HC Deb 26 July 1989 vol 157 cc1059-95 5.33 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I beg to move, That the draft Community Charge Benefits (General) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

With this it will be convenient to take the following motions: That the draft Income Support (General) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July be approved. That the draft Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved.

Mr. Scott

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has, for reasons that he has explained to the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), to be elsewhere at the moment, but he hopes to join us later. I hope that my hon. Friends, and the rest of the House, will give a warm welcome to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), who has joined us in the Department as an Under-Secretary.

The three sets of regulations before the House have the common thread that they all relate to the provision of social security benefits. They do, however, relate to two distinct aspects of benefit provision which I intend to deal with separately. I shall take first the community charge benefits regulations and then come on to the two sets of regulations dealing with the provision of benefits for the unemployed.

The community charge benefits regulations are an integral part of the community charge arrangements. The scheme will ensure that the amount people have to pay will be related to their ability to pay it. People on low income will be able to claim rebates of up to 80 per cent. of their liability, and people on income support will be helped to pay the 20 per cent. of their liability that is not covered by the rebate through the adjustments that have been made to the income support rates. These regulations prescribe the details of how the community charge is to be rebated, and they will apply throughout Great Britain. During the current year, that is April till March 1990, community charge rebates in Scotland are being provided under separate regulations, which will cease to have effect in March next year, and will be replaced by the regulations that we are debating.

The community charge benefit scheme will be operated by levying authorities in Scotland and by charging authorities in England and Wales in accordance with the rules laid down in these regulations. The benefit may be claimed by anybody who is liable either for a personal community charge or for collective community charge contributions. The only people who will not be able to claim benefit will be full-time students who are registered as being liable for only 20 per cent. of the charge.

The maximum rebate will be 80 per cent. of the amount that a person has to pay. This will mean that all charge payers have to pay at least 20 per cent. of the charge in the same way that all ratepayers now have to pay 20 per cent. of their rates. The Government hold firmly to the view that everybody should be as aware of the costs of local authority services as they are of the benefits. The maximum rebate will be available automatically to everybody who is getting income support, and also to those people on equivalent incomes. We estimate that this 80 per cent. maximum rebate will be awarded to about 6 million people in Great Britain. We also estimate that a further 4 million to 5 million people in Great Britain will get a rebate on the community charge of less than the 80 per cent. maximum. For them, the amount of rebate they get will depend on three factors: their financial resources, their personal circumstances, and the amount of community charge that they have to pay.

The way in which rebate is calculated will follow closely the way in which rate rebate is calculated now. First, the capital resources of claimants will be considered, because we believe that if people have access to a significant amount of capital they should be expected to use it in meeting their necessary expenses. Then their net weekly income will be calculated, and personal circumstances taken into account, using the same applicable amounts, made up of personal allowances and premiums, as are now used in housing benefit. The applicable amount will be subtracted from net weekly income, and the maximum rebate will be reduced by 15 per cent. of this difference. Rebate will be payable only where it is 50p a week more. I hope that the House will welcome the fact that the taper for the community charge rebate scheme is 15 per cent. as opposed to the 20 per cent. taper used in rebating rates. We estimate that about 1 million more people will be brought into rebate because of this.

Our objective in formulating the community charge benefit regulations has been to maintain alignment with the housing benefit regulations wherever practicable. This has a number of advantages, which I hope the House will recognise. It is easier for claimants to understand, and we expect virtually all housing benefit claimants to get community charge benefit, and it is also helpful to the local authorities who will be administering the scheme. It also maintains the overall simplification and alignment of the income-related benefits that we achieved with the 1988 reforms. As well as retaining the same procedures for calculating capital, net weekly income and applicable amounts, we have retained broadly the same procedures for the making of claims, and for determinations, notifications and reviews.

The small number of changes that we have had to introduce are there because rebating an individual liability is not exactly the same as rebating a property-based liability. These changes are most obvious in the case of couples. We have retained the principle that the resources of the two partners in a couple should be considered jointly, so, although in nearly all cases the two partners in a couple will each be liable for the community charge, only one of them will need to claim community charge benefit. Their community charge liabilities will be aggregated, their financial resources will be assessed jointly, and their circumstances will be assessed using their applicable amount as a couple. On this basis, the amount of rebate due to the couple will be calculated, and divided between the two partners.

I wrote to all right hon. and hon. Members at the beginning of May describing the most important aspects of the community charge benefit scheme, and giving some examples of the levels of income at which various categories of claimant could expect to receive a rebate. I do not intend to repeat those examples now, but I should add that we expect about a quarter of all the people who are liable for the charge to benefit from rebates, and in our view this represents the right balance between providing help for people who need it and ensuring that the taxpayers' money is properly used.

I stress that we do not underestimate the need to ensure that claimants move readily from rate rebates to community charge benefit, and the need to help local authorities in their task of implementing the new scheme. To this end we will be introducing a number of special arrangements to facilitate the introduction of the scheme, and these will be prescribed in the Community Charge Benefits (Transitional) Order 1989, which we intend laying before the House as soon as the benefit regulations come into effect. These transitional provisions are not before the House today, and therefore not the subject of our debate.

In commending the regulations to the House, I should like to make clear the extent of our consultation, since the autumn of 1987, with the local authority associations, and to express my gratitude for their co-operation. We have also formally consulted the associations and the Social Security Advisory Committee. The comments that we received were helpful and constructive, and a large number of them have been incorporated in the regulations before the House.

Most of the provisions in the regulations dealing with the unemployed flow from the powers taken in the Social Security Act 1989. The matter is slightly complicated by the need for two sets of regulations, one for unemployment benefit and the other for income support. I should first point out to hon. Members that there was a printed error in the published version of the Income Support (General) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989. This was corrected in the version laid before the House, but Members' copies will be wrong. In new regulation 10A(3) of the general regulations the word "recorded" should have read "regarded". I am very sorry that this error occurred and I hope that it has not caused too much confusion.

I hope that the hon. Member for Derby, South will agree that we had a demanding but rewarding Committee stage which resulted in some important improvements to the Bill. I know that we ended up not being able to see eye to eye on the provisions that have led to these regulations, but during our debates in Committee we gave a number of undertakings as a result of those debates. I hope that those who examine the regulations with an open mind will regard them as evidence of our good faith and of our being prepared to listen to the representations put to us.

The two areas that gave rise to the most concern at earlier stages were the introduction of the new, actively seeking work condition and the new permitted period, which limits the time when an individual may, without a risk to his benefit, decline employment outside his usual occupation. We have repeatedly said that employment service staff will interpret these new provisions in a fair and sensitive way. I am sure that we can be confident of their ability to do that. Employment service staff are already faced daily with individuals from all walks of life, with differing needs, capabilities and expectations. They are constantly called on to use their judgment to ensure that the needs of the individual are accommodated, while the conditions for benefit, as laid down by Parliament, are complied with.

Of course, that presents a challenge. Our new provisions will sometimes increase the demands on these staff, but they give them the tools to do the job properly. I am confident that, in their usual way, and with the additional training that is to be provided for undertaking this important work, the staff will rise fully to that challenge.

During earlier debates we heard much criticism of the proposal that unemployed claimants should have to seek work actively in return for benefit. Some Opposition Members doubted whether the legislation was necessary to enforce that principle. However, the Bill became the Act, and the appropriate wording is now in place.

The regulations say that an unemployed person must, in any week, take those steps that are reasonable in his case and which offer him his best prospects of employment. That is not unreasonable. However, to ensure that the test is applied in a sensitive and fair way, we have laid down certain things that we think form a vital part of the picture. First, we have given examples of particular matters to which the adjudication officer should have regard in deciding what was reasonable in an individual claimant's case. Some of these are obvious: for example, the claimant's skills, qualifications, abilities, or physical or mental limitations; similarly, how long he has been unemployed, his work experience, what jobs are available and where they are, and what he had done already to seek work. Others may be less obvious, but are none the less important.

One example that came out of our discussions in Committee—a number of Members who served on it are present today—is the effect on job search if a claimant is homeless. Any limitations that that may place on him will be taken into account. The Committee discussions also led us to specify that regard should be had to time spent on particularly worthwhile activities—for example, service as part-time firemen, lifeboatmen or emergency workers, or attendance at outward bound or guide dog training courses. Another group for whom concern was expressed in Committee consisted of those spending time on vocational training or study, on voluntary work or in an employment or training programme. None of these activities will absolve the individual claimant totally from the need to seek work. We believe that that would be wrong. None the less, all these factors can be weighed in considering either the amount of time which is spent in looking for work or the actual steps which the individual claimant could be expected to undertake.

The regulations also give examples of the types of step that a person may take. As we explained at an earlier stage, the list of examples is not exhaustive or exclusive; it is up to the individual claimant to decide how best to go about securing employment in his chosen field. The list suggests the most common ways of seeking work, but any other equally or more meritorious steps will be taken into account.

As I have already said, a claimant will be expected to seek work every week. Currently, most claimants attend the benefit office fortnightly, and that will not change. The way the job search week will work will be, for example, that a person who attends the office on alternate Wednesdays will be expected to satisfy the test for each Thursday to Wednesday period. In this way, we think that claimants will readily understand that the period that they are being asked about is the two weeks ending on the day on which they are being asked to confirm that they are seeking work.

The last point that I want to mention on actively seeking work is an important one. There will be a number of circumstances in which an individual claimant may be deemed to be actively seeking work for a given week. These include the first and last weeks of unemployment, when it may be unreasonable to expect a person to meet the condition. Similarly, an individual claimant who is away from home may be excused job search for up to two weeks in a year. Of course, he will still have to be available for work, as now, but I think that this is an important concession. It covers an area we discussed in Committee; short periods of absence, perhaps due to family emergency, can be catered for within the normal arrangements. Provided the claimant is available for work, he should have time during the week to undertake some job search to satisfy the condition.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Will the Minister say something about the level of remuneration that people seeking work may be expected to accept? Last year, one of my constituents who had said that he wanted £80 a week was told that under the then rules he was pricing himself out of the market and would therefore lose benefit. He appealed against that and won, but in this day and age it is ridiculous to expect a married person with a family to go for a job at less than £80 a week.

Mr. Scott

The employment service will not offer jobs at derisory wages. We discussed this in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman may well have read our proceedings. We do not believe that it is the Government's job to lay down what wages should be paid in particular industries or occupations. We believe that the market is the right force to determine that.

Only if someone turns down a job offered him by the employment service will he be at risk of losing benefit for not having had good cause for turning it down.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Will the Minister confirm—he was unable to do so in Committee—that it would be reasonable for people to turn down jobs if the amount the job pays, plus the family credit that they gain, will be less than their benefit received while unemployed?

Mr. Scott

Given the in-work benefits that are available, it would be almost impossible for someone to be worse off in employment than on benefit. Nevertheless, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that there might not be an occasional case when that happens.

Mr. Field

If the Government are so confident about getting it right, why cannot the Minister give a clear assurance that people will not be sent for jobs that will pay them less than what they received in benefit?

Mr. Scott

It is not right for the Government to intervene in that way. There may very well be circumstances in which it would be manifestly for the long-term benefit of an individual to take employment that might offer him less than he was receiving in benefit as it would get him back into employment and enable him in due course substantially to increase those earnings for the benefit of himself and his family. Therefore, it would be wrong for us to introduce the provisions that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Anyone who attends an outward bound course may be deemed to satisfy the condition for up to three weeks. A blind person attending a training course for the use of guide dogs may be deemed to satisfy it for up to four weeks. We have also arranged to deem as actively seeking work individual claimants who spend no less than three days a week participating in some worthwhile activity. That would include firemen, lifeboatmen, emergency workers and those undertaking employment or training programmes.

Although unemployment benefit is primarily intended for those seeking to return to employed earners' employment, we have agreed an important concession for those hoping to become self-employed. They may be deemed to be actively seeking work for up to eight weeks if they are actively pursuing self-employment via the enterprise allowance scheme. The eight weeks will run between the time when the person attends the awareness day under the scheme and makes the application and the start of his self-employment under the scheme. I hope that those arrangements will provide sensible help to claimants who wish not to go into employment but to pursue self-employment.

In Committee there was a great deal of debate about replacing "refusal of suitable employment" with the concept of "refusing employment without good cause". The Act has removed the concept of the employment service having to prove that employment refused by a claimant was in fact "suitable"; the onus will now be on the claimant to show that he had good cause for turning down employment. We think that this is a much-needed change, but, as it is a change, we also feel that it is right for Parliament to lay down guidelines for deciding good cause so that claimants have an understanding of what to expect.

The concept of good cause is not a new one. Current legislation allows a person to escape disqualification for unemployment benefit for turning down or failing to follow up an opportunity of employment if the adjudication officer decides that he had good cause. The adjudication authorities have built up a considerable body of case law, but currently there is no guidance in regulations on the meaning of "good cause".

The regulations specifically require the adjudication authorities to consider, in relation to a failure to follow up any job opportunity, whether the particular employment would be likely to cause serious harm to the claimant's health or whether it would subject him to excessive physical or mental stress. Other matters that they will be required to consider will include any sincerely held religious or conscientious objections that the claimant may have to undertaking particular work, and certain domestic circumstances that might make it unreasonable for him to accept a particular vacancy.

The regulations provide that a person will not generally be able to show good cause unless his journey to work or training would take at least an hour, but there are exceptions of course for those with health problems and caring responsibilities.

Returning to a point I touched on in response to an earlier intervention, a person who turns down a job on pay grounds will not be able to show good cause outside what the legislation calls the "permitted period" at the start of his claim if the job opportunity has been notified to him by the employment service. Only vacancies handled by the employment service will attract that sanction. That will be an important safeguard.

Mr. Frank Field

Will the Minister meet the House on another point? If the security is that the job has been offered by the employment service, will he guarantee that the employment service will not advertise or send people to jobs covered by wages councils, if the employer is trying to pay below the legal minimum?

Mr. Scott

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking. As he knows, the Government do not consider it their role to interfere in the way that he suggests. The employment service will not offer jobs at derisory wages. I cannot accept that it is right or sensible to move into the detailed control of what wages are offered, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is highly unlikely that the employment service would do that, but I certainly cannot give a guarantee that it will never do it.

Mr. Frank Field

I am not asking the Government to put their sticky fingers into the private affairs of all employers. The Government still have a statutory responsibility to lay down some minimum wages. I am asking that one part of the Government tallies with another part of the Government, and that people will not be sent for jobs paying below the legal minimum. Will the Minister give that guarantee, as people may lose benefit if they do not turn up for those jobs?

Mr. Scott

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking now, but I shall write to him on the point that he has raised.

the final point on this part of the regulations is about "trial periods". That is a new concept which has been widely welcomed. It recognises the concerns that affect people who have been out of work for some time. The regulations define the claimants who will have a right to benefit from that provision. The provision enables a person to escape a benefit sanction if he gives up a job from the sixth week up to the 12th week of a trial period. It will apply to claimants who have neither worked nor been in full-time education throughout the 26 weeks before the day on which the new job starts. That is an important step in the right direction, encouraging people who have been unemployed for some time to try out a job, knowing that if they fail, or the job proves unsuitable, they will not have put their benefit at risk.

I shall not detain the House for an undue length of time. Other points may be raised in the debate to which I may or may not wish to respond, but the three sets of regulations represent a number of changes to the provision of benefit. On the unemployment issues, I hope that Opposition Members will recognise that we have reflected in the regulations, without resiling from the principle we incorporated in the Bill, many of the concerns that they and some of my hon. Friends voiced in Committee. I assure the House that the Committee discussions had considerable influence on the detailed provisions in the regulations. I know that the hon. Member for Derby, South will feel that we have not gone far enough, but we have considered in great detail all the issues that were raised. I hope that she will feel that we have shown that the discussions in Committee were worth while, although we have not allowed them to undermine our policy intention.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

Can the Minister tell the House whether refusal of work on the grounds of the hours of work being excessive, or bad conditions relating to carrying out the job, are covered by what he said?

Mr. Scott

I am confident that those who offer jobs to claimants through the employment service or adjudicate on these matters will do it in a fair and sensitive way. They will take into account a range of factors and I cannot say whether those factors will include the circumstances that the hon. Lady has mentioned.

5.58 pm
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

I join the Minister of State in welcoming the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), to our ranks. I am not sure whether to commiserate with the Minister of State on remaining where he is, as the alternative might have been even less desirable. The Opposition welcome back the new Secretary of State, if only because in the autumn we shall have the opportunity to hold him to his own words about child benefit, instead of seeking to hold a successor to his predecessor's words.

I begin by drawing attention to the absurdity of the debate in which we are engaged today. In a fairly brief time we are debating long and complex regulations, most of which were laid before the House only last Friday. The measures relating to the Social Security Act 1989 will become law before the House returns from the recess, and the timetable does not lend itself to hon. Members having time to consider the implications of the various proposals before us. That is particularly important, as we cannot amend those proposals.

It is also important to consider the regulations because each set of regulations is complex, although they have three things in common. First, they all attack members of the community who need support. Secondly, they all reflect and highlight the objectionable nature of legislation to the purpose of which they give effect. Thirdly, such minor concessions as the regulations contain fail utterly either to disguise or to rectify the harm that they will do.

In common with the Minister, I wish to begin by discussing the community charge regulations. The House has debated the poll tax at length, and as recently as yesterday, so I propose to comment on a few aspects only of the regulations which, as the Minister said, in the main mirror the law on rate rebates. The decision to force all citizens to pay at least 20 per cent. of their rates was unjust and damaging. Its reflection in the poll tax, which by its nature is a worse tax, is a more harmful imposition. Those who face that extra bill are being cheated by the Government in poll tax as they were cheated in rates because they are not being compensated, as the Government claim, for the extra that they must pay. Accounting sleight of hand has clawed back the so-called compensation.

The figures used in yesterday's debate show how those on extremely low incomes will, despite all the Government's weasel words, be liable to pay not just a large part, but the full poll tax. It is clear, for example, that working under-25-year-olds with net incomes as low as £50 or £60 per week are likely to pay the full amount. Single pensioners without earnings on incomes of about £60 or £70 per week will lose all help. Couples on way below average earnings and with children will also be liable to pay the full poll tax.

Having studied the figures, we are somewhat dubious about the Government's claim that it does not matter if the poll tax is onerous and unjust, because one in four will get help to pay it. The Minister repeated that claim today. I am prepared to be generous and assume that, for once, the Government are telling the simple truth and that, when the poll tax first comes into effect, one in four will benefit to some extent from the poll tax rebates. I predict with absolute confidence, however, that if one in four people turns out to get some rebate, it will not be long before voices are heard in the Government or on the Conservative Back Benches arguing that the system must be too generous and that benefits should be cut.

That is what always happens under the present Government. First, they change the system in a way that happens to increase the burden on those on low incomes. Then they claim that that does not matter because those on low incomes will be helped through social security. Subsequently, however, they say that too many people are being helped, so the system must be too generous. The social security is then cut by a process described as "better targeting". The Government have done that over and over again.

We believe that the demand for at least a 20 per cent. payment from everyone is wrong and that the rate of withdrawal of rebate as income rises remains too harsh. The Social Security Advisory Committee, in its comments on the regulations, drew attention to the fact that the combination of Government policies means that low earners still lose 80p or 90p for every pound by which their income rises. In common with the Labour party, the SSAC rightly contrasts that with the way in which those on higher incomes lose only half that amount from their marginal tax rates.

Apart from the overall picture, one or two detailed issues should be drawn to the attention of the House and placed on record. First, serious problems have arisen in Scotland over the backdating of claims. We believe that the Government should re-examine that issue—especially if, as I believe the new Secretary of State for the Environment said yesterday, they want to improve the take-up of rebates. Secondly, there are bound to be occasions when overpayment of rebate occurs. Currently there are limits to the action that an authority can take to recover such overpayments, but under the regulations overpayment will be regarded as arrears, although they are not the fault of the claimant.

The authority can recover those overpayments by all the means allowed under poll tax legislation for the recovery of arrears—by deduction from earnings or benefits, by seizure of goods and by the ultimate sanction to hang over the head of the individual, imprisonment. The authority does not have to take any account of ability to repay a debt which, by definition, may not be the claimant's fault. Again, it is some of those detailed difficulties which foster our conclusion that such problems, whether of backdating or of overpayment, are likely to Occur.

It is outrageous that someone in hospital for more than six weeks, whose benefit then drops to £8 or £9 per week, should remain liable for at least 20 per cent. of their poll tax. They may also be treated more harshly with respect to earnings disregard than under the current law—and all at a time when the person may have graver things to worry about. The Minister is fond of using the phrase "a perverse incentive". To give a person seriously ill in hospital for a long time a "perverse incentive" to depart this world is perverse indeed. Similarly, it seems ridiculous that someone with a disability—already liable to a personal poll tax charge because he lives in the community—who goes to spend a couple of weeks in a hostel not only becomes liable to pay a daily collective poll tax as well, but even has to make a separate claim to get the rebate to which the law entitles him on that second poll tax charge. That is the kind of absurdity and nonsense that will cause great anxiety and concern and, which in practice will help to discredit this discreditable tax.

It is important to consider the separate issues raised by the other regulations before us which give effect to the Social Security Act 1989. The purpose of that Act is simply to drive people off the unemployment register at almost any cost—especially to them—and, if need be, into low-paid or even temporary employment.

The Minister referred to the way in which the regulations reflect some of the anxieties expressed in Committee about the dangers for the homeless, about the pressure on those who do voluntary work and about the absurdity of expecting someone on holiday to show what he has done actively to seek work, and so on. We welcome anything that improves the way in which the regulations might operate, but by their explicitness the regulations expose and bring into focus the full horror of what the Government are proposing in the 1989 Act. The Government have claimed throughout that a "tiny minority" of people—their term—might be abusing the system by not looking for work as energetically or effectively as they could. Because of that tiny minority, all those unfortunate enough to be unemployed will be exposed to weekly humiliation and shame as their failures are dragged into the light of day time and time again, week after week.

Ministers have argued—the right hon. Gentleman did so again today—that it does not matter that the majority will suffer because a tiny minority might be at fault, because that suffering will be avoided since, whatever the law might say, the employment service will implement the regulations with compassion and understanding. That is not and cannot be true. The employment service cannot implement the regulations with compassion or understanding. One need only look at the regulations for it to become crystal clear, beyond any question or doubt, that if the employment service is to show compassion and understanding it will have to ignore the regulations and fail to put them into effect. It is not possible for anyone to demand a report of the steps that are called for in the regulations and to be compassionate to someone for whom that recital exposes a weekly catalogue of failure.

The regulations require the employment service to ascertain what steps have been taken each and every week to look for work. They explicitly state that one step will usually be insufficient and that more suitable and appropriate steps must be taken. The Minister has identified a framework of possible explanation, justification or, in some cases, exemption, but the point of all our objections to the Act and to the regulations, which the Minister has refused to accept although I am sure he grasps it, is that the sheer process of questioning and eliciting that information, week in and week out, will harass and humiliate the unemployed. This is particularly true of two groups—first, those who have been ruled to be "fit for light work", a ruling that many people unsuccessfully dispute and, secondly, those who are not actually receiving benefit but are forced to sign on to continue to get pension credits, who often know that they have no realistic prospect of finding work and will deeply resent being put through this catalogue to establish their entitlement only to credits.

I should be grateful if the Minister can clarify, either today or in writing later, the steps that people have to take if they are not to risk losing benefit and if he will say whether membership of a job club or acceptance, however reluctantly, of an employment training place will of itself satisfy the provisions. I am sorry to say that, whatever else may be clear, that is not. The main point that concerns us is that those who fall foul of this aspect of the law run the risk of losing all right to benefit. If they lose benefit, they may well receive no income for a month, as the Minister made plain in his remarks and as we elicited in Committee.

At the end of a two-week period, a person will be judged as to whether he or she has been actively seeking work during that period. Such people would normally then get their payment of benefit for those two weeks in arrears. If they are judged not to have been actively seeking work, they automatically lose that money, but they cannot resatisfy that provision for some time. When they do resatisfy it, the benefit will again be paid in arrears. It seemed to us in Committee, and it seems to me now, that the minimum period for which one could lose one's right to benefit would be a month.

I know that a person can apply for a payment on the grounds of hardship—that would be a payment of income support; hence our parallel regulations—but, of course, that person has no right to such a payment. He or she can plead for it only if hardship can be shown. If it is awarded, it is liable to be paid only at a reduced rate of 60 per cent. of normal benefit rates. We are especially disturbed that this may happen where a doubt has arisen about a person's active search for work but no decision has yet been made. Once already, following the suicide of Rachel Caine, the Government have drawn back from withdrawing benefit rights while a formal decision is considered. We particularly regret the fact that in these regulations, and with regard to the provision about actively seeking work, the Government have reneged on that decision.

I am also alarmed that in these regulations the Government take power to withdraw benefit for a whole week if a person is thought to have restricted his or her availability for work on just one day. Apart from anything else, it is hard to see—again, despite the Minister's observations about the variety of circumstances that will be taken into account—how or whether that or other provisions will in practice allow unemployed people to study under the 21-hour rule, which has allowed some people to try to improve their circumstances while remaining unemployed and without losing benefit.

That brings me to the aspects of the regulations which are supposed, by encouraging people to undertake a wider variety of training or jobs, to "ease the rigidities"—the phrase used by the Minister in Committee—of the labour market. This is DSS-speak for removing the protection which our law has offered for 60 years and which prevents a person from being forced into low-paid, temporary or unsuitable work. The Minister said, with commendable frankness, that in these regulations the onus of showing whether work is suitable is removed from the employment service and placed on the claimant. My hon. Friends the Members for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and for Preston (Mrs. Wise) pressed the Minister on that point.

It is clear from the regulations, and even clearer from the Minister's reply, that there is no pay so low and no working conditions so harsh that someone might not be pressed to take a job or training place in such circumstances. The regulations state that the possible danger to health must be "severe". We have had experience—my hon. Friend the Member for Preston will recall discussions in a previous Committee—of how restrictively that definition can be interpreted. If we talk about a person having a degree of protection only if there is a "severe" danger to his or her health, that again fills us with alarm.

Even though we have persuaded the Government at least to consider some of the practicalities of the issue—we are grateful for small mercies—such as travel time and what the work expenses are likely to be before people can be disqualified from right to benefit or credits, we still believe that they will not be enough. It is clear that people may be pressed to take a job or a training place which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead explained, pays less than they can draw on benefit, with possible serious implications for their well-being and that of their families.

In the past, when we have made this point, occasionally Conservative Members have said, "Why should that riot be so? After all, people should be in work and not drawing benefit, if there is any work available, even if the pay is less than benefit." We all know that there are people whose devotion to the work ethic is so strong that they are prepared to take work even when they might receive more to support their families if they drew benefit. There are people prepared to make that sacrifice on their own and their families' behalf. The fact that there are some individuals who hold the work ethic so strongly that they are prepared to take that step is one thing, but for the Government to attempt to force people to do so, whatever harm may be caused to their families, is another matter and may cause considerable family problems and hardship.

We are particularly worried about this point—again, it is explicit in the law—because the jobs and places that people are forced to take may be temporary, yet their acceptance may cause the loss of transitional additions to benefit. The House will recall that these transitional additions are paid only to those whose benefit entitlement under the new, improved social security system post-1988 is less than their benefit entitlement under the old unimproved system. These are likely to be people with minor disabilities, who previously received extra weekly payments but who may have lost them under the new provisions. That is exactly the kind of group who may have been ruled to be "fit for light work", but if those people are forced to take such work temporarily they will lose their transitional additions.

There are other detailed anomalies or problems with the regulations, such as the reference to "qualifying former employment", which I presume is meant to deal with those who take maternity leave and whose child care needs may preclude them from returning, or make them wish not to return, to their previous jobs. There are also aspects of the new phraseology for dealing with payments which the Department will decide are payments in lieu of notice, thereby perhaps deriving people of benefit.

These complex regulations raise such a variety of issues that it is impossible to deal with them in the time available to the House. In any event, because we cannot amend the regulations but must accept or reject them whole and entire, we should concentrate on their overall purpose and effect. The overall purpose of these unemployment benefit regulations stems from policies which have produced a vicious Act of Parliament, against the detailed implementation of which we have the strongest objections. I advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the regulations.

6.18 pm
Mr. Timothy Kirkhope (Leeds, North-West)

This debate is being held in an atmosphere of rapidly falling unemployment throughout the country. Of course, it has been falling for a considerable period. Although the Government must always remain conscious of the needs of unemployed people, they must be well aware also of the need to fill all the jobs using the labour and skills available as we move towards the 1990s. This is an enormous problem not only in this country but throughout the western world. In that context, the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister is all the more important in showing the Government's caring attitude towards those who are still unemployed and may be unemployed in the future.

I remember well our discussions in Committee on the matters we are discussing this evening relating to the need for those who receive benefit to be actively seeking work. I also remember some of the remarks made by the Opposition which seemed quite remarkable at the time, and the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) has said nothing to alter my view this evening.

The state always has the responsibility to do what it can to help those who are unemployed to find work. However, although that is the responsibility of the state, those who are unemployed and those who advocate the cause of the unemployed also have a responsibility. In exchange for the Government doing everything they can to provide a climate in which jobs are available, social security and financial help in the short term for the unemployed, and extra training and places in employment, it is only right that we should be able to expect that those who are unemployed and who claim to wish to be employed should be asked to demonstrate that in a tangible way. That is not a monstrous or unreasonable suggestion; it is highly reasonable, and is the purpose of our proposals. It was the purpose of our proposals in Committee and the regulations flesh out those proposals, so the Minister is now carrying out his pledges in Committee.

The regulations and the criteria they contain show the compassion that the Government expect to be shown to the unemployed who go for assessment. It is important not to have the impression that we are trying to tighten up the system. We are not; that is why the hon. Member for Derby, South is so wrong. We are trying to be as flexible as possible and to give as much benefit of the doubt to as many as we can, taking into account the points my right hon. Friend the Minister made about the skills each individual may have, his work experience, the particular circumstances of his home life and any other difficulties he may have—which, as a compassionate Government, we would want to see put on the back of the legislation.

As a Government, we have done much to provide new jobs. We have done everything any Government could reasonably be expected to do, and far more than previous Governments have managed to do. It is important, therefore, that those who are offered all this help should try to take advantage of what we are giving them to help themselves. In a moral sense, the most important aim is to provide people with the opportunity to help themselves and their families. That must be the moral high ground, and that is the position the Government have taken.

I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short)—who I regret is not here this evening—speak several times in Committee about the jobs she considered to be unacceptable to present to people who were asked to show that they were looking for work. The worst job she could think of was working for a fast food outlet called McDonald's, and she went on about it repeatedly. I wondered about her motives and whether she had had a difficult experience consuming one of its products. However, she picked the wrong organisation. Organisations such as McDonald's have a proper management structure, and encourage people who show that they are prepared to work to get on.

The hon. Member for Derby, South said this evening that people might be offered work that was somehow unacceptable to them. We should be able to support work in itself. We should value the work ethic because work is good, not bad, as has been suggested. The vast majority of people, as Opposition Members say, agree with that.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kirkhope


Mr. McCartney

Come on: give way.

Mr. Kirkhope

I will not give way.

We came to the conclusion in Committee that the Opposition thought that there was something wrong about. work and that work itself was not an especially good thing. They seemed to believe that, if the work was not eminently suitable for all the requirements of an individual, he should not work at all. That seems an odd attitude; if they want to be sensible, they should realise the need for us to be able to fill jobs as we go into the 1990s.

The regulations are not only eminently sensible and in line with the commitment that my right hon. Friend gave in Committee that he would puruse the matter further: they show yet again how we care and how we shall try as hard as we can to ensure that the regulations are applied in a humane and compassionate, but nevertheless a determined manner.

6.25 pm
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

The whole purpose of the regulations, despite the Minister's protestations, is to intervene in the market, and to drive down wages and worsen conditions for those who are already low paid and already in difficulties as a result of lack of skills or other problems. They are the people who will suffer because of the Government's actions.

The Minister talked much about not intervening in the market. We know that the labour market exists and that it is a market in which people buy and sell labour, but we also know that the buyers and sellers of labour do not meet on equal terms. A person trying to sell his or her labour does so under the constraint that, if he or she fails to obtain an adequate price or proper conditions, he or she cannot withdraw from the transaction except at the risk of being unable to have the means of life. Those are not equal terms. The buyer of labour—the employer—does not face such a constraint; that is why workers have had to try to combine to protect themselves and to have some chance of achieving fair wages—a fair price for their labour.

Mr. McCartney

I can give my hon. Friend an example of the Government intervening in the marketplace to drive down wages. The Department of Health has circulated rules to district health authorities about the privatisation of internal activities such as laundry. One of my local health authorities recently awarded a contract to a company outside the direct labour organisation. The employees were sacked. Some were offered their jobs back at two thirds of their previously low wages. As they had already received the letter, refusal to accept the offer meant that they would not be awarded benefit. Some still refused to accept the offer and now do not receive benefit as a result of the Government's direct intervention in the marketplace.

Mrs. Wise

I thank my hon. Friend for that example. We have been treated this evening to a clear demonstration of the lengths to which the Government are prepared to go. In response to pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the Minister categorically refused to give an undertaking that Government agencies would not offer work at illegally low wages.

We are discussing not undesirable wages, but illegal wages. The Government hint and threaten that they intend to abolish wages councils. They would dearly like to do that because they do not want any wage floor—they do not want any wage to be regarded as too low. They have not yet abolished wages councils, however, and there are still wages that are illegal. The Minister has refused to say that the Government employment service would not offer jobs at those illegal wages. The Government are thus prepared to connive at employers breaking the law. Yet the Minister talks about not intervening.

I inquired whether refusal of work on the grounds that the hours were excessive or unsuitable would be regarded as within a person's rights. The Minister refused to give any such undertaking. In parallel with the Social Security Bill, an Employment Bill has been going through the House whose effect will be to remove a great many rights previously attaching to young people and women. There are jobs which at this moment it would still be illegal for women to take, but if, after the Employment Bill becomes an Act, women are unwilling to take such jobs, they may well be refused benefit. The stress that is being placed on workers to take jobs, regardless of the conditions and hours, and no matter how sweated the work may be, is unprecedented since early this century.

Let me give the House an example of the kind of thing that is happening to women's work at the moment. A well-known supermarket is trying to impose on its checkout operators a target of handling 25 items per minute. Does the Minister regard that as likely to do serious harm to a person's health? I can assure him that it does.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Is the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) talking about the new system EFTPOS, whereby the checkout operator passes an item carrying a bar code over a light? If so, 25 items a minute does not seem that arduous.

Mrs. Wise

Oh, so it is not arduous. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) does not seem to understand that supermarket checkout operators have to lift the produce. Has the hon. Gentleman ever tried to lift—[Interruption.] Yes, it has to be lifted. I have the impression that the hon. Gentleman never goes shopping.

Hon. Members

He does it all the time.

Mr. McCartney

He sends his butler.

Mrs. Wise

That is more likely.

My union has calculated that such workers may be handling a ton of goods every few hours—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Pembroke thinks that it is nothing, does he? The hon. Gentleman does not know what a Europacket of detergent looks or feels like. Members of my union who work on supermarket checkouts know what it feels like to lift endless products on to and off a conveyor belt.

Mr. Bennett

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Wise

No, I will not give way. I recommend to the hon. Gentleman that he volunteers to go to work in the supermarket to which I have referred—not for five minutes but for a week at least. I shall make very sure that his words and attitudes are made well known to the women in the retail trade whom he derides.

Mr. Pike

Is it not also a fact that, when checkout operators pass items across the machine that reads the bar code, the machine often does not read the code on the first time? When I have been standing in checkout queues, the operators have often had to repeat the process two or three times before the light has caught the bar code in the right way to register the transaction on the till.

Mrs. Wise

My hon. Friend is perfectly right.

I might tell the hon. Member for Pembroke that another well-known supermarket chain has a target of 20 items per minute, or three items per second—

Mr. Bennett

Three items per second?

Mrs. Wise

I am sorry—I mean an item every three seconds. That is already causing considerable harm to the workers in that supermarket chain. Conservative Members and their wives and daughters will never work as supermarket checkout operators.

Mr. Bennett


Mrs. Wise

If there is anything that I can say with confidence, it is that they have never done such work and will never do it—

Mr. Bennett

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Wise

No. [HON. MEMBERS: Give way.] No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall tell him why. Yesterday evening I waited three hours hoping to speak on health. The debate was hijacked by Conservative Members who took an inordinate amount of time so that only two Labour Members were able to speak although the debate was on an Opposition day. I have let him intervene once. He has talked rubbish once and I shall refrain from allowing him to reveal his superior attitude and his arrogance again.

I have described the developments that are taking place in the retail trade. Employers are being aided and abetted in their attacks on employees by their Government—because this is the employers' Government. Workers who try to resist conditions which are totally unsuitable will be deprived of the means of life. That is what this debate is about, and it is a serious matter.

Let me give the House some further examples of the Government's hypocrisy. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who has not managed to stay to listen even to the speech following his own, talked about the high moral ground, and the Government claim that high moral ground. But the regulations that already exist—which will be worsened by those under debate—include requirements that people should be available for work at 24 hours' notice. That requirement applies to people who care for children or elderly people, who want and need to go into the labour market and who could accept work were they given a reasonable opportunity to make care arrangements.

The Government allow them 24 hours. That can have one of two effects: either the person refuses the job and loses the benefit, or the child or old or sick person has to be left in unsuitable care, or even with no care. The requirement for availability at 24 hours' notice gives people very little opportunity to arrange care. If the Government wanted to be reasonable, they would allow at least a fortnight, so that the person seeking work could make arrangements.

It is impossible for people to make arrangements for child care before they know whether they have a job, where the job is or what wages will be offered. It is only possible to arrange child care once those things are known. However, people are allowed only 24 hours to arrange care. If the Government really wanted to make it easier for people to enter the labour market, they would have changed the regulations, and had they done so, we would have supported them tonight.

To some extent, travelling costs are taken into account when judging whether it is reasonable for someone to refuse a job. However, child care costs are not considered. Under pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, the Minister refused to give an undertaking that someone would not be required to accept a job which left him or her worse off in an absolute sense. The need to pay child care costs can exacerbate the problem and lead to people being worse off. However, so far removed from reality are Conservative Members that they have ignored those genuine problems.

Conservative Members prefer to pretend that they stand on the high moral ground, and they accuse other people of wilfully refusing work. I believe that people do not wilfully refuse work. The vast majority of people dislike being unemployed. They dislike its stigma and lack of income and the fact that it causes many people to feel that their lives are without purpose.

The unemployed want work. It is the final straw for those people when the Government tell them that they are to blame for their own problems. It is the final insult for the Government to claim that the unemployed are wilfully refusing work and to tell them that, for their own good, they will be forced to accept work, regardless of the wages, the hours and whether it is night work or totally unsuitable shifts for women workers—which will now become legal—and even regardless of whether the wages are actually illegal. Those people will be forced to accept work so that Conservative Members can believe that the work ethic is being pursued in this country. It would be more tolerable if Conservative Members abandoned their hypocritical claim to the moral high ground and simply said that they were against the workers. That is the truth.

6.42 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

I agree with the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) that it is a great pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard) to the Government Front Bench as the new Under-Secretary of State for Social Security. Without wanting to sound in any way patronising, it is particularly welcome to see joining the Government for the first time one of my Back-Bench colleagues who has a great deal of experience in the subject for which she now holds a brief.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West lived in the real world, many miles from this place, she was associated with health and social security matters in Norfolk. The Department of Social Security, the Government and the House will benefit from her knowledge and expertise and from the sympathetic way in which she deals with these matters, as I witnessed before her elevation, when I had the privilege, over the past two years, of sharing two Standing Committees with her—the Committee stages of the Social Security Acts 1988 and 1989. I want to wish her every success.

It will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) to learn that I could not agree with almost anything that she said. Fortunately, I have never fallen into the trap of regarding everyone on the unemployment register as a scrounger, a ne'er-do-well or someone who does not want to look for work. However, I have not made the gross mistake of claiming that everyone on the unemployment register desperately wants to find work and is looking for it day in, day out. Sadly, that is not the case. I do not believe that there are many scroungers on the unemployment register or people who are not prepared to look for work. In many instances, the numbers are grossly exaggerated. However, we must be realists.

I want tonight to consider the regulations which bring out the fine detail of the broad sweep of the Social Security Act 1989, which introduces the requirement for people actively to seek work before they can qualify for and claim unemployment benefit. I see nothing wrong with that requirement. As I have said before, I cannot see any justification for fully able-bodied people to claim unemployment benefit if they have no intention of trying to find a job or taking a job if one is shown to them.

The 1987 labour survey showed that there were 700,000 vacant jobs and that 350,000 unemployed people could have found jobs because the vacancies did not necessarily require specialist training or those jobs included an offer of training. We are extremely fortunate in my constituency at the moment. There are 1,711 unemployed people, representing 2.9 per cent. of the population. However, companies in Chelmsford are crying out for staff to fill vacancies. It is not surprising that business men and retailers ask me in amazement, "Where is the unemployment? I am looking for someone to work for me and I am prepared to train them if they are not trained, but I can't get anyone and haven't been able to get anyone for weeks. Nevertheless, I understand that there are more than 1,700 people unemployed in the area."

There is a great deal of confusion about this. I believe that this requirement is long overdue and it is right for the Government to introduce the regulations, which lay down the ground rules.

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman has attended more than one of our debates on social security matters, I am sure that he can enlighten his constituents' confusion. He will have heard several of my hon. Friends who are experts in this subject remind the House that levels of unemployment and of vacancies form a shifting pattern. It is not a simple matter of saying that there are X people here and X vacancies there and the two can simply be put together. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman could have explained that to his constituents.

Mr. Burns

The hon. Lady has not made a new point. It is obvious that there are constant changes. However, there are far too many vacancies going begging while the unemployed people do not take the jobs. That is the crux of the problem.

It is churlish of Opposition Members not to give credit where is it due to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security. As my right hon. Friend said, the regulations which deal with actively seeking work take into account the numerous debates that we had in Committee on the Social Security Act 1989, and they meet a number of the points that were raised by Opposition Members. The regulations have been improved by my right hon. Friend listening to the arguments and taking on board those arguments that were justified.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Which ones?

Mr. Burns

If the hon. Gentleman will wait, he will discover some of the improvements that were made.

The regulations will place the onus on the individual to go out and find a job. There is welcome flexibility in the fact that the Government have accepted that there are times during the year when people must be away and cannot actively seek work—perhaps, for example, because of a death in the family or because of other personal problems. There are two weeks in which people can, for want of a better word, be exempt from actively seeking work.

Hon. Members should warmly welcome the fact that the Government have recognised the need to encourage self-employment. Allowances are made for people to become self-employed under the enterprise allowance scheme. Part-time firemen, emergency workers and other people who undertake employment or training programmes for no more than three days a week will also be helped by the regulations. The regulations will ensure that people who are out of work will register with employment agencies, contact employers and apply for jobs so that they can demonstrate that they can actively seek work. The improvement is that there will be no cop-out for those who genuinely do not want to work, but claim money.

Mr. McCartney

The previous Minister of State, Department of Employment sent his resignation to the Prime Minister on the grounds that he could not survive on £35,000 a year. In her reply, the Prime Minister said that she understood his problem. A Minister for Employment could not be persuaded to do his job for £35,000, yet that man wanted to take benefit off some kid who cannot work for £64 a week or less.

Mr. Burns

I understand what a mistake I made by giving way to the hon. Gentleman. He expected a cheap titter of laughter for that intervention, and I am sure that he was disappointed. It was a disgraceful and totally unwarranted intervention, which brought down the level of the debate. I shall continue, after being rudely and unnecessarily interrupted.

The actively seeking work test will apply to people who have no intention of seeking work. The Government have prevented a coach and horses being driven through the regulations by shifting the onus so that a claimant must prove that he is actively seeking work, rather than the other way round. In the past, it was too easy for people who did not want to work to go reluctantly to a job interview and to fall at the first fence. It is very easy for people who do not want a job to be singularly unimpressive in a job interview, so that no employer will employ them.

Mr. Battle

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns

No, I am sorry, but I will not give way. Several other hon. Members want to speak in the debate, and I want to keep my remarks relatively short.

A claimant will have to justify his actions over the set period. A glaring loophole will be avoided before the regulations come into force.

I welcome the regulations. The Opposition should be grateful for them. Only the most churlish Opposition Member would not recognise that the arguments in Committee were listened to and adopted. The country will accept that, if people are to take unemployment benefit because they are genuinely unemployed, as part of the contract the least that anybody can do is honour his side of the bargain and go out and seek a job. That will also ensure that unemployment is genuine.

6.54 pm
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State to her new position. I always examine Cabinet reshuffles to find out whether any hon. Member with compassion will join the Government. The Under-Secretary has compassion, and I hope that she brings it to social security debates.

There is deep concern about the regulations. They will result in severe hardship for claimants, compel the unemployed to take up temporary training and employment schemes—whether or not they are suitable—and close the option to study on a part-time basis. The introduction of restart interviews resulted in a marked increase in the number of unemployed claimants having their availability for work challenged, often wrongly. Claimants lost benefit for prolonged periods while their appeals were heard and their cases were decided. Many lived on the arts and cultural side of life. I have known young writers and artists to be caught in prolonged periods of non-payment, and I hope that their cases will be sympathetically examined.

In response, the Government introduced a special regulation which meant that an existing claimant did not lose benefit until his case was decided by an adjudication officer. What happens to a new claimant? How long must he wait for his case to be adjudicated, and how long will it be before a decision is made? In such cases, there appears to be a safeguard—long-winded though it may be. However, there is no such safeguard for claimants who fall foul of the actively seeking employment regulations.

A circular to employment service managers states that claimants will not be deemed to be actively seeking work pending adjudication, as presently happens with availability testing.

A claimant will be ineligible for unemployment benefit or income support until an adjudicating officer makes a decision, a process which can take weeks. A sample of 5 per cent. of availability decisions between July and September 1987 revealed that only approximately 85 per cent. were made within four weeks. Only when an adjudicating officer has made a decision can a claimant appeal and take advantage of the opportunity to receive income support at a reduced rate if hardship can be proved.

Although participation in employment schemes will be formally voluntary, a claimant can demonstrate his active job search by joining a scheme. The regulations specify that the actively seeking work condition is satisfied by application for or acceptance on a course or programme that the Secretary of State has specified and considers will improve the prospects of that person obtaining employment or becoming self-employed. It is vital to know what specifying a course or programme means, which ones are to be specified, who gives the information, and who decides what is to be specified.

In practice, joining a job club, entering employment training or attending a restart course are likely to be steps that the Secretary of State considers will improve a claimant's prospects. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point. The job club in Southport is certainly successful, but I am far from certain about how job clubs are faring nationally. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point also. I believe that job clubs are not successful throughout the regions. Joining a job club is one way of satisfying the actively seeking employment condition. Job club leaders will have to ensure that all members are genuine and realistic in their search for jobs. How are they to do that? Job refusals may raise doubts about actively seeking employment or the availability of employment.

Finally, the draft regulations outline a range of active steps, including job applications and registering with employment agencies. They say nothing about claimants taking up part-time education as a way of improving their skills and employability. Given the existing pressure on 21-hour rule claimants to give up their studies, many motivated claimants will find themselves forced to take up less appropriate vocational rather than educational options. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point on further education.

I appear to have asked seven or eight questions in my short speech. I hope that the Minister will answer all or most of them. I have studied the documents carefully and I find that in many ways the Government's stance lacks compassion. Because of that, we shall vote against the motion.

7 pm

Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central)

I shall direct my remarks to the regulations on unemployment benefit, particularly paragraph 12 onwards.

I find it astonishing that in this day and age Conservative Members still make the sort of remarks that we heard from the hon. Members for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) and for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East had the audacity to talk about the Government's caring attitude. I find that unbelievable. Having done his duty for this evening by delivering his speech prepared by Conservative Central Office, he has gone off, no doubt to dinner somewhere. I hope that he enjoys it. He also talked of the high moral ground of the Government. The word "high" applies to the Government only in terms of their high and mighty attitude to people less well-off than them.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford told us that we should be grateful for the Government's policies and the new regulations. I find it difficult to accept the Oliver Twist mentality thrust down our throats by Conservative Members. It is utterly unacceptable because it is hypocritical.

The regulations in no way represent a caring attitude. They are absurd, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) said. There should be no need to prove that one is actively seeking employment. I believe that only a small number of people are prepared to be unemployed for any length of time. Everyone I know who is or has been unemployed has found it insufferable. In my constituency, the official unemployment rate is 21 per cent. In real terms, if we leave aside the massaged statistics, it is much closer to 30 per cent.

Every day I come into contact with people who have been unemployed for periods, in many cases, in excess of two or three years. They do not need to be told that they will not receive unemployment benefit unless they can demonstrate that they are actively seeking employment. They are desperate for employment. They are crying out for it. Sometimes they take jobs with ludicrous rates of pay, part-time jobs or demeaning jobs which they never dreamed that they would have to take. That is the reality of Britain in 1989—a reality which the Government utterly refuse to take on board, as the new regulations show.

I refer the House to regulations 12B, D and E. Paragraph 1 of 12B states that an individual must take the steps which are reasonable in his case as offer him his best prospects of receiving offers of employment. The regulations do not specify how the individual is to know what steps are likely to offer the best prospects of employment, yet, when it comes to the bit, the adjudication officer will be required to decide that there may have been other steps that the individual should have taken which may have improved his prospects. How will the adjudication officer, or, indeed, the individual, make such decisions?

Paragraph 2 lists the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether a person has taken reasonable steps. It is notable that he is not required to take the steps which are reasonable but only those likely to offer him his best prospects of receiving offers of employment. Imagine being desperate for work and having to plough through regulations, crossing one hurdle after another while all the time it is assumed that one is trying to defraud the system, does not want to work and would rather sit at home with one's feet up receiving unemployment benefit. That is the assumption inherent in the regulations. The Government are wrong to assume that people do not want to work.

Mr. Scott

The hon. Gentleman is putting up Aunt Sallies and knocking them down. They are not in the least valid. When people first claim benefit they will be interviewed by a new claimant adviser. Their personal circumstances and past record will be analysed and advice will be given about the appropriate steps to take. Subsequently, if it is felt that they are not taking the most appropriate steps, they will be given further advice. Only when someone declines to accept the advice will he be in danger of falling into the trap that the hon. Gentleman outlined. The object of the employment service is to help people back into employment, not to deny them benefit.

Mr. Watson

I am glad to hear the Minister say that, but I wish that it was specified in the regulations. As in so many other cases where it is not specified, all power rests with the adjudication officer. I should be delighted if a provision could be inserted in the regulations to say that it is incumbent on DSS officers to give that advice to individuals. The regulations seem to be characterised by confusion, or at least potential confusion. Complete discretion for the adjudication officer is unsatisfactory.

Paragraph 4 of regulation 12B lists some of the steps that a person may be required to take to show that he is actively seeking employment. Presumably, the word "include" means that the list is not exhaustive. It seems odd to exclude the use of a jobcentre. I should have thought that that was the obvious place to which an individual would be expected to go to show that he is actively seeking employment. I hope that the Minister will inform us whether that has been excluded deliberately or whether it was a mistake.

In paragraph 12D, we see the Government at their most patronising. It deals with cases where individuals are deemed actively to be seeking employment even when it is clear that they are not. Apparently—I say apparently because it is not clear—they will not be required to seek work for two weeks a year. I presume that that is a form of holiday, which is generous, but it must be specified.

Paragraph 4 deals with enabling people to establish themselves as self-employed. The Government continually inform us that during the years that they have been in power, the number of self-employed has increased dramatically. Not surprisingly, Conservative Members welcome that. It is inconceivable that someone could set up a business and achieve self-employed status in eight weeks, given all the obstacles of obtaining grants, taxation, raising capital and finding premises. Apparently, if people do not have the business up and running within eight weeks, they can be denied benefit. That is extraordinary.

Paragraph 12E lists the matters to be taken into account in deciding whether a person has good cause for refusing or failing to apply for employment or training. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) eloquently outlined the difficulties into which that could pitch people. It seems strange that we are qualifying those conditions.

Paragraph 12E(2)(a) refers to employment or training that would be likely to … cause serious harm to his health. The implication is that people will be disqualified from benefit for refusing work that would harm their health unless they can prove that it will cause serious harm. What is the difference between harm and serious harm? Where is it defined how an individual will know the difference? Surely, to a significant extent, it should be for an individual and his or her doctor to decide.

Paragraph 2 refers to responsibility for the care of another member of the household. What happens if a member of an individual's close family, such as one's mother, father, grandmother or grandfather, is in need of attention and does not live in the household but lives instead in accommodation nearby and yet requires care? Apparently such a situation is excluded from the regulations.

I do not intend to talk about those regulations at any greater length, because they have already been dealt with, but it is fair to say that they form part of a pattern. As I said earlier, the assumption is that people are dishonest and do not want to work. The pattern appears designed to punish people who are unable to find work but who, in many cases in my experience, have tried hard, indeed desperately, to find work, but who have been hit from several directions. The pattern involves other attacks on people's living standards, such as housing benefit cuts and the abolition of single payments with the introduction of the social fund. All those things were basically designed to save public expenditure.

If I may be allowed to digress slightly, appalling figures about the social fund were produced at the beginning of this month showing massive under-claiming of the grants available in its annual budget. It was precisely the Government's intention to cut such expenditure when they introduced the social fund, and it has worked.

I have already arranged to meet the staff at my local DSS office to find out why there has been a 54 per cent. underspend in the Lauriston area of Glasgow. Of the £379,000 allocated budget, £205,000 remains unclaimed. In an area of multiple deprivation, with high unemployment and appalling housing, it is not credible that that figure is accurate unless people are being deliberately dissuaded from claiming. Indeed, that is the trend that the Government are encouraging. They are trying to make the people who make a claim on the state feel that they are a burden, that they are doing wrong, and that they should therefore stop claiming. That is especially harsh on the unemployed.

My final point relates to young people. Another part of the pattern relates to 16 and 17-year-olds who, with effect from September last year, have been denied income support if they are not either in work or on a youth training scheme. Again, I refer to what has happened in ray own constituency where there is a shortfall—there are 1,300 more people wanting YTS places than there are places available. Unless those young people can demonstrate severe hardship, they are denied income support. That is appalling, but it is again part of the pattern to which I have referred.

The Government can do what they like in terms of regulations, in trying to suppress the unemployment figures or to dissuade people from claiming benefit by making it as difficult as possible, but they will not fool the people of this country in the long term. They will not fool the unemployed people of this country who will bear the brunt of these hurtful, spiteful and completely unnecessary regulations on the actively seeking work condition.

7.13 pm
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

After 10 years' experience of a Conservative Government, and of the present Government in particular, perhaps we should not be surprised by the amount of time that the Government are taking to push through a tightening and reduction of benefits. It does not seem to take any time to get those things on the agenda. The machinery of government moves with remarkable speed when they want to reduce benefits or to tighten the social security structure. I say that because the Social Security Act 1989, to which these regulations refer, passed back to the House only last week and was given Royal Assent last Friday. Within hours, the regulations were before the House, and they will be law before we return from the recess.

We should be absolutely clear that the regulations on the community charge mean a benefit reduction. The Government have said that the new system will mirror the existing rebate system. However, the new system distorts the reflection because under the poll tax proposals people will get less than they get under the present rebate system.

Conservative Members have been in real difficulty with the poll tax. The Government sold it on the premise that every person had to pay, but some hon. Members asked, "What about those who are unable to pay and those who receive rebates?" The Government then decided that they would have to relax the provisions but said that everybody would have to pay at least 20 per cent. However, there is a difficulty in the provisions in the regulations. Because there is a finite and fixed figure in the income support regulations, this means in practice that, because of the average figure that has been assumed for the poll tax, some people will have to pay more than 20 per cent. That means that they will face a real reduction in their living standards because they will have to pay more than they do now under the current rebate system.

The Government seem to be carrying out a giant tax con trick. They constantly tell us that their Budgets cut personal taxation, but they are actually increasing taxation as a whole, not least by increasing indirect taxation, and now by effectively increasing local taxation. They are insisting that, if we want any residue of local government to be left in this country, everyone must pay the price because the Government are not prepared to make the contribution that they should make from the centre, from the Treasury at national level. In other words, to use the language of insurance—we may look back on the social security system wistfully as a system which did, indeed, provide national insurance—when we get to the small print, we find that the national sales pitch really means that full cover will no longer be provided because the total cover for the 20 per cent. payments will not be matched by the demands of the poll tax.

Conservative Members have woken up rather late in the day to the implications of the poll tax. Indeed, it is only in the last two weeks that they have come to the House and insisted that Ministers look again—after those same Members spent months voting for every clause in the legislation. As soon as they realised that the poll tax would hit their constituents, they were on their feet practically asking the Secretary of State to withdraw it. I am tempted to argue that if we had a re-vote and a free vote on the poll tax legislation now, there would be no poll tax and thereafter no need for these regulations.

I hope that Conservative Members will work out the figures relating to these regulations during the recess. It is not enough for them simply to protest about the poll tax, and it is certainly not enough for them to pretend that the provisions will protect the poor against its implications. If they look at the detail in relation to their constituency cases, they will find that the provisions will not do what is claimed. I am sure that Conservative Members will be back—not this autumn, but the following autumn—asking why particular cases are not getting the support that they thought had been promised when the poll tax legislation was before the House.

Perhaps the most significant of all the regulations are those relating to the new Social Security Act and especially, as my hon. Friends have said, those relating to the actively seeking work test. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) surprised me because he speaks as though he does not come from the same city as myself. He obviously does not look at the various briefs that are sent out to all Members of Parliament representing our region. He may be surprised to know that unemployment in Yorkshire and Humberside is not falling as fast as elsewhere and that the chamber of commerce in our region has suggested that it is likely that unemployment will rise again. It is concerned that the so-called "hard landing" of the economy will mean that firms will go into bankruptcy and that as a result there will be redundancies in our region. I speak on behalf of a constituency in which we have seen and continue to see redundancies in textiles and engineering.

When we talk about unemployment falling, it is interesting that even under the adjusted figures—the 26 reductions and the massaging of the figures—we still have unemployment at 1.9 million. It is higher than it ever was under any Labour Government, yet the Red Book—the basis for this year's Budget—says that unemployment is not expected to continue falling as rapidly. In other words, the Government's Budget presumptions are that unemployment will rise again and not go down as it has in the past.

Mr. Burns

indicated dissent.

Mr. Battle

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) shakes his head. He should read paragraph 4 of the Red Book, where the presumption is that unemployment will not continue falling at the rates at which it has, if indeed it falls at all.

Mr. Burns

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Battle

I will not give way, because the hon. Gentleman would not do me the courtesy of giving way. In future he may like to do his homework before he tries to rebut an argument. I shall come to the points that he made in his contribution.

The hon. Gentleman appeared to create the impression that the regulations before the House will introduce a whole new system to coerce the unemployed into taking jobs. Does he really believe that nobody has been denied unemployment benefit under the current system? People have to he available for work now and they lose benefit if they are not available for work. The hon. Gentleman created the impression that there were no existing regulations making people go for jobs, because the key change in the Bill is the insistence that a person must accept a job regardless of the pay offered. The Government are going down the road of pricing people into low-paid work. The regulations cannot be read other than as tightening even further, in a most unhelpful manner, the social security coercion for people to work, especially in areas of high unemployment.

Those who fall foul of the new actively seeking work rule will lose not only unemployment benefit, but the income support safety net. I suggest to hon. Members that there are already problems, because people who breach the £5 rule, for example, or who are doing voluntary work for more than a particular number of hours, are already being cut out of the benefit system. Those people have no income while they wait for their cases on appeal.

I ask the Minister to look at paragraph 2 of regulation 6, which lists the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether a person has taken steps which are reasonable. I accept that we pressed in Committee for such things as the amount of time spent on voluntary work or on seeking accommodation to be taken into consideration, but if they are to be taken into consideration, the onus is all on the adjudication officer. The adjudication officer will have the daunting task of investigating all the points in that list before he can make a decision.

To choose one item from the list at random, how would the adjudication officer ascertain the claimant's "mental limitations" in assessing whether he is accepting the right job? Will the Minister spell out what the phrase "mental limitations" would mean in particular circumstances? The paragraph in the regulation offers no real protection, because, when the list of factors is taken into account, the adjudication officer will still have complete discretion to decide whether the person has taken steps which are reasonable. In practice, that means that although the Minister is saying that he has confidence in the ability of his Department's staff, he is shuffling off the responsibilities in the regulations into the ambit of the adjudication officers and the appeals tribunals. That will make it bad law, because we shall be back to the position of going through case studies as we contest the regulations, rather than having the matter made clear in primary law and in regulations.

In Committee we debated whether a person would have to accept any job on offer, no matter how little pay was offered. If people are offered wages that they cannot live on and they refuse them, they will be disqualified. It seems that the Government calculate pay solely on the basis of the average wage, which at present is running at £258 per week. Few of my constituents are on £258 per week. This week in the job centre in Bramley town centre, the wages offered for most jobs are just above wages council levels. I remind the Minister that the wages council level for the textile industry is £1.90 per hour, and jobs in catering and in shops are offered at wages below wages council levels.

In other words, if jobs are on offer at much less than £80 a week and a person turns down such a job, the Government are saying that in some circumstances, if the family loses its access to unemployment benefit, it could be worse off. The Government are now prepared to accept that situation to price people into work and to save the benefit system money. That is from a Government who, only in March, told the House that they had saved £14 billion in public expenditure, which they did not dare spend because it might have had an inflationary effect.

I submit that this is not just a tightening up regulation, but it is at the core of the Social Security Act 1989, as it will become known. What the Government are doing is unbelievable. They are knowingly pricing people into work. Like the poll tax, it may he that people, especially Conservative Members, will only realise what is happening when it is too late—when they have voted and their constituents go to their surgeries to ask them what the Government are doing. The Minister may reply then that it is just a few individual hard cases. The chance to tackle hard cases is now. It is not a matter of hard cases. The Minister and the Government are deliberately changing the social security structure.

Under the regulations, that social security structure is clearly stacked against unemployed people. To price people into work will have the impact of compounding a two-tier economy, in which some of us may have reasonably well-paid jobs with some future prospects and security, but the rest of the nation will be forced into low-paid, temporary and part-time work. The Government are deliberately going down that road.

We saw the speed with which the Minister was prepared to move on the issue of the mobility allowance. When we pressed for people to have access to that allowance, the Minister said that he needed time to do more research to see what the implications were for Government policy, for the Budget and for claimants. I suggest to the Minister that he might like to carry out some detailed work on wage rates in Britain, and especially in the Yorkshire region. He might like to do some detailed work on the implications and interworking of the family credit and income support systems.

He should tell us that he is prepared to reconsider the matter and that he will withdraw the regulations. If he does not, the Government will be left with regulations containing punitive and blunt instruments which will force the number of unemployed down by pricing them into the low-paid temporary sector. When the Government try to offer us the language of choice, they are really offering people the coercion for which the Government, despite their Cabinet reshuffle, are now becoming well known, and which the people of Britain are clearly rejecting.

7.28 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

I had not intended to speak, but I have been provoked into doing so by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle).

I listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest. At the beginning, he set out a range of suggestions and detailed objections to the criteria for evaluating whether a claimant is genuinely and actively seeking work. When I listened to that part of his speech, I wondered whether the hon. Member had accepted the basic principle that lies behind these regulations and was trying to be helpful. I thought that by suggesting adjustments to the criteria, so that a decision can more fairly and precisely be made about whether an individual claimant is sincerely looking for work, the hon. Gentleman might be making a useful contribution to the workability of the regulations and to the justice with which they will be enforced—or was the hon. Member contesting the basic principle behind these regulations?

Later in the hon. Gentleman's speech, it became evident that he objects to the whole principle, so we should consider some of his detailed suggestions and criticisms in that light. We are entitled to ask whether some of those suggestions, put very reasonably and with great ingenuity —qualities that we associate with the hon. Member—were not wrecking suggestions, designed to undermine the basic principle of the legislation.

What is that basic principle Mr. Deputy—Madam Deputy Speaker, I beg your pardon. It is that it cannot be in the interests of an individual, or of society, to give a man or woman a financial inducement to do nothing when he or she has the ability to do an honest day's work. That seems to me to be a fundamental moral and economic principle. I will give way to any Opposition Member who wants to dispute the basis of that principle.

We must ask ourselves whether we should take seriously some of the hon. Member's objections. If we do not take them seriously, I believe that we should support the Government in producing a sophisticated set of criteria to ensure that that basic principle is delivered into our social security legislation.

7.32 pm
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

In Wigan, we recently elected a lady mayor and she has introduced a system of fines for people who call her Mr. Mayor. The fines go to charities. I think that we should introduce a similar system in the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, for each occasion that you are called Mr. Deputy Speaker. By the end of the Session, we would be able to put quite a lot of money towards certain charities.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Perhaps for sacked Cabinet Ministers—a very good cause.

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion.

Regarding incentives and disincentives, Conservative Members' arguments have been based on a crude analysis of job vacancies. They have asked why there are so many vacancies, and why so many people are unable or unwilling to seek employment. We have also heard, again on the basis of crude analyses, that, throughout the country, there is a huge army of unemployed people who are unwilling to take jobs at any cost.

I take that as a grave insult to tens of thousands of working men and women throughout the United Kingdom but especially to people in many Opposition Members' constituencies. We represent people who, because of Government policies, find themselves and their families thrown on the industrial scrap heap. Since the miners' strike, three collieries have been closed in my constituency. Since the end of that strike, some miners have transferred to three separate collieries because they wanted to continue in employment but they have been put on the dole this summer because there are no more pits for them to go to. There are no more jobs for them. They are in the humiliating situation of being placed on the dole. That is a direct result of Government intervention, in privatising electricity and driving down the price of coal.

Many single-parent families in my constituency, mainly women, have a great disincentive to find work, because of the Government's legislation. If they find work they cannot take it up. I shall give evidence of that later in my speech.

If the Government cared less about the Civil List and more about the problems of the poorest in our society, this House might do the nation a proper service. The Government are hounding the unemployed and people on poor wages. They have been preparing the market, and distorting it, to ensure that we have a large pool of unskilled people that can be tapped any time the market chooses. In the intervening period, they ensure that the level of benefit is reduced, or is at such a level that people cannot remove themselves from the poverty trap.

Many people in my constituency have been brutalised by poverty. Some have been driven to crime by poverty. A prime example is a constituent who was taken to the magistrates court for breaking into his electricity meter. Everyone says, "What a terrible thing to do." He was acquitted on the grounds that he broke into the meter after he had an offer of a job in Aberdeen—he had been unemployed for over 18 months—and, because of changes brought in by the Government, the social security office would not give him a ticket to travel to Aberdeen to take the job. He became a criminal, in an effort to buy a train ticket to take that job. Thank God the magistrates on the bench had sympathy for that man's case.

That is how far many young working people are prepared to go. They are trapped in the benefit system and a life of poverty. They have little real opportunity for jobs that will enable them and their families to get out of the poverty trap.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) mentioned job vacancies in Chelmsford, where employers are unable to find people to take jobs. That is a growing problem throughout Britain. People are unable to move to take jobs because of Government policies.

The changes in social security policy cannot be seen in isolation. The Government have driven up mortgage interest rates to the point where people cannot afford to move house. They have introduced the Local Government Housing Act 1989, to double rents in the private sector. They have introduced legislation to close many hostels for young people, who move from one part of the country to another to find work. They have driven up travelling costs to and from work.

In the autumn, the Select Committee on Social Services, of which I am a member, will examine Government social security policies. We have already sought evidence on Government policy and incentives and disincentives from local authorities and bodies such as citizens advice bureaux, the Child Poverty Action Group and Government Departments.

In the light of all these political disincentives, the arguments of the hon. Member for Chelmsford must be challenged. He and many of his hon. Friends must come up with an answer to that challenge. We have received evidence from citizens advice bureaux throughout the country. I will tell him why there are job vacancies in places such as Chelmsford. It is not that unemployed people are not prepared to take those jobs, but that current social security arrangements operate to ensure that they cannot take them.

I shall cite just one example from the CAB's evidence. A middle-aged man in Sheffield could not take a job offer in London because he was refused a loan for rent on the ground that, as he already had an overdraft, he could not repay a social fund loan. Claimants who need to move house to take up work receive little help from the social fund. Removal expenses incurred if a claimant has to move house to take up work are excluded as specifically work-related. Under the previous supplementary benefit rules, a single payment could have been made for removal expenses, thus improving the claimant's chance of finding work and taking up a job offer. The Government have created a disincentive for people to take up employment opportunities, yet the hon. Member for Chelmsford and his hon. Friends berate them for not being more mobile in trying to get back into the labour market.

Mr. Burns

The hon. Gentleman said that he would answer my constituents' question about why there was both a labour and a skills shortage in Chelmsford. Unfortunately, he has not done so—[Interruption.] I hope that Opposition Members will let me finish my question. The hon. Gentleman cited the example of a man who would not move from Sheffield to London. I accept that he had a serious problem, but it does not answer the question asked by 1,700 of my constituents who are unemployed at a time when there is a serious shortage of people to work in the local companies of Chelmsford.

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman raises two points, with which I shall deal in a moment.

There is a serious distortion in the labour market, not just in the availability of jobs but in the types of job, the availability of training and the opportunity for people's skills to be matched to job vacancies. Like the hon. Member for Chelmsford, I could go to my local jobcentre—not a mile and a half from two collieries that have recently closed—and ask about opportunities for the 700 miners who have lost their jobs. I could guarantee that, other than a small number of those miners, they all want to find jobs commensurate with their skills and abilities.

For the past 10 years, the Government have failed to provide proper arrangements for skills training for the country's work force. Indeed, there has been a de-skilling exercise, the like of which has not been seen in the remainder of the western world. That de-skilling policy has resulted in a shortfall of people able to contribute to the economy. That is as true in Chelmsford as it is in Wigan. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Chelmsford is only too ready to vote for those policies.

The regulations will not improve employment opportunities for the unemployed and those in low-paid jobs. The Government are good at targeting people, and they regularly amend the benefit regulations—not to improve opportunities, but to reduce the number of people able to claim benefit. The Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box seven or eight times specifically to amend housing benefit regulations. On each occasion he turned the screw so that a few thousand more pensioners or unemployed or low-paid workers could not claim housing benefit.

A large number of women want to return to work, not just for family reasons but for their personal satisfaction. They form a large, untapped pool of skills and mental capacity. They are prevented from entering the labour market because of the Government's social security policy, especially on child-care facilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) rightly raised the problem of the regulations acting as a clear disincentive for women to accept opportunities in the job market.

A constituent of mine was prepared to take any job, provided that she was given 24 hours' notice so that she could arrange to put her two children into a nursery. The social worker gave a guarantee to the benefit office that he would do everything in his power to arrange child-care facilities, even if only temporary at first, so that the woman could begin work. That would have provided some breathing space to arrange long-term child care. That woman was offered a job. She said that she could not start that morning but would ask her mother to look after the children so that she could start in the afternoon. She was prepared to take the job. That woman's benefit has been stopped.

Tory Members take the high moral ground. They say that they are not in the business of hounding ordinary people. They find their excuses in legislation. All that woman asked for was a few more hours to arrange child care. That is what she told the adjudication officer, and Tory Members should think about what happened to her. I sometimes wonder just where some of the adjudication officers come from. When they go home at night, do they think about some of the decisions that they have made? Are they aware that they have sometimes wrecked people's lives? They create anxiety and stress in families already overstretched by poverty.

The Minister says, "Don't worry about it; everything is rosy in the garden. Those people have a great deal of latitude under the regulations." The truth is that there is no latitude. Many of those operating the social security system have a great deal of compassion and they are under stress because they must carry out their duties in a way that affects ordinary working people. Indeed, many of those officers live in the same community as those who are in desperate need of help.

The CAB submitted evidence about child-care costs to the Select Committee. It said: A single parent in Birmingham with one child aged 4 had a part-time job of 20 hours per week, for which she earned £40 a week. She had to pay £1.50 per hour for her child to be taken care of, making a total cost of £30 per week. As a single parent, £15 of her earnings are disregarded, but she was still £15 per week worse off by working—so she gave up her job. She had hoped to extend her hours once her child started school—but she has now lost that opportunity. That woman was working for 50p an hour. Can anyone come nearer to saying, "My God, I want to work. I want to do my part for the nation"? Would the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies)—the merchant banker—work for 50p an hour? Come on, would you work for 50p an hour? [Interruption.] I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was referring to the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding. He would not work for 50p an hour.

That woman is but one of tens—perhaps hundreds—of thousands of women who are suffering not because they do not want to work or because they are indifferent to society, but because of the Government's social security regulations. It is a national scandal. Indeed, even the Government are embarrassed by some of their legislation. They try to introduce it in short debates late into the night at the end of the summer term in the hope of hiding what they are doing. They do not want the public to know what is happening.

The Government are at war with many of our citizens—those who cannot defend themselves, such as single-parent families and unemployed youngsters. People in the north-west, the north, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are unemployed because of the Government's policy of disinvestment in industry. They take a hands-off attitude. They are the victims of Government policy, and when the Government have made them victims, they attack them for their inability to seek employment and say that they are trying to earn from the state a living to which they are not entitled.

I am not angry just at the fact that the Government are prepared to allow that to continue. What makes me more angry is that Conservative Back Benchers who had well-heeled jobs, who were born with silver spoons in their mouths and who never had to worry about the school or the job of their choice, where they could work, at what rate of pay and about when they could change jobs, do not know about reality. They have no experience of living in a community racked by poverty. As a Member of Parliament, I have had experience of living in such a community. Conservative callousness is born not just of ignorance but out of total indifference to the plight of Britain's poor, the 6 million-plus who live in a twilight world.

The final condemnation of the Government must be the youngsters who sleep not a mile from this place in cardboard city. They get up in the morning, walk to the jobcentre in Victoria street and wait for the doors to open to get a day's work in a London hotel. They work for a few pennies and when they have finished work, sometimes at midnight and sometimes at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, they go back under their cardboard blankets. That exercise is repeated day in and day out; that is the reality of the Government's policy towards the poor and towards poverty.

There is no denying that reality, and the Government cannot get away from it. We can all go down the road to Victoria street. If the Minister thinks that I am exaggerating, he should come with me and my hon. Friends to Victoria street jobcentre to see the displaced, the unemployed and the poor who are standing there. I invite him to come with us to cardboard city and to other cities in the country where people are living in the streets, forced out by the Government's system. Perhaps when the Minister sees what the Government have done and meets the people, he will ask the victims what they think about the Government's system. He should meet those people face to face and not hide behind statistics presented at the Dispatch Box. He should ask them if they enjoy living under a cardboard box. He could also ask them if they enjoy begging from a porter at the back door of a hotel for a few hours work washing plates just to survive.

When the Minister has had that experience, perhaps the next time he comes to the Dispatch Box he will not have the same frame of mind and steely attitude towards the poor. Perhaps after that the Government will come up with a system to replace the dirty rotten system that is operating now. Perhaps they will give all our kids a real opportunity in life and all our women a genuine opportunity for a job at a wage that they can afford to take. If that happens, we can really talk about opportunity for everybody in Britain.

Until the Government do that, opportunities will not exist for hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people. Unless the Government change their attitude, we in the Opposition will continue our campaign of harassment until we get rid of them and replace them with a system and a group of people who are prepared to put in front of those who want to work an opportunity and a system that will allow them to do so.

7.53 pm
Mr. Scott

We shall have to endure with as much fortitude as we can muster the continued harassment of the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and his hon. Friends. The caricature that he paints of this country is totally removed from reality. Every section of the population has seen rises in living standards as a result of the successful economic policies that we have pursued for the past 10 years. We expect that to continue.

Much of the debate was taken up by hon. Members going over the principles behind the Social Security Act 1989 rather than dealing with the details of the regulations which implement those principles. I am grateful for the robust support that we have had from my hon. Friends. I shall sum up briefly and deal with just two or three matters raised in the debate. As hon. Members know, there is no opportunity to amend delegated legislation of this sort and we have to take the regulations as they stand.

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) spoke a great deal about over-payments and criticised the present system. She seemed to object to the fact that over-paid benefit may be recovered as if it were community charge arrears. The only amounts that can be recovered are those which are deemed to be recoverable. Any over-payments that arise through mistakes by the Department would not be recoverable in any case. The ability to recover over-payments and to do it by a small addition to the monthly instalments would be an easy way to repay the debt.

The hon. Lady spoke about the fear of imprisonment, but the only circumstances in which imprisonment could possibly be imposed on anybody are those in which a person had the means to pay the community charge but wilfully refused to do so. The hon. Lady also spoke about people who are fit for light work and those who sign on for credits only. There is no question of such people being challenged week in and week out about actively seeking work. She knows, because we went over it all in Committee in great detail, about the arrangements for initial advice and the subsequent updating of that advice if necessary. There is no question of our setting out in any circumstances to submit people to weekly tests. The hon. Lady well knows that the signing cycle is fortnightly and not weekly.

Mrs. Beckett

As the Minister says, we discussed these matters in Committee. He will know that in Committee we repeated over and over again that what he says is how he thinks the regulations will be interpreted and how the employment service will use them. What the Minister says is not what the law and the regulations say.

Mr. Scott

As I have said in the House more than once, we can look to the employment service to interpret the regulations in a sensible, fair and flexible manner.

As I say, the hon. Lady spoke about light work. The regulations explicitly recognise physical limitations and the type of work to which people can be guided must take account of such limitations. As the hon. Lady knows, credits-only signers attend the office only quarterly after they have been accepted for signing on, and there is no question of them being asked to discuss these matters weekly or more regularly.

I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) recognise the valuable contribution of job clubs. I am delighted that they are a success. Inevitably, in such an initiative, the pattern is uneven across the country. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman's experience is typical of the experience of job clubs elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Derby, South asked whether participation in a job club would be taken as evidence of someone actively seeking work. In essence, of itself it might not, but I think that it would be a very important piece of evidence to be considered about the attitude of mind of the person concerned. If the person was also taking other steps, it would certainly add up to that. I can think of few better things than an unemployed person wanting to get back into employment could do than to join a job club and avail himself of its facilities.

Some other matters were raised during the debate, but I do not want to weary the House by responding to all of them, because I think that the House is anxious to vote on the regulations. They implement the admirable principles which underline important sections of the Social Security Act. In a year or two, when Opposition Members look back at the speeches that they have made today, they will realise just how wrong they were.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Community Charge Benefits (General) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved.

Resolved, That the draft Income Support (General) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved.—[Mr. Scott.]

Motion made and Question put:— That the draft Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved.—[Mr. Scott.]

The House divided: Ayes 193, Noes 139.

Division No. 323] [7.59 pm
Alexander, Richard Cash, William
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Chapman, Sydney
Allason, Rupert Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)
Amess, David Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Amos, Alan Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Arbuthnot, James Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Couchman, James
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Cran, James
Ashby, David Currie, Mrs Edwina
Atkins, Robert Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Atkinson, David Davis, David (Boothferry)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Day, Stephen
Baldry, Tony Dorrell, Stephen
Batiste, Spencer Dover, Den
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Durant, Tony
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Dykes, Hugh
Benyon, W. Eggar, Tim
Bevan, David Gilroy Emery, Sir Peter
Blackburn, Dr John G. Fallon, Michael
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Farr, Sir John
Bowis, John Fenner, Dame Peggy
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Fookes, Dame Janet
Brazier, Julian Forman, Nigel
Bright, Graham Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Forth, Eric
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Franks, Cecil
Buck, Sir Antony Freeman, Roger
Budgen, Nicholas French, Douglas
Burns, Simon Garel-Jones, Tristan
Butler, Chris Gill, Christopher
Butterfill, John Glyn, Dr Alan
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Carrington, Matthew Gow, Ian
Carttiss, Michael Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Porter, David (Waveney)
Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E') Powell, William (Corby)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Price, Sir David
Ground, Patrick Raffan, Keith
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Hague, William Rathbone, Tim
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Redwood, John
Hampson, Dr Keith Rhodes James, Robert
Hanley, Jeremy Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr') Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Rossi, Sir Hugh
Harris, David Rowe, Andrew
Hayes, Jerry Sackville, Hon Tom
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney Sayeed, Jonathan
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas
Hill, James Shaw, David (Dover)
Hind, Kenneth Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Hordern, Sir Peter Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Skeet, Sir Trevor
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Speller, Tony
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Stanbrook, Ivor
Hunter, Andrew Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Irvine, Michael Steen, Anthony
Jack, Michael Stern, Michael
Janman, Tim Stevens, Lewis
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Jones, Robert B (Herts W) Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Summerson, Hugo
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Kirkhope, Timothy Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Knight, Greg (Derby North) Temple-Morris, Peter
Knowles, Michael Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Knox, David Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Latham, Michael Thurnham, Peter
Lightbown, David Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Lilley, Peter Tredinnick, David
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant) Trippier, David
McCrindle, Robert Twinn, Dr Ian
Maclean, David Viggers, Peter
McLoughlin, Patrick Waddington, Rt Hon David
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Walden, George
Miller, Sir Hal Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Mills, Iain Waller, Gary
Moate, Roger Warren, Kenneth
Morris, M (N'hampton S) Wells, Bowen
Morrison, Sir Charles Whitney, Ray
Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester) Widdecombe, Ann
Moss, Malcolm Wiggin, Jerry
Neubert, Michael Wilkinson, John
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Winterton, Mrs Ann
Nicholls, Patrick Winterton, Nicholas
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Wolfson, Mark
Oppenheim, Phillip Wood, Timothy
Page, Richard Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Paice, James Yeo, Tim
Patnick, Irvine
Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath) Tellers for the Ayes:
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Mr. John M. Taylor and Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory.
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Bermingham, Gerald
Alton, David Bidwell, Sydney
Anderson, Donald Blunkett, David
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Bray, Dr Jeremy
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Buckley, George J.
Ashton, Joe Caborn, Richard
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich) Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Battle, John Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Beckett, Margaret Clelland, David
Bell, Stuart Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Coleman, Donald
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston) McGrady, Eddie
Corbett, Robin McKelvey, William
Corbyn, Jeremy Maclennan, Robert
Cousins, Jim McNamara, Kevin
Crowther, Stan McWilliam, John
Cryer, Bob Madden, Max
Cummings, John Maginnis, Ken
Darling, Alistair Mahon, Mrs Alice
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I) Meacher, Michael
Dewar, Donald Meale, Alan
Dixon, Don Michael, Alun
Duffy, A. E. P. Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth Morgan, Rhodri
Eadie, Alexander Morley, Elliot
Evans, John (St Helens N) Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
wing, Harry (Falkirk E) Mowlam, Marjorie
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Mullin, Chris
Fatchett, Derek Murphy, Paul
Fearn, Ronald Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Paisley, Rev Ian
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n) Patchett, Terry
Flannery, Martin Pendry, Tom
Flynn, Paul Pike, Peter L.
Foster, Derek Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Galloway, George Prescott, John
Godman, Dr Norman A. Richardson, Jo
Gordon, Mildred Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Rogers, Allan
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Salmond, Alex
Heffer, Eric S. Short, Clare
Hinchliffe, David Skinner, Dennis
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Home Robertson, John Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Hood, Jimmy Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Spearing, Nigel
Hoyle, Doug Steinberg, Gerry
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Stott, Roger
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Ingram, Adam Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Johnston, Sir Russell Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Vaz, Keith
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Wall, Pat
Kennedy, Charles Wallace, James
Kilfedder, James Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Kirkwood, Archy Wareing, Robert N.
Leadbitter, Ted Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Leighton, Ron Winnick, David
Lewis, Terry Wise, Mrs Audrey
Litherland, Robert Worthington, Tony
Livsey, Richard Wray, Jimmy
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Loyden, Eddie Tellers for the Noes:
McAllion, John Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Allen McKay.
McAvoy, Thomas
McCartney, Ian

Question accordingly agreed to.