HL Deb 30 October 1986 vol 481 cc788-91

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

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 the current scheme for counselling interviews to assist the long-term unemployed into work includes an offer, where appropriate, of basic education in literacy, numeracy, and other skills.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, the counselling interviews we have been conducting as part of the restart programme have indeed indicated that problems of numeracy and literacy can be a significant handicap for long-term unemployed people; and I am asking the Manpower Services Commission to let me have proposals for tackling this problem.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that extremely encouraging Answer. I think this is the first time that your Lordships will have heard this good news. Is the Minister aware that the adult literacy and basic skills unit, who specifically study these matters, estimate that probably one in five of the people who find themselves long-term unemployed have basic literacy, numeracy or other skills problems? Unless they can find somebody to help them, it is unlikely that they will ever he able either to find or sustain a job.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. It is true that this is the very first time that any industrialised country has engaged in interviewing all the long-term unemployed and I believe that we shall learn a great deal about the nature of long-term unemployment as a result. It may well be that up to one-fifth of those who have been out of work for more than a year suffer from literacy and numeracy skills difficulties and, if that is so, we shall have to consider what can be done about it. It is a sad reflection on over a century of compulsory education.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, following upon the Answer which the noble Lord has given, can he tell the House what the likely impact as a result of this counselling and these questions will be on the unemployment figures? I understand that it has been said that there is an expectation that the number of registered unemployed who have the counselling will be reduced by 10 per cent. Is that his estimate, and what impact will that have on the unemployment figures? Can the noble Lord also say if a failure to follow the instructions given by the counsellors, whether the individual is illiterate or not, will result in the automatic suspension of benefit for 13 weeks? If this is so, why 13 weeks, and what is an example of a failure of literacy?

Noble Lords


Lord McCarthy

Perhaps he can read the answers!

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, should know full well that I do not need to read any answers on this particular subject, and the noble Lord will also know full well the rules which the House has adopted for answering Questions. This is a long way from literacy and numeracy, but if the noble Lord wishes to ask those particular questions, he is perfectly at liberty to put them down and I shall be more than happy to answer.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister recollect that he has just spoken about the great number of illiterate people among the long-term unemployed and has expressed regret in regard to it? Does he also recollect the question that I dared to put to him the other day about the effect of long questionnaires which are almost a torture for the illiterate? Does he further, and lastly, recollect that he completely misunderstood my question and got unnecessarily angry?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, as to the last part of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, I did not get unnecessarily angry. I thought at the time I got necessarily angry. But that is a matter of opinion. We are dealing with the particular problem of long-term unemployment. We may well find—we may not; we have yet to see the results of the surveys—that there is a far greater proportion of illiterate and innumerate people among the long-term unemployed. That is an entirely different question from that of ability to answer a very short questionnaire, with help of course from the staff of the benefit office, about the nature of the job someone has just had and the nature of the job being looked for.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that we should pay tribute to the volunteer tutors in this country who are helping and giving lessons to those who are illiterate? I think that the value of this amounts to the equivalent of £9 million. Does my noble friend the Minister also agree that to pursue this very good policy we should perhaps have more paid organisers for this work?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend. I think it is best for the moment to determine the size of the problem before looking for a remedy for it. I hope that by the time the first Restart interviews have taken place, we shall have a much better indication of the size of the problem among the long-term unemployed.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the case of the Jobclub experiment the problems are to a considerable extent overcome by the devotion and help of the staff who assist the long-term unemployed in making their applications? In other words, there is already some help being given in the Jobclub to people who have problems in drafting letters, and this has been a great and very helpful feature. In my own town, I am sure it has helped to lead to an enormous success rate in the Jobclub experiment.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. I join him in paying tribute to the work of the Manpower Services Commission in the Jobclubs, and to the help that they give to assist those who are out of work to get back into employment.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, when the noble Lord has established the size of the problem, will he consider asking the Manpower Services Commission whether they will devote some of their resources to establishing better aid for adult illiteracy, because, as the noble Baroness indicated, it is based on a lot of part-time and voluntary effort? Furthermore, is the noble Lord aware that many of the volunteers are somewhat frustrated by the lack of a proper structure?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness. I have asked the Manpower Services Commission to let me have proposals for tackling this problem, but I wish to make very clear the problem that we are discussing. It is the problem of illiteracy and innumeracy among the long-term unemployed. But despite all the great achievements of the Manpower Services Commission, I do not think we could put it at their door to solve any other problems of illiteracy and innumeracy.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that many further education courses are very difficult to follow if one is basically innumerate or illiterate, and that embarrassment sometimes causes people to drop out of courses midway for that very reason?

Lord Young of Graffham

Yes, my Lords. That is the reason these proposals are quite serious for the long-term unemployed; why we are hoping to learn more about them; and why I hope, in the fullness of time, to have proposals for tackling the problem.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that there will be a general welcome for some constructive approach to the problems outlined by the noble Baroness who asked the original Question, and that I for one would certainly welcome an extension of training in that area? Can he give me some clarification on one point? If a man or a woman who is long-term unemployed accepts such a course, or any other course, and there is no job at the end of that course—I am assuming that during the period of the course such a person is, under the new rules, not available for work—will he or she revert to the normal unemployment register, as opposed to being long-term unemployed?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, we must take into account the nature of the course. I suspect that most literacy and numeracy courses would be part-time courses and would result in the individual not going off the register at all. Therefore if he or she were long-term unemployed, he or she would continue to be long-term unemployed. On the other hand, if it were a skills course which was a full-time occupation of sufficient duration and was perceived to be such, people would go off the register and, in those circumstances, after the six-months' course at the skillcentre would go back on the register—if he or she was unfortunate enough not to find a job—as a new unemployed person and not as a long-term unemployed person. That has always been the rule, but only in those circumstances.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, is it not the case that the noble Lord the Minister informed us very recently that the questionnaire to be submitted to the long-term unemployed is a questionnaire to take away and fill in? In those circumstances, can he kindly tell us how many questions are on this questionnaire to be answered by those people who unfortunately cannot read any of the questions?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. In fact, I read out each and every question to your Lordships' House at the time of making the Statement. There are 12 questions. It is a slightly different point, but they cover no more than, "What was your last job? What is the next job that you are looking for? What was your last salary? What sort of salary are you looking for? What hours can you work each day?" Where someone is illiterate, I have no doubt that the officer of the benefit service dealing with the case can help the person fill in the questionnaire at the time, but there are circumstances in which people can take it away and bring it back next day. But I say again that there is no sense of deterrence in the report. It is to ensure that everybody knows that since 1948, and reaffirmed in 1975 legislation, benefit is only for those who are available for work.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, will the Secretary of State confirm that there are now waiting lists of long-term unemployed who are anxious to remedy their lack of the basic skills referred to in the original Question? Does his encouraging Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, indicate that the Government are willing to provide any additional resources that are needed to meet the demand?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I think that we should not take this too far too soon. What we have seen from the first few months' operation of the Restart programme is that there could well be a problem of innumeracy and illiteracy among the long-term unemployed. I have asked the Manpower Services Commission to let me have proposals for tackling this problem. I think that we should wait to see, first, the extent of the problem, and, secondly, what those proposals are before we start making any other suggestions.

3.27 p.m.