HC Deb 26 June 1995 vol 262 cc578-81

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 17, leave out from ("not") to end of line and insert ("entitled to income support.")

4.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 4, 50 and 51.

Mr. Evans

The amendments are intended to prevent the making of duplicate awards of the jobseeker's allowance and income support to the same claimant or duplicate awards of benefit to members of the same family. The original wording of the Bill does not achieve that, as it makes the criterion the fact that benefit is "payable". That might, on the face of it, sound sufficient, but there are a small number of cases in which the sum awarded is less than 10p—the de minimis figure—and the benefit is not payable.

To clarify the position, the amendments lay down the criterion of "entitlement", but I should stress that they in no way remove the choice open to the claimant and family to choose between the benefits and claim the one that they prefer. If a claimant wishes to switch between income support and the jobseeker's allowance, he need only terminate one claim before the next is made. The purpose of the amendments is to make that clear and less confusing.

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)

I am grateful for the Minister's brief explanation of these technical amendments—I accept that they are technical. It is apposite that, today of all days, we are discussing the jobseeker's allowance because so many Conservative Members will shortly be involved in exactly that process, which is probably why there are so few in the Chamber—they are racing around seeking help for their causes.

This is the first opportunity since the Bill returned from another place for the Government to tell us precisely why they have delayed its introduction by six months from April 1996 to October 1996. As we know, they did not have the courtesy to make a proper statement to the House, despite many attempts by me and my colleagues, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) who raised points of order, to explain why, as a result of deliberations in another place, the introduction of the Bill has been put back six months.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are dealing not with the whole Bill but with specific Lords amendments. He must confine his remarks to them.

Mr. Bradley

I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point is that, during deliberation on these amendments in another place, the Government decided to delay the introduction of the Bill. I think that it is relevant in our debate on the first group of amendments to seek an explanation of why the Bill has been delayed for six months—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has not convinced me. If he wishes to pursue that point, he must find another way to do so. He cannot pursue the matter on this group of amendments.

Mr. Bradley

Again I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you know, the amendments change many things with which Benefits Agency staff will have to deal. The result is that the Bill's introduction has been delayed by six months. We need to know precisely why. We did not know about the chaos in which the Government now find themselves.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

My understanding is that the Labour party is opposed to the Bill. If that is the case, why are they objecting to a six-month delay in its introduction?

Mr. Bradley

If the hon. Gentleman will listen, I shall explain the Labour party's exact position. He is right to say that any delay in this nasty piece of legislation is welcome, but we do not want legislation that we have tried to improve to fall into the same chaos as other recent Acts. The Child Support Act 1991 and the introduction of the disabled living allowance are examples of the chaos in benefit delivery that can result from inadequate consideration.

We obviously welcome any delay that will result in the Bill's smooth introduction, even though we do not approve of its provisions. We want to ensure that Employment Service staff are fully trained and understand the implications of the amendments that are before us today. It is crucial that the computer systems—which I understand are the root cause of the problem—are running effectively.

The amendments are part of what the Government and the other place recognise as a package of carrot-and-stick measures for the unemployed. The carrots, as the Government describe them, are the national insurance holiday for employers, the run-on of housing benefit and council tax benefit, and the Government's perception of the jobseekers agreement. However, the stick part of the package has not been delayed for six months; only the carrot parts have been delayed.

I understand that the crucial cut in the contributory benefit from 12 to six months, the introduction of means-tested benefits at six months, and the reduction in benefit for people under 25 will go ahead in April 1996. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify that point. We must know how the delay in introducing the benefit will be dealt with in practice to ensure that people who become unemployed either side of April 1996—[Interruption.] Does the Minister wish to intervene?

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

What does any of that have to do with the amendments under discussion?

Mr. Bradley

It is extraordinary that the Minister does not recognise that the key amendments made in another place, which affect the whole Bill, will also have consequences when the cuts in benefit are introduced in April 1996 and when the Bill's other provisions come into effect in October 1996. Opposition Members are trying to ensure that there is full public understanding of the way in which the Bill is to be introduced, including the amendments that are before us today. I think that that is very relevant business of the House.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, whether we are talking about benefit or the jobseeker's allowance, many people will apply for jobs as groundsmen at Lords now that we have beaten the West Indies for the first time since 1957?

Mr. Bradley

I do not wish to try your patience again, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I add the congratulations of Labour Members to the England cricket team on that victory. Perhaps Conservative Members can replicate the leadership lessons to be learned from the victory. As a Member of Parliament from the north-west, I am pleased that the England captain comes from the north-west of England.

It is clear that the Lords amendments would add to the insecurity being experienced by people who are unemployed or who will become unemployed as a result of Government policy. We recently debated the fact that mortgage tax relief in the income support context is to be cut. That will have a dramatic effect on people's feelings of security about their homes. The unemployed will now have their contributory benefit cut to only six months and they will be forced to use their savings—whether they be redundancy pay-outs or life savings—when means-tested benefits are introduced after only six months.

This is another example of Government policy adding to insecurity and uncertainty. It is part of a Government package that includes Lords amendments that will do nothing to create real jobs, real training and real opportunities. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, want to know—as do we—why the Government have not had the courtesy to offer the House a proper explanation of why the Bill in its real form is being delayed until October 1996.

Mr. Roger Evans

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply to the debate.

Lords amendment No. 1 and those grouped with it deal with a limited, narrow, technical point and improve the drafting to streamline the Bill's operation. The wider issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned might just about have some remote connection with them.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) is right when he says that the Government are concerned to keep this major project under close scrutiny. In line with our announced intentions, we commissioned an external review to report on the project's progress. Significant progress has been made, but the review led us to conclude that an April 1996 implementation date would entail unacceptable risks to the streamlined and smooth delivery of an efficient service to the jobseeker. That is the legislation's purpose, and we did not want it put at risk.

The announcement of the deferral was made while the Bill was being debated in the other place. That was a perfectly proper time to explain our actions.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Does the Minister agree that, if the Government did not take their legislation so for granted, were humble enough to admit that, during the passage of legislation through both Houses, constructive and improving amendments from any part of the House might be made and did not tell civil servants to begin to implement legislation before it became law, we would not find ourselves in such a situation? Will the Minister admit that many Government amendments are made to Bills these days? Does not that indicate great change between the first and final shape of the Bill?

Mr. Evans

Clearly the hon. Lady does not understand how the Government operate. They are humble in that sense. We proceed in three stages, which are highly relevant to this issue. First, Parliament must pass the legislation. It amends the legislation. We are doing that here and now. When Parliament has passed legislation, and not before, the delegated legislation—in the form of statutory instruments—that is to be made under a Bill must be drafted, laid and approved by Parliament.

It might have struck the hon. Lady that, if one is designing complicated computer software to implement a project of this importance and complexity—given that software is more unforgiving than the law—that work cannot be completed until the legislation and delegated legislation have been prepared, laid and approved. We have followed that procedure. One plans and anticipates as far as one can, but it is clear that the parliamentary programme has meant an impossible burden on the software writing. The external review confirmed that was the appropriate course to take.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of parliamentary procedure. He said that the regulations will be laid and approved before implementation. Will he confirm that there will be votes in the House on the regulations before the legislation takes effect?

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman took my shorthand explanation of the procedure too literally. He is well aware, after our debates in Committee, that the Bill involves a complex series of procedures for dealing with the regulations made under it. I was referring to that in short form. Of course we will go through the necessary procedures in due time. I was making the substantive point that one cannot write computer software until Parliament has determined the law. That is how government ought to operate and does operate—and how the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) wants it to operate if I understood her earlier sedentary intervention.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 4 agreed to.

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