HC Deb 25 June 1996 vol 280 cc141-2
7. Mr. O'Hara

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations he has received about problems in the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance. [32978]

Mr. Burt

Ministers of both this Department and the Department for Education and Employment have received a small number of representations from hon. Members, all on health and safety issues. In addition, at their request, the departmental trade union sides met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to discuss the issue.

We are confident that everything is on course to ensure that the jobseeker's allowance will be introduced on time and in good order.

Mr. O'Hara

Does the Minister accept that this infelicitously described scheme, the jobseeker's allowance, is a cynical deceit upon the unemployed, and undermines the principle of insurance in the way that it short changes those who have paid national insurance contributions in respect of certain guaranteed entitlements? Will he take careful note of the concerns of the front-line members of staff at the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency who have the onerous task of revealing to claimants their diminished entitlement under the scheme? Will he give a commitment to the House that he will keep the scheme under careful review and be big enough to revise it if the worst predictions about its operations are realised?

Mr. Burt

There are two issues. First, we take health and safety matters extremely seriously. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, we give maximum priority to the safety of employees. Risk audits have been done in all offices where jobseeker's allowance will be handled. Any recommendations resulting from such audits to improve the arrangements in the offices will be put into practice. Audits are planned for shortly before and shortly after the introduction of the benefit. A lot of consultation is going on. We believe that open plan is the best way in which to deal with the questions that will be raised about people's need to look for jobs, but that will be kept under constant review.

However, the hon. Gentleman's complaints about the policy would carry rather more weight if, yesterday, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) had endorsed the remarks of the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) a few weeks ago, that the Labour party was pledged to get rid of the jobseeker's allowance, rather than, I understand, countermanding that, saying that he was prepared to accept the policy but would keep it under review. Opposition Members cannot have it both ways. The jobseeker's allowance will make a substantial contribution to getting benefits and employment rights for people. Those who have opposed it rigorously should have the courage of their convictions and say that they will repeal it.

Mr. Sykes

The Minister will recall that I served on the Standing Committee which considered the Jobseekers Bill. Does he also remember that we had to leave a suggestion box in the Committee Corridor because Opposition Members refused to tell us what they would do. If the jobseeker's allowance is so bad, why do the Opposition flatly refuse to repeal the legislation?

Mr. Burt

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am bewildered because I cannot find a good answer. [Interruption.] Whenever I am asked to attempt to justify Labour's policy I am always bewildered because no justification is possible.

Mr. Bradley

How, with the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance, does the Minister justify forcing people to take jobs at wage rates below the official poverty level of income support, so forcing them to rely on means-tested benefits at those wage levels?

Mr. Burt

The hon. Gentleman's volume conceals his embarrassment over his policy. He chose not to get involved in the argument about reveal or repeal, but the Government's policy of helping people back into work, which has brought unemployment down and has given us the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe, is in stark contrast to the work-to-welfare policies revealed yesterday, which were described in The Independent today under the title Jobless risk destitution getting back to work … the radical welfare package unveiled by Labour". I do not hear anything from the Opposition that might be of any comfort to the unemployed. They would be much safer sticking with us because we know about the matter, we care about it and, above all, we are doing something about it.