HC Deb 28 October 1986 vol 103 cc175-87

4.1 pm

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

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the test of availability for work.

This summer we have been testing a new procedure following criticisms by the Public Accounts Committee about the effectiveness of the current arrangements for testing the availability for work of claimants for unemployment benefit. The new procedure consists of an expanded questionnaire which is issued to all new claimants and seeks information about the work they are looking for and what steps they are taking to make themselves available for work. Claimants have also been interviewed where appropriate to assist in determining their eligibility for benefit and to help them towards suitable labour market opportunities.

Perhaps I could remind the House that it is a longstanding condition for the receipt of unemployment benefit that persons have to be available for work on every day for which they make a claim. The test of availability is normally satisfied by persons showing that they are actively seeking work on those days for which benefit is paid. The final decision about entitlement rests with the independent statutory authorities — an adjudication officer in the first instance—and there are statutory rights of appeal against decisions made.

The new procedure that we have tested in the pilot areas has shown that the better evidence provided by the new form enables a proper assessment to be made of a person's entitlement to benefit. Therefore, we will introduce it progressively in all unemployment benefit offices from the end of October. The rules that make benefit payable only to those people who are available for work are long standing and the Government have no present intention to change them. The new arrangements are simply changes in the procedure in applying the existing rules.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I cannot offer thanks to the Government For a shabby statement that involves millions of our people, which is clearly hiding its true purpose and which has clearly been dragged out of the Government by the exposure and campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), for which the House is most grateful. I protest that the statement has been made one hour after it was made in another place. That shows, yet again, the Government's contempt for elected representatives.

Is the Paymaster General aware that his justification for this 18th fiddle of the unemployment figures—that he has the support of the Public Accounts Committee—is fraudulent? Is he not aware that the Public Accounts Committee made it clear that it welcomed any effective changes in the work test rules, provided they were not oppressive? Even the Treasury reply to the Public Accounts Committee recommended that the series of questions now to be put to everyone claiming unemployment benefit should be put only to new claimants suspected to be in doubt about their benefit.

If the Paymaster General is anxious to save public money by denying benefits to those people making illegal claims, perhaps he will tell the House what surveys or estimates of fraudulent payments have been made, because it is costing him twice as much to hire 1,500 new benefit officers as the pilot survey estimated he would save through the shake-out of the unemployed. Does he not accept that the real purpose of this exercise is not to save public money but to reduce by a process of intimidation and trick questions a quarter of the people included in the unemployment figures, thus reducing the number of unemployed to 3 million in time for the general election?

Can the Paymaster General assure the House that answering questions such as whether claimants will work away from home, whether they will work for a minimum wage, whatever that level is, and whether they are able immediately to be free from their dependants, especially where the mother or wife is in a part-time job or disabled, will not penalise them in terms of benefit? Will he make available to the House the guidance notes given to the benefit officers who will be judging the replies, and will he make it clear that answers will not be used oppressively to deny people benefit? That was requested by the PAC. The statement is a further example of the Government's vindictive nature. They are more anxious to fiddle unemployment figures and to blame and harass the unemployed than to provide jobs for them.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) was followed by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and they both made a great deal out of a survey and an administrative change first announced to the House in reply to a parliamentary question in March. Yesterday, both hon. Members made use of documents that are freely available to the staff side in the Department of Employment and which were part of preparations that we have been carrying out for some time. As usual, they latched on to this administrative change, which tightens up our procedures in response to a request from an all-party Committee of the House, and tried to turn it into a basis for wild political allegations.

The law that requires a claimant for unemployment benefit to be available for work was last restated in 1975 in an Act passed by the previous Labour Government. It has been the law ever since the introduction of the new Beveridge social security system. The vast majority of people of all political persuasions think that it is a sensible law.

Mr. Prescott

Just ask them now.

Mr. Clarke

I challenge the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East to say whether the Labour party, if it were ever returned to office, would start paying unemployment benefit to people who told our officers that they did not want work and were not available for work. Obviously, it would not. The questions that we have tried out and are now introducing are in no way onerous. The form is clear and asks perfectly reasonable questions. It has been drawn up carefully in the light of the law established in the judgment of the commissioners as well as that established by long-standing practice. It gives a basis upon which we can judge eligibility for benefit. That is what the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee clearly said we were not doing.

The hon. Gentleman talked about cost. We are taking on 1,400 staff and the cost to the Government will be £14 million, but if that reduces the number of claims allowed by less than 2 per cent. it will pay for itself. The rest is public money saved, not by behaving in an onerous fashion but simply by not paying benefit to people whom this House has always said are not really entitled to it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about surveys. He follows these matters as closely as I do and studies the annual labour force surveys that we produce. He knows that those surveys show that, of the over 3 million unemployed claimants, over 800,000 appear to be economically inactive according to their replies to the surveys. In the privacy of their homes, over 300,000 of those receiving benefit tell our surveyors that they would not like work. That is the figure we arrive at as a result of our surveys. Everybody knows that the Public Accounts Committee was basically right when it said that a more accurate test is needed so that benefit is paid only to those who are genuinely entitled to it.

The hon. Gentleman asked what will happen if people are not available for work because they are disabled, pregnant, or have other extremely good reasons. The answer is that we have told our officers that these people are to be referred to the Department of Health and Social Security and given leaflets, because they are almost certainly entitled to other benefits. But they are not unemployed by any definition, either legally or in common sense, and they are not entitled to unemployment benefit as a result of Acts of Parliament passed by this House, including the Acts of Parliament of former Governments.

Of course the guidance notes will be made available. Like the other changes that we make from time to time to our arrangements, these changes are not designed to secure any unworthy purpose. They are designed merely to ensure that we discharge our duty, as the all-party Committees of this House require, to account properly for public money and pay benefit to those who are entitled to it—which we do—but not to those who do not qualify for it. That is what we intend to achieve. The unemployment figures will continue to reflect, as they do now, the best monthly estimate that we can make of the unemployed. It is quite absurd for the hon. Gentleman to resist every change that we make and to want to add to the unemployment figures those who are not unemployed.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, particularly in those parts of the country that resemble mine, one of the great tragedies is that a number of young people claim unemployment benefit because they have been persuaded that it is better for them to do so rather than to seek work? Will he assure the House that the new procedures will encourage them to take work, because their opportunities for being promoted at work are real?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend. None of our officers will be instructed to deter people from seeking work by offering them benefit instead. One of the advantages of the procedure that we are introducing—schemes like Restart and the availability test—is that it will enable our officials to find out more about the unemployed. The system has lapsed into one in which people merely came in, made rather short applications and then were paid benefit. There was no further contact with them. Those who are not entitled to benefit will be refused benefit, and so they should be. Those who are entitled to benefit will be steered to the Jobcentres and to the record number of vacancies that they now have on their books.

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

Many of the new questions that are to be asked of those who are suffering the early shock of losing their jobs are hypothetical. Since Ministers refuse to answer hypothetical questions, why should newly unemployed people be required to do so? On the same point, the briefing that the Paymaster General has just circulated refers to the unemployed claimants "offering" additional information. Will he tell the House quite clearly whether this is voluntary questioning, or whether the word "offering" is quite off the mark, because the unemployed will be required to enter this statement? Finally, is the Paymaster General aware that such a multiple written inquisition of those who are suffering the first shock of losing their jobs is wholly contrary to our tradition of free play and fairness?

Mr. Clarke

I can only advise the hon. Gentleman and any other hon. Member who is interested to look at the extremely straightforward and clear questions that are set out on the form. To describe this as an inquisition is a ridiculous misuse of language. Outside the House I have heard hon. Members refer to these as "trick" questions. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) referred to them as hypothetical questions.

Mr. Prescott

Read them.

Mr. Clarke

Let me read them, as I am invited by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East to do:

  1. "1. What are you doing to find work?
  2. 2. What job do you normally do?
  3. 3. What job are you looking for?
  4. 4. Are you willing to consider any other jobs?"
They are not trick questions.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Can you start work today?

Mr. Clarke

Yes, Can you start work today?"— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Paymaster General is seeking to give information to the House.

Hon. Members

No he is not.

Mr. Clarke

Can you start work today? is an entirely clear, unambiguous and fair question. The law established by this House makes it clear that unemployment benefit is a daily benefit and that a person is entitled to it for those days when he is able to start work but cannot find work. These are straightforward questions which I suspect every Member of the Public Accounts Committee is likely to agree should have been asked before now. We have been paying out benefit to those who are not entitled to it. If somebody refuses to answer these basic questions, he is likely to be referred to the adjudication office who will make a decision on eligibility for benefit, as he usually does, in the light of his judgment of the person's eligibility for benefit. That is true of many benefits. If a person refuses to answer questions about why he is claiming benefit, he is likely to find that his claim is put in some doubt.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I say to the House again that we have a very heavy day in front of us. I shall allow questions on the statement until half past four, and then we must move on. I ask for brief questions. Perhaps that will lead to brief answers.

Mr. Ralph Howell (Norfolk, North)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his statement. As he said, these obvious questions should have been asked all the way along. I urge him to progress further and to consider the introduction of a workfare system. That system has been very successful in many parts of the United States. It would provide work for those who genuinely want to work.

Mr. Clarke

As I understand it, workfare of the kind advocated by my hon. Friend is practised on any scale only in the state of West Virginia. I reserve judgment about whether it is successful there. I do not believe that it would be either suitable or necessary to introduce into this country a working-for-benefit system. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for this entirely harmless questionnaire. He is right to say, as he has been saying for some time, that we should have had some test of this kind before now. No doubt he shares my astonishment that the Opposition now appear to advocate the paying out of money to anybody who comes in and asks for it, regardless of whether he wants to work.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not cover other important parts of the Public Accounts Committee's report. We said that if more could be found out about the problems of the unemployed, we should then consider what action might be necessary and useful. If it could be established quite clearly that the questions would be effective without being oppressive, that would be fair. However, it is the oppressive nature of this questionnaire upon which we sought assurances that we have not received from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Is he aware that the most important aspect is that substantial sums of money are lost to the Inland Revenue through tax fiddles and the like because the Inland Revenue does not have sufficient people to establish how much money is being lost? We have said again and again that if the Inland Revenue can assess how much tax fraud is costing the country, the DHSS ought to be able to make a similar kind of assessment to enable it to judge how many people should be examining this matter. It is the failure to do this that makes us suspect what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Clarke

I am a little disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman, who holds an extremely prestigious position in the House as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, whose 30th report on this subject is extremely clear, should be responding to political pressure and trying to put a novel interpretation on that report. The report to which he put his name says: The formal tests of availability for work are weak and we welcome the DHSS's decision to consider whether more effective tests are practicable. The right hon. Gentleman asked about a survey of the extent of the problem so that we could justify the steps which have been taken. I refer him to the labour force survey that we carry out regularly. I have before me the figures for spring 1985. On the strength of that door-to-door survey, which was conducted in the privacy of the homes of those surveyed, 880,000 benefit receivers were inactive, as far as the surveyors could estimate: 260,000 had not sought work in the last four weeks; 360,000 would not like work; and 200,000 were already working. The report was justified and we responded to it. If the right hon. Gentleman says that it is onerous, I challenge him to cite a question that is onerous in its effect. This is a perfectly sensible application of the entirely sensible recommendation of the right hon. Gentleman's own Committee.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, in so far as criticism can be levelled at him and his Department, it is that these excellent reforms were not introduced years ago? Is the Labour party really now advocating that taxpayers' money should be used to pay unemployment benefit to people who are not entitled to it? Is he aware that the policy revealed by the Labour party this afternoon will be deeply resented by the overwhelming majority of people, not least by the low-paid?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend. I have here the transcript of an interview given by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) on BBC television at lunchtime. It began with Mr. Martyn Lewis saying: I asked John Prescott whether the Government was right to make sure that unemployment benefit went only to people who are looking for work. Yes, of course. replied the hon. Gentleman. That leaves me utterly bewildered about what all this fuss is about.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

As the Paymaster General has twice said that he is concerned for those who are genuinely eligible for benefit, and as the Government's figures show that 400,000 unemployed people are eligible but do not claim, when can we expect the right hon. and learned Gentleman to make a statement announcing help for that group?

Mr. Clarke

We are not changing the rules of entitlement to any benefit. They are exactly as Parliament always prescribed. People entitled to benefit will continue to get it. We find that people claim unemployment benefit when they are entitled to other benefits. Our officers will refer such claims to the office which pays the benefits to which they are entitled. There is an increasing take-up of benefit. Colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Security and I welcome that.

The odd fact is, however, that recent surveys have shown that the number of people who are looking for work has fallen steadily for some time whereas the number of people who claim and receive benefits has been increasing. We now have a rapidly increasing number of jobs in the economy, and the biggest number of vacancies since 1979. It is only common sense to pay benefit to people who are genuinely unable to find work.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

Should riot the House reflect that, if people were refused unemployment benefit as a result of the operation of this questionnaire, we are a humane society and do not drive people to die of hunger or into total destitution? Everybody in Britain enjoys a guaranteed minimum income of one type or another.

Would not the time now be right to consider the possibility of introducing a tax credit scheme or, as I would prefer, a basic income guarantee scheme, so that people who are not really available for work would not find it necessary to apply in this way, but could manage with their small resources without the need to go through this casework?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is quite right. People entitled to other benefits will get them. I have long had sympathy with my hon. Friend's advocacy of a much simpler system such as tax credits and the eventual unification of the tax and benefit systems. That proposal continues to be examined by all who are interested in this subject. If we could simplify the system, we might enable the Opposition to understand the matter more clearly, and perhaps get their approach to benefit rules somewhat more in order.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Will the test apply to people who, for health reasons, can do only certain types of work? What consultation has there been about the test with the organisations of disabled people?

Mr. Clarke

There will be some people who are not available for work because of ill health. They will almost certainly be entitled to sickness or invalidity benefits. They will be advised of that and referred to the DHSS.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the wide public support that there will be for his action, not least because there is general public sympathy with the plight of the unemployed and concern that their benefits should not be cut? There is general sympathy for the proposition that people in receipt of unemployment benefit should be properly analysed. The changes will be welcomed.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am quite sure that people want us to pay benefit to those who satisfy the test that Parliament has laid down. Most people regard it as quite absurd that we make no sensible inquiries to ensure that people qualify.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it is not the questions but the interpretation of the answers that we are worried about? We are also worried about the instructions that have been given to supervisors to exclude people from the register if they do not answer the questions to their satisfaction. We are more concerned with the answers than with the questions. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it is hypocritical to make a statement about a list of questions concerning people's availability to travel to work and their desire to seek work when there is more than 30 per cent. unemployment in my constituency, more than 18 per cent. unemployment in the county, more than 16 per cent. unemployment in the country and more than 11 per cent. unemployment in the nation? It is a daft set of questions.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that there is nothing wrong with the questions. That is a big advance on the stance taken by his Front Bench and by the Liberal party. If he believes that there is something wrong with the treatment of the answers, I invite him to examine the guidance that we are giving adjudication officers. He will find that it is wholly in accordance with the law laid down by the House and the judgments of commissioners. I will make it available to any hon. Member who does not have a copy. People who cannot get work will continue to get benefit. We are not changing the rules. This is an argument about a sensible administrative change.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

The Opposition appear to be arguing that it is somehow oppressive to ask somebody whether he can start work today. Surely it is only the man who is busy in the black economy who has anything to fear from that question.

Mr. Clarke

We would be completely neglecting our duty to taxpayers if we did not ask such a plainly obvious question. Those who cannot answer yes are not entitled to unemployment benefit. Every hon. Member has gone along with that law since at least 1948.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Does the Paymaster General agree that he can expect the type of response that he has received from these Benches as long as he and his colleagues in the Conservative party pander to the myth that the overwhelming majority of the unemployed are scroungers? They are not scroungers, and he and his colleagues would do well to stop pandering to the myth that they are and to confront the real problem, which is providing jobs for people who are on the dole.

Mr. Clarke

I am not aware of any colleague, certainly not one for whom I am responsible, who has ever referred to a majority or a significant proportion of the unemployed as scroungers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Archer."] The number of people working in the British economy has been rising steadily for each quarter during the past 13 years. Last month, we had the best figures for falling unemployment since April 1979. We now have the largest number of vacancies notified to us since early 1979. As the Opposition parties begin to lose arguments on the real economy and employment, they are beginning to turn to obscure arguments about administration.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that his questions will not be objected to by those who have nothing to hide? Indeed, they will be welcomed in areas of high unemployment such as the north-east as people there want help concentrated on those who are genuinely unemployed and seeking work.

Mr. Clarke

We piloted some of the initiatives to bring more help to the unemployed in my hon. Friend's part of the world. We first tried out job clubs in the north-east. We are to have 1,000 of them because they were so successful at helping the long-term unemployed get back on the way to work. We had a pilot scheme for the Restart scheme in the north-east, among other areas. It, too, is now helping the long-term unemployed. That is what the House ought to be debating—our positive assistance to the young and the long-term unemployed—but it is the Opposition who want to waste time on this sort of nonsense.

Mr. Stan Crowther (Rotherham)

Will the Paymaster General understand a simple point? In areas such as mine, where even on the Government's manipulated figures, unemployment is running at 23 per cent., the public want not some new system of calculation, but a policy that creates real jobs. What is there in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement which suggests a change of policy which will get people back to work rather than pretend that people who are out of work are not unemployed?

Mr. Clarke

I have given the latest figures for the growth of new employment and mentioned the increase in the number of people in employment. I welcome the opportunity to come to the House to make a statement about the introduction of the two-year youth training scheme, Restart and the new policy initiatives that my right hon. and noble Friend announced last month. Those are the positive steps that the Government are taking.

I am making this statement because an Opposition Member got hold of some long-available literature about the administrative change, which we had distributed to our trade unions. The result is that the House has had its attention drawn to what I would have thought was a rather elementary step, taking heed of an all-party Committee's advice to ensure that we pay benefits only to those who are genuinely unemployed.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

So far as I can see, my right hon. and learned Friend is simply putting into formal writing what was previously asked orally. If it was not it should have been.

How often will the candidate seeking work fill in one of these forms? Will it be once for all? Will it be done every month, or every three months? My right hon. and learned Friend will understand that one of the difficulties for people who are available for work and who find work away is that they cannot afford to take it because they wish to keep the family together.

Mr. Clarke

Previously, only one question was asked which I will paraphrase as, "Are you available for work?" Of those questioned, 99 per cent. said yes. The Public Accounts Committee rightly pointed out that that was a rather dubious answer and that serious tests were required. That is what we have introduced.

The questionnaire will be used only for new claimants who apply for benefit. Experience has shown that of those who become unemployed, half move into new jobs within three months—that is the usual pattern in our economy. If they fall into the category—a fifth will—of becoming long-term unemployed, they will be given, after 12 months, an hour-long interview under our Restart programme and they will be steered back into the path of work. That will occur unless, at that stage, they reveal that they are not available for work. We are piloting interviews with people who have been on the register for six months to see whether it is worth while to extend the Restart programme.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will allow questions to continue for a further five minutes on this important matter but then we must move on.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

Will the Paymaster General comment on why 20 employees from unemployment offices in the north-west, seconded to a course starting next week, should be staying at the prestigious Adelphi hotel in Liverpool at a charge of £36 a night? Their aim is to stop people claiming legitimate expenses through unemployment benefit. The age of the super-snooper has arrived when the Minister's Department can spend out £36 a night to train these people for a week which equates to £3,600 per week. That is twice the amount that a single claimant would take two years to acquire. The Government should be spending resources in Liverpool where one in four people is underpaid, where £20 million is unclaimed and the staff of unemployment offices are already stretched. When will the Government do something in that direction?

Mr. Clarke

I thought the hon. Gentleman usually discribed as snoopers those people who took part in fraud investigations. I know he objects to such investigations, but we believe that it is right to investigate the fraud that occurs.

This questionnaire is quite a different matter. It is not right that it is depriving benefit to those who are legally entitled. These questions and the guidance we have given are merely to ensure that the law, as laid down by this House, and last restated when Labour was in power, is properly applied. Those who satisfy the criteria For entitlement will, of course, get benefit.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, not only do those people who are genuinely seeking work have absolutely nothing to fear from the changes that he has outlined, but that it is positively in the interests of those who are seeking work —including the category referred to by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), those who are entitled but are not claiming—that those who are riot genuinely seeking work should not receive benefit?

Mr. Clarke

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that will be the reaction of the vast majority of British people if they follow this afternoon's exchanges.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

It is very interesting to see the Minister's air of injured innocence, especially after his bland statements.

Can he confirm or deny a report in The Guardian today that benefits will be denied to newly unemployed people if they cannot make arrangements to take care of a disabled relative? Will he recognise that such a proposal would be not only shocking but unrealistic because when he was Minister for Health he and his colleagues did nothing to improve community care for severely disabled people?

Mr. Clarke

On this occasion, I shall not be drawn by the right hon. Gentleman's last outrageous allegation, but I do not agree.

The questions are designed to ensure that people are available for work. People who are not free to take work on the day for which they are claiming are not entitled to benefit. The House has always ruled so. I have not heard any Opposition Member say that he or she wishes to see the law on entitlement changed.

With regard to the care of disabled there are other benefits available to which the disabled person or his carer may be entitled. During our period of office, we have made a vast improvement to the range of benefits and their scales which are available to disabled people.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is in the interests of all genuine claimants that these tests should be fully effective? Genuine claimants should welcome an interview within 16 weeks as recommended by the Rayner scrutiny team.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend. The person who is genuinely unemployed — who has been made redundant, is looking for a job but cannot find one—will share our opinion. He has a claim record and is entitled to benefit, and he would not wish to see that benefit going to someone who comes into the office but is obviously not available for work. Those who are genuinely unemployed feel just as strongly about this, as do many employed members of the public.

Ms. Clare Short

The Paymaster General has been less than fully honest with the House. He has told us that this is a simple tidying up exercise and is not a change in policy. However, the briefing note that went out to all staff in unemployment benefit offices — but not to hon. Members—stated: The experiments are showing that using the UB671 questionnaire … has reduced the number of claims made and increased the number disallowed. That is what it is about and that is what the Minister told his staff it was about — reducing the numbers. [HON. MEMBERS: "So what?"] Let me explain to Conservative Members who do not understand anything about the processes that — [AN HON. MEMBER: "Come to the question."] Certainly I will.

I hope the Paymaster General can answer my question. One of the questions to be put to the long-term unemployed is: Can you start work today? That is asked of someone who has been unemployed for a year, two years or three years. That person might say, "I cannot start today because I have promised to do this or that, but I can start in a couple of days if there is a job for me." What happens to that person?

He will be asked: How far are you able to travel to work? What happens if he says, "I used to have a car but as I have been unemployed for so long I cannot travel very far now."

He will be asked: Do you have any adults or children to care for during working hours? What happens to that man if he says, "One of the joys I have had of being unemployed is that I have seen more of my children and have cared for them. I care for them during the day but if there is a job available I can make other arrangements."

He will be asked: What is the MINIMUM WEEKLY wage or salary (before deductions) you are willing to take? Will the Paymaster General tell us the minimum that people must accept or face having their benefits cut?

I was not alive in the 1930s but generations of my family have passed on to me stories about the wickedness of the means test. Generations of today's unemployed will pass on the story of how this Government frightened people out of the unemployment figures instead of providing real jobs for them.

Mr. Clarke

It is certainly the case that when we have tested this new system we have found that over 3 per cent. of people, when faced with the card that tells them that they must be available for work and with the other questions, do not pursue their claims.

I have spoken to some of our staff who tell me that some people did not realise that one had to be available for work before claiming unemployment benefit. We have also found that there are others who, when they fill in the form make it clear that they are not available for work and they are disallowed benefit to which they are not entitled.

The hon. Lady tried to show what was wrong with the questions, especially those she cited. There is a question which states: Can you start work today? The answer is yes or no but, if the answer is no, one is asked to explain why and say when one would be available for work. If the answer was, "Because I need a day or two to make arrangements to stop doing what I am doing"—

Ms. Clare Short

They stop their money.

Mr. Clarke

No, they do not—of course they do not — [Interruption.]It appears that many hon. Members want to answer the question, but it is not especially complicated. The form is phrased in a way that allows people to explain why they cannot start work. If it is obvious that a person is not available on certain days, he is not entitled to benefit. That is the law that was restated by the Labour Government.

The form asks: Do you have any adults or children to care for during working hours? The person has to tick either the "Yes" box or the "No" box. If the answer is yes, the next question is can you make IMMEDIATE arrangements for their care if you get a job? If that person can make immediate arrangements, he is available for work and therefore entitled to benefit. However, if he proposed to stay at home and look after his children, which is a perfectly free choice, he would not be eligible for unemployment benefit. That has always been the case.

On the point about the wage that people want, the test is whether what they are seeking is reasonable in their circumstances and in the circumstances of the labour market where they live. People who will be disallowed are those who claim that they are available for work, but will accept only a minimum salary that is far above anything that they have earned before or could reasonably hope to earn, or above the going rate for the sort of jobs, for which they are suitably qualified, in the locality in which they live. That is not a change in the system—it is existing law. Parliament has always supported those rulings. The questions are clear, straightforward and not oppressive.

I challenge the Opposition to say whether they would withdraw these questions and simply return to one question that would give all the money to anybody who came through the door of the DHSS office.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I realise that this is a highly contentious matter. It is not possible for me to call every hon. Member who wishes to contribute. However, I have a list of those who I have not been able to call, and I shall give them preference when we return to this subject, as undoubtedly we shall.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the difficulties under which you operate, but is there no mechanism in this House whereby clandestine operations, like the one that has just been described to us, can be communicated to hon. Members whose constituencies are affected? Many of us have been under a great deal of pressure during the weekend because of the Government's proposals.

Mr. Speaker

I doubt whether there is a constituency in the country that this matter does not affect. It is clear that if every hon. Member was called we would not move on to the next subject of business for today, which is very important. I think that the whole House would agree that hon. Members wishing to take part in that debate have an equal right to the available time.