HL Deb 23 June 1993 vol 547 cc412-28

7.47 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their view of the report entitled Four Years' Severe Hardship published by Barnardos and Youthaid, and what is their estimate of the number of young people aged 16 or 17 who are not in full-time education, employment or training.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Unstarred Question brings us home from Europe and I believe that it is quite right that time should be found, if only for an hour, for the House to concentrate on the hardship endured by young people aged 16 and 17 who are not in full-time education, employment or training.

The number of such people has risen steadily in recent years and has risen all the time since the Government, in 1988, denied welfare benefits by and large to that category of unfortunate young people. I shall not detail the scheme which the Government put in place in 1988 because it is familiar to most of your Lordships. I shall only state at the outset that the new figures in this report show that their scheme, put into place in 1988, has failed and is badly in need of repair.

The report Four Years' Severe Hardship is published by Barnardos and Youthaid on behalf of the Coalition on Young People and Social Security in M arch 1993. Therefore, it is bang up to date. It is the first document on this subject which has detailed figures of severe hardship claims, especially from the severe hardship claims unit. It is packed with facts and figures and I congratulate all those responsible on the production of the report and in particular the author lanthe Maclagan.

The main findings of the report are as follows. The number of applications for severe hardship payments has increased in the first four years of the scheme's operation from only 500 to nearly 10,000 a month. It probably means that there are over 100,000 claimants in any one year. The number of successful applications has increased seven times during that period. I am afraid that means that there is a vast increase in the number of young people suffering from severe hardship and claiming the payment, despite—and I say this advisedly—only limited information as to the availability of the SHP and, when one hears about it, the complexity and length of time involved in the procedure.

The proportion of successful applicants rose from 62 per cent. in 1988 to 83 per cent. in 1992. Surely that suggests an increased acceptance by the Government of severe hardship among young people. Indeed, their ovvn department is providing that support which can only be given when evidence has been supplied of severe hardship. It means that the Government are taking note—in fact, they must take note—because their department has shown that the incidence of severe hardship among young people in this country has dramatically increased.

Another statistic in the report shows that the average length of awards has doubled from three-and-a-half weeks to seven weeks and that nearly two-thirds of the applications are from young people who have received previous awards. It also shows the increasing difficulty experienced in obtaining suitable youth training placements and the failure of the youth training guarantee in many, if not most, parts of the country. That is a severe indictment of the scheme. The youth training guarantee was central to it, and it has clearly failed with the result that applicants for severe hardship payments have dramatically increased in number. That should not be so because, as I said, the guarantee was central to the scheme. It should not have happened because the severe hardship payment was supposed to be a fall-back and not a central pillar of the scheme. However, it has now, unfortunately, become an essential part of the scheme.

The recommendations show that a number of young people who are without employment and without a training scheme do not know how to apply for severe hardship payments; indeed, they do not even know of their existence. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that the Government institute a scheme for publicising the existence of severe hardship payments so that young people really know what they can receive when they have no guarantee of a youth placement, no income support and no employment.

The report also illustrates the complexity of the scheme. That aspect was pointed out in previous debates most notably by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. The Government have made one or two improvements, but not nearly enough. The report quite clearly shows that the slight improvements need bolstering by further improvements, if the take-up of hardship payments is to he increased.

It is true, I am afraid, that there are many young people who cannot be identified and who are not, therefore, being supported. It is important that the Government should institute proceedings to find out who those young people are who are not recorded as being in employment, in receipt of hardship payments or in a youth training placement.

The report argues that there is no justification for the low benefits paid to 16 and 17 year-olds compared with older claimants. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has made that subject his own. As I am sure that he will return to it, I shall not dwell upon it. Youth training allowances are currently quite low and have been frozen for several years. Can the noble Viscount who is to reply tell me why they have been frozen and why their value has decreased when other important payments have increased in accordance with inflation? It seems quite unjustified that they should remain behind in that respect.

I turn now to the subject of numbers. The increasing number of severe hardship applications which now run at approximately 100,000 a year shows that, although the scheme was originally intended as a back-up, it is now absolutely fundamental and that without it a large number of young people who are unable to find youth training places would, quite literally, starve. The system is simply not able to cope with becoming a mainstream provision. The situation will become even more severe as more young people learn of the scheme and how to apply.

In conclusion, will the Government agree that young people who are not in full-time education should be provided with a choice of suitable youth training or be entitled to receive income support if they are actively seeking either such work or a suitable training place. At present, the risk of severe starvation or the invitation to work illegally or immorally is, I am afraid, the only choice open to far too many young people who cannot find anything other than the severe hardship payment and, indeed, are lucky if they can find that.

7.58 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I rise to express strong support for the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton. I have mentioned this before, but, after the famous orator Edmund Burke had made a speech, someone got up and said, "I say ditto to Mr. Burke". In a sense, I shall save time by saying, "ditto" to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, who is so well qualified to speak about the problems of the homeless and of young offenders. The subjects are undoubtedly linked; indeed, they overlap. I support what the noble Lord said, the contents of the report and what may be said by other speakers.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson. referred to the large increase in the suffering of young people as a result of government policy. By my standards, I include in "young people" the noble Viscount who is to reply. I was about to point out that he had been left alone on the burning deck, but I see that someone has now come to his succour. Nevertheless, it is a pretty painful experience for him with all the barren Benches behind him. I can only hope that it is brief. There is really nothing he can say. He cannot suddenly announce a great improvement in government policy; he just has a rotten story to tell. However, no doubt he will deliver it most charmingly.

I had not realised that one has only six minutes in which to speak. To cover all those years of working for the homeless and the penal reforms for young offenders, and so on, that I have been involved in would take many hours. However, I shall concentrate upon one aspect of the subject and leave other speakers to make what I am sure are the more outstanding points.

As I have mentioned on previous occasions I, with others. founded the New Horizon Youth Centre which now receives some 3.000 young homeless people a year. I looked in the other day. Undoubtedly the position of the homeless there is worse than it was 12 years ago when the senior social worker joined the centre, or two years ago when someone else, who gave me information, joined the centre. The situation is getting worse the whole time. The noble Viscount may say that that is not a universal experience but that is an example of practical experience. Things are becoming consistently worse under the beneficent, or should I say, maleficent—I have to call them that—arrangements of the Government that the Minister is sworn to defend.

I shall mention just one example of homelessness in the time that is available. I asked one young man at the centre what his position was. He is not 16 or 17 and therefore he is not a member of the group that we shall deal with tonight and about whom we have heard such shocking stories. The young man in question is about 22. He has been sleeping rough for three and a half years.

When one meets someone in the streets who says he is sleeping rough and has nowhere to go, one is sometimes. if not suspicious. at least critical of such a person. One may feel he is sleeping rough because of some weakness on his part. I tell such a person that I can put him in touch with a relevant organisation. However, the young man I am talking about is right in the middle of a centre for the homeless. He is a good-looking young man and is perfectly ready to work.

One may ask why he cannot obtain any work. That is a big issue in itself. One may ask why he cannot receive income support. However, that is extremely difficult to obtain if one has no place where one is understood to be living. One may ask why he has nowhere to live. He cannot find a place to live. I shall therefore concentrate on the housing question.

The Government's housing policy has produced a situation where a young man who is assisted by the organisation I have mentioned cannot obtain income support. This young man is not someone on the streets whose character one might call in question; he is a respectable young man, but the centre for the homeless cannot find him a job. He cannot obtain income support and he is shunned by the Government's policy.

Never let us forget that, if people cannot find a place to live, they cannot obtain income support and they are driven in the direction of crime. I consider that the Government have betrayed the young people of this country. For the Government to talk about law and order and then produce this situation is pure humbug.

8.3 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I want, in the six minutes that we are allowed, to concentrate entirely on the education and training aspect of this issue. Other speakers have mentioned housing and allowances. In a report of the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit which was reviewed in the Financial Times on Saturday, the statement was made that 23 per cent. of 21 year-olds were unable to work out what 10 per cent. of 4,900 was. This is an extremely serious finding and it confirms what too many of us know already; namely, that education has passed by a considerable number of these youngsters.

The life chances of someone who cannot work out what 10 per cent. of 4,900 is are dim and they are becoming dimmer as the unskilled work in this country disappears. That work is now being done overseas in countries which have lower pay levels. The work is done much more cheaply in those countries. We all know that is happening and that it will continue. The life chances of the youngsters I have referred to are dim in the extreme.

I wish to strike a note of real urgency. As regards patching things up with allowances, it is better that they should receive allowances than that they should not, but we need a much more fundamental solution to the problem than that. We must think about what we can do for these people —there are far too many of them—who simply do not have the equipment to face the kind of life they must lead if they are to have any kind of life chances at all in this country.

That is one aspect of the matter. However, the burden they impose on the economy is quite another aspect which justifies putting money into dealing with the problem. The same report as I have mentioned also states that, as a result of an inquiry among 400 firms, it was estimated that the basic lack of educational skills—numeracy and literacy—is costing industry £4.83 billion a year. One can organise an awful lot of training with that money.

I urge the Minister to take my following point seriously. I have raised this suggestion before and I have tried it out on industrialists who are not averse to the idea. My suggestion is based on my own experience of many years ago in manufacturing industry. I believe companies should be persuaded to take on two school leavers for each job. In the scheme in which I was involved each youngster worked half of each day with the firm and spent the other half of the day in school receiving either training, education or a suitable blend of both.

The scheme worked extremely well. I administered it myself and it was not difficult to administer. The scheme suited the organisations concerned because there was always someone on the job. There was one youngster on the job in the morning and another in the afternoon. The foreman did not mind whether Tim or Tom was on the job so long as someone was there.

The school where the youngsters spent half of the day was able to provide the kind of training and education which was relevant to the youngsters concerned. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of providing relevant education or training. Many of these youngsters we are discussing are perfectly capable of learning but somehow or other they did not catch onto the idea while they were at school. If the Germans have been able to train 91 per cent. of their youngsters, I absolutely refuse to believe that we should be failing our young people to the extent demonstrated in the report we are discussing.

I ask the Government seriously to consider this scheme and to ask some of the more interested TECs to think about trying out a programme of this kind. Of course it would cost money but I do not believe that it would necessarily cost a great deal of money as companies who take on these youngsters will obviously pay wages for the time they work. The Government have mentioned vouchers for training. As regards training for youngsters who are to work in the employers' organisations, it is reasonable that employers should pay for that. But under this scheme employers would be dealing with a number of people whom they would not ultimately employ. There is no reason why they should train other people's employees. However, the Government could perfectly well work out a voucher scheme and an agreed scheme as regards the cost of providing the training and the cost of running the school or tertiary college where training or education can be given. The Government could easily negotiate such arrangements if they wished to do so.

In this way the Government would double the number of youngsters being taken on in employment and thereby reduce the number in unemployment. The Government would also begin to fill that appalling gap in the youngsters' education and training which, if not filled, will land them with a most miserable and unsatisfying life. Society will also be landed with hideous problems. I have mentioned this matter previously and it has been waved aside as an airy-fairy idea. I beg the Government to understand that it is not an airy-fairy idea. It has worked and it can work. So far I have not heard anyone produce any better idea to make up for the failure of the educational system in this regard, irrespective of the reasons for that. I have not heard of any better way to remove the threat posed by so many young people who are incapable of taking the kind of jobs which will be the only jobs available in the future.

8.9 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I put my name down to speak this evening in the confident, but in the event foolish, belief that this debate would take place between 7.30 and 8.30 p.m. I apologise to the House for the fact that I must leave at 8.30 p.m. I hope that the noble Viscount who is to reply to the debate will forgive me.

I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, on raising this issue, and indeed the various bodies involved in the Coalition on Young People and Social Security for forcing on the public's attention an issue which is of the very first importance. However, I disagree with them in their proposed solution. I do not believe that this problem can he solved simply by throwing more money at it or by indifferently giving income support to all young people who wish to live away from home and who want income support.

I believe that what is needed is a coherent government policy on young people, particularly those aged 16 to 17. I want to concentrate my remarks on young people in that age group.

By way of example, as I understand it the present position is that if young people are in education they can only receive any form of support if they are estranged from their home. In that case they receive £26.45 a week. However, if they are in a Youth Training place they can receive £29 a week whether or not they are estranged from home. If they are waiting for a Youth Training place they can get only £I5 a week, whether or not they are estranged from home. What is the logic of that? I ask the Government what on earth those payments are meant to be. Are they meant to be pocket money, in which case, arguably, they are excessive? Or are they meant to be a living allowance, in which case they are patently inadequate?

I should like to refer, first, to the question of living costs. There seem to be two simple alternatives. Either the Government must be prepared to fund what is effectively a living allowance for all 16 and 17 year-olds who choose to live away from home—I believe that that is the position taken by the organisations which prepared the report—or, alternatively, there should be some form of targeting. The problem is that the present targeting is not. satisfactory. Compared with the Government's present targeting a scatter-gun would be a precision instrument. It is essential that clear criteria should be established for what constitutes a young person who is unable as opposed to unwilling to live at home. More adequate support should be targeted on those young people and little or none on the others.

At this point I should like to argue that support. given to 16 and 17 year-olds for board and lodging should be in the form of a voucher rather than in cash. The pressures of the consumer society are enormous. I know many young people who, if they have cash in their hand, would prefer to spend it on designer clothes, new trainers or boots, or whatever is fashionable, and sleep under a friend's table rather than spending it on board and lodging. Therefore, I suggest that some form of voucher encashable at foyers, hostels and other similar places would be worth consideration when the Government are examining the proper targeting of living expenses for young people of that age.

I should like now to turn briefly to training. I should like to endorse every word said by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I am sure that she is right. I draw her attention to the education in business scheme which is growing up in some areas and which I believe to be an enormously important initiative.

I believe that the problem of the TECs is not underfunding. Certainly in my county of Kent the problem is not underfunding but mismatch. I have spoken to the Kent TEC today. The problem is that in order to produce workplaces in the TEC two things have to happen. First, there has to be a young person who wants a workplace of a particular kind. Secondly, there has to be an employer who is prepared to provide a job opportunity of that kind. In a certain part of Kent there are job opportunities which require young people with a reasonable degree of numeracy and literacy, while in that particular part of Kent there are insufficient people with the requisite numeracy and literacy to take up those vacancies, and vice versa at the other end of Kent.

I do not know how that problem can be solved, but I suggest one solution. We are all being told that in the future if young people want to be employed on a lifetime basis they will need flexible skills. They will have to be retrained several times during their lifetime. I suggest that the Government and the TECs should concentrate more on offering young people flexible skills and on providing introductory courses which will give them the core skills that they will require for training and retraining during their lifetime.

I should particularly like to draw the attention of the House to the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) which have recently been introduced. Tomorrow I am going to open a function at a school which has been immensely successful with GNVQs. It has a long waiting list and the young people who have come out of the first year's training of that kind have acquired enormous self-confidence by finding that they can achieve a qualification. Therefore, I urge the Government to extend GNVQs and enhance the ability of TECs to provide that type of education.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, for raising this extremely important issue.

I should like to refer to what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said about young people who choose to live away from home. It is clear from the report which we are discussing this evening that the proportion of those who do not choose to live away from home but who have to do so is high. The report states that one third of severe hardship claimants in that age group had either been thrown out of the family home or had been living with friends who could no longer support them. It also found—and this is a significant figure—that 22 per cent. had been physically or sexually abused, either by someone in the family home or by staff at a children's home. I merely refer to that point simply to emphasise that it is an important number.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I certainly take that point.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I should also like to join other noble Lords in congratulating the authors of the report. I want to speak briefly to two underlying social issues which are referred to in the report but not given great prominence. Interestingly, those issues emerged at a meeting which I attended in another place to launch the report in March. One of those points relates to the particular problems of ethnic minority young people. That is a question which I raised with the authors of the report, who have been kind enough to supply me with further information.

Apparently one in three non-white 16 and 17 year-olds is unemployed compared with one in five white young people. The same disproportion is apparent among Youth Training leavers. The survey found that black young people were over-represented on YT waiting lists and that the YT guarantee is more likely to fail black young people than white young people. Also, rather depressingly, career service heads in schools found that black young people are more likely to stay on in education than whites but those who leave are less likely to find work or training.

That is a significant part of the report which should be given prominence when considering any action which should be taken on it, particularly in view of the potential for ethnic divisions and unrest among people who feel that they have been particularly discriminated against. I have seen that very much in my part of London.

I also want briefly to draw attention to the health problems of those 16 and 17 year-olds who are dealt with in the report. As the report mentions, 45 per cent. of people claiming severe hardship payments had slept rough. As we all know, that brings a particular vulnerability to ill health. Recently we have seen in this country a disturbing increase in what used to be called poverty diseases—TB, rickets and other such conditions. We are seeing those particularly among this group of very vulnerable young people.

There is also the question referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, of how those young people make any kind of living at all and the way in which they are often involved in illegal activities, particularly in the area of drug peddling. I am afraid to say that there is also a growing rate of casual prostitution among those young people. That is another sad way of making a little money on the side, but it has the consequent problem of more ill health, particularly in the area of HIV and AIDS. Again one is looking at a potential problem resulting from the homelessness and poverty among this particular group of young people.

That is a problem in which Barnardos, in another of its fields of work, has been particularly involved. Through its Streets of London project, it has been trying to work with young people who are potentially at risk in that way.

Another group that I have spoken with recently—the Streetwise Youth project in Earls Court—finds that the vulnerability of those 16 and 17 year-olds, who are without any legal form of income support, to those health problems is very high indeed.

We now know that 20 per cent. of people in this country who are infected with HIV and AIDS are in the 15 to 25 age group and nearly half are below 29. Therefore, I am afraid that as a side issue of this significant report we are seeing anxiety about the underlying public health issues relating to this vulnerable group of young people.

I was sorry not to be here earlier this afternoon when the noble Earl. Lord Russell, asked his Question about the possibility of public expenditure cuts in social security having an impact on other public spending Ministries. I believe that that is particularly relevant to the debate. What we lose by failing to invest in income support for our young people we shall reap in public expenditure in other areas. If no other argument appeals to the Government, I hope that that one will.

Lord Butterfield

My Lords, I make one brief intervention. Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, that much of the tuberculosis is found among young people who have immunodeficient diseases such as AIDS. The awful thing about it is that they have tuberculosis and walk about with an unthought of and unrecognised diagnosis, giving that disease to other young people. That seems to be a point that we might build into this very sad story.

8.21 p.m.

Earl Russell

M y Lords, before turning to gloomy matters, I wish to say what a great pleasure it is to follow the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington. When the noble Baroness and I were undergraduates and attending the Oxford Union I never had that pleasure. Being a woman, the noble Baroness was barbarously confined to the gallery. It is now clear that the Oxford Union's loss was as great as I always believed it to be. In these times when everything seems to be getting worse, it is very nice to be able to spot one aspect that is getting better.

I do not merely say that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, for introducing the Question; I am very grateful to him. As noble Lords know, I am pledged to introduce this topic every year until the Government change their policy. However, I had already had my go this Session. Therefore, when the report was published I was extremely glad that the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, took it up. Our plea for reintroducing the topic is because of important fresh evidence. It seems to me that we may have to plead important fresh evidence as many times as it was necessary to do for the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four; and the injustice is, I think, even greater.

The number of reports which have condemned the Government's policy is now getting more like the score of an Australian batsman than that of an English batsman. I have given notice to the noble Viscount who is to reply. I wish to ask whether there are any independent reports that have upheld the Government. I am not aware of any. In the absence of such reports it is sounding perilously as though it is a major item of Government policy that, "They are all out of step but our Johnny".

The hub of the subject was stated in the eighth report of the Social Security Advisory Committee. 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 young people with no visible, legal means of support. I do not believe that the use of starvation as an instrument of policy is acceptable. Still less do I believe it acceptable in the case of people who have registered for YT and have done everything which can legally be required of them.

The key important fresh evidence that we have is on the failure of the YT guarantee. We have the reports from the chairmen of the TECs in November 1991. Out of 60 TECs, 32 said that they were unable to meet the guarantee. We have the evidence of the Careers Service on which the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, relied as his main information on meeting the guarantee when he replied to me on 20th April. It finds that education, employment and youth training together only account for 85 per cent. of 16 and 17 year-olds. Five per cent. of them simply cannot be found.

In a Written Answer on 1st June 1992 the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, gave me a list of numbers involved in education, employment, youth training and so forth which fell 135,000 short of the number of 16 and 17 year-olds in the country. The noble Viscount put a health warning on those figures. I accept that he was quite right to do so. The noble Viscount's figure was actually higher than the 124,700 without visible means of support referred to in the Youthaid report. It is interesting that those figures are so close. However, I believe that, of the two, the Youthaid figure is nearer the truth.

We have had a flood of evidence of individual cases of people without visible, legal means of support. The evidence comes from such places as the citizens advice bureaux or Centrepoint. Those are reputable organisations. Such people are not figments of their imagination. When we consider the figures, the Government are simply unable to collect figures which can demonstrate that that evidence is not the case.

The guarantee is supposed to last two years. According to MORI, the average length of a youth training place is about three months. On 22nd March of this year, the noble Viscount stated that he had no precise figures for mean length and no estimate for medium length training. Therefore, how can the Government know whether they are meeting the guarantee? The have no evidence on waiting lists. They have no estimate of the waiting time. The Government state that they have no information on people with no access to training. There is no correlation of the youth training records in the Department of Employment with severe hardship records in the Department of Social Security. Therefore, we cannot tell from government records whether those who do not obtain a youth training place are receiving hardship payments. Since we cannot find the truth from the Government's figures, I do not understand how they can contradict the overwhelming evidence from every other source that the Government have got it wrong.

8.27 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, for raising yet again the problems faced by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds—problems that are highlighted so well in the report to which his Question refers. It is, of course, not the first time that we have raised the issues on this side of the House. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has already eloquently referred to the number of times that he has pressed the Government on these questions.

I was a member of the European Communities Select Committee, which in 1991 reported on young people in the European Community. At that time we received evidence from a number of experts—including the director of Youthaid—which has been concerned in the production of the present report. We were told then that the problems of young people are interconnected and form a vicious circle. Everyone we saw stressed the importance of training but we were also told about the difficulties of sustaining a training place while looking for a home. The National Childrens' Home told us: It is important not to lose sight of the massive impact that economic, social and demographic changes have had on the lives of young people over the last two decades in particular". We were told that there was a real danger that groups of young people would become trapped at or below the base of the labour market. NACRO in particular told us that those factors often resulted in young people living a nomadic, unsettled existence and sometimes becoming involved in crime. There was, it told us, what it calls a revolving door syndrome: no home; no job; no money; crime; increased isolation and alienation from society; imprisonment; no home on release; and so it goes on. That was in June 1991.

The report that we now discuss is dated March 1993. As the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, said, it is about as up to date as one can possibly get. Again, the problems not only exist but seem to have become a great deal worse. As we have heard, we were promised that there would be a guarantee of youth training places, but there has been a failure of that so-called guarantee. It was envisaged originally that only in the most exceptional cases would a 16 or 17 year-old not have access to income. In these exceptional cases, we were told when we raised the issue, severe hardship payments would be available. It has been made clear, however, and it is clear in the report that not all the young people who should have had severe hardship payments have been able to obtain them. NACAB and other organisations have reported cases where young people who were quite destitute have been deterred by the form filling and the procedures involved.

The Government appear to have made some limited improvements and to have listened to some of the criticisms. They have improved some of the administrative arrangements so that more young people are receiving SHP than formerly. However, I believe we were promised a total review of the system back in January. That does not seem to have happened. Perhaps the Minister will tell us this evening what is happening about the review of SHP.

As we have heard, the training provision has also contracted, as TECs have made clear to us. TECs say that they are having great difficulty in delivering the YT guarantee. In some areas, TECs have had as many as between 500 and 700 young people waiting for YT places and that was according to a survey published in 1992. If young people cannot get a YT place, they have no other source of employment, training or income.

As I said earlier, in 1991 the Select Committee had evidence of social changes which have resulted in a much higher divorce rate than ever before. One in three marriages now ends in divorce; one of the causes sometimes given for young people wanting to leave home is that they cannot get on with step-parents. Sometimes there is child abuse. For all those reasons, it is often not possible for young people to remain at home, even though so far as the Government are concerned it may be desirable for them to do so.

We have already heard in the debate of instances of homelessness among young people. One of the organisations with which I am in touch telephoned me today to say that in its area, in leafy St. Albans, 25 young people were registered as homeless and sleeping on the streets. So even in salubrious suburban areas there are young people who have no means of support and are reduced to a situation of homelessness and destitution.

We come now to the conclusions of the report. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I must say that I fully support them. I believe that there must be good quality vocational training available to all young people leaving full-time education. There has to be support for young people who are waiting for a training place or a job. Income support must be restored to all unemployed young people and at a level which is adequate for them to live independently of families, since, as we have seen, it is simply not possible to assume that parents will be either willing or able to provide continuing support.

We have said all this many times before. The excellent report to which the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, has referred adds point and back-up to the case we have been making. I hope that the Minister will this evening be able to tell us that the Government are listening and will take seriously what has been said and not only listen but take action on the lines that have been recommended and supported by so much evidence.

8.33 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, this evening we have had a debate on Her Majesty's Government's policy towards the training and economic support of 16 and 17 year-olds. I should like to reassure the House that this is a subject which has received a great deal of detailed attention and consideration from Ministers.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, of Brompton, for raising this important issue for debate. However, it is a shame that the vehicle for this was a well-meaning but misconceived and ill-informed report. To give a direct answer to the first half of the noble Lord's Question, we do not think particularly highly of this report. That is not because it is critical of the Government but because it is based on outdated information, wrong assumptions and inadequate analysis, the details of which I shall return to later.

Our policy remains the same as it was when introduced in 1988: to encourage young people to make the most of the positive opportunities provided and to discourage a dependence on benefits—

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Viscount has described this as an "ill-informed report". Would he repeat that remark when not covered by parliamentary privilege?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I stand by what I said and. if the noble Earl will bear with me, and have a little patience, I shall continue with my analysis in support of my contention.

As I said, our policy remains the same as it was in 1988. We intend to discourage dependence on benefits, which would be in no one's best interests. All young people under 18 who are not in full-time education or employment are guaranteed the offer of a suitable training place. Britain is the only EC country where, through the youth training guarantee, all young people can make the positive choice of employment, full-time education or quality training.

The current framework protects the most vulnerable, including those at risk, who are looking for a youth training place, while ensuring that those who enter training are given suitable opportunities to make the most of' their potential. We are convinced that this is the best approach to equip young people with the relevant type and quality of skills and training that they will need in the future.

We have heard talk here this evening that the Government's guarantee of a youth training place has failed, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. That is far from the case. In May of this year only 4,004 young people had been awaiting a youth training place for eight weeks or longer in England, and 40 per cent. of them had already received an offer. The Government are fully committed to meeting the guarantee and are placing considerable pressure on training and enterprise councils to reduce further the numbers currently waiting.

I must emphasise in response to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, that our aim is to provide young people with positive opportunities such as youth training, to enable them to make the most of their potential. Perhaps I may assure the noble Baroness that training in numeracy and literacy is an integral and important aspect of youth training for those who need it.

The Secretary of State's strategic priorities emphasised the importance of national education and training targets. The TECs have already been asked to take the lead in setting local baselines for improving levels of training and education. We welcome all suggestions for improving the training provisions.

We firmly believe that young people should not begin their adult life dependent on benefits—a view which I believe has wide support across the House. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned, income support is not generally available to this group and why the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the guarantee is met. We recognise that there are some young people who are unable to take part in training and so income support is available to groups such as lone parents or people with disabilities.

Furthermore, the safely net of the severe hardship provision helps to ensure that those looking for work or training and who are at risk from hardship need not be without financial support. Income support is normally payable in these circumstances until a job or youth training place is secured. Our monitoring shows that this provision is working effectively. Over 85 per cent. of those who currently apply receive income support. Success rates for particularly vulnerable groups, such as rough sleepers and pregnant young women, are on average even higher than that. We believe that this reflects the fact that we are meeting our commitment to help those at risk.

I said to the noble Earl, Lord Russell. that I would return in more detail to the allegations made within the report by the Coalition on Young People and Social Security and particularly the errors of analysis which have led to wrong conclusions.

The noble Earl concentrated heavily on statistics. The report quotes the Labour Force Survey—a quarterly investigation into the economic circumstances of some 60,000 households—as recording for summer 1992 that there were 195,000 16 and 17 year-olds unemployed. The report fails to note that this survey makes use of the international definition of unemployment. The figures therefore include young people in full-time education who are looking for work. The summer survey represents the peak of activity for the careers service, where many young people are waiting for examination results and deciding what is best for their future.

The results from the winter labour force survey, published in the Employment Gazette on 17th June reveal a more accurate picture. This shows that of the total number of 1.3 million young people in Great Britain 913,000 were in full-time education; 284,000 were in employment or training; and 28,000 do not want or need employment or training (for whatever reason). So between September and November last year there were about 75,000 young people looking for work or training in Great Britain. Figures from the regular count of careers service registers show that the total number of young people waiting for a place dropped rapidly from this high to 26,000 in May.

This time of year sees the highest rate of entry to youth training. Figures from the regular count of the careers service registers show that the number awaiting a youth training place dropped rapidly from the high in September. In May 1993 only 4,000 young people had been waiting for eight weeks or more. One thousand five hundred of them had already been on youth training but remained within the guarantee and 1,600 had already been offered a place.

The rest of the authors' conclusions on youth unemployment are based on their own estimated figures; as the report does not contain an explanation of the estimation procedure, I am unable to comment.

The report also criticises policy on various fronts. We have responded quickly and positively and in a number of ways to all these comments. For instance, to combat the issue of a perceived complex claiming process, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, we have eased access to benefit by establishing a nominated officer in each benefit agency district office who is specifically responsible for 16 and 17 year-olds. We have improved training, making staff more aware of the specific needs of young people and how to deal with them sympathetically. We have also issued a best practice guide to staff in the benefits agency stressing the vulnerability of this group and their sensitivity. We have improved our contacts with voluntary organisations and local groups who deal with young people so that they are aware of the support that is available no matter with whom they first come into contact.

The organisations involved have welcomed the improvements that we have made. With their help there is now a much wider knowledge of the severe hardship provision. This goes some way to explain the increase in the numbers applying under it. Nevertheless, it is important to place this in context: the numbers involved are small—about 10,000 successful claims each month. This is less than 2 per cent. of the total population of 16 and 17 year-olds, the vast majority of whom are either in education, work or training.

Income support levels for young people are based on the fact that most of them live in someone else's household—usually that of their parents—and they have fewer financial responsibilities and lower earnings expectations than those who are older. As there is only a finite amount of money available, this must be targeted to those most in need.

We know, however, that some young people cannot live at home and are not able to grow up in a stable and caring environment. That is why 16 and 17 year-olds forced to live independently qualify for income support at the higher 18–24 year-old rate. Similarly, where they are liable to pay rent, 16 and 17 year-olds are assessed for housing benefit at the same rate as 18–24 year-olds. We have no plans to alter these arrangements.

To answer the direct question of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, so far as I am aware, none of the independent reports to which he refers has made use of the detailed, accurate and comprehensive information which is provided each month by the careers services. I look forward to that information, which has been made available to the House, being incorporated into future reports.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, young people aged 16 and 17 who are registered for youth training and whose parents are having difficulty supporting them, whether they are on income support or not, may claim income support under the severe hardship provision. This safety net will prevent any young person from being evicted from the family home because of a lack of financial support.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jay and Lady Turner of Camden, spoke of the difficulties of homelessness. The homeless, like all 16 and 17 year-olds, are covered by the Government's guarantee of the offer of a place on youth training if they want one.

Providing YT places for the homeless means that they will receive the regular income of a training allowance—

The Earl of Longford

Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Viscount—

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, we have only a few seconds left.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I shall try to cover the housing points very quickly. Nevertheless, income support is payable to those most vulnerable young people regardless of whether they have a fixed address.

I offer my apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. I do not have information available on the question of minorities which she raised but perhaps she will agree to my writing to her on the matter.

The Government's policy for training and supporting young people is working, and it is working well. Since the YTS was introduced in 1983, some 3.5 million young people have benefited from the programme. In March of this year there were 288,000 young people in training in Great Britain. Good as this record is, we are still looking for ways to improve it. To that end we have introduced training credits to put more control in the hands of young people. We have improved the terms of the guarantee to ensure that offers are made within specified timescales. We have instigated detailed monitoring of those waiting for youth training places to ensure that no young person has to waiting longer for a suitable place than is absolutely necessary.

To conclude, we shall continue to look for ways to help all young people to gain the skills, knowledge and experience that they need to enter adult working life. To that end, I thank all noble Lords who took part for their contributions to the debate and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, for raising this issue this evening.