HC Deb 07 March 1995 vol 256 cc133-4
8. Mr. Chisholm

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what guidance has been given by his Department in relation to the current operation of the 21-hour rule.

Miss Widdecombe

The Employment Service issued guidance to staff in January 1995 on the rule that allows people to study part time while claiming unemployment benefits. The guidance also referred to the 21-hour rule, which is a separate rule in income support.

Recent changes in the way that education courses are organised have made those rules increasingly difficult to administer. The purpose of the guidance was to reduce the inconsistency that was arising in practice.

Mr. Chisholm

So why are the Government adopting such a perverse approach towards reskilling the unemployed, first by issuing new regulations by the month to make it more difficult for unemployed people to take up part-time education and training courses, and then by announcing that only 16 hours of guided learning will be allowed under the rules for the jobseeker's allowance? Is that because the Government believe the surreal logic of their own arguments, or because they have not a clue how to run a modern economy, where skills are the key to success?

Miss Widdecombe

I find it difficult to believe that the hon. Gentleman can seriously be as ignorant of the new proposals as his question suggests. There is no reduction. At present, the 21-hour rule covers both guided learning hours and private study; in future we shall rely on a limit of 16 guided learning hours a week, with as much private study as is compatible with being available for work. There is no reduction—the same number of students will be able to study—and there is no reduction in the cost to us. The hon. Gentleman really should do more homework before asking such questions.

Mr. Rowe

Does my hon. Friend agree that the profitable use of time while people are unemployed, especially if that directs them towards achieving the confidence that will enable them to get back to work, is most important? In that light, will she reconsider the very limited amount of notice that volunteers on unemployment benefit are allowed to give to the organisations that use them?

Miss Widdecombe

Volunteers can of course already exercise a delay before taking up a job, which unemployed people in general are not allowed to do. So we have already recognised that problem. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that constructive use of time while people are unemployed is important, especially in helping them to acquire skills and experience that can then be used in the labour market. For precisely that reason, we not only encourage volunteering but have made certain that our study rules have been carried through into the jobseeker's allowance so that people can study part time while on benefit. That seems to me an excellent balance to strike.

Mr. Simpson

What advice or explanation would the Minister offer to unemployed people undertaking part-time learning within the rules but who find that their benefits are cut because their fees exceed £100?

Miss Widdecombe

It is not the purpose of the benefits system to resource the education system, but a balance must be struck for people who are involved in modest, part-time study that does not impinge on their active job search. If such people could be on full-time or long and expensive courses, that is where they should be, rather than on benefit.