Welfare Reform Bill: Second Reading

 

My Lords, I support the Bill, as it is evident that the welfare system in this country is in urgent need of reform. Nevertheless, the Bill can be further strengthened during its passage through this House to ensure that we are as brave as we need to be in placing welfare reform at the heart of the strategy required to mend broken Britain. A welfare system cannot be simply a safety net; it requires a more fundamental support structure to bring the poorest in our society back into the productive mainstream. William Shakespeare wrote:

“’Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support him after”.

Welfare reform is desperately needed today. Five million people are on out-of-work benefits. At present, nearly 2 million people are unemployed and over two-thirds of jobseeker’s allowance applicants are repeat claimants. Indeed, as this country further falls into the throes of recession, now must be the time to reform our welfare system and to begin to repair our broken society. Let no one tell us that a recession is the wrong time to address welfare reform; it is precisely the current socio-economic climate that makes reform more urgent, not less. The recession provides a platform from which a new welfare consensus can emerge—one of real workfare, where rights are balanced with responsibilities, where the poorest in our society are given the skills and opportunities for upward mobility and where the notion of dependency culture is a thing of the past.

Many of the details of this Bill originate from Conservative proposals. There seems to be a growing consensus as to some of the steps required to address our current welfare malaise. More than 10 years ago, the Government came to power claiming:

“We will be the party of welfare reform … we will design a modern welfare state based on rights and duties going together”.

That is stated in the Labour Party manifesto of 1997. The reality is that this opportunity was missed, but now we are at a point where it is being addressed. Now is the time to seize the moment. William Beveridge saw the SecondWorld War as the opportunity to build a welfare state as part of the road to reconstruction; let us use today’s recession in a similar way to reform our welfare system.

To this end, I welcome most of Part 1 and the social security clauses of this Bill. It is important to have greater flexibility, conditionality and individualisation of benefit provision so that welfare becomes an effective tool of upward social mobility rather than simply a bureaucratic catch. “Work for your benefit” schemes are Conservative ideas that envisage back-to-work providers motivating their clients back into work by utilising their experience and working on an individual’s needs. This level of training will ensure that people do not quickly slip back into the vicious cycle of long-term unemployment and welfare dependency. Clause 4 particularly encouraged me, as it ensures that in case of couples where one is capable of work, he or she must take actions to seek work. He or she should make an effort to seek work. This will engender a sense of responsibility and create a culture of undertaking work. It will be more important if there are children living with them, as the children will be brought up in an environment where a parent is working. Parental responsibility is the ultimate key to tackling broken Britain, as the family unit is the primary institution in our lives.

It is also encouraging to see Part 1 making provision for the voluntary and third sectors to take over the payment of credit to Social Fund customers and in so doing to utilise their welfare support expertise. Therefore, why did the Government state in Committee in the other place that they did not intend to use this power in the near future? I urge noble Lords to push for pilot schemes as soon as possible for Social Fund loans.

However, will the Government, as well as instituting a payments-by-results system with these providers, be building in minimum numbers to get back into work into the contracts between the Department for Work and Pensions and the provider? What will be the limits to claiming out-of-work benefits for those people who may refuse to join a return-to-work programme? For those refusing to accept reasonable job offers on a consistent basis, will there be a punishment such as a requirement to “work for the dole” on community work programmes? When do the Government envisage these regulations being drafted under Clause 2 to detail the workfare schemes?

I, of course, welcome Clause 9 and Schedule 3, which will force drug users to comply with a rehabilitation plan and to undergo drug testing in certain circumstances. It is important that long-term drug use, and its connection with vicious cycles of crime and unemployment, is tackled in a holistic manner. Many long-term drug addicts have spent periods in prison, so will the Minister assure me that there will be links and proper joined-up thinking between those rehabilitation plans in prison and those outside prison?

I welcome Part 2, which will give greater control to disabled people over the provision of their individualised services. I am, however, concerned that Clause 34 places limitations on the individual budget pilot schemes. I urge noble Lords to ensure that the pilots are robust and give an accurate picture of how individual budgets would work in practice. We must also look carefully at Clause 29 to ensure that all relevant services are included in such individual budgets; for example, social care is currently absent from the clause.

Part 3 is important in ensuring that parents live up to their obligations by giving further powers to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission to serve travel disqualification orders. However, we must ensure that such a power is used proportionately and that there are adequate checks on such a strong sanction.

Part 4 deals with birth registration and attempts to ensure that unmarried parents jointly register the birth of their children. We must ensure that the reasons for a father’s details not to be registered on a birth certificate are sufficiently robust and we ought to look at grounds for requiring participation in a paternity test. These steps are important in ensuring, where possible, joint parental responsibility in our society and I urge the Government to look at further opportunities to review elements of family law, including other ways of ensuring presumptions of equal parenting in law.

There is massive potential in this Bill and I strongly support most of its provisions. However, we must ensure that the overall correct workfare message of this Bill retains respect for those who simply cannot work. We therefore must make a clear distinction between those who can work and those who cannot physically work. Once this distinction has been made by virtue of a comprehensive needs-based assessment system, we must adopt a brave, individualised, results-based workfare model that makes welfare the catalyst of social mobility as opposed to a vicious revolving door of poverty, crime and paucity of aspiration.

I have quoted William Shakespeare and referred to William Beveridge. I would like to end with a quotation from Samuel Johnson, who said:

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization”.

 

Updated: 27/08/2009 — 3:20 PM