HC Deb 26 April 1989 vol 151 cc1003-23
Mrs. Beckett

I beg to move amendment No. 116, in page 6, line 10, leave out `(c) and (d)' and insert 'and (c)'.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 110, in page 6, line 18, leave out subsection (3) and insert— '(3A) For subsection (4) of that section "meaning of suitable employment" there shall be substituted— (4) For the purposes of subsection (1) above, regulations shall

  1. (a) prescribe matters which are to be taken into account or determining whether a person does have good cause for any act or omission;"'

No. 2, in page 6, line 31, at end insert 'other than—

  1. (a) whether the level of remuneration is reasonable for that employment, or
  2. (b) any excuse that the person would be likely to incur in connection with that employment.'.

No. 3, in page 6, line 38, after 'which', insert 'is unsuited to his skills or experience or'. Government amendment No. 99.

No. 111, in page 7, line 40, at end add— '(7) Nothing in sections 7, 8 and 9 shall prevent the adjudication officer when reaching any decision under sections 7, 8 and 9 taking into account patterns of employment associated with particular professions.'.

Mrs. Beckett

The amendments relate to clause 9 which, as indicated in the debate on amendment No. 5, is of a piece with other aspects of the Government's approach to wages and the nature of the job search required by clause 7. The effect of clause 9 as it stands will be to require people to apply for or take jobs or training places without regard to the suitability of those jobs or training places to their skills and experience, and without regard in particular—again, this is written on the face of the Bill —to the wages offered or to the conditions of work. Rejecting or failing actively to search for any work, at any wages and in any conditions, may lead to benefit being suspended—probably, as seems to be the norm these days, for the full period of six months, as there is no evidence of discretion available to adjudication officers in that respect.

No Government have offered such a carte blanche to the greedy, irresponsible or exploitative employer since unemployment insurance was invented in 1911, and with it the idea that a job offer could be rejected without incurring disqualification from benefit if there was good cause and the offer was not of suitable work. It is important to emphasise that, under the law, after a period of unemployment people might be called on to widen their horizons beyond the direct field of their previous job, but they could not be disqualified for rejecting or refusing to pursue a job if the wages and conditions on offer were not reasonably fair once the scope of search had been widened.

Through this clause, as through other measures such as the removal of wages councils, the Government seem to be trying to erase the idea that there is any such thing as a proper job or a living wage. In pursuit of that objective, people may be pressured by the threat of disqualification and suspension of benefit to take steps that they may believe—and may be correct to believe—are damaging to their long-term prospects of re-employment. Someone with a skilled job or a supervisory or managerial post might be pressed to take a job as a janitor or clerical assistant because that was all that was readily available.

Ministers claim that that will not happen, but that is not what the law says. What Conservative Back Benchers say is more interesting and truthful. They say, "Why not?" They want to know what is wrong with being a janitor or clerical assistant and why people should not be pushed into any job because any job is better than being on the dole. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to hear Conservative Members justifying my observations.

It is far from clear whether employers are as open-minded as Conservative Members. The Opposition regret that an employer receiving an application for a supervisory or managerial post from a former manager or supervisor now labouring on the shop floor may not get further down the application form than "present occupation" before throwing it in the bin and saying, "He must be joking." One of our prime complaints about the Bill is that the only way in which it seeks to affect the job market is by punishing the unemployed. It has nothing to offer on other obstacles to possible re-employment, such as the attitudes of employers.

Amendment No. 116 deals with the question of retaining the word "suitable" in section 20(1)(d) of the Social Security Act 1975. That subsection would otherwise be able to disqualify someone who has without good cause refused to carry out any recommendations given with a view to assisting him to find employment. When we are not even talking about a job which is necessarily available to that individual, but merely about the advice that he might be given to look for a job, it is right to retain the concept of people looking for "suitable" employment. Certainly it would be wrong to disqualify a person for failing to carry out a recommendation.

Amendment No. 2 is directed specifically at the level of pay and would write into the Bill two exceptions to the general ban on taking into account at any stage the level of remuneration—whether the rate of pay is reasonable for the job and also work expenses. It is plainly absurd to suggest that no account should be taken of the rate of pay. Someone is entitled to expect a reasonable rate of pay for the job on offer, whatever the job or however long the period of unemployment that the person has suffered. The Government's view on this is not altogether clear. In Committee the Minister agreed that Someone who turns down a job offered to him privately at a derisory wage should not be disqualified from unemployment benefit. The Minister seemed to fear that someone in a private agency might tip off the Department of Social Security that a person had turned down a job which it was wholly unreasonable, even in the Government's view, for him to accept and he might then be disqualified from benefit. The Minister said: I want to find a way through regulations preventing that from happening, but cannot say exactly how it is possible to do it, nor what the impact might be on other sources through which the job might be advertised."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 14 February 1989; c. 487–533.] We pressed the Minister on that and asked what would happen if a job was advertised not just through a private agency—we agree that the Government should act in that case–but by a private agency and at the jobcentre, whether or not the person knew that the job was on offer at the jobcentre. What would happen if the person turned the job down because the wages were derisory? Will that be allowed if the job is offered privately, but not if it is offered at the same wages through the jobcentre? We asked the Minister that question in Committee, but there is no record of a reply, let alone one that makes any sense. The only way in which the Minister's proposal would make any kind of sense would be if it were extended to jobs offered through the jobcentre as well as through private agencies. That is the first leg of amendment No. 2.

The second part of amendment No. 2 would allow work expenses explicitly to be taken into account when deciding whether a person had good cause to refuse a job. Again, we discussed that at length in Committee. Although we challenged the Minister about work expenses such as travel and child care costs, and asked whether they would count as good cause for refusing a job on low wages, the Minister seemed to say that he thought that they "ought to" as opposed to "would." Because the provision in the Bill explicitly states that all questions of remuneration are ruled out, that might be taken to override the Minister's comments about what it might he nice to take into account in the way of work expenses. At one point the Minister said: There is no straightforward answer"—[Official Report, Standing Committee F; 9 February 1989, c. 408.] about the kind of work expenses that might be taken into account.

Ms. Short

My hon. Friend will recall that there is provision in the Bill for the Government to make regulations allowing them to set minimum pay levels. If the pay for a job was below that, it would be reasonable to turn it down. The Minister explicitly refused to promise to make such regulations, so despite the undertaking to which my hon. Friend refers, unless the Minister changes his mind today he is explicitly ruling out making any regulations to provide for a minimum level of pay.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. She will recall that in Committee some examples were given of levels of pay that we thought most people would consider wholly inadequate. The main reaction to them was to challenge whether jobs with such levels of pay were on offer, not to say that if they were on offer they should not be accepted.

7 pm

Our other reason for raising the issue of work expenses is that, although the Minister discussed the question of travel expenses, he later confirmed that it was travelling time rather than cost that would constitute good cause for refusal. The physical difficulty of a person's taking on a job, rather than his or her travel expenses making the wages wholly unrealistic, would be considered a good cause. Later, however, the Minister once again seemed to suggest that expenses or costs might be taken into account. When my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) pressed the Minister about whether gross or net pay would be considered, the Minister said that he imagined that account would be taken of the take-home pay of the person involved.

One reason why we are determined to make the effort to write into the Bill some specific reference to work expenses, and why we are reluctant to accept that in practice sensible guidelines will be adopted, is the fact that social fund officers are explicitly prevented by the Department's guidelines even from offering loans towards work expenses, and even where the absence of such money means that the job will be lost. That is why amendment No. 2 should commend itself to the House.

Amendment No. 3 prevents people from being forced, under threat of disqualification, to take jobs unsuited to their skills or experience. In Committee, the Minister's remarks showed that he thought that the concept of a suitable job ought to be taken into account, even though he was taking it out of the legislation. Some reference of that kind should be written into the legislation so that in considering good cause, quite apart from the rate of pay, the authorities will have to take suitability into account.

As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State will be able to lay down in regulations what is or is not good cause. Those regulations could remove many of the established safeguards in case law on issues such as suitability. If the Government had intended good cause to cover everything except the level of pay, now covered by suitability, there would be no reason not to retain both concepts in the Bill. Therefore, if the Government intend the adjudicating authorities to take into account some concept of suitability, that should be encouraged by some reference in the Bill. That is the purpose of amendment No. 3.

This group of amendments should commend itself to the House. My hon. Friends and I, however, direct our attention particularly to amendment No. 2.

Mr. Kirkwood

I should like to speak to amendments Nos. 110 and 111 that appear in my name, and, mercifully, I can do so briefly. I had in mind two ideas when tabling these amendments. First, I wanted to increase the measure of flexibility available to adjudicating officers and their like when they consider some of the questions contained in clause 9; to acknowledge the difficulty that people with disabilities have in acquiring employment; and to prevent them from being doubly penalised.

Secondly, amendment No. 111 seeks to take account of the needs of professions such as acting. I fully recognise and understand that there was an extensive debate on that in Committee. However, it is right to take a few moments to look again at the difficulties facing those who pursue professions and jobs that are seasonable, may be stop-go and may not fit well into the pattern set out by the Department.

The House will know, and those who were on the Committee will remember that much play was made of the fact, that actors work on a casual basis with short-term contracts and might be required to work for one day at a time. In between those days of work, there may be long gaps which make for an erratic employment pattern. That makes it difficult for them to qualify under the various regulations stipulated by the Bill. The provisions in clause 8 require a claimant to work 13 weeks within a 26-week period in order to requalify for unemployment benefit. That would be a difficult requirement for actors to meet.

Clause 9 says that anyone on the register for three months or more must be prepared to accept any work at any rate. If that policy were ruthlessly pursued, it would have the potential to drive actors out of their profession. I know that Ministers said that they would make some concessions and seemed to be listening to our case in Committee. However, as I understand it, their concessions were in terms of the regulations that were to flow from the primary legislation.

The House would be right to reconsider the opportunity that these clauses provide to make it clear on the face of the Bill—in the primary legislation—that there should be flexibility to protect these two particular categories of unemployment benefit claimants. In addition, the clause as it stands could trap many qualified people, particularly those with disabilities, who may have problems getting a job. Despite their high qualifications, such people may have to accept low-paid and unqualified manual work. In turn, that will prevent those without qualifications from obtaining the lower quality work. That problem may arise if the clauses proceed unamended.

If the Government are setting their face against changing the general thrust of the legislation, we should seek to place on the face of the Bill a guaranteed degree of flexibility so that we do not have to rely on the Minister's statements that the legislation will be implemented with the customary milk of human kindness that we know to be in the forefront of every adjudication officer's mind. Generally, they serve the public well. Certainly, in my own constituency they do their job well and should not be criticised. However, they are under pressure, principally because the legislation that they are tied to implement is harsh and onerous. It is no fault of theirs that they have to apply it, and if they were given primary legislation that was more flexible at the edges, it would be easier to live with.

It is a mistake for the House to legislate on the basis of ideal people in ideal situations. The real world is not like that but contains many disadvantaged people in difficult and trying circumstances. A bit of discretion and flexibility, such as that contained in the amendments, would improve the legislation. The legislation should not be—as it seems to be—promulgated on the basis that everybody is to be treated as a scrounger. However, we accepted in earlier discussions on other clauses that only a minority of people are work shy. Framing the legislation on the basis of trying to catch them, and catching everybody else in the net as a result, is a silly way to proceed. I hope that the amendments will elicit some new and more progressive thinking and more flexibility from the Minister of State than we received in Committee.

Mr. Battle

Social security legislation is complex. Perhaps in recognition of that, the Department of Social Security has altered the logo—there is now a user-friendly smile—on its press handouts, but the legislation is still confusing.

During discussion of the previous clause, the Minister said that the Bill would not hit single parents with young children, which is manifestly untrue. They will be hit; if they are claiming unemployment benefit they will not be automatically entitled to it—they will have to go through the availability for work test—

Mr. Scott

Surely the hon. Gentleman will accept that people have a choice in this matter. If they are claiming unemployment benefit, they are, by definition, seeking to return to employment. If not, income support is the appropriate benefit for them. The lone parent has a clear choice.

Mr. Battle

The Minister tried to tell the House during discussion of the previous clause that people could not claim and said that single parents with children under 16 would not be affected—but they will be. I accept the point that he has just made, if he will accept that what I say is true in the context of the whole Bill.

Even Conservative Members who sat through the Committee proceedings for months have today repeated again that no one will be asked to accept any rate of pay. That, too, is palpably wrong. The Bill states that they will be asked to accept any rate. If they do not accept a job offered them at an incredibly low rate, they will be taken out of benefit, Conservative Members have repeated this afternoon. This may not be sinking in; many people outside the House do not believe it possible that the Government will force people to accept a job regardless of the pay offered for it.

This clause effectively prices people into work, and that should be plainly spelt out. If nothing else emerges from all the debates on the Bill this should: people must be aware before they sign on that, if they do not take the job they are offered at the price offered, they will not receive benefit.

The last time we debated this in Committee, the Minister challenged the idea that people are offered jobs at low rates. I seem to recall that he asked his civil servants to ring up jobcentres and check the examples that some of us gave of the jobs that were on offer there. I represent Leeds, which was a traditional manufacturing and textile area. The jobs have gone in the manufacturing sector and been replaced, to some extent, by jobs in the service sector. During that restructuring, there has been a shift in the economy to a two-tier system in which some people—the majority—occupy relatively secure jobs but others have been priced into the temporary, part-time and low-paid sector.

I assure the Minister that I checked only yesterday with the Bramley jobcentre what jobs are on offer to the unemployed in my area. I shall focus on the low-paid jobs. The usual wages for jobs in the centre this week are £120 to £130 a week. That is well below the Council of Europe decency threshold, which the Government refuse to acknowledge, and well below the average wage in Britain, which now stands at £258 a week. Most of my constituents earn much less than the average wage. Perhaps the reason why the average wage is so high has something to do with the Financial Times report this week that directors and managers have had a 26 per cent. wage increase as a result of the tax cuts in last year's Budget. Perhaps they are pulling up the average wage. People at the bottom of the scale are certainly not earning high wages.

7.15 pm

In Bramley jobcentre, a semi-skilled lathe operator is offered £95 for a full week's work. A junior storekeeper will get £45 a week. A security guard—another job in the service sector—working 12-hour shifts and needing at least three months background in security before being able to apply gets £1.80 an hour. A presser, a job in what is left of the textile industry, is paid £2.1075 an hour, whatever that means. A machinist is offered £2.10 an hour.

A wages council deals with the wages in the clothing and textile industries and sets the minimum wage at £1.90. So these jobs are offered at 10p or 20p above the minimum. The Government propose to remove the wages council, thereby removing the minimum rate. Wage rates will then fall and people will discover that they are being offered even less.

In Committee, Conservative Members were sent a guide to the Bill by the Conservative party press department. It said that the purpose of the Bill was to ease the rigidities of the labour market". The notes on clauses explain what that means: the level of remuneration will not be a just cause for turning down a job offer". I hope that people are now sure what that means. It means that people will be forced to accept the lowest-paid jobs. The Government are deliberately manufacturing low pay by means of this Bill, and reinforcing the low-wage economy.

As for work expenses, a person in my constituency was referred to an employment agency, which advised him to go to the parts of the country in which there were jobs. He paid the bus fare to Harrogate, where he was referred to a construction site. At the site, he was told that there were no jobs, and the manager could not imagine why the employment agency had sent him along. He returned to the employment agency to ask where the advertisement had been seen, only to be told that the agency did not go by advertisements but sent people to areas where developments were taking place to see whether they could find a job. Conservative Members who vote against our amendment will be telling people like my constituent that, having paid the bus fare to go to Harrogate for a job, they will not get the money back. They will lose out because they have tried to find jobs and have been misled by employment agencies.

I hope that, at this late stage, the Government will tell people that this measure is designed to price them into work, and that they can be sent anywhere to find work, with no compensation or assistance. That will be profoundly unjust for the unemployed. It will not be easy for the Government to sell this measure with a smile and to pretend that it is part of a social security policy. It is part of a policy to price people into work. That is part of the Government's employment strategy and it has nothing to do with protecting people whose incomes are at the bottom of the scale.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I want briefly to support the amendments. There is already enough pressure on the unemployed to take jobs which are often unsuitable and badly paid.

Some of my constituents have brought their cases to my attention and, as is to be expected, I have taken them up with the local agencies. Inevitably, I have been informed of the regulations which the agencies are responsible for implementing locally. I know that some Conservative Members believe that the unemployed should take any job regardless of circumstances, conditions and pay. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) nodded in approval when that point was made earlier. We do not take that view. We work on the assumption that the overwhelming majority of the unemployed want to work. We do not accept for one moment the notion that they are workshy, or that they find any excuse not to take employment. In any country, a small number will behave like that, but they are wholly unrepresentative of most of the unemployed.

Being unemployed, if only Conservative Members and Ministers could understand it, does not just mean having nowhere near enough income. That is bad enough, and it is worse if a person has family responsibilities. There is a psychological factor as well.

Until very recently in the west midlands, there was a great deal of unemployment. In some parts of the region unemployment remains substantially high. But even in those circumstances, when a person could say that unemployment was not his fault and that others were in the same position, the unemployed did not feel like that. Instead, so many felt a sense of personal failure. They felt inadequate. Those in their 40s and 50s, with a lifetime of work behind them, felt that they had failed, and there was always the great worry about whether they would be able to work again. Those are all important and relevant factors when we are discussing legislation affecting those who are unfortunately without work.

I understand that, in Committee, the Minister said that someone who turned down a job that had been offered to him privately at a derisory wage would not be disqualified from unemployment benefit. A person therefore offered a job with inadequate wage outside the jobcentre would not be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit. The Minister may have changed his position. No doubt he will tell us the current position when he replies. However, if that remains the position—I shall be pleased if it does—is there not a contradiction between that and a person being offered a job at a derisory wage by a jobcentre? I hope that the Minister will answer those points.

Pay is certainly important. Why should a person who has been earning a reasonable sum of money accept any job at a derisory wage? A person may well take the view that he will not be able to earn as much as he did previously. He may well take the view that he will not be able to work in precisely the same kind of occupation that he did previously. But that does not necessarily mean that he should take any type of job at a menial wage on which he cannot support his family. It is unthinkable that a person to whom a job is offered should not be able to take into consideration the pay that goes with it.

Ms. Short

There is another point. People seeking full-time employment may be forced to take part-time employment. The Government realised that, under the Bill, people could be forced to take fewer than 25 hours' work a week and thus not be entitled to family credit, so they said that they would change that. But anyone seeking full-time work can be forced into a job with as little as 25 hours' work a week at any rate of pay.

Mr. Winnick

I agree: my hon. Friend makes a valid point. I do not know whether Conservative Members are worried about this, but the nub of our argument is that it is wrong and inappropriate in every possible way that pay should not be a factor when a person decides whether to take a particular job. Our amendment will inevitably be Defeated—the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) nods in agreement—and that will mean that the unemployed will be in the position that we have been describing. They will not be able to take into consideration pay that is inadequate and on which they cannot support their family.

That is wrong. No Conservative Member would want to be in that position, so why should other members of the community? Conservative Members would not like to be unemployed and be told that they must take a job however low the pay is, so why should our constituents be penalised in that fashion?

Mr. Wigley

I may not have followed fully what the hon. Gentleman said, but may people be forced into jobs with low hours and low wages, and so be below the threshold for national insurance payments, thus being in danger of missing out there as well?

Mr. Winnick

That may well be so.

Just to widen the debate a little—if I am out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will correct me—I am opposed to changing Sunday trading hours not just on religious grounds—we respect those with a religious point of view on that issue—but because people may be forced to work on a Sunday for low pay. I am all the more determined to oppose any change in the Sunday trading law after this legislation. However, I shall not pursue that point.

The Bill is a direct incentive to employers to pay disgracefully low wages. It helps those employers who could not care less about paying their employees adequately. Employers will in many cases take the view that the unemployed can be forced to take jobs with wages on which no one could support a family. This legislation is a direct incentive for the worst kind of employer. [Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is muttering, but whatever it is I doubt whether it was sympathetic to my point.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that a person who, in the circumstances that he describes, takes a relatively low-paid or part-time job would have his family income made up with family credit. These days, people earning in excess of £9,000 a year qualify for that extra benefit.

Mr. Winnick

That is all very patronising. First, if such people had no young dependants, that would not apply. Secondly, the hon. Lady is saying that those employers who pay disgracefully low wages should be subsidised by the rest of the community. That shows what modern day Toryism has come to.

The amendments would help to modify a bad Bill. They would give the unemployed some sort of protection. The amendments are justified and though they will be defeated we shall carry on the argument in the country.

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)

My constituency and the Sunderland area are concentrated microcosms of the reality that my hon. Friends the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) have been describing.

For some time the Government have been pursuing the dual strategy of trying to make the real unemployment that exists in our society disappear from the statistics and neatly aiding the most unscrupulous employers. Those two objectives fit together like a hand in a glove and the clause will make matters even worse.

Since December, Sunderland shipyards have been running down as a result of the Government's disgraceful and vindictive decision to close them, and 2,000 workers have been made redundant. The Government pretend that the situation is not as bad as it seems. There has been much propaganda claiming that one third of North East Shipbuilders' employees have already found other jobs. That is not true, but even if it were, it is extraordinary that the Government should think that it is all right for two thirds to remain unemployed.

When we examine the claim that one third of those workers have been re-employed, we learn a great deal about why we need the amendments that we are debating. Three welders were sent by the jobcentre to Hull, over 100 miles from Sunderland, to do some welding work on a refrigerated cargo ship which had been sitting in the dock for weeks on end. When they arrived on the job they discovered that the hold had not been cleaned and that it was coated with rotting fish. Those welders were just told, "Clean it yourselves and get on with the job." And they did that for a derisory wage. After three days, they had finished the job and were back on the dole, but I guarantee that when the Sunderland jobcentre issues figures showing how many NES people have been re-employed since being made redundant, they will be included. I suspect, indeed, that if they are sent to another rotten job for a couple of days next week they will be counted yet again—the same people.

7.30 pm

Then we have the sort of situation that I mentioned in a previous debate, and on which I want to dwell a little tonight. An unscrupulous ship repair employer on Teesside sends a bus to Sunderland, more than 30 miles away. Forty men are sent by the jobcentre to stand in the road at 5 o'clock in the morning, waiting to go to temporary employment in the ship repair yard on Teesside. The princely sum of £127 per week is offered to highly skilled workers. No travelling expenses or meal allowances are provided. When the bus pulls up, the foreman gets off and says, "I want five burners this morning. The rest of you can go home." That happens day in and day out. If someone says, "I am not prepared to go and stand there, like an animal in the market, at 5 o'clock in the morning, to be insulted like that," his benefit is stopped because he is deemed to be unavailable for work. That is the reality of Thatcher's Britain.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

That is precisely the sort of situation that existed in the docks in the days before the dock labour scheme. The tally man would come along and chuck in the buttons, and the men would all fight to see who would get the jobs. The purpose of the proposal to scrap the dock labour scheme is precisely to get back to that situation.

Mr. Clay

I would love to develop that point, but I suspect that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would not allow me to do so.

Madam Deputy Speaker

No, I would not.

Mr. Clay

In passing, however, I can assure my hon. Friend that shipyard workers in Sunderland understand very well the opposition to the abolition to the dock labour scheme.

Let me return to the question of availability for work and of unscrupulous employers. People who are, as it were, successfully employed, even on a temporary basis, are suddenly told that there is to be a four-hour overtime shift, five days a week. It is not compulsory, but the bus does not leave until after the overtime period. By the way, no premium rate is paid—it is flat rate. That is the type of employer involved. Of course, those men who are not fortunate enough to have their own cars know that it would take longer to get home by public transport than it would if they actually worked the overtime—the non-compulsory four-hour shift—and took the workers' bus. Tricks of that sort are being played by employers, who know that they have this legislation behind them and that people are in terror of having their benefit stopped.

It is absurd for the Government to claim that, effectively, people are pricing themselves out of work. A skilled shipyard worker who asks for £167 a week—that was the skilled rate in British shipbuilding last year, before there was any pay rise—is not pricing himself out of a job. It is quite disgraceful that skilled people are having their benefit stopped because they are asking for that rate of pay.

I want to draw attention to the other side of the coin in respect of these employers whom the Government are aiding. The employer that I mentioned—and there are many more like him—apart from the temporary work for three or four days a week, and even permanent low-paid employment for a handful of people, has some very short-term and temporary requirements. Four weeks ago, representatives of that employer were in the last remaining working part of the Sunderland shipyard—in the outfitting facility at North Sands—on a Friday afternoon. They were trespassing. Without management permission, they were circulating among the handful of workers still there waiting to be made redundant. They were saying, "We have a quick job on, over the weekend, down in Teesside. For anyone who wants to come, there is £100 in your hand. No questions asked. Work right through the weekend. You might actually have to work overnight, 24 hours round the clock, but there is 100 in your hand. Bring the gear with you." That is incitement to theft of British Shipbuilders' equipment, and blatant fraud in the sense of breach of tax and national insurance laws. This is the employer who is also indulging in the practices that I described earlier. Life will be so much better for him if the amendments that we are discussing are defeated. He will be able to abuse the system even more.

I want to end on a point that I think is relevant to our discussion. More than a year ago I reported an employer for inducing people to work while claiming benefit. I was told by the Department of Employment that there was not enough evidence. Obviously, the employees involved were reluctant to be prosecuted. I asked if they could be given an amnesty, in which case they would give names and addresses and testify. For some reason an amnesty was not available. However, the employees gave the evidence anyway, and the Department of Employment had it for more than a year. Indeed, the regional fraud squad and the Department of Social Security were also in possession of it. After endless correspondence with the Department, I received last week a letter saying that that employer would not be prosecuted.

A few weeks ago I tabled a parliamentary question asking how many employers had been prosecuted for breach of the social security regulations. According to the answer, in the last two years two people in the whole of Britain—one in Kent and one in Wales—have been prosecuted. A Government who can produce this Bill and reject amendments that would inject a scintilla of dignity into the process and give employees and the unemployed some fairly marginal protection in respect of their benefits, are quite happy to allow the unscrupulous, cowboy, criminal employers of Britain, who are defrauding the tax and social security systems, free licence.

Mr. Tony Banks

Does not anyone on the Conservative benches wish to speak?

Mr. Winnick

Will no one defend the Government?

Mr. Scott

I apologise for the delay—I was expecting the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to contribute to the debate.

I wish to explain briefly why it is impossible for me to commend these amendments to the House. I shall then refer to Government amendment No. 99. I do not think that there will be much surprise at our rejection of amendments Nos. 2 and 3. Indeed, the Opposition clearly expected me to advise the House to reject the amendments and that that would be the outcome of the Division. The first part of amendment No. 2 is an attempt to maintain the status quo and the concept of suitable employment. We had considerable discussion about this when the Bill was in Committee. In essence, the current situation is that the unemployed person may not be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit if he turns down, or fails to follow up, an opportunity for employment that is not suitable. At present, the consideration of suitability includes consideration of the concept of what I might term the going rate of pay. If the job is not suitable, even in that respect, it can be turned down without incurring disqualification for benefit.

One very undesirable effect of that provision is that it takes no account of the individual's ability to command a particular wage. We should consider whether it is right to ask an employer to pay exactly the same rate—the going rate—to a person who has recently moved from one job to another, and whose skills are still at a high level, and to a person who may have been out of work for a considerable time and require an element, or even a considerable amount, of retraining to get back to the level of skill of the rest of the employees. I believe that the employer should have the right to take into account the ability, skills and experience of potential recruits in deciding what pay to offer. The concept of the going rate is outmoded, but I understand why the Opposition cling to it.

Nevertheless, we understand that when people are seeking work in the immediate aftermath of unemployment, a period ought to be allowed during which they can look for work in the field in which they worked before and at a level of pay similar to that which they previously enjoyed. That is why the Bill allows for a permitted period. When an unemployed person first visits the unemployment office, the new claimant adviser will give an indication of the length of the permitted period—a maximum of 13 weeks is allowed. The claimant will know that for the term of that permitted period he will be at risk of being disqualified only if he turns down jobs in the same field as his previous employment and offering the level of remuneration that he previously enjoyed.

In the course of such interviews staff will of course be anxious to obtain as much detailed information as they can about the experience, skills and qualifications, as well as the personal circumstances, of the individual concerned. That will enable the employment service to identify appropriate vacancies and to discuss them with the individual. If a person refuses even to be interviewed for a job offered during the permitted period, or fails to turn up, his benefit is likely to be at risk. However, such decisions are taken by adjudication officers, who will have to judge and weigh the merits of individual cases.

In offering a job to any person, the employment service will act in good faith and will establish as far as possible that the job is within the skills and capabilities of the individual concerned. The service will try to offer a vacancy with conditions generally within the range of what is representative of the local labour market in the occupation concerned. However, the service will not necessarily restrict itself only to vacancies advised by employers but will use its own wit and wisdom, and its knowledge of the local labour market, in canvassing other vacancies. Employment service staff will also be at pains to ensure that those seeking employment are advised about any in-work benefits that may be available. Those will depend on the individual's personal circumstances. The leaflet, "How To Be Better Off At Work" will be topped up by specific, detailed personal assessments of the in-work benefits and income available.

The second part of amendment No. 2 seeks to incorporate in primary legislation a requirement that, in considering whether a person has good cause for rejecting a particular vacancy, adjudication officers should take work-related expenses into account. I cannot accept the amendment as drafted, but I believe that certain work-related expenses ought to be taken into account and, as I said in Committee, proper regard will be paid to that point. It is not a straightforward matter and requires careful consideration, but I give the House an undertaking that we shall introduce regulations which will be a more appropriate vehicle, taking account of that aspect.

I do not intend to include child care costs. I know that there is a debate about that. Some people hold the view that child care costs should be included in the calculation, and I understand those feelings. However, lone parents, for whom such costs are likely to be the greatest burden, are not required to be available for work to qualify for income support. Others having high child care costs are probably second earners, and they are in a different category. I suspect that that argument will continue as we consider ways of encouraging people back into employment. The employment situation is growing tighter and tighter. That argument will not go away, but I am unable to accept it, and a provision for child care costs will not be included in the regulations that will be introduced in due course.

7.45 pm

Amendment No. 3 attempts to introduce in primary legislation the concept that a person cannot be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit if he refuses to seek or accept employment that is unsuited to his skills or experience. Clause 9 already acknowledges that skills and experience are important, which is why we provide the permitted period, but it would not be right to include a longer-term provision in the legislation. Once a person has exhausted his permitted period, he ought to be expected to widen the scope of his job search activities and to contemplate employment outside those areas for which his skills and experience are best fitted.

In Committee, there was general agreement that the longer a person is unemployed, the more difficult that person finds it to get back into work. The very fact that a person has been unemployed leads some employers to regard him as being less employable, if not unemployable. Even if a person finds employment in a field that is not his usual one, his chances of reverting to his usual trade and making full use of his experience and skills is improved.

It would be a retrograde step to accept amendment No. 3, which would enable and encourage the unemployed unduly to restrict for a prolonged period the work that they are prepared to consider. That is not consistent with our desire to ensure that people are encouraged to make sensible use of all avenues in pursuing all the opportunities that become available. The employment service will, of course, take account of a person's skills and experience and attempt to find him an appropriate job. Where that cannot be done, it is right to take a wider approach.

Amendments Nos. 110 and 111 in the name of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) are both wide-ranging. Amendment No. 110 places an obligation on the Secretary of State to make regulations for prescribing matters and circumstances which should be taken into account by the adjudication authorities in determining whether a person has good cause for turning down or failing to follow up an employment opportunity. I am not unsympathetic to setting out in regulations rather than in primary legislation as much guidance for adjudication authorities as possible. They must have a certain amount of discrimination—that is inherent in their work as an independent authority—but the more guidance we can give them in arriving at such decisions the better.

We shall use the powers in the Bill, but we do not intend to produce an exhaustive list of considerations because we want adjudication offices to be left with some power to take account of matters and circumstances that they consider relevant in particular individual circumstances. The considerations that we shall specify by regulation will include whether the employment in question is likely to subject the claimant to unreasonable physical or mental stress, which will allow account to be taken of the individual's physical and mental capacity; whether it would conflict with a sincerely held religious or conscientious objection; whether the claimant's domestic responsibilities would make it physically difficult for him to undertake the employment; and whether the travelling time involved in reaching the place of employment would be excessive. As I indicated in Committee, we intend providing for travelling of less than one hour in each direction, unless even that is unreasonable due to a health factor. Also considered will be whether the expenses necessary to undertake the employment, excluding child care expenses, would absorb an unduly high proportion of earnings. Those are the kind of considerations that we hope to cover in regulations, and I trust that they will give a steer to adjudication authorities that will prove helpful overall.

Amendment No. 111 seeks to provide that regulations will take into account.

patterns of employment associated with particular professions. I thought that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West would intervene on that point, but I know that he has been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security. In essence, I am reluctant to move to a situation in which particular professions are plucked out and entirely different arrangements made for them. I know that my hon. Friend is anxious to be as helpful as possible to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West and to the representatives of Equity who recently met him.

Mr. Tony Banks

I did not intervene earlier because I did not wish so to inflame the Minister as to set at naught the progress that we have made so far. I am obliged to the Minister for what he has done so far, but the case presented by British Actors Equity clearly reveals acting as a profession, and actors as a body of workers who are particularly affected. I believe that the Government ought to make an exception for them.

Mr. Scott

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is anxious to be as helpful as he possibly can. Amendment No. 111, another wide-ranging amendment, attempts to empower the adjudication officer to override any provision or alteration made in clause 7, 8 or 9 by enabling him to take into account any pattern of employment associated with particular professions. That was the main point raised by Actors Equity.

Mr. Kirkwood

I am sure that the Minister has the interests of the profession at heart, but it would be helpful if he could sketch some of the progress, if any, made in negotiations between the Under-Secretary of State and the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks).

Mr. Scott

It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would have a word with my hon. Friend at the end of the debate as he has had meetings with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West and with representatives of Actors Equity.

Government amendment No. 99 in no way alters the policy on permitted periods. It states more clearly on the face of the Bill precisely what the intentions are. A decision on a person's permitted period will be made by adjudication officers. Such a decision could be relevant only when a person has turned down a job and faces the possibility of disqualification under section 20. We thought it right to clarify the situation in primary legislation.

The amendment seeks to provide that adjudication will not be necessary at the beginning of every claim. Informal advice will be given to a claimant about what his permitted period is likely to be. If a doubt then arises, the adjudication officer will make a formal decision on the permitted period, but it would never be shorter than the period of which the claimant was advised in the beginning and in certain circumstances it might turn out to be longer. Individuals will know for how long they can safely hold out in an attempt to get jobs in their usual occupations by resting on the advice of the employment service as given at the beginning. That is a helpful amendment which clarifies the Government's intention. I ask the House to accept it and to reject the other amendments.

Mrs. Beckett

I take the Minister's point on amendment 99 about the preference for giving informal advice about the permitted period. I am glad to hear him reiterate what he wrote in a letter to me—that the adjudication officer's ruling would never be for a shorter period than initially advised. As that is not stated in the proposed amendment, I presume that the Minister is indicating that it will be included in the regulations. He nods, so I am pleased to have that confirmation.

Perhaps the Minister might wish to consider later that it might be useful for the individual to have the right to ask for a formal decision by the adjudicating officer on the length of the period of disqualification; he should not: be left in limbo, particularly if he is not happy with the initial advice given on the length of the permitted period. He should have the right to go to the adjudicating officer at any stage to ask for a formal ruling on the permitted period. He would then know where he stood, and would not possibly risk disqualification if he thought that the original ruling was so unreasonable that no one could really have meant it.

We believe that three months should be the minimum length of the permitted period rather than the maximum length, because in many cases it seems to be too short a time.

We are trying to find ways of improving clause 9, particularly as it removes all considerations not only of the way the skill or experience of people should be taken into account in deciding whether a job offer is suitable, but especially of levels of pay.

The Minister adopted the sort of sympathetic manner that he no doubt hopes the adjudication officers will adopt with claimants. No doubt anyone listening only to the Minister would think that the Government were putting a reasonable case. Fortunately we have also heard hon. Members such as my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay), for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), and for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). They spoke of the harsh and dark reality of the wage levels and conditions of work that people are now under pressure to accept in the present labour market. Particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North identified the terrible pressure brought to bear now on unemployed people and how that pressure is likely to be exacerbated out of all recognition by the Bill.

The Minister said that people should be expected, after a period of unemployment, to widen their job scope. As with clause 7, Labour Members recognise that people should be, and under current legislation are, expected to widen the scope of their job search. The Minister said that he realises that a period of unemployment leads some employers to regard people as less employable, but nothing is being done in the Bill about that attitude. Only the unemployed are having their behaviour modified, not those who might be able to offer people work.

I believe that the case put by my hon. Friends reflects more accurately the reality of the labour market and also the terrible condition into which we believe it is likely to sink if this legislation is passed. I intend to advise my hon. Friends to press amendment No. 2 and, in those circumstances, to withdraw amendment 116.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 2, in page 6, line 31, at end insert `other than—

  1. (a) whether the level of remuneration is reasonable for that employment, or
  2. (b) any expense that the person would be likely to incur in connection with that employment.'.—[Mrs. Beckett.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 170, Noes 280.

Division No. 178] [7.57 pm
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Dalyell, Tam
Armstrong, Hilary Darling, Alistair
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Ashton, Joe Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Dixon, Don
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Dobson, Frank
Barron, Kevin Doran, Frank
Battle, John Duffy, A. E. P.
Beckett, Margaret Dunnachie, Jimmy
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Bermingham, Gerald Eadie, Alexander
Bidwell, Sydney Eastham, Ken
Blair, Tony Evans, John (St Helens N)
Boyes, Roland Fatchett, Derek
Bradley, Keith Faulds, Andrew
Bray, Dr Jeremy Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Flannery, Martin
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Flynn, Paul
Buchan, Norman Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Buckley, George J. Foster, Derek
Caborn, Richard Foulkes, George
Callaghan, Jim Fraser, John
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Fyfe, Maria
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley) Galloway, George
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) George, Bruce
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Godman, Dr Norman A.
Clay, Bob Gordon, Mildred
Cohen, Harry Gould, Bryan
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Graham, Thomas
Corbett, Robin Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Cousins, Jim Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Crowther, Stan Grocott, Bruce
Cryer, Bob Hardy, Peter
Cummings, John Henderson, Doug
Cunliffe, Lawrence Hinchliffe, David
Cunningham, Dr John Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Holland, Stuart Murphy, Paul
Home Robertson, John Nellist, Dave
Hood, Jimmy O'Brien, William
Howells, Geraint O'Neill, Martin
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Hoyle, Doug Patchett, Terry
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Pendry, Tom
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Pike, Peter L.
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S) Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Illsley, Eric Prescott, John
Ingram, Adam Quin, Ms Joyce
Janner, Greville Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn) Richardson, Jo
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Robertson, George
Kennedy, Charles Rogers, Allan
Kilfedder, James Rooker, Jeff
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil Ruddock, Joan
Kirkwood, Archy Salmond, Alex
Lamond, James Sedgemore, Brian
Leadbitter, Ted Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Lewis, Terry Short, Clare
Livsey, Richard Skinner, Dennis
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Loyden, Eddie Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
McAllion, John Soley, Clive
McAvoy, Thomas Spearing, Nigel
Macdonald, Calum A. Steel, Rt Hon David
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Steinberg, Gerry
McKelvey, William Stott, Roger
McLeish, Henry Strang, Gavin
Maclennan, Robert Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Madden, Max Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Turner, Dennis
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Vaz, Keith
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn) Wall, Pat
Martlew, Eric Walley, Joan
Maxton, John Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Meacher, Michael Wareing, Robert N.
Meale, Alan Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Michael, Alun Wigley, Dafydd
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Winnick, David
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby) Wray, Jimmy
Moonie, Dr Lewis Young, David (Bolton SE)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Tellers for the Ayes:
Mowlam, Marjorie Mr. Frank Haynes and
Mullin, Chris Mrs. Llin Golding.
Adley, Robert Bowis, John
Alexander, Richard Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Allason, Rupert Brandon-Bravo, Martin
Amess, David Brazier, Julian
Amos, Alan Bright, Graham
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Ashby, David Budgen, Nicholas
Aspinwall, Jack Burns, Simon
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Burt, Alistair
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Butcher, John
Baldry, Tony Butler, Chris
Batiste, Spencer Butterfill, John
Bellingham, Henry Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Bendall, Vivian Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Carrington, Matthew
Benyon, W. Carttiss, Michael
Bevan, David Gilroy Cash, William
Biffen, Rt Hon John Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda
Blackburn, Dr John G. Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Chapman, Sydney
Body, Sir Richard Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Boswell, Tim Colvin, Michael
Bottomley, Peter Conway, Derek
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Cope, Rt Hon John
Cormack, Patrick Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Couchman, James Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Cran, James Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Currie, Mrs Edwina Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Curry, David Key, Robert
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Davis, David (Boothferry) Kirkhope, Timothy
Day, Stephen Knapman, Roger
Devlin, Tim Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Dickens, Geoffrey Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Dicks, Terry Knowles, Michael
Dorrell, Stephen Knox, David
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Dover, Den Lang, Ian
Dunn, Bob Latham, Michael
Dykes, Hugh Lawrence, Ivan
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) Lee, John (Pendle)
Evennett, David Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Fallon, Michael Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Favell, Tony Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Lord, Michael
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Luce, Rt Hon Richard
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Fishburn, John Dudley McCrindle, Robert
Fookes, Dame Janet Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Forman, Nigel MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Maclean, David
Forth, Eric McLoughlin, Patrick
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael
Fox, Sir Marcus McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)
Franks, Cecil Madel, David
Freeman, Roger Major, Rt Hon John
French, Douglas Mans, Keith
Garel-Jones, Tristan Maples, John
Gill, Christopher Marland, Paul
Glyn, Dr Alan Marlow, Tony
Goodlad, Alastair Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Maude, Hon Francis
Gorst, John Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Gow, Ian Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW) Mellor, David
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Meyer, Sir Anthony
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Miller, Sir Hal
Gregory, Conal Mills, Iain
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Grist, Ian Moate, Roger
Ground, Patrick Monro, Sir Hector
Hague, William Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Moore, Rt Hon John
Hanley, Jeremy Morrison, Sir Charles
Hannam, John Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester)
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr') Moss, Malcolm
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Moynihan, Hon Colin
Harris, David Neale, Gerrard
Hawkins, Christopher Nelson, Anthony
Hayes, Jerry Neubert, Michael
Heathcoat-Amory, David Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Heddle, John Nicholls, Patrick
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE) Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Hill, James Norris, Steve
Hind, Kenneth Oppenheim, Phillip
Holt, Richard Paice, James
Hordern, Sir Peter Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Howard, Michael Patnick, Irvine
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A) Patten, Chris (Bath)
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Pawsey, James
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Porter, David (Waveney)
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Portillo, Michael
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Powell, William (Corby)
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Price, Sir David
Hunter, Andrew Raffan, Keith
Irvine, Michael Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Irving, Charles Redwood, John
Jack, Michael Rhodes James, Robert
Jackson, Robert Riddick, Graham
Janman, Tim Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Ridsdale, Sir Julianq Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Roe, Mrs Marion Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Rost, Peter Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Rowe, Andrew Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Ryder, Richard Thornton, Malcolm
Sackville, Hon Tom Thurnham, Peter
Sainsbury, Hon Tim Townend, John (Bridlington)
Scott, Nicholas Tracey, Richard
Shaw, David (Dover) Tredinnick, David
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Trippier, David
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Trotter, Neville
Shelton, Sir William Twinn, Dr Ian
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW) Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Walden, George
Shersby, Michael Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Sims, Roger Walters, Sir Dennis
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Ward, John
Soames, Hon Nicholas Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W) Watts, John
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Wheeler, John
Stanbrook, Ivor Whitney, Ray
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Widdecombe, Ann
Steen, Anthony Wilshire, David
Stern, Michael Wolfson, Mark
Stevens, Lewis Wood, Timothy
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Woodcock, Mike
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood) Yeo, Tim
Stewart, Rt Hon Ian (Herts N) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John Younger, Rt Hon George
Sumberg, David
Summerson, Hugo Tellers for the Noes:
Tapsell, Sir Peter Mr. Tony Durant and
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Mr. David Lightbown.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment made: No. 99, in page 7, line 9, leave out from 'means' to end of line 13 and insert `in relation to any person, such period, whether expired or not, as may be determined in accordance with regulations by an adjudication officer on the submission of the question whether that person is disqualified under section 20 above for receiving unemployment benefit; and any such regulations may prescribe—

  1. (a) the day on which any such period shall be regarded as having commenced in any case;'.—[Mr. Scott.]

Mrs. Beckett

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 7, line 40, at end insert— `(7) In section 97(1C) of the principal Act, at the end there shall be added the words "and, in particular, on the determination of the period for which a person is to be disqualified, under section 20(1) above for receiving unemployment benefit".'. I shall move the amendment with extreme brevity in view of the constraints on time.

In Committee, we discussed the unfettered discretion that adjudication officers have to impose a period of disqualification which can range from one week to 26 weeks. We pointed out to the Minister that there is substantial evidence that adjudication offices automatically imposed the maximum period of disqualification when it was six weeks, continued to do so when it was 13 weeks and still impose it automatically now that it is 26 weeks. Although there must be some, I have never come across a case in which anyone was disqualified from the benefit for less than 26 weeks. Before the Minister says that those are the people who write to Members of Parliament, the same decision continues to apply to people who have been told that their disqualification is being called in question and have not received a formal decision as to the period of disqualification. But invariably the formal disqualification is for the full 26 weeks.

The Minister said that advice might be given by the chief adjudication officer or that commissioners' decisions should provide guidance on what consideration should be given to the period of disqualification. However, the commissioners have said that, because of the way in which the legislation is drafted, they can give no real guidance, and the chief adjudication officer in his annual report complained about his inability to offer guidance. Therefore, it is clear that no guidance will be offered, although the chief adjudication officer has said how difficult it is for adjudication officers to exercise that discretion.

The amendment seeks to give the chief adjudication officer the power he wants to give more detailed advice on the subject. I commend the amendment to the Minister. Although I do not expect him to accept it tonight, it deals with an issue which he should seriously consider.

8.15 pm
Mr. Scott

I recognise that the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) has raised an important point, but amendment No. 4 is unnecessary because there is a general duty on the chief adjudication officer to provide advice and guidance. However, as we all know, adjudication officers have unfettered judgment in these matters.

Despite what the hon. Lady said, I accept that she was conveying the facts to me as they were presented to her. I have no reason to believe that adjudication officers are not imposing disqualification periods to reflect the merits of any particular case. When we extended the maximum period of disqualification from 13 to 26 weeks last year, we made it clear that we would wish to ascertain what effect that change had on the amounts of benefit claimants lost and on the behaviour of claimants. We set up arrangements to study the impact of the change.

During the past three months, we have carried out a survey which will provide information on the numbers and lengths of disqualifications imposed nationally and regionally. The results of that survey are being analysed. We also commissioned an independent agency, Social and Community Planning Research, to explore the impact of the change on decisions about leaving or taking work, as well as on the circumstances of those who are disqualified. I expect the results of both of the surveys to be available in the summer. Of course, they will be published and that will be the appropriate time for us to consider the matter.

Ms. Short

If the results of the survey show that almost universally people are disqualified for 26 weeks, which is an incredibly long period, and even the Government are persuaded that the hardship is too great, what action does the Minister propose to take? What is the point of the survey? What will he do if the results are bad?

Mr. Scott

However charmingly the hon. Lady presents it, I am certainly not going to be drawn into answering a hypothetical question. Let us establish the facts and then decide on the appropriate action.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that the Minister has answered the matter fairly. The chief adjudication officer said that legal advice confirms that he is unable to do more than guide adjudication officers on their general approach. However, I am quite confident that, unless the Minister is prepared to take some action, the issue will come up again. So that we can make progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

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