HC Deb 04 November 1986 vol 103 cc805-9 3.42 pm
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

(by private notice) asked the Paymaster General what targets for reductions in the number of benefit recipients are being laid down for claimant advisers in his Department.

The Paymaster General and Minister for Employment (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

None, Sir.

Mr. Prescott

I hope that the Paymaster General is aware that that is an unsatisfactory answer in the light of his statement to the House last Tuesday, when he clearly informed the House that the cost of 1,500 new officers could be paid for by a 2 per cent. reduction in claimants, thereby indicating that the Department has already done its homework on how many claimants have to be removed from benefit to pay for the new officers. Will he confirm that his intention in appointing 850 claimant advisers is to make new appointments, and will he confirm also that these appointments will be in addition to the 1,500 civil servants who are to administer directly the new work availability test?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that the 850 benefit advisers will be involved in checking on the unemployed who are to be subjected to the new work test? Will he tell the House why, when he was forced into the House last Tuesday to admit the existence of the new work test for the unemployed, he failed to announce an experiment for the disabled and the over-50s, and apparently failed also to tell the House that a new category of staff was already being appointed? Why has he refused to be open with the House about all the new measures that are directed towards the unemployed? Why does he insist on new measures against the unemployed when the country knows that the problem is the availability of work for the unemployed and not the availability of the unemployed for work?

Mr. Clarke

I shall deal first with the hon. Gentleman's point about my statement last week. I was asked questions last week by the hon. Gentleman and others about a new form that we have been trying out for some months without complaint, which we were introducing nationally to test availability for work. One of the hon. Gentleman's allegations was that the huge cost of taking on the extra staff for that purpose would not be justified by any savings made. What I said, as he has just reminded the House, is that if less than 2 per cent. of the register were to be saved by finding those who are not entitled to unemployment benefit, the cost would be covered. I did not imply that any target had been set down. It was an answer to an erroneous point and bad arithmetic on the hon. Gentleman's part.

As to the new hare that the Opposition have put up — the transfer of what were previously the unemployment review officers to our Department, where the posts are being filled by new claimant advisers—that move was announced to the House on 23 July in an answer by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, which is to be found in the Official Report for that day at column 305. When these unemployment review officers were in the Department of Health and Social Security, as my right hon. Friend said, they were responsible both for giving advice and help to unemployed people on finding work, and for preventing abuse. They always have been, and that is what they were during the last Administration as well as during the present Administration.

We are now appointing claimant advisers, who will have two functions. The first is to give advice and help to unemployed claimants to help them take up employment or training opportunities and the second is to ensure that unemployed claimants are available for work. That is all that this is about.

This latest and rather absurd allegation has arisen out of this morning's press report, and stems from a trade union official who was relying on the minutes of a meeting that apparently took place in Luton. It is said that at that meeting, one of our middle-ranking officers, who had only the minutes to go by, expressed the matter in a way that has no ministerial authority or approval. They are fulfilling a double purpose—the first to give advice to unemployed people on how to find work or how to get other benefits, and the second to check on availability for work, because this Administration have not given up their responsibility, any more than the last Administration did, for making sure that benefits are not paid to those who are not entitled to them.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that one of the consequences of the new Restart programme has been that a large number of people who have been unemployed for a long time have been amazed to discover the opportunities open to them? Will he take it from me that many people are extremely glad that we are getting back into personal contact with people who have been unemployed for a long time, and that personal advice to enable them to find their way back through the jungle of benefits and job opportunities is welcome?

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The difficulty is that our opponents do not wish to accept that. If I appear somewhat breathless it is because I have just come to the House, having flown back here to answer this question, from a visit to Manchester. I was in one of our offices this morning, where I came across a Restart interview between an official and a young man who had come to the jobcentre for the first time for a long time. At random, I went up to him and spoke to him, and he was studying the details of a job that he thought that he might be able to do. All the staff in the office were pleased with the work they were doing with Restart and job clubs. The people whom I met felt that something was being done to help them. I felt like referring them all to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who is not only seeking to discredit our statistics—that is fair game — but running the risk of undermining the public perception of what we are doing to help long-term unemployed people. He and the Opposition should be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

If the work of a claimant adviser causes somebody who had previously been denied unemployment benefit to start receiving it, will that be regarded as just as effective as getting somebody off the register who had previously been receiving benefit?

Mr. Clarke

Well, it would, but it is unlikely to happen because — [Laughter.] It is no good hon. Members laughing. I was offered an easy point, which I shall not take. The people affected will usually be those who come to the benefit office and are receiving unemployment benefit. The whole point of the instructions that we have given to every grade of our staff is to help people where they can. We are now in a position to steer far more unemployed people back into work or training than we could before. We are putting a great deal of effort, at considerable public expense, into doing that. If at the same time our officials discover that there are some people claiming unemployment benefit who were never entitled to claim it, the average member of the public would think that we were mad if we told our officers to ignore that and to carry on giving the benefit because the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East will complain if we do not.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that he will receive widespread support from Conservative Members for the entire Restart programme, as it is the best initiative taken by his Department in recent years? Will he make every effort to ignore the rather trite and ignorant criticism from Opposition Front Bench Members, as they are clearly basing their criticism on title-tattle and one report from a particular DHSS office?

Mr. Clarke

Although I am a sensitive soul, I will take my hon. Friend's advice and allow the criticism to bounce off me. What worries me is the effect that it will have on the unemployed and the staff in our offices. Before the recess, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East spent all his time trying to persuade young school leavers not to go on the youth training scheme which he described as a skivvy scheme.

Mr. Prescott

It is a skivvy scheme.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman is now trying to persuade the long-term unemployed not to go to our offices as they will be fiddled out of their benefits. He is doing much harm to positive programmes. Fortunately, those at whom the programmes are aimed seem to appreciate them more.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Will the Paymaster General take into account the experiences of some hon. Members who have had the pilot projects working in their constituencies during the past few weeks? They have discovered considerable bitterness among many of the unemployed, who consider that they have been hounded in pursuit of this questionnaire.

More particularly, will the Paymaster General give an assurance that those individuals who have been advised, because of their unavailability to work for health reasons, to come off unemployment benefit and seek an alternative benefit, will not be in any way disadvantaged for the time that it takes to prove that they are unavailable to work for health reasons? We have heard nothing about that.

Mr. Clarke

I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman's first point. As I said earlier, we have been piloting availability testing for months in, among other places, the city of Nottingham next door to my constituency. We have been piloting it near the hon. Gentleman's constituency. We informed Members of Parliament when we began the testing. It has gone on for months without my receiving a murmur of complaint from anyone. I do not know whether the hon. Member raised the matter with my Department, but he has not previously mentioned his anxiety to me. It was not until the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) made a great hoohah last weekend that we suddenly discovered that the Opposition considered that there was something wrong with the testing.

I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's second point. Of course, if people are entitled to sickness benefit. they should be referred to the DHSS and receive it. That enables me to underline the main point, that no one who needs benefit will fail to get it. We are not taking people off supplementary benefit or sickness benefit. No one in Britain is left to starve with no income. We are simply responding to an all-party Committee which considers that we should stop paying unemployment benefit to people who do not appear to qualify for it and responding to the public desire that we should not pay benefit to people who do not qualify for it and that we should give positive help to the unemployed. That has been the main point of all the programmes.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Is it not time that we stopped mincing words on this subject? Is it not the case that up to 25 per cent. of those who have been called for a first Restart interview have miraculously disappeared from the benefit office and the unemployment figures? Is it not the case that over 800,000 people claim to be unemployed and are drawing benefit in the prosperous south-east of England — a figure twice as high as that for the whole nation 15 years ago? Is it not the case that the vast majority of British people support my right hon. and learned Friend's actions, and that the more that idiot on the Front Bench opposite goes on banging the Table—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the Minister answers, I should say that we do not have idiots in this House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes we do."] Well I say that we do not.

Mr. Marlow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not know what is the appropriate word, but I certainly withdraw that.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend went a little over the top with his figure — I will check it — but certainly a proportion of those to whom we write do not reply and will not come in. There is also a proportion of people who stop claiming the moment they hear from us. Although I would not put it in quite the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), if one talks to the average man and woman in the street one discovers that they do not believe that no one is claiming unemployment benefit who is not entitled to it. They tend to say that many such people are doing so. When, while carrying out these other policies, we encounter such people, either because they do not come in at all or they tell our office staff that they do not want jobs, we stop paying benefit. But it is absolutely absurd to say that stopping benefits in such circumstances, which is what the staff are supposed to do as part of their duties, is fiddling the figures.

Mr. Prescott

Of course, it is fiddling the figures.

Mr. Clarke

That also distorts the main aim of the policies, which is to find the people who are genuinely unemployed and give them more positive help than the system has given them for years.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I thank the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) for giving the true Tory view on this subject. Does the Minister not realise how nauseating it is that a Government who have been mainly responsible for bringing back mass unemployment should give the impression that many of the unemployed do not wish to work? Is the Minister aware, for example, that when, not so long ago, a factory in Wolverhampton, near my constituency, had a few vacancies, over 500 people started to queue up for them from midnight onwards? That shows that the unemployed want to work and that this Government are denying them the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Clarke

I entirely accept that there are excessive numbers of genuinely unemployed people in this country. That is why we introduced the Restart programme and all the other measures that have been described. It is not the case that I have suggested that the majority of them are not genuinely unemployed. If, however, in the course of carrying out this positive work, cases are encountered where it is quite obvious from what people say that they are not entitled to the benefit that they are drawing, is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the officials should be instructed by me and by my fellow Ministers to carry on paying out benefit? If so, he had better go and tell that to the Public Accounts Committee. The hon. Gentleman would certainly have a job accounting for that instruction to his electorate.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a private notice question.