HL Deb 16 January 2001 vol 620 cc1035-7

3.5 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What they expect to be the consequence of their proposed measure to force claimants for the jobseeker's allowance to take a literacy test under pain of benefit sanction; and how they intend to monitor those consequences.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, on 5th December my right honourable friend issued Skills for Life, a statement for consultation on how the Government intend to improve the poor levels of adult basic skills in England by bringing about a sea change in the quality of adult learning. The statement set out how we shall pilot aspects of our approach among key target groups, such as the unemployed, by giving them incentives—but not compelling them—to improve their reading and writing. After considering partners' views, we shall launch the full strategy next month.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I did not expect an answer to my Question. Is the Minister aware that most adult illiterates will go to excessive lengths to conceal the fact of their illiteracy and that, therefore, many of them are likely to avoid the tests and suffer the sanctions? It is, therefore, the more important to ask the Minister, not for the first time, what monitoring the Government intend to do of the effect of sanctions. We were reminded recently by Professor Richard Baker that it is possible to conduct an extremely sophisticated study even of a small sample of death rates and to compare it with a balanced sample of similar age and social composition. Does the Minister share my curiosity to know whether being deprived of benefit is more dangerous or less dangerous than being a patient of Dr Harold Shipman?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am slightly puzzled by the noble Earl's remarks. I am surprised in particular that he has not recognised how important it is to help adult illiterates and to help those with poor basic skills to improve them. That is the thrust of the Government's policy. Perhaps I may remind the noble Earl that in the South East some 60 per cent of those with poor basic skills are in work; they are not unemployed. The Government recently launched a new strategy setting out proposals for pilot schemes to try to find ways of helping adult illiterates to come forward. The noble Earl was far too defeatist in his suggestion that people will not do so—they are coming forward, and the Government are doing far more to help them to come forward.

To return to my initial Answer, we do not have plans to compel people; however, we do have plans to find ways to provide incentives to unemployed people to come forward. The Government's intention is to find ways of testing people so that they can be helped and be given opportunities to attend appropriate courses.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, however well intentioned the Government's plans, given the present crisis in teacher numbers where will the teachers come from to provide literacy classes?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the people involved in providing classes in adult literacy are quite different from those who are employed in our schools. There is no shortage of people wanting to work with adults who have literacy problems. There is a problem in regard to improving their training, and the Government are addressing that.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the suggestion that literacy training should be linked to application for benefit was originally made when the noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, was at the Dispatch Box opposite. If I remember correctly, the reason that it did not work very well was that the approach suggested then was precisely that proposed by the noble Baroness this time; namely, people will be expected to attend classes. Does the Minister appreciate that many of those who suffer in this way will not have the confidence to do so? Does she agree that what is needed is person-to-person tuition—very likely by volunteers? Will the Minister learn the lesson of the past and approach this important matter in that way?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is not entirely true to say that this rather skilled and difficult work can be undertaken by volunteers. On the whole, I believe that it is necessary for people to be professionally qualified to carry out such work effectively. The noble Baroness is quite right to point out that some adults do not wish to join classes to improve their literacy, but she is perhaps not sufficiently aware of the developments that are taking place in IT. Large numbers of adults can be helped through IT programmes, where they can sit in front of a PC with interactive help from tutors, and where they are not exposed to ridicule or to feelings of inadequacy, as might be the case in a classroom.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind that there are mentally handicapped people with such severe learning difficulties that they will always be illiterate but who, nevertheless, are capable of carrying out strenuous manual work, can the Minister say what the Government propose to do to help them?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, in responding to this question, we really ought to focus rather more on the nearly 6 million adults who have poor levels of skills in both literacy and numeracy. A small number of people have learning disabilities such that they may never learn to read, and they need to be helped in many other ways. The Government are doing this both through the provision of improved special educational needs assistance in our schools and through making more help available to those with learning difficulties when they become adults.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the Minister say whether these literacy tests will be applied to former prisoners? Indeed, considering all the emphasis that has been placed over the past few years on trying to teach prisoners to read and write, would not the Government have knowledge of the standard of literacy of former prisoners?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords. The Government are doing very much more to develop prison education, especially in basic skills. We shall ensure that all prison entrants are screened. That may—and should—mean that when people come out of prison their levels of literacy are higher. They will then need to be given more help and guidance about how to carry on improving their skills which will, in turn, help them to obtain jobs and prevent reoffending.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little further on this point. I was slightly mystified by her earlier response on the question of adult literacy teaching by volunteers. Was the noble Baroness suggesting that those who have done this work in the past will not be qualified to do it in the future? Alternatively, does the noble Baroness not see this as part of this project of trying to encourage more people to improve their literacy?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, perhaps I did not make myself clear on this point. It is the Government's view that this is very highly skilled work. Therefore, it cannot easily be undertaken by volunteers without the extensive involvement of professionally trained people. The Government intend to ensure that the vast majority of people involved in teaching adult literacy are trained.

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