HC Deb 22 July 1987 vol 120 cc448-57

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

8.41 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Some time in the autumn of last year it became clear that my constituency was being used as a trial ground for an extension of the Government's views on how the social security system ought to operate. It is important to realise that underlying most of the decisions that are taken on social services by the Government seems to be the unspoken assumption that if one drives people into narrower and narrower fields, rather like sheep going through a dip, in the end they will automatically come out with jobs that they have created. It does not matter whether we are talking about self-employment, the long-term unemployed or YTS schemes, which frankly are never evaluated, for they become different YTS schemes. The Government seem to be firmly convinced that one reason why many people do not work and do not find work is that they are fundamentally determined to be on the dole.

When I was apprised of the new scheme, I began to take a considerable interest in it because a number of my constituents who are long-term unemployed and who, in some instances, had been recalled for interviews and in other instances had voluntarily gone for restart schemes discovered that they were asked a series of questions about their availability for work. Hon. Members will realise the implications of this. If one is not available for full-time work, one's benefit can immediately be put at risk

I began to ask questions. I particularly wanted to know how many referrals to adjudication officers there had been from the restart counsellors since October. I asked that question in February. I was told by the then Paymaster General and Minister for Employment: No one can lose their benefit entitlement solely as a result of the restart programme. Under long-standing legal rules",— and I emphasise the word "legal"— people can lose their entitlement to benefit if they fail to attend an interview, are not available for work or refuse an offer of suitable employment. That sounds perfectly straightforward and reasonable, but when one goes into the numbers concerned one finds some interesting things. Between 10 October and 11 December 1986, restart schemes officers referred to unemployment benefit officers 21,454 cases of claimants who had failed to attend restart counselling interviews, 8,057 cases where a doubt about availability for work was identified and 153 cases where claimants had refused suitable employment.

One of the difficulties about the whole scheme is that claimants are faced with the "Have you stopped beating your wife?" type of question. If one is a woman and one wants to go into full-time work, one is asked whether one is ready immediately to start work. Honest women, of which there are many, tend to say, "Well, I shall have to arrange for the kids to be looked after," or, "I have to find some form of transport." They are immediately told that they are considered to be not available for work or that they are considered to have difficulties.

The answer that the Minister gave is instructive, so I shall continue with it: independent adjudication officers actually disallowed benefit in the cases of 9,506 claimants … 644 claimants considered not available for work and 42 claimants who had refused suitable employment."—[Official Report, 3 February 1987; Vol. 109, c. 600.] When I had questioned what had happened in my own constituency, I was told: Between 16 June 1986 and 19 September 1986"— a very short period— all claimants at the Crewe office reaching their sixth week of unemployment were asked to complete a questionnaire. Questionnaires were issued to 770 claimants and this resulted in 138 claims being referred to the independent adjudicating authorities. Of these, 20 were disallowed on availability grounds and 118 were allowed." — [Official Report, 5 November 1986; Vol. 103, c. 458.] Those figures are revealing. A total of 138 people were told that they must have their right to benefit referred to an independent adjudicating authority. Only 20 were disallowed, and 118 were allowed. However, in the period in which people are being referred for some kind of adjudication on their benefit they are not entitled to support. My local citizens advice bureau became increasingly concerned about the number of cases where payments were being suspended, on what it suspected, and I must say that I increasingly agree with it, were grounds that probably did not have a proper legal basis.

We know that claimants must be available for work, be actively seeking work and must not put undue restrictions upon the work that they will accept. All those concepts are based on the Act, on the unemployment benefit regulations or on case law. However, we cannot find any law that justifies suspension in the circumstances that I have mentioned. The CAB, through my local office, drew attention to "LO Circular Code 7 Availability Testing", which sets out certain procedures for the staff and said : However, circulars are not the law and decisions made without a grounding in the Act, or the Regulations or in Case Law may be unlawful. It is very easy for the House to get caught up in initials, acronyms and synonyms. We sometimes forget that those terms can mean hardship to people who may be faced with the everyday workings of bureaucracy in a way that they are unable to deal with.

I will mention a number of cases, but I will not mention names unless the Minister would like them privately. Those cases illustrate what I am talking about. One lady, whose benefit had been suspended, was told that she failed to attend an interview with the claimants adviser. A number of young people were endeavouring to get some training and were told that they were not available for work.

On 7 November Mr. A was called into the jobcentre for a Restart interview. He explained to the interviewing officer that he was a student at Danebank college, studying A-level history and English. He said that he studied for only 12 hours a week and considered that by doing that he was increasing his prospects of employment. He explained that he intended to go into higher education and that he still went down to the jobcentre to look for full-time work. His reasons were apparently accepted by the interviewing officer, who not only wished him well but accepted that he was available for work and was obviously trying to improve his chances of obtaining a job.

However, on 31 March Mr. A became mixed up about the signing days and did not attend until the following week, when he discovered that his claim had been closed.

He had received no communication from the unemployment benefit office asking why he had failed to sign. For example, he could have been on holiday. He was just told to make a fresh claim and then he had to complete the availability questionnaire. He was immediately suspended and was told that there was a question about his availability and that his case was being referred to the adjudication section in Stockport. He was not asked to give a full account of his circumstances, and two and a half months later he had a telephone call confirming that he had been suspended because he was not available for work.

In the meantime, Mr. A. had no unemployment or supplementary benefit. He was paid only for urgent needs and, as that does not cover housing costs, he lost the flat in which he was living. There is still no detailed decision in that case. When there is, there will undoubtedly be an appeal.

We must ask the Minister why there were so many extraordinary happenings. Why was the claim cancelled so readily? Why was Mr. A not asked to give a full account to the insurance officer? Why has it taken two and a half months to obtain a decision? Even if there is an appeal, it will take nine months because the adjudication section in Stockport is so slow. There is an outstanding appeal awaiting submission from Stockport which was lodged on 23 September 1986. It was only last week that the office of the chairman for social security appeal tribunals in Bootle, which made it clear that it lays the blame fairly and squarely on Stockport, notified appeal dates for appeals lodged on 7 November 1986 and 1 December 1986.

It may be said that there are some awkward cases and that there is a large problem with the number of people unemployed and so the authorities cannot always be sure but are prepared to look at individual cases. However, let me tell the House about some others, because such cases are not uncommon, and the problem in Crewe and Nantwich is probably reflected throughout Britain.

Mrs. B works outside the Crewe area. She has a three-year-old child who was looked after between 7.15 am and 5.30 pm while Mrs. B worked by her 69-year-old mother. When Mrs. B became pregnant again and was on maternity pay she gave notice because her mother said, not unreasonably, that she could not cope with two children between those hours. The lady then began to look for other childminders, but it became clear to her that they were not available except between 9 am and 5 pm.

The unemployment benefit office suspended Mrs. B on the ground that she had failed to avail herself of a reasonable opportunity of suitable employment. The case is covered by case law, which, in similar circumstances, found that work starting before the childminders were available was unsuitable. In my constituency there are several good play groups and nurseries, but they have long waiting lists and do not work the sort of flexible hours that fit in with the employment in what is still, thank God, fundamentally a basic manufacturing constituency. Therefore, that was not only a reasonable case to put, but it was unanswerable.

Mr. C was a sub-postmaster and a self-employed agent for the Post Office. He decided that he wanted to go into full-time education. The Government's attitude towards those who want to go into full-time education is worrying. They seem to feel that it is crossing the Rubicon. Mr. C applied to Crewe and Alsager college to do a BEd degree in business studies, after which he wanted to teach. He wanted to sell his business and go to college, with no need to claim benefit. He put his business on the market, and in June 1986 a buyer was interested. He had hoped that the transaction would be completed by August. However, the deal was not completed until February 1987. He Missed the 1986 intake and is going to college this year.

Mr. C's wife suffers from multiple sclerosis and the long hours in the post office were affecting her health. All those circumstances were entirely beyond the control of the people about whom I am talking, so in what way could he possibly he said to be voluntarily unemployed? Yet that was the decision that was reached in his case.

I have another case, which concerns a woman who worked as a machinist for five years. She trained as a flat-bed machinist. On 20 June 1986 she left to have a baby. The baby was born on 21 August and she received maternity pay for 12 weeks after the baby was born. She did not return to work, as her parents were unable to look after the baby and she was breast-feeding. She was suspended from benefit and her case was referred to the adjudication officer. During that suspension she received a letter asking her availability questions. She then said that she would work full-time and she started to receive unemployment benefit.

That continued until she made the fatal mistake, because she could not find a full-time job, of taking part-time work. She was called in and questioned and told that to take part-time work meant that she was not available for full-time work. She is still actively seeking work and goes regularly to the jobcentre. The only jobs as a machinist available in the area are as an overlocker or buttonholer, for which she has not been trained. She has applied for several jobs, but no one has bothered even to answer her letters. How can a stop-gap measure of part-time work mean that she is no longer seeking work? The "full extent normal" rule may be applied to her in six months' time, but the claim of non-availability can be no more than tenuous.

Those are the sorts of cases that I hear about every time I have a surgery. I have gone into considerable detail because we must be clear about several points. It is perfectly legitimate, when the state is paying for those who are unemployed, to make sure that those who are in receipt of benefit are entitled to it and are not lounging around refusing to find some employment or are among those who, for one reason or another, find themselves happy to remain on the general unemployment list.

It is unreasonable to keep jigging the rules around, putting people into an untenable position so that whatever they say they are wrong. I have been through such questions in considerable detail, and they almost instinctively catch those who may not be completely articulate but who are 100 per cent. honest, who, faced with a question such as, "Would you be prepared to work outside your travel-to-work area?", will wonder whether there is a bus and what their fares will be. Their instinct is to say that they want to work within their travel-to-work area, but they have to think twice before they leave their family and work outside that area. That perfectly reasonable answer does not mean that people will not take employment. Such an answer means that people are realistic enough to say, before they go dashing off, that they want to consider where they will live, how they will get back and what will happen to the family. That kind of answer debars people from benefit.

I am told that I am being extraordinarily unreasonable if I think that people will be debarred from benefit. I am told that those people are simply being referred to an independent adjudicator. That adjudicating panel will then decide on the person's legitimate right to receive benefit. If that is all that is involved, the Minister has a responsibility and he should answer tonight. If people are to be debarred, even temporarily, from benefit, we must be satisfied about the circumstances in which those people will exist until that benefit has been properly adjudicated upon.

Secondly, if people are to he referred, there must be some machinery to make that a rapid process. I do not believe that it is acceptable to say, as we say to many people at a most difficult time in their lives, "Oh well, you have been referred and with any luck you might get called within six months, or possibly it could be a little longer. Do not worry, because if you are entitled to benefit you will get the arrears." That is fine. If they are still alive, they will get the arrears. Meanwhile, they must live on something. They have to pay for their flats, they must eat and clothe themselves and generally they must keep body and soul together.

The Government had better get their priorities right. I read the other day about insider dealing, which results in enough money being made to keep all the unemployed in my constituency in considerable comfort. I read that insider dealing is a victimless crime and that very few people need to be brought to court because, dear Lord, they are probably doing the fine male chauvinist thing and making as much money as they can by using a sharp ear and a rapid terminal. At the same time, people are existing on a rotten benefit. People are genuinely looking for work and they do not want to have to exist on the pitiful sums that they receive in benefit. If those people are long-term unemployed, they are told that they must come in, answer questions and demonstrate that they are entitled to receive benefit.

Sometimes we can get it wrong. A letter appeared in my local paper today. I did not send it; it was sent by a highly respected Liberal councillor. In the letter she says : Like many students at this time of year I have recently registered for Unemployment Benefit following the end of the present academic year … I must bring to the attention of the public the appalling treatment that is being dealt out to people … at the unemployment benefits office. She goes on say that she made her first claim on 1 July and was told to return on the following Monday.

On 8 July this lady received a letter stating that her benefit was to be suspended because of the restrictions that she had placed on her availability for work. She writes: From recollection I had filled in the form stating that I was available to work Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm and was able to start work at 24 hours notice. I did however state that as I had two children under four years of age I was restricted—for example I would find it hard to undertake night work. If this is the factor suspending my claim I despair of the system. She continues in her letter to explain what happened when she had the temerity to present herself at the local office and ask for assistance, and the way in which she and other claimants were treated.

I know that the Government treat civil servants like dirt, and I know that since they came into office they have set out to undermine the Civil Service. I know, too, that many civil servants operating in the DHSS are in receipt of family income supplement because they are so poorly paid. I know also that we cannot consistently expect people at the sharp end to have to explain absolutely unacceptable rules and put up with the insults, savagery and desperation of the people who come to see them. Over 20 years in the House I have learnt that there is a kind of desperation about people who have gone beyond the point at which they can hit back, and we see that in those who are long-term unemployed.

I have seen good people destroyed by long-term unemployment. I have seen people who, no matter what the brilliant television adverts say, know very well that we have created a society that really cares only for those with money, and cares nothing for those with skills. At the moment we see the complete snarl-up of bureaucracy, the inability of many genuine claimants to receive their entitlement and the punitive attitude of the Government, who seem to believe that the long-term unemployed who receive benefit must come in and be cross-examined and in most cases be deprived of benefit for long enough for the Department to decide whether they are entitled to receive anything.

If that is the Government's attitude, the result is not just to fiddle the figures, although that is certainly one effect because it takes people off the unemployment benefit for long enough to have their cases looked at before they are returned to benefit. However, what it does to people in the meantime is absolutely abhorrent to anyone who lives in a civilised society. We are not talking about ciphers, about people who are born cheats and who know how to get the best out of the system. We are talking about people who desperately need benefit.

I hope that the Minister has the kindness and the understanding to say that the Government will look at the way in which the system operates. I hope he will say that if what is happening in Stockport is happening in other adjudicating centres all over the United Kingdom he will instantly do something about it. He should say that he will appoint more staff, make sure that there is a specific speed-up and look at the reason why this is happening.

If the numbers of people being deprived of benefit in Stockport is a reflection of what is happening elsewhere, it means that two thirds of people who are entitled to benefit lose it. Many of them get it back, but in the meantime they have to cope without any support whatever. If the Minister says that there are difficult cases but that they are very much the exception, I shall tell him that, based on conditions in my constituency, I do not think that that is the case. Many of the long-term unemployed are being put through a wringer, and that is wholly unacceptable.

That may not be the intention of the Government, but that is what they are doing. They are demonstrating double standards, because people at the bottom of the scale are being squeezed, while at the top of the scale, as long as they are operating in the City of London, people seem to be able to get away with murder. That will not do and I do not think that the Minister would want to be party to that kind of behaviour. I ask him urgently to go away from the House and find out what is happening under his own system. If he is not satisfied with it, he must change it, or the House will have something to say.

9.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee)

Perhaps I might first genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on raising this important subject and giving us the opportunity for this brief debate. While inevitably I do not agree with many of the points itmade by the hon. Lady, I know that she has been concerned about the operation of the availability for work test in her constituency. There has been considerable correspondence between the hon. Lady and my Department. Therefore, I am glad to have this opportunity to discuss the issues involved.

The first point that I must make is that the availability for work test applies not just to Crewe and Nantwich but to the country as a whole. Therefore, it would be useful if I were to remind the House of the reasons behind last year's changes to the procedures. First, let us be clear on the law. This says that unemployment benefits are payable only to people who are available for work on every day for which they make a claim. The law is contained not in any statute passed by this Administration but in the Social Security Act 1975. That is an important point, because it is often alleged that the changes introduced last year tightened the law on availability for work. That is not so. Indeed, the basic requirement to be available for work as a fundamental tenet of receiving benefits while unemployed has existed virtually unchanged since the passing of the Unemployment Insurance Act 1935.

The changes introduced last year were solely concerned, therefore, with the administration of this existing requirement. Until last year, the enforcement of this condition depended in practice on a single question asked of all claimants when they first made a claim to benefit, namely: "Will you take any job which you can do?" To that question 99 per cent. of all claimants answered yes. It does not need great vision to see that this was hardly an effective check on those claimants who might not have been fully available for work. Indeed, during 1984, the Comptroller and Auditor General's National Audit Office, in examining the way benefits were assessed and paid to unemployed people, pointed out that a claimant could easily deduce what answer was required in order to qualify for benefit.

The people in the Audit Office were not the only ones to arrive at that conclusion. The all-party—I emphasise "all-party" — Public Accounts Committee, in its 30th report published in September 1985, was also unhappy with the existing arrangements. The Committee said: We are concerned about the weakness of the formal test of availability for work and welcome the DHSS's decision to consider whether more effective tests are practicable". It was in the light of these concerns, which the Government had also come to share, that we decided early last year to set up a number of experiments to see whether a more satisfactory procedure could be devised.

Twelve unemployment benefit offices took part in the experiments, with a further 12 offices gathering statistical information for comparison purposes. Crewe UBO, in the hon. Lady's constituency, was one of the offices taking part. The experiments consisted of issuing a questionnaire on availability to all claimants. The results showed that more comprehensive questioning of claimants in this way had the effect of identifying the number of people who were not genuinely looking for work. Between 3 and 4 per cent. of claimants did not pursue their claims once the requirement to be available was brought to their attention and a further 2 to 3 per cent. had their benefit disallowed. It also identified others who, while not available for work, were entitled to different social security benefits and helped unemployed claimants towards job vacancies or training and enterprise schemes.

However, the experiments also showed that the questionnaire could not be applied in a simple, mechanistic way and that claimants often needed guidance on other benefits to which they might be entitled and about labour market opportunities in general.

The results of the experiments led us inevitably to the conclusion that the availability questionnaire, supplemented by interviews with claimant advisers, when helpful, should be completed by all new claimants to unemployment benefit. We accordingly informed the House to that effect on 28 October last year. Indeed, I venture to suggest that, had we not moved to introduce the new procedures nationwide, we would have left ourselves open to justifiable criticism from the Public Accounts Committee and others that we were failing properly to safeguard the use of public funds and the national insurance fund.

Inevitably also the new procedures have been criticised on a variety of grounds—not least that they are in some way oppressive or that we are asking trick questions. The procedures are not oppressive. The questionnaire does not ask "trick" questions, but rather perfectly straightforward ones.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will the Minister tell me three things—has he read the form; how would he answer some of the questions; does the PAC know the type of form that is used at present to take people off benefit—because that is what it is doing?

Mr. Lee

I have indeed seen the form, and I have a copy of it with me tonight, but I am not prepared to go through it in detail in terms of the way in which I would fill it in. However, I shall be happy to discuss it in the Tea Room later with the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I know what the form says.

Mr. Lee

I, too, know what it says.

Those claimants who are genuinely available and seeking work will have no difficulty in satisfying the requirements. Rather, the questionnaire helps us to identify the minority of claimants who seek to abuse the benefit system, and those people who need special advice and guidance with their efforts to find work or to claim the correct benefit. I am surprised that anyone should hold that to be in any way improper.

It may, however, be helpful if I deal with some of the specific criticisms that have been levelled at the new procedures, some of which have been raised by the hon. Lady. I shall deal first with the suspension of benefit while availability is decided.

In the first place, critics have referred to the practice of suspending payment of benefit while a doubt about a claimant's availability is resolved — resolved, I should make it clear, not by Ministers, but by the independent adjudicating authorities who decide all questions relating to entitlement to benefit. Let me make it quite clear that the suspension of benefit in these circumstances is not new. It has been the long-standing practice under successive Administrations and applies not just where doubts arise on the availability for work condition, but in the case of doubts about any of the conditions for receipt of benefit. That seems to be quite right — to pay out benefit to someone with doubtful entitlement while that entitlement is being determined seems a dubious use of public funds.

There is also the alleged criticism of suspended cases that are ultimately decided in the claimant's favour. It has also been suggested that, because a high proportion of the cases put to adjudication officers are "allowed" — in other words, decided in favour of the claimant — that calls our procedures into question. I find this a strange proposition. Just because a case is "allowed" does not mean that it was wrong or inappropriate to have referred it for a decision. Indeed, with cases of availability, adjudicators have always had discretion to give the claimant the benefit of the doubt and review the case at a later stage, which obviously increases the number of cases where benefit is not disallowed.

The hon. Lady raised with obvious and sincere concern the question of hardship while benefit is suspended or disallowed. Questions have also been raised about the effect when benefit is suspended while a question of availability is decided. Let me make it quite clear: it is and always has been the case under successive Administrations that where a person is disallowed benefit because he is found not to be available for work or where benefit has been suspended while the question of availability is being considered by an adjudication officer, benefit is not payable. In those circumstances, the DHSS can nevertheless make an urgent need payment where the situation warrants it. The DHSS has that flexibility.

Moreover, in practice, where a person is likely to be entitled to an alternative benefit which does not require him to be available for work, the unemployment benefit officer will often refer the case to their claimant adviser who can usually help to get the alternative benefit put into effect.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I apologise to the Minister for intervening, but this is important. How long does it take on average for an adjudication to take place? I am not arguing about whether successive Governments have always said that if a person is entitled to benefit he should have it. From listening to this Government, one might occasionally think that that was not the case. How long is it before a case is answered? That must be directly relevant because, as the Minister knows, the urgent needs payment does not meet overheads.

Mr. Lee

I understand from information which has just been made available that it is about eight days. As I have said, the DHSS has flexibility and the power to make urgent payments if the case warrants and justifies it.

The hon. Lady asked about the effect of the test on women with children. Various people and organisations have also raised this question. It seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable expectation that a woman who has children to care for but who is looking for work has made some plans for their care if she gets a job. If she does not, she will hardly be in the position to accept an offer of employment; there must, therefore, be some doubt about her availability for work which it would seem reasonable to put to an adjudication officer for decision. There is no intention whatever that the new procedures should be targeted in any sense towards women and children; but it is equally the case, as it was under the previous Labour Administration, that a married woman, in the same way as any other claimant to unemployment benefit, must demonstrate that she is available for work.

On the register effect, there have been those who allege that availability testing is just a device for reducing the unemployment count. Once again, I refute that. This is not the case. The revised procedures were designed to meet the criticisms made by the Public Accounts Committee and others who said that our existing arrangements were "weak". The procedures aim simply at establishing eligibility for benefit and as such have improved our ability to identify people who are not available for work.

Concern has been voiced and criticisms made about the effect of the procedures on students. Obviously, being a basic eligibility condition, availability for work applies also to students who claim benefits. However, if they can show that they are actively seeking work and are both willing and able to take up a job or a job interview, their availability can be accepted. Many students are able to satisfy this condition, but where they are not it is once again the case that they have failed to satisfy one of the fundamental conditions for the receipt of benefit.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for having given me the opportunity to speak on this topic and to dispel some of the misconceptions about the availability for work condition. The vast majority of claimants to unemployment benefit are actively seeking work and will have no difficulty in satisfying the availability condition. But we cannot and we will not accept that the minority of claimants who do not satisfy that condition should receive benefit none the less. It is to that end and that end alonethat the revised procedures which we introduced last year are directed.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lee

No. I have given way on several occasions.

If the hon. Lady would like me to consider specific cases after this debate, and I can do so if they are free from the legal adjudication procedures, I shall gladly do so.

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