On 9th December 2015 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill in its second day of Committee.
The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in support of a group of amendments to clause 15 of the Bill, concerned with work-related requirements and Universal credit. The amendments, which were withdrawn after the debate, sought to make the work-related requirements in legislation take into account particular circumstances of parents with young children or those with disabilities.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I encourage the Minister to at least agree to go away and think very seriously about these amendments. The paramountcy of the welfare of the child, I am sure, we are all entirely agreed about. We know that the first two years of life are absolutely crucial to long-term life chances. The next two years matter as much again. So how we behave towards children in the first four or five years of life, before they go to school, is the most significant factor in their long-term life chances.
A crucial part of this is the child bonding with the parent or parents, and family stability. We will all have spoken to parents who are doing an extremely good job, and who feel deeply pained and anguished as they decide to return to work part time, because they believe that will be best for their child and for themselves. Yet it is not an easy decision to make, because many of them would prefer to be at home with their child full time.
So, closeness of work matters deeply. It would be entirely unreasonable to ask a parent of a three or four year-old to travel too far, as has already been noted. The clause is designed to help to think through the paramountcy of the welfare of the child and, equally, the availability of good, suitable, affordable childcare. We accept that provisions are coming, although there are concerns about how they will be paid for. If a parent feels that the childcare is good, they feel better; they have a sense of well-being, which they pass on to their child, and the child itself feels better in that provided childcare. However, if a parent is uncertain about the level and standard of childcare, they are very anxious. They pass that anxiety on to their child, which damages the child’s welfare.
In the drive to encourage people to return to work, which most support fully, great care must be taken that, in that drive, the balance is not tipped towards a lack of parent/child contact that will actually lead to diminishing the child’s life chances, and thus have the exact opposite impact to the intention of this Bill. My deep concern is that without serious safeguards in the Bill there is a danger that we will place children at risk when we intend to place them in safety. We must ensure that the proper and right relationship between the parent and the child is not overstretched by the provisions in the Bill.
I hope that the Minister will be prepared at least to agree to go away and consider the amendments in the light of the possibility that they might be better for the welfare of the child than if they were not in the Bill. Will the Minister be prepared at least to take time to consider whether these might be in the best interests of the child?
Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con):[extract] …All these amendments move us away from the key universal credit principle that we treat people as individuals and tailor their requirements based on their personal circumstances. They also take no account of the existing safeguards within the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Universal Credit Regulations 2013. We firmly believe that we need to be doing more rather than less to encourage and support all parents with young children to prepare for and look for work, ultimately improving their children’s life chances.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: I hope your Lordships will forgive me if my intervention is incorrect—I am still learning the ways of this House. I asked what I thought was a very simple question: is there a willingness to go away and consider? I thank the Minister for all the information, which is extremely helpful, and I believe that individual tailoring is an absolutely proper and right way forward. What I am mystified by is the apparent unwillingness today to be prepared to go away and at least consider some of the concerns of many of us who are not driven by political stuff at all—we are just deeply, passionately concerned for the children of this nation—that you might have got some of it slightly wrong and it could be improved.
Baroness Evans of Bowes Park: The Government certainly listen with extreme care to all the views expressed by noble Lords. A lot of the detail will be in regulations, so there will be opportunity, but I assure the right reverend Prelate that the views of this Committee are taken into account and considered.