HL Deb 22 June 1989 vol 509 cc367-405

House again in Committee.

Clause 9 [Extension to personal pensions of occupational pension provisions relating to the abatement of unemployment benefit and the meaning of "earnings']:

Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 10:

Page 9, line 28, at end insert— ("( ) The level at which occupational and personal pensions is subject to abatement of unemployment benefit shall be reviewed annually by the Secretary of State, the figure then being uprated in accordance with the Retail Price Index.").

The noble Baroness said: This is a fairly simple amendment, and I believe quite a modest one as well. The Committee will recall that, when we had a discussion in this Chamber on the last Social Security Bill, we had before us the proposition, which is now enshrined in legislation, that people who at the age of 55 and over received an occupational pension of between £35 and £66 per week would have entitlement to unemployment pay abated until the level of £66 a week was reached. It was felt that a person receiving a pension had no need for a total unemployment entitlement, despite the fact that many such people would regard themselves as available for work and still a part of the workforce.

We lost out on our amendments on that occasion with the result that that proposition is now a part of legislation. But it seems to me that the injustice continues in that the levels of pension, from £35 to £66 per week, have remained the same since 1981. In this Bill the Government are extending the arrangements in respect of occupational pensioners to people who have personal private pensions. In other words, making matters level between those who have occupational pensions from a collective scheme and those who have taken out individual private personal pensions.

Nevertheless, the £35 to £66 has remained the same since 1981 and that seems to be an injustice. All that we are suggesting in this amendment—agreeing, perhaps, that one cannot go back over the past—is that the figures should be up-rated regularly by the Secretary of State in line with the retail prices index. That would still mean that people who reach the age of 55 and had either occupational pension or personal pension provision would have their entitlement to unemployment pay abated. However, it would at least attempt to make a little more justice in that the figures would not be kept at the low 1981 level. There would be some alleviation because they would be increased in line with the retail prices index. That would be done on a regular basis.

I am not saying that the wording of the amendment is perfect. We on these Benches want to see the Minister's response to our submissions. I well remember that, when we had discussion in the Chamber on the last Social Security Bill with regard to this issue, there were a number of Committee Members who agreed that the £35-£66 should be reconsidered in line with the retail prices index, and they were not all on this side of the Chamber. In the light of that point, I hope that the Minister will feel disposed to look with some favour upon the principle of the amendment, even if he does not like the wording very much. I beg to move.

Lord Stallard

I think that the proposals in the Bill are much worse than that now, and certainly merit the reconsideration for which my noble friend has asked. Not only does the proposal now apply to unemployed people, but, as I understand it, under the 1988 Act, the age has been reduced to 55, so that is five years less. That was in an attempt to include women. We had to make sure that we catch everyone in the £35 cut-off.

As has already been said, the £35 limit has been here since 1980–81. If it were to be increased now and brought up, as it should be, into line wih inflation or whatever, it would now be about £80. That represents a tremendous difference for people in those circumstances. A person must be in those circumstances before that can happen to him. It is happening to people at that earlier age, before they have qualified for the retirement pension, if they receive a fairly small occupational pension. So many people will be put to even more hardship with regard to their benefit income.

The cruel thing is that, in the main, these are people who have accepted the Government's advice to take out personal pensions and to go in for all these plans. We have all been snowed under with applications from every insurance company in the country, and abroad, requesting us to take out a personal pension plan. No one said that, if one takes out a plan, is thrifty enough, sacrifices enough and puts in enough money so that one receives a reasonable sum from it, one must lose a pound for every pound of unemployment benefit. No one tells that to the people when they are sold those schemes. It is being kind to say that it is a cruel thing; it is almost a con trick to try to push people. People have been pushed. It is a fact of life that a contract of employment now almost always includes a requirement to join an occupational pension scheme. One would not get the job if one did not agree to join the scheme. Those are the changes that have taken place. As soon as one joins the scheme, if one receives more than £35, one stands the risk of having one's benefit abated. That is the new word for "deducted" or "reduced". We now call it an abatement. It is a particularly unfortunate proposal.

I believe that the amendment is very mild. We are merely asking for the figure to be up-rated. I think that we should ask for the whole thing to be abolished, or at least not accepted, but it is too late now; as my noble friend said, it is water under the bridge. However, there is nothing to prevent the Government complying with this simple, modest amendment and at least to up-date the figure by the amount of inflation in the retail prices index.

I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the effects and implications of the measure on the people who can least afford it. Those people are already down when this happens to them and cannnot take much more. The least that the Minister can do is to recommed to whomsoever it concerns that we should increase the figure in line with the retail prices index.

Lord Skelmersdale

I think that there has been a slight misunderstanding concerning the basis of the amendment. I welcomed the assertion of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, that she would not rake over the cold coals of last year's Bill, which is the 1988 Act. That did not last very long because she went on to refer to it, not at some length, but certainly in a significant portion of her speech, as did the noble Lord, Lord Stallard.

As the noble Baroness said,it is a fact that anyone who qualifies for unemployment benefit can receive his benefit in full along with an occupational or personal pension of up to £35 a week. When his pension exceeds £35, unemployment benefit is abated at the rate of lop for each lop of pension. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, must accept that anyone who is on unemployment benefit and has an occupational pension is always better off than someone who is on unemployment benefit without an occupational pension under the current law. In order to bring parity into the situation, it was felt right that at this stage we should take up—as the noble Baroness said on Second Reading—an idea produced by the Opposition in connection with last year's Bill to bring in the clause and to put personal pensions on the same basis as occupational pensions.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Stallard

Perhaps the noble Lord will give way. I follow his reasons, but is he in fact saying that this deduction is really a tax on thrift? Of course a person who only has unemployment benefit is worse off than someone who also has an occupational pension. Is the noble Lord then saying that one should not have an occupational pension beyond a certain amount; if so, we shall take some of it back? Are the Government saying that one should not be thrifty? That is a strange policy for a government which are pushing occupational pensions.

Lord Skelmersdale

I was not saying quite that. The noble Lord made the point that these are very poor people, and I was responding by saying that they are less poor than some of the poorer people to whom is rightfully given their contributory unemployment benefit. I do not intend—and I do not think that noble Lords would expect me—to go into the arguments that we adduced in connection with last year's Bill.

Currently, some benefit remains payable up to the point at which the pension exceeds £91 a week for a person with a dependant, and £69.70 a week for a single person. Each year, unemployment benefit is up-rated in line with the retail prices index and—I think that this is where the confusion arises—everyone in receipt of benefit, including those with occupational pensions as high as £91 per week for a couple receives the full value of that increase. In addition, because the effect of the up-rating raises the upper level at which unemployment benefit is finally extinguished, each year a small number of people with occupational pensions which are marginally higher than the maximum level begin to receive some benefit.

The effect of this amendment will be to provide an enhancement to the annual up-rating for this specific group of unemployment benefit recipients. The Government's aim is to ensure that available resources are concentrated on those areas of greatest need. I cannot accept that it is right to use those limited resources on a group which already enjoys the support which a substantial occupational or personal pension provides.

I hope that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness will accept that those people who have part of their unemployment benefit abated gain each year from the rise in benefit rates. Therefore I hope that they will not see fit to press the amendment.

Baroness Turner of Camden

I find that a rather unsatisfactory response. The noble Lord is saying that the unemployment pay is up-rated, which of course everyone understands. But that is not what we are talking about. We are speaking of people who have made a contribution and, as a result of that contribution, receive either a private personal pension or the benefit of an occupational pension.

I understand that in 1981 the amounts were set at £35 to £66 for a single person. Those figures of £35 and £66 have not been up-rated since 1981. For the life of me I cannot understand why it should be thought that they should not now be reconsidered. Since 1981 there has been a substantial increase in the cost of living yet those basic pension figures have not been up-rated. It seems to me that unemployment pay, for which people pay contributions, is a quite separate issue from either a private personal pension or an occupational pension to which people have also contributed.

This often concerns people who have voluntarily taken redundancy and as a result have a lower pension than otherwise they would expect to receive. They still regard themselves as part of the labour market and are looking for work, and so on. That is the argument that we had the last time round on the 1988 Bill. I do not want to repeat the arguments that were produced on that Bill. From what the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, had to say, it is clear that on this side of the House we still feel quite angry about the way in which it was decided to take account of those small pensions when assessing entitlement, and thus take many more people off the unemployment register. However I cannot see any argument for resisting my suggestion about up-rating figures that were regarded as all right in 1981, which is so many years ago. I just do not understand the argument at all.

I cannot accept what the noble Lord has said. At this hour of the night I shall not press the amendment; but I shall certainly think further about it and consider whether to bring it back again on Report. With those remarks, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Unemployment benefit: requirement to seek employment actively]:

Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 11: Page 9, line 40, leave out ("actively").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I should also like to speak to the other amendments in the group; namely, Amendments Nos. 14, 17 and 18. With these amendments, we come to what I would describe as the centre or core of this Bill: the provision that the Government now seek to introduce that people applying for and receiving unemployment pay should actively be seeking work.

The Government's White Paper Employment for the 1990s acknowledges that most benefit claimants are keen to work but then argues that a significant minority lacks motivation and is not actively seeking work. It is suggested that some of those people may be claiming benefit fraudulently and not be available for work at all. However, even if they are looking for work the White Paper seems to imply that many claimants do not pursue vacancies with enough frequency, energy and determination.

As was said at the Second Reading debate, a number of noble Lords on this side of the House believe that the existing law on availability is already fairly stringent. As the law stands, availability is not a passive state. According to social security commissioners' decisions, which are now regarded as basic instructions to officials who apply the guidelines, it is for the claimant to prove his availability for work on each of the days for which benefit is claimed, and that some active steps are being taken by the person concerned to draw attention to his availability. I repeat, that is not a passive state.

According to instructions given to supervisors in employment benefit offices: The question is not whether there is employment available for the claimant. It is whether the claimant is available for employment. If a doubt arises, the employment service will make enquiries to ascertain what active steps the claimant has taken to draw attention to his unemployment and his professed availability".

As was said at Second Reading, all new claimants are now requested to complete a form which is a very lengthy questionnaire designed to test their availability for work. From April 1989 this system will be administered by new client advisers. Claimants going to a restart interview now every six months are also required to fill in a further detailed questionnaire about their availability. It is quite clear that there is a substantial degree of monitoring taking place already in regard to people who are claiming unemployment pay.

Why therefore are the Government introducing this new wording? It seemś to us on these Benches that there can only be one objective, which is to try to ensure that people are forced into employment that is lower paid than they would want or for which they are qualified, and that to some extent they are harassed into jobs which are not suitable (and we shall talk about appropriate or suitable employment when we come to discuss other amendments). That seems to be quite unsatisfactory.

According to the Financial Memorandum attached to the Bill, the Government aim to save £100 million in a full year. It is therefore quite clear that they expect that certain people who are currently able to claim benefit will not be able to obtain benefit in the future. I do not think that there is any real evidence that a lot of fraudulent claiming is going on; nor do I think that there is much evidence that people who have been unemployed for quite a long time are not seeking work and do not want to obtain work. In fact all the evidence appears to point in the opposite direction. With those comments, I beg to move.

Earl Russell

Members of the Committee may know from that great work of history, 1066 And All That. of the form to be filled up at Warwick the Kingmaker's, which included the proposition that no one is ever really king but Edward Mortimer ought to be. Should one compose a similar document for social security? I suspect that it might be one of the rules that none of us is ever quite right but Mr. Frank Field ought to be.

I have been much impressed by the argument deployed by the honourable gentleman in another place. I agree with what he said. There is no objection in principle to the argument that the unemployed who are claiming benefit should be actively seeking work. The concern is about the measure in this Bill, put forward in this way, in this context. Even if one supposes that there may be such persons as work-shy people, it is not the major problem. Nothing is done at the moment to address the problem of the unwillingness of employers to consider applications from the long-term unemployed. Were the Minister to give us an assurance that either in an employment Bill or in a future social security Bill we may find some attention given to that question, it could be a great deal of help to us.

Another matter that concerns me arises from the propaganda in favour of this Bill. It has given the impression that it might be possible to blame the unemployed for the amount of unemployment. Unemployment is a state for which, when it happens, a great many people find it tempting to blame themselves because that makes the situation explicable. Society finds it tempting to accept that explanation. In this context unemployment has perhaps a certain similarity with rape because there the victim is tempted to assume the blame and society is tempted to complicity in that assumption. Therefore to suggest that the unemployed should be pushed into putting in more applications because they might be to blame themselves is a little like an enactment that ladies who have been the victims of rape should be made to wear skirts two inches longer than everybody else. I can imagine the reactions to such a proposal.

If this requirement—which in itself is not necessarily bad—is to go forward, it should be put in a rather different context. There should be more attempts to persuade employers to take on the long-term unemployed. There should be more willingness to recognise that unemployment is not normally the fault of those who suffer it. A great deal of thought must be given to how the clause is to be administered.

I am deeply grateful to the Minister for the copy of the regulations. I have found that they have relieved some of my misgivings. I am very glad to read them. It seems to me that the Minister is still on a fork with this Bill. Either he administers it in a humane way, in which case it will not change very much. It will not produce a substantial reduction in the number of claimants. Alternatively, he administers it in a harsh way, reduces the number of claimants and produces a great deal of injustice. I do not see any way in which the Minister can get off that fork. If there is one I shall be glad to hear of it.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may put this point to him. All that is required is that employers should notify the Jobcentre of all vacant posts. People who are unemployed should be sent from the Jobcentre for posts for which they are qualified. We do not need this battle that seems to be going on about whether or not people are actively seeking work. What should be required is that they conform to the rules that exist. These provide that they have to take jobs which are offered them and for which they are qualified or they lose their benefit. The Government could move in that direction instead of the way in which they are moving. Why are the Government not tackling the problem in that way?

Lord Stallard

I support these amendments. I shall not go over the arguments or the points that I raised on Second Reading. As has already been said, we consider that the word "actively" is unnecessary having regard to the various restrictions that already exist. I pointed them out at Second Reading. I do not wish to repeat them now. They are sufficient.

In moving the amendment, the noble Baroness pointed to the fact that the chief adjudication officer has judged that it is not in a passive state that a person makes himself available. He has to take active steps. The Government have then said that the phrase "active steps" has not been defined. There is then another form to fill in with 18 questions. Applicants have to have another interview to prove such active steps and to give the local adjudication officer time to judge whether or not the steps that have been taken have been active. Everything is in place to make sure that these work-shy individuals—as we are led to believe most of them are—are actively seeking work.

We on this side have never sought to defend work-shy individuals or to say that they should be other than actively engaged in seeking work. In fact it was an Act of a Labour Government that introduced most of these measures to ensure that people were actively seeking employment. It has also been said that it is not just the fact that people will have these restrictions placed on them but that, on top of these restrictions, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has pointed out, the employers place another one. Employers will not interview, let alone employ, the long-term unemployed. Employers put all the barriers up for interviewing long-term unemployed people. There are many obstacles in the way of such people. Employers who sit in this Chamber will recognise, and probably admit, that fact.

I understand that in a survey, out of a number of employers in this country who were asked, 50 per cent. said that they would not interview or employ the long-term unemployed for a variety of reasons. That is an area which can be looked at.

The noble Lord, Lord Pitt, has mentioned discrimination. The jobs that might be suitable, or could be made available, to long-term or other unemployed people, do not always go to the Jobcentre. They are advertised in elite journals which people who are unemployed could not buy anyway. Therefore they may have no access to jobs that might be available, or for which they could apply, because they are not told about them, and the posts are not available at the Jobcentre. That is another hindrance that is put in the way of people who are looking for work.

I read in a magazine recently the implication that the unemployed get used to living on the dole. They find out that the benefits are an adequate income on which to live. That is an insult to most of the genuinely unemployed whom I know. These are people who are eating their hearts out to obtain a job. They will go to any lengths to obtain a job. I mean that. They will travel miles in search of work. People come to London to find work but discover that if they get a job they cannot find somewhere to live. All these problems are on top of the unemployment, both short and long-term. Nothing is being done about that. Yet we are constantly adding to all the other measures that exist already to make sure that these fellows are actively seeking work.

We are already doing all that is necessary to make sure that such people are actively seeking employment. What we are not doing is to make sure that jobs that they could do are actively available for people who are seeking them, as well as the housing facilities if they are fortunate enough to obtain a job. I support the amendment.

Lord Mottistone

Looking around the Chamber, I might be the only one who has been unemployed in his time. What I do not understand is why noble Lords opposite are homing in on the word "actively". Why is that so important? From what the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, has just been saying, most of the people I know are actively seeking work, so why take exception to it? It seems to me that the amendment picks out a particular qualification which does not need amendment. People actively seek a job. They do not naturally take a position of this kind. It is possible that after a time they get terribly weary about seeking a job, but they are still potentially able actively to do so. The paper which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I have had from my noble friend on the Front Bench talks about the steps to be taken. They are all logical steps and that is what I understand the word "actively" to mean.

I do not believe that this is one of the words in the Bill that is worth attacking, because we are all agreed that the people concerned will seek work to the best of their ability and the word might just as well sit in the Bill.

Lord Stallard

The Government are not agreed. That is why we have put the amendment down. I am saying that people are actively seeking work and the noble Lord is saying the same. We know that most people are indeed actively seeking work, so why put the word in? If it is not there, we still understand what it means—

Lord Mottistone

Why not?

Lord Stallard

Because if one can say, "We do not think—and we have found some obscure regulation—that you have actively sought work last week: we are suspending your benefit", that will happen. A survey was taken of 1,000 appeals against suspension of benefit and 17:1 were found to be in error, but the benefit had been suspended. It can take anything from three to nine months to have that benefit re-instated. If it is re-instated, the fellow has won his case, but that is a long time, just because somebody said "We do not think you were actively seeking work". He was proved wrong at the end and we were right, but it has cost that man a lot of hardship and distress for himself, his wife and his family just because that word does not have to be there.

Earl Russell

I wonder whether I could ask the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, a very brief question? I take the points that he is making. What gets under the skin of a number of us on this side of the House is the imputation of the moral guilt of the unemployed. If we on this side of the House withdrew our opposition to the word "actively", would the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, join in trying to persuade the Government that one cannot explain unemployment by blaming the unemployed?

Lord Mottistone

We must not spend too long on this amendment. I shall talk to the noble Earl outside.

Lord Skelmersdale

Do I recognise the declaration of a truce between the noble Earl and my noble friend?

The current position, as I explained in one of my recent letters to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is that claimants are required simply to be available for work. Without rehearsing all that I said in that letter, it is a fact that commissioners' case law allows that a claimant can establish his availability by doing no more than attending a Jobcentre. Existing legislation, therefore, does not ensure that unemployment claimants should actually look for jobs.

Availability for work, which would be the formulation left in the Bill were the amendment to be accepted by the Committee, does not embody a sufficiently strong element of positive action on the part of claimants to fit with the current labour situation. There are jobs to be had, but there is no explicit requirement for claimants to seek them out and secure them.

It is against that background that we have sought to include the word "actively" in the clause. There has been a little discussion between my noble friend Lord Mottistone and the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, in particular, on their belief that to a great extent people do actively seek work. Yes, I agree, but we have discovered from interviews by the counsellors in the Jobcentres that there are those who readily admit that they have not been actively seeking work. Therein lies the problem. If there are not as many as we believe there are, clearly we shall not make the savings to which noble Lords and the noble Baroness referred and which are mentioned in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum.

We think that it is right that a claimant should be able to show that he has taken step commensurate with his skills and experience, as well as relevant to the local labour market, in order to find work. If we did away with this word "actively", that sentence would be agreed by all members of the Committee. A person in that position should not simply sit back and wait for someone to offer him a job, nor should he make half-hearted or bogus attempts based merely on his wish to continue to receive benefit. He should continually be considering how best to find work and be ready to pursue every opening to this end that is reasonable in his case.

Do noble Lords really believe that it is acceptable that unemployed people should just wait for a job to materialise? I cannot believe that that is their position. The unemployed must look for work—how else can they find it? And they must expect in return for benefit to look vigorously and repeatedly. It has been said before—and I say it again now—that it is a claimant's responsibility to find work. Taking responsibility in this way is a positive move, an active move, towards securing independence. It is a way of taking control of one's own destiny and I am sure we agree on the importance of this.

Of course we must help those who need it to find work. That was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, and by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Clearly putting pressure on employers, as the noble Earl suggested, is not right for a social security Bill, but it might be right in certain circumstances for an employment Bill. I take his point on that. The noble Earl will know that there is an employment Bill just around the corner. He might like to consider amending that perhaps in the way he desires. However, having said that, the Government take every opportunity to change employers' attitudes towards unemployed people. Noble Lords will have read my right honourable friend's recent White Paper Employment for the 1990s in which that is stressed very strongly.

There are barriers both of prejudice and lack of knowledge to overcome. We believe that the best way to overcome these barriers is not by legislation but by encouraging and persuading employers to amend their personnel policies where necessary. When taking details of vacancies Jobcentre staff—which is another way we attack this problem—try to persuade employers not to impose often arbitrary and usually unnecessary and pointless restrictions on the type of candidate they will consider. They try to convince employers that many unemployed people have valuable qualities and experience to offer. We all agree with that.

Of course we must help those who need it to find work. This is a role which the employment service carries out on a day to day basis. It will continue to offer advice in future to unemployed people and indeed adapt it to the new environment of the actively seeking work test. The employment service will certainly offer a claimant a job where it can and this will be a test of the individual's willingness to work. However, it does not test whether someone is doing all that he should himself to look for work. This is what we want to achieve.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, mentioned following up opportunities advertised in newspapers, for example. There is nothing unreasonable about that proposal. Indeed we have taken great pains to ensure that the provision is applied flexibly and fairly. When it comes to the regulations-making stage that will be quite apparent.

We intend to require that a claimant should take the type of steps which are likely to lead to the kind of employment which he has a prospect of securing and which are reasonable in his case bearing in mind a number of factors. What he will need to do will thus vary from claimant to claimant. This flexibility and sensitivity to circumstances is vital. Noble Lords who spoke on Second Reading have received a note summarising what we envisage that the regulations will say. A copy of that note is incidentally in the Library. These amendments strike at the heart of a measure which has considerable support in the country and for which there is every justification.

I do not think that I can productively say any more in answer to the group of amendments proposed by the noble Baroness.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

I do not believe that the Minister has anwered me. I put to him a method of dealing with this matter and I do not believe that it has been sufficiently explored. It is all very well for the Minister to say that the Jobcentre will inform the unemployed person of vacancies. I am suggesting a way in which the Government can make sure that unemployed people are aware of vacancies which exist in a particular area. It is by making arrangements for employers to inform the Jobcentre of all vacancies. That may well require regulations but I do not believe so. An agreement is required with the employers that that should be done. If such an agreement is reached, then whenever an unemployed person goes to a Jobcentre it can say where there are jobs. If there are no jobs, so be it.

At present, the Government are asking an unemployed man to spend a lot of money travelling around looking for jobs. That is not fair. On the other hand, if there are jobs which are available through a centre, there is a way of making sure that the unemployed person knows about them and a way for authority enforcing the requirement that he accepts jobs suitable for his qualifications. That is where attention should be focused. I am not satisfied from the Minister's answer that he sees the position in that way. I believe that it is a way of dealing with the matter.

Baroness Turner of Camden

I have listened with interest to what the Minister said and I found it disappointing. He described what is happening now. If that is so, what is the necessity for a change in the wording as proposed in the Bill?

As I said on Second Reading, in the 1920s we had a similar definition; a "genuinely seeking work" definition. However, that test lasted only a few years because there was widespread opposition to it. People felt that they were being pressurised, that they were expected to look for work where plainly there was none and that the required tests were not satisfactory and humane. As a result a committee investigated the matter and in 1930 it recommended that the test be abandoned. It appears that in this form of wording we are going back to pre-1930. I find that to be quite unsatisfactory.

I do not accept what the Minister said because, if we are concerned only with making sure that people are trying to obtain work, such provision already exists. The "availability for work" test is no passive test. There are commissioners' decisions which make sure that people must fill in forms and state what they have done and intended to do, and there is restart counselling. There is plenty of monitoring of the unemployed. There are different situations in different regions. In some regions, no matter how you try, it may be difficult to find work. In other regions the situation might be entirely different.

There is also the demoralising effect on the unemployed when they live in a region with a high level of unemployment and are expected to make masses of applications in the hope of obtaining a favourable response in order to qualify for unemployment pay. For all those reasons I feel disposed to press my amendment even at this late hour of the night.

9.4 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 11) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 21; Not-Contents, 49.

Addington, L. Kilmarnock, L.
Buckmaster, V. McNair, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.] Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Russell, E.
David, B. Seear, B.
Dean of Beswick, L. Stallard, L. [Teller.]
Dormand of Easington, L. Tordoff, L.
Hirshfield, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Jeger, B. Underhill, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. White, B.
Kagan, L.
Arran, E. Hemphill, L.
Beloff, L. Henley, L.
Belstead, L. Hives, L.
Blatch, B. Home of the Hirsel, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Hooper, B.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Johnston of Rockport, L.
Buckinghamshire, E. Long, V.
Caithness, E. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Monk Bretton, L.
Carnock, L. Mottistone, L.
Colville of Culross, V. Mountevans, L.
Colwyn, L. Norfolk, D.
Craigmyle, L. Renton, L.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Dormer, L. Seebohm, L.
Dundee, E. Selborne, E.
Eden of Winton, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Strathclyde, L.
Faithfull, B. Swinton, E.
Ferrers, E. Trafford, L.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Trefgarne, L.
Glenarthur, L. Trumpington, B.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Whitelaw, V.
Harvington, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

9.13 p.m.

Baroness Seear moved Amendment No. 12: Page 9, line 41, at end insert ("or is undertaking a course of training or education designed to improve the prospect of securing employment").

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of this amendment is to improve upon the existing position, where at present, if someone is undertaking training or education for more than 21 hours per week, he is not eligible for unemployment benefit.

Having regard to the grossly under-trained nature of the labour force, and also having regard to the fact that people who are unemployed can greatly enhance opportunities for obtaining work if they are trained and obtain qualifications or are well on the way towards obtaining qualifications, it seems only sensible to remove that limitation on the amount of time which can be spent in taking courses by removing the disqualification implied in the existing regulations. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

I wish I could be as brief as was the noble Baroness in moving the amendment but I am afraid I have a lot which I ought to say.

I am grateful, in speaking in response to this group of amendments, to have an opportunity to applaud the efforts of many hundreds of people engaged in voluntary work and to acknowledge the efforts of those who are striving to learn new skills to enhance their employment prospects. As regards people on courses of training and education, it is more than commendable that unemployed people spend their time usefully and perhaps gain qualifications which might help them to find work.

The current position is that an unemployed claimant can receive benefit while he is studying or training, provided he is still available for work. To qualify for benefit at present he needs to show that his commitment to the cause does not prevent him going to job interviews or taking up immediately any suitable job offers, which, of course, at present he does not have to seek actively. Once he finds a job he must accept it or risk a benefit penalty.

The amendment proposed by the noble Baroness would have the effect of enabling a person who is training or studying to carry on doing so despite having found a job, despite having accepted the job and simultaneously to receive unemployment benefit. I do not believe that that can be right.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Carter

I have my name to Amendment No. 20, which is grouped with the amendment moved. It would be helpful if the noble Lord could confirm the point about voluntary work. I had a letter from him only this morning and had I received it earlier I should not have needed to table the amendment. Will the noble Lord confirm that where a person is engaged in voluntary work that will be taken as evidence that he is available for and actively seeking work? If that is the case, I shall not need to move Amendments Nos. 20 and 21.

Lord Skelmersdale

As I said in the communications to which I have already referred, I cannot countenance an exemption of voluntary workers from the need to seek work actively per se. However, I do regard it as reasonable for the adjudication officer, when considering whether a claimant has taken reasonable steps to seek work, to take account of the voluntary work undertaken. I think that is the confirmation that the noble Lord seeks.

Baroness Seear

I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter, though not necessarily in the terms of this amendment. The noble Lord has agreed that it is highly desirable that people should undertake training and that any obstacles that are put in the way should be discouraged, not only from the point of view of the individuals concerned but because we urgently need to train more people. The 21-hour limit is an unfortunate block.

I see the point about the need to be available for work, but would it not be possible for an amendment to be produced at a later stage which would embody the intention to encourage people to take on serious training while meeting the requirement that if a job comes along they can take it? I cannot see any difficulty in that. There are various ways to meet the problem. Training can be terminated or continued on a part-time basis. An arrangement can be made with the employer to have daytime release. There are many ways of getting round the problem.

If the amendment as it stands is unsuitable but the Government sympathise with its objectives, would it not be possible to find a way to overcome the objections? That would achieve the aim of getting more people trained. The noble Lord is aware that one of the discouragements in the employment training scheme, for example, is that there is not much money in it. People do not take up training because it is not worth it. We want to make training more worth while for the people who undertake it. If this conflicts with existing regulations, can we not see whether there is a way in which the aim of the amendment can be served while meeting the objections put forward by the noble Lord?

Lord Skelmersdale

We all agree with the need for training and the need to encourage training, but I am not sure that it is right to achieve this desirable end through the mechanism of the Social Security Bill and in the context of unemployment benefit. Having said that, I will most certainly take up the request put by the noble Baroness and have this matter studied much more fully than it has been.

Baroness Seear

In the light of that relatively encouraging response, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Faithfull moved Amendment No. 13:

Page 9, line 41, at end insert— ("( ) Regulations shall provide that if a person is deemed not to be actively seeking work he shall be given written notice of not less than three weeks, by a duly authorised person, before his benefit is withdrawn. At the same time, he should be informed of the appeal procedure.").

The noble Baroness said: The grouping for this amendment includes Amendments Nos. 16 and 22. Personally, I do not agree with Amendment No. 22 being grouped with Amendments Nos. 13 and 16. Therefore I propose, in moving Amendment No. 13, to speak also to Amendment No. 16 only. I move this amendment as a social worker. When a man falls out of work, or his benefit is stopped without warning, it causes tremendous family problems. Having worked in social services, when you are presented on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday—mostly a Saturday or a Sunday—with a crisis situation in the family, you cannot do what is best for that family. You cannot have a programme of preventive work.

I ask the Minister whether in regulations it would be possible, when a crisis has occurred and benefit is likely to be withdrawn, for the local authority social services department to be notified so that it may help the man and the family and not take the children into care. Would it also be possible through regulations to work out a preventive programme with the family?

In addition, as regards regulations, will the man be notified of his right of appeal? In other areas of life, for example, in dealing with your bank, your account is not closed at once if you go into the red. You are given a good deal of warning. I am trying to remember when that last happened with me, but I cannot. At any rate, you do get a good deal of warning. I should not dream of pressing this amendment tonight because it is really a probing amendment for information.

I shall now speak to Amendment No. 16. It refers to people in whose family some rather serious event has occurred. It may be the death of a relative, a shock of some kind or even an accident. I believe it right that the man should be given three weeks' notice or some notice. The social services should be informed and the man asked to go to them for help and for a preventive programme to be worked out for the family. As regards these two amendments I am taking into account the whole family situation. One cannot look simply at the man: one must look also at his wife, the children and the family situation. At the end of the day, if a preventive programme can be arranged for that family, then the local authority, the state and the family will be saved a great deal of expense. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

I want to try to kill three birds with one stone and to speak to all three of the amendments in this grouping. I wish to take them in the order of Amendments Nos. 13, 22 and 16. I can add very little to what the noble Baroness has said as regards Amendment No. 13. I would hesitate to describe anything that happens to a person on social security benefit as a bolt from the blue, but at least deprivation of benefit may be a bolt from the pale grey. I believe that deprivation of benefit is a severe penalty and it may have serious effects. They may be much more easily avoided if there is some degree of notice to give time to find a lost aunt in Dover, to appeal to a charity or to do any of the things that may occur to the person in question.

I believe that this amendment may save trouble in the long run. It may even produce a net benefit to public funds. It is a key point of Amendment No. 13 that it provides for giving the person notice of his right of appeal. Therefore it seems to be logically linked with Amendment No. 22. Amendment No. 13 specifies that there should be 21 days' notice and Amendment No. 22 specifies that the appeal should be heard within 14 days. The Minister may wish to object to the time. However, there is scope for adjustment. What matters about the grouping of the two amendments is that the time allowed for the appeal should be shorter than the time elapsing before the deprivation of benefit. Some appeals are successful, and I do not see why people should suffer the severe penalty of deprivation of benefit for a cause which turns out on appeal to be unjustified.

Amendment No. 16 seeks to allow for special circumstances. As my noble friend Lady Seear said at Second Reading, it is a little unreasonable to expect people to go from the graveside to the Jobcentre. This amendment makes it possible to allow discretion for a small pause to recover breath in that journey when it is necessary to do so. It allows scope for exercising discretion about, for example, the effects of marital breakdown, or in the case of someone recovering from drug dependence or alcohol abuse, or recovering from the common situation which we were discussing yesterday of having to care for a dying relative. It lasts only for a defined period. If accepted, the amendment will make re-entry into employment a great deal easier and thereby improve people's chances of coming off benefit, something which should be welcomed in all quarters of the Committee.

Lord Seebohm

I agree entirely that one has to be responsible in matters of unemployment and the working of the system. I support the three amendments because unemployment is a horrible thing. As far as possible the system must try to preserve a human face. That is all the amendments seek to do. They do not make any great changes but seek to make the system a little more human.

Baroness Turner of Camden

I have little to add to what has already been said in support of the amendments except that we on these Benches thoroughly support them. We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, that they give the Bill a more human face. It is compassionate to ensure that people are notified if their benefit is to be withdrawn and also that at the same time they are informed about how they should set about making an appeal. That is important to people in these circumstances.

This links with Amendment No. 22 because the appeal itself should be heard with all possible speed. Such people will not be well off or they would not be in this situation. The withdrawal of benefit can be a severe blow to them. For these reasons I support the amendments and commend them to the Committee. I hope that the Minister may feel disposed, if not to accepting them as they are worded, then at least to accept the feeling behind them. If he does not accept the wording perhaps he will come back with his own wording at Report stage.

Baroness Blatch

I rise tentatively to take a different view on the amendments. It is important to make the distinction between somebody who is not actively seeking work where the judgment made is a legitimate one and somebody in respect of whom an error has been made. That is why I have some sympathy with Amendment No. 22. Whether 14 days is the right amount of time I do not know, but where a judgment has been made that somebody who is unemployed has not actively been seeking work, it is important that the appeal should be heard and the judgment substantiated or not as soon as possible. I hope that there will be some sympathy for the proposal that the appeal should be heard quickly.

Where somebody is not actively seeking work we have to remind ourselves of the awful truth that all benefits—whether for the disabled or the unemployed—come from the taxes of both the rich and the relatively poor in society. We owe it to everybody to ensure that those taxes are deployed properly.

The Bill as drafted provides a disincentive for people to disregard the need actively to seek work if they are unemployed. I think that where such action is positively avoided, there must be some kind of sanction. If three weeks' notice is given, followed by an appeal procedure—despite all the problems as regards the family which has been referred to by my noble friend Lady Faithfull—I believe that the way to avoid such a situation would be for the person concerned actively to seek work. That point must be borne in mind.

There is a way of avoiding the grief which would be put upon a family as a result of someone not actively seeking work: the person must actively seek work. Where an error has been made, I am entirely sympathetic with the contents of Amendment No. 22. I am not sure whether the period of 14 days is right, but I think that appeals need to be read and heard very quickly so that the situation is properly clarified.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

I disagree with my noble friend. I think that these amendments are right in principle, although I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, that the wording could perhaps be improved. I think that the view just expressed by my noble friend is theoretical rather than practical. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will give sympathetic consideration to these amendments.

Baroness Faithfull

I should just like to make two points before the Minister replies. We are also discussing Amendment No. 22 here, and I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that I should perhaps have included that in my speech. My up-to-date information is that appeals take between three and four months to be heard. This is really a very serious matter. I wonder—as I wondered in connection with other matters—whether some provision could be made by way of regulation to cover this situation so that such appeals would be heard much quicker than they are at present.

I must also say that I disagree with my noble friend Lady Blatch. Obviously she has not worked in a social services department where she may well have been presented with a family who had no money and four children. In such a situation something must be done and done quickly. It is far better in such circumstances to have a little time to consider the matter and make proper plans.

Lord Renton

As regards Amendment No. 22, I am afraid that it is not practicable to suggest that the appeals must be heard within 14 days. Let us suppose that the chairman of the appeal tribunal is taken ill on the morning of the case. What will then happen? I appreciate that there must be some flexibility; but these cases should not take a long time. However, just to enact it like this, I am afraid, would not be workable.

Baroness Faithfull

I think that what my noble friend Lord Renton said is rather strange. I say that because in such a situation there would surely be a vice-chairman who could take over. For example, in a court case if the chairman of the Bench is not present then the number two on the Bench takes his place. Therefore, I am not sure whether my noble friend's argument holds water.

Lord Renton

That is so, if the person is available. However, that is not always the case.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am grateful to those Members of the Committee who tabled these amendments because they will enable me to clear quite a lot of ground work. They will also enable me to give a good explanation of how we see Clause 10 actually operating.

Amendment No. 13 allows a claimant a period of at least three weeks' grace between a decision that he is not actively seeking work and its implementation; in other words, the loss of his benefit. It also suggests that appeal rights be made known to the claimant when an adverse decision is given. I can dispose of that secondary matter very quickly. It is already standard practice that attention is drawn to the appeal procedure whenever an adverse decision is given, and that will continue.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked whether the right of appeal is notified when an adverse decision is given. The answer is, yes; that is already the situation and, again, it will continue so to be. I wonder whether Amendment No. 13 has its genesis in a misunderstanding. When the claimant first becomes unemployed and goes along to the unemployment benefit office, he will be interviewed by an executive officer known as the "new client adviser". The adviser will discuss a number of issues. If a claim for benefit is then made he will issue general advice about how to actively seek work. Additionally, he will suggest particular ways in which, taking into account the sort of job being sought and other factors, the claimant may show that he is actively seeking work.

If later the employment service wonders whether a claimant is doing sufficient to satisfy the condition, he will be interviewed once again. Further advice on what steps should be taken may be necessary. Following that interview, the employment service officer will write on the same day concerning the details of the discussion, reminding the claimant of the suggestions made for possible future steps. Additionally, the letter will contain a reminder that the claimant has actively to seek work to qualify for benefit. Those are facts which the complainant will already have taken firmly on board; in other words, the claimant will know and be reminded of what conditions he needs to fulfil to keep the benefit.

I stress that at that stage benefit has not been stopped. If, however, even after all that advice and reminder of the conditions for benefit, the claimant fails to take such steps as are reasonable in his case, the question would of course be put to the independent adjudication officer for a decision. Since by then there would be genuine doubt about a claimant's entitlement it would not be right to continue benefit and it would thus cease. However, the Committee will know that unemployment benefit is claimed and paid for a past period, so it is only a question of the immediate past period—in a typical case two weeks—that would be put to the adjudication officer. There is no question of payment for a future period being prevented. All the claimant has to do in subsequent weeks is to take sufficient steps, when his benefit will be paid once more.

Baroness Seear

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but he raised an important point when he said that the claimant would have warnings, meetings, discussions and so on and that the matter would then go to the adjudication officer. In view of all those warnings, it would be assumed, before the adjudication officer's decision, that the claimant was guilty because the penalty would be inflicted before the trial had been held. That is an odd reversal of justice. Surely the man is not guilty until the adjudication has been settled. It would be odd if a court inflicted a penalty before the case had been heard, which seems to be what happens here.

Lord Skelmersdale

No. If we felt that that was an appropriate thing to do we would not turn the matter over to the adjudication officer at all; we would let the claimant adviser judge the issue. I agree with the noble Baroness that that would be wrong.

The claimant adviser, about whom I have been talking, would interview once, twice or perhaps three times and would have a doubt. He will not be allowed under the terms of the Bill to resolve that doubt. He will have to put it to an independent adjudicator. I am sure that that is right, which is why we wish to proceed in that way.

We have taken care to ensure that claimants are treated reasonably under the measure. They are given advice, both general and specific, and on several occasions they are reminded of the conditions of benefit. If after all that there is still a question about whether they are seeking work then, I repeat, it will not be the counsellor who makes that decision; the matter will be referred to the adjudication officer.

Baroness Jeger

I wish to be clear. The Minister said that those people will be given advice and information. Will they be given benefit during all that procedure?

Lord Skelmersdale

They will continue to be given benefit until the adjudication officer has made up his mind, in which case, if he makes up his mind in favour of the claimant, unemployment benefit will continue for the past period, but if he makes an adverse decision, unemployment benefit will stop; but only for the period that I have described earlier. I hope that that helps the noble Baroness.

With regard to Amendment No. 16, I hope that it is clear from the notes that I have circulated to Members of the Committee that our watchword is flexibility. The steps to be taken by a claimant shall be such as are reasonable in his case. Account may be taken of a variety of factors. Job search may be undertaken in a number of ways. In certain circumstances claimants will be deemed to have satisfied the conditions. We shall have the chance to thrash out those issues when the regulations come before this place in due course for affirmative resolution.

The amendment is unnecessary. There is already the flexibility that I have outlined. By the same token, claimants will always have some action to take in the course of a week, even if only to check that the labour market situation is as it was when last investigated. However, it must be remembered that, just as the labour market does not stand still, so what is reasonable for a claimant to do will vary over time. As I have already explained, the claimant will be told of the ways of actively seeking work that are appropriate for him. If, either then or at a subsequent interview, or, for example, at a restart interview or another routine interview, a doubt arises about whether the claimant's job search is adequate, it will be the independent adjudication officer who will make the decision in this case.

I now turn to Amendment No. 22. There is currently no statutory time limit within which an appeal has to be heard by a tribunal. In practice, the time taken depends on a number of factors: for example, how long it takes for further investigations to be made on matters raised by the appeal; the length of time it takes the adjudication officer to prepare his formal submission to the tribunal; the time taken by the claimant to put in further evidence; and the administrative arrangements necessary to convene a tribunal and arrange a hearing. On that, I heard an interesting little interchange behind me. It involves, among other things, copying the appeal papers to the appellant and all the other parties to the proceedings and giving them the statutory 10 days' notice of the hearing. Therefore 14 days would be far too fast.

I think that the worry at the back of the minds of many Members of the Committee, especially that of my noble friend Lady Faithfull, is the financial situation of the families and children of unemployed men particularly, but of course it might be women. The unemployed person may be able to receive some money. There is currently a provision in income support legislation whereby a person who is required to be available for work but fails to show that he is so available can nevertheless receive benefit if he or his family would otherwise suffer hardship.

It is intended that income support legislation will in future provide for this arrangement also to apply to claimants who fail to show that they are actively seeking work. Thus it is not true that if people fail to satisfy the new condition they face destitution. Hardship payments of income support will be made, if appropriate.

Lastly, my noble friend Lady Faithfull asked whether local authority social services should or could be notified when the claimant is likely to lose benefit. No, I think it would be totally presumptive for the employment service to make the decision that, because a claimant was in danger of losing his benefit, his family was also at risk, for the reasons I have just given as regards the income support. It may be that the threat of loss of benefit results in the breadwinner getting a job, or he may have other ways of supporting his family. Far from providing help and reassurance, as my noble friend hopes, such a move could well increase family pressures at a most difficult time. Moreover—and I think this is equally important—it would require a breach of the rules of confidentiality, which I think no one would like.

I know that I have not done full justice to these amendments but I hope that I have been able to say enough to explain the Government's intentions in this area.

Lord Carter

Before the noble Lord sits down, can he say what are the circumstances where the threat of the loss of benefit could help a person to secure employment? Can he explain that? I did not understand it at all.

Lord Skelmersdale

It could be that the threat of loss of benefit results in the breadwinner getting a job. If the counsellor thinks that it is doubtful whether the claimant is actively seeking work, as I have explained, he will refer the matter to the adjudication officer. That already happens in other areas of unemployment benefit, as the noble Lord will know. We know from experience that sometimes this is just the extra push needed for the unemployed person to obtain a job. That was the point I was making. I assure the noble Lord that I was not being devious.

Baroness Seear

The noble Lord said that 14 days was far too short, and that may well be right. However, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said that her information was that the appeals often wait two to three months. That must surely be too long. Can the noble Lord tell us whether he has any information about what the median period is for an appeal to be heard? If so, and if it is as long as we have been told, surely it is worth while trying to make it a shorter period. No one should have to wait from two to three months, if that is the period of time involved. I have no idea what it is, but that was the period of time given to us.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

I agree with the noble Baroness that that is far too long. I am surprised that from two to three months is anything but an extreme length of time in particularly difficult circumstances. There is no reason why the period should be two to three months in the case of seeking work. I am advised that, on average, the period is 17 weeks. That is still not very good, but it is slightly better—

Noble Lords

That is more than four months!

Lord Skelmersdale

I am as horrified as the noble Baroness and other Members of the Committee are to learn that. I shall obviously have to cross-examine my advisers and find out what on earth is going on. I regard this as a very serious matter indeed.

Baroness Seear

As I was given that figure, I wish to put something on the record. I find it quite astonishing that the Department of Social Security has allowed that situation to continue without doing anything about it.

Baroness Faithfull

I wish to intervene in fairness to the advisers. The three to four-month period does apply. However, there has been a downward curve just lately.

Lord Skelmersdale

In defence of the department which I am proud to represent in this Chamber, I would say that the department itself does not organise appeals tribunals. Appeals tribunals come under the auspices of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. That is still no excuse, but it offers perhaps some excuse for officials who work so hard and so diligently in my own department.

While I am on my feet, I wish to correct something that I said in error earlier on the subject of when benefit ceases. After the claimant has received advice and warnings, if at a subsequent interview—which usually occurs, as I said, two weeks after the warning—he still appears not be actively seeking work, the matter will be put to the adjudication officer. Benefit will stop, pending that decision. I made an error on that subject, and I apologise to the Committee. I understand that I said that benefit would continue. However, that was wrong, and I apologise.

Baroness Seear

If the Minister was wrong about that, it is the case that the penalty is inflicted before the judgment, is it not? That seems to me an extraordinary way of conducting justice. That would not occur in a magistrates' court. Imagine fining a motorist for a parking offence and then taking him to court. Actually, that is a very bad example because if a parking offence has been committed that does occur.

Lord Skelmersdale

I still do not think that applies for the reason I tried to give to the Committee earlier; namely, that it is the adjudication officer who makes the decision. Once the matter is taken out of the adjudication officer's hands and goes on to further appeal through the social security system, that is a different matter. However, the matter is not prejudged in the sense that I believe the noble Baroness means. I shall have to study this exchange very carefully, and follow this up if I am wrong. However, I hope the noble Baroness and I are not talking at total cross-purposes, because neither of us would get any benefit—if I may use that word—from that.

Lord Trafford

I have listened to this exchange with interest and some fascination. Am I right in thinking that when a claimant is warned, and as that case goes to the adjudicator, the benefit ceases; but that if it is decided subsequently by the adjudicator that the warning was invalid, so to speak, the benefit is restored for that period of time? Then of course benefit will continue. If, however, the adjudicator decides that the claimant was unjustified, he does not get any benefit. The point which was discussed at cross purposes was that the decision is taken before the adjudicator has decided, and only if he decides in favour of the claimant is that period then restored to the claimant. I think that was the point that the noble Baroness and my noble friend on my right were raising. Can the Minister confirm that, or perhaps he might write to us to explain definitively what happened?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, in the circumstances I had better write as a result of these exchanges.

Baroness Blatch

May I add to the list of questions that have been posed to my noble friend the Minister? First, it is a very serious business to stop the benefit of somebody who is unemployed. Therefore anything that can be done to speed up the process to determine whether it is a legitimate thing to do seems to me absolutely essential. All that we can do to speed up that process should be done.

But in view of the explanation that my noble friend has given about all the information and about the warnings and counselling that are given leading up to the recommendation or referral to the tribunal, it seems to me that, at the end of that period of counselling and of giving warnings there must be a fairly clear idea that somebody is not actively seeking work. Therefore, I would be interested to know the number of cases that end up at the tribunal that are found to be wrong referrals; in other words, where benefit had been stopped needlessly when the person was actively seeking work. I expect it is difficult to find that answer at the moment, but I should be very interested to know.

It seems to me that my noble friend has given a very comprehensive explanation of all the efforts made by the people in the Jobcentres which help a person to get back to the business of actively seeking work.

Lord Skelmersdale

The only response I can make to that is that it will be a rather longer letter than I originally intended.

Baroness Faithfull

I always hesitate to bring an exchange to an end. This exchange has been extraordinarily interesting and amusing, though it is a pity that it has been on such a tragic subject. But I am grateful to my noble friend for the long explanation. Perhaps it is our fault that we have not fully understood it.

I should like to say that I see his point that a case cannot be referred to the social services because of confidentiality. But if the adjudicating officer is informing an applicant that he can go to appeal, perhaps at the same time he might advise him to go to the social services for help or advice, bearing in mind the needs of the family. I shall read with great interest what my noble friend has said, and with that I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 14 to 18 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 19:

Page 10, line 17, at end insert— ("(2C) If, in any case, a question arises as to whether a person is or was actively seeking employed earner's employment in any week, the adjudication officer shall determine that question in that person's favour unless he is satisfied that that person was not actively seeking such employment.").

The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 19 is of some importance to these Benches. The point is to assert that those threatened with loss of benefit shall be deemed innocent until they are proved guilty. It is a basic rule of English law that penal statutes are to be construed strictly. I know that by the strict rules of common law loss of a benefit cannot properly be described as penal. Nevertheless in practice the effect is very much the same. So deprivation of benefit is something not to be undertaken lightly, wantonly or uninvitedly. It is a field in which injustice may occur.

Alleged failure to seek work may possibly be wrongly alleged. It may be alleged on inadequate documentation. The keeping of records by employers leaves a great deal to be desired. We are led to understand that the unemployed are supposed to keep the records. First, if they are homeless, where are they supposed to keep records? Secondly, a good many of them admit to having literacy problems. One in 10 of the unemployed in London admits to having literacy problems. Such problems may well limit the keeping of records. Should they be penalised for their limited literacy?

That is not a frivolous question. It brings back a memory seared into my consciousness. When I was eight, my father had to apply for a new ration book and signed it perfectly correctly as a Member of this House, "Russell". He was told that he must put a Christian name. He explained why not and was told that he was illiterate and therefore could not have a ration book. It was the "therefore" which was the alarming part. Fortunately, it so happened that John Strachey, the Minister of Food, was a personal friend and was prepared to listen to the story, but it was borne in upon me thus at a very early age that that sort of thing could have happened to someone who was much less well able to deal with it, and that there was no just reason for thinking that lack of literacy should deny one the right to eat. So I believe that the point about the unemployed's records not necessarily being adequate is one to be taken seriously.

If one should become entangled in the social security system and get on the wrong side of it, one may well find that one is in a situation sounding uncomfortably like something out of Kafka. That situation may be very difficult to handle, so all I ask the Committee is that, before we deprive someone of benefit on the grounds that he is not actively seeking work, may we try to make certain that we are quite sure? I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

I hope that I need not spend quite as long on this amendment as I have spent on other amendments since we had dinner.

In making his decision, any adjudication officer, whether in the employment or social security field, must always be satisfied that, in the light of the facts of the case, it is the right one. It is of course subject to the normal appeals procedure—a point that I made earlier—which provides an additional safeguard for the claimant. The adjudication officer will weigh up the evidence and make his decision on the balance of probabilities. I am perfectly confident that the standard, long-established approach of adjudication officers is quite suitable for the purpose of deciding whether the "actively seeking work" condition is fulfilled. I see no reason to make exceptional and, indeed, dubious arrangements for that sort of decision.

In passing, perhaps I may just point out that "is or" in the amendment is redundant since adjudication officers will be dealing with questions for past periods. Unless they are very exceptional, cases will not have reached the adjudication officer without the claimant having received counselling, advice and a reminder about the need to satisfy the condition. I applaud the noble Earl's concern for the interests of the claimant. In his usual witty way, he made a serious point, but I hope that there was not an implicit suggestion that the Government would seek to victimise people with such drawbacks as he described.

We do not want to impose unfair burdens on any claimant. That is why we have put forward the concept of a claimant taking steps that are reasonable in the circumstances. His abilities, the area of job search, the type of job being sought and so on will be taken into account. If the claimant cannot read or write we shall not expect him to write letters to employers or indeed to read advertisements in newspapers. However, he may be expected to enlist help from friends or agencies to carry out these functions. When I referred earlier to our very flexible approach, of course I included what I have just said in the appositeness of my word "flexibility".

Earl Russell

I must confess to finding that a somewhat disappointing reply. I take the points made by the noble Lord about the amount of care that is put into the system. The care does not always come through to the point of delivery and everything that the noble Lord said still stops short of a firm commitment to the basic legal principle that a person is innocent until proved guilty.

I did not intend to allege that there was a deliberate government desire to victimise. If I implied any such thing, I withdraw the implication, which I did not intend. Nevertheless, I believe that there is here a basic difference of approach, which emerged in the exchange between the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, about the threat of deprivation of benefit possibly having a useful effect. I think that it is an objective common to all parts of this Chamber to get people off benefit and into employment where possible. Where we differ is that the Government seem to think instinctively of employing the stick. Very often what we want them to do is to think sometimes of offering just a little bit of carrot as well. That principle underlies a great many amendments that are behind us and many that are still in front of us. However, though I am disappointed, at this time of night I ask leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 20 to 22 not moved.]

10 p.m.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 23:

Page 10, line 20, at end insert— ("( ) In regulation 12(1)(c) of the Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Regulations 1983, for "twenty-four hours" substitute "fourteen days".").

The noble Earl said: This amendment bears on the question of the provision of child care as it affects someone who is offered a job. It arises from a point made at Second Reading by the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, and the Minister's reply. I thank the Minister for his letter on this subject, which is welcome and which I have read with care.

Though I welcome the Minister's letter, there is still a basic difference between us on this matter because he thinks that child care arrangements should be in place before a person is offered a job. It seems to me that, especially in London, this is simply not practicable. I do not understand how one can make adequate child care arrangements until the hours when one will be employed are known and one knows where one will be employed.

Combining a job with small children is at the best of times a problem of fox and goose and cabbage. But if, say, for the sake of example a parent has to travel from Clapham to Balham for child care facilities and also travel in the opposite direction from Clapham to Putney for work, there will be a very considerable problem. Moreover, suppose, for example, a person is offered a job working in the service of this Chamber. That person is likely to find that the hours for which child care has been arranged bear little relation to the hours of work. It simply does not seem to me to make sense to expect people to arrange for child care before they know the situation for which they have to arrange that child care. That is a simple and plain matter of practicality.

If it is once accepted that child care has to be arranged after an offer of employment, it seems to me that two weeks is by no means an excessive amount of time in which to allow people to look for it. After all, the care of one's child is something that we should like to see done properly. One does not wish to take on someone casually simply because they can solve an immediate problem. One wants someone who will look after the child concerned. It means that one needs to know a little about the person. That takes time. I hope that the Minister will consider this amendment with a degree of sympathy. I beg to move.

Baroness Seear

I should like to support this amendment, not least because of the totally inadequate amount of child care provision available. We are not talking about people who will hire a nanny—although that would take more than 24 hours. We are talking about people who have to try to find a place in a nursery. We know that the provision of places is so low—it is the lowest in Europe—that unless one is in the deprived categories, one will be extremely lucky if one gets one's baby in a nursery, let alone within 24 hours. It is totally unrealistic to think that people can find places for children in day nurseries in 24 hours.

If they have to put them into the highly paid nurseries—I have been involved on this subject only this evening—they may find themselves spending up to £100 a week. Therefore they have to be careful that they have a rather special job before they embark on such payment. It is quite unrealistic to think that one can arrange this within 24 hours.

Baroness Faithfull

I should like to support this amendment following the debate that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, initiated in the Chamber yesterday on the question of working women in particular having to find a place for their children before work. Members of the Committee will remember that the childminding association is going to set up a panel of child minders. Employers will be able to use this childminding service as they did with meal vouchers. However, such arrangements will take time. In our debate yesterday—perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, will confirm this—we said that we hoped that the interests of the child were paramount when a woman goes out to work. It takes time not necessarily to find a good childminder, but to find the right one for that child.

Also, if one is trying to put a child into a playgroup or nursery, one nursery will suit one child and another nursery will suit another. Therefore in the interests of child care I support this amendment.

Baroness Turner of Camden

From these Benches I should like briefly to support the amendment. I shall not add to what has been said so ably in its support. We had a comprehensive and good debate yesterday on the question of child care. It was agreed on all sides that child care arrangements in this country are quite inadequate. There are not enough child minders. Those who are available are often not registered. Therefore the mother will have to make many inquiries to make sure that the childminder on offer can provide sufficiently appropriate facilities. There is a lack of local authority provision and there are only very few workplace nurseries available. I believe that according to a recent survey about 20 employers were providing workplace nurseries. Those that exist are mostly in the public services. Therefore anybody looking for child care will have to spend quite a bit of time to ensure that the child care is adequate and appropriate for the child. The amendment is therefore most sensible. I hope that the Minister will see his way to accepting it.

Lord Skelmersdale

This amendment makes a pleasant change. It is not about actively seeking work but about the existing provision, availability for work. As I said in one of my missives to noble Lords, replying to various points raised at Second Reading, unemployment benefit legislation currently recognises, in the form of Regulation 12 of the Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Regulations 1983, that it is in prescribed circumstances reasonable to give unemployed people a period of grace in order to arrange their affairs and still be regarded as available for work. Thus, if someone is claiming unemployment benefit and at the same time providing a service—by which is usually meant undertaking some voluntary work or looking after a child or sick members of the family—he or she can be deemed to be satisfying the availability condition if it would not be reasonable to require him or her to make himself or herself available at less than 24 hours' notice to take up a job or attend an interview, which is another part of the thinking behind the noble Earl's amendment.

This is a common sense easement of the availability for work rule which provides that otherwise people must, quite rightly, be available to take up work or attend an interview at once. This amendment extends that reasonable period of grace to 14 days. It proposes that it would be proper for a person who is claiming benefit on the basis of being unemployed to carry on receiving benefit even though he or she cannot take up an offer of employment for up to 14 days.

I must confess that this puts me in great difficulty. I remind the Committee that unemployment benefit is for people who are out of work and seeking a return to work. To extend the period of grace for this group to such an extent is tantamount to breaking their link with benefit on the basis of unemployment and giving them a different kind of benefit altogether.

I accept the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said she made yesterday in what I believe was a very successful debate. Unfortunately I was in and out of the Chamber like a yo-yo and have not yet had time, because of preparing for today's debate, to read that Hansard. I most assuredly will.

Giving these people a different kind of benefit might well be appropriate and could be investigated. Perhaps at another moment we should investigate exactly that suggestion, but I believe that to extend unemployment benefit in those circumstances would not be appropriate.

Baroness Turner of Camden

The noble Lord was kind enough to send me and a number of other Members of the Committee a whole list of items which he said would be likely to be contained in regulations. Is he saying that among what are the reasonable circumstances of a case having regard to relevant factors and a whole list of other matters is included voluntary work? Does that include looking after people at home, looking after children or whatever? Would voluntary work cover that? I am referring to the list that the noble Lord was kind enough to send.

Lord Skelmersdale

Voluntary work means work outside the home, but this is exactly the kind of question that I welcome because I have made it perfectly clear that the regulations, the barest bones of which I circulated, are matters for discussion. We have not yet written the regulations, let alone reached the point of debating them. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for making that point. I shall have to take this away to think about whether it would be an appropriate method.

Baroness Seear

May I suggest another matter that the noble Lord may be thinking about while he is cogitating on this issue? Let me take an example. It is possible that a person approaches an employer for work. He has been drawing unemployment pay. He has children to find a place for. He says to the employer that he cannot start immediately and he agrees that he will start on Monday fortnight. As he knows that the job is there and that he has been offered and accepted the job but that the employer has agreed, as many employers would (especially if the person has a skill that the employer wanted) that he will not start until Monday week or Monday fortnight, will his unemployment benefit continue for that period?

Lord Skelmersdale

I have to come clean with the Committee and confess to the noble Baroness that I do not know the answer to that question. I shall therefore have to take advantage of referring to this matter, perhaps in a subsequent debate this evening, in order to satisfy her.

Earl Russell

May I thank the noble Lord—

Lord Skelmersdale

I hope that the noble Earl will forgive me. If it was a week's delay, unemployment benefit would continue, I am advised. I take it from that that if it was longer than a week unemployment benefit would not continue.

Earl Russell

I thank the Minister for the care that he has taken. He has given the Committee a dense reply containing many careful points. I am honestly uncertain about exactly how far I am satisfied with it. It has been a long day and bearing that in mind I beg leave to withdraw my amendment. I shall read the Minister's reply with care.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.15 p.m.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 24:

Page 10, line 20, at end insert— ("( ) In section 32 of the Social Security Act 1986, at end insert— ("(2B) Payments may also be made out of that fund in accordance with this Part of this Act of prescribed amounts to prescribed persons in prescribed circumstances to meet the reasonable expenses incurred in looking for work, starting work and travelling to work.".").

The noble Earl said: The amendment bears on the point that I recently made about the carrot and the stick. It is a poverty trap amendment and is designed to help people to get out of benefit and into work. But it is designed to do so by the carrot rather than by the stick. It deals with work-related expenses such as clothes, tools and so forth. They may be difficult to afford for people who have been unemployed and in receipt of benefit and who are perhaps extremely short of money.

With assistance it may be possible to afford such items in order to begin work and earn money, to pay taxes and benefit the Treasury and ultimately to become fully self-sufficient. It could be regarded as money well invested and a sensible use of money which will produce a decent and proper return to the satisfaction of all parties. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to consider it. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am afraid that I must tell the noble Earl that I do not believe that work-related expenses are suitable for payment from the social fund.

We make prescribed payments from the social fund only in very well-defined circumstances which are susceptible to definition in regulations. Hence payments are made, in prescribed circumstances, for funeral and maternity payments and payments during very cold weather. They are all health-related and it is possible to isolate them for good reasons. They are single identified items which are suitable for the making of regulations. Otherwise, social fund payments are subject only to the Secretary of State's directions and taking account of guidance made according to the discretion of the social fund officer from an allocated yearly budget.

I do not wish to enter the enormous argument about the allocated yearly budget which occurred in respect of last year's Bill. However, given that there is one, the amendment could give rise to enormous unfairness.

But, leaving aside the point about regulations, the noble Earl may wish to urge that provision should be made for work-related expenses from the social fund, perhaps even by way of a loan. Discussions took place between the two departments concerned. They resulted in confirmation of our previous view. It was that these expenses should be excluded from the social fund for the following reasons.

First, such payments would be inconsistent with the purposes of the social fund. They are neither linked, as I have explained, with definable events like birth, death and cold weather, nor do they flow from the purport of the discretionary elements of the social fund; in other words, to provide money in art emergency so as to avoid serious risk to health or safety (crisis loans), to help people on income support to budget for large items of expense, or to help people remain in, or return to, the community.

Secondly, there are other sources of help. It is reasonable to expect a good employer to help with the cost of tools or protective clothing, or to provide an advance of pay towards travelling expenses. Moreover, the current benefit arrangements by which income support is paid to the unemployed two weeks in arrears will normally provide a person with enough money to tide him over to his first pay day. The Department of Employment itself runs a "travel to interview" scheme.

I could adduce other reasons for resisting the amendment. However, I hope that I have said enough to convince the noble Earl that I believe that it is inappropriate in form and also in its policy intentions.

Earl Russell

Government departments seem to be as addicted to the notion of categories as Aristotle himself. There is nothing that seems to produce a greater resistance than something which asks the Government to think again about the categories under which information is classified. However, occasionally evidence turns up which genuinely demands a reassessment of categories. I believe that this is such a case. I believe that if this amendment were accepted, it would be extremely useful. I wonder whether rigid insistence on what is, in effect, tidiness of the filing system is a good and sufficient reason for rejecting it.

I take the noble Lord's point about good employers; but of course not all employers are good any more than all employees are good. I do not believe that our concern to get people back to work and off benefit should be entirely confined to those who happen to come across particularly good employers. I must confess that I am disappointed by that reply.

Baroness Seear

Before the noble Earl withdraws his amendment, I just make this additional point. The Minister said that a good employer may do this, that and the other. He may well do, although a great many would not. However, no good employer will help a man looking for work. That is the point of this amendment.

People who have been out of work for a long time who are in the shabby trousers brigade with their shoes worn out do not turn up at an interview looking their best. Many people who have reached that stage do not find it at all easy to turn themselves out in an even reasonably presentable way in order to go for a job. No employer will help them with that. This is something which really should be looked at again. It may be that it is across the other side of the divide and concerns the Department of Employment, but this question has arisen regarding people on employment training. It is something which is quite important to the long-term unemployed. Many of them have become extremely shabby, and much too shabby to make much of an impression at an interview.

Earl Russell

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Requalification for unemployment benefit]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 25: Page 10, line 27, after ("weeks") insert ("at least six of which are").

The noble Earl said: I am sorry to be so constantly on my feet, but there is a great deal in this part of the Bill. The amendment arose originally from the anxieties of Equity, whose members of course are employed in a very irregular pattern as is inevitable from the nature of the situation.

What concerns us is that in the Bill as it stands, there may be a disincentive to accept casual work. You take work for a few weeks and the job stops. You then find that your right to unemployment benefit is at risk. Anything which creates a disincentive to work is something which this Committee should view with some concern. The matter has been discussed at considerable length in another place. The Minister has given certain cautious expressions of sympathy. In a few moments I hope that we shall hear whether any result has come of those expressions.

Although this amendment originates from the anxieties of Equity, it raises a question relevant to those concerned in all sorts of casual work, and there are a great many sorts of casual work. I believe that it is not always satisfactory to be in casual work, but it is a great deal more satisfactory than to be in no work at all. I believe that anything which has the general effect of discouraging casual work will not only penalise potential claimants but may also have a quite significant distorting effect on the economy because there are a number of casual trades without which we should be very much poorer. I believe that it would be very unfortunate to discourage people from going into such trades. I hope that we may have a small degree of flexibility in this area. I beg to move.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I move Amendment No. 26 and that the two amendments be taken together.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am sure that if the noble Lord speaks to Amendment No. 26 that would be quite in order.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

I gather that I should speak to the amendment rather than move it and that it can be moved formally later. I now recall that procedure.

I am sorry that it is necessary for me to speak at all at the tail end of what has been a long, tiring but not entirely unentertaining session in the course of which the Minister was neatly shot in the back of the neck by his own department. I hope that no such Chinese customs will be practised here in future. It certainly was not the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who committed the crime and she had no need to apologise to the Minister.

This is, to me, an important amendment and that is why I am sorry that it is being taken so late. It is important not only to me but to a large number of people. It has been the subject of an inverview with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary who courteously received a delegation from Equity and expressed his sympathy. Unhappily, that sympathy has not been translated into legislative effect, and everyone knows that sympathy from a Minister, unless it is written into a Bill, is not of much value. Therefore, one brings forward an amendment to see whether one can translate sympathy into practical effect; and that is why I regard this amendment as important.

Having read the debate in another place, tonight I must seek to establish two propositions. The first is to establish the uniqueness of the group for which I speak, which is in a separate special condition. Secondly, I have to establish that in order to meet that special condition, this amendment is necessary and I shall endeavour to do that as quickly as I can. As to the special nature of the group that I represent, I should say now that not all are members of Equity, with which I have a long-standing connection as some Members of the Committee will know. It also affects members of the Association of Cinematographic, Television and Allied Technicians.

The special characteristic of this group is that it comprises the last remaining pool of casual labour. At one time not too long ago there were three such pools: dock workers, domestic workers and workers in entertainment. Labour was drawn from these pools and the essential characteristic of such pools was enunciated a century or so ago by Sir George Alexander, the celebrated actor-manager of the time. He said that the economics of the theatre are founded on the proposition that the actor is normally unemployed. That is profoundly true. It is even more true today, 100 years later, than when Sir George Alexander first said it. When one refers to the casting directory to cast an actor, the assumption made is that the actor is available. That is true in eight cases out of every 10. Therefore, eight out of 10 Equity members are normally unemployed, available for work and are seeking work. It is a phenomenal figure which is not replicated anywhere else. It is a normal figure which has existed for years and will continue to do so while casual labour remains in this unique category and area.

The Government are perhaps attempting to reintroduce casual labour into the docks; but they have not done so yet so the uniqueness of the group which I represent continues. Domestic employment of the upstairs-downstairs type has virtually disappeared in the usual sense so that we have this unique group in entertainment, and that is why the amendment is necessary. The Minister seemed to take the point and to understand it. But, as I said, it has not been translated into legislation and hence this amendment.

The problem is that the group concerned—not only actors but singers, dancers, stage managers, walk-ons, theatre designers, choreographers, continuity announcers, professional broadcasters, stuntmen and ice skaters—is in the wrong category of casual labour. The vast majority of those members pay class one national insurance and they claim unemployment benefit when they are out of work.

If the Bill is left unamended this group will suffer much greater hardship over any other group as regards requalification for unemployment benefit. It is not because of the artistic nature of the employment but because of its economic nature. That is the point that I am seeking to make. The majority of Equity members' contracts are of much shorter duration than they were 100 years ago. The touring theatre has disappeared. The duration of stage employment has shortened. Now it is of one or two days' duration and there is fill-in work such as making videos, training films and producing voice-overs. Actors rely on such bread and butter work between more substantial employment.

But this work does not qualify and it is not regarded as requalification work. It is not long enough because it is not 16 hours. It may take one day for a commercial but it is short of the 16 hours needed for a week to count towards requalification. The problem cannot be got over that way by a series of short engagements. It is very rare to have a long contract and there are now only two areas where that can be found. One relates to the National Theatre and the other to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. There you can get a year's work at a time but nowhere else. In other situations the actor is working for the run of the play, which may be long or short.

I believe it is fair to say that most of the short-term employment today is found in television, films, radio, video work and commercials. These contracts are all of extremely short duration. Even the majority working on a BBC drama production will be employed on a one-week contract so that does not help a great deal in terms of requalification. That is precisely why it is necessary to have a year in order to requalify rather than the six months that is at present provided. Without that period there will be a position in which either people will suffer very considerable hardship or they will be driven out of acting altogether. You might say that perhaps there are too many actors already and that this would be no great disaster.

I venture to suggest that that is not true because the quality of our acting is extremely high. It is possibly one of the few areas in which we enjoy a uniquely high reputation in the world. The quality of our performance and acting would be severely damaged if more and more people found themselves unable to remain in this pool of unemployment because they can no longer draw unemployment benefit. That has been the custom in the past during the period in which they were, by the very nature of their employment, out of work. People have never liked to talk about it as being out of work, but as "resting" and so forth. It is not resting, but very hard work.

It is generally agreed that Equity members work very hard trying to get employment while they are out of work. They go for auditions and engagements, spending a great deal of time doing this kind of activity. Therefore, they have not got time to do anything else. If they are forced to accept other employment they cannot remain in the business; they are driven out of it. It is important that this amendment should be taken seriously.

I have made the first point and I can be fairly brief about the second. If this amendment is not carried, the national insurance contributions have to be satisfied as well as satisfying the 13-week rule, before requalification for benefit takes place. Equity members often pay high national insurance contributions on very short contracts. For example, a one-day commercial will attract a substantial class one deduction without helping at all towards satisfying the 13-week rule.

There is the very high national insurance contribution without any benefit arising in regard to the 13-week rule. Members may receive a repeat fee payment. That will not qualify in regard to the 13-week rule. It would be extremely difficult for the majority of actors and other performers to obtain a string of contracts adding up to 13 weeks, 16 hours a week, within a 26-week period. Amending this period to 52 weeks would allow for much greater flexibility, would relieve hardship and would do no damage anywhere else. I hope that the Committee will agree to carry the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

I rise not to speak to the amendment but to comment on something said by the noble Lord. His reference to shooting in the back of the neck as being a Chinese custom was flippant and in thoroughly bad taste. To use it in relation to this debate was absurd and wholly inappropriate. I should like to think that the noble Lord would see fit to withdraw his comments.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

As the noble Baroness evidently cannot take a joke, I am happy to withdraw it.

Baroness Blatch

The joke was a very sick one.

Lord Skelmersdale

Unemployment benefit is intended to provide a measure of compensation to people who experience short, intermittent periods of unemployment between jobs. Those unemployed for longer periods are eligible to claim income support. This is a more flexible benefit which has no duration limit.

Anyone who qualifies for unemployment benefit can draw it for 312 individual days before his title runs out. To come back into title he has to show that he has taken up work again and done at least 13 weeks' work of 16 hours or more since title to benefit ran out. We see the purpose of this requalification test as being to show that a claimant is clearly back in the field for employment. The present test is too loose to do this realistically. Consequently Clause 11 proposes that, other than in certain special circumstances, the 13 weeks of work should fall in the 26 weeks immediately preceding a new claim.

The first amendment and to an extent the second one would undermine the purpose of the changes in this clause and would in almost all cases leave the position of individuals virtually the same as at present. We have already heard the argument that the clause is therefore unnecessary. Perhaps I can turn it back on noble Lords opposite. They should bear in mind that we are dealing here with someone who has already received 312 days of unemployment benefit. The Government consider that a recent clear return to employment is appropriate if such a person is to receive benefit for a further 312 days. We intend that regulations will enable the 26-week period to be extended by up to 52 weeks to take account of weeks where the claimant was unable to work because of sickness or maternity or where he was undertaking employment training or caring for an invalid.

I recognise that there are groups—the noble Lord spoke at length about members of the acting profession—for whom it has been argued that special treatment is necessary. I do not share that view. Although some of the work such people can obtain in their own line is characterisitically short-period contracts of no more than one day at a time—the point made by the noble Lord—I am not convinced that this should enable them to requalify for benefit on more favourable terms than other people. The basic principle, demonstrating a clear and recent return to employment, would be much diluted if special arrangements were made which enabled them to achieve the necessary 13 weeks' work over a longer period. I appreciate that I could say a good deal more. However, at this late hour I do not think that it would be appropriate.

Lord Carter

Although I had not intended to speak in connection with this amendment, perhaps I may put one question to the Minister before he sits down. It occurs to me that the problem could also apply to gang workers in agriculture. They often have to take casual work for short periods of time. Have the Government given any thought to that problem?

Lord Skelmersdale

My attitude would be the same as it was in regard to the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney. I should perhaps repeat what I said only a few minutes ago. We are dealing here with someone who has already received 312 days of unemployment benefit. Therefore it is a rather different situation to that which both noble Lords envisaged when they asked their respective questions.

Earl Russell

I must apologise to the Minister for having been absent from the Chamber during part of his reply. That was due to circumstances beyond my control. I was, however, a little disappointed by what I heard of his speech. It seems again to be a matter of categories and also of principle.

I am reminded of a Cornish village carpenter who, having examined the roof of a building, shook his head and said very sadly, "Oom! One of the principals is rotten 'm." I think that a principle which has the effect of discouraging people from actively seeking work is one which sits a little uneasily with the basic thrust of the part of the Bill which we have just been discussing.

Nevertheless, this is not the time, and nor are the circumstances right, for me to press the matter to a Division. I also think that it would be highly improper for me to do so when I missed a significant part of the Minister's reply. Having missed it, the very least I can do is to afford him the courtesy of reading what he said. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Jenkins of Putney moved Amendment No. 26: Page 10, line 28, leave out ("26") and insert ("52").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move. As I have already spoken to this amendment—

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe)

As the noble Lord has already spoken to this amendment, it is quite sufficient for him to move it formally.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

That is true, but, unfortunately, I have some further remarks to make in this connection. I think it most important that such remarks should be made, as I wish to elicit from the Minister what is his attitude to the present situation. However, before I begin, perhaps I should say that I should be most content if the Committee were to rise after this amendment has been dealt with and before we consider Clause 12. If that process were to be agreed, I should be most happy with the solution. I see that the channels of communication are in agreement on the matter. Therefore we know that this is likely to be one of the last speeches made in regard to this section of the Bill.

I shall endeavour not to make my speech too long, but there is an important point that I wish to raise with the Minister. Therefore, if Members of the Committee will bear with me for a few minutes, I should like to establish that point. I refer to Clause 11 (2B), which states: Subsection (2) above shall have effect in prescribed cases with the substitution for the reference to 26 weeks of a reference to such longer period as may be prescribed". What is the meaning of this provision?

We are seeking, by way of this amendment, to establish a period longer than 26 weeks. Does the provision mean anything at all? Is it the intention of the department that there shall be, under certain circumstances, a period of 52 weeks; a period shorter than that; or, perhaps, a longer period?

What is the purpose of the clause? If it means nothing at all, why has it been included? On the other hand, if it does mean that under certain circumstances 26 weeks can in fact mean more than that peiod, or even up to 52 weeks, then perhaps we really have something here. If the Minister will only say what it is, or if he can at least undertake to say to me, or to Members of the Committee generally, what it is, then it may be that we can put off the final decision tonight and return to the matter, if necessary, on another occasion. Perhaps he will be good enough to clarify the situation, in which case it may be possible for me to withdraw the amendment. Without such clarification, I do not believe that I can.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

I gather that the amendment has been moved, and it has been called that it has been moved. The Committee is clearly becoming tired at this late hour.

Noble Lords


Lord Skelmersdale

Some Members of the Committee are, because I thought that I had already dealt with that point in my previous reply. All I can usefully do to help the Committee is to repeat what I have already said. The 26-week period can be extended in certain special circumstances. We shall specify only those circumstances in the regulations for which Clause 11 provides power. It will be helpful if I again explain that we intend that the regulations will enable the 26-week period to be extended by up to 52 weeks to take account of weeks when the claimant was unable to work because of sickness or maternity or when he was undertaking employment training or caring for an invalid. The 26-week or six-month period could thus, in the individual case, become 18 months in circumstances where the claimant was for certain periods prevented from working. I hope that that explanation helps the noble Lord.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

I am afraid that that does not meet my requirements. Late though it is, I am afraid that I have no alternative but to press the amendment.

On Question, amendment negatived.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Lord Henley

Perhaps this would be a convenient moment at which to adjourn discussion in Committee. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.