HL Deb 19 May 1997 vol 580 cc142-4

3.16 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the proposals in the Labour Party manifesto on welfare to work represent government policy.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, we are committed to a radical programme that tackles unemployment and breaks the spiral of escalating spending on social security. That is what we have said and that is what we are doing.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and wish to ask for clarification of one particular sentence in the manifesto. It concerns what happens to those who do not accept the options offered to them. Early party statements have been to the effect that lifelong benefit is not an option. The manifesto made the very significant qualification that: A life on full benefit is not an option". It is that sentence about which I wish to ask. Is it a firm government policy?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is the Government's view that we cannot afford to leave many hundreds of thousands of young people idle. Our welfare to work programme will offer a way out of unemployment to many young people, long-term unemployed people and lone parents. It is our view that it is right to expect young people to take advantage of the help provided. We want them to have the right to that help, but with that goes the responsibility of taking advantage of it.

Turning to the noble Earl's specific question, we are considering how sanctions will be applied in the welfare to work programme. We think it right to expect young people to take advantage of the help provided. We must discuss and decide the issue of loss of benefits with our colleagues in the Department of Social Security. At present there is, as the noble Earl well knows, a jobseeker's allowance regime whereby unemployed people who refuse offers of help and are penalised with a benefit sanction may receive hardship payments. We shall have to consider further whether that JSA regime is appropriate for young people in our new programme and we will be discussing how sanctions will work for those who do not take up the chance.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have for consulting with young unemployed people or with those who work with them and for them, such as the Children's Society, about the procedures for implementing the welfare to work programme so that the young people may more willing own it and accept it?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am very grateful for that question. It is of course vital that, before implementing this exciting new programme, we should consult widely with all interests involved including voluntary organisations, employers, training institutions and, of course, young people themselves. One of the difficulties about consulting young people is that many of those whom we wish to target with this programme are among the most disaffected in our society. Many play no part in those organisations with which it is easy to make contact. However, we shall do our very best to consult not just young people but those who are most likely to want the programme and who need to benefit from the programme.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment, as other noble Lords have done. To what extent is that policy dependent on the windfall tax?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words in congratulating me on my new appointment. Of course the new policy is dependent on funding from a windfall levy. That is now well known. The Government intend to have a one-off windfall levy on the excess profits of the privatised utilities to fund the radical welfare to work programme. Those companies which are likely to be affected will be able to make representations to the Treasury and those representations have already begun. I should make it absolutely clear that those representations are not about whether or not a windfall levy is to be raised. We have made that clear in our manifesto and we now have a mandate to implement it. But it is right that we should consult and allow representations on exactly how the levy will be raised.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I join in the welcome given to the noble Baroness on her new office, although I am surprised that I am not able to congratulate this afternoon my usual sparring partner, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, on her office. But perhaps there is some subtlety in relation to the Department of Social Security not answering this Question.

I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was in the House on 11th May 1995. On that day the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in dealing with the question of reducing benefits for 17 and 18 year-olds, asked me: Does he accept that not to pay someone benefit is a fine or a penalty?".—[Official Report, 11/5/95; col. 268]. As the Government appear to be threatening not to pay someone benefit, perhaps the noble Baroness will explain whether that is a fine or a penalty.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, unfortunately, unlike some people who work in government, I do not keep a diary, so I do not remember whether I was in the House on 11th May 1995. But to come back to the noble Lord's somewhat mischievous question, I think that he would be the first person to agree that it is very important to have an element of compulsion in this programme; that it is desirable to ensure that all young people who are currently unemployed, particularly those who have been unemployed for a long period of time, should be not just encouraged but given a little carrot and perhaps a tiny stick to make sure that they benefit from what is being provided.