HL Deb 09 June 1992 vol 537 cc1216-57

4.40 p.m.

Earl Russell rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their view of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux report Severe Hardship and of the Youthaid Report A Broken Promise and of Chapter 3 of the eighth report of the Social Security Advisory Committee.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, first, I owe the House an apology for cutting my arrival at the debate so fine. I also, perhaps more, owe an apology to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association for not having spoken in its cause, as I had hoped to do on the first Unstarred Question. I have been teaching this afternoon and I had expected the debate to continue for rather longer than it did; so I can only plead, after the manner of Lord Peter Wimsey, my mind being momentarily on my job".

The slightly clumsy title of this Unstarred Question covers the fact that in the recent past three reports have been published covering the same ground and reaching similar conclusions. I put them all on our Order Paper because I thought it might be for the convenience of the House to bring all three of them to our attention. The first is the report Severe Hardship by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux; the second is the eighth report of the Social Security Advisory Committee; and the third is the report A Broken Promise by Youthaid for the Coalition on Young People and Social Security. Those three reports reach very much the same findings. I had been tempted to introduce myself today as the bell man, claiming that what I tell you three times is true; but, alas for a neat image! I had no sooner thought of it than I heard that today a fourth report on youth destitution in Scotland is being published by the Strathclyde Poverty Alliance. So, the bell has tolled more than once.

I any in good company in expressing anxiety about the treatment of 16 and 17 year-olds and about income support. The policy has been weighed in the balance and found wanting by Barnardo's; the Bridge Project of the University of Edinburgh; the Children's Society; the Coalition on Young People and Social Security; the Child Poverty Action Group; CHAR; your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities, to which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, intends to speak; the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux; MORI; the Social Security Advisory Committee; the Nottingham Hostels Liaison Group; the Scottish Council on Single Homeless; Church Action on Poverty; and the Strathclyde Poverty Alliance, to name only a few.

Since that argument is, to a degree, familiar, I thought that I would touch first on the other theme of the NACAB report—the lower rates of income support paid to those under 25. I have never understood what the logical justification for that lower rate was. Originally, during the debates on the 1986 Act, it was suggested that it followed the distinction between householder and non-householder rates; but it is becoming increasingly clear that the distinction between householders and non-householders is not the same as the distinction between younger and older people. In fact, that is the classic discriminatory assumption. It takes an attribute which is common among one group and takes it as the attribute of the whole of the group.

When we discussed this matter in debates on the council tax, my noble kinsman invoked the principle that young people have lower wages. Women have lower wages and black people have lower wages; but if it were to be suggested that they should receive a lower rate of social security benefit for that reason there would be a considerable body of comment. I also believe that my noble kinsman's argument was attempting to introduce an altogether new principle into the social security system.

Income support is a subsistence benefit. Subsistence is not earnings related. I have never before understood that subsistence benefits were supposed to be earnings related. If that were coming in, it would be a major change of policy which would need some justification. The expenses, of course, are the same. Food bills are the same; rent is the same; gas is the same; and water and electricity are the same. I shall not engage my noble kinsman in an argument, that he will find familiar, about the general levels of income support. I shall touch upon one point: the cost of actively seeking work.

I know something about that issue because both my children have been doing it recently. Starting with a two-zone travel card at £2.70 a day, it is not possible in London actively to seek work at a cost of under £10 a week. It may often cost a great deal more. On a benefit of £33.40 a week, that makes a big hole in benefit levels. If one cannot afford actively to seek work and eat, there is obviously a temptation to seek work slightly less actively than one might otherwise do. If we calculate the cost to the Exchequer of people not actively seeking work and look at the cost given by Mr. Burt on 2nd June for changing that policy at £110 million, it would need only 11,000 people to get into work who otherwise would not have done so to pay for the cost of changing the policy. That I do not regard as by any means unimaginable.

The major matter involved in the debate is obviously the 16 and 17 year-olds. The theory of government policy is that there is a youth training guarantee for everyone, and a severe hardship allowance for those who do not obtain it. Of course it sounds good, but it is not working. The guarantee has never worked. That is not just a matter of the recession. I have been sent briefing cases by people who were receiving nothing from the moment the policy came into effect. I admit that the severe hardship allowance is working rather better than it was, but it is still short term in its application and random in its effect.

The most important statistic in the MORI Report commissioned by the Government is that of those who obtained the severe hardship allowance 49 per cent. had no visible means of support; and of those who were refused the allowance, 44 per cent. had no visible means of support. So when I say that the working of the policy is random, I mean exactly what I say.

That leaves, as the Social Security Advisory Committee said, large numbers of people with no visible legal means of support. Apart from any concern of common humanity, that is not prudent. It is an incentive to seek invisible, illegal means of support. That is against the public interest. It is difficult to work out how many people are affected. In the reply sent by the TECs to the chairman of the Employment Select Committee in another place last November we have a figure from nine TECs of 6,686 people without places; and from another 25 TECs, 10,165. The careers service knows of 50,000 people registered for youth training and without a place. That is a minimum figure. The estimate in the Youthaid Report, and among those who are working in the field, is that the most likely figure is 80,000 registered for YT, but without visible means of support.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, for his Written Answer of 1st June. In it he attempted to work out the statistics for where 16 and 17 year-olds are, how many are in full-time education and how many are in employment. He gave me a health warning, saying that the figures were taken from different sources and different places and were not to be added up. I accept his health warning. I believe that his figures do the Government an injustice.

Equally, the noble Viscount will agree that the figures do not help him to rebut the estimate of 80,000 people with no visible means of support. That is in the target area. The fact that we cannot be more precise is a bad effect of the Rayner principle that the Government's statistical service gathers only that information which the Government want to know. In that context, I hope that they will not reprove us for relying on anecdotal evidence, for they have made sure that nothing else is available.

I also hope that my noble kinsman will not tell us that the guarantee is working. The careers service says that it is not. Numerous chairmen of TECs say that it is not. Those are the Government's main, legitimate sources of knowledge. If the Government were to say that the guarantee was working, they would be calling into question the good faith of those sources. I hope they will have the wisdom not to do that.

We have had four years of tinkering with the problem and it is no better. It remains my opinion that the guarantee was undeliverable from the beginning and that a restoration of entitlement to benefit is the only long-term solution. But when people are starving in the first year of a parliament, it would be a principal form of cruelty to confine oneself to suggesting solutions which require a general election in order to put them into effect. So I have attempted to ask where I would have gone if I had been a horse; what solutions I would have applied if I believed in the Government's policy. There are a good many of them and in working them out I have realised more than ever what a gimcrack scheme the youth training guarantee was.

In the first place, one would have thought it was elementary common sense that the guaranteed training should last for the same time as the disentitlement to benefit. That is two years. In fact —and this is the second most important statistic in the MORI report—58 per cent. of youth training courses last for three months or less. How a three-month course can give a two-year guarantee passes my understanding.

The next point that needs attention is the bridging allowance: £15 a week for eight weeks. It has not been up-rated since 1988. Last time we exchanged arguments on this the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, argued that it was enough to support a person living at home. But clearly many are not living at home. The commonest single reason why they have been thrown out is that their parents cannot afford to keep them if they do not receive benefit. So the bridging allowance should be extended to approximately the level of income support. On Citizen's Charter principles, if the Government have given the guarantee and they fail to deliver on that guarantee then they must make it good. So the bridging allowance should remain available until a suitable youth training place is found. Then the question may arise whether the bridging allowance should act as a passport to passported social security benefits.

More seriously, I believe that there is a conflict at the very heart of the youth training scheme. The basic idea is training in skills, to which my noble friends also are deeply committed. Some of the chairmen of TECs express concern that the need to provide a welfare guarantee is getting in the way of providing skilled training. That is not in the national interest, nor is it something we would welcome. The training in skills is employer-led. That means that employers must be doing something in their own interests and must have the right to refuse the people they do not think suitable. I have never understood how this could be squared with the universality appropriate to a welfare guarantee.

If we are to keep the present scheme, then we must have a fallback system of youth training such as I understand is now being experimented with in Essex.

There, a basically community service scheme is available for those who are difficult to place. There are numerous groups who are difficult to place but who are not therefore unentitled to subsistence. They include: the homeless, people with disabilities, the pregnant, the learning disabled, those whose native language is not English, those with a medical condition, and offenders. I add two more: those living in remote rural areas and those within three months of their 18th birthday who cannot complete a course. There must be a fallback, state-led scheme.

It is the function of industry to make profits and I am surprised that I should have to explain that to a Conservative Government. It is not legitimate to ask industry to do things which are not in its financial interest. In the end, welfare is a business which cannot be privatised, it is not profit making.

It seems to me that we are moving towards regarding youth training as a repeat of national service. However, if we do that, we should do the job properly. We should re-introduce something resembling the old national service medical exam which, as some noble Lords may remember, not everyone passed. I am not talking only about physical illness or about trauma in the short term afflicting those whose parents have thrown them out. They often need a few weeks before they are fit for work. I am talking about cases like the one forwarded to me by the Scottish Council for Single Homeless. A young man was an asthmatic; the only youth training available to him was as a painter. He was a conscientious young man and he was hungry, so he took it. He could not carry on, so he was ruled to have refused a good offer of youth training and to be entitled to nothing. I believe that a medical examination would have prevented that.

At the same time, there ought to be an examination of the suitability of the place. I give one example. In Blairgowrie there are 37 people looking for youth training but there is only one place. Blairgowrie is not the centre of one of our great conurbations; the nearest other places are 15 miles away. Travel is expensive and public transport is not one of Blairgowrie's greatest strengths. In that case, people should be entitled to income support on a severe hardship basis until a suitable place can be made available.

On the severe hardship scheme, I refer my noble kinsman to the speech of his noble friend Lord Mottistone on 24th July last year. His exposition of what was wrong with the procedure cannot be bettered. The severe hardship entitlement for those who cannot get a youth training place must become a right and not discretionary. It must continue until a suitable youth training place can be made available, instead of being stopped and needing to be renewed every few weeks.

The Minister will talk of cost. His honourable friend Miss Widdecombe said it was impossible to discover the cost involved. The Government do pay for the Rayner principle, but we should take into account that among these 80,000 people a certain number—at a rough guess out of the air I would say the number was possibly 5,000 a year—may be so affected that they are rendered unemployable. That would mean that over a lifetime they would cost the state £395,000 apiece. Therefore, the argument of cost is on the same side as the argument of humanity.

5 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for bringing this matter before your Lordships' House. I had a nasty feeling that when I did not see him in his place he might have been struck down by lightning.

We are talking about the problem of young, unemployed 16 to 17 year-olds who are often sleeping rough. This problem has existed in our society for some time and it has been debated in your Lordships' House before on 24th July 1991. It is also a cause for disquiet that some outstanding reports have been compiled on this subject. I was going to enumerate those reports but the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has already done so. I must stress that those reports are outstanding.

One must understand the difficulties of young, homeless people who do not have adequate money and who are unable to obtain or fit into a training or education scheme. The Minister, my noble friend Lord Henley, will remember that some years ago a meeting was held in the Department of Health with representatives of statutory and voluntary organisations and representatives from the Department of Employment and the housing department to discuss this problem. But, alas, that took place five years ago and we are in the same position now as we were then.

After much thought I have come to the conclusion that we have been barking up the wrong tree all these years. I profoundly believe in the principle laid down in the Children Act 1989—that is children and young people are the responsibility of their parents both in a material and an emotional sense. At the same time one has to be realistic and recognise that some 16 and 17 year-olds have been in care or have been brought up in children's or foster homes and do not have a parental home on which they can rely. Such young people are at a great disadvantage in the adult world and in the world of work.

There are some young people who live at home until they are 16 or 17 and then leave home for a valid reason. I illustrate that situation with the example of a girl who has been sexually abused by her father but who has not wished to report the matter to the police and break up the family or bring opprobrium on it and has left home.

The intention behind the structure of Her Majesty's Government's scheme was good in the early days—I believe the noble Earl will not agree with me on that —in that to qualify for financial support a young person had to be on a YTS scheme or engaged in further education. At the time that was a commendable structure and I agreed with it. However, as the noble Earl has pointed out, it has not worked out as intended. There is little low-cost affordable rented accommodation. If a young person has no address, he cannot obtain a job, and if he cannot obtain a job he cannot obtain accommodation and an address.

Further, the YTS scheme worked well for some; but in many cases either a young person could not fit into the work structure or the employer found that a young person was a disrupting factor. The employer has a living to make—I believe the noble Earl referred to this—and he has financial constraints. Therefore it is not always possible for employers to keep these young people in the workplace if they are a disruptive influence.

A number of young people are given the chance of training but that training is often not the training they want and it is not in the place they want. I believe we have not faced up to my next point. Many but by no means all of these young people without work are in need of support, encouragement, advice and help. That point has not been taken into account. I suggest that we need to adopt a completely different structure to the one we have at present. I congratulate Her Majesty's Government on the fact that at the moment they are considering the foyer scheme. That scheme is used in France where there is a network of some 450 hostels that help 50,000 young people. Such young people can take up residence in the hostels for a short time and they receive adequate guidance and help as regards choosing an appropriate training scheme. They are given help in finding accommodation; and, if necessary, they are helped in finding sheltered employment by an organisation that is the equivalent of our Remploy.

Organisations in this country such as the London and Quadrant Housing Trust, the National Council of YMCAs, the North British Housing Association and Shelter are starting to run similar schemes. The Department of Employment is considering this scheme at the moment. I congratulate the Secretary of State for Employment, the right honourable Mrs. Shephard, the housing minister, Sir George Young, and Mr. Howard and Mr. Forsyth on considering this scheme.

Inevitably we shall still need to consider the question of the rates paid to young people on income support. We shall also have to consider the whole question of low-cost, rented accommodation. I have great experience of these matters, and I believe there are many 16 and 17 year-olds who cannot yet cope with the workplace and who need training to enable them to cope. I suggest that the Department of Employment should give serious consideration to providing workshops for those young people.

I well remember running a workshop in Oxford in which we received help from British Leyland. Under the guidance of British Leyland, the young people in the workshop were able to carry out simple processes. They were paid the going rate by British Leyland. Therefore the young people were earning a living but they were under supervision and they received sheltered employment, if one can use that term. This employment had a good effect on the young people with tremendous results.

We need to rethink completely our approach to looking after these many disadvantaged young people. They need help and advice, and they need an assistance scheme which is based on a different structure to that of the present scheme. These young people cannot manage their money or work. That is not altogether their fault. Their education may not have been of the highest standard. However, the fact remains that we should help them in a positive way. We should not just push them into a YTS scheme and leave them to look after themselves and find accommodation for themselves. When they have little money, they will never succeed in looking after themselves. I hope Her Majesty's Government will seriously consider the foyer scheme and will do away with the present scheme. I hope the foyer scheme will be introduced in this country.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Earl for initiating the debate this afternoon. The young people whose stories, often tragic, are spelt out in the reports to which the noble Earl referred will be even more deeply indebted if, as a result of this afternoon's debate, we see some improvement in the schemes which have been operated.

Re-reading the report of the discussion that took place in 1988 at the time when income support was, with some exceptions, withdrawn from 16 and 17 year-olds, it is clear that three purposes underlay the Government's action, with which it is possible to have a degree of sympathy. One was to seek to strengthen or reinforce the ties of the family and to bring home to parents their own proper responsibilities. The second was to motivate young people to train and improve their qualifications. The third was to save money wherever possible. However, it is clear that, even measured by its own objectives, the scheme is not working.

We would all agree that there must be emphasis on encouraging parents to maintain responsibility for their children and that young people should be encouraged to stay at home as long as they need to do so. We know that some leave too quickly; we also know that they run back home very quickly when they find what life is like outside, if they have a home to run back to. As has already been said, many—a growing number—do not have a home. Many have been in care, and a growing number come from unstable households as a result of divorce, remarriage and changes of partners.

That is recognised in the provision that children who are genuinely estranged from their families can receive benefits. However, many find it extremely difficult to establish estrangement. It seems to be too often assumed that if they walk out they are the guilty party and are irresponsible. As has also been made clear in the Eighth Report of the Social Security Advisory Committee, there is often a great deal of difficulty in establishing their entitlement to severe hardship payments. I must admit that the process of claiming SHP as it has been described to me would tax my ingenuity and patience.

In its report the SSAC described some of the difficulties. Young people must visit the Careers Office, the unemployment benefit office and the DSS office—which may be miles apart. The DSS local office relies on information from the Careers Office, which delays matters. The procedure is time-consuming: in some offices if a claimant arrives after mid-morning he or she may not receive a decision by the end of the day. In addition, some young people are wrongly turned away by unemployment benefit offices: where the young person may just be told that they have no entitlement to benefit as they are under 18". So there are problems in establishing entitlement to SHPs.

The second objective was a highly desirable attempt to motivate young people to train. That is an unexceptionable aim. However, as has been shown so clearly by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the shortfall in training places demonstrated by a variety of authorities is now surely beyond argument. Up to the mid-1970s, unemployment among young people was not widespread. At that time fewer than 20,000 young people were unemployed. Today, as has been said, we do not know the figure. We do know that in 1991 there were some 220,000 young people on youth training; some 13,000 on bridging allowance; some 20,000 in income support plus an unknown number who received none of those benefits.

The inability to meet the guarantee is widely documented in the reports. I quote from one project manager's report. He said: Even college courses don't have work placements … It's no good giving them a place on a course if you don't get a work placement—that's not fulfilled the guarantee". That is the case with practically any NCH project dealing with young people—alternatives to custody, family centres, independence units. They will all tell one off the cuff of young people who cannot find a place to train, and of young people who are destitute as a result of the combination of circumstances which have been so adequately described by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull.

There has not only been a decline in the number of places but also a decline in the quality of training. I was given an account of a young person by the NCH: One project told me of a young person who said that he wanted to work with animals, and was placed at an abattoir". Yet is is assumed that people who walk off the job are irresponsible and that all employers are responsible and competent. We know that that is not accurate. When young people no longer want to put up with shelf-filling and are receiving no proper training, as a last resort they walk away in desperation. Successive studies have shown, for example, the MORI and Open University studies, that young people want to work. They would prefer to work rather than to live on benefit.

The third purpose of saving money again is not an undesirable objective. However, at what cost have we been saving money? Again and again the reports have demonstrated that many young people are not so much dropping out of the system as dropping into unemployment as a way of life. They become habituated to scrounging and begging, which is now becoming legitimised as a way of making a living. If only we could have a full cost-benefit analysis of what is happening, then I believe that the £80 million or so that the Government claim to have saved would pale into insignificance compared with the costs of what is happening to young people on our streets today.

What is to be done? The Government's position is that young people should either provide for themselves or be provided for by their families. We are told that their options are full-time education, youth training or employment. For those awaiting a youth training place or employment there are bridging allowances; for those on YT there are training allowances; and for those for whom those are not valid options income support is available. For those who fall through the net we are told severe hardship payments are available. That is the picture we are given.

However, the evidence is overwhelming that that structure has great gaps of increasing size through which far too many young people are falling. Government measures to plug those gaps have not eliminated the problem. The support which is available is not paid at a sufficient level to allow young people to survive. Discrimination against young people is a major cause of homelessness. There are further effects and individual and social costs—in health, crime, drug-abuse and begging. I cannot add to the programme that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, expounded and which I wholly endorse, except to make one point. Not only do we need the specific measures that he advanced, but we need too general measures to improve the employment situation.

The problem of unemployment among young people has been growing massively as part of the general increase in unemployment. The problems of unemployment and training young people cannot be solved except in the context of a policy for promoting employment in our society. I believe that the combination of the measures proposed by the noble Earl and a general improvement in employment is the way in which we can give more help to young people and more solace to our society.

5.20 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I offer my gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for introducing the debate and giving the House the opportunity to examine this important subject. I am grateful to him not only for this debate but also for drawing our attention to three separate reports which all run in the same direction. To my mind the most telling is the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee. It has to be said that it is not a report from self-appointed enthusiasts who want to promote a particular cause; it comes from a body appointed by the Secretary of State. It draws attention, in accordance with its duties, to areas of concern in the present system.

It seems to me that the concern for 16 and 17 year-olds brings to the surface a much deeper issue about the relationship between the responsibility of the family and the responsibility of society. In recent times we have tried in many different fields to return responsibility to the family. I believe that that is right. There is a well known saying that there is no such thing as society. That is not a statement I wish to endorse, but the truth that lies behind it may be that society is not independent of or to be differentiated from individuals, families, groups and institutions; it is rather the rich intermix of those different things which together form society. Therefore the family and society are in interaction with one another. That must be recognised if we are to get right the respective responsibilities of family and society.

I suppose that broadly speaking it could be said that the younger the child, the greater the responsibility of the family; and the older the child, the greater the responsibility of society. With 16 and 17 year-olds one is near the borderline. The anxiety is that it is precisely that age group which is dropping between the two responsibilities into a ravine from which they can hardly scramble. On reading those reports it seemed to me undeniable that the present arrangements are defective.

I have met some of the young people living in hostels who are trying to work their way through the system, so to speak. In that respect I have some very small direct experience of the difficulty about which we speak. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, produced more radical solutions to the problems than I am able to suggest. My requests to the Government are much more modest. But it seems to me that there are at least three areas in which small steps could be taken that would be helpful to us all.

First, pursuing a point made by the noble Earl, can the Government give undeniable substance to their guarantee of youth training? In those reports it is alleged on fairly good evidence that the promise that was made is not being delivered. The weakness is that we do not have the statistics and figures to show that the promise is being fulfilled. The Government may convince people of their delivered guarantee if they will make arrangements to ensure that the necessary statistics are available.

Secondly, the benefits—bridging allowance, youth training allowance and for that matter severe hardship payment—surely should be increased at least in line with inflation. If the figures were adequate in 1988 (I cannot think that the Government decided that they were over-generous), to that extent they are inadequate now. That fact must be recognised and addressed.

Thirdly, I plead for some simplification, particularly for the procedures for bridging allowance and severe hardship payment. From my limited experience I know that it is bewildering for young people to trail from office to office and from one department to another, not understanding the bureaucratic divisions. The net effect on young people is that they believe that society simply does not care and that the individuals who operate the system do not care. I am sure that that is not the case, but that is the impression created.

My experience is that young people have to be given guidance on how to proceed through the system in order to obtain the payments to which they are entitled or which they can reasonably expect. I pay tribute to the volunteers and others in hostels and elsewhere who give immense time and patience to help young people understand what it is they can obtain.

There is anxiety about the way in which the present system requires young people to answer questions about personal matters—why they left home and so on—in a way which assumes that they are cool analysts of their situation, which of course they are not. Many, though not all of them, are bruised and bewildered youngsters who have escaped from a home that has left them hurt and confused. As the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said, they need a considerable amount of experienced help to understand their situation, let alone how to get out of it. Simplification of the requirements is urgent in order to ensure that the necessary help is provided to people who have become trapped in an unsatisfactory system.

I recognise that there are no easy, slick solutions to the problem. There is a risk of people falling for the over-simple solution. Nonetheless the present situation is demonstrably unsatisfactory. I plead with the Government to take at least some small steps, if not in the direction which I have indicated then in other directions, in order to try to remedy what many of us feel is an affront and an indictment of our current society.

5.29 p.m.

Lord Wise

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for initiating this debate. On reading the three reports which are the subject of the debate, one can only feel dismayed and saddened by the realisation that the youth training guarantee to give all young people a suitable training place is not being fulfilled. I welcome the opportunity to raise concerns which have been expressed by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. This is the third report with evidence on this issue which has been produced by the CAB. All the reports have highlighted the difficulties faced by young people who cannot obtain youth training placements and who cannot claim income support except for short-term discretionary severe hardship payments. The CAB has become increasingly alarmed about young people, sometimes in desperate straits, who consult their local CAB because they have no money or do not have sufficient for the barest subsistence.

The Government's own advisory committee, the Social Security Advisory Committee, has also drawn attention to the failure of the youth training guarantee. Its report states: In both our sixth and seventh reports we registered our concerns … in particular the problems faced by young people who could not live at home and who in our view ran the risk of destitution. During the last 18 months we have met many organisations and individuals who work directly with young people … The story is the same in all areas we have visited: the YT guarantee is not being delivered in full and without such a guarantee, the absence of a right to continuing entitlement to income support can leave very vulnerable youngsters with no visible, legal means of support. We can see no sign that the situation is improving. Indeed there seems in some areas to be a sharp decline in the availability of places". Recently the effectiveness of the guarantee of suitable youth training for all who need it has increasingly been questioned. There is considerable evidence that the recession may have increased the difficulty of implementing the guarantee. More young people are unemployed. The unemployment figure for 16 and 17 year-olds is estimated to have risen by 38,000 to 103,000 in the year ending January 1992. That has been borne out by the evidence in the CAB report.

The problem with meeting the YT guarantee has also been confirmed by the providers of YT. Individual cases reported to the bureaux are likely to represent the tip of the iceberg as the CAB is not usually the first port of call for teenagers. Evidence of the scale of the problem is also provided from the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment. The committee expressed its concern that the guarantee of youth training might not be fulfilled in all areas. The chairman reported to the House of Commons in November that over half of the 69 TECs which replied to an inquiry about the position said that they were not meeting the guarantee. Many TECs are struggling with considerable numbers of young people without youth training and, although they may seek and obtain extra funding, any special measures are bound to take time to implement. In the report of the CAB there are many responses on that issue.

I wish also to highlight the problems faced by young people who try to claim severe hardship payments. Such payments were introduced as a backstop for exceptional cases, with the aim of ensuring that young people without youth training do not suffer hardship. However, the SSAC explains the problems experienced by people claiming severe hardship payments. In its report it states: There are several problems with this procedure: the three offices may be miles apart; if the young people have no money they are unable to commute between offices at each stage of the procedure … the claimant must answer several questions from a set questionnaire … the entire procedure is extremely time consuming … there is evidence to suggest that some young people are turned away before they actually make a claim". The Social Security Advisory Committee recommends that the DSS should review the procedures for 16 and 17 year-olds claiming income support to ensure that those suffering hardships may claim without complicated and unnecessarily daunting procedures.

The effectiveness of the severe hardship payments scheme depends on young people in need being given accurate and speedy advice by the various departments with which they come into contact. It is particularly important that the local social security offices pick up possible entitlement and gain all the information that may be relevant for a decision. Indeed, many of the administrative changes introduced since 1988 were designed to facilitate that. However, the cases reported in the NACAB report, all submitted since July 1990 and therefore after some administrative improvements, still include worrying examples where local office staff wrongly turn young people away or where urgent needs are not dealt with quickly. Again the report cites many examples.

Cases of hardship regularly reported by the CAB and by the Child Poverty Action Group suggest that the discretionary scheme of severe hardship payments cannot provide a consistent and comprehensive substitute for the benefits that have been withdrawn and that certain groups, in particular pregnant young women and young people who are estranged from their parents, are especially vulnerable.

We have to accept that resources are finite. I do not believe that the long-term solution to the problem is to keep on increasing all social security benefits. It is surely not desirable that children should become dependent upon benefit at the age of 16. The long-term objective must be to fulfil the YT guarantee. We shall probably have to find some other structure, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said. It is essential to ensure that all young people, whatever their ability, receive a suitable training place to learn the skills necessary to develop their natural attributes. Such training cannot be done in three months, as the noble Lord said. It must take at least two years. Without training young people cannot hope to gain worthwhile or satisfying employment.

It is apparent that that objective will not be achieved swiftly or easily. But, as the reports that we debate and that of the Child Poverty Action Group clearly demonstrate, something must be done now to alleviate the hardship facing young people. I urge the Government seriously to consider the recommendations of the CAB contained in the report. I have no doubt that the Minister will study them. I commend them to him. I shall be most interested to hear his comments when he replies to the debate.

5.39 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, perhaps I may reiterate what the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said. We must pay tribute to the citizens advice bureaux not only for the work that they do in advising young people but for the excellent advice they give to those who go to them. Whether the issue concerns rent rebates, social security or poll tax those people—in many cases volunteers—seem to know as much about the subject as any Member of Parliament, Minister or civil servant. The organisation seems to have the right kind of people who are able to give the right kind of advice so that one can take further any grievance or problem. I wish to pay that tribute to the bureaux

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke with his customary eloquence to which we were delighted to listen. The problem is serious and has been raised previously in this House. It must continue to be raised because improving benefits is like trying to get blood out of a stone. I am sure that eventually we shall be successful if enough of us speak up. The noble Earl gave a long list of people who have raised the problem.

The Rainer organisation, which is a worthwhile body, stated in its annual report: It is the experience of all Rainer projects that the YT guarantee made by the department has not been met". There are many Members of your Lordships' House who are part and parcel of the Rainer organisation, it further states in its annual report: There is evidence of some TECs writing off those with special needs as unemployable". That is another guarantee which is being broken by the TECs.

I am pleased to say that I am involved with the Rathbone organisation in the City of Birmingham. It realises that there are young people with learning difficulties and special needs. The organisation has set up its own training programme. After training young people the organisation can offer them to employers to carry out the task for which they have been trained at its skill centres.

I was interested to hear the comments of my noble friend Lord Murray, and other noble Lords, about young people going first to the careers offices and then finding their way to the social services department. That department closes at 12 o'clock and opens again at two o'clock but in the meantime they are sent down the road to find some other advice. There is a constant moving around of people. Many noble Lords watched a television programme broadcast about a month ago. It depicted vividly a homeless young man who had great capabilities. He knew how to speak and how to put his points across but he was completely dismissed. He was told, "Oh, we close at 3.30 on Friday. You should have come this morning". He asked, "Where do I go?", and was told, "Well, there is this other place three miles away". We are talking about vulnerable young people aged between 16 and 18. They are not used to standing in front of people, banging on counters and demanding their rights. If people tell them that there is nothing for them they just go away. If they do not the police are on the scene before long, there is a scuffle and they are brought before the courts. We are dealing with young and vulnerable people who want advice. They do not want to be rebuffed and told, "You should have gone there first".

We must look first at setting up one-stop shops. Why cannot we have them, whether at the careers office or the social security office? People are going to those offices for money because they cannot get a training position. Why must they go to three different offices in order to qualify? We know how expensive fares are these days and the difficulties of arriving on time. It is important that the Government should look seriously at setting up an office where one can be assessed and receive one's benefit. That would make the system a great deal easier.

We must also consider the advice and assistance which the various offices of the DSS appear to give. Not all have the same rules and therefore one receives different advice and perhaps help. It can vary from office to office. I do not blame the people behind the counters who are giving the advice. The complexity of the regulations make them difficult to interpret in respect of individual clients. Let us be perfectly candid, only small payments are being made. We are not offering £100 per day per person, but only small amounts of money. Nevertheless, the whole system is extremely complex.

The Government say that there will always be cheats and rogues. However, lots of cheats and rogues evade income tax and do all kinds of things on the financial markets which involve millions of pounds. By comparison we are talking about chicken feed. We are penalising those who are not cheating the system. That does not happen to people who are working in the City and in the financial markets. They do not have to pay the penalty, but these young people will have to do so. The Government think that some of them will get away with it, but we must be candid and ask ourselves what they are getting away with.

We must also seriously consider the delay in making the first payment. After you have gone through all the paraphernalia—I must call it that—of filling in all the forms (heaven help the forests that people are talking about in Rio) and after you have got your evidence and your proof you are told, "I have to phone Glasgow". I dread to think of the number of long-distance telephone calls to Glasgow to discover whether Bill Jones can have his money. It must cost as much for the phone calls to Glasgow as it would to give him his money there and then. But it is not for me to question the operation.

After Glasgow gives the all clear the young person is told, "Yes, you can get your benefit". He replies, "Thank goodness". He is then told, "But you are not going to get it today, it will be a fortnight before we pay. If you had come in last Monday you would have got the money next week but, because you did not, it will be a fortnight". At first the young person thinks that he will be given the money and that he will be home and dry, but then learns that he will not have it for a fortnight. No wonder we find that these young people are taking drugs, are stealing and doing all kinds of things. They are desperate.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford made special mention of the various organisations which try to help homeless young people. I am involved with St. Basil's in the Birmingham area. The organisation has been operating for 21 years, helping young people throughout that time. Organisations which try to help young people to get money from the DSS must do so immediately because payments are slow in coming. The charities work hard for young people to try to rehabilitate them, to find them places in short-stay hostels and get them down to the job centres. They do everything that they are supposed to do. Therefore, the arrears from the DSS mean that the cash flow becomes quite a serious problem for many of those charities. I believe that the Government should think about the organisations which try to help young people.

Mention has been made of the Social Security Advisory Committee's report, which is an HMSO publication. On page 40 it states: We have previously discussed this point"— that is, young people aged 16 and 17— in our Sixth and Seventh Reports but consider it important to raise it again". This is the eighth report and the third year that that point has been raised. Perhaps it should be third time lucky for those young people. It seems strange that we have an organisation like the Social Security Advisory Committee, which is supposed to help the government, and yet in that respect it has been completely disregarded. If one was sitting on the committee one might think that one might as well pack up and go. It is a complete waste of time if the Government do not take any notice. In very heavy black print the report states: We strongly urge that, at least for those living away from home, the full rate is restored". That refers to the young people about whom we are speaking.

I hope that the Minister will not stand up and say that there is no evidence or figures. We accept that that is the normal reply from the Government when they do not wish to give us unpleasant figures. However, the evidence has been put forward this afternoon by other noble Lords in the debate and by the reports that have been referred to.

When there is high unemployment we must accept that there will not be as many training places. The TECs are aware of the problem and they have told the Government that there are fewer places available. Of course, the fact that there is high unemployment and a recession is not the fault of the young people and they should not be blamed for not being able to take up training places. Surely the Government cannot close their eyes and minds to the hopeless position of many of those young, vulnerable people. In some cases those young people have been forced to leave home or have come from children's homes. They are homeless.

The Government have broken their guarantee. That is obvious and has been proved. We look forward to hearing what the Minister is offering in recompense for a broken guarantee.

5.54 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I too convey my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for bringing this question once again to our attention.

When I am not attending your Lordships' House, I am generally to be found helping my husband with our farm animals. Your Lordships may ask what that has to do with the Question on the Order Paper. I shall endeavour to explain. In order to produce strong healthy progeny from our animals, we know that we must ensure that they are properly fed before and during their pregnancies and while they are lactating. It is perhaps more important that proper attention is paid to the pregnant woman's diet. Recent research has shown that a tendency to coronary disease and to several other diseases which manifest themselves later in life is determined not only by the lifestyle of the subjects after their birth but by the diet of their mothers prior to and during pregnancy.

What then is the position of the young women who are the subject of today's Question if they find themselves pregnant? Unless special circumstances apply—for example, they are mentally or physically handicapped—those who are 16 or 17 years old are unable to claim income support until 11 weeks before their baby is due. Those aged 18 to 24 can receive a reduced rate of benefit despite the fact that their needs are the same as those of older women. The Government seem to assume that their families will accept full responsibility for their care and maintenance. Some do, but the reasons that others do not have been rehearsed before your Lordships on so many occasions that I need not repeat them.

It is the 16 and 17 year-olds, who are without parental support and who find themselves pregnant, who are so vulnerable. Those who are fortunate enough to be employed or who have a YTS placement may discover that their employer is not interested in training pregnant women and will dismiss them. Those in employment will not have worked for long enough to receive statutory protection from dismissal and the eight weeks at £15 per week bridging loan is well below the amount of money needed to provide an adequate diet, let alone the other needs of a pregnant woman.

A report not mentioned on the Order Paper but which is relevant is the Second Report on Maternity Services of the Health Committee in another place. It looked particularly at the arrangements that exist to provide help to women on low incomes through income support and the social fund. Evidence it received from the Maternity Alliance and others stressed the importance of a good diet before and during pregnancy. It reported that the Maternity Alliance had calculated that the cost of an adequate diet for a pregnant woman—£14.06 per week at 1988 prices—would absorb 51 per cent. of income support for an 18 to 24 year-old and as much as 68 per cent. for a 16 to 17 year-old. That compares with a mere 8 per cent. of the average income of an older working woman. After the birth, all women from 16 to 24 are entitled to the same rate of income support, although that is still below the full rate.

It is known that babies born to young unsupported mothers face greater hazards to their health perinatally and during their first year. If their mothers are properly fed during the whole of their pregnancies, those risks could be reduced substantially. The 16 or 17 year-old pregnant woman will not qualify for welfare milk or vitamins until she qualifies for income support. That is for just 11 weeks before she delivers.

The Health Committee was puzzled that different rates of benefit were paid to women of different ages. It concluded that, to compound the risks to very young mothers with the setting of benefit levels on the assumption that where teenage women are pregnant, family and friends will in all cases provide support for the young women is putting such mothers and babies at unnecessary risk". It goes on to recommend that pregnant 18 to 24 year-olds who qualify for income support should receive it at the full adult rate.

I suspect that the Minister is thinking that those women can apply for a severe hardship payment. The Health Committee found that between December 1990 and November 1991 nearly 2,500 pregnant 16 and 17 year-olds claimed income support severe hardship payments. Of those, four fifths were successful; what of the other fifth?

The eighth report of the Social Security Advisory Committee graphically describes what it calls "the convoluted route" to severe hardship payments: several noble Lords have mentioned that matter. What is more worrying is the evidence that some young people are being incorrectly advised by social security and unemployment benefit offices and are misled into believing that they have no title to benefits.

Teenagers who find themselves pregnant are already in an extremely stressful situation. They should not be subjected to the additional pressure of not knowing from where their next crust is coming.

Again in this report we see the recommendation that the full rate of income support should be restored, at least for those living away from home.

During the passage through your Lordships' House of the Social Security Act 1988, the undesirability of encouraging young people to become dependent upon benefits was thoroughly discussed. Likewise, the intention behind the refusal to allow 16 and 17 year-old girls benefits during the whole of their pregnancy if they were unable to find suitable employment or a place on a youth training scheme was supposed to be a deterrent to their becoming pregnant. Time has proved the opposite. However we may deplore teenage pregnancy, it happens and has happened since time immemorial. Whatever our own moral stance, I do not believe that we have any right to sit in judgment over a developing human being and to deprive it of essential nourishment—essential during all stages of its development—by depriving the mother of the means to feed herself properly.

I ask the Minister how long the Government will continue to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the plight of this especially vulnerable group of young people. Ever since the Social Security Act 1988 came into force the voluntary agencies have been ringing the alarm bells. The assistance given to young people leaving care has been the only concession, and a minor one at that. Perhaps the Minister will ask his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security urgently to conduct research into the dietary needs of pregnant women—especially those who are unsupported for any reason—and to upgrade the rates of benefit paid to 16 to 24 year-olds, particularly those who are pregnant, in line with their needs.

6 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I rise strongly to support the speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and other experts who followed, including the last speaker. It may be thought to be an occasion when I should follow the example of the speaker who, after Edmund Burke had spoken, rose and said, "I say ditto to Mr. Burke". That would save the time of the House. However, I have been associated in my fashion with homelessness for many years, having started with the New Horizon youth centre which sees around 3,000 homeless young people a year. I have engaged in conversation with some of them over the past few days.

I agree entirely with what was said by my noble friend Lady Fisher regarding the vulnerability of those people. They may not appear vulnerable; they may even appear bold when one encounters them. But they are insecure and certainly nervous of involving themselves in arguments with government officers. Even the oldest of us may sometimes shrink from that kind of encounter.

Not long ago I attempted to get my old-age bus pass renewed and experienced some difficulty. The young person—I will not state the sex because it may be thought to be chauvinistic—insisted on asking how the department could be sure where I lived. I explained that it was on my previous bus pass. They then asked how they could be sure that I still lived at that address.

I said, "As it happens, I live a few hundred yards down the road". The assistant said, "How do we know that? Do you have your passport?" I explained that I did not usually carry it. When asked for my driving licence, I pointed out that I did not drive. I was then asked for my birth certificate; but I really do not know where that has gone. That is the kind of trouble we old people have with young people in these offices. I am sorry to say that on that occasion I asked to see the manager, who was quite charming and put everything to rights. But young, vulnerable people cannot ask to see the manager. They would probably be arrested for impertinence if they tried such tactics. That is an important point to make on this occasion.

I must be careful not to begin quoting the speech I may have made if I had been opening a debate on young people in residential care, which was in fact effectively taken over by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and others. Again, I may begin anticipating a speech I shall make, if I am spared, on 24th June when I initiate a debate on young offenders. All those matters are linked together—children in care coming out of care with no one to look after them; those who are homeless; the unemployed; and, finally, those who are in trouble with the law. All those matters are connected, as has been brought out one way or another by earlier speakers.

I shall not detain the House with wide reflections, but I shall quote one or two young people with whom I have spoken in the past few days. I do not say that all wisdom is delivered to young homeless people—far from it. However, they have an angle of their own —what may be called an "acute" angle.

One young person I spoke to had been living on the streets for three years. He obtained a job in a training scheme as a barman at the Savoy and had no complaints about the scheme. After eight weeks he left and moved to become a barman in Soho. He was so badly paid in Soho that he had to live rough even while he was employed there. One can work out for oneself what the pay was like on the job he left in order to move to the job in Soho. In other words, the first point that arises is the extraordinary low pay of people on those schemes.

I asked him what he would say if he were speaking in your Lordships' House. I am too shortsighted to see whether or not he is here but he may be listening. His first point concerned the question of accommodation. That is what homeless young people usually mention first. They quickly mention the almost total restrictions imposed upon 16–17 year olds when applying for social security. However, accommodation is certainly the first thing many will mention. I certainly support everything that was said earlier in the debate on such matters, particularly the emphasis on the treatment of 16–17 year olds who apply for social security.

My other young friend began in Preston. He spent two years on a horticultural training scheme and again had nothing against the scheme. I expect the evidence varies, but I believe that most young people, and certainly the two to whom I spoke—I spoke also to others in the centre—had no complaints about the schemes on which they were working. But they complained strongly about the poor remuneration they received while they were on the schemes.

When I asked the second young man what he would say were he to speak in the House tonight, he said that he would stress the need for a guarantee of a job at the end of a course. That may be thought to be impossible. However, he said something which is a more modest demand which perhaps could be conceded. He said that at least they should be guaranteed an interview. I have not given notice of this point, but perhaps the Minister will agree that at the end of a training course a young person could at least be granted an interview for a job. It is not much to ask.

I rose only to show my strong support for the fine lead given by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and those who support him.

6.8 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on the subject of his Unstarred Question. After all, today's young are the future of our country and the mainstay of it. Young people aged 16 to 17 who are especially vulnerable are those who cannot return home for one reason or another or have come from care. The last group may feel lonely, lost and frightened, having been accustomed to being one among a number of people living generally a somewhat gregarious life.

It would seem that some people either do not know their legal entitlements or are even given wrong and conflicting advice. That can often be caused by the complexities of the system. I sometimes find myself bewildered when I try to understand what given entitlements there may or may not be.

One of the charities working with the young homeless is called Centrepoint. I am sure that many noble Lords are aware of its work. One of its tenants applied to the Department of Social Security for support. When asked whether she was a student she stated that she was. The DSS told her, without checking on the number of hours she worked as a student, that she was not entitled to income support. In fact she was a student working 21 hours or under and was therefore entitled to benefit. Before a Centrepoint housing worker sorted out the problem, that young person had gone without a basic income for six weeks, resulting in substantial arrears of rent, because housing benefit cannot be awarded without notification from the DSS.

Centrepoint, with other voluntary sector agencies that work in the field of homelessness, agree that the changes in the social security system are a major factor in the increase in homelessness among young people which leads to sleeping rough and begging in order to survive. Centrepoint also feels that the current benefits system prevents young people from obtaining and retaining independent accommodation. Surely the reduction in available cheap rented accommodation causes even more problems. It is distressing to see young people in our country having to beg to eat.

The replacement of urgent needs payments by the Social Fund has also added to the problems which young people face. Urgent needs payments were grants and not loans and could be used to pay deposits. Many young homeless people cannot afford to move into more permanent accommodation because the deposits charged are too high. If they do move into more permanent accommodation they often find that they cannot afford essentials such as bedding and other furniture.

Centrepoint is finding an interesting shift in the places from which the young are coming. Rather than coming from Scotland, Ireland or elsewhere in the country, more are coming from London itself. When young people first arrive at Centrepoint's emergency hostel they are frequently hungry and often also frightened. Some have escaped from violent or abusive homes or come from care. Some are suffering severe health problems, including physical as well as mental illness. That can lead to the risk of their becoming involved in prostitution or with drugs. Even with the help of skilled workers in the hostels they find it very difficult to establish entitlement to benefit. The process is both daunting and complex. Understandably, a young person can be reluctant to divulge sensitive information relating to his or her background. Centrepoint has experienced many cases of a young person arriving at one of its hostels with nothing but the clothes that they are wearing. They have applied for assistance from the Social Fund but have been turned down, having been told that they are not in a priority group. Surely to have a change of clothes is necessary for self-respect, let alone anything else. Can the Minister say how these young people are to get into a priority group—perhaps by arriving at the office in the traditional fig-leaf?

There is one case where a young person applied for youth training but there were no vacant places. The young person went without income for six weeks and had to resort to begging on the streets while the claim for income support was being sorted out. Eventually a bridging allowance of £15 a week was granted. When Centrepoint inquired why income support was not being paid it was told that the young person was not eligible. If the DSS had asked the young person, it would have discovered that the applicant was eligible because of estrangement from the family. Can the Minister say when the Government will take action on the terrible anomaly which currently results in 16 and 17 year-olds being paid less than an 18 year-old who is homeless? Will they take steps to consider paying the higher rate of income support to all 16 and 17 year-olds who are pregnant or who live independently?

A number of problems have been identified as regards the severe hardship payments. A young person has to visit the careers office—the unemployment office—to register as unemployed and then the DSS office. These offices are not infrequently some distance apart and the young person may be unable to afford the cost of travel, although a crisis loan can be made available for travel if the young person knows about it or is asked whether he needs it. The Social Security Advisory Committee found no cases where the offer had been made. It said that if it had been made and taken up, the recipient would have been in debt before the benefit had been verified.

The Children Act 1989 provides a clear duty on local authorities to provide accommodation and other necessary support for 16 and 17 year-olds who are in need. That is to be welcomed and indeed encouraged. Can the Minister say whether the Government will reassure local authorities that they will receive adequate resources to fulfil the commitments imposed on them by law? CABs consistently report cases of income support claimants of different types suffering financial problems because of the low level of income support. These problems concern young people aged 18 to 24 years, particularly young single people receiving the lower under 25 rate of benefit, which is £33.60 per week as opposed to £42.25 per week for persons aged 25 and over.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has already spoken about the distinction between those under 24 years of age and those over that age. I do not understand the system either. After all, physical needs appear to me to be exactly the same from the age of 16 onwards for people not living at home because they are still growing, they need more clothes and have just as hearty appetites.

An instructive case is reported by the CAB in North Yorkshire. A young man of 23 is lucky enough to be living with his parents. He has income support but as a volunteer trainee with the CAB he finds it essential to have a car. He is also a volunteer tutor with an adult literacy scheme. The CAB pays him travel money but the teaching scheme does not. He finds it very difficult to manage on income support even though he pays no rent. The local Jobcentre recently closed down. When he was called to the Jobcentre it involved a 16-mile journey. The officials did not offer him travel expenses, but when the young man asked he found that he was entitled to claim. Surely that should have been explained to him in the first place. I ask the Minister to consider and draw to the attention of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State the recommendations made by the CAB.

I now turn to the housing and community charge benefits which should be calculated at the same adult rate for all because neither rents nor the community charge are lower for persons aged under 25 at present. The CAB further recommends that 18 to 24 year-olds who are pregnant or living independently should receive the full adult rate of benefit. Many of these young people have the same expenses as older persons and should not be denied the same level of benefits simply because they are of a different age. It is more than strange that apparently the bridging allowance has not been increased since 1988. Surely it should be increased to keep pace with inflation or at least to give a young person sufficient to live on until a YT place is obtained.

Finally, there is a large psychological area which I have not touched on. It involves the question of self-respect. Unless these young people are given sufficient means to maintain a healthy diet and adequate clothes, they will not feel much respect. That is very important for anyone, especially the young who are setting out in life. The Government are to be thanked for the concessions which they have made, but it is true that many anomalies still exist.

6.18 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for bringing these matters to our attention. I do not have the intimate connections that many other noble Lords have with the various worthy bodies which work on the problems of youth. Therefore, I shall talk more in general terms because I believe we are liable to forget certain very general principles.

The first general principle is that this is a rich and prosperous country. It is one of the 15 richest countries in the world. Secondly, at this juncture those who are 16 to 19 years of age need to have more education and training so that they may equip themselves for the future. One is struck immediately by the complex and monstrous system of rules which we have created for ourselves. Like many others, I was totally lost when reading my briefing papers as to who was entitled to what. I would have great difficulty advising anyone of what they were entitled to. There are far too many sub-classifications. I am surprised that under a Government who are normally against bureaucracy and believers in simplicity, we are increasing the power of bureaucrats to make decisions. We are finding all kinds of rules and regulations which people have to know before they learn whether they are getting £3 more or £3 less. I shall return to that point later.

Surely we all agree that one of our country's major needs is education and that our young people should stay on in education and that, if they do not, they should receive some training. The current system of benefits gives the wrong incentives. I would be quite utopian and say that everybody from the age of 16 onwards should have an income entitlement which should depend solely on age. If the person concerned happened to be in education, all well and good: that is exactly where we want our young people to be. The entitlement would provide some encouragement to stay on in education. If young people do not want to be in education, that is fine too. If the same amount of money were to be paid to everybody between the ages of 16 and 19, whether in education, training or unemployed, that would be an extremely simple system and easier to administer.

No doubt the Minister will tell me that such a system would cost x hundred million pounds more. I say that because there are many estimates of what it would cost. However, like my noble friend Lord Murray of Epping Forest, I believe that any cost-benefit analysis of such a simplification and universalisation of income entitlement would prove to be a better, more efficient and more economic way of going about things. If one added up all the administrative costs as well as all the social costs of the present system, such as people who are reduced to begging and who suffer other social disorders, my suggestion would not be all that expensive.

As I said, the current system provides the wrong incentives and is both complex and expensive. It is based on a number of assumptions that are no longer true. First, as my noble friend Lord Murray pointed out, it is based on what was perhaps the laudable idea that children should be the first responsibility of their parents. That sort of household or family structure is not as prevalent as it used to be. Even when it does apply, we discover more and more that intrafamily violence and intrafamily problems are such that, sadly, we can no longer presume that parents taking care of their children is either usual or even a desirable option. Therefore, we have to think again.

The second assumption was that if our young people received training, the jobs market was such that there would be jobs for them. However, the structure of employment has changed over the past 15 years and we can no longer assume that people will necessarily get a job, even after employment training. We must think seriously about the problem. One good way of ensuring fitness for jobs would be to ensure that as many young people as possible stay on in education.

The current scheme was designed to save money. I believe that any careful accounting will show not only that it has not saved money, but furthermore that it has caused enormous social and economic problems for our country. As I said, ideally I should prefer a system of income entitlement that would be unquestioning and based solely on age. However, if we are not to have that, I join my noble friend Lady Fisher of Rednal in saying, "Let us have a one-stop shop and a simple system so that everybody understands what they are or are not entitled to." If we are not to have that, let us ensure that the current system of income supplements—or rather the variety of such payments—is at least index-linked in order to catch up with the increase in prices since 1988. That is the least we can do.

As a next step, I should like the Government to say that, even in the current system of low benefits, income support should be extended to everybody who is not in education although I should like it to include everybody else also. Finally, if the Government could increase young people's benefit entitlements to the full adult rate, I might almost say that I would be happy, but perhaps that is too much to promise.

6.25 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for initiating this debate. We had a kind of dress rehearsal for today's debate on the fourth day of our debate on the Address when the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, covered much of this ground but did not receive much of an answer from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I expect that that was because the Minister knew that this debate was to take place and that we would have a full answer from the noble Lord, Lord Henley.

While on the subject of our debate on the Address, perhaps I may advise the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that the answer to his first proposal was given on that occasion by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, when she said: Moving straight from school to depending on benefits should not be an option. The majority of 16 and 17 year-olds are at school or at work".—[Official Report, 12/5/92; col. 336.] Perhaps I may anticipate the Minister's reply to this debate and advise the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that that answer is what he will hear today. He is therefore speaking to deaf ears.

I regret the change in 1988 because I believe that it has given rise not only to a great deal of personal disaster, but, more than that, to a great deal more public expenditure. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, referred to that as did the noble Earl, Lord Russell, when he introduced the debate.

These reports—which are all admirable—have been so well covered that I shall not go over the ground again at this late stage in the debate except to say that they have made out a powerful case for Her Majesty's Government rethinking their 1988 changes which have borne down so hard on our disadvantaged young people of 16 and 17, and on the disadvantaged and, alas, disaffected young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Instead, I should like to point to some of the consequences of the changes that were made in the late 1980s, especially in relation to criminal justice. I am not in the least bit in the business of apportioning blame, although the noble Lord, Lord Henley, seems to think that we all are.

I believe that we all want—I certainly want to do so today—to point to one of the consequences of the Government's policy. I ask the House and Ministers to reflect on whether there is a direct correlation—or at least some connection—between the policies introduced in 1988 and the rise in the number of young people who are committing crimes which cause them to come into conflict with the law. The fact is that, as a result of these policies, a large number of young people have been thrown into the world without money or job placements. That much has been made clear by the debate so far. Those young people are often those who are least well-endowed either in terms of heredity or environment. Young people who may, for instance, have been thrown out of home or abused at home, who cannot return home or go to relatives or who have left care will have no one to cherish them. They will have no money and, naturally, will drift into the underclass. In the words of the Social Security Advisory Committee, these young people, resort to other means of obtaining money instead of starving. That means "crime or prostitution". What else can they do if they are not to starve? In reply to the fourth day of the debate on the Address the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said that people who talked like that were making excuses for committing crime. However, I do not think that it is an excuse; it is an explanation. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Henley, to bear that in mind.

I am not talking without information. I am basing some of what I say on a report by Professor Pritchard on young adult clients in the probation and social service departments of one of the most affluent areas of Britain. All the factors which he and colleagues listed in 1989 had become worse by 1990. A high proportion of the offenders, for whom the noble Baroness could find no excuse, have, according to the report, a degree of mental disorder and have attempted suicide. They display high risk behaviour coupled often with a history of illegal substance abuse. Poverty was an all-pervading issue. Two-thirds had money and debt problems, and one-fifth had chronic housing difficulties. Professor Pritchard concluded that among the clients of the probation and social service department in this affluent area were, a core of people with long-standing disrupted, deprived and disadvantaged lives, who are likely to require long term service, not only for themselves but their families". If they are to have that long-term attention it will cost a great deal of money; and that is by way of a rescue service after they have spent several years from the time they left school with no placement and no money. I plead with Ministers to understand that this evidence shows that these young adults in trouble with the law clearly come from an underclass that has been failed by society and also failed by the department which is the arm of society that should be looking after them when they leave school and when they are young and vulnerable. Any money that may be saved by the Department of Social Security through not paying these young people when they leave school has been lost many times over by the cost of unemployment (as the noble Earl has pointed out); by the cost of the police; by the cost of the prison service; and by the cost of the probation and social services. They are rescuing these young people, as described, at our expense when they need not have been thrown on to the rubbish heap in this way.

The Prime Minister said when he took office that he wanted a society, in which people are not only able to get their feet on one rung, but are able to scale the whole height of the ladder if they have the will and the skills to do so". These young people do not even have one foot on one rung. The social services departments are not helping the Prime Minister to fulfil his wish.

6.35 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for introducing this important subject today. It is one of which I fear the Government do not have a sufficient appreciation. I agree with the Government and with the right reverend Prelate that 16 and 17 year-olds should ideally be the responsibility of the family. However, we have to realise that many families are not in a position to honour that responsibility. I agree with the Government that paid idleness for 16 and 17 year-olds is not a satisfactory solution. There must be an alternative. The evidence is overwhelming that the training guarantee is not providing, in its entirety, that alternative and that vulnerable groups of young people are being caused unacceptable levels of suffering through inadequate support and through the difficulty of access to such support as is available.

The noble Earl referred to the report on young people in Europe by your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities. I did not bring the report with me but I quoted it only recently during the debate on the gracious Speech. In that report the Select Committee came to the conclusion that in many countries in Europe, including this country, there is an underclass of young people suffering multiple deprivation who are becoming estranged from our society. I cannot overemphasise the importance of this issue and the damage that will be caused to the social and political stability of this country in the future if we allow this process to go on.

I think particularly of severe hardship, of young people living rough and, as the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, has suggested, of the feeling by young people that society has let them down. They will say that as society has rejected them, why the devil should they accept its standards and mores? Why should they not do what they can to obtain some short-term benefit for themselves? I turn again to the Government and say that I am a great supporter of their reforms in education and training. They have been revolutionary, bold and imaginative. Surely it is inevitable that some fine tuning will be necessary. I hope that the Government will accept that and will not feel ashamed to take action to do what is necessary to solve the problems that have been thrown up by these immensely imaginative initiatives.

I want to look briefly at two groups which are suffering severe deprivation and in respect of which changes are needed. Both groups have been referred to by previous speakers. The first group is those who cannot live at home. The noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, made particular mention of this group. Many young people today are estranged from their families through no fault of their own. They may be estranged through rejection; through violence, which is often linked with alcohol; through sexual abuse; through overcrowding, which often leads to incest or the risk of incest. They may have been in care and so on. We have to try to adopt a positive approach to what can be done about this group, but first we have to disentangle the concept of training from the concept of providing a safe, clean bed and food to eat.

Is it possible to identify who these young people are? In this context I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to an interesting new project in Brixton which has been launched by the Catholic Children's Society in conjunction with grants from the department and Lambeth council. It is called the Home and Away Project. Young people who have left home, have run away or are at risk are referred to the project. They are put in temporary accommodation and interviewed and the family is then interviewed. Although it has been running for only nine months, the results of the first six months were extremely interesting. About 40 per cent of those young people were integrated with their families, usually on the basis that over a period of a year or so they would make a planned withdrawal into independent living, and about 60 per cent of them have had other satisfactory accommodation found for them. I suspect that very few noble Lords in this House would disagree in principle that all 16 and 17 year-olds ought to have access to somewhere decent to sleep and enough food to eat. I believe that most 16 and 17 year-olds from time to time need the support and encouragement of an adult whom they can trust.

In that context I had intended to describe to your Lordships at some length—although I shall now do so more briefly—the Foyers Jeunes movement in France to which the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful], referred. I believe that it is a most interesting example of what could be done here. However, I think that the noble Baroness was wrong to quote the figure of 5,000; I believe that 48,000 places are being supplied at this time by foyers in France.

I visited a foyer in Beauvais. It had about 120 young people in it. It had a restaurant, a bar, nice games facilities and, most important to me, not only a warden and an assistant warden but also what they called an animateur. The latter's job was to create activities during the evening. All three people were trained voluntary workers. Therefore, the young people could consult them and talk about their problems. In that way they received help, encouragement and advice when they needed it—but not oppressively so.

I was delighted to see an advertisement by Shelter linked to the Grand Metropolitan Estates Trust for a development of ficer to develop a chain of foyer hostels in this country. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithful], mentioned one or two other organisations that are also doing the same thing, including the YMCA. I congratulate those organisations on picking up what I perceive to be a very real need and running with it. Can the Minister give me an assurance that when such hostels are built they will not be denied to the very young people who need them most because they are unable to pay? I am afraid that £29.50 a week will not be enough. Further, will accommodation in these hostels be provided by the local authority under the Children Act? Alternatively, may I sue the local authority if it fails to provide such accommodation?

On a longer-term basis, will the Government consider introducing a system of vouchers by which all 16 and 17 year-olds who are unavoidably estranged from their families can purchase safe, decent board-and-lodging at approved hostels? I believe that the cost could be recovered from parents where they are able to pay, but where they are not able to do so the cost would be picked up by the taxpayer. It would be a very good investment.

I turn now to the other group of people about which I want to speak, young people with special needs. Such people have been referred to by previous speakers. They overlap with the previous group because so often they are also young people who lack parental support. They are a diverse group that includes everything from slow learners and handicapped people to emotionally disturbed young people and those whom the education system has failed. Those with language problems have also been mentioned this evening.

In every case those in the group need guidance, support, encouragement, motivation and, above all, time. Of course, time is money. Some of them are not yet ready for training at the age of 16. Some need educational top-up and some need help to decide which career to follow. That brings to mind a young man of 15 to whom I was speaking last summer. I asked him what he was going to do with his life. He replied, "Well, I think that I might be a fighter pilot or, if not, I'm gonna join my brother on the barrow. I haven't quite made my mind up yet". I believe that that summarises the problem.

As a positive measure I suggest to the Government that the expansion of an independent careers service could have a very important role to play in this context. The careers service could take all young people onto its books at the age of 14, which, generally speaking, is before they have started truanting regularly. The service could follow them through to the age of 18. It could visit schools and encourage children to think that the curriculum that they are following is relevant. It could also perhaps guide head teachers and governors to make the curriculum relevant to the employment needs of the district. The service could follow the young people into training and into qualifications and jobs. If the careers service was to be judged at the end of the day by the proportion of 18 year-olds with educational or vocational qualifications as a proportion of the 14 year-olds which it took on its books at the beginning, I believe that that would be a very useful control mechanism and might also enable the Government to keep an independent eye on the quality of the training which is being provided by the local TECs.

I have drawn attention to two vulnerable groups. I should just like to emphasise once again that, without housing, jobs and training, vulnerable people are extremely liable to drift into crime, prostitution, drugs and alcohol abuse. I do not believe that it would be very costly to help this small marginal group; indeed, that point has been made many times. But to fail to do so would be to fail to defuse a social and political time bomb.

6.46 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, like every other speaker tonight, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, both for introducing the debate and also for a long history of tenacious and skilled advocacy of young people's rights and needs. The debate has focused on one of the most worrying and distressing issues within the social security system. Indeed, we have heard moving speeches from all parts of the House. I believe that that shows the degree of concern felt by Members of your Lordships' House.

When is a guarantee not a guarantee? When it is a right to a pension if you are a Maxwell employee or, if you are 16 or 17 years of age, seeking a YTS placement. As my noble friend Lord Murray says (when reminding us of the statistics given by the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, in a Written Answer to the noble Earl, Lord Russe11), something like half of 16 to 17 year-olds are in education and just under a quarter, 200,000, are in work. But whereas in the 1960s only 20,000 16 and 17 year-olds were unemployed, that figure is now nearer 300,000, and part of a wider problem of unemployment. Moreover, something like 220,000 of those young people are on YT schemes, and about 30,000 appear to be receiving income support or severe hardship moneys. But, so far as one can tell, a further 80,000 16 to 17 year-olds seem to have no income at all.

We all accept that this country is one of the most under-qualified and under-skilled in Western Europe. The consequence is that we have a low-pay, low-skill and low-productivity economy. We all accept that we need quality training for young people extending right through to the age of 20 to 21 and based perhaps on the West-German model. Indeed, various models have been mentioned tonight.

Moreover, we all accept the need to avoid youngsters drifting into benefit dependency in which they become unfit for the routine and discipline of day-to-day work. However, it is a fear that can perhaps be over-stated. What is striking among young people is not the urge to laze but the hunger to work as they walk the streets knocking on every employer's door. I see the friends of my own sons meeting rebuff after rebuff and still persistently, and often heroically, seeking work.

As the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, reminded us, it was the Social Security Act 1988 which reformed—perhaps deformed—so much social security provision and caused so many young people so much hardship. The entitlement to income support was replaced by a guarantee to a YTS placement which the Government have failed to deliver. The efficacy of those 1988 social security reforms depended upon three things: first, the availability of YTS places; secondly, the quality of training that those placements offered; and, thirdly, the sensitive arrangements organised for those beyond their net. All the evidence —the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has quoted some of it tonight—is that YTS is failing young people on all three counts.

As the noble Earl said, we cannot easily give the statistics: the Government have chosen not to monitor YTS placements or to keep the figures. Apparently we do not need to know the result of their 1988 reforms. We have some information on the availability of YTS placements. As the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said, in the autumn of 1991 the careers service estimated that there was a shortfall of nearly 51,000 YTS placements; and 32 of some 60 TECs confirmed that there were insufficient places to make good the Government's guarantee. The NACAB report has quoted some examples: Hertfordshire had 1,500 young people waiting for a placement; East London TEC, 3,200 young people waiting; Shropshire 250 young people waiting; Manchester over 1,200 young people waiting; while Milton Keynes had no YTS vacancies, but 14 job vacancies and 495 young people waiting for placement.

Far from the employer topping up low training allowances, as many of us hoped they would do, TECs are paying some employers to take youngsters. The recession has meant, as so many speakers have said, a declining number of employers willing to offer placements, facing a growing number of unemployed youngsters needing them. As a result, employers are becoming increasingly choosy. I was told today of an employer requesting to interview eight young people before accepting one for placement. The type of young person that employers are now seeking are those who are staying at school.

In addition, TECs are inadequately funded. As Bedfordshire TEC said: We have a demand-led programme with a cash-limited budget". Many of the TECs are facing cuts. Those TECs whose funds are based almost entirely upon their youngsters obtaining NVQs will take only those youngsters likely to obtain NVQs. Youngsters may be unlikely to obtain an NVQ, or, for example, may live in the country and not be served by a bus. As I was told today by a TEC, TECs are not interested in anyone who presents a problem whether in skills or in travel or who is not easy to place. As so many noble Lords have said, youngsters may find no placement when they are within a few months of their 18th birthday. As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, young women in the later stages of their pregnancy are turned away; and, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, young people with special needs who make time consuming demands upon welfare departments find it hard to obtain a placement.

Without the voluntary organisations and, above all, without the local authorities—even facing rate capping as they do now—being willing to accept hard-to-place youngsters, those who are already marginal in the labour market would never have the faintest chance of entering it subsequently.

It is calculated that 103,000 young people are not in school, not in work and not in YTS placements. Some 30,000 of them may be receiving some income support, but 80,000 young people are without an income, and although they persisted in seeking jobs and YTS placements, they have given up.

That brings me to my second criticism of YTS. If the first is the lack of suitable placements, the second is the quality and suitability of the training too often offered. British industry has one of the worst records in the world for training. As we are all aware, the construction industry poaches skilled labour in the good times and sacks it in the bad. It is ruthlessly short-term. When trade revives, we shall see a desperate shortage of skills.

Too often those who take on YTS placements see themselves as cheap labour fodder. As so many speakers have said, youngsters are given dead-end work, without training or prospects. A CAB gave an example of a 16 year-old who was working in residential care. Her training consisted solely of cleaning lavatories. Only one-third (some 38 per cent.) of those in YTS obtain the NVQ qualification upon which so much hope was placed and so much central government funding depends. Even when a young person can obtain a training placement it too often bears no relationship to his or her skills, interests or aptitude. A youngster who wanted butchery training was offered only painting and decorating. Another young woman who wanted residential care work was offered gardening or hairdressing. A third wanted the motor trade and was offered a placement stacking shelves in a warehouse.

YTS is not a reliable route to work. Barely half (57 per cent.) of those in YTS went on to work. That percentage is falling. We are too often using YTS as a warehouse in which to store young people, keeping them off the labour market, out of benefit, and away from the unemployment figures—out of sight, out of mind, out of the statistics! Not surprisingly, two-thirds of young people believe that YTS is a waste of time.

Those are not young people who have rejected the work ethic; they are young people whom the work ethic has rejected. That is compounded by the low rates of allowances for YTS. As many of your Lordships have said, most 16 year-olds will receive under £30, and about £35 if they are 17. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford reminded us, the rates have not changed since 1988 because it is assumed that those youngsters are living in the parental home. They see themselves working alongside other young workers who are being paid £120 a week to do the same job.

The Labour Government's 1978 YOP paid £19.50 a week. That was not especially generous. Had that amount arisen in line with average earnings, it would now be worth about £80 or £90 a week. If YTS has failed to offer placements, and quality training, do the 1988 social security reforms offer supportive arrangements for those unable to find, take, or hold a placement (the lone parent, the young pregnant woman, the young person recently out of care) or for those subject to Section 4 who are between placements? There is a bridging allowance that runs out after eight weeks. Will the Minister tell us how many young people were on bridging allowances which have now run out?

We can say one thing about the Government: they may not be providing full-time work for young people, but they are certainly making it a full-time job to be young and poor as young people tramp from the benefits agency to the careers office, to the Department of Employment and back to the benefits agency, as my noble friend Lady Fisher graphically described. Each of those offices often give conflicting and inaccurate advice. Those same youngsters are coping with paying poll tax, and go between the community charge office and the DSS, and from the Department of Employment to the city hall while possibly trying to find and hold a bed-sit and claiming housing benefit.

Most worrying of all are the 80,000 or so young people mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who appear to have no income. The Government's presumption was that the placement was guaranteed. We have seen that that is not true. The Government's presumption was that if there was no placement, the young people would be supported by their families. That is not always possible.

The youngsters who slip through the net, tend, as many of your Lordships have said, to be the least educated and least skilled. They are often the children of lone parents. They sometimes have a truancy record or are known to the police. Sometimes they have special needs. If those young people are fortunate enough to have support from their families, those families in turn are usually among the poorest in our community. For example, there is the lone parent who has a seven year-old and who is also trying, on £60 per week, to support a 17 year-old without any additional allowance. What we have done is to transfer poverty to the parent.

If we assume—as the Minister will no doubt suggest —that there should be family support, why is this not reflected in the payments made to parents in such situations in terms of income support levels? Many youngsters turn to elderly grandparents who are pensioners for help which is generously and ungrudgingly given, but often at the expense of food and heating.

All research shows that even where families try to help their young people they have to give up because of financial stress. As noble Lords have said tonight, many such youngsters come from nothing that we would recognise as a family. Only three out of four children will live in a two-parent home until they are 16. One in four will not, they will face broken, violent, abusive and abusing homes or will have come from the surrogate homes of institutional care. Without a home it is difficult to get a job or a YTS place. Without a job or YTS place it is difficult to get a home of one's own. These children have no home, no job, no money and are utterly destitute. They have been referred to movingly by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. We see them around us, begging, thieving, prostituting and at risk of AIDS. At 16 they are already the derelicts of our streets. There are 156,000 homeless young people, 50,000 in London alone. We would do anything to avoid that for our own children and grandchildren. What is not good enough for our children and grandchildren is not good enough for any children in our society.

We accept that such youngsters may have more problems than a lack of income, but destitution is at the core of their distress and difficulties. That destitution is easily remedied. One simple change to the 1988 Act, pressed by my noble friend Lady Turner in a previous debate on this subject, would make all the difference. It is that all 16 and 17 year-olds actively seeking work or actively seeking a placement should he entitled to income support. That is all. The careers office could test it, as the Department of Employment currently does for those over 18.

As my noble friend Lady Turner brought out in that debate, it might add £200 million to a total social security bill of billions. As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said in that debate, YTS is not a cheap option. But I believe that it is bad value for our money. The net additional costs may well be quite modest, to say nothing of the second or third chance that it would offer young people.

I make a plea to the Minister on behalf of all who have spoken tonight. We know that he has to speak to his brief and we expect nothing less. However, given the quality of the debate, the eloquence and experience of those Members of your Lordships' House who have spoken tonight, and given the distress and suffering to which they referred, may we hope to receive from the Minister not just a reading of his brief but a serious consideration and a willingness to take away some of the proposals put forward tonight on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society.

7.4 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Henley)

My Lords, we are always prepared to consider points put forward by all noble Lords in debates in this House. I stress that we shall take note of everything that has been said. We welcome the three reports which my noble kinsman Lord Russell brought before the House and their valuable comments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, asked us to take particular note of the Social Security Advisory Committee's report on the grounds that it was a social security committee. Obviously I accept that. We take the committee's advice; that is what it is for. However, it is not for the Social Security Advisory Committee to be our poodle, and similarly it is not for us to be the committee's poodle. We listen to its advice and respond as we see fit.

There are various points to which I shall come later and in opening my remarks I would rather not respond to one or two points at the moment. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, and her noble friend Lady Kinloss raised the problems of pregnant women, particularly those aged between 16 and 17 on income support, as well as the levels of that support. The noble Countess rightly referred to the report of the Select Committee on Health in another place. We shall respond to it in due course and I therefore hope that the noble Countess will accept that I prefer not to respond to her technical points now.

Nor do I wish to respond to the somewhat wider remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. He will understand that there is not time to comment on every subject in winding up such a debate. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, will also accept that my noble friend Lady Blatch responded to as many points as she could in winding up the debate on the humble Address. If she had responded to every point in the detail which the noble Lord seemed to require, I -suspect that he might still be listening to the winding up.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, also suggested that the reforms of 1988 had led to increased youth crime. I do not accept such allegations. Many factors can lead to increased youth crime. There is no evidence for us to lay it at the door of one particular set of reforms.

Turning to the remarks of my noble friend Lady Faithfull and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on the foyer scheme, again I cannot comment in detail as it is a matter for the Department of Employment. However, I understand that the department is prepared to look at the problem. I hope that my noble friend will be satisfied with that, and I take note of her comments.

Both my noble kinsman Lord Russell and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, referred to a Written Question and the Answer by my noble friend Lord Ullswater. They allege that it shows that 80,000 people are without support.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I beg my noble kinsman's pardon but I did not say that it showed that. I said that it gave the Government no assistance in refuting that figure.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thank my noble kinsman and shall now proceed to refute it. The reason that the Answer did not give the Government ammunition to refute the suggestion of my noble kinsman is that he asked about only five categories of individuals. Those categories do not cover all young people. For example, my noble kinsman forgot to add those in part-time employment who might have earnings which could easily be at or above income support levels.

If we deduct from the 80,000 the number of those in part-time employment, some will be without support. But we should not say that all those people without support are automatically destitute and on the streets. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, admitted a large number are supported by their families. She gave the example of a 17 year-old living with a single parent mother who also has a seven year-old and asked how that child would be supported. If the 17 year-old were seeking a YT place, eligibility for income support would exist under severe hardship conditions. Such cases are not automatically ruled out.

I believe that the Government and all the other speakers are not totally at odds on the issue of 16 and 17 year-olds and their entitlement to benefit. No speaker this afternoon, with the possible exception —if I understood them correctly—of the noble Lords, Lord Henderson and Lord Desai, has suggested restoring a general right to full adult income support for all 16 and 17 year-olds, irrespective of whether they seek training.

I believe everyone would agree that we must offer these young people a choice. The choice that the Government are offering—I believe the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, underlined this—is one of education, training or work. I would hope that all of us are agreed that every young person who is able to take up one of those three options—I stress the words "is able to"—should be in one of those three categories. There should not be a fourth category of those who choose not to be in categories one to three—that is, education, training or work—but rather choose the life of benefit. That is the crucial matter here.

That choice is crucial because I believe we can commit no greater crime than permanently confining a class of people to permanent dependency. I very much regret that we have heard very little this evening about the risks of benefit dependency and the dependency culture and all the attendant costs that go with that such as a likely life of crime and all the related problems. Education or work must always be the better option. If we are agreed on that, and I think in the main we are, we must then decide how to go about it.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble Lord must not assume that everyone agrees with him over this.

Lord Henley

My Lords, what I think I have said is that I do not think there are many people, with the two exceptions I have mentioned, who advocate an automatic right to a return to income support irrespective of whether young people sought training or not. I am sure the Front Bench of the noble Earl's party would certainly not take that line. Most people in this debate have accepted that there should be some limits on the control of income support for 16 and 17 year-olds just as there are for other members of society. For those over 18 there are deductions in income support if those people refuse actively to seek work. They face reductions in their personal allowances.

We feel that replacing the general entitlement to income support for 16 and 17 year-olds with the guarantee of the offer of a youth training place for all who seek one represents a real investment in the future by providing the incentive for young people to make the most of their opportunities. It provides the means of enhancing vocational skills, and whatever the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has said, it can be an important first step on the employment ladder. The noble Baroness said only some 57 per cent. of people on YT went on to get a job. I can assure her that in fact something of the order of three-quarters of those completing YT go on to get a job. However, I am afraid I must tell the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that we cannot guarantee a job to all those who take part in YT, nor for that matter can we guarantee even an interview. But certainly all assistance will be given wherever possible.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, why cannot the Government guarantee an interview? That is not much to guarantee.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not think it is for the Government to tell employers that they must interview X or Y. All we can say is that we can give what assistance we can. The noble Earl may like to insist that the Government should tell employers that they must offer interviews, but I am afraid I do not see that as a line down which the Government ought to go.

We have invested—this figure has been mentioned —some £850 million in the year to March 1992 in youth training. I feel that that is something more than blood out of a stone, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, put it. It is an example of our determination that young people should enhance their potential and avoid the risk of benefit dependency. I do not accept the allegations of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that courses last on average only three months. The noble Earl will say no doubt that 57 per cent. of the courses last only three months according to MORI. There is quite rightly much moving about as individual trainees try one course, find it is not suitable and then try another. Our evidence is that as a whole they stay on individual schemes and YT for periods far longer than three months and more likely for periods nearer a year. But that does not mean that the YT guarantee is not being met.

Of course if the individual goes on a short course lasting three months he can then go on to another and another and another. I therefore would like to reaffirm that the Government are still committed to meeting that YT guarantee. It will be met. I should like to give that assurance and re-emphasise that to the noble Lord, Lord Murray, and to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. Indeed in February of this year some 300,000 young people in Britain were actually on YT. The speed at which suitable places can be offered will naturally vary from place to place but any problems of supply of places will be tackled expeditiously. I can assure the House that the Department of Employment keeps in close touch with each training and enterprise council on these matters and any individual cases of difficulty will be dealt with promptly if brought to the notice of TECs through their guarantee liaison facilities.

My noble kinsman, my noble friend Lady Faithfull, the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, all expressed fears about whether the guarantee was being met for those with special needs, whatever the problems were. I need not go into those problems, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, listed all those who might have problems of one kind or another with some of the more demanding courses on offer.

Such trainees as those with special needs are covered by the guarantee. Those with special training needs are endorsed in three categories. Some will be endorsed as requiring a period of preparatory training before entering training. Some will be endorsed as having no realistic prospect of achieving an NVQ at level 2, while others will be endorsed as having some prospect of achieving an NVQ at level 2 but as needing significant additional help. Training plans for these young people should be individually designed to give them the support and help they need. The TECs contract with a wide variety of providers to ensure that these needs are met.

Young people who have a YT place have an underlying entitlement to income support but in most cases these young people have no need for benefit as the YT training allowance is higher than benefit levels. I would say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher—it may have been the right reverend Prelate who made this point—that that is why it has not been found necessary to raise the training allowance since it was first introduced. Income support has of course been annually uprated and was increased by 3 per cent. over RPI this year. Obviously those are matters that would have to be reviewed if income support levels in time rose higher than the training allowance.

The Government's support of young people does not end merely with the YT guarantee. We realise that some people may not be in a position to benefit from YT at all and others may need financial support while awaiting a YT placement. Income support therefore is available for those 16 and 17 year-olds who for good reason are unable to participate in YT or employment —for example, couples with children, lone parents, severely disabled people, carers, the registered blind and those who are temporarily laid off employment among others. They can claim income support in the same way as those over 18.

For those who leave school and are seeking work and a YT place financial support is available in a number of ways. I am certainly pleased that NACAB has acknowledged—I think my noble kinsman Lord Russell accepted this—in its report the steps that we have taken to improve, where appropriate, both the coverage and the administration of benefits. I stress of course that we are not complacent about the delivery of benefit to those entitled to it and we continue to make improvements as and where possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, both raised the question of a one-stop shop. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Murray, was going down the same line in his speech. Obviously we are aware of the problems that can be attached to having various different agencies in this field. We should like actively to pursue solutions in that area. Certainly I know that the chief executive of the Benefits Agency, which is the arm of the Department of Social Security dealing with the delivery of benefits, is more than anxious to improve the service in that field, as in others.

On behalf of the Benefits Agency I can only apologise to the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, and other noble Lords, who cited individual cases of bad advice being offered by Benefits Agency staff. That is something we very much regret and it is a situation we shall try to alleviate. I feel that the Department of Social Security, through the Benefits Agency, has made terrific strides forward over the past two or three years in improving the service, not just to 16 and 17 year-olds but to all the customers who come before us.

To continue on the subject of other improvements we have made, we have also established that the bridging allowance paid by the Department of Employment to people between YT places or between work and YT should no longer be regarded as sufficient income to avoid severe hardship where young people have to live independently. We have also stressed to Benefits Agency district offices their absolutely crucial role in ensuring that benefit is properly delivered. Revised guidance has been sent out by the chief executive of the Benefits Agency on handling claims from young people. It incorporates good practice and I hope will deal with many of the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Murray, the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Wise and the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in relation to the complicated procedures. Those are matters which we keep under constant review, and we hope to keep things as simple as possible.

In our defence, as I have mentioned before in this House, I am pleased to say that on various occasions some of the Department of Social Security literature has been in receipt of the plain English award. I therefore hope that the old idea that everything we produce is completely incomprehensible has passed and that we are becoming more user friendly in terms of explaining the delivery of benefit to individuals.

However, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Desai, will have to accept that a department which deals with some £70,000 million of taxpayer's money—that is, £20 a week for every man, woman and child or £10 a day for every earner in the country—has to have some fairly stringent rules to make sure that that money goes to the right people and is dealt with accordingly. Although I have been stressing the role of the Benefits Agency, which is the appropriate arm of the Department of Social Security, I know also that the Employment Service, working for the Department of Employment, has also reminded its personnel that they should not indicate to any 16 or 17 year-olds that income support is not available.

I should like to return for a moment to the fundamental aim of our policy and draw the attention of the House to the higher number of young people who are now staying on at school—in 1991 it was some 720,000—and the number of training opportunities which now exist, as well as to the financial support provided to those not able permanently or temporarily to take up those opportunities. The Government's record in that respect is, I believe, impressive and I can see no justification for risking those achievements by reintroducing general entitlement to income support or even introducing an entitlement which is, in effect, general in that the individual could turn down any number of training places whether or not they were suitable.

My noble kinsman Lord Russell and the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, demanded that we should give to all recipients of either 16 or 17 year-old income support rates, or 18 to 25 year-olds, the higher full adult rates. My noble kinsman claims never to have understood what logical explanation we have for our policy. I have explained the matter to my noble kinsman on many occasions: young people have lower wages and lower expectations. My noble kinsman then produced quite the most extraordinary argument I have heard for a long time—that if that was the case then should it not also be the case that black people, or women, who tend to have lower wages should not be paid the full rate of income support but a lower rate.

I do not believe that the two groups can be compared. Black people and women tend to receive lower wages. We all accept that they should receive the same wages as their peers when appropriately qualified. I shall not give way at the moment; I shall finish the argument that I am making and then give way to my noble kinsman so that he can put his argument. The simple fact is that young people by definition have fewer skills and are worth less on the job market. Accordingly, their rates of income support are lower. To try and argue that one should do the same for the black community and women is a piece of the most extraordinary sophistry.

Earl Russell

My Lords, that makes the plot thicken. Is my noble kinsman telling me that young people as a point of principle should be paid less than others who do equal work? If so, that surprises me very much indeed.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I said nothing of the sort. I said that young people tended to have fewer qualifications and to be worth less on the job market. That is quite right. Most people would accept that the young man starting work should not be paid the same as the man who has been there for a great many years and can do the job based on a great deal more experience. I am sorry. I simply do not accept the noble Earl's argument.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Henley will take note of the fact that we are not talking about people's wages but their needs. Social security is to cover subsistence needs. Every single person over the age of 16 needs clothes on his or her back, food in his or her belly and a roof over his or her head. No landlord, no local authority, no gas, water or electricity authority will say, "this person is a young person so we will charge him less than a full adult". They have the same expenses. Will the noble Lord please understand that?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Countess fails to understand the social security system. If there is an entitlement to housing benefit, that benefit will be paid at the same level as for those above that age. All we are talking about is the personal entitlement to income support. Young people might have the same needs, but their expectations are less. We have no evidence that individuals cannot survive on the levels of benefit that are available. I see nothing wrong therefore in paying lower rates of income support to those whose expectations are somewhat lower.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, also asked whether 16 and 17 year-olds on a low income will be able to afford places in good quality hostels when those become available. I think that I dealt with that question in responding to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, in that housing benefit will be payable to hostel dwellers in exactly the same way as to anyone else. It is for the local authorities, which administer housing benefit on our behalf, to decide whether or not a charge represents a fair rent.

The noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, also complained that young people were allegedly a low priority on the Social Fund. I have to stress that Social Fund officers are required to meet the highest priorities first and to ensure that the best use is made of the available resources. It is for the Social Fund officer to decide the priority of each application taking into account national Secretary of State's guidance on priorities and the area Social Fund officer guidance on local priorities. Obviously individual priorities may be raised by the Social Fund officer in cases where individual circumstances warrant doing so.

In concluding, I should like to make it quite clear that, as I said at the beginning, in this as well as in other areas of social security policy, the Government will be monitoring developments to ensure that we achieve our objectives. As part of that process, I can confirm that my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will be discussing the questions raised by the NACAB report with NACAB representatives in the near future. I understand also that senior officials in the Employment Department Group will be meeting NACAB representatives.

We shall take note of the three reports. We always do. I must stress that since the debate we had last year, further steps have been taken to ensure that, for example, delivery of the severe hardship provisions are effective. I am grateful that NACAB has welcomed those improvements. We shall continue to monitor our arrangements to see what changes are necessary. But this is not a policy in the short term to save money. It is more a long-term policy of making expenditure now to save in the future and, by means in the long term of far less benefit dependency and greater training, to induce a more positive attitude to work.