HL Deb 17 January 1991 vol 524 cc1320-31

7.10 p.m.

Earl Russell rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations [S.I. 1990, No. 2324] be annulled.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I owe an apology to anyone in this House whom I may have inconvenienced by putting this matter on the Order Paper before Christmas and then taking it off again. I did so because the report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments was not available, and since the report has in the event turned out to be an extremely helpful one, it was worth waiting to get it. Perhaps one lesson to be learnt from this is that we should not debate these regulations—and this should be remembered by all parties—until the report of the Joint Committee is available. But I shall say, before my noble kinsman says it for me, I entirely understand that when I say "all parties", that means me too.

Another point arises from that. It is a pity that sometimes regulations under the negative procedure come into force before the expiration of praying time. I originally chose the earlier date in order to do it before the regulations came into force. It is a mistake that thy should be in force before the House has the opportunity to consider them.

I hasten to assure your Lordships there is no question whatever of dividing the House. I am raising this mater in order to refer to some small points, to which I hope it is possible the Government may pay attention, and to raise some fairly big general questions of principle which seem to me to arise from these regulations and which we shall have to consider in future.

These regulations provide for those who have been unemployed for two years and have been refused other offers of help to be sent on Restart courses. If they refuse to go on these courses, they are to lose 40 per cent. of their income support. These regulations have also been considered by the Social Security Advisory Committee, and they have had some misgivings which are worth taking seriously. The advisory committee recommended exception for good cause. To that the Government have responded, but they have responded to it by the rather unfortunate method of choosing to define "good cause" by total enumeration. Everyone who has ever had to listen to excuses knows you cannot define good cause by total enumeration.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn further attention to the drafting of these good cause provisions. In Regulation 3(5)(a) (i) they have drawn attention to the use of the word "may" rather than "might". This is not just a linguistic error because it has the effect of changing the meaning of the regulation. It refers to people providing assistance to someone whose life may have been endangered. For example, it does not cover the situation where people are called by an alarm on the ground that someone's life is in danger but the alarm turns out not to be justified. When rescuers come in good faith they should not be penalised if in the end they turn out not to be needed.

It is also apparently the case that people who attend court as witnesses when not actually under subpoena do not have this allowed as a good cause for not attending a Restart course. I understand there is precedent for that provision, but in a parliament which is not entirely bound by precedent when making law, that does not necessarily make it any better. This is something which I think ought to cause us some anxiety.

There are a number of good causes that all of us can think of which are not specified here. For example, if you are robbed of all your money on the way to the Restart course and you end up telling the story to the police instead of attending the course, that does not appear to be allowed as a good cause, and in regulations drafted without any provision for amelioration by an adjudication officer that seems to me to be unfortunate.

There is the further point that the disqualification is to happen instantly; there is not going to be a suspension of disqualification from benefit until the matter is considered by an adjudication officer. This was something to which the Social Security Advisory Committee drew attention in paragraph 24 of its report. As they said, 40 per cent. is a substantial cut in the income of a person on income support. Deprivations have been known to be made in error and to be reversed on appeal. Would it not be better, as the Social Security Advisory Committee recommended, to defer disqualification until an adjudication officer has had the ability to consider it?

I should also like to press my noble kinsman quite closely on the question of duration of deprivation of benefit. I understand the Secretary of State says it is not to be above five weeks. In paragraph 28 of its report the Social Security Advisory Committee seems to think that it could, under the empowering legislation, legitimately last for 26 weeks. First, I should like to know how long it will last; secondly, how long it may last; and, thirdly, whether an adjudication officer can review the length of time during which it lasts.

Another ground for misgiving about the regulations is the effect on the Restart scheme. If my noble kinsman has looked at the pamphlet which was written by Anthea Zeman for the Centre for Policy Studies, he might find some quite serious arguments against the course the Government have employed. Anthea Zeman said: The more closely Restart works with training and industry, the clearer it becomes that it is useless to induce people into work or training when they are not in a state in which employers and tutors would want them".

The Secretary of State recommends Restart on the grounds that for someone who has been unemployed it builds his confidence and motivation. I am not entirely convinced that a 40 per cent. disentitlement to benefit achieves that effect. The bigger questions are ones of principle where to some extent there is a conflict of right and right. I accept what the Social Security Advisory Committee say: this is not an entirely new departure; it has already been done for Restart interviews; but since we are part of a sovereign parliament and not a court of common law, the fact that it has been done before does not necessarily mean we should accept its remit.

I am inclined to agree with Mr. Frank Field in the notion of an implied contract between the state and the unemployed. The unemployed should look for work and the state are bound to maintain, encourage and help them in doing so. I do not think I can bring myself to the point of arguing that the able-bodied and able-minded have a right to live indefinitely off the state without trying to get themselves employed, so the use of an inducement to get them to go on the Restart course is not necessarily improper. The use of the financial penalty is not necessarily improper. But if that is one principle, it is not the only one.

Last summer, in the course of the passage of the Social Security Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, asked me to state my priorities. I said my top priority was that nobody in this country should be reduced to starvation. In this business it is very tempting to have more than one top priority, but when I said that was my top priority I meant it. How does this measure up to that test?

I know that it is not a total disentitlement to benefit. It is a 40 per cent. disentitlement to benefit, which leaves those concerned with £22 a week. I am not certain that I can accept that as subsistence level, particularly since we have to consider the effect that it may have on the social fund entitlement; for example, whether it will put them at the back of the social fund queue.

We should consider that not everybody who has been unemployed for two years—those are the people with whom we are dealing—is necessarily entirely reasonable. Such an experience does not encourage reasonableness. So even if one says that it is reasonable that those people should go on a Restart course, it does not follow that they will all do so. We have to consider what will happen to those who do not. If 40 per cent. disentitlement is imposed on them, what will they do? I do not accept that they can live on £22 a week.

What are their options? They may turn to crime. I understand that to keep someone in one of Her Majesty's prisons costs the state £15,000 a year. I do not believe that that is a good option.

They may beg, of course. On 11th December, when we debated the vagrancy Acts, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said that all the social security provisions which were available nowadays were designed to make begging unnecessary. That is a good objective. I do not know how this measure stands up to it. It should also be remembered that begging is something to which there are two parties. It is not exactly a market, but there is a supply as well as a demand. For many people a readiness to give to beggars depends in part on whether one believes that there is a fully adequate social security provision available for them without it. For my part, if this measure goes through I shall be more ready to give to beggars than I was before. Does that meet the test of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers?

The third possibility is that they starve. That is not acceptable. So far as I know no one has starved in public in this country since 1649 and it is not time to start again.

We have here a conflict between right and right. The Utopian solution would be to raise the level of benefit above subsistence level. A partial disentitlement could then happen without people being lowered below subsistence level. I know what the Treasury would say to such a proposal and I am not certain that I could argue it down. I said that it was the Utopian solution.

Since it is Utopian, we might consider the further alternative of using the carrot instead of the stick and that there might be a small extra benefit perhaps for those who attend such courses. I should like the Government to consider whether that might be a better possibility.

I should like them also to tell the House something about the circumstances in which they feel entitled to disentitle people to benefit. They have done it rather a lot recently. There were the 16 and 17 year-olds and there were the students. Now there are those who do not go on Restart courses. Next it will be single parents who do not name the child's father. How many more times will the Government act in this way?

I believe that they should spell out the general circumstances in which they feel that disentitlement is in order and the principles under which they think it is justified. I ask my noble kinsman that question and should like to know the answer. I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations [S.I. 1990, No. 2324] be annulled.—(Earl Russell.)

Lord Carter

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, who has performed a service in drawing our attention to these regulations. I have very little to add to the powerful arguments that he presented. When I read the regulations, I could not help but wonder if they were not yet another step along the road toward the American system of Workfare.

I think it is fair to ask whether coercion is the best way to make a success of Restart. There is a curious omission in paragraph 4, which is the "good cause" paragraph. It completely omits as a good cause for non-attendance on a Restart course the fact that one is engaged in a job search or preparation course run by another agency. It might be a course which is much more appropriate than a Restart course. I should like the Minister to give his comments on that point when he replies.

Let us consider the response of the Secretary of State to the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee. It says on page 1 in paragraph 4: The Restart course assesses a person's skills and experience, builds his confidence and motivation, and points him in a direction best able to lead him back to work". When I read that passage I could not help but wonder how it squared with the report of the psychological service which found that nearly 20 per cent. of participants thought that their course had been of no use or of limited use in helping them to gain employment. Reporting in February this year, the OPCS found that one third of those who had attended a Restart course thought that it was "poor". I cannot help but feel that the Government would be better employed in improving the content and quality of Restart courses rather than in introducing these coercive regulations.

On a slightly broader note, I point out that the aims of Restart as set out on page 13 of the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee are to: identify individual needs; create a desire to change; identify and overcome barriers to change; give people confidence to act; present the options for the way forward; and introduce action planning". When I read that I wondered whether Mr. Major, Mr. Hurd and Mr. Heseltine had perhaps recently been on a Restart course.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn attention to defective drafting. I was struck by several remarks in the departmental memorandum in response to the letter sent by the joint committee on 5th December. There is the matter of the printer's error which has been corrected by an erratum slip. I wondered whether anyone any longer proof-reads regulations. There is, for instance, the question of "may" or "might". The department admits that on reflection a different wording would have been preferable and says that an amendment will be made at a suitable opportunity.

Then there is the use of the word "protection", which, as the advisory committee pointed out, was introduced into the regulation without previously having been mentioned. Again the department has to admit that the words which were included in an earlier draft had inadvertently not been deleted. It says that: This oversight is however regretted and the offending words will be deleted at the next suitable opportunity". It seems to me that there has been some fairly careless drafting in some extremely important regulations.

I said that I would be brief and so I conclude. These regulations do nothing to encourage unemployed people to believe that Restart will help them. I fear that they are just another example of the exercise of power by coercion rather than persuasion which sadly has become the hallmark of the Government's policy.

7.30 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, his case has been extremely well marshalled by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I have little to add. I have been approached by those in the social services about this matter of the withdrawal of income support from people who refuse to go on a Restart course.

As is my custom, I go round the Restart courses in my diocese. On one occasion I was ushered into a room in which were waiting some 20 or 30 long-term unemployed people. I discovered that among these were some who could sadly be called unemployable. If they were about 18 years of age and had been unemployed for two years they suffered from a sense of lack of self-worth. Many were very often chain smokers and overweight. But there were also some whom one would have to describe as inadequate, as well as others who had mental illness. Very often they had dependants and responsibilities. There were single parent; too, fathers or mothers. Therefore, the operation of this blanket scheme is unfair and unworkable because it is impossible to carry out the suggested changes outlined within five days. Furthermore, when people attend courses reluctantly and without commitment they spoil them for others.

When they have to leave dependent children it costs more to put those children into care than to allow the parents to stay at home to look after them.

I am in no way advocating that spongers, to use an ugly word, should be supported. We do not want them in our society. We want appropriate ways of getting them on to the staircase towards work if possible. There is an adjudication service, but I advocate that the whole system should be turned on its head. Instead of having the blanket scheme whereby those who refuse to attend a Restart course are immediately deprived of 40 per cent. of their income, I should prefer to see the long-term unemployed interviewed and adjudicated before the deprivation is made. Often those in question are fairly helpless as regards filling in forms and fighting back on their own behalf. It is important to know where the adjudicators are to be placed. Will the people in Worcester be subject to adjudicators in Blackpool? We need a local element in the adjudication of a person's situation and needs.

My experience shows that the system envisaged in the Act is too much of a blanket system and takes no account of the individual's needs and inadequacies. I should prefer to see the system turned on its head; that is, the adjudication taking place before the recommendation to the Restart course. That would be more successful, more relevant and more appropriate. I hope that the matter can be reconsidered by the Government because it affects those at the bottom of the heap in our society. Someone has to speak for them and, therefore, I have stayed to speak on their behalf tonight.

7.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the regulations are directed towards those who have been employed for more than two years. In reply to the right reverend Prelate, I stress that the mentally ill and single parents are not required to be available for employment as a condition of entitlement to benefit. Therefore, their failure to attend a course does not subject them to the sanction. They would only volunteer to attend a Restart course so the sanction does not apply.

The regulations amend the Income Support (General) Regulations and the Income Support (Transitional) Regulations to provide that in certain circumstances where a person has been notified of a Restart course and failed to attend or to complete the course he or she will suffer a reduction in their income support applicable amount. Up to now attendance at Restart courses has been voluntary.

It is normally at a Restart interview that an individual will be identified as able to benefit from such a course and invited to attend. Most courses are full-time and last for one week. A typical course will contain 10 to 15 people. I am pleased to note that the right reverend Prelate has taken the trouble to visit courses and bring us the benefit of his experience.

Courses are designed to help those hardest hit by unemployment. They aim to build confidence and restore motivation, identify strengths and skills and provide guidance to the individual on how to set out a plan of action to get back into work. The expectation is not that a person should leave a course and go straight into employment, although it is encouraging when that happens. Rather it is designed to put a person back on the road to finding work. For many that will mean undergoing a period of training, while others will join a Jobclub. Restart is not seen as training.

Since their introduction in July 1986 Restart courses have helped 190,000 unemployed people and the programme is being expanded and improved. Experience has shown that many claimants start the course with low, even negative expectations but complete it having received practical and realistic help which leaves them with a far more positive outlook. I cannot comment on the survey mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. He said that 20 per cent. were dissatisfied with the courses, implying that 80 per cent. were satisfied. However, it is significant that our recent survey found that 90 per cent. of those who completed a course felt more confident about finding work, while 86 per cent. found that it helped them to decide what steps they should take to find work. The Restart programme has a proven record of success.

The Restart courses are professionally run. The course model was designed by psychologists in conjunction with organisations experienced in helping unemployed people. Courses are delivered by tutors according to a detailed contract specification agreed with and monitored by the employment service. Tutors are not employees of the employment service but receive a tutor's guide setting out the standards of service expected of them. A careful selection process is undertaken at the Restart interview stage and only those claimants who are deemed to be likely to benefit from a Restart course will actually be referred to one. The regulations provide that those who have been out of work for at least two years will be subject to the benefit sanction if they fail to attend or to complete the course. After two years a person should have attended at least three Restart interviews at which he or she will have received expert advice and counselling. Where the sanction is applied it is 40 per cent. and in some cases 20 per cent. of personal income support for each week in which there is a failure to attend. Since most Restart courses last for a week the sanction will usually be for one week only. The figure of 40 per cent. is well established within income support. The most that a person can lose from current benefit rates is £14.70 a week. Our aim has been to apply what we believe to be a sufficient sanction for non-attendance on a Restart course without very good reason.

I turn to paragraph 4 of the regulations. I should like to assure the House that we have taken every step to ensure that someone with good grounds for failing to attend the course will be exempted from the sanction. For that reason a number of circumstances have been written into the regulations guaranteeing exemption for those who, for instance, may be ill, caring for a member of the family, encountering severe travelling difficulties or attending an emergency. As my noble kinsman Lord Russell will know, a domestic emergency is included; that would cover the case mentioned by him. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked what would happen if the claimant wished to secure work through a different course. Claimants will be referred to the Restart course on a mandatory basis only if they decline all other offers from the employment service. Therefore, the case that the noble Lord had in mind does not apply.

Those are the circumstances which we believe any good employer would accept as giving an employee good reason for non-attendance at work.

The Government welcome the acceptance by a majority of the Social Security Advisory Committee of the principle of requiring selected longer-term unemployed persons to attend a Restart course. As my noble kinsman said, the committee made three recommendations in its report: first, that no suspension of benefit be made pending an adjudication officer's decision; secondly, that an adjudication officer be allowed discretion, through a good cause provision, to exempt anyone from the sanction; thirdly, that the adjudication officer be given discretion in the fixing of the period during which the sanction is to apply. While we are grateful to the committee for its report, we are unable to accept those recommendations.

Occasions when the benefit is reduced on the basis of a partial suspension of benefit rather than an adjudication officer's decision will be rare. That is because we have built into the regulations a period of time to allow for the adjudication process. There may be odd occasions when it is necessary for an administrative decision to be made partially withholding benefit. That fits in with current practice in other areas of income support administration and is essential in our view to prevent loss to the taxpayer.

Perhaps I may explain again the point about the adjudication officer in a little more detail. Sanction for failure to attend or complete a Restart course has a built-in delay but does not take effect until a fortnight or so after non-attendance. That allows the adjudication officer time to reach a decision as to whether the sanction applies. If the sanction is not applied in the week which the regulations specify, it cannot be applied at all.

As regards the point made by the right reverend Prelate about the physical situation of the adjudication officer, decisions will obviously be made by adjudication officers in the DSS local offices. The right reverend Prelate will know that there are some 400 local offices throughout the country so that there is always one relatively proximate to the individual involved. Therefore, that adjudication officer will have local knowledge.

I have already explained that the regulations cover a wide range of circumstances, which we feel certain will cover those with a genuine reason for not attending or failing to complete a course. We wish to stress the unity of the Restart course. Failure to attend part of the course undermines the value of the entire course. For that reason it is appropriate to maintain the sanction on a week-by-week basis; in other words, failure to attend in a week or any part of a week brings about a sanction for a week. Income support is a weekly benefit and there would be serious administrative complications in trying to apply sanctions for a period less than a full week.

My noble kinsman pressed me on the question of duration. I repeat that it lasts for one week in each week that there is a failure to attend or complete a Restart course. Courses are usually for one week and cannot be longer than five weeks.

I now turn to a point made by both my noble kinsman and the right reverend Prelate. They both sought for the carrot approach rather than the stick approach. We feel that financial inducement to encourage attendance may lead to unwanted side effects. We do not feel that it would be fair on claimants with more recent work experience who volunteered for a course. Further, some claimants may decline other offers of help from the employment service simply to gain a place on the Restart course.

On the general question of entitlement raised by my noble kinsman, perhaps I may give another example; namely, an unemployed man on income support who, without good cause, neglects to avail himself of a reasonable opportunity of employment. The amount of benefit to which he is entitled is reduced. The amount of deduction is 40 per cent. or 20 per cent. of the personal allowance. I do not believe that it would be fair to the taxpayer or the contributory benefit fund if that were not the case. I have no qualms about that.

The Government are convinced that these regulations will assist in improving the prospects of the long-term unemployed and can only be to their ultimate advantage. I commend them to the House.

7.45 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank my noble kinsman for that reply. I take up only a few points from it. I recognise that the mentally ill are not required to attend such courses. However, that can only apply to the mentally ill if diagnosed. Not everyone is diagnosed. Even among those who may not be diagnosed there is a wide variation in levels of mental good health, particularly among those who have been subjected to the rather trying experience of two years' unemployment. I accept the truth of what my noble kinsman says but am not entirely sure of its adequacy.

On the subject of duration, I am glad to hear about the restriction to one week. However, I notice the word "usually" for one week only. I am not quite clear as to what is the significance of that word "usually".

Lord Henley

My Lords, usually the course lasts for one week, which is why I said "usually" one week. As I said, the course could last up to five weeks.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is my noble kinsman giving a firm undertaking that the disentitlement lasts no longer than the course for which the person failed to turn up?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the disentitlement lasts for each course which he refuses to undertake.

Earl Russell

My Lords, that slightly allays misgivings. I hope that it will not be used in the way in which the French Government used to use conscription. A person was conscripted. If he was a pacifist, he refused and was imprisoned. He was released and then immediately called up again. I hope that no such idea is in the Government's mind.

On the subject of good cause, my noble kinsman listed examples and said "for instance". However, my point about the good cause provision is that it does not allow him to say "for instance". It is those good causes and no others. Perhaps I may take an example in my own memory. One night I was about to take my wife out to dinner and somebody was run over immediately in front of me. I spent one hour and a half with my coat under his head keeping his cut head out of the road and waiting to tell the story to the police. When I got home I convinced my wife that I had good cause for being an hour and a half late. However, I could not have convinced an adjudication officer under these provisions.

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble kinsman is quite wrong because paragraph 4(h) makes the exception: the claimant was providing assistance in response to an emergency". I should have thought that that was exactly what my noble kinsman would have been doing by putting his coat under the head of the poor chap who had been run over by a car.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I have read that provision a good many times. I am glad to hear how my noble kinsman reads it. I must admit that my understanding is that that provision is confined to members of professional rescue services and would have applied only to the ambulance service and police.

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are all reasonable people and I hope that this provision will not be interpreted in a strictly legalistic manner, as the courts might do. The words there are perfectly straightforward and do not seem to imply that it must be in response to an official emergency. Paragraph 4(f), which refers to the claimant being involved in the manning or launching of a lifeboat or the performance of a duty as a part-time fireman, is very specific but the case which the noble Earl puts forward is surely one where the claimant is providing assistance in response to an emergency.

Earl Russell

My Lords, what is being illustrated by what is rapidly degenerating into a Punch and Judy show is that, by trying to define good cause by this process of total enumeration, the Government have let themselves in for a good deal of litigation which I fear may be rather expensive. I believe that that is rather unwise of them.

My main anxiety is on the question of disentitlement. I accept what my noble kinsman says regarding the case for a sanction. But I shall ask him one question, and something follows from the answer. Does he accept that £22 a week is a subsistence level? If he says yes, I should like to see that case justified with figures. If he says no, I should like to hear him argue even for unreasonable behaviour that people should be reduced below subsistence level, because I for my part cannot do it. Nevertheless, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Viscount Long

I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

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

[The sitting was suspended from 7.51 to 8 p.m.]

Back to