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Lord Henderson of Brompton: I break my silence to support the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, on these amendments. I am particularly interested in Amendments Nos. 125 and 127 which concern the right of appeal. I am sure that we have a special responsibility to our young people which the Government share. They can show that they share this responsibility if they will give to young people, if they want it, the right of appeal. That is the first point.
These people are quite properly called "young" people. They are not yet adults. They need that special regard. I shall say no more than that both the right of appeal and the special regard are necessary for these people who may otherwise, I regret, fall out with their families. Without the resources which they should properly receive from the state, they may enter undesirable activity, either criminal activity or begging. I strongly urge the Government to give these amendments serious consideration and, if possible, to accept them.
Earl Russell: I wish to support all the amendments in this group and to speak most particularly to Amendment No. 126 which is in my name. But, first, I wish to say a word about Amendment No. 133. That has slightly different language. It refers to our old friend, the "welfare" of the child, from the Children Act 1989. The use of that language in this place draws attention to the fact that we are seeing a real problem here as regards the age of majority. Some Members of the Committee may remember the case of the anorexic 16 year-old who was given forcible treatment. There was a great legal problem over whether she was to be treated as a child or an adult. That indicates a general weakness in the law of majority as it relates to 16 and 17 year-olds. In this case, when it comes to claiming benefit, they are
Amendment No. 126 deals with the burden of proof in cases of severe hardship. This is really quite frightening. I believe that when people are deprived of the right to means-tested benefits, which, after all, must presume that their means were pretty low in the first place, it ought to be a presumption that if those benefits are taken away, they will be in severe hardship. I admit there may be casesone or two of which the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred to last Tuesdaywhere that might not be so, but it is perfectly fair to say that in those cases the burden of proof should rest on the Secretary of State. The treatment of this subject has suffered a certain amount of spill-over from the assumption made in adult cases that the single person can never be in hardship. I think for that reason there has been a good deal more resistance to the idea of hardship than there might otherwise have been. But if you are sleeping on it, the ground feels just as hard whether you are single or whether you are not.
Earl Russell: Perhaps my noble friend has a point there but I think that it will still be pretty hard in either case. I also think that a lot of the trouble that 16 and 17 year-olds have suffered as regards severe hardship comes from the complicated procedure in claiming. The Minister is new to this subject. I would ask him, therefore, to look at the speech made by his noble friend Lord Mottistone on 24th July 1991 which put this so well that I have never succeeded, or even attempted, to improve on it. I admit that the procedure is a little simpler than it was, but it is still difficult.
Speed is of the essence here. If you have been thrown out of your home because you have quarrelled with your mother's new boyfriend, which is a very common cause of this problem, you need food instantly. You are in a state of shock. You cannot go anywhere without money. Therefore, speed is important. Presumption in favour of the young person could help, because it would make speed easier to achieve.
Such a presumption would also make the questioning which inevitably occurs a little easier than it sometimes is. If you have dealt with a 16 year-old in a state of shock you recognise that the word "volatile" is appropriate. It is a word which is derived from the handling of explosives, and that is not necessarily an inappropriate analogy. Some of the questioning to discover the circumstances in which people have been thrown out by their parents tends to produce that volatile effect. There are casesI have some details with me but I shall not quote themin which the young person rushes off before the questioning is finished. That sense of hostility creates a problem that directs people into an
An assumption that the burden of proof rested on the Secretary of State would generate a much more appropriate atmosphere for the whole process. It would create some of the soothing effect that is needed. Then the officers, who I admit have to ask questions so long as the law remains roughly as it is, might stand a much better chance of finding out the truth.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We have had an interesting debate on a difficult subject involving a small number of youngsters who, the Government accept (by the legislation we already have in place), can be in a vulnerable position or in hardship.
I cannot accept all that has been said about the position of young people in the benefit system. As this is the first of a number of amendments relating to this issue, it may help if I begin my contribution by outlining how the present system works.
The Government believe that young people are better off in education, training and employment. I believe that that is common ground. In support of that view, we guarantee every 16 and 17 year-old who wants one a suitable youth training place with a wage or a training allowance. We shall spend £669 million on youth training and modern apprenticeships this year in England alone. That is a significant investment in the future of our young people and in the nation's economy. To give the Committee some idea of the number of people involved, in January this year 287,100 young people were in training in Great Britain.
The existence of that guarantee means that there is no reason why young people need to be unemployed. We do not wish to encourage dependence on benefit at such an early age, and 16 and 17 year-olds are therefore in general not entitled to claim benefits as unemployed people.
We recognise, of course, that there may always be those who, for one reason or another, face particular difficulties. We therefore make special provision for those circumstances. Certain young people, such as lone parents or those with a disability, are at present eligible, and will in future be eligible, to claim income support without having to be available for work. Certain others, such as those who are married and have a child, will be able to claim JSA on the same basis as an adult. In addition, all other 16 and 17 year-olds who are waiting for a suitable youth training place will be able to claim JSA if it appears to the Secretary of State that they would otherwise suffer severe hardship. That is the purpose of this clause, which carries forward existing arrangements.
In summary, we want to encourage young people to get the best possible start in the labour market by making the most of the opportunities available, while balancing that against the need to provide support for those who are genuinely vulnerable.
When assessing whether a 16 or 17 year-old is at risk of sever hardship a wide range of personal circumstances is considered, including health, vulnerability and the threat of homelessness; a point that may help the noble
Decisions on severe hardship are made by specially trained officers acting on behalf of the Secretary of State. Every youngster who applies for a severe hardship payment is interviewed by a specially trained officer who will seek information to decide whether the young person is at risk of severe hardship. If the officer feels that a severe hardship direction is not appropriate, that has to be confirmed by a central unit with considerable expertise in this area.
A degree of discretion is necessary to allow all the relevant circumstances of a particular case to be taken into account. Some of those circumstances cannot be foreseen and discretion is essential to ensure that 16 and 17 year-olds who apply are dealt with properly and fairly. Given that these youngsters only claim JSA in exceptional circumstances, we believe that it is right that there should be such discretion as to whether or not to issue a direction.
Amendment No. 125 would limit the Secretary of State's discretion. The exercise of that discretion is more correctly defined by the use of "may" in the Bill rather than "shall", as suggested. It appears to me that the substitution proposed would be seen as reducing that discretion. Indeed, I suspect that that is the aim of the noble Baroness in moving the amendment. I do not believe that that would be sensible.
Amendment No. 126 seeks to switch the burden of proof with regard to severe hardship. At present the burden is on the claimant to satisfy the Secretary of State that he will suffer severe hardship. Under the amendment, the burden would be on the Secretary of State to show why severe hardship would not arise.
I have already explained that every 16 and 17 year-old who applies for a severe hardship payment is interviewed by a specially trained officer who will seek the necessary information to allow him to decide whether the young person is at risk of severe hardship. As I said, if the officer feels that a severe hardship direction is not appropriate, the decision has to be authorised by a central unit.
I believe that that represents a clear and fair system for young people. It is entirely reasonable to ask young people who want to claim benefit because of risk of severe hardship to provide satisfactory evidence that they are in fact at risk. It is not sensible to require the Secretary of State to prove a case in which it is the young person who has the necessary information. Consequently, I cannot accept that amendment.
The purpose of Amendments Nos. 127 and 130 is to provide a right of appeal to a social security appeal tribunal against any decision by the Secretary of State not to make a direction or to revoke one. Severe hardship is an exceptional route into JSA. Consequently, we do not propose to change the present approach, that these arrangements should not include the right of appeal to the SSAT against the Secretary of State's decision. I should, however, like to emphasise the safeguards which are built into the system.
I have already mentioned some of those safeguards. There is the specially trained officer who interviews the 16 or 17 year-old and seeks information in order to help him decide whether the young person is indeed at risk of severe hardship. Those specially trained officers are very well aware of the potential difficulties which young people may suffer. Indeed, a direction enabling the young person to claim income support is issued in 85 per cent. of cases at present. In 1994 there were 132,535 claims for severe hardship payments. A large number of them were repeat claims. Of those claims, 112,241 were successful, representing 85 per cent. Therefore, clearly the officers responsible treat the matter very seriously and carefully.
I am sorry to repeat the point but I wish to reinforce it. I believe that the system in place meets many of the fears of Members on the Benches opposite. If the officer feels that a direction is not appropriate, that has to be authorised by a central unit which itself has considerable expertise in this area. If the young person feels that all the circumstances have not properly been taken into account, he can ask for his case to be considered again.
As with other amendments, I have to say that we do not propose to change the present approach. These are exceptional arrangements to deal with this smallbut difficult to deal withcategory of young people. We believe that the arrangements should not include an appeal against the Secretary of State's decision to a social security appeal tribunal.
I have already explained the safeguards that we built into the system. I shall add that it is our intention to make the rules clear to 16 to 17 year-olds when they draw up their jobseeker's agreement which, as my honourable friend the Minister for Employment in another place explained, will be specially tailored for young people. That, together with the safeguards that I have described, will ensure that no young person should unwittingly fall foul of the system. However, if people deliberately abuse the system it is right that there should be some penalty.
Accepting that those young people to whom we refer are vulnerable, it means that we must, as I believe that we do, continue to treat them carefully and sympathetically. But we cannot allow them to use their vulnerability and the exceptions made for them as an excusethat is what we are talking aboutfor not taking up training places; or, if training places are taken up, not sticking with them. I do not believe that we should remove all sanctions from this group. Without the sanctions, we would omit what for a tiny minority is the only safeguard we have against them simply refusing every means of help.
Those youngsters in such a group, almost above all other groups of young people, need a training place and encouragement to stick with it if they are ever to break out of what must obviously be their very difficult circumstances. I do not believe that we do them any service by removing the modest penalty which is allowed to be imposed in the systema 40 per cent. reduction for two weeksfor failure either to take up places after two choices, or to abandon places in training schemes after two attempts.
I believe that it is an important issue. I hope that I have not taken too long in seeking to explain the safeguards we already have in the system that we operate at present. I appreciate that some noble Lords opposite would like to go further. Some noble Lords opposite would like the situation where people receive benefit even if they do not meet any of the qualifying conditions. I believe that that would a serious mistake.
This is a serious issue. I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment. The noble Earl has an amendment on this issue. I understand that there is strong feeling on the matter. The noble Baroness may decide to divide the Comittee. In that case, I hope that my noble friends are convinced by my argument that we are doing the best we can by those young people, and, if a Division is called, that they will join me in the Lobby.
Baroness Seear: Will the Minister clarify an important point in his speech that I raised, perhaps somewhat out of turn, at an earlier stage in the debate? At the heart of the programme is the desire to get these youngsters into training. I am entirely in agreement with that. We want to see far more people trained. Those youngsters who do not have a job need to obtain training rather than be pushed into, or sometimes to accept because they prefer it, a job which has no future, thereby perpetuating the situation.
The Minister made the point that at the centre of the proposal is the fact that there are training places and that those young people are expected to take training places. That is fine provided that the training place is right for the young person. Will the Minister explain how the appropriate training is worked out? From the point of view of the taxpayer, the trainer and the trainee, it is not satisfactory if those young persons are put into the wrong training. What is done to make sure that it is the right training?
Perhaps I may make this subsidiary point. In an earlier programme which a previous Government ranI cannot remember whether Conservative or Labourwhere there was appropriate training but it was not in the locality in which the young person lived it was possible to make provision for the young person identified for such training to be moved, and to have the expenses of the move paid in order that he obtain the proper training.
What steps are being taken to ensure that the training is right? It is a waste of money and time from everyone's point of view to give people the wrong training. Money spent on giving the right advice and instruction, finding training in the right place, and investing enough money to ensure that that training is undertaken is very worthwhile. Will the Minister explain where we stand on this? How is it done?
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