HL Deb 26 July 1993 vol 548 cc952-4

2.45 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider conferring the automatic right to severe hardship payments of income support to 16 and 17 year-olds who have registered for youth training but have not been found a place.

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

My Lords, we have no plans to change our policy. To alter the arrangements in the manner suggested would provide a disincentive to young people seeking work, which would clearly be in no one's best interests.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble kinsman for that reply. Can he explain to the House how he reconciles it with the Written Answer given by his honourable friend Miss Widdecombe on 19th July, which showed that in England alone 3,034 people registered for youth training were without a place after eight weeks? Does he accept that the parents of these young people cannot be legally compelled to maintain them? Can he tell me how starvation acts as an incentive to work when one is no longer fit to do it?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will welcome the fact that the figure has dropped to 3,000 from the 4,000 that it was a month before. That represents a decline of some 25 per cent. and is the 10th successive month that the figure has so declined. I have to say to my noble kinsman that we simply do not believe that it is in the best interests of 16 and 17 year-olds to have an automatic entitlement to benefit. We believe that it is in their best interests that they are in education, in training or in work. If they are waiting for a YT place and wait longer than eight weeks for that place, there will be entitlement for income support only if there is a risk of severe hardship. Quite frankly I have to say that if they are living at home and if their parents are above benefit levels, I do not see a case for their seeking income support.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister prepared to consider that if the non-payment related to the young people who did not bother and were not interested in registering for employment, that would be understandable? But in the case of those who are keen to earn a living and find themselves in desperate circumstances, ought not the Government to be prepared to give them a bit of help financially?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I accept the noble Lord's first point. But as regards the second group of people: namely, those who are registered for work, if there is a risk of severe hardship —I must repeat that it only has to be a risk of severe hardship; something in the order of 85 per cent. of claims for severe hardship do succeed—then they will be entitled to income support. But if they are living at home with perfectly well-off parents, I see no case for their seeking entitlement to benefit.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that 16 to 17 year-olds usually need more food, clothing and shoes than older people, because very often they are still growing?

Lord Henley

My Lords, that is another question. We have explained on many occasions why we consider that there should be lower rates for the different age bands; namely, lower rates for 16 to 17 year-olds than for the 18 to 24 year-olds. I do not intend to repeat those explanations today. I repeat what I said in earlier Answers. If there is a risk of severe hardship, arid if that child has to live away from home, then there would be entitlement to income support at the higher rates. If they have to live at home and there is the risk of severe hardship, the rate of benefit would be at the lower rate.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of the children sleeping rough are children without homes who have been in children's homes and have no background? Under those circumstances can special consideration be given to their finding a job, or going on a youth training course? Is he aware that many of those young people told me that they have been unable to get on a course, although they have made an application to do so?

Lord Henley

My Lords, if my noble friend can give me details of any particular cases that she would like to draw to my attention, I should certainly be prepared to look at them. I can assure her that there are special arrangements for children coming out of care in that there will be an automatic entitlement to income support for eight weeks while they are looking for their YT place.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there are some young people for whom placement is difficult? I think particularly of those who have emotional problems and who are disabled but not disabled enough to be on the register. Could he say whether any special consideration is given to those young people?

Lord Henley

My Lords, if they are not in a position to work and are sufficiently disabled, obviously they would be entitled to income support. I cannot comment on any particular case, as the noble Countess seemed to indicate. Certainly officers within the Benefits Agency will try to give whatever help they can as regards benefit. Certainly any application in respect of severe hardship would be looked at sympathetically. Again, it must be a matter for the TECs themselves when it comes to finding the appropriate placement for a particular individual to try to find the appropriate package to suit that person.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, if the figure last spring from Youth Aid of 95,000 young people not in education, not in work, not in training and therefore without any income is correct—and that figure comes from the Labour Force survey conducted on behalf of the Department of Employment—it reveals a very high degree of hardship among young people? However, instead of that, if the Minister's DSS figure of 3,000 or so is correct, does he further agree that it means that the cost of meeting that hardship is relatively modest?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not sure that I can accept the figure that the noble Baroness quoted from Youth Aid. I believe my noble friend Lord Goschen dealt with this matter in debate on an earlier occasion. The noble Baroness went on to say that if our figure is correct of 3,000 waiting longer than eight weeks, it would not cost much to give the concession asked for by the noble Lord. I cannot give any estimate as to the cost of making the changes that the noble Lord and for that matter, I imagine, the noble Baroness, suggest. But I can say that it would very much risk increasing the culture of dependency. There would be very real long-term costs associated with such an increase in the culture of dependency.

Earl Russell

My Lords, if the Minister argues that such people should depend on their parents, will he introduce legislation to compel their parents to maintain them? If he will not do so, will he recognise that being without visible means of support is in itself prima facie evidence of severe hardship?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I have no intention of introducing legislation as suggested. Most people agree that it is the generally accepted duty of parents to look after their children. I do not see a case for further increasing the disincentive to children to work. If there is severe hardship and the parents cannot support their child, there will be an entitlement to income support.