HL Deb 14 November 1983 vol 444 cc1080-9

4.17 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, after that interesting excursion perhaps I can draw you back to the subject of travel concessions for the unemployed. First, I should like to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for being absent from the Chamber during the first few minutes of his speech. I made the mistake of thinking that the two Statements would run one after the other.

Let me start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, for his persistence in this matter. This is the third occasion in the last eight months on which this area has come before your Lordships for debate—first, on an amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and the last occasion when a Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, was before us. Therefore, it will come as no surprise to your Lordships to realise that we on these Benches are prepared to give general support to this Bill. I gave that support to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, on his amendment; and, in an interesting and I thought moving speech, my noble friend Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran gave support to the Bill when it was last before your Lordships' House. In view of that I do not propose to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes.

Basically there is a problem here. I think we all recognise that there is a problem, and support for that view comes from all sides of the House. The question is how we should tackle it. In my view, the problem comes in two parts: first, the question of people seeking work, where the present arrangements are not satisfactory. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, hinted that he would like to see some modifications, though not necessarily in this form. I do not think that they are satisfactory because it is very difficult to be fast enough off the ball, if you like, when various bureaucratic processes have got to be gone through.

There is no doubt that people trying to get work have to do a great deal of scouring through the market before they find a job. It is not just a question of going for one interview or making one train or bus journey. The people who get the jobs are those who are up early in the morning and moving about the whole area as fast as they can to try to find work wherever it exists. It is for that reason that a more general system of allowing people travel concessions than is allowed under the present arrangements is necessary.

I would not want to underrate the need for social mobility. Again the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to this in his speech on the Transport Bill amendment. The feeling of being isolated from the community because you simply have not got the money to be able to use the local buses, however low fares may be in certain parts of the country, is a serious problem. It is a deep, psychological problem which adds to the burdens which the unemployed already have.

It may be that the Government will feel that this Bill is too open-ended in that general direction. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, would feel that. However, again, something must be done to try to assist the unemployed in what is a serious area of feeling locked into their own front rooms, not able to go out, not able to take advantage of those services, recreational or otherwise, which may be free once you can get to them. It is for that reason that I feel that this Bill moves in the right direction.

It may well have need of modification. For instance, the reference to the YOP people should probably be extended now to the YTS, because the proportion of people on the YTS compared with that on the YOP is now much higher. It may be that the Government may be able to come up with some sort of constraints which do not undermine the principle that we are all trying to achieve but which at the same time make it perhaps less expensive to the Exchequer while achieving the same objective.

On the question of the £90 million, it is a substantial sum of money. I question whether that figure is absolutely accurate, although I do not in any way doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is being absolutely sincere when he puts it forward. I wonder how that costing has been made. Is it the total cost of the travel, or is it a contribution to the fixed cost, or is it some variable cost of the travel which is involved'? If the Government could come up with some other mechanism for achieving this necessary principle to help the lot of the unemployed, both in their social life and, much more particularly, in their ability to rove about the areas in which they live in order to seek those rare moments when a job is available to them in which their skills fit a particular specification, then the Government should this afternoon come forward with some alternative proposal if they are not prepared to accept the Bill as it stands.

4.23 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Molloy has again brought this proposal forward. As the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, said, we have had this before your Lordships on three occasions. When I proposed amendments dealing with this principle at the Committee and Report stages of the Transport Bill, emphasis was laid on the fact that the Transport Bill was not the correct vehicle for such a proposal, even though we went on to discuss certain aspects of it. My noble friend's Bill for the same purpose was not thrown out on principle in March this year. The amendment that it be read six months hence was carried, if I remember correctly, by a majority of 15 votes on a Friday afternoon. I hope that we may have a different result today, and I am delighted to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that he and his colleagues will give the Bill their support.

When we debated the Bill on the last occasion emphasis was laid by Ministers—and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has repeated this today—on the DHSS and the MSC schemes of assistance to persons to travel to obtain work. There are conditions attached to those two schemes. I am not going to go into them again today except to say that included in the conditions is that a person has to be unemployed and in receipt of supplementary benefit, and there are large numbers of unemployed who are not in receipt of supplementary benefit. They are debarred. Emphasis was laid on the fact that there is assistance for travelling for training schemes. Again—and here the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, arises, that we may have to ensure that the new scheme will be covered—it was emphasised that reimbursement is after the first £4 per week. Therefore, under the schemes referred to in March the unemployed have to bear the first £4 each week themselves for training. Anybody who has been out of work and on the benefit scheme will realise what a burden that can be. Many will find it hard to meet that sum.

I want to emphasise, as I did on the previous occasions, what the noble Lord. Lord Tordoff, has said: that while assistance to travel to work, and assistance for training schemes are important, the question of help for unemployed persons to live a proper social life is equally important when we are considering my noble friend's Bill. Some of the arguments put forward the last time were that it was not appropriate to link such a scheme with the elderly, the blind and the disabled. Why not? We were told that it was not appropriate; we were not told why.

We were told that other sections of the community are also in need. This is a time-honoured procedure to stop doing one thing by saying that many other people are in as equally bad a situation. We were told that not all local authorities had made use of the provisions of the 1968 Act. So what? If some authorities are progressive and humane enough to want to apply Section 138 of the 1968 Act, good. We want to give local authorities provision to go a bit further.

Then we were asked whether subsidy was the best way of helping those out of work. We were never told another way of helping them so that they could lead a full and proper social life. This is one way in which the fortunate members of the community who are in work can give assistance. Then the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, speaking for the Government, said on 11th March, at col. 452: The principal objection to this Bill"— note that— is that it would have very considerable consequences for public expenditure". "The principal objection", my Lords. If we can get over that one, then we can possibly get the Bill approved.

First, we are not talking about assistance from the Government. If there has to be any revenue support, it will be the local authority deciding to raise this from its rates in order to ensure that the majority of its people help the minority who are out of work. My noble friend referred to the Greater Manchester scheme. I understand that they wanted to have the scheme used in off-peak hours, and the cost to the Passenger Transport Executive would have been very low indeed. What Manchester wanted to ensure was that if they went ahead with such a scheme they could not be challenged on the grounds of illegality. My noble friend's Bill would put that right.

The social needs of the unemployed are vital. Help for them to visit friends and relatives is vital. We all know of cases in conurbations where the parents are situated near the town centre and the younger families have moved out, and we know the cost of travel. If anybody does not believe that, come to where I live, Buckhurst Hill, the first district over the Greater London boundary, and work out what it costs you to visit friends in Southwark. It is not far off £3. When that is multiplied to provide for husband and wife, and so on, it is a big burden to meet.

The social aspect is very important. There are various establishments, boating and leisure, which are arranging special facilities for the unemployed so that they can get admission at a low figure. You can even come to my GLC public golf course and, as an unemployed man, play there Monday to Friday for 55p; but you have to get there. If you look at the map and see where Hainault Forest is, you will realise the problem of getting there. The cost of travelling is very important.

We have to avoid the tendency today of there being two nations. We have heard about this before. That is, those who are in work and those who are out of work. The number of those who have been out of work for 12 months or more is round about the half million mark, and these are the people finding it difficult to meet travelling costs to lead a normal, decent life. I hope that we shall not have a repeat—and I do not think the noble Lord the Minister will repeat it—of the reference made last time about the unemployed travelling on long journeys. My noble friend referred to this. Under Section 138 of the 1968 Act, to which we refer, any concessionary fares apply only in the area of the local authority which makes the decision. Therefore, that point is absolutely clear. The other point is that it is not mandatory, any more than the present Section 138 provisions are mandatory. It is permissive, depending upon whether a local authority wishes to apply it.

Thirdly, a local authority may lay down its own conditions if it wishes. My noble friend's Bill proposes to extend the facilities for the elderly, the blind and the disabled to the unemployed. I can see no reason whatever why the Government should not give this support. If the Government do not give support and my noble friend decides to press the matter to a vote, I hope that not only my noble friends on these Benches but noble Lords throughout the House will support this measure as one way whereby those of us who are in a better situation can help the unemployed, not only to travel to work and training schemes but to travel also to live a decent life, which all of us want.

Every noble Lord knows the considerable benefits that attract great appreciation from the elderly—many noble Lords in this House use the concession to the elderly. Not only the concessions to the elderly, but the concessions to the blind and the disabled also are well appreciated. I assure your Lordships that, whatever one says about the Greater London scheme, the fact that the elderly in the Greater London area can move and travel around has transformed many of their lives. We want to ensure that it also covers the unemployed as well.

4.32 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, it is clear again this afternoon in this debate that there is one thing that unites all sides of the House and that is our real concern for the problems which are created by unemployment. The Government are concerned with these problems also, but particularly with the problem of unemployment itself. We now seriously consider that there are grounds for believing that the underlying unemployment trend has been reversed. If I say that, I hope that no Member of your Lordships' House will accuse me of complacency about the difficulties facing those who are unemployed.

The noble Lord, Lord Molloy, has argued that this Bill represents a way of easing life for those who continue to be without work. We are familiar with the issues that he and other noble Lords have raised. As has been mentioned we have discussed these on three previous occasions this year—on 3rd March. 11th March and on 21st March. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was quite right when he said that on the last occasion the Bill then before your Lordships' House was defeated by 15 votes.

The proposal we are considering this afternoon is important and I do not complain at all because we are considering it again.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, he is not quite accurate in saying that the Bill was defeated. It was put back this day six months on an amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford. That is for the record, my Lords.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. He is quite right. It was an amendment to defer the Bill that was carried which set the Bill back. That was carried by 15 votes.

I mean no disrespect at all to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, nor to others who have spoken this afternoon when I say that I do not think that any of the arguments we have heard today are radically different from those put forward on the three previous occasions. Indeed, it would be fair at the outset to say to your Lordships that I do not expect to make any radically different arguments myself in response. I should merely like to do what other noble Lords have done; to remind your Lordships why the Government's views have not changed.

It is the Government's firm conviction that the only basis for improved long-term prospects in employment lie in a soundly-based economy. I shall not dwell long on the larger questions of economic policy, which I was accused of doing once before, but I want to remind your Lordships that one of the central features of the Government's policy is the crucial importance of first containing and reversing the steady growth in the size of the public sector and public expenditure. We believe strongly in the need to consider the impact on the ratepayer and the taxpayer of financing public expenditure. From that perspective we could not accept that there is sufficient justification on transport grounds to increase expenditure in the way this Bill would provide.

The effect of the Bill would be to add registered unemployed persons and people working under the youth training scheme to the groups for whom local authorities have power to provide concessionary fares under Section 138 of the Transport Act 1968. These powers, as we have been reminded, are at present very strictly limited to people over pensionable age, to the blind, and to people suffering from any disability or injury which in the view of the local authority seriously impairs their ability to walk. It seems clear that these categories were intended to relate at least as much to physical handicap and frailty as to social disadvantage.

If these categories were now to be extended, then the question would immediately arise as to why one group should be covered but not another. It would be unrealistic if I did not suppose that immediately the mentally handicapped or single-parent families, for example, might have a valid claim. Might not low wage earners have grounds for complaint if the unemployed enjoyed concessions while they had no similar assistance with the cost of regular travel to work? I invite your Lordships to ponder this question: are we not at risk of contributing to a financial unemployment trap? I do not think it is an easy question. It was proposed during the passage of the 1983 Act in another place that the powers should be extended to cover people in receipt of family income supplement, children, students, people without access to cars and their dependants. At that time, as now, we would find it very difficult to know where to draw the line.

Even if concessions were to be limited to the unemployed, as the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, proposes, the consequences for public expenditure would be considerable, and I believe quite unacceptable, since that expenditure would fall upon the ratepayer and the taxpayer.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me, will he give me one example of where there is another source, other than ratepayers and taxpayers, for Her Majesty's Treasury to get its finance from?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the other source to which I am referring is the fare box. I am talking about transport costs. Already £800 million is spent in ratepayer-taxpayer money to support subsidy in local authority transport. The amount which the noble Lord suggests might be trivial, we estimate, with not too great an area of accuracy, within Greater London and the metropolitan counties, to be at least one-third of £100 million in lost fare revenue if this scheme were brought into use.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, is that figure based on assuming that all the unemployed travel at the moment and therefore pay fares, when with a concessionary scheme they would not be paying fares, or is it merely a hunch? Because many of the unemployed do not travel at the moment.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, it is certainly not a hunch. It is an estimate based on certain figures that are available to us. But if the noble Lord's implied question is, "Have we carried out a survey?", the answer is, No.

I was going on to say that I cannot believe that such an expenditure directed to one particular group of the population could be justified. I do not think that the present extravagant use by the metropolitan authorities of their subsidy powers does very much to encourage us to move further in that direction. Perhaps I might just remind the noble Lords, Lord Molloy and Lord Underhill, that Manchester already spends some £50 million a year on subsidising public transport. They could, if they wished, under provisions of the 1968 Act, embark upon a discount scheme, if they could prove it would not be loss-making and attract further support or if they were totally satisfied that they would not he challenged on this.

It might help my noble friend Lord Campbell if I said just a few words about the Manpower Services Commission's job search scheme, because in 1982–83 the Manpower Services Commission spent £115,000 on this scheme, eligibility for which is that the claimant must be unemployed or threatened with redundancy; he must be attending a definite job interview beyond his normal daily travelling distance; the prospective employer must confirm a good chance of success in the job application and there must be no expenses contribution available from the prospective employer. So there is an area in which help is given in terms of job search.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will my noble friend forgive me? If my noble friend is leaving this subject, will he perhaps write to me on the two questions that I asked him? First, what would it cost to extend this scheme to the ordinary benefit? I think that would be sufficient.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I was just about to leave that subject but I will give my noble friend the assurance that I will look very carefully at what he asked earlier and I will see that he gets a proper response.

The Bill also refers to people working under the youth opportunities programme. This has in fact now largely been superseded by the youth training scheme as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, mentioned. Trainees on all courses sponsored by the MSC already qualify for repayment of any costs in excess of £4 a week incurred in travelling to work. My noble friend Lord Campbell and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, will want to know that the chairman of the MSC has now put proposals to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment for a reduction of up to £1.50 in the initial amount which trainees are expected to find from their own pockets before qualifying for the refund. I understand that these proposals are receiving careful consideration. So I think it would be unfair were any noble Lord to suggest that that which we have discussed, as I say, on three previous occasions goes completely unnoticed by honourable and right honourable friends in another place.

Like other noble Lords, I do not wish to repeat all that has been said previously. Let me say finally that the Government fully understand the sympathy felt for this Bill by many noble Lords on all sides of the House. I have tried to set out the main reasons why the Government have not changed their own view. May I remind your Lordships that views consistent with those I have put forward this afternoon were endorsed by the House in March this year, after three separate debates. I would not think it necessary to demonstrate these again in the Division Lobby.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I think there might be something indicative in the fact that, while this House was discussing one aspect of grave concern, worry and irritation to millions—not tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but millions—of British families who know what it is to have to endure months and months of' the breadwinner being on the dole, the debate was interrupted because of our concern that we are paying much too much money to the EC and particularly to the agricultural fund. If we could get a tenth of that back next week I am sure the Government would accept this Bill. Then there was that other massive, great big issue of a foreign country having the right to install massive missiles which will destroy in one strike millions of human beings.

I do not know whether there is a message there, but I believe it ought to give us some concern. I should like to say, if I may, to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that I always listen very carefully to what he says because he has the capacity sometimes to make me amend my previous thinking. Therefore, I always listen very carefully to him. However, I regret that in this instance he called to his aid, as did the Minister, to defeat the unemployed, the sick and the old. There is a massive piece of courage if ever there was one! With regard to the MSC, of course, it is very helpful to those who are not merely unemployed but even worse off than the average unemployed, and that is why they have to be helped a little more—not out of any generosity, not out of any Christian kindness, but because it could possibly be a terrible embarrassment for other people to witness what is going on in this country. I do beg your Lordships—I do not want to see that situation and I do not believe for one moment that the massive funds we have spoken about are going to be the cost of this endeavour.

It is perfectly true, as was said so explicitly by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that there are problems. I am not suggesting for one moment that this Bill is perfect in every respect. As the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has said, there are problems and, if I may paraphrase what he said, I believe we may have to hack our way through the bureaucratic objections which are raised by clever civil servants, aiding Ministers. Perhaps we might give them the sack, put them on the dole for a couple of weeks and let them see what it is like to realise: "My God, we can't pay the mortgage".

I believe we have to realise that when the unemployed get their dole money they immediately give it away for food, for clothes, for rent and rates; and may I say to the noble Minister that before they were unemployed a majority were taxpayers as well. What this Government have done is to lose millions of taxpayers and then they have the audacity to say that we cannot help the unemployed that we have created and from whom we get no more taxes. We are not going to help them any more because it would hurt the taxpayers. If they were all in work there would not be so much for the taxpayers to pay out. That should be taken into consideration.

I should like to express my appreciation and thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for their contributions. I think that in particular Lord Tordoff's contribution was realistic as well as sympathetic. He said what I was trying to say; I cannot prove beyond all peradventure that this is a perfect scheme but at least it is worthy of some experiment. My noble friend Lord Underhill quite rightly pointed out that all the unemployed are not on supplementary benefit. I am grateful to him for his contribution and for so realistically supporting me as to the distances that people have got to travel and, as I said in opening, as to what it costs for people simply to go and look for a job.

There are some people who say that among the unemployed are folk who will not even travel to look for work. But all that this Bill says is that they must do the travelling first and they must have the interview. If they are successful, they will not want to claim anything. If they are unsuccessful, they will be able to ask for something to help them in trying to get a job. If they fail, they cannot afford to lose what it has cost them to try to get off the unemployment register. Will this House say tonight, "We are not prepared to say that you should try to get yourself employed"?—because a vote against the Bill is as good as saying that, and I shall take it to the country. That is fair warning.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that there is nothing that brings more merriment to the Government Front Bench than saying that you are going to do something dramatic on behalf of Great Britain's unemployed. I say this again to the Front Bench opposite. If any noble Lords want, at any time or at any place outside, to debate this with me, just let me know. All I ask them to do is to supply the chairman. They need to give themselves a boost. That is fair enough.

Let that go on the record loud and clear and I hope that we shall get some response, because I am getting a little tired of hearing how concerned everybody is. We are all concerned. The Chamber is full of the blood of people who are cut to ribbons, because of what is happening to the unemployed. But if I want to give them a hand over the stile, I am told, "Nothing doing: it is too expensive".

I say to Members on the Benches opposite, as well as on the Cross-Benches and elsewhere, that if what I am proposing is a failure it will be demonstrated as a failure within months and it can be stopped. I am asking noble Lords for support not for myself, but on behalf of the unemployed. If we can get the Bill to Committee, we can then see the real nitty gritty of the objections and how they may be overcome. That might take some time, but at least the unemployed would know that so far as this Chamber was concerned they were not forgotten. The very fact that the Bill has gone into Committee and can be changed radically will tell them that they are not forgotten. It may well have economic advantages for the nation. I believe that this attempt to do something and sending the Bill into Committee will give encouragement, and will lift up the hearts of those of our fellow countrymen who are unemployed and improve their morale. That is the least we can do, and we ought to do it tonight.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.