HL Deb 14 March 1983 vol 440 cc473-4

2.50 p.m.

Lord Oram

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the arrangements for social security benefits for volunteers returning from service in developing countries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Trefgarne)

Yes, my Lords. Although some volunteers do not pay Class 1 employed earners' contributions while they are abroad and so cannot get unemployment benefit when they return to this country, any volunteer suffering financial hardship is able to claim supplementary benefit.

Lord Oram

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a recent survey shows that British volunteers are at a disadvantage in respect of social security benefits by comparison with most other countries? Can the noble Lord confirm that if volunteers pay employee-only contributions for a year, that will now be recognised as a qualification for drawing unemployment and sickness benefit? But even if that is so, as I hope, does it not still leave some half of volunteers unable to qualify because, in the developing countries, they are earning less than the minimum earnings limit?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as for the European position, to which the noble Lord referred in the first part of that supplementary, social security schemes vary greatly from one country to another, and what is appropriate or right in one country may not necessarily be so in another. As for the question of the lower earnings limit, it is the case that some volunteers overseas earn less than £29.50 a week, which means that they are not eligible to make Class 1 contributions, and that being so, they are not entitled to unemployment benefit when they return. But of course that is the position with volunteers working in this country as well, and it would be difficult to create a special class of volunteer who served overseas and who had preferential treatment compared with those in precisely similar circumstances working in this country.

As for the point about employee-only contributions, the Class 1 arrangement is that contributions are made both by employee and employer, but as a matter of procedure we have agreed that where it is not possible to insist on employer contributions—for example, the employer may be an overseas organisation from whom it would be difficult to collect the money—then we shall accept employee-only payments.

Lord Caradon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that recent arrangements have been made between Voluntary Service Overseas and the United Nations volunteers by which they will work closely together in recruitment and in other ways? Would he therefore agree that it is important that this disadvantage, as it can be, should not be extended to international volunteers from any other volunteers? Indeed, would he not agree that it is undesirable that this dosadvantage should apply to any of them?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I imagine that the arrangements to which the noble Lord refers would comply with the three principal conditions relating to Class 1 contributions, and thus people working under those schemes would be eligible for unemployment benefit when they return to this country. Perhaps I could write to the noble Lord with the principal details so that he can clarify that matter in his mind.

Lord Oram

My Lords, does it not arise from the Answer which the Minister gave me that our volunteers are disadvantaged if they give good service for a very worthy cause and then come back and have to apply for supplementary benefit? Should not their benefit be better structured, and will the Minister look into the matter with some sympathy?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I certainly would not wish to have a closed mind on this matter and would be very willing to listen to any representation the noble Lord would like to make to me. But the three priincipal conditions to which I referred are well known and understood, and it would be difficult to create a class of volunteer who received preferential treatment compared, for example, with volunteers working in very similar circumstances in this country.