HL Deb 27 October 1999 vol 606 cc342-74

(" . The Verification Project under section 19 of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997 shall not be applied to the partners of asylum-seekers.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I think I can undertake that this amendment will not detain the House quite as long as the last amendment. It is technical; at points it is extremely technical. But people's liberties and chances of livelihood in this field depend on technical points. I hope, therefore, that it will be worthy of some attention. I am grateful to the Minister for the attention she has given the point already.

I apologise for introducing this matter at this late stage but it is a story that is only just beginning to break. It goes back to the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997. Section 19 of that Act set up a project of verification that claimants are who they say they are. There are pilots in progress now. Reports from the pilots are beginning to come in. The key point of the Act was that it required the production of a national insurance number and evidence establishing that the national insurance number had in fact been allocated to that person.

There is nothing in that Act about the requirement to produce the national insurance number for the claimant's partner, but in fact partners as well as claimants are being required to produce national insurance numbers under those pilot projects. That raises the problem between individual claimants and individual responsibility as regards household benefit. In a number of situations the claimant's partner may not be in a position to produce a national insurance number while the claimant can do so. The situation is arising quite frequently in the London area with partners of asylum seekers, some of whom have been claiming asylum here, with their claim undetermined, for a considerable number of years. The record about which I heard was in the London borough of Westminster about three years ago. The claimant had been claiming for about 10 years. That gives plenty of time for people to marry.

National insurance numbers are not normally given to asylum seekers. The effect is that if a person happens to be married to an asylum seeker and makes a claim he produces his own national insurance number. He cannot produce the partner's number because she does not have one. The effect is that the partners of asylum seekers are being disentitled, in my view accidentally, to benefit.

I remember that when we debated the Bill the Minister and I were concerned about some of the possible effects of this clause. I do not think either of us ever envisaged that what I have described could be an effect. I am not certain whether the issue should be discussed on this Bill or on the Immigration and Asylum Bill. As the Minister knows, I have tabled the amendment on both Bills and await a lead from Government on which is the most appropriate Bill. Having received no such lead, I now take the opportunity to move it. I shall be interested to know what the Minister thinks about it and of other situations in which people may be disentitled to benefit accidentally because of the status of the partner.

It is a situation where problems are arising. I am grateful to the Minister for her interest. I look forward with considerable interest to her reply in due course.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for raising this important point. Like the noble Earl, I, too, look forward to the Minister's response. Perhaps I may ask two questions. Do the Government feel that the amendment would involve significant cost implications either through an increase in fraudulent claims or administrative costs? And do the Government feel that the amendment could be beneficial to those local authorities which have to support the partners of asylum seekers who fail the evidence of identity test?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am grateful for the prior notice that the noble Earl gave. I have sought information which may take the House forward. I am intrigued that he has tabled the amendment on both Bills. Does the noble Earl think that he will receive the same answer from two different governments departments? I know that he would go for whichever answer was more favourable to his point.

The amendment seeks to exempt partners of asylum seekers from the requirement to provide sufficient information to allow their national insurance number to be traced or a number allocated to them. The requirement under Section 19 of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997 was one of a number of measures introduced to reduce the opportunity for fraudulent claims for benefit. The aim of Section 19 was to verify the identify of benefit applicants and to ensure that benefit goes only to those entitled to benefit who can prove that they are the person they say they are.

In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, the reason we went that far was because we had some evidence—some, no doubt, anecdotal and not scientifically established, although to my knowledge there have been cases—of people fraudulently claiming benefit under false names to which they were not entitled, sometimes involving extended families, or whatever. This is one of the ways in which we have sought to ensure that the money goes to those who are rightly entitled to claim it.

The requirement also extends to the partners of claimants for any benefit where the claim is made on behalf of both people or where extra money is paid in respect of a partner. For example, in respect of benefit, if you have larger accommodation by virtue of there being two or more people it is important to guarantee the identify of that second person by which you qualify for the housing benefit.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister, but can she tell me where the vires are for the extension to partners? I cannot find the words in the Act.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I shall have that checked. I do not have the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act with me.

If you are to identify the accuracy of entitlement to benefit where the benefit is based on more than one person you have to check all elements. For example, if you are claiming for three children, it is reasonable to ensure that there are three children and not one. It seems straightforward. If someone is claiming benefit as a single person, only that single person needs to have his entitlement checked. If you are claiming for two, three, four or five people, you need to check that entitlement. It seems straightforward. Given that the benefit will be what I call a multi-person benefit, I am not sure whether the question of vires arises. I shall have that checked. It is done for both people because without that condition it would be difficult to prevent or detect cases of fraud where the partner is independently claiming benefit at the same time, or even where the partner or alleged children do not exist.

I believe that a particular case may have influenced the noble Earl. If that is so, and if he will provide me with further details, I shall be happy to take it further. If he feels that anything we have said needs to be further discussed with organisations such as the CAB, so that people may know how to gain access to benefits in that situation, we shall be very happy to hold such discussions.

I am told that the vires is in Regulation 10, which states: In the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987(c) after regulation 2 there shall be inserted the following regulation 'Section 1 … shall not apply—

  1. (a) to a child or young person in respect of whom income support is claimed;
  2. (b) to a partner in respect of whom a claim for income support is made or treated as made before 5th October 1988'".
I thank the noble Earl for his copy of the statutory instrument. I believe that the copy he has provided answers, in Regulation 10, his own question.

I believe it may be useful to emphasise that the requirements of Section 19 should be neither onerous nor a barrier to genuine claimants.

It may be worth while outlining the processes by which national insurance numbers are issued. For most people who are born and brought up in this country in respect of whom parents have been receiving child benefit, the national insurance number is issued automatically at age 15. Their identity has been verified when their parents first claimed child benefit and by way of checks over the years.

However, there are people who, for one reason or another, have not been allocated a national insurance number through the child benefit route, the vast majority of whom are from abroad. When such people need a national insurance number, they are interviewed in person and must complete an application form. This is likely to be either when they want to start work and start paying national insurance contributions, or when they or their partners claim a benefit.

The main aim of the face-to-face interview is to establish the identity of the person applying for a national insurance number by requiring them to produce a range of evidence sufficient to support their account of themselves. No one document is regarded as conclusive proof of identity. Only a range of evidence in support of a person's life history can provide the necessary assurance. In other words, this is essentially about the credibility of the account.

We accept, of course, that many asylum seekers will have difficulty in producing a range of documents in support of their identity. If they had had ease of access to the documents, they might not have needed to be asylum seekers in the first place. That is why we do not rely on any specific document. A story can be verified, however, even in the absence of any documents at all. by means of intelligent questioning and by building up a consistent picture of the person. Our staff are fully aware of the reasons why asylum seekers may have little or no documentation. However, by using a combination of sensitive questioning and such evidence as is available, we believe that they can verify a story to the extent to which it is safe to issue a national insurance number.

If the noble Earl has experience to the contrary, I should be very grateful to hear of it. If, for example, he feels that we need to give extra guidance to the obvious ports of call to which people might go, such as a citizens' advice bureau, on how they can best do it, we shall be very happy to look at that. We want to be helpful in this respect. If, by virtue of not getting a national insurance number, some people are failing to qualify themselves and their partners for various benefits to which they are entitled, that would obviously be a matter of concern. We want to overcome those bureaucratic obstacles, while at the same time ensuring against the possibility of fraud. If the noble Earl has any proposals to put to us, I shall be very willing to follow them up with, for example, the NACAB to establish whether it has had similar experiences and how we can address them.

Given that, we do not believe that this amendment is necessary. The aim of Section 19 is to verify persons' identities, not for bureaucratic neatness but in order to prevent fraud. Without Section 19, a loophole would be left in our procedures which would enable claims to be made for non-existent partners or multiple claims for the same person. We see no reason why an exception should be made for the partners of asylum seekers. Such a measure would simply lower the standards of evidence needed for them and would weaken the rationale behind Section 19. We believe that our procedures are flexible and sensitive enough to cope with these issues. However, if the noble Earl has any further concerns, we shall be very happy to follow them through.

I do not believe that hardship would be caused to asylum seekers without this amendment. I do not believe that their cause would be served by adopting it. Therefore, in the light of the explanation that I have given, I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for the care of that reply. This is not, of course, the sort of amendment which one considers pressing. One raises this sort of amendment in an attempt to gain clarification, of which I have gained a good deal. I am most grateful to the Minister for the information about the vires on partners. I did not actually supply her with the regulation. I supplied her with the text of Section 19. I believe that the regulation reached her by the usual process of osmosis!

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I stand corrected. Following his generosity to contribute to the intellectual level of the debate, I was crediting the noble Earl with even more expertise on social security than is customarily the case.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am flattered. I entirely understand the point made by the Minister about non-existent partners. It is a valid point and I accept it. However, we need to distinguish between the claimant's own claim and the household claim on behalf of a partner. I do not understand why, because it is difficult to verify the identity of the partner, the claimant's own entitlement to benefit as a single person should also be threatened. I believe that this is a matter which calls for some thought.

I am also extremely grateful to the Minister for what she has said about help with regard to national insurance numbers. However, my information is that this does not relate to a single case, but to a whole sequence of cases in a number of local authorities. That suggests that the system is not working particularly well. It may be possible to get a national insurance number within a matter of weeks for those who are extremely fortunate. However, for most people, it takes a great longer than that. Indeed, one of our social security researchers in another place recently needed to claim another national insurance number, and it took no fewer than six months to get it. In my experience, that is by no means exceptional. If the Minister can think of any way of improving that, I shall be extremely happy to talk to her. However, I do not believe that I need to detain the House waiting while we do so. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 55 [New allowances for bereaved spouses]:

Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 5: Page 60, line 26, at end insert— ("( ) At the conclusion of the two year period, the surviving spouse shall be entitled to an allowance, based on the contribution record of the deceased spouse (subject to the conditions in subsections (4) and (5) below), until he or she attains pensionable age or dies, whichever happens first.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I return again, as I said I would on Report, to the matter of widows' benefits. At Report stage, the House agreed, with a substantial majority, to an amendment to extend the period of the bereavement allowance from the six months proposed by the Government to two years. That is, of course, an improvement. No one who knows anything about the trauma of bereavement believes that it can be overcome in six months or even a year. Therefore, this is a very welcome improvement. I said at the time, however, that I did not believe that it went far enough. After all, what the Government are proposing is the removal of a benefit to which widows over the age of 45 have hitherto been entitled as of right, based on the contributions of the deceased spouse.

My amendment seeks to restore the benefit to widows, taking account of the two-year amendment, and also extends the benefit to widowers, but on precisely the same terms as it is today paid to widows. It makes it quite clear that both sexes will benefit equally to the extent that the deceased spouse paid national insurance contributions. In other words, as happens now, it is a contributory benefit.

I expect that it will be argued again that this will result in benefits going to those who do not need them, but that is true of all contributory benefits. The Government redistribute through the tax system. They should not seek to do so through the benefits system, since this automatically impacts on poorer and more vulnerable people.

My major argument is that this is a contributory benefit and the Government are seeking to remove it from people who believe that they have a right to it because it has been paid for. To remove it would be a breach of contract, just as much as it would be were a private insurance company to refuse to pay out when policy conditions had been met.

The other argument against what I am proposing is that times have changed; most women work and are working at the time of bereavement and therefore have no need of the benefit. I believe that some of the statistics advanced in support of that argument are rather suspect. It is true, of course, that of the 17 million women of working age, approximately 12 million work. There is, therefore, a large proportion of women who work. However, there are 6 million part-time workers, and the overwhelming majority of those—about 5.4 million—are women.

There has been a slight narrowing of the gap between female and male earnings, but that is due to the impact of the minimum wage of £3.60 per hour. The minimum wage, which I welcome, has in fact benefited mostly women; £3.60 per hour is certainly not a fortune. It is not within striking distance of the £15,000 a year which my noble friend the Minister has from time to time claimed to be the average earned by married women in work.

Moreover, about 5 million women do not work at all, either part time or full time. Presumably, they are spending their time bringing up their children. And no real research has been undertaken to see just what the effect will be of the removal of this benefit. There has been no challenge to my contention that households in which women are the main earners are in a minority. The loss of the wages of the principal earner in a household is bound to lead to hardship and a drastic reduction in living standards in many cases.

Nor is it true that many women will benefit from generous white-collar pensions. In support of her argument, on one occasion my noble friend quoted bank managers. Not all white-collar workers are bank managers, and pensions are not always all that generous. The average white-collar worker not at managerial level is likely to qualify for a pension of around £7,000 a year. His widow will qualify for about half of that. So for someone receiving a generous white-collar pension of £3,500 a year, the widow's benefit is a useful, indeed necessary, addition, even if she is successful in obtaining full-time employment at the rate of £3.60 an hour.

I repeat that much occupational pension provision, apart from top-hat provision for people at managerial level, is based on the assumption that there will also be a state benefit. That includes survivor's benefits as well as the basic state pension paid at normal retirement age.

I understand that the Government will make a profit from this scheme, even with the two-year amendment, of around £500 million a year. Why is it necessary to make this small profit at the expense of the bereaved? I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, the noble Baroness moved the amendment with her customary technical expertise. The House has already decided to amend the Bill by extending the proposed 26-week period to two years. The origin of the matter is in the fact that the Government lost their case in the Court of Human Rights and they then extended the benefit to widowers as well as to widows. The Treasury, in a classic Treasury clawback, is seeking to recover the money it has to pay by penalising some other group. In short, the widower's benefit is to be paid for by a reduction in the duration of the benefit paid to widows.

Moreover, there is a degree of overkill to the extent of some £500 million. I presume that part of that arises because although the change will take place rapidly in respect of widows, due to computer problems there will be a technical delay in payment to widowers.

The noble Baroness rightly stressed the importance of the contributory principle in this context and the fact that contributory benefits are not normally means tested. However, while it is right to raise the matter today I believe that we should wait and see what happens in another place. I profoundly hope that it will accept the amendment that has been made, but either way the Bill will return to this House when we can reconsider this issue. It is right to raise it at this stage because we believe that the Government's solution to the decision of the Court of Human Rights is not correct.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the amendment seeks to extend entitlement to bereavement allowance well beyond the two-year time limit currently on the face of the Bill. It would extend payment of the allowance to men and women alike right up until pension age.

My noble friend Lady Turner made her position clear on Report. I respect her views, although they are not the same as mine. However, I am baffled by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, not only supported the amendment from the Opposition Front Bench but put his name to it. When we debated the issue a fortnight ago, he seemed to be wedded to a different proposition. On that occasion, the noble Lord successfully secured an amendment to extend entitlement to the bereavement allowance to two years. He has now joined my noble friend Lady Turner in tabling an amendment which would annul his earlier one by allowing bereavement allowance to be paid beyond the two-year limit. I find that deeply perplexing.

He clearly accepted at Report the principle of a time limit and, indeed, pressed to the vote his proposal to set it at two years. Yet in a matter of only two weeks he has decided that there should be, in effect, no time limit at all. I realise, because the noble Lord has told us on many occasions, that in sitting on the Front Bench as Opposition spokesperson on social security he takes no responsibility at all for any policies expressed at the Dispatch Box by his Conservative predecessors at the DSS while they were in government on the ground that "it was nothing to do with him". However, I had hoped that he might take responsibility for his own policies of just a fortnight ago. But apparently not. When can we hope from consistency from the noble Lord?

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's puzzlement. It seemed to me that although we had a discussion on the matter at the Report stage some of the issues were not fully debated. It seemed to be not inappropriate that we should have the opportunity of returning to them now, for the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned. However, I do not believe that it would be appropriate to press the matter to a Division.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will not think I am being personal if I say that, as answers go, to say that some issues were not dealt with is fairly weak. We had a substantial debate and two votes. For the noble Lord to believe that issues remain outstanding which should be raised for the first time at Third Reading on the ground that he did not get round to them at Second Reading and during the Committee and Report stages after two votes seems to me to be thin. He nods; he agrees.

I had hoped that the debate had moved on. On numerous occasions, the Government have made the case that it is not right to pay a benefit for life regardless of circumstances. The amendment takes us back. It would undermine the Government's strategy of focusing support where and when it is most needed—on families with children and on the period immediately following bereavement. The amendment will do nothing to ensure that help goes to those in greatest need. It would provide continuing support for widows up to pension age, regardless of their circumstances or income and extend this support to widowers, regardless of their circumstances or income; whether it be the MP earning £45,000 or the banker earning £450,000 in the City. They will all receive widower's benefit for life whether or not they have financial need, a job or children.

There is no reason why men and women without dependent children, many of whom will have well-paid jobs or generous occupational pensions, should receive a benefit for the rest of their working lives. Our reforms will extend bereavement benefits to men and remove the assumption that widows, simply because they are women, should have to rely on benefits throughout their working life.

We have always said that we recognise that people need a breathing space to come to terms with the emotional and practical upheaval caused by the loss of their spouse. That is why we are proposing that the new bereavement allowance should offer financial support for a limited period following bereavement.

It is not easy to decide when that time limit should end. When we considered the needs of working age widows and widowers without dependent children—the majority of whom are in the labour market already—we weighed up all the arguments. I believe that we have made the case that it is not right that they should receive a benefit for the rest of their working lives regardless of their financial need, employment situation or dependent children.

At the Report stage I recognised that the original proposal for a six-month time limit in bereavement allowance was causing concern and I offered to accept an amendment put down by my noble friend Lady Crawley to extend that period to one year. We then had two Divisions. Noble Lords opposite voted for the two-year provision before the House had had a chance to express its view on one year. That was the way the procedure operated. Many noble Lords approved of the Government's position on the proposal for a one year period. It was supported not only by my noble friends on this side, but by the right reverend Prelates, Liberal Democrats, most of the Cross-Bench life Peers who voted, and even some noble Lords on the Opposition Benches.

However, that amendment was lost. We are now where we are and it is for the House of Commons to consider what it will do. Now the noble Lord and my noble friend Lady Turner are asking the House to go much further. Effectively, this amendment would provide a benefit for the entirety of a widow or widower's working life, regardless of their need. It would cost over half a billion pounds every year in the long term and, incidentally, would add to the cost of the Conservative amendment which has been supported so far, bringing it up to nearly £4 billion.

I cannot believe that the House would wish to see a benefit of this sort going to men and women irrespective of income, financial need, employment situation and whether they have children attached to them. Are we really in the position of approving an unlimited benefit to women and men who may have six-figure salaries? That is what this amendment proposes. I very much hope that your Lordships will not accept such an amendment.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I hear what the Minister is saying, and I simply do not agree. She has not answered my main argument. We are talking about a contributory benefit for which people have made contributions in their working lives. The deceased spouse made contributions believing that if he died—it is the case that we are mostly talking about widows—there would be some form of contribution from the state for the support of his widow. That widow may have spent most of her time with her spouse bringing up children and then will have to cope somehow or other with a much-reduced household income when he dies, perhaps in his late forties or early fifties.

The argument of the right of people to have a benefit for which they have contributed has not really been answered by my noble friend. I have to say that there is no meeting of minds on this point at all. I do not agree with the Government's position here, and I am sure my noble friend acknowledges that. We simply do not agree. I pointed out the fact that the main wage earner in most households is still the male. My noble friend has not answered the point that the position of women has not changed so drastically that the state contribution is no longer needed.

However, I see that there is really no point in calling a Division on the amendment as it has been thoroughly debated in the House. I simply put on record once again my dissatisfaction with the arguments advanced from the Dispatch Box this evening. I very much regret that the Government appear to be departing from the social insurance principle in which many of us have believed for many years. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

6.45 p.m.

Clause 57 [Claim or full entitlement to certain benefits conditional on work-focused interview]:

Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 7: Page 63, line 26, at end insert — ("(1A) Regulations under this section may not impose any condition or requirement in respect of a person who—

  1. (a) is in receipt of disability living allowance or attendance allowance;
  2. (b) has caring commitments of 35 hours per week or more; or
  3. (c) is in receipt of widow's and bereavement benefits falling within section 20(1)(e) and (ea) of the Contributions and Benefits Act (other than a bereavement payment);
but may make provision for a person who falls within paragraph (a), (b) or (c) to be invited to take part in a work-focused interview on a voluntary basis.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, on Report I moved an amendment designed to remove from those in receipt of widows' benefits the necessity to attend for work-focused interviews as required by this clause. It will be recalled that the clause stipulates that failure to attend for such an interview can result in the removal of benefit. In other words, there is a measure of compulsion.

I tabled my previous amendment because present widows had been assured by the Government that they would continue to receive their benefit unaffected by the new legislation and that the new arrangements would apply only to individuals widowed in the future. The present widow's benefit is paid as of right, based on the contribution record of the deceased spouse. It is not means tested, as it is a contributory benefit, and no other conditions whatever are attached.

To introduce the further condition of attendance at work-focused interviews on pain of losing the benefit seemed to me a breach of the undertaking given by the Government that the benefits to present widows would not be affected. I was told by the Minister on Report that work-focused interviews were not only about getting people back to work, but also for giving advice and counselling. I said then that I would think about what had been said. I have since done so, and I must point out that bereavement counselling is already readily available from a number of organisations specialising in that area whose counsellors are probably far more expert than officials involved with the administration of benefits, however well trained.

Furthermore, it seemed to me that there were other categories of benefit recipients who should not be put under compulsion to attend for interviews on pain of losing benefits. As the amendment states, they are those in receipt of disability living allowance or attendance allowance, and those with caring commitments of 35 hours per week.

However, there is no reason why such people should not be told about the availability of such interviews and invited to attend on a purely voluntary basis. It is the element of compulsion to which I object. From what the Minister has said, I am hoping that she may find what I am suggesting here reasonable and sensible. I therefore tabled the amendment, even at this late stage, in the hope that she may perhaps feel inclined to accept it, if not in this wording, then at least in similar terms. I beg to move.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I begin by reaffirming our support for the principle of the work-focused interview. It is our belief that everything should be done to help and encourage into work anyone and everyone who can work. But this amendment allows a narrow and carefully defined category of certain individuals, not a broad range of people, the choice of whether or not to attend a ONE interview.

Those individuals already face considerable challenges in their everyday lives. They include individuals who, if they were able to work, would not be work-shy. Others, as carers, are already working arduous uncertain hours, often undertaking extremely difficult tasks. These individuals are constrained from working because of their disability, bereavement or caring duties, not because they do not want to work. We believe that for those individuals, compulsion is simply not necessary, appropriate or justifiable.

Those individuals should be encouraged to attend a ONE interview, but on an entirely voluntary basis. We urge the Government to encourage them and thereby afford them the same opportunity as everyone else. If that is done on a voluntary basis, it will contribute to their self-worth and self-esteem, and that must be right. It would give them confidence, a crucial ingredient for entering the world of work, through choice as opposed to making it a requirement of the law to attend.

We are already aware and expressed in Committee our real concern that the whole thrust of ONE has conjured up fear and raised considerable alarm among many people who are terrified at the prospect of not performing in an interview which is work-focused due to their disability. They fear that they will somehow fail, be penalised, and perhaps lose their benefits.

Noble Lords may recall that I suggested in Committee that the terminology "work-focused interview" is not at all helpful. "Personal development interview" would, in my view, be much better a way of describing what is at hand, not least because the Minister has striven to reassure us that the interview in fact concerns rights and benefits as much as work.

Indeed, the ONE learning assessment framework manual for advisers concentrates almost entirely upon benefits. In Committee and on Report we rehearsed the arguments against compulsory attendance at a ONE interview, particularly for the disabled. There was suggestion that we were somehow seeking to deny opportunities to those individuals. This amendment would provide them with choices—not threats—and with opportunities.

Further, I recall, for example, that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, believed that we were questioning the very value of interviews. Far from it, my Lords. We are extremely aware of the value of interviews. We do not support the dragooning of certain individuals who, if they are in receipt of disability living allowance or attendance allowance, have already had to face a raft of medical panels and been signed off as incapable of work; or, if they are carers with commitments of 35 hours per week or more, are probably already coping with the logistics of juggling those caring commitments with meeting other family commitments which may impinge upon their daily and—dare I say?—nightly lives. Is it fair or indeed cost effective to insist that those categories of individuals attend a ONE interview on a compulsory basis? Where is the value in that compulsion?

In conclusion, I fear that it seems to me quite clear that the most vulnerable people in the country are having to meet the most demanding criteria relative to their condition.

Earl Russell

My Lords, this is a good amendment. I believe that nothing goes deeper in the divisions between this party and new Labour than the issue of compulsion. When we discussed this matter in Committee, the Minister put forward an extremely powerful and carefully argued defence of compulsion to which I listened with great interest. The central principle of what the Minister said was, "You don't know what you don't know". She argued that people should be made to attend in order to receive information. But the Minister's principle that "You don't know what you don't know" cuts both ways. Of course, there is a great deal about people who have disabilities, who are carers, who have carers to look after them, or who have been recently bereaved which cannot be within the knowledge of those arranging the interviews.

The case against compulsion comes under two headings. The first is the compulsion to attend the interview, which, formally, is all that is in the Bill. The other is the possibility of mistaken decisions being reached at that interview. I agree entirely with the Minister that many people with disabilities are capable of doing extremely valuable work. Any Member of this House who denies that has not attended recently. But we need to know each disabled person as an individual because we all know that what two people with an outwardly identical handicap can manage to do despite that handicap is not the same. There is a mental factor in this which is perfectly genuine and not always understood.

Similar reasoning applies when one is dealing with pain. Nobody really knows how much pain other people are suffering. I have even known family doctors make quite grave errors on this point. It is very difficult indeed for someone who has never before met a person who is in pain to reach an accurate decision on whether that person feels too much pain to be able to do what is required of them.

When we deal with carers, we must consider not only the interests of the carer but also the person who is being cared for. If your mobility is limited or if your mental state is disturbed, you have a very high degree of dependence on your carer. You may be faced with the fear of an interview which may take your carer away from you and cast you into a quite unknown situation. I observe the Minister shaking her head. But were she to explain that to someone who suffers perhaps from acute depression, I believe she would find that, although her reassurance is rational, it might not be enough. One cannot put forward policy on the assumption that everybody who needs to be cared for is rational all the time. Apart from anything else, acute pain makes one irrational from time to time.

With regard to bereavement, I refer to the extremely powerful speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, when we discussed the bereavement allowance in Committee about the length of time it may take in some cases to make the necessary adjustments. One cannot know without being inside somebody else's skin which people can make it quickly and which people make it slowly. Lady Seear once said that it is not right to require people to go straight from graveside to job centre. That is one reason why we on these Benches support this amendment.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy for, particularly, the second part of this amendment which refers to carers. I wish to add a few comments to what noble Lords have said. I shall speak briefly and only to that part of the amendment.

I believe it is sometimes difficult for people to understand that those with heavy caring commitments are still extremely interested in having a job outside the home. That is not only for financial reasons but, perhaps even more importantly, for psychological reasons. It is not always easy to remain in that type of relationship at home, constrained as one often is. Therefore, carers want to move into the job market. However, that has to be handled extremely sensitively.

I made the point previously to your Lordships about sensitivity and training that the people who conduct the interviews must have. Also, the way in which the interviews are—if I may put it this way—marketed to those who may be involved is extremely important. I believe that we must be very careful how we deal with such interviews.

On the other hand, however, I can think of some instances in which compulsion to attend an interview has been beneficial to carers. In particular, I think of carers in a New Deal programme in the north west which the Carers National Association conducted in partnership with Centrica. They specifically targeted carers to persuade them to enter Centrica's workforce. Their first efforts to bring in the carers were not at all successful because the carers could not understand that they were the people who should be encouraged to come into the workforce. It took much more aggressive marketing to say, "Yes, we do need you", to involve the carers in that particular programme. I am happy to say that it is now extremely successful.

Therefore, as the noble Lord said, it seems that the key issue is to treat people as individuals, to think about their psychological as well as their financial needs, and to think about the way in which the interview is operated. That is much more important than whether the interview is voluntary or compulsory.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, this has been a short but very thoughtful and scrupulous debate.

The amendment seeks to exempt from compulsory work-focused interviews three groups of claimants: those who receive disability living allowance or attendance allowance; those with caring responsibilities of 35 hours per week or more; and those in receipt of widows' and bereavement benefits.

The arguments for inclusion of those groups in the provisions of this clause are essentially those that I have used with your Lordships throughout the course of this Bill. It is a key principle of our welfare reforms that people should be treated as individuals and not be put into a box, as my noble friend said, which carers do not believe applies to them. We want to move away from that rigid categorisation which says, "If you are a disabled person you have no interest in working. Therefore we shall not encourage you to think about the opportunities", and so on. Yet we know that 8 per cent of those on DLA are in employment.

If we are to make progress in moving those at risk of falling into the twilight or the edges of our society because they live on benefits which do not give them the full quality of life that they would wish, we cannot afford to deny them the help that our reforms will offer them.

I turn now to the amendment. I shall speak to each of the three groups in turn. First, obviously the reference to attendance allowance is unnecessary because attendance allowance is payable only to those who have attained pensionable age. The clause does not apply to anyone over the age of 60. As we made clear when we introduced an amendment on Report, there is no requirement that pensioners should attend work-focused interviews. Only pensioners are eligible for attendance allowance.

DLA is payable to people who, because of their disability, incur additional costs in relation to their care or mobility needs. Its recipients include, but are not limited to, those with the most severe disabilities. For example, someone who receives DLA may have acute intelligence, acute skills and enjoy general good health, but may be a paraplegic and may therefore need higher rate DLA in order to qualify for a Motability car, which then gives him the very mobility he wants. That person may be an extraordinarily effective addition to the labour force but the amendment would wipe out the invitation to that person to come in to the work-focused interview.

7 p.m.

Lord Higgins

What about DLA?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, DLA is a broad sweep of category in the amendment. In the same way that we included attendance allowance, which can only be paid to pensioners and therefore is not relevant, although I accept that among those who receive DLA there may be those who are so severely disabled that they need constant care and attendance, it also includes people who are receiving a motability car which then gives them exactly the independence they need to enter the labour market. To categorise people because they receive DLA as not to be on the receiving end of a requirement to attend an interview does them no kindness.

While people who receive DLA as their only benefit will not be subject to the provisions of this clause, people with DLA who then claim a benefit which is covered—for example, income support—will be subject to the requirement to participate in a work-focused interview.

The fact that this clause could apply to recipients of DLA does not mean that all recipients of this benefit will be subject to work-focused interviews. Advisers will be trained and guided to consider each case individually using all the information available to them. They will consider whether a client will benefit from an immediate interview or not. If not, that interview may be waived or deferred. Clearly, if somebody is on DLA, on highest rate care, on what I call the six months or under special rules—that is, they are regarded as having a terminal illness—of course no one is suggesting that compulsory interviews apply.

I can assure your Lordships that these provisions will be applied with appropriate sensitivity. We are working with all the voluntary organisations to ensure that they guide us not only in training staff but in continuing to train and advise staff once the schemes are up and running so that they may stay up-to-date with the knowledge they need.

The argument for including carers within the scope of this clause is the same as that for people with disabilities. Of course we respect and value the role performed by carers. We are emphatically not suggesting that carers give up their caring responsibilities and take a job.

What we are saying is that caring duties do not last for ever. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley knows infinitely more about this than I ever will. Caring for a child who, for example, will be dependent as an adult may well be a lifetime commitment. Caring, say, for an elderly parent or a seriously ill spouse may not be. We know that the median length of time that someone is on ICA is two years. One quarter of all carers care for around six months or less. Only one-fifth care for more than five years. There is a wide range of experiences here according to whom the carer is caring for.

I therefore endorse the remarks of my noble friend. Carers who are permanently outside the labour market not only become poor but socially and emotionally isolated. When they, in turn, come to need care they may well find that there is no one to care for them. One of the best ways to ensure that carers re-enter full society is to ensure that they remain sensitively and properly in touch through an adviser with the potential to re-enter the labour market as and when they are ready.

As I have said, around 10 to 15 per cent of carers work in spite of the fact that they have heavy caring commitments. Others may wish to do so. We would not want to deny them that opportunity. The same argument applies with respect to widows and widowers. Recently bereaved people must and will be treated with appropriate respect, consideration and compassion. But we must have regard to the individual circumstances of each claimant. In my view, a blanket exclusion of those on attendance allowance or DLA, of carers, widows and widowers would do absolutely nothing to address, meet and reveal individual needs. It would deny many the very help and support they need at a difficult time.

As I have tried to make clear in earlier discussions, the ONE service is not just about jobs, although work for those who can is a central aim. It is also about providing an holistic approach to the welfare needs of each claimant based upon their individual circumstances. If those needs are best met by helping individuals to move towards the labour market, that is what will be provided. If they have different needs, such as help in stabilising their financial position or bereavement counselling, we will provide that help and ensure that those who can at least help them are available to them. Each person will be treated according to their personal needs, which is the basic tenet of ONE.

Many widows and widowers choose to work. Those who have given up work to provide care for their spouses may move back to work quite quickly. Others, if they have children, may wish to stay in touch with the labour market to improve their future employment prospects. We will offer tailored help via their adviser.

The core of the debate is whether access to the additional service of ONE that we wish to provide should be on a voluntary or compulsory basis. In my view the argument here is clear. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, in putting words into my mouth did so entirely accurately. If people have not had the advantages of a new system explained to them, how can they arrive at a sensible conclusion as to whether or not they should volunteer? How can people decide whether or not they want the help the ONE service can give them until someone has told them what help is on offer?

As I said to the House on a previous occasion, I have changed my mind on this issue so far, for example, as concerns lone parents. When I first started at the Dispatch Box I thought that voluntary interviews for lone parents were all that was necessary. I thought that those who were ready would take them up and those who did not come for interview were those with caring responsibilities who would not want to enter the labour market and it was not right to encourage them to do so. I have to say that I have changed my mind. The evidence is overwhelming that the element of compulsion for new lone parents will be essential.

Where interviews are voluntary, we know that 80 per cent of those to whom we extend an invitation do not respond. Yet, of the 20 to 25 per cent of those who do respond, 90 per cent choose voluntarily to join the programme. It is perhaps worth repeating those figures. On a voluntary basis, 80 per cent of lone parents do not respond to the letter. Of the 20 to 25 per cent who do respond, over 90 per cent choose voluntarily to join the programme. How on earth do we reach the other 80 per cent unless we can bring them within the corral of a preliminary interview? Overwhelmingly, of those who do respond, over 90 per cent go on to join the programme by choice.

That is why I say that people do not know what they do not know. When lone parents come in for an interview for the first time they realise what is available to them, as do disabled people, carers, widows or widowers who have perhaps been out of the labour market for some time. Only then can they make an informed choice as to what they want to go on to do. That has been my experience in trying to address the identical issue with lone parents who may have come out of a bad relationship and have dependent children. They need to know. When they do know, they voluntarily make informed choices that suit their needs.

I hope your Lordships will accept that we mean such interviews to be holistic, not just work-focused; to offer a range of information, services and advice about benefits to which they may be entitled; counselling support; debt counselling support; bereavement support that may be necessary; training and childcare opportunities or whatever is appropriate. Most people cannot know that sort of information unless they have come within the purview of that interview.

I take the point about the work-focused interview in relation to the comments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, some of which I rather sympathise with. In future we shall describe the interviews as "personal adviser meetings" in order to lower the possibility of stress and tension associated with the word "interview". That point was sensitively made and we are, indeed, taking that on board.

The noble Baroness is right to emphasise the need for sensitivity in training among personal advisers. She has seen the training pack. We are working closely with the voluntary organisations to ensure that that training is delicately and sensitively done and, as I say, is holistic.

However, I ask your Lordships not to effectively write off those on DLA with another benefit, widows, widowers and those who are carers, from coming within the range of this service. From my experience with lone parents, if such a "personal adviser meeting" is voluntary, people do not attend. Yet, if they do attend, 90 per cent want and choose to go on the programme and are glad that they do so. Had we not sent the letters out, they would not have come.

My concern is how we reach the rest. If noble Lords were minded to support the amendment there would be a repetition of the same experience. These people would be confined to the edges of society, living on inadequate income and support, with an inadequate social life, because they had not learned of the opportunities that exist.

It is not an onerous requirement. They will attend a simple meeting. If that meeting is inconvenient, if it is deferred because of a person's health or recent bereavement, or if the meeting needs to take place in the person's home in the presence of a friend or a carer, that is acceptable. It is not meant to be threatening or create barriers. It will ensure that people who are pushed to the edges of society as a result of their responsibilities or experiences, have the information with which to join mainstream society. Knowledge is power, and the Government wish to empower people. If the amendment were to be accepted, there would be a risk that they would not have that knowledge and they would effectively be disempowered. I hope that noble Lords will not accept the amendment.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her very detailed and compassionate response to the amendment, and I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this very interesting debate. I share the views that were expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that "work-focused interviews" is not a very good name for what my noble friend has described. If personal development were the key issue, the situation might be different.

My problem is that I do not like the notion that the people referred to in the amendment, who are rather vulnerable, should have to attend an interview on pain of losing their benefits if they do not do so. It is that element of compulsion that I dislike about this section of the Bill, but if the administration of this section will be as described by the noble Baroness, then it is unobjectionable. It is reasonable that people should be encouraged to come in and be spoken to about their personal development and training opportunities. The problem is that that would be against the background that if they do not come in for the interview they could conceivably lose their benefits.

In view of the very detailed explanation given by the Minister, and the fact that there will be no further opportunity to consider this matter under this section of the Bill, I feel inclined to see how it works out in practice. If the interview is a personal development interview instead of a work-focused interview and if the emphasis is not on people losing benefits if they do not show up, then that will be a very good move.

A great deal more could be done to market what is available. People do not always realise what opportunities are available. There should be marketing of the interviews and an explanation of what they involve. Sometimes people are wary and afraid when summoned to an interview. We do not want people to stay away because they are afraid and then lose benefits as a result. If the Government intend to pursue this in the way indicated by the Minister, that would be satisfactory to most noble Lords, including my noble friend Baroness Pitkeathley, whose support I value. In those circumstances I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Addington moved Amendment No.8. Page 64, line 25, at end insert— ("(g) for carrying out a full review of the effects of the interviews and decisions connected with them on specific groups of claimants, to ensure equality of treatment and consistency of standards and to disseminate examples of good practice, such review to—

  1. (i) include consideration of the effects on those with disabilities, black and ethnic minorities, and those whose first language is not English, and
  2. (ii) include consultation with relevant bodies, to include the Disability Rights Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and organisations of, or representing, people with mental health problems;
and to take place not less than one year and not more than two years after the day on which this Act is passed.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we are returning to the idea of obtaining the right type of information from these compulsory interviews, and the question of training and support for the people who conduct the interviews. We have been round this course several times. The amendment will enable the correct information to be extracted from those people who are being interviewed.

We propose a review process whereby the information gathered is assessed by those who know it from the special groups. I have always said that these interviews potentially have two edges. I should like to see the right type of interviews conducted for the right groups.

We can talk about this for a long time, but I have consistently expressed the fear that the people who conduct the interviews will not be properly trained. The noble Baroness has assured me that they will be well trained. I have countered that assurance by asking whether they will be trained in the right areas and asking about groups with mental health problems. The noble Baroness has addressed this point, for which I thank her. She has been in touch with charities which have in turn been in touch with me.

The amendment would extend the process further in identifying best practice and where it does not work. I am asking for a process of review that would identify where things are going wrong. If the process is carried out properly, we shall be able to enhance it. The problem that we all fear is that, if we get it wrong, people's lives could be utterly destroyed. The noble Baroness has acknowledged that potential danger. The amendment would allow a review of the process as it develops.

I hope that the noble Baroness will respond favourably to the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, we welcome the amendment. It adds a safeguard for cross-cultural awareness. It is vital to consider the training of advisers and the effect of the process upon black and ethnic minorities, which have not yet been mentioned in discussion of the Bill, as well as those with disabilities and those whose first language is not English.

Much depends on the administration of the Bill and particularly the training of advisers and the sensitivities displayed by those advisers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, stated, it is very important to see what happens in practice.

If the Government decide to reject the amendment, what guidance will be given to personal advisers on how to respond to people from minority communities with such problems as those highlighted in the amendment, particularly those whose first language is not English?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and I are reading Amendment No.8 in the same way. It seeks to place an obligation on the Government to undertake a review of the impact of work-focused interviews and the decisions taken by one's staff and asks us to consider the effect on people with disabilities, those from ethnic minorities and those whose first language is not English. The amendment, as I understand it, is concerned with reviewing information on the progress of this initiative and ensuring that it is handled professionally and made available. However, the noble Lord also spoke about the adequacy of training of personal advisers.

Lord Addington

My Lords, if we do not take on board what is going on, we shall not know how to change the training. That is what we are getting at. If mistakes are being made in training, or one party has it right and another has it wrong, we shall not know. It is a matter of disseminating information about training.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord is saying that we need the research in order to get back a learning loop. The simple answer to that —I can cut a couple of pages here—is yes; we are placing great emphasis on collecting and publishing a whole range of information. It will be one of the most closely monitored initiatives I can think of, other than perhaps the Child Support Agency.

We shall be collecting information on areas such as the number of people who go through the service and are referred to a job vacancy; the number having their interviews deferred; why the deferral occurred; how long for; information on those failing to take part in an interview; the appeals decisions and so forth.

In addition—this is more pertinent because the first is simply a collection of numbers—we shall be conducting a full and comprehensive evaluation of the pilots which will have qualitative as well as quantitative elements. It will assess whether the pilots led to an increase in the sustainable level of employment by getting more people into work; it will also—this is pertinent to what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was saying—seek the views of clients regarding the actual level of service that they received. Personal advisers will be interviewed to ensure that lessons are learnt to help to make the service we offer more effective. Again, much of the qualitative information will be broken down so that we understand whether the impact on the ONE service for each of the main client groups differs from that overall picture. We shall also be monitoring the effect of disentitlement. The evaluation data and the current survey will allow us to see what is happening.

The amendment also seeks to ensure that key organisations, representing people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and people with mental health problems are consulted in the review process. That is already happening now with the training and will continue to happen as we roll out the scheme. We shall get their advice and experience as we look back at our work. For example, the ONE consultation forum gives national organisations representing disabled people, carers, lone parents and people with mental health problems the opportunity to discuss emerging issues with Ministers and senior officials. At a national level, the BA Annual Forum and the Disability, Homelessness and Ethnic Minority Forum have begun to run two-way sessions on the operation of the ONE project, bringing together officials and delegates of all the major organisations representing those clients.

We also have local networks of supervision. I could go on and on. But I hope that noble Lords will be assured that not only are we collecting what I call the traditional statistical material of numbers, outputs, through-puts, sustainable job levels and so forth, but we are also going into the area which quite rightly concerned the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, in relation to the quality of service to clients; their views on the quality of that service; the degree to which we are being supported and sustained by the voluntary organisations and the degree to which all that can be fed back into training. Yes; we are doing it in spades! I hope that when we see some of that research coming through noble Lords will be able to join with us in feeling that this is a worthwhile new development by government.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I have one brief question for the noble Baroness. Will that process involve bodies receiving back reports? This is one of the reasons the amendment was tabled. Most people go to an organisation if they have a problem. That is generally the way with which these matters are dealt. People look for support. Primarily for the record, can the noble Baroness tell us what would be the process and how a person or group who is not in that loop, can get into it?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, again I am not entirely sure I understand the noble Lord. What is it that the individual client would want to know? I can then perhaps help as to how that information might come to them. Statistics, for example, will be in the annual reports, the quarterly reports, the PQs and so forth. Guidance notes would go through to CABs and voluntary organisations. If information is required about the consultation that has taken place with the voluntary organisations, that may be in the voluntary organisations' annual reports. Perhaps the noble Lord can help me further.

Lord Addington

My Lords, what I am trying to get at—it is like pulling teeth and I apologise to the House for this— is that when people have problems, they tend to go to help groups; groups that exist outside the Government, such as the voluntary organisations. People go there for support when they feel they have a problem. The amendment seeks to bring those groups into the legislation. and this is by no means an exhaustive list. They would then be able to tell the Government if they have a problem. The process is extremely important to people's lives. If the Government go to the groups straightaway, it simply tightens the link. Will the Government have a format whereby people will know where to go to become involved in the link?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, if any group is not involved but would like to be, perhaps it will contact us because we are working closely with all the major national organisations; those for disabled people; those for people who have a language other than English as their first language; those for ethnic minority groups, and so forth. We believe that our trawl was extensive, and the DSS has a lot of experience in this. But if the noble Lord feels that any specific organisations should have a voice but may have been overlooked, I shall be grateful if he will let me know. I shall ensure that they are embraced within the procedures.

Lord Addington

My Lords, being told in Parliament that there will be a constantly open door is probably what I was seeking. Having been offered that invitation on the Floor of this Chamber is about as good as it is going to get and I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved. Amendment No. 9 Page 67, line 41, at end insert— ("(2) This section is subject to section 84(4A).").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, we return to the same issue we were discussing in Amendment No. 7; that is, the issue of compulsion. We have had two theoretical cases competing with each other put fairly powerfully on both sides. Amendment No. 9 asked for evidence. To obtain evidence to choose between two rival sets of principles is not an ignoble ambition.

The question is: when people are actually disentitled to benefit, what happens to them? We know very little about that. I do not see how we can consider the effect of a policy of disentitlement when we do not know what happens. We get then a contest between two opposite moral principles without any way of anchoring either of them in experience.

We know a limited amount. There is government research in the MORI report on 16 and 17 year-olds and the incapacity benefit leavers tracking study, both of which show a significant percentage of those affected as having no income. Those people are not actually dead, so they must be keeping alive in some other way. It could be of interest to find out in precisely what way they are keeping alive; to find out in particular how many of them are suffering ill health. Anyone who has read the Acheson report knows perfectly well that there is a clear link between poverty and ill health, and a clear link between being on benefit and ill health. One would expect, therefore, that there might be an even clearer link between having no benefit and ill health.

It is no good simply asserting that as a hypothesis. We ought to have some evidence on it. We know also that a number of people who have got into drug running have done so because they were disentitled to benefit and because it was the only way they could make a living. The MORI report on 16 and 17 year-olds documented that, among other pieces of research. Amendment No. 9 suggests that, when compulsion is brought in under this Bill, the Government should set up pilot studies into the effect of the compulsion and what happens over the next year to the people who have been disentitled to benefit. Presumably those who hold for the idea that it is a short, sharp, salutary shock suppose that those to whom it happens decide to reform their ways and return to actively seeking work and generally conform. Whether that is the case, or whether those concerned sink into an underclass, disappear from the records without trace and do things which would not stand very much inquiry, is a question of some importance.

You cannot judge whether a policy is justified until you know the nature of its actual effects. On the one hand, it is asserted that it is not right to pay people benefit for doing nothing, while, on the other hand, it is asserted that all these people are human beings and we should not starve them. Why cannot we have some decent information? I have been asking for this for a long time; and I am still asking. I beg to move.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, we fully support a proposal for a full review of the pilot schemes, in particular the gathering and publication of information regarding the outcome of those who do not attend personal adviser meetings. I should say here that I am very pleased to be referring to the ONE interview as that; indeed, I am grateful to the Minister for that change. What happens in relation to the benefits of these claimants if they fail to turn up three times? What happens to those people? Are the procedures introduced at the pilot scheme stage flexible enough in practice to deal with all those who must attend?

The amendment proposed highlights the diverse situations which the interviewer may find himself or herself in as a personal adviser coping with those interviews. Can the Minister say whether the processes for communicating with the Benefits Agency are sufficient to cope with what one might describe as "exceptional cases"?

We welcome the pilot schemes. However, we believe that the Government have, in large part, accepted the enormity of the challenge of introducing the personal attendance meetings. Indeed, they have undertaken the pilot schemes to see how the process works. Therefore, it would surely make sense to evaluate the workings—the successes and the failures—before bringing Clause 57 into force.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, part of the answer to evaluating what we are doing with the ONE programme was, I hope, given to your Lordships in reply to the previous question; namely, that we are monitoring both quantitatively, in terms of the number of people coming through, and qualitatively, in terms of the experience from the perception of the client, the personal adviser and the voluntary organisations. We seek to feed that back into the training and learning experience of the personal advisers who, as I believe all noble Lords recognise, will be at the heart of this process.

In terms of monitoring what is happening with the ONE programme, I hope that noble Lords will accept that, as regards the previous amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, monitoring and evaluation will continue. However, the second part of the amendment is a worry, as expressed very powerfully, as always, by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, concerning what will happen to those who are disentitled. There are two separate issues here: first, the degree of monitoring of the scheme overall; and, secondly, what will happen to those who are disentitled.

The noble Earl referred particularly to the lack of evidence as regards the withdrawal of other benefits which would enable us to see what is happening. We believe that clients will be keen to participate in the meetings that we propose. Of the two pieces of research that are to hand on those who have come off benefit, one of them, which relates to those who leave incapacity benefit as a result of no longer meeting the eligibility conditions, was quoted by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. However, I wonder whether the noble Earl is also familiar with the research regarding those who have been disentitled to JSA and what happened to them, which was published in 1998. The findings in that respect were mixed. The research did not indicate that the respondents had ended up in prison, but—

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister who actually recommended that research to me at the time. I have indeed read it. There is information on the availability or not of income, but not on how people succeeded in making a living. That is what we need to know.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Possibly, my Lords. However, what the research also showed—and I think this is pertinent to our discussion this evening—was that respondents wanted more face-to-face treatment; that is to say, someone to explain what was happening to them. They also said that they needed better explanations and more consistent information, which is precisely what ONE aims to provide. In other words, of those JSA claimants who became disentitled, one of the consistent complaints was that they had not had the face-to-face service that the ONE programme is designed to introduce.

We believe that the vast majority of people will want, and recognise, the propriety of having an interview as a pathway into their benefit. We expect the numbers regarding those disentitled to be very small. We want to elicit co-operation, not impose sanctions. We want to remind people of the safeguards, especially those who may be vulnerable. First, the personal advisers have the ability to waive or defer meetings. Secondly, clients will have three opportunities to attend a meeting before a decision is made that they have failed to take part. Thirdly, clients will get numerous clear verbal and written reminders of the need to have a meeting as part of the condition of claiming benefit, which will be drafted with the help of the lobby groups.

There will also be a comprehensive good-cause provision to ensure that those who fail to attend with good cause are not penalised. Clients will be able to dispute or appeal against decisions that they failed to take part, and they can have those decisions overturned. I repeat what I said earlier. We will visit people in their homes when this is appropriate. Moreover, if we have failed to make any contact with someone, we will ensure that we make a home visit first before there is any move to disentitle him or her from benefit. At the end of the day, I really believe that the numbers of those disentitled will be extremely small. I hope that it will be a wilful choice and not one caused by either lack of information on the side of the client or lack of effort on the side of the agency.

In light of the fact that we are, on the one hand, tracking very carefully through research what is happening to the ONE process and, on the other hand, putting in place an abundant array of safeguards for those who might be at risk of losing a benefit, such as those I have just itemised to the House, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for a long and careful reply. However, there is rather more to be done here than she suggested. In order to have any serious tracking of what happens to people who are disentitled to benefit, we will obviously have to have joined-up use of records between different government departments. We must, for example, break down the Chinese wall between the social security statistics and the criminal statistics; and we must break down the Chinese wall between the benefit statistics and the health statistics. It is only when we can see what correlation there is, or is not, between disentitlement to benefit and effects in either health or criminal matters that we can really know what we are dealing with.

I accept that I have received a very serious and sympathetic reply, but I do not believe that it has met what I am asking for; indeed, I do not think that the Minister really expected that it would. This is not the right moment to take the matter further, but the noble Baroness can take it for granted that I will do so on other occasions—I fear, on many other occasions. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Clause 62 [Incapacity benefit: persons incapacitated in youth]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 11: Page 71, line 37, leave out from ("to") to ("notwithstanding") in line 39 and insert ("incapacity benefit shall, in prescribed circumstances, be entitled to short-term incapacity benefit under subsection (1)(b) above").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment makes a slight revision to an amendment to which the House agreed on Report. It is entirely beneficial. The changes that we introduced to Clause 62 were intended to protect two specific groups of people. The two groups were those who take up employment and earn below the LEL for a lengthy period before becoming incapable again of work, and those who return to the UK after a long period abroad. In neither case would they have had the opportunity to establish a contribution record to qualify for IB in the normal way.

The amendment will improve the original wording to reflect our intention that, in addition to new claimants who are awarded IB as a result of Clause 62, existing SDA recipients aged under 20 at the point of change who will transfer to IB a year later, will also be covered by this concession. I hope that noble Lords will be happy to agree to the amendment. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for the exemplary care and courtesy with which she has kept us informed of the content of government amendments at all stages of this Bill. That has done a great deal to save the time of the House and, in order not to refute myself, I shall sit down.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 80 [Transitional provisions]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigharn moved Amendment No. 12: Page 84, line 12, at end insert (", or under section 31(7B) of that Act if the marriage was dissolved by a decree granted in proceedings so begun").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 12, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 18, 19 and 20. This is a small group of technical amendments relating to pension sharing. As pension sharing is extremely complex, I hope that noble Lords will allow me to seek their agreement to some final important touches to the legislation.

Amendment No. 12 is required to make clear the policy intention that pension sharing should be available only where divorce proceedings begin after the pension sharing provisions come into force. As the Bill is currently drafted, there is no provision for pensions which have been shared and then uprated to be paid at the new rate. Amendment No. 18 puts this right.

Amendment No. 19 is necessary to ensure that any additional administrative expenditure of the Secretary of State in connection with the supply of information for pension sharing can be met from the appropriate vote. Amendment No. 20 extends Section 178(a) of the Pension Schemes Act, with which I am sure your Lordships are entirely familiar. The amendment extends to earmarking cases in Scotland the power under Section 178(a) to say who are the managers of an occupational pension scheme. I hope that your Lordships will accept these amendments. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 84 [Commencement]:

[Amendments Nos. 13 to 15 not moved.]

Clause 85 [Extent]:

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 16: Page 86, line 28, leave out from ("70") to end of line.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendments in this group are not only technical but are also consequential. They remain in the Bill rather like the smile on the face of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland after the cat itself had disappeared.

I shall not detain the House more than a moment or two but I shall make just two points. First, at Report stage I expressed some concern at a particular passage in an employees' bulletin issued by the chairman of the Inland Revenue. He has with great courtesy written to me about this and stated in the clearest terms that it was certainly never intended that the statement should be read in any other way than as a factual statement. I fully accept what he says and would like to place that on the record.

Secondly, as regards the cat which has disappeared, it remains to be seen what steps the Government now propose to take with regard to IRS35, whether in the Finance Bill or by way of further amendment. Clearly some of the consultations in which the Government took part have been helpful in improving what was originally proposed. However, there is still quite considerable concern among smaller operators in the IT industry, in particular that they may find themselves disadvantaged by what was further suggested in relation to their larger competitors. All I say at this stage is that I hope very much that the Government will carry out further consultations, because everyone has the same objective; namely, to ensure that tax avoidance does not occur. However, it is important that that should be done in a way which does not damage industry or the state of the economy. I beg to move.

7.45 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I accept that these amendments are consequential on the removal of Clauses 71 and 72 and we shall not oppose them. However, in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has just said, I should say a little more about the Government's intentions. I sent a letter to the noble Lord today which he will not have received because he has been on duty in the Chamber. I have sent copies of the letter to all other noble Lords who took part in the debate on this subject, including the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who also probably has not seen the letter. We shall seek to reverse in the other place the vote at Report stage on the service companies measures. I shall not repeat the debate any more than the noble Lord did but I wish to respond in public to a point that he made about the use of a Finance Bill because, although that point is mentioned in the letter I have sent to him, it is important that that should be placed on public record.

The reference that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, made to an Order in Council of 1987 concerned a specific and limited circumstance which has not been regarded as creating a precedent. It was in the context of what is now Section 649 of the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988. Briefly, this section covers the delivery of tax relief on minimum contributions from the National Insurance Fund to personal pension schemes under Section 86 of the Social Security Act 1986. It provides that the Government should make the payments to the pension scheme grossed-up to take account of basic rate tax, and that the National Insurance Fund should be recompensed for the tax relief from the Consolidated Fund. So it covers a payment in respect of tax from the Consolidated Fund into the National Insurance Fund. That seems to be a very specific circumstance of NICs legislation being included in a Finance Bill. It is completely different from the current case, which is a substantial and important change to the rules governing NICs.

I am advised that the House authorities would not agree that such an example provides a precedent for including other NICs changes, such as the NICs service provision proposals within a Finance Bill. In the meantime, as I said, I accept the amendments which the noble Lord is moving.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, the House will be grateful for the noble Lord's clarification as regards both Finance Bills and also the Government's intention. I repeat that as regards this clause our objectives are the same as the Government's. However, we are anxious that the matter should be even-handed as between various participants in any particular industry. Technical points have been made which suggest that this is not the case. However, I very much hope that before the measure reaches another place the Government will have further discussions. I have received a document from the Professional Contractors Group which states, All we have ever asked for were meaningful discussions and we still believe that given the opportunity we can with good will arrive at a solution that will address the Government's concern without damaging the knowledge-based sector". I hope very much that it is possible to achieve that objective. We shall of course watch with interest what happens in another place and then consider the situation carefully. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Noble Lords


Lord Higgins

My Lords, I beg the pardon of the House. I have moved the amendment. It is so unusual to have an amendment accepted. I am grateful to the Government for having indicated their approval of this amendment. I commend the amendment to the House.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 17: Page 87, line 11, leave out from ("71") to first ("and") in line 12.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 12 [Consequential amendments]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendments Nos. 18 to 20: Page 145, leave out lines 18 and 19 and insert— ("25.—(1) Section 155A is amended as follows. (2) In subsection (1)(a)(i), after "retirement pension" there is inserted "or shared additional pension". (3) In subsection (2), after "retirement pension" there is inserted ", a shared additional pension"."). Page 145, line 25, leave out from beginning to (", and") in line 28 and insert (" 24 of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999,""). Page 147, line 16, after ("1973") insert (", section 12A of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 1985").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 21: Page 155, line 37, at end insert ("the").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 21, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 22. These are two small amendments to the measure on pensions and bankruptcy. They change the two remaining mentions in the text of "unfair contributions" to "the unfair contributions". We did all the rest at Report stage but we missed these two, for which I apologise. I beg to move.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will be heartily relieved to hear at this late stage of the Bill that we shall not seek to embarrass the Government with our depleted troops over the word "the".

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sorry to have kept the noble Lord away from Hatfield House.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 22: Page 159, line 15, at end insert ("the").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, enough of speeches—at least for the time being. I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Hollis of Heighem.)

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I am inclined to agree with the noble Baroness about speeches. I make only this point. At Second Reading I suggested that this Bill was really four or five Bills rolled into one. I believe that is the case. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, have been throughout extremely helpful in their explanations of what is happening. It is fair to say that the noble Baroness has been brilliant, expert and comprehensive and the noble Lord has been expert and impressive. The Bill is vastly better than it was when it arrived at this House. I suspect that we have not heard the end of it. It may be that the other place will accept all our amendments, but, should that not be so, no doubt we shall have an opportunity to go into the matter further. Meanwhile—whether by way of an interim thank you or otherwise—I express my thanks to the Ministers for the courteous and helpful way in which they have responded. I particularly thank my noble friends Lady Buscombe and Lord Astor of Hever, who have been very helpful in improving the Bill.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I believe that it is out of order to refer to participants in the debate, according to the Committee. I will not do that but I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, tried to do so.

All I wish to say in 20 seconds is that we have had very good debates on this excellent Bill, shorn of the three amendments which defaced the Bill. I understand that Ministers will now make detailed changes. All I ask is that the changes are not only detailed but substantial, so that when the Bill comes back to this House there can be agreement all round. The Government will make a serious mistake if they fiddle only with details in the Bill in another place.

Earl Russell

My Lords, we have here a not uncommon story of a good Minister and a bad Bill. I wish to express my thanks to the one, and to value the parliamentary opportunity to criticise the other. I hope that our remaining proceedings will be conducted according to all the normal parliamentary freedoms.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for your kind words. I acknowledge my appreciation of the courtesy shown by all those present in the exchanges that we had often in the course of the Bill. I am very grateful. Even when I was resisting amendments that I sensed might have significant support in the House, the style of the House was always open, listening, attentive and courteous. Of that I am deeply appreciative. As my noble friend suspects, this may not be the entire end of the Bill. We shall leave those speeches for another day. With that, I hope the House will now agree that the Bill do now pass.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.