportive in allowing the claimant to take key steps to get back into the workplace.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I thank the Minister for those comments and look forward to a fuller response on the protections later, as I remain concerned that we are opening a gate as regards people not being required to undertake work. This is effectively a step in that direction, if not in some instances a step into it. There are issues about how those protections might be organised. If we are going down the route of work placements, what assurances do we have in respect of providers of those work placements that they are not simply using this measure to churn staff and not do what they should do, which is to employ them properly in the first place? However, perhaps those issues can be dealt with further down the track, given that the Minister has given an undertaking to see how he can provide us with assurances in that regard. Having said that-

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC306

Lord Wigley: Before the noble Lord withdraws the amendment, which I suspect he was about to do, I return again to the provisions in Clause 17. They really are draconian. We have not only the provision highlighted in paragraph (c) of subsection (3),

but paragraph (f) states,

which could be anything at all. To give these powers without some strong safeguards on the way on how used fills me with absolute horror. With respect to the online profile, that states that there can be an order for the person seeking work requiring him or her to create their own online profile and to maintain it. If they are either incapable of creating it, or are not diligent in maintaining it, they could lose their benefits. This would not be a problem for my four year-old granddaughter's generation, as they pick up this technology easily, but I know of teachers approaching retirement age or perhaps losing their jobs who would be incapable of doing this on a computer. To make that a requirement in the Bill strikes me as absolute nonsense. Surely, this measure should be looked at again.

Lord Freud: My Lords, let me just-

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Soothe fears.

Lord Freud: Yes, soothe fears but also put this matter into context. We are essentially importing the existing arrangements, subject to the work experience issue that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, raised. We have drawn up an illustrative list. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, referred to a draconian power. That is the structure that we have imported into this Bill. That structure has been debated thoroughly by many noble Lords in this Room over a number of Bills, so we are not trying to do anything dramatically new here, albeit with a nudge towards work experience. I said to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that I would make absolutely clear what the protections are and how we intend to run the system. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, is looking at the whole thing as if it was a dramatically new and draconian way of doing things, but it is not. We are importing the existing methodology into the context of the universal credit.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My noble friend says that it is all my fault; I am not sure I ever introduced anything like this, but perhaps she did.

The key issue here is that the requirements are not necessarily blanket impositions on individuals, and where they are particularly beneficial there is support for those who are not able, without that support, to benefit from them. Otherwise they could be excluded from some job opportunities.

We have given these amendments a good run through. I look forward to the follow-up from the Minister, but beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment 51CDA withdrawn.

Amendment 51CDB not moved.

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC307

Amendment 51CDC

Moved by Lord McKenzie of Luton

51CDC: Clause 16, page 7, line 28, at end insert-

"( ) The actions and time specified under subsections (2) and (3) shall be determined following consultation with the claimant, and shall take account of any activity already undertaken which contributes to gaining experience, skills and aptitude for work."

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I will be brief. The amendment is intended to ensure that actions taken by or on behalf of the Secretary of State relating to work preparation requirements are determined after consultation with the claimant, and take account of activity the claimant is already undertaking which contributes to gaining experience, skills and aptitude for work.

Reflecting on our deliberations at the last Committee sitting, I should stress that this should involve consultation. It does not have to be a process of agreement, although hopefully it would be. This has special relevance in relation to volunteering. For example, we have had material, as I am sure other noble Lords have, from an organisation called Catch22, which refers to its intensive volunteering programmes with young people. They contribute to preparing young people for work.

We acknowledge that Jobcentre Plus should not be required to take account of every pastime or whim of individual claimants, but structured programmes, such as the volunteering opportunities identified, appear helpful. It must be better to work with the grain of such activity. That is all that the amendment seeks to achieve. I beg to move.

Lord Freud: My Lords, work preparation requirements will be imposed only where it is appropriate in the circumstances of the claimant. This will always involve a discussion between an adviser and the claimant, to determine any barriers to work and the steps required to address them. Where a claimant has already taken steps to improve their experience, skills and aptitude for work, this will of course be reflected in the requirements placed on them.

We will ask claimants only to do things that we believe will make it more likely that they will move into work. Asking them to go on a course to gain skills that they already have, for example, would be a waste of the claimant's time and, indeed, of our scarce resources. We therefore agree with the spirit of this amendment. We disagree on whether it is necessary to put it into primary legislation. We do not have provisions of this kind in legislation now, and, similarly, we do not think it appropriate for universal credit.

On the volunteering point, clearly we have expanded or enlarged the opportunity for work search claimants to volunteer, as long as it does not affect their ability to continue to search for work. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I thank the Minister for his reply and will certainly withdraw the amendment. One point pressed on us was that if there is a recognition that volunteering programmes can be beneficial, perhaps that could be recognised by Jobcentre Plus in the other

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC308

programmes that it is structuring for individuals. There have been suggestions that sometimes people slip out of volunteering programmes because they cannot keep the commitments, because they have work-focused interviews or other mandatory activity.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, perhaps I might interrupt here as I am interested in volunteering, having been a volunteer in various fields myself, as I suspect most of us in this room have at one time or another. Volunteering strikes me as a way of getting work experience-not necessarily but it could be-and therefore is to be most definitely applauded.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I agree with that and I am sure that we all would. I suppose it depends a little bit on the precise programme and activity, but the point is not to lose that opportunity for individuals who are already undertaking it because Jobcentre Plus is imposing other requirements with clashing commitments, meaning that people have to drop out of the programmes. That was a particular point that was pressed on us. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 51CDC withdrawn.

Amendment 51CE not moved.

Clause 16 agreed.

5.30 pm

Clause 17 : Work search requirement

Amendment 51CEA not moved.

Amendment 51CEB

Moved by Lord McKenzie of Luton

51CEB: Clause 17, page 8, line 29, after "locations" insert "which shall include consideration of the length and expense of the claimant's travel"

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 51CEC and 51CEE in this group, which probe Clauses 17 and 18. These clauses cover claimants who are subject to all work-related requirements. Clause 17 deals with work search requirements, Clause 18 with work availability requirements. Clause 17 sets down actions which the Secretary of State can require of a claimant, and also limitations that can be placed on those actions. Such limitations can include restrictions to work in particular locations. Our amendment requires the limitations to specifically include,

A similar issue arises in respect of the work availability requirement.

As we discussed, the conditionality applies to those out of work and also to those in work. Our briefing note suggests that regulations will make the default position that claimants should look for work that is within one and a half hours' travel time of their home.

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC309

This makes a handy headline in the national press to show how tough the Government are on the growing numbers of unemployed. I understand also that it reflects arrangements under the existing JSA regime, after a period.

For a start, we contend that the limitations should have regard to cost as well as journey times and that this should be reflected in the regulations and spelled out in claimant commitments. One and a half hours each way is about the time of my journey to Westminster-oh, for the ministerial car-at a cost of more than £100 a week. Individuals on low pay with no long-term job security would not necessarily be in a position to get the cheapest tickets even if the best deals were readily discernible. Of course, the cost of travel from home to work has to be met out of taxed earnings. Journey times will not always be regular, especially in rural areas. They are not inevitably aligned with the hours of a job: five minutes extra at work can mean an hour's wait for the next bus. It is understood that the Government recognise the need for flexibility in these matters but see the non-application of sanctions as the route to providing it. Is this correct and, thinking about it, is it an appropriate way to proceed?

We get an insight into how the Government are dealing with this by looking at the illustrative claimant commitment that has been provided to us. Jack Smith's job goal is to be secure in work as a plumber, earning at least £8 an hour, full-time, within one and a half hours of his home. It also says that if he does not find this kind of work within eight weeks, his job goal will be reviewed and he may be required to widen it, and presumably widen his travel times as well. There is no recognition that cost could be an issue, but the prospects of widening the job goal are included in this illustrative claimant commitment.

Perhaps we may ask what the Government intend on this. It brings us to a wider point. The Government have argued the case for universal credit in terms of simplicity and demonstrably ensuring that people are better off in work. We recognise that it is difficult to have a system that inevitably has some national parameters, so our amendment is an individual underpin that ensures that no one can be made worse off under these provisions by taking up any particular paid work. Clearly, regulations would have to flesh out some definitions of "worse off", but the calculation would have to encompass costs as well as income, particularly costs around childcare and caring. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I support my noble friend in particular on Amendment 51CEC, which is about the cost of travel. Too often and too easily we assume a London model, with the Tube, regular bus services and so on; although even there, lone parents may find it difficult to access work in the way that they would like. However, in a county like Norfolk, where many villages have a bus service twice a day, you have a very different story. In Norfolk you have some of the lowest wage rates and some of the highest car ownership rates in the country; but those cars are battered, second-hand jalopies, which are taken by him to get to work, leaving her-usually-with the children and finding it very difficult to do anything except use a bicycle. The result is that it is very difficult

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC310

for the second earner in a family, or-even more pertinently-a lone parent, to cope with travel to work if there is no job available for her in the local village.

We are expecting a lone parent to work 20 to 25 hours per week. She has two children, one of whom has to be delivered to a childminder and the other to the local school, but she has no transport apart from her feet. Finally, after that, she has somehow to get to a job of her own, and she has to do that again at 3 pm or 3.30 pm. It is almost impossible to find a job between those two hours in the locality, let alone further afield, given that she has to allow for her travel time. I remember one lone parent telling me that she calculated that the school bus picked up the children of the next-door village 40 minutes earlier than it picked up the children of her village; so she used to walk her child about two miles to the next-door village in order to put the child on the school bus, which would act as a form of childminder. That lone parent, with a great deal of ingenuity, managed to get to her job for its 9 am start. She was able to do so because the two villages were within walking distance of each other, but there is a real problem here. I think those of us who live in London or cities have no sense of just how isolated those villages can be.

However, the work requirement will apply to women, both lone parents and second earners, in a situation where there is no public transport, no private transport, a bicycle that you cannot actually take a small child on-let alone two children-except with some degree of difficulty and therefore there is only feet. I suggest to the Minister that it requires enormous juggling skill even to hold down a part-time job. Sometimes the jobcentre that the person has to travel to is not even in the whole of a rural district but may be 20, 30 or 40 miles away. I hope that jobcentre advisers will take all that into account when deciding what is reasonable for that lone parent or woman-and it is usually the woman who is the main child carer-in that situation. I ask the noble Lord to be sensitive to those issues, not because there is any lack of commitment but because of the sheer, simple, practical, logistical difficulties such women may face.

Lord Wigley: Perhaps I may add briefly that I identify totally with the rural dimension that the noble Baroness has just described. A bus twice a day would be a luxury in many villages in rural Powys and other parts of rural Wales. If a person has been lucky enough to have a job and a lift to work from a colleague, but the job comes to an end and they have no independent transport of their own and are required to go some distance to fulfil their obligations under the Act, that would be totally unreasonable. I would be glad to know what guidance the Minister will give to people who are trying to implement the Act on how to deal with circumstances such as those.

Baroness Sherlock: Perhaps I may ask one question. The noble Lord will be aware of this issue. We have heard about it from many claimants and I am sure that other noble Lords have had similar experiences to mine. At least one organisation that works with lone parents has complained to me about cases where lone parents have been sanctioned for failing to take

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC311

jobs. They were confident of the veracity of the accounts they had been given, and it was clear that the claimant could not possibly have made it to the job and taken their children to childcare. There did not seem to be any malice involved, but the adviser did not understand what was involved in trying to get two or more children to different kinds of childcare in very tight timescales, in a context where being a few minutes late can mean either that you are fined by a nursery or that your child's place is given to somebody else. How will the Minister protect claimants in that situation? Will he make sure that the guidance is sufficiently clear?

I am concerned because, as I understand it from our briefings, decisions like that can be challenged and referred to another adviser, but the only independent recourse a claimant has if the decision goes against them is to refuse to take the job, be sanctioned and then go to a tribunal to challenge it. This is not efficient. I quite see that it is not the Minister's intention, but how can he reassure us and those claimants that they will not be in that position?

Lord Freud: My Lords, I start by expressing a degree of envy at the ability of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, to commandeer a ministerial car in the past. In these straitened times I am reduced to a bicycle. However, in case noble Lords are anxious, I can confirm that the Ortleib pannier manages to contain a ministerial Box-and I have two panniers.

Turning to the amendments, as noble Lords know, we recently announced that jobseekers will be expected to look for suitable work within a 90-minute commute from their home. This is the default position in jobseeker's allowance at the moment. The intention is to ensure that claimants search in a sufficiently wide geographic area while keeping the requirements reasonable. The old position was that JSA claimants could restrict travel time to 60 minutes, but only for the first 13 weeks and only if they had a reasonable prospect of work. Otherwise, the 90 minutes of travel time did apply. Therefore, this is not a huge change, although I understand the challenge that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, has given me when she said that the existing system could operate a little better. I accept that challenge. Our briefing note on the work search and availability requirements for universal credit explained that this would continue to be the normal position for claimants. However, we also explained that limitations will be applied to the work that a claimant has to look for to take into account any relevant circumstances, particularly childcare. For example, we are clear that a claimant who is the lead carer for a child under 13 need only look for work that will fit around school hours. This would include any necessary travel time.

A claimant with young children may be asked to take a job 90 minutes away, but only if the job had working hours that allowed the claimant to get the children to and from school and still get to work on time. Similarly, if a commute of any time up to 90 minutes is too far given caring responsibilities or health issues-for instance, the need to stay close to a child with ill health-we would be able to take that into account. Picking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about the widening of the job goal, that is

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC312

not intended to refer to a geographic or time widening, but refers to the type of work and remuneration. The travel time remains at 90 minutes.

5.45 pm

On the cost of travel, like other costs of employment, we recognise that to be an important consideration for some claimants. The extent to which the costs are a problem and could reasonably prevent a claimant from taking up work will vary from case to case. A key question with costs is whether they are affordable. Where claimants have concerns, we would obviously want to discuss those with them and help to identify ways to access additional financial support-for example, to cover any one-off costs. As noble Lords know, Jobcentre Plus has a flexible budget for exactly that kind of thing.

With any costs, the question of whether they are reasonable depends on the job itself-how much it pays, whether it is a permanent or temporary position and the opportunities for progression. The circumstances of the claimant are of course important. For some claimants, the wider benefits of moving into work, including the positive impact on the claimant's health or any children in their household may mean that taking employment is the right thing to do even where the costs outweigh the benefits on a strict financial assessment-at least initially. We all know that many youngsters move into work to build up their experience and that their payment rates are a secondary consideration.

I am not in a position to give the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, a blanket assurance. To be honest, this is a slightly overambitious request given that we are moving from a position where the chaos of the benefits system meant that in many cases work was simply not worth doing to a structure where, in principle, it will be. We are looking at oddities. To look for blanket protection in a system that is basically much better structured is asking for a bit too much.

Given the variety of factors that need to be taken into account in assessing whether the costs of employment are reasonable, we think it more appropriate to consider these on a case-by-case and job-by-job basis. Where a job is identified within 90 minutes of a claimant's home but the costs are a concern to the claimant, they will be able to discuss that with an adviser, but they must push ahead with an application or accept the job offer. Our aim is to put in place a system that allows a balanced view to be reached, weighing the costs of moving into work against all the benefits of work for the claimant. This is broadly the process in jobseeker's allowance now. JSA regulations require advisers to consider whether the costs of travel are disproportionate when assessing whether a claimant has good reason for refusing a job offer. We are considering carefully the regulatory framework that we want to put around that under universal credit, but we recognise that it is an important issue and we hope to provide further information shortly. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I have just a query for the Minister. What he is saying is wise. He understands that we fully support both the principle of UC and the

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC313

continuum between not being in work and being in work. There is no dispute between us. However, I worry about the huge area of responsibility and effectively discretion that will fall on first level Jobcentre Plus staff. As my noble friend said, no one doubts their goodwill or that they will do the best they can. However, given the centralisation of Jobcentre Plus offices, the fact that staff are often young and that the office may be in a town or city with a substantial choice of jobs compared to rural areas, from my experience they will often have very little understanding of the difficulties experienced in a rural village where the only jobs may be part-time cleaning, childminding if you are lucky, picking mushrooms or cleaning caravans. Those are the options, and none of them would fulfil the work conditionality without serious travel that would impede people's capacity to look after their children and meet school hours.

I say to the Minister, in capital letters, that so much of the effective delivery of what we all want will rest on the shoulders of junior staff: AOs, with luck supervised by an experienced EO, working in local offices and living some 40 or 60 miles away from the circumstances of an individual in a rural village of which they will have no knowledge. I do not know how far the Minister can go in giving assurances. Of course he will want the best possible training, but I am worried about this. Perhaps the answer will involve intensifying supervision and scrutiny by more experienced senior officers at the review level-the EO level-to make it more possible, so that this does not migrate upwards into the tribunal system that my noble friend identified. We have picked up this problem in the past, and it will become more acute as more people are brought into the conditionality realm. So much will hang on the experience of the staff handling their applications.

Baroness Sherlock: Perhaps I may clarify something. I may have misheard the noble Lord and I apologise for delaying the Committee. Did he say in his response that there might be circumstances in which somebody would not be better off, but that they should take a job anyway? I see that he did. I will quote from the right honourable Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. In his introduction to the Green Paper he referred to people of working age and stated:

"We will help them to find work and make sure work pays when they do. They in return will be expected to seek work and take work when it is available".

Was that not the contract he laid before the British people? What the Minister said appears to contradict it.

Lord Freud: I will pick up on that last point from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. There may be special circumstances. There are no blanket absolutes about taking a job.

5.52 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.03 pm

Lord Freud: My Lords, I was finishing my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. We are fixing a broken system in structural terms so that the benefit

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC314

system which currently does not reward work will now do so. There will be a consistent taper and more generous disregards, so this is a big move. One can overcomplicate it but that is a sterile debate which we do not need to go into.

I shall turn to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on the importance of how skilled Jobcentre Plus advisers are. This is an important point and one that the noble Baroness will have recognised from her time in the department. We are now positioning Jobcentre Plus advisory services as a profession with a clear career path, accredited learning and ongoing professional development while delivering to a set of standards recognised as best in class. The learning programme for Jobcentre Plus advisers is regularly updated to reflect changes in policy. This ensures that they have up to date skills to deal with any claimant interaction and supports them in making relevant and appropriate decisions in individual cases.

We are making sure that a range of supportive products, guidance, assessment tools and management frameworks are produced to assist understanding and aid delivery of a more personalised service. As I said the other day, the satisfaction of claimants is now running at 88 per cent, and clearly the objective is to get that figure as high as we possibly can.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, and all noble Lords who participated in this short debate. I think he would have heard the issues about difficulties with travel and costs from my noble friend Lady Hollis, my noble friend Lady Sherlock, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. We take the point that these things need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, and that there will be elements of discretion and judgment in that, but my noble friend Lady Hollis pressed on the issue of training. I do not know how hot the news is that the Minister has just given us, but the professionalisation of Jobcentre Plus is to be welcomed. Is he going to tell me that he started this a couple of years ago?

Lord Freud: It is not that hot.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: It is a good move, because it is important. However, I do not think I can let the noble Lord get away with the constant assertion that the current system that they are seeking to replace by universal credit does not reflect the fact that work can pay. Overwhelmingly, is it not the case that it does? It may be that a very complicated calculation has to be gone through in order to prove it. I accept entirely that simplification of how to deal with the in-work, out-work issue is to be welcomed and is something we support. However, I do not think it is right to say that, overwhelmingly, work under the current system does not pay.

I would hang on to the point that if there is to be discretion in the system, then why is there not protection at the individual level so that someone cannot be forced to undertake work that would make them worse off? Is there going to be some reassurance at the individual level? There can be regulations which have appropriate caveats around timing issues; it is not

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC315

beyond the wit of the Government to do that. In all of this change and uncertainty which still has to be resolved in many areas, would it not be reassuring to individuals that if it was clear that they would be worse off, they could not be forced down a path? That seems entirely reasonable to me.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I wonder if I could come in on this. I absolutely see the dilemma and I can quite understand why you may want someone to start in on something in the hope and expectation that a year down the line, that entry into low-paid work will have paid off. I put it to the noble Lord-I think he might be horrified by the possible complexity of it, but I have been looking at the additional material and trying to get my head around how disregards work-that the disregard is relatively modest for a single young person. I wonder, following the point made by my noble friend-I can see already that there may be too much downside to this and the arguments against it-whether the Minister could look at the issue of whether in such circumstances you could adjust the disregard to ensure that, even where it does not appear to pay, you could construct it so that at least someone is not worse off through working until the point at which the hoped-for job progression that we all want to see has taken them into the pathway. I would ask the Minister to take this away. It may be that this is too complicated, but making someone worse off is going to be hard to defend, is it not?

Lord Freud: My Lords, the best answer I can give on the whole area is to encourage us to wait until we get to the piloting powers before we have this debate. Let me explain it. We want to test every aspect of this system on a continuing basis. Rather than having a debate about whether we should make this little change, make that little change, do this or do that-we all like to design a system-I think the way to develop this system, which will not and cannot be perfect on day one because it is just too tough, is to have a process of constant improvement. That is my real answer. We should have the constructive debate on these issues when we get to the clause-I forget which one it is, but it is not very far away. I do not think that we will arrive there today-

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Clause 42.

Lord Freud: We will get there soon.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: The noble Lord makes a fair point and we will be perfectly happy to pick up the discussion on these issues when we debate the clause. However, the noble Lord for his part might like to recognise a couple of suggestions that have come forward. He might like to add them to the list of things that will be included in the pilots. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 51CEB withdrawn.

Clause 17 agreed.

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC316

Clause 18: Work availability requirement

Amendment 51CEC not moved.

Amendment 51CED

Moved by Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town

51CED: Clause 18, page 9, line 3, at end insert-

"(e) the claimant having guaranteed and predictable access to high quality flexible and affordable childcare acceptable to the parents and children"

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, again my education continues apace. I know that the Minister is a good man, that spring comes after winter and before summer, and now I know that he got on his bicycle.

In moving this amendment tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, I shall speak to the other amendments in the group. I welcome the comments made by the Minister in response to the first grouping that the reasonable position is the default, not full-time being the default position. Our amendments seek to protect those with substantial responsibilities for children from falling foul of the conditionality regime due to their caring responsibilities. In particular, we seek to maintain the protections put in place by the Labour Government for such people. Some noble Lords, although not me, will recall the substantial discussions that took place in the House at an earlier time.

Amendment 51CED would ensure that the limitations to the availability for work rules include in them reference to the availability of childcare which, as we have all accepted, is key to being able to work. Amendment 51FZZA similarly would write the existing safeguards into the relevant considerations when requirements are placed on a claimant. It is worth setting out the formal position, which was referred to by the Minister earlier. These established safeguards illustrate rather well the sort of issues that a lone parent or main carer faces when seeking to combine part-time paid work with caring for a child.

The first safeguard is that a lone parent of a child aged under 13 need look for work only during school hours, and the Minister has just confirmed that that will remain the position. Secondly, lone parents who can be treated as available for work under JSA during school holidays or when a child has been excluded from school and is not receiving education do not necessarily have to take up a job. Thirdly, lone parents may restrict their availability for work if they are the subject of a parenting order or have entered into a parenting contract. Fourthly, those with substantial caring responsibilities for a child aged under 16 have to be available to take up a job only at 28 days' notice rather than immediately if such responsibilities make immediate availability unreasonable.

6.15 pm

Lastly, when considering whether a claimant with a child under 16 has good cause either for refusing a jobseeker's direction or turning down a job, the decision-maker must take into account whether childcare was

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC317

reasonably available that is suitable for that child and parent. Those protections may not be perfect-although I have to say that everything that the previous Government did was perfect. One of their shortcomings is that for a claimant to put them to the test, they need to reach the stage of appealing against a sanction. That is a stage that many would be either reluctant to reach or unable to find the advice to go that far. That is why they are not perfect, but they are an important protection that we seek to continue.

They will obviously be even more important now that the Government expect people with children aged five and upwards to be subject to full work requirements and are extending full work requirements to couples with children. We therefore ask the Minister to confirm that all those existing protections will remain under universal credit and to outline how they will apply to a member of a couple with substantial caring responsibilities.

Along the lines that my noble friend Lady Hollis mentioned, ensuring that such protections are in place and effective will require advisers to be able to identify parents with relevant responsibilities, to know about suitable childcare locally and to be trained to recognise whether that is acceptable and appropriate for the child and parent.

As we have said several times, and I know that the Minister acknowledges, childcare is central to the purpose and, we hope, the success of the Bill. Although we undoubtedly welcome the extra £300 million that the Government have made available, that is only really for those additional people who will qualify for childcare and does not go to meet the needs of existing claimants or the loss that they have suffered by the reduction in the percentage that they can claim. Because of that, we still do not know whether work will pay for everyone-the impact assessment having not included childcare costs in assessing whether someone would be better off in work.

I have the same question for the Minister: if childcare costs mean that someone was not better off in work, would that count as a good reason-the new terminology for good cause-for a parent turning down a job? We know that the vast majority of parents with children want to combine work with bringing up a family. Gingerbread, which knows a thing or two about one-parent families states that single parents want to work:

"Increased income and financial independence are key motivators along with personal independence, the opportunity for social interaction with other adults, and to set a good example to their children".

Nearly half of single parents say that having almost any job is better than being unemployed and on benefits. However, despite all that the previous Government achieved, the continuing shortage of childcare means that finding a job that allows parents to care for children can be a struggle. That is particularly the case for the poorest. Parents in severe poverty who responded to a survey by the Save the Children Fund and the Daycare Trust said that a quarter of them had given up work; a third had turned down a job; and a quarter had not been able to take up education or training-all of them because of the difficulties of finding childcare.

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC318

The Prime Minister has expressed his desire, which we absolutely agree with, to make this the most family-friendly Government ever. It is an aim we applaud and we are here to help, so these amendments will help the Government to fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I add a couple of lines to my noble friend's eloquent introduction to this issue. What we know from all our research about getting lone parents into work is that those lone parents stay in work if they have childcare they trust. Trust is key. As one lone parent told me when I visted, "I would never leave my child with strangers". Childcare they trust tends to be associated with schools and extended hours. That is highly trusted. If they live in an urban area, it may be the availability of a nursery which is acceptable to them and which is trusted because of scrutiny. They may have neighbours or friends, and so on, who are childminders.

The biggest resource in my experience has always been grandmothers, particularly the maternal grandmother. The reason the maternal grandmother could do the childcare and often would do so once or twice a week, particularly over holiday periods, allowing a lone parent to hold down a job, was because she was herself not caught by conditionality. Can the Minister assure us that he has taken into account that, as we see the retirement age rising to 66 from 60 and that she as well as he in the 60s bracket are expected themselves to be available for work if otherwise they would be claimants on UC, that that unpaid resource will be taken out of the caring economy which has made it possible for that grandmother to permit her daughter to work? In other words, there is interaction going on here with other fields of government policy.

I am sure that the Minister has taken this into account, but one thing that I was most pleased that the right honourable James Purnell was able to introduce was the substitution: where a lone mother did not need her HRP because she was in the labour market and getting her own NI, a grandparent did not lose her entitlement to a state pension by virtue of not being in the labour market for wages, but was in the unwaged labour market, allowing her daughter to remain in full-time paid work.

That resource will come out of the system, if I understand the double interaction, of the raising of the retirement state pension age for women and the conditionality that the Minister will expose her to while she waits in that twilight decade to draw her pension, while she is perhaps not an attractive option for many employers. Can he reassure us that this has been taken into account and that there is lateral thinking here because 40 per cent of lone parents have relied on grandparents to provide informal care? We have never recognised this, except in so far as we have been assured that she does not lose out in terms of a pension. Can the Minister advise us on how this will be handled in future?

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, before I speak to my amendment in this group, Amendment 51FZA, I thank the Minister for asking his officials to provide

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC319

me with information in this area. I also apologise for being absent from the discussion of the first grouping today which was relevant to this debate now. I apologise if I repeat information raised then. I also remind your Lordships of Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child:

"In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration".

I should be grateful if the Minister could make his best endeavours to demonstrate how the Bill is considering the best interests of the child in relation to this debate.

My Amendment 51CED states:

"It is not a failure sanctionable under this section if a claimant falling within section 22 does not have guaranteed and predictable access to high quality, flexible and affordable child care acceptable to the parent and child or children".

The lack of widely available, affordable and acceptable childcare has been referred to. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that claimants with a dependent child will not face sanctions if they are unable to work or participate in work-related activity due to a lack of suitable high-quality, flexible and affordable childcare appropriate to the parents' and children's needs. As we have heard, most lone parents want to have the opportunity to combine paid work with the vital job of being a parent. However, so far the Bill seems to fail to recognise that the required childcare infrastructure is lacking in many parts of the UK, including Scotland. There also continues to be a serious lack of childcare settings that are properly equipped and which have staff who are properly trained to deal effectively and positively with children with disabilities, learning, communication or behavioural challenges or who have a wide range of additional support needs.

To make a slight aside, I know how important it is to the Minister and to all your Lordships that we encourage a culture of independence and attack a culture of dependency. The kinswoman of the noble Lord, Anna Freud, whom I believe was a child psychotherapist and an early-years teacher, established in her work dating from the 1940s the absolute importance of the relationship between the child and parent in making the move from infant dependency-absolute dependence-on the parent to adult independent emotional maturity. The danger is that if we do not do all we can in this Bill to strengthen the relationship between parents and children we might inadvertently build in the problem of dependency in the next generation. For adults to be independent they need to have had strong relationships in their early childhood. That is what gives them the strength to be independent in their adulthood. The nature of the relationship between parents and children also colours the relationships that those children will have as adults with other adults. Therefore, the strength of parental bonds between partners is coloured very much by their early experiences in childhood.

I wish to cite a couple of case histories of lone parents in Scotland. I should say that this amendment is supported by 20 charities working in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Judy says:

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC320

"All very well and good expecting lone parents to work once their children are in fulltime education, personally I don't have an issue with it. For me personally, voluntary work & eventually paid work turned my life around albeit not financially. However, where is the childcare to go along with this? Where is the flexible working? Where is the long term thinking? It's all very well providing 'some' funding for childcare, what use is it if there is none? We now face a new generation of children who are 'forced' by the Government to be latchkey kids ... These same children are often (not always) the ones who require the most emotional support and stability, in particular during difficult times (separation/divorce) ... who is going to be around to support them at the times where parents have to be working?".

I took part in the proceedings on the Childcare Act 2006. What was noteworthy about that was the recognition of how far behind our continental neighbours we were in developing an effective childcare strategy. We were 30 years behind Sweden in having our first childcare strategy. We start from a very low base in terms of thinking and providing for early-years and other childcare.

6.30 pm

We are also at a time of heavy cuts. They seem to be hitting, in particular, out-of-school childcare provision for children, including holiday provision. There is also concern about the quality of such provision. In the Childcare Act 2006, family information services were established throughout the country and local authorities to help parents find childcare. A recent survey by these family information services found that only 20 per cent of parents said that they could find appropriate holiday provision for their children. This was a decline on the one-third of parents who reported that in the previous year.

I will cite one more case: that of Hayley. She said:

"My mum works ... An option which the lady at the job centre suggested was a holiday scheme club, you know the ones you see that are run by teenagers. Do I feel comfortable in the knowledge that they will look after my children-no I don't! If I was still with my husband I would still be a stay at home mum and no one would care, because I'm on my own and struggling to bring my kids up as best as I can they are saying it's wrong".

I used to work as a play scheme worker in my early 20s. On one occasion I had a day's induction, but I was unqualified to do this work. I particularly remember working with a group of 10 year-old boys. We had a lot of fun together. We went ice skating, dry ski slope skiing and swimming. It was tremendous, but I had no qualifications to do that work. The regret for me was although it was a great pleasure to teach boys to ice skate, it should have been their parents who were doing this. My father introduced me to swimming and to many other experiences. It should be parents who do this. Sometimes they will be unwilling to, but they should have time to have these important formative experiences with their children.

I had another placement about five years ago in a play scheme. Although the requirements for play scheme workers have improved, we still have a long way to go. The play scheme workers I worked with were young and pretty inexperienced. I understand this mother's concern at placing her child in these settings-if they are available.

Another issue is that for parents with children under five who are not caught by the Bill there is such a lack of availability of good-quality, affordable childcare

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC321

that while they may want to get into training and education so that they can get a better job, by the time their child is five and they are compelled to go to work, they can only do the most menial, low-paid work. Currently one hears from education colleges that their crèches are being cut back. This is such a counterproductive step. Parents who might learn to read and write and who might then be able to teach their children to read, write and do arithmetic are now unable to access that educational resource.

I cited research from the United States Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in March 2001. It is a synthesis of how welfare and work policies affect children. Two studies found that work programmes in the United States decreased school achievement and increased behavioural problems in adolescents. It is quite a different experience, but it is concerning that it was found there. I hope that there will be some reassurance that there will be research into and monitoring of how encouraging more parents to go to work when their children are adolescent impacts on educational outcomes.

I have spoken for too long: I apologise. My final point is to reinforce Anna Freud's work on the developmental lines of childhood, from infantile dependence to adult emotional independence. It is very important that we ensure that we support the parent/child relationship as far as we can so that children grow up into independent adults who will go out, find work, make positive, strong relationships with their future partners and keep strong relationships with their own children as they grow up. I am not sure whether that is clear. I look forward to the Minister's response to these concerns.

Lord McAvoy: My Lords, I would like to speak in support of the noble Earl's amendment. There are cuts in the tax credit system, and I know from experience that many couples use that as part of their overall family income, to get high-class childcare. There are a whole stack of couples who are now in the process of cancelling that because they cannot afford to keep it going. There is going to be chaos in the childcare system because many parents, either single or together, will be in trouble, trying to get the same conditions that they have been used to in childcare over the past few years.

Unless parents are given that assurance that their children are going to high-class, quality childcare that they can trust-the noble Earl mentioned some circumstances in which parents do not trust childcare-the whole field of childcare and its provision is going to be a real headache for society. This amendment would be a safeguard to ensure that parents are satisfied.

Having had some experience of Ministers, I can almost hear the Minister's reply, along the lines of, "How can you guarantee the security of a system? People will fiddle, people will do all sorts of things, and we can't trust them". In some cases that is a reasonable judgment, but not in all cases, and certainly not in the majority of cases. People will feel that they have been done out of something here, and as usual it will be the women who give up the second job that assistance for childcare has helped them to go out and do.

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC322

I have spoken to scores of women in my former constituency for whom that support for childcare was absolutely essential. This amendment will go a long way towards making sure that parents are not subjected to failure if they do not receive the quality, flexible and affordable childcare that they have been used to up until now.

How would the Minister cater for those people who, with less money coming in, will perhaps have to downgrade their expectations if they want to continue with childcare, because they cannot afford as much? This has been a great liberation for parents, and it is something that the Government need to assure us of.

Lord Newton of Braintree: May I come in from my sedentary position? I ought to start by saying that, having been in another part of the United Kingdom for most of the day, I only strayed in here to demonstrate continuing interest and to check that the Minister was still being reasonable. I felt driven to contribute, as all too often both upstairs and downstairs, by the subject matter that was being discussed.

If I may say so, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, need make no apology for the length of a speech from a noble Lord who has taken greater interest in these matters than almost anyone else in the House over all the time I have been here. His genuine knowledge and concern comes through, and we all benefit from it.

That said, I shall now incur the wrath of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, or both, or indeed of everyone. I had better admit immediately that if I were the Minister I would not touch this amendment, in its present terms, with a bargepole. It is all very well for noble Lords to talk about guarantees, but what does all that mean? Does it mean predictable? The number of hurdles here is unbelievable. The amendment speaks of "guaranteed", "predictable", "high quality", "flexible" and "affordable" childcare. Who will be the judge of all those? It also talks about the care being,

Frankly, that is not on, as a workable concept. I will just put that on the record in the interests of being helpful to the Minister.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Which one of those would the noble Lord suggest we junk?

Lord Newton of Braintree: There are too many hurdles in the amendment. In legal terms, although I am not a lawyer, it would be impossible to have guaranteed and predictable access to,

because the parents could say that it was not acceptable. Indeed, the child could say that it was not acceptable. It is not a sensible construct, as I am sure any legal mind would advise. The noble Baroness may not agree, but that is certainly the view I would take if I was advising the Minister.

However, coming back to the noble Earl, the childcare issue is an important one, as we have recognised throughout the proceedings on this Bill. It could be crucial to whether it is sensible or reasonable to expect

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC323

some people, be they single parents or others, to take up work. So we need a clear policy on this, even if in my view this amendment does not give it to us. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some encouragement on that front.

Baroness Grey-Thompson: My Lords, I would like to speak up for working parents because I am a working mother, and as noble Lords may have noticed I have brought my daughter to work with me. The amendment goes some way towards addressing some of the challenges that working parents face. It is absolutely my choice that I work 300 miles away from where I live, and it is the choice that my family and I have made. But trying to find flexible, affordable and appropriate childcare is really difficult. I am not sure whether that makes me a good or a bad mother, but I think that bringing my daughter along to a Lords Grand Committee is better than leaving her in childcare for a week. However, for people in more challenging financial positions, it is a real challenge.

I agree that it is better if parents are working, and I think that I am a better mother because I work. I think also that my daughter would probably say that it is not acceptable to be dragged along to a sitting of this Grand Committee and that she might prefer to be somewhere else. The wording of the amendment might not be quite correct, but it is important that we get these exceptions right. It is bad enough that as a mother you feel guilty for everything that you do anyway. You are accused of abandoning your child, not being a good mother and all those other things, when you are trying to do a good job. So it is important to get this right so that children can benefit from it-then parents and the family will benefit from it as well.

Baroness Drake: I was not going to come in on this amendment, but I feel moved to do so-

Lord Newton of Braintree: Provoked by me, I should imagine.

Baroness Drake: Absolutely, I can use the word "provoked" freely because that is what has led me to rise to speak.

There is a danger that this will become an emotional debate because people feel passionately about their children. I had three children aged seven and under and I know exactly the tensions that have been described. But this comes out of the construct of the application of in-work conditionality. The universal credit system imports a novel and extensive level of government discretion. What people are struggling with, because the Government cannot answer it, is how that discretion will be applied in real-life circumstances that they can empathise with. This instance arises against the background that most people who work part time are women, so they will be most subjected to the in-work conditionality on extending their hours. However, the childcare system in this country is inefficient, so there are those two background factors. Taken together with the discretionary system, which on the Minister's own admission has a long way to go before it is fully defined and fit for purpose, three fundamental issues

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC324

arise that people are struggling to get answers on. They do not think the answers lie in guidance, they want some security on the face of the Bill that constrains the exercise of the Government's discretion.

Those three issues are: trust, care of the child and the compatibility of conditionality with the reality of the childcare system. I think back to when my children were younger. Anyone who has been a parent will agree that the thought that any bureaucrat in a complex system could have imposed a sanction on me unless I agreed to put my children into a care arrangement in which I did not have confidence is inconceivable. I could deal with that, because I had a job that gave me enough income. I had enough self-confidence; I had articulacy; I had education; I could cope with that challenge. What if I had been a low paid mum, with more limited educational skills? Could I have articulated or defended my fears about being asked to put my child into a provision that I did not trust? That is fundamental. As has rightly been said, that involves the care of the child. One cannot just say, "We think that parents are better and that attitudes to benefit or bearing responsibility are better if people work". That has to be set against what is a fair system for the care of the child. We do not want lots of examples of people conceding under the pressure of conditionality to unsuitable care arrangements and horror stories resulting.

6.45 pm

The third point, which my noble friend Lady Hollis articulates well, is that we must make conditionality compatible with the reality of the childcare system in this country. A great deal of childcare is done by families. We have just seen the Government-well done-give grandparent credits under the national insurance system to accrue on state benefits as a recognition of the importance of that care system to the child. It is recognised as having economic and social value, so you can now accrue state pension benefits.

Equally, we must recognise that here. We cannot say on one level that we recognise the importance of grandparents but that when they are addressed under the benefits system, we will subject them to one level of conditionality of the carer here; while their daughters or sons, who are using their parents for childcare, may have another adviser subjecting them to another set of conditionality discretions over there.

Those are the fundamental issues. Saying that that will be covered in guidance is insufficient. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Hayter will not mind me saying that the drafting of the amendment may not be perfect, but we are in Committee. We can concentrate on the perfect drafting of the perfect amendment later. The amendment says to the Government: "If you want to take a powerful range of discretions to apply an in-work conditionality system that on your own admission is not yet defined and refined, in the interface between conditionality being imposed on carers-particularly women-you must take into account the issue of the relationship of trust of the parent leaving the child; how you protect the care of the child against some inefficient application of discretion, because that will occur; and the compatibility of the conditionality

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC325

guidance with the reality of the childcare system. That is the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed in the Bill.

Baroness Sherlock: I rise hesitantly, as the Minister got rather cross last time I got up, but I am brave. I was taking advice from more experienced colleagues to find out whether it was in order for me to speak to an amendment whose mover had not moved it. I hope that it is. I refer to Amendment 51F, which would require of the Secretary of State, in making decisions about prescribing certain actions, that:

"The matters prescribed under subsection (2) shall include the well-being of any child whose life or care may be affected by the requirements of this section".

I wanted to address that and to pick up some of the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. One thing that has always worried me on policy dealing with families and children is how difficult it is in government, when different departments have responsibility for different set of policies, to ensure that they take account of each other's policy objectives. There has always been a danger-I understand it completely-that when one is considering childcare primarily from the point of view of how one enables parents to work, one misses some of the unintended consequences of that policy on, for example, the well-being of children, their development and the next generation.

If the Minister does not like how any of the amendments are worded, he can advise me. He is far more experienced and knows a great deal more about how the DWP operates than I will ever know. Could he advise the Committee on how we might be reassured about a decision that will be taken perhaps by a young adviser or Jobcentre Plus employee who will rightly focus on how to get a person into work? How could that person be required to take account of the impact on the child?

My final point is that ultimately this will play to the Minister's benefit. Some years ago I visited the United States to look at welfare to work programmes there. As the Minister will know, the regime there is somewhat harsher even than the regime envisaged by him. It was interesting to meet the people organising the programmes. The single biggest barrier to getting people into those programmes was the lack of confidence of parents in the quality of substitute care. There is a huge amount of research into the effect of that on children. Will the Minister consider that reassuring parents on this might be in his interests, as well as to the advantage of the children?

Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I will say a brief word to defend myself against this onslaught. I do not think that there is a lot between us. I do not disagree with a word spoken by either of the two noble Baronesses about what our objectives should be. I hope that I indicated that. I simply do not think-this is my attempt to curry favour with the Minister-that the amendment achieves the objective in a satisfactory way. Can we be friends again?

Lord Freud: On that note, I shall take this opportunity to respond. My first point is that we are all in general agreement that it is vital to balance the requirements placed on claimants with any childcare responsibilities they may have. The amendments raise the concern

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC326

that we will not take these responsibilities into account. I hope that I will be able to reassure noble Lords that this is not the case.

As is the case now, legislation will provide clear safeguards. We are committed in particular to ensuring that the same safeguards exist for lone parents as are currently in place. Our legislation will ensure that no claimant who is responsible for a child under five can be made to look for or take a job. These claimants will be required only to attend work-focused interviews. If they fail to meet this basic requirement for no good reason, they will be subject to the lowest level of open-ended sanction. The sanctionable amount for this group will be capped at 40 per cent of the sanctionable amount for other claimants.

No claimant with a child under 13 will be required to look for a job that does not fit in with their child's school's hours, including a reasonable allowance for travel time. Such restrictions will mean that a claimant will not be required to apply for or accept a job that would mean that they could not care for their child outside school hours. Advisers will take into account the care needs of older children so that work search requirements can continue to be restricted where this is appropriate.

Lord McAvoy: How will those applications be checked? Will there be a system to verify that what the claimant says is accurate?

Lord Freud: I take it that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, means checking that the claimant is working and using childcare.

Lord McAvoy: And the arrangements for going to school, with all the timings involved as well.

Lord Freud: That would be done through a conversation between the claimant and the adviser. Clearly, what is a reasonable amount of time is not that complicated an issue when you know where someone works and what their route should be. I am sure that they will be able to reach a reasonable agreement on that.

To the extent that childcare may be needed to help claimants meet work availability requirements, for example in school holidays, advisers will work with parents to help them identify childcare options. Currently, this would include referring claimants to the local family information service.

I take the important point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on the role of relatives in caring for children. Clearly their role is important as it allows parents to work and supports them. My best response is that we will keep it very much in mind as we develop our thinking and put the system into a state of implementation. We agree with the principle that childcare must be acceptable to the parent and even the child, despite what my noble friend Lord Newton said.

Lord Newton of Braintree: What if they disagree?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: If they have good reason, we should listen to them.

Lord Freud: I am laughing at the memory of my own children's disapproval of their minders. Jobcentre Plus does not dictate to parents the type of childcare

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC327

or which provider they should use, or make any presumption that a childcare provider is suitable for the parent and child in question. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked whether childcare costs would be taken as good reason. This goes back to my previous response: there is no blanket rule. We will consider each case and look at all the benefits of work. Clearly, we will elaborate the detail on that in due course.

Advisers will continue to have an important role in both challenging and supporting parents who may have preconceived ideas about childcare, who may have had previous experiences or who have not used the services before. The circumstances of all parents and the needs of their children vary, and advisers will continue to take this into account.

Several noble Lords raised the question of the availability of childcare. We should bear in mind that local authorities have a duty under the Childcare Act 2006 to secure, as far as is reasonably practicable, sufficient childcare for working parents of children aged from birth to 14, and from birth to 18 in the case of disabled children. They must formally assess sufficiency in their area every three years. Local authority decisions on what they regard as "reasonably practicable" should be documented and published to allow scrutiny and challenge. Parents who feel that their needs have not been met can complain to the local authority. In the event that they are not satisfied with the way that their complaint has been dealt with, they may make a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman. I will borrow the claim of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, about the perfection of all things under the previous Government. This is after all the system that they put in place, so I am sure that she is absolutely satisfied with the arrangements.

A parent who considers that childcare is not available will need to demonstrate to the adviser that they have taken reasonable steps to secure such care. If childcare is available but the parent considers that it is not appropriate, he or she will need to provide information indicating that they have discussed their concerns with the service provider and give reasons why they do not consider the provision to be appropriate. Parents will need to demonstrate that there are no alternative arrangements that it would be reasonable for them to make. Where the adviser considers that the parent has not taken reasonable steps to identify or access appropriate childcare they will refer the question to a decision-maker. The sanction will only be imposed if the claimant does not have a good reason. In considering whether there is good reason, we will consider all relevant matters raised by the claimant, which would include the individual circumstances of the parent and children, and the availability of suitable childcare. Of course, any sanction decision can be appealed to an independent appeals tribunal for review.

Ultimately, we believe that in the vast majority of cases it is best for children if their parents are in work. Research into child poverty and workless households highlighted that:

"Parental employment is the key route out of poverty and disadvantage. Growing up in a workless household and/or in poverty can have a significant negative effect on a child's development."

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC328

That is from the 2004 Treasury document, Choice for Parents, The Best Start for Children.

7 pm

A recent evaluation of lone parents' experiences of moving into work also found that working had a direct positive effect on their children, with both direct and indirect benefits. That research was based over here and did not incorporate some of the findings that have been quoted about US research with its differentiation between younger and older children. I am not sure that we have that evidence locally. However, other research studies have shown that work seemed to have a positive effect on parental relationships with their children. This was because time spent together was more appreciated and valued by both the parent and the child even though the amount of time had generally reduced as a result of the mother being in work. That finding is actually supportive of the pioneering work of my great aunt, Anna Freud. She would be relieved to see that I am not trashing her concepts.

We believe that these provisions strike a fair balance. They allow parents to find the childcare that is right for them and to meet their work-related requirements. I also add my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for raising this important issue. He made a powerful speech which reminded us of the importance of this area. I hope that I have reassured him that the position is actually improving and that we have the protections in place. On that basis, I urge him and other noble Lords to withdraw their amendments.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, can the Minister give us an assurance that one possibility he could explore again is that great source of unpaid childcare: grandparents. I tried to get payment, but the deadweight costs would have been too huge. I hope that he will take the issue of her-and it is usually a her-responsibility into account in assessing her conditionality. We have already moved down this path, as my noble friend mentioned, in terms of credits for her pension and so on. It would not be difficult to do and it would ease the pressure on two or even three generations if her contribution to childcare was set against the conditionality on her in her late 50s-certainly in her 60s-and thus make it possible to keep all three generations afloat.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, sorry-

Lord Freud: No, let us take them all-

The Earl of Listowel: Before the noble Baroness withdraws the amendment, I want to take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, and the Minister for their very kind words. If praises are our wages in this House, I feel well paid today-I wish I were more worthy of what has been said. I am grateful to the Minister for his careful response. It is reassuring to be reminded how important it is to children and their success that their parents are in work. Shall I wind up?

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC329

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Haskel): Is the noble Earl going to be very long?

The Earl of Listowel: Anna Freud demonstrated in her life's work how complex child development is and how professionals working with children had to recognise that complexity. I am to some degree reassured by what the Minister has said, but there is great complexity here. Particularly in childcare, we have a very mixed provision and shortages in many areas. There may be things that we can think about before the Report stage that would be helpful in terms of future thinking-for instance, the work of the family information services might complement the work of Jobcentre Plus advisers, helping them to understand what is available in their local area.

7.05 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

7.17 pm

Lord Freud: My Lords, there are two questions here. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked whether our provision could be improved and integrated more closely. Clearly we do have links with the family service that I was describing. What we are doing in Jobcentre Plus is trying to co-locate services, so there may be something there to look at very closely.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, made a point about unpaid childcare by grandparents and others, which I was able to think about in the break. It is deceptively easy to say, "Oh, yes", but actually it is very complicated. There is a whole load of things happening: increasing longevity; much later childbirth; and in some cases much earlier childbirth, especially in some of the groups we are discussing here. There is a lot of social change going on, including the pension provision, so this is pretty difficult to do much about. I could say consolingly that we will look at it-and I will look at it, I am quite interested in this area-but solutions here are very difficult and would be hard to find. I will look at it but I am not expecting huge things to come out of that look.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It is very interesting that the noble Lord should say that, because it was exactly the advice I had from civil servants at the time. None the less, it did not stop us introducing NI credits for grandparents who did more than 20 hours' care a week for their daughter, releasing her to work. If you can do it for national insurance and pensions, you can certainly do it for childcare, and it would be much easier to do it with conditionality.

Baroness Sherlock: My Lords, perhaps I could suggest to the Minister that Jobcentre Plus could encourage the grandparent to train as a childminder. The daughter could then claim help through universal credit to pay the grandparent for childcare. You could simply cycle the money round that way-it might be a better way to do it.

Lord Freud: My Lords, I am really grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for her imaginative way of manipulating the system. I am sure that it is

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC330

something we should look at very closely. No, come on; I will look at this. This is very difficult so I am not promising anything, but I will look at it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It is already the case that grandparents can mind a grandchild if they are a registered childminder, with the childcare taking place in their own home, and look after at least one other child. That is already done.

Baroness Sherlock: My Lords, I am aware that irony plays rather poorly in Hansard. Just to clarify for the record, I am not actually recommending this scheme to the Government. I simply want to raise the fact that one has to be careful not to build perverse incentives into the system and overformalise relationships that might otherwise find a way of working out on their own.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, and the speakers who contributed to the debate. I especially thank the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, who is not in his place at the moment. Perhaps other noble Lords could pass on to him that he would never incur my wrath-the Minister's, yes, but never mine.

The one thing that we have to take account of when we use words like "trust" and "availability" is that the debate is taking place within a much broader overall government policy. We have already mentioned in Committee that unemployment is at a 17-year high. There are already cuts to childcare. It is estimated that 32,000 people have already given up work because of the reduction in childcare allowance-at a cost of £50 million to the Exchequer, I gather, so the Treasury will not be very happy about that. Of course, it demonstrates yet again that if affordable childcare is not available, people do not go to work-fairly obvious, but there you are.

Unfortunately the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, is not in her place. I was a little worried after what the noble Earl said about being an untrained play-scheme worker that maybe we were all untrained carers today for her daughter. At least with her mother here, I assume the child was in safe hands. As a grandparent, I very much appreciate the comments made about the contribution of grandparents. I am in the other position: with very new grandchildren, all the grandparents line up and vie to look after them. I am assured that this soon gets a bit too much and problems set in. Short-term care is much more easily set up than long-term grandparenting, unless the sort of help that my noble friend Lady Hollis mentioned is available.

I will make a couple of comments. First, I thank the Minister very much not only for saying that he will look very carefully at the suggestions made by my noble friend Lady Hollis but for the commitments he gave about including current protections. However, he did not answer one of my comments about whether they will apply to couples. He mentioned lone parents but not couples.

Lord Freud: Let me clarify that for the record. The protection includes couples as well.

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC331

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: This is getting better. I have one more question and I wonder if I can risk it. The Minister was also helpful on the question of school hours. He did not mention the point about being available for work during school holidays and whether those protections will remain. But given that he is in such a generous mood, my estimation is that he will reassure me on this.

Lord Freud: It is my delight to be able to reassure the noble Baroness that those protections will remain.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I am twitchy about one more thing, because I know that the Minister will say no. Although we are happy about the responsibility being put on local authorities with regard to childcare, I cannot let the moment go without saying that their funding has been cut. I know that that is not within his department, but some of these things cost money.

The Earl of Listowel: Before the noble Baroness withdraws the amendment, I should have reminded your Lordships that the Childcare Act 2006 applies only to England and Wales, so local authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are not under these obligations. I hope that that is helpful to the Committee.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I should have known that, but I did not, so I thank the noble Earl. Nevertheless, we have had some helpful reassurances in the Minister's response to the debate and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 51CED withdrawn.

Amendment 51CEE not moved.

Clause 18 agreed.

Clause 19 : Claimants subject to no work-related requirements

Amendment 51CEF

Moved by Lord McKenzie of Luton

51CEF: Clause 19, page 9, line 16, leave out paragraph (d)

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I shall speak also to the other two amendments in this group. They are straightforward probing amendments that refer to Clause 19, which is entitled:

"Claimants subject to no work-related requirements".

We discussed previously that claimants would fall primarily in that section if they have limited capability for work or for work-related activity; if they have regular and substantial care responsibilities for a severely disabled person; or if they are responsible carers for children under the age of one. However, subsection (2)(d) provides for a situation where,

Subsection (3) goes on to say that:

"Regulations under subsection (2)(d) may in particular make provision",

in respect of "hours worked", "earnings or income", and,

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC332

Subsection (4) states that regulations made under subsection (3) may,

We have moved this amendment in light of the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee which said in respect of those powers:

"We do not regard the first time affirmative procedure as necessarily inappropriate but the House may wish to be satisfied by the Minister that the exercise of this power on the first occasion will sufficiently define the Government's approach, and that subsequent uses of the power will make only minor adjustments".

I shall focus particularly on the latter part of that statement. The Government's response states that it is the intention of the Minister,

I think we now have those-

Therefore, we need to wait for that, although we touched on some of the issues earlier. Will the Minister take this opportunity to deal more fully with the request of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, in particular the issue relating to subsequent uses of the power being focused only on minor adjustments? I beg to move.

7.30 pm

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, having been wonderfully rude about the first probing amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, I am going to do exactly the opposite now because I regret that he announced that this was a probing amendment. This is the widest power that I have seen for many years in any potential Act of Parliament. Paragraph (d) of Clause 19(2) states that,

Subsections (3) and (4), which relate to the subsequent amendments as the noble Lord has explained, include the word "may". However, if "may" is included, "may not" would also be included. The phrase that sprang to mind was, "How wide is the ocean; how deep is the sea?". I actually think that for once the Merits Committee has not gone far enough; nor, as I said, has the noble Lord.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, just to correct my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, it was the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, not the Merits Committee.

Lord Skelmersdale: Yes, my Lords, I am sure it was.

Lord Freud: My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that we intend to use the power in subsection (2)(d) to establish the conditionality threshold. In summary, the threshold will be defined by establishing the hours we expect each individual in a benefit unit to work, taking account of their particular capability

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC333

and circumstances, and multiplying this by the relevant national minimum wage. We believe that setting their threshold in this way is the right thing to do. It will mean that we can impose work-related requirements only on those claimants working less than we could reasonably expect in benefit units falling under the threshold and it ensures that we take full account of a claimant's circumstances and capability. As we have discussed, we believe that we must have the power to encourage and support such claimants to do more to support themselves. Without a threshold many more working claimants would fall into the all work-related requirements group. We do not want to bring into conditionality those claimants who are working as much as we can reasonably expect. Having a threshold is essential for this.

Finally, we intend to use this power to do more than set the conditionality threshold. We will also use this to add other categories of claimant to the no work-related requirements group, ensuring that particular groups of claimant are treated appropriately. This includes working claimants on jury service, claimants on adoption leave and claimants who are over state pension age. It is clearly important that such claimants remain out of conditionality. I should make clear to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale that paragraph (d) is a protective measure. If we did not have it, we would not be able to protect those people from conditionality.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, may I come back to my noble friend the Minister? I totally-surprise, surprise-trust this Government but one day there will be another Government, perhaps not even comprised of the party of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. That Government may use this power in ways that we cannot now foresee, which is why I do not like it.

Lord Freud: I thank my noble friend for that, although I think in practice paragraph (d) allows a Government not to impose conditionality. This measure protects the individual. Of course, I absolutely understand my noble friend's suspicion that the measure might overrestrict what another Government might do, which would not favour getting people into work. I am sorry; that was meant to be a joke.

Let me come back to the matter in hand. Given that we expect the first use to set the principles and to remain broadly unchanged, I hope I can assure noble Lords that affirmative for the first use is appropriate. We have set out how we intend to use this power. We define a threshold, as we have set out in our note, and add in the additional groups, as in the draft regulations. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that we do not expect significant changes to this. For this reason, I ask him to withdraw this particular amendment.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I thank the Minister for that reply. As we discussed earlier, we understand the need for the sort of thresholds that are envisaged here, and why they are there. We also understand the need for scope for a further category of claimants who will be subject to no work-related requirements at all.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is right that this is a fairly broad power. I would not put it in quite

26 Oct 2011 : Column GC334

the terms that the noble Lord does, and I am not sure why, if he envisages that there may be a different Government in the future, it might not be made up of people on this side of the Chamber, although perhaps that is a debate for another day.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page