HL Deb 30 November 1999 vol 607 cc721-3

3.8 p.m.

Earl Russellasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that disentitlement to means-tested benefits is a form of social exclusion.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, I am not sure that I entirely understand the Question. If I do, I am afraid that I do not agree with it. Anyone who has an underlying entitlement to a means-tested benefit may draw that benefit if he or she complies with its conditions, such as seeking work. Therefore, the issue of social exclusion does not arise.

Earl Russell

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House the definition of "social exclusion" from which this process is itself excluded?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, social exclusion is a multi-layered problem. To quote the words of the Prirne Minister, it is, A short-hand label for what can happen when individuals or areas suffer from a contribution of linked problems—such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown"; in other words, social exclusion is "joined-up problems".

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I appreciate the substance of her response to the noble Earl? However, we should be very careful indeed about disentitling anyone. If that person has no money whatever, it means that the safety net has been snatched away arid he or she can no longer participate in society. That creates both a sad and an explosive situation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the Government do not wish to disentitle anyone from benefit to which he or she is entitled. The Government seek compliance. For example, we want young people to work with personal advisers to obtain and hold down a reasonable job. We want lone parents to co-operate with us in naming the father of the child so that the child gains in maintenance. We want offenders to observe their community sentences. But clearly, if they fail to comply with the conditions and therefore compliance fails, ultimately enforcement and sanctions kick in. However, we seek to change the culture.

Any such sanctions are on the individual. There is a complete network of hardship payments so that those who are vulnerable—they may have poor mental or physical health, suffer from disability, be pregnant or have dependent children—have entitlement. So I am confident that the situation my noble friend describes will not arise.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, is the Minister saying that, if those people do not have any of these mitigating circumstances, they will be starved into submission?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, perhaps I may give an example. Jobseeker's allowance is a benefit for those who are unemployed. The entitlement to that benefit is matched by a concomitant responsibility to seek and hold down a job. If someone can sign on for benefit, he or she can come in simultaneously for an interview. That is what we seek to do. It is no kindness never to allow young people of 18 or 19 to come into the labour market. If they d o not do so, they will remain forever socially excluded because they are poor.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the Minister's answer mean that those disabled people who have been excluded from incapacity benefits under the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act, although they have contributed to them, will not as a category be regarded as socially included? Does the noble Baroness agree that many of them should be regarded as socially excluded and referred to the Social Exclusion Unit?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, hardly. For example, those who will not be eligible for incapacity benefit will be disqualified only because they already enjoy a healthy occupational pension of 12,000, £14,000 or more. As a result, I hardly think that they would fit the definition of the noble Lord, or anyone else, of socially excluded.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's remarks. Does the noble Baroness accept that many of those who serve our community by working with some of the most vulnerable people in our society are nevertheless anxious that a fundamental principle is at stake in public policy; namely, our common duty to defend and provide for those who do not have the means to participate in the system? Those people are anxious about the drift in public policy lest it leaves people inadvertently excluded.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, it is the Government's policy that no one should be inadvertently excluded. I share the position of the right reverend Prelate on that. Having said that., the entitlement to a benefit is matched by a responsibility for observing the conditions that go with it—for example, the willingness to seek work.

The right reverend Prelate is right. I am sure that for too long too many people—they may include lone parents, some ethnic minority communities, or young lads with little formal education and a history of truancy—have been consigned to the margins and the twilight of our society. They have received an inadequate Giro cheque; and they can expect the next 40 years in poverty. They were born in poverty; they live in poverty; they will die in poverty. It seems to me that society imposes social exclusion on them because we are not willing to stand shoulder to shoulder and tackle their problems alongside them. It is government policy to tackle problems so that we bring such groups from the twilight into mainstream society where they can enjoy the richness of life. That is what we are determined to achieve.

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