HL Deb 17 March 2000 vol 610 cc1908-18

5.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 1st March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Social Security (Work-focused Interviews) Regulations and the Contracting Out (Functions relating to Social Security) Order underpin the next stage of the Government's agenda for reform of the welfare state. They are key enablers of our radical and innovative modernisation strategy which is based upon the principle that work is the best form of welfare. Our programme of reform is already a proven success. The New Deal and other key initiatives such as WFTC and the national minimum wage have a real effect on people's lives. We have already helped over 260,000 people to find work.

But this is just a start. We want to build upon the success of New Deal so that all benefit claimants are given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. That is why we are introducing a single gateway into the benefit system. We shall bring together the Employment Service, the Benefits Agency and local authorities to improve customer service, giving claimants one point of contact for all their benefit needs: the ONE service. That service will allow every claimant of working age to realise his aspirations by providing the personalised support and advice that he needs to move towards independence.

No doubt your Lordships will have heard yesterday's announcement by the Prime Minister of the establishment of a new agency to draw together the Employment Service and the BA. The new organisation will deliver a single, integrated service to people of working age. It will provide the right framework for ONE and our other welfare-to-work initiatives to develop and grow. ONE is currently being piloted in 12 parts of the country. Until now the pilots have operated on an entirely voluntary basis. The prime effect of the regulations before us is to require claimants of working age who live in these pilot areas and make new claims to benefits to take part in work-focused interviews. Interviews will normally take place as part of the claims process, although the requirement may be waived or deferred if appropriate. Claimants may also be required to take part in repeat interviews, triggered by prescribed events.

I must emphasise that these regulations do no more than make participation at interviews in these pilot areas mandatory. They will not require lone parents or disabled people to take a job or undergo training. Any steps they take beyond attendance at interview are entirely voluntary. The choice remains but we will ensure that it is an informed choice.

I know that your Lordships have had some opportunity to study these regulations but it might be helpful none the less if I point out a few of the key provisions.

Regulation 4 provides that someone of working age who lives in a pilot area and who wishes to claim a specified benefit must take part in a work-focused interview. The benefits to which this provision applies are income support, incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance, invalid care allowance, widow's and bereavement benefits, housing benefit and council tax benefit. Interviews will be conducted by personal advisers, who will provide continuity of help and advice for each claimant. Interviews will normally take place in a ONE office but may be conducted elsewhere as appropriate. Claimants under the age of 18 years will be dealt with by the Careers Service who will focus principally on training and educational opportunities.

Noble Lords will recall that during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill concerns were raised that claimants should be given the right to be represented at interview if they so chose. I am pleased to say that we have taken on board this entirely helpful suggestion. Guidance to staff operating the ONE service is unequivocal in laying out a claimant's right to advocacy. All letters sent to confirm appointments state clearly and straightforwardly that the person may be accompanied by a friend, relative or other advocate. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was particularly anxious that we ensured that that was available, especially for those who might have a disability or for whom English was not a first language, and so on.

Regulation 5 sets out exemptions. Some of the prescribed benefits—for example, widows' benefits and housing benefit—can be claimed by people who are already in work. In such cases a work-focused interview will be unnecessary and so they are exempt from the provision. Because people claiming or entitled to jobseeker's allowance are already required to undertake work-related activities they, too, are excluded; they are already covered. Finally, people who do not habitually reside in Great Britain are not subject to the provision, for the obvious, practical reasons.

Regulation 6 deals with repeat interviews. It provides that, in order to continue receiving full benefit, claimants may be required to take part in work-focused interviews at specified points during their benefit claim.

For lone parents, other than those claiming incapacity benefit or severe disablement allowance, this will be an annual interview. For all other clients, the trigger for an interview will be the receipt of a personal capability assessment—for clients with a disability; the cessation of invalid care allowance; when part-time work ends or starts; when a course of training or education ends; or when the client turns 18.

Regulations 7 and 8 allow for the requirement to take part in an interview to be waived or deferred. A waiver may be applied if an interview would be of no assistance to the claimant or would not be appropriate in the circumstances of the case. It may be deferred where it would not be either appropriate or of assistance at that particular time. Decisions on whether to waive or defer the interview will be taken according to the merits of each individual case. It will be quite exceptional for an interview to be of no value at all so waivers and deferrals will be rare. However, where a claimant is so severely disabled that he could derive no help or support from a work-focused interview a waiver may be applied. That might be, for example, on a letter from the GP, a consultant, or something similar. Similarly, where a person is distressed following a recent bereavement, has recently given birth or undergone major surgery the interview may be put back to a more appropriate and convenient time. In such cases the claimant will be treated as having complied with the requirement and the claim will proceed in the normal way.

Your Lordships may recall that the issue of waiving the requirement caused some debate during the passage of the Bill. There were particular concerns that the requirement could create problems for people suffering from mental illnesses and amendments were put down to exclude people with disabilities from the provisions. Our view remains that this is something that cannot be legislated for. Disability is a continuum. And the degree of disability may vary over time. Conditions can improve, deteriorate or fluctuate. On a case-by-case basis, although an individual might not be able to work it would be difficult to provide a workable definition. Decisions will be made on an individual case basis only.

However, some genuine concerns here were raised by your Lordships. We have been working hard with bodies representing different client groups in order to minimise the potential for this to become a real problem. We have consulted with organisations such as Scope, MIND, Mencap, Carers National Association and the National Schizophrenia Fellowship. Many of these bodies have been involved in helping to train ONE advisers and in drawing up the guidance on when to waive or defer interview that will be used by advisers. And we have introduced further safeguards. For example, guidance will make it clear that where a person produces evidence, such as a letter from his doctor, indicating that even participation in an interview might be detrimental to his condition, the requirement can be waived.

I hope that this offers some reassurance. We are, of course, trying to find a middle route between two conflicting principles. On the one hand, we do not want to deny help to anyone who might benefit from it. On the other, we do not want to cause anyone needless anxiety or distress. We hope that we have the balance right, but these are pilot schemes and we shall keep them under close review. If we need to change the arrangements, we can do so.

Regulation 11 defines what "taking part" means. This has been kept as straightforward as possible to ensure that there is little room for doubt as to whether or not the requirement has been satisfied. A claimant must attend at the appointed time and place and answer, when asked, a series of questions related to his past employment history and future employment prospects. That is all that he needs to do to satisfy the requirement. As I said, there is no requirement to seek work or take any other action.

Regulation 12 sets out the consequences of failing to take part in the interview. In a new claim, the client will be treated as not having made that claim to benefit and so there will be no award made. If the initial interview was deferred and benefit put into payment, it would be withdrawn. Where a claimant fails to take part in a repeat interview, benefit will be reduced by an amount equivalent to 20 per cent of the income support personal allowance for a person over 25, currently just over £10 a week.

However, I want to assure your Lordships that we have built sound safeguards into the way the system will operate. Claimants will be given at least three opportunities to attend an interview before any action is taken. They will be given numerous reminders of the requirement and the consequences of failure to comply with it. Secondly, if we have been unable to make direct contact with the claimant, we will attempt to visit them at home before we withdraw benefit. That is in order to ensure that there are no administrative errors or issues associated with women having left the home because of fears of violence. Moreover, benefit will be reinstated as soon as the person complies. Our aim is to encourage compliance, not to enforce sanctions.

Regulation 14 provides a non-exhaustive list of matters to be taken into account in considering good cause for failure to take part in an interview. The provision is similar to good-cause arrangements elsewhere in the benefits system.

Regulation 15 provides a right of appeal against a decision that a person has failed to take part without good cause. All decisions will be treated as decisions of the Secretary of State and will be heard by the independent appeals service.

I want to move on to the contracting out order. Private and voluntary sector organisations are leading the delivery of the ONE service in four of the 12 pilot areas. This order is designed to enable employees of those organisations to perform certain functions in relation to work-focused interviews.

The order relates only to functions connected with the ONE service: it does not cover any other social security functions such as those related to the determination of claims to benefits. The order allows for specified functions of the Secretary of State and of local authorities to be exercised by those authorised on their behalf. Those who are authorised to exercise the functions and the extent to which they may be exercised will be detailed in contracts with the providers.

The functions that may be contracted out are those relating to work-focused interviews, the revision of decisions related to work-focused interviews and certain functions relating to claims for housing benefit and council tax benefit. This means that the contractor or his employee may decide, for example, whether a work-focused interview should be waived or deferred; that a client has "taken part" in such an interview; or that there was good cause for failure to comply with the requirement. He may also revise such decisions, for example, where fresh information comes to light.

The provisions within these instruments are entirely in accordance with the intentions we outlined during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. They provide the foundation for the ONE service, a service which will help even more people to make the transition from benefit cheque to pay cheque. I commend both the regulations and the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 1st March be approved [12th Report front the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Baroness Rawlings

s: My Lords, we welcome in principle the introduction of work-focused interviews. However, we continue to have a number of concerns, in particular prematurely introducing the compulsory element before we have all had an opportunity to see with the pilot scheme whether the system is effective. The Minister will recall that during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill my noble friend Lady Buscombe suggested both in Committee and at Third Reading that the term "work-focused interview" was not at all helpful. She proposed that "personal development interview" would be a better, more positive and less frightening way of describing what is at hand for all those who are required to attend a ONE interview.

In response to that suggestion, the Minister stated at Third Reading: 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".—[Official Report, 27/10/99; col. 360.] Do we now take it that this point is not being taken on board and, if not, can the Minister explain why not?

In addition, the Government said that three attempts should be made to contact a claimant before his benefits are stopped or his claim rejected (Hansard, 13th April 1999, Standing Committee D on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill), and I am very pleased to hear that that is being continued. However, can the Minister explain why only five working days are allowed for a claimant to demonstrate good cause for having failed to take part in an interview before a decision will be made?

With reference to compulsion, we continue to question the value of insisting on interviews for those benefit recipients in particular who are sick or who have caring responsibilities when there is no prospect of them being able realistically to consider employment. As we said repeatedly through the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, we would prefer those people to be invited to attend an interview—an invitation which we believe they would accept if and when their particular circumstances enabled them to do so.

Following on from the debate in this House last evening concerning the prospects for lone parents, I believe that it is reasonable to suggest that Members on all sides of the House would prefer this more practical and realistic approach. There is no doubt that the ONE scheme has much to offer in terms of a single point of access and the availability of advice and assistance for those able to contemplate work. We shall continue to monitor closely the pilot scheme to see whether, for example, personal advisers are really able to cope with such a diverse and often complex range of issues that will confront them and test their skill base.

In addition, we shall wait with interest to see what happens to those who do not respond to requests to attend the ONE interview, in which case they will lose their entitlement to benefit altogether. Do the Government really intend to watch those people become homeless and destitute?

Lord Addington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the informative way in which she introduced the orders. I thank her also for confirming the undertaking that she gave during the course of the Bill to take account of the concerns that I had regarding those with disabilities in relation to the interview. I remember that the noble Baroness told me that those people would have, I believe, 200 hours of training. In an idle moment, I calculated that that would amount to five weeks—

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, over seven weeks.

Lord Addington

Over seven weeks. The noble Baroness evidently is feeling in brave form as she said that from the Government Bench. However, I hope that that will prove sufficient to deal with all the problems that those with disabilities have. I also hope that the primary requisite in the training will be to realise that sometimes people do not know what is going on. That is the point that I have always made about ensuring that the training is carried out properly. I have always believed that an expert is the person who bows out occasionally and says that he does not know the answer to something. I hope that that is put across during the training and that the trainees will realise that putting off the matter for a few days may be very important. However, that is a personal point.

The main point of concern from these Benches is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, mentioned, the idea that if people fail through this system conceivably they could be left without any means of legal support. The noble Baroness said that three realistic attempts would be made to contact them and, if we look at the regulations, that seems reasonable. But the fact of the matter is that felons convicted of the most serious crime will still be fed. The danger is that if they fail in this system they will not be fed. They will not have legal access and recourse.

I once worked with a prison reform charity that was trying to get people out of the habit of offending. The majority of the crimes that it dealt with were economically based. My noble friend Lord Russell has pointed out on numerous occasions that we do not know yet the correspondence between disentitlement to benefit and illegal activity—the selling of oneself for sexual purposes, drug trading, petty crime and so on. It is to be hoped that this pilot will give us that information, if we look at the right statistics or look far enough and widely enough. That is one worry about this approach. I hope that the noble Baroness will concede that it is a genuine, well-founded worry.

Moreover, those who have a reduction in benefit, because they fail to reach an interview, will be pushed towards the situation I have described. The effect will not be so dramatic, but if one is on a low income and loses a percentage, that hits much harder. I think the noble Baroness would agree; it is probably self-evident. These are very real concerns.

The noble Baroness spoke about how people would be chased up, and I noted that she said that people would be trying to get to homes. There will probably be many disorganised people with disorganised domestic arrangements. When I spoke about the interview training I was once again thinking about the number of people who have literacy problems. It has been assessed that some 50 per cent of the prison population has dyslexia, and certainly 50 per cent will have literacy problems—not always in the same group, I hasten to add. It will be very difficult in many cases to reach these people and to get some form of notification to them, and they may not be in places where funds are available. A young person just discharged from prison may well be very difficult to track down, especially if a family relationship has broken down.

These are very real worries. If this system fails to address them, there is a danger that we shall create more social exclusion and a higher prison population than would otherwise be the case.

I come talking softly, but I hope carrying as big a stick as I can manage when I refer to a letter that appeared in the Independent on 23rd November last year. Signed by my noble friend Lord Russell and Dr Steve Webb, it said that we would support no more disentitlement measures until information from the pilot studies was available to us. When it is, we shall judge according to the evidence. As the Minister knows, we on these Benches regard ourselves as free to vote against regulations. I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that we have real concerns, and will use all the parliamentary processes available to us to draw attention to them.

Having said that, I appreciate what the Minister said about the disability entitlement, and the sympathy that exists in regard to that. I hope that that attitude will be extended to the other matters that I have raised.

I have only one consideration with regard to the idea of contracting out. It is that any private firm that is used to do the work should have exactly the same standard of training for its employees as has already been discussed with civil servants.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which the Opposition spokespeople have responded to the regulations.

I turn first to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. I am glad that she was able to welcome the initiatives more generally.

The first point she made was her concern as to whether we had reneged on a commitment not to use the words "work-focused interviews". The words "work-focused interviews" are part of the primary legislation. But I assure her that we listened carefully to the discussion and to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. That is why all the literature and notifications in the ONE pilots will use the term "personal adviser meeting" rather than "work-focused interview". So I believe that we have done everything which she asked for. I hope that she is pleased with that and I am happy to put that on the record.

Secondly, I am happy to confirm that we shall indeed be making three attempts at contact and not just one. There is also the belt-and-braces provision of a home visit in case, by any chance, there has been an administrative error or a mistake in relation to the telephone number, address or whatever. Therefore, the home visit should clarify the position.

The noble Baroness asked why there will be only five working days to demonstrate good cause. In practice, if the client is in a situation where he has failed to attend three meetings, then the personal adviser will wait a full working week before making a decision that that requirement to attend has not been met. We believe that that is adequate, given that we have made every effort to make contact. But even that period can be extended for a further month if a client is unable to contact us within that period because, for example, the client is in hospital. The whole point about the pilot schemes is to enable us to see what the hiccups are and then make a decision as to whether we need to extend our guidance and train our staff accordingly.

Therefore, we believe that we have addressed the contingencies and concerns expressed by the noble Baroness. If we have not, then, as I say, we shall learn from the pilot schemes.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked what may happen to those who become homeless and destitute as a consequence, by losing their benefits. I wish to make two points in that regard.

The first point is that in the 1970s until the previous administration took over, an interview was an integral part of the benefit claim. As far as I recall, there were something like six million interviews per year. It was an integral part of the claim. Over recent years that dwindled down to a few thousand interviews. We have seen fraud grow as a result and people have also developed a very passive attitude towards receiving their giro. Often they do not have a full knowledge of all the benefits to which they are entitled.

We are going back to what worked in the 1970s; namely, to build the interview integrally into the benefit claim.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I wish to ask one further question which I should have asked before. Will part of the interview—under whatever title—be to make sure that the person receives all the benefits to which he is entitled?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, yes. It obviously depends on the circumstances but certainly part of the interview will be to discuss benefit entitlement. For example, we already have stories of carers coming in from some of the ONE pilots. Because of the nature of the caring responsibility, they are some way from going back into the labour market and those people have had benefits drawn to their attention to which they were entitled but were not receiving. That has been appreciated.

In the same way, a lone parent may not be aware that if she were to go back to work she may be entitled to a child tax credit or a childcare credit which is one aspect of the WFTC of which many lone parents are not, as yet, fully aware and which it may be important for them to know about.

I want to make two points dealing with the rhetoric about people who are homeless and destitute. First, we have always, even under previous Labour governments, had an interview as part of the benefit process. Dropping that and trying to do it by way of paper or by telephone has not worked. We are going back to the procedure which we believe will be supportive and helpful. The voluntary organisations with which we have worked welcome that.

Secondly, no one needs to be homeless or destitute. This is not a prison sentence. Anyone who is not receiving his benefit because he has not turned up for the interview can have that benefit reinstated as soon as he does so. For example, if someone has moved address and, as a result, has lost his benefit entitlement, he can re-apply. There is no problem. If people wish to renew a benefit which has, so to speak, run out, they must attend the interview and go through the procedures. I cannot see why that should lead us into rhetoric about homelessness and destitution.

Equally, I must say that the Liberal Democrats should not wave a big stick threatening to defy the views of the elected House on those issues by voting down regulations, which in relation to such issues is quite improper. That is particularly the case because some of the things for which the noble Lord, Lord Addington, called, have already been done. Perhaps his noble friend Lord Russell should have appreciated that point. There has already been a jobseeker's allowance evaluation, in 1998. It was a qualitative research on disallowed and sanctioned claimants, which provides much of the information the noble Lord sought. If there are any other research areas which he or his noble friend Lord Russell feel should be explored further, we are always open to consider them and the methodology. I do not believe that we should be criticised for not doing what we have already done. Perhaps noble Lords were not aware that it had already been done.

Given all I have said, I hope that noble Lords will feel able to approve the regulations and that, as a result, we shall be able to establish the ONE pilots on a firm basis.

On Question, Motion agreed to.