HL Deb 30 April 1986 vol 474 cc254-6

2.46 p.m.

Lord Rodney

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have studied the advantages of the "workfare" programme now operating successfully in the United States, and which was featured in the BBC "Panorama" programme on 7th April, and whether they will initiate an early trial in this country along similar lines.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the Government are studying the American experience of "workfare" programmes which was featured in the "Panorama" programme on 7th April. We have already applied some of the lessons of these programmes in the restart programme to help the long-term unemployed. For example, jobclubs have been very successful in a number of states and have proved equally successful here. We are planning to establish 200 jobclubs by the end of this year, and to increase the number to 450 as soon as possible thereafter.

Lord Rodney

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend for that encouraging reply. Does he agree that this "workfare" programme in the United States seems to receive considerable support from all sections of society, including the unions, and that it gives unemployed people a chance of regaining their self-esteem?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, this is a matter which must be handled with care. Nevertheless, I am aware of the views of Lord Beveridge. He said in the Beveridge Report: The co-relative of the state's undertaking to ensure adequate benefit for unavoidable interruption of earning, however long, is enforcement of the citizen's obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities of work, to co-operate in measures designed to save him from habituation to idleness and to take all proper measures to be well". I am not sure that the answer is "workfare" on some of the patterns we have seen in the United States of America, but I am sure that some of the "workfare" programmes such as jobclubs and so on will be of the very greatest help to us in helping the long-term unemployed.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I, and certainly my colleagues, will be pleased that he said that this needed to be handled with care? He is absolutely right. I saw the "Panorama" programme. Did it not appear to him that the system smacked of cheap labour and in some respects forced labour? It reminded me of the old Soviet Communist view that if you did not work you did not eat. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that we need a much better approach and that the real answer is for the country to co-ordinate the opportunities and its resources to get the 3 million unemployed back to work and into real jobs.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, all sides of your Lordships' House will agree with that. The best thing for everybody is to be back at work. But we are part of Europe and it is a Europe-wide problem and a problem with which we must deal. I agree with the noble Lord that schemes such as those practised in Russia are not what we should contemplate even in our wildest dreams. Nevertheless, we must ensure that people do not become so discouraged that they give up or so determined to live off the work of others that they do not try. We have to find ways in which we can help people to help themselves.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that he will continue to consider all conceivable new ways of creating jobs? As one who saw that programme, I thought that what was remarkable was that it seemed to please the person concerned, his family and the community. Above all, it was safeguarding the position of the trade unions, and therefore was supported by them. Will he bear that in mind if (as I hope will happen) he starts a test programme in one or two places in this country to see how it fares under the different conditions here?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, we are investigating the workfare programmes in the United States. We commissioned a report some months ago. I hope that report will be released shortly. There is an essential difference between the United States and this country. The difference is the wholesale co-operation which that programme showed between unions and all parts of society in promoting such a programme. I am not sure that co-operation would necessarily be received here.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, while we would all subscribe to the quotation from Beveridge that the noble Lord gave a moment ago, is he aware that the concept on which workfare is based in the United States is that of welfare—indeed, the noble Lord used the word "welfare" a moment ago—whereas in this country it is based on insurance to which all working people contribute throughout their working lives?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, of course; and the insurance element is unemployment benefit which lasts for the 12 months. That is the period of the insurance benefit. We are talking on this matter about supplementary benefit for those people who have been out of work for more than one year. That is the essential difference between the two.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, did the Secretary of State notice one feature of this programme which, I venture to suggest, would be objectionable in this country? That is that young mothers with small children were forced back to work and to put their babies in creches. In any experiments that are undertaken in this country will the noble Lord guarantee that that element of compulsion on young mothers is omitted? Will he also consult with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see whether experiments of the kind that have been suggested might be appropriate in that context where unemployment is higher than anywhere else in the United Kingdom?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I said that we shall investigate this matter with great care. I cannot see much future for the kind of programme that was seen in Oklahoma, I believe, in which mothers of eight-weeks-old children were forced to put them into day care so that they could go to search for work. On the other hand, I believe that there is something that we possibly could do. The one element which ran through that programme was the apparent approval by those receiving benefit and those giving the work that it was a good scheme. That is worthy of investigation.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister agree that what we need is a fundamental rethink of the problems of keeping 25 million willing workers occupied and out of mischief through idleness, and psychologically satisfied that what they are doing matters because people are prepared to pay for it what it costs? The parameters at our disposal are the number of hours worked per day and the number of years worked per lifetime in relation to the standard of living expected.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am grateful for the suggestion. Only one matter holds me back from this. It seems to me that those parts of the world where unemployment is high and the economy is sluggish consider that these are problems of the future; that there will not be sufficient work to go round. In other parts of the world where the economy is growing fast, the problem is exactly the opposite. They are looking for people to fill the jobs. I do not know how many in your Lordships' House will have noticed that in the United States the debate taking place is on extending the age of retirement. The retirement age is moving up to 67. There is legislation going through in the United States to give people the right to work until 70. The problem seems to be the exact reverse of the problem that appears in Europe.