HL Deb 01 December 1992 vol 540 cc1303-32

6.20 p.m.

The Countess of Mar rose to move to resolve, That, in the light of the report by the Social Security Advisory Committee that the Income Support (General) Amendment (No. 3) Regulations 1992 (S.I. 1992 No. 2804) should not be proceeded with, this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to take account of further evidence on the effect of the changes proposed by the regulations and accordingly to reconsider the desirability of the regulations.

The noble Countess said: My Lords, the Secretary of State for Social Security believes that the effect of these regulations, will be to ensure that single people and couples without dependent children who are not actively seeking work will have no access to benefits for the unemployed, including income support hardship payments. There are to be three exceptions. Where the partner of an unemployed person is in receipt of income support disability premium, where a claimant is pregnant or is the partner of a pregnant woman, and where there are dependent children or young people in the family, existing access to hardship payments will he retained. The latter two were accepted upon the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee.

In all the years that I have been in your Lordships' House I cannot recall another instance of a government proceeding with regulations when the Social Security Advisory Committee has recommended, that the proposed regulations are not proceeded with". It will be the first time since the Poor Law of 1601 that individuals are left with no means of state support. It will also be the first time that a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor is made and written into our statute book.

I agree with the Government that individuals who are unemployed should make a concerted effort to find work and that they should be receptive to advice and assistance if they do not know how to apply for jobs. What disturbs me about the regulations is that, like the fishermen who operate illegally, the Government's mesh in their fishing net is too small. Despite the Secretary of State's denial that the regulations are to catch the New Age travellers who seem so blatantly to flout the existing law, it seems to all who have studied the evidence that this is what spurred the Government into action. Unfortunately, it would appear that a great many more people than those who have no intention to seek work will be caught in the new net. I have my doubts that the regulations will be any more effective than the existing ones in achieving their objective. We must remember that those who intend not to look for work often have enough intelligence to "work the system". It will be the honest and the borderline people who suffer. Other speakers will no doubt give the noble Lord the Minister examples.

Until October of this year claimants of unemployment benefit, who were suspected of not actively seeking work, were sent a warning letter following an interview with an employment service officer. If the claimant failed to furnish the interviewing officer with satisfactory evidence of his job-seeking activity, the case would be referred to an unemployment benefit officer who could suspend payment of benefit. The claimant should have been advised that he could claim income support hardship payments until his case was determined by an adjudicator. It does not appear that this advice was always given, for in the year ending March 1992 there were only 1,493 applications for severe hardship payments from claimants who had failed the actively-seeking-work test, and of those only 850 applicants succeeded. In that same year over 25,097 warning letters were issued and 6,333 cases were referred to an adjudication officer. Of those, 1,768 were disallowed benefit.

Even considering that more than one warning letter may have been sent to some claimants, the number of people judged guilty without evidence is considerable. Since October 1992 warning letters have not been issued unless the unemployment benefit officer considers that the claimant has genuinely failed to understand the rules. The letters were withdrawn because the department believed them to be ineffective. The figures I have just quoted would appear to belie that.

The issue of warning letters is an administrative procedure. However, the letters give claimants clear warnings that they must produce evidence that they are actively seeking work. May I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether he is absolutely satisfied that the new procedures will provide sufficient safeguards for those who are not deliberately seeking to flout the regulations? May I ask him to bear in mind particularly the report of the chief adjudication officer?

The Secretary of State at paragraph 7 of his reply said: I am bound to take account of the results available from the research and evaluation undertaken which have demonstrated a clear need to modify the legislation to curb abuse by those who claim benefits on the basis that they want to work but make no effort to do so". I ask the noble Lord the Minister: what research has been done and where may the published results be found? Without that evidence we have only the memorandum of the Policy Studies Institute to the SSAC in which it states: Our own research identified a very high commitment on the part of claimants to effective job search. There was strong evidence that claimants were flexible in the type of work they sought, and that they took the steps to seek work expected of them in the legislation". That would appear to be corroborated by the evidence that only 0.2 per cent. of those claiming unemployment benefit each year have their benefit disallowed because they have failed the actively-seeking-work test. Does the Government's evidence contradict that?

Those claimants who are thought not to be actively seeking work will be asked verbally to provide proof that they have been doing so. Other speakers will elaborate on the circumstances when such proof is not immediately available. Lack of proof of an active job search would oblige the unemployment benefit officer to suspend payment of benefit and to refer the case to the adjudication officer. There may be a considerable delay before the claimant's case is reviewed. In the meantime the claimant loses not only his unemployment benefit but his housing benefit, community charge benefit, and passported items like free prescriptions because he has no entitlement to income support.

The SSAC expressed its concern about, the wider implications of leaving people without any visible means of support for a period including possible homelessness and resort to crime". The Secretary of State's response is, Those who seek to evade their personal responsibility to look for work and turn to crime will face the full force of the law". How is a person with no income to feed, clothe and house himself unless he turns to crime? Cynically, I could say that if he does so he will be arrested and probably imprisoned, there to receive the succour of the state at a much greater cost to the taxpayer than that of severe hardship payments or even of unemployment benefit. The SSAC clearly outlines the "perceived problem". It deals with the difficulties created by suspension of benefit and the operation of the safety net and goes on to state that the means of dealing with the problem are already in place. I have no doubt that the noble Lord the Minister will have read them very carefully.

The SSAC recommended, that the proposed regulations are not proceeded with and that the administrative measures introduced are monitored and kept under review". The committee anticipated that the Government might not accept its recommendations by adding four groups of people who should receive additional safeguards. As I said, the Government have accepted that pregnant women and 16 to 19 year-olds dependent upon their parents should be protected.

I live in hope that the noble Lord the Minister will feel able to ask his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to reconsider his decision in the light of the information he is given tonight and that he will be able to reassure me and many of the SSAC respondents who perceived that the withdrawal of the warning letter was, an indication that the Government had decided to proceed with the regulations in advance of the Committee's report", for I fear that this exercise may be another example of the Government's pseudo-democracy. I beg to move.

Moved, That, in the light of the report by the Social Security Advisory Committee that the Income Support (General) Amendment (No. 3) Regulations 1992 (S.I. 1992 No. 2804) should not be proceeded with, this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to take account of further evidence on the effect of the changes proposed by the regulations and accordingly to reconsider the desirability of the regulations. (The Countess of Mar.)

6.28 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for introducing this Motion tonight. Had she not done so these regulations for policing the work-shy would have come into force on Thursday without debate. What these regulations do, as the noble Countess has said, is to withdraw hardship payments to those available for, but not actively seeking, work.

I want to suggest tonight that this is perverse, indeed one of the most perverse changes in regulations that it has been our misfortune to encounter. It is perverse because it assumes first that there is a labour shortage; that is, that we need these reluctant workers in work. Secondly, it assumes that unemployed claimants are qualified to fit those vacancies, but that, thirdly, they are failing to do so because they are work-shy. It assumes that they can afford to be work-shy because benefits are too generous, and that therefore abuse and fraud of the system is on the increase. Finally, it assumes that if, to quote the Minister's phrase, a short, sharp shock is administered, claimants will alter their behaviour, and actively seek, and presumably find, work, thereby saving the taxpayer money and improving their own moral fibre.

Every one of those propositions, in my view, is false. Every pressure group, charity, church, local authority association, the research of the Institute of Policy Studies, on which I have drawn, and above all the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee have told them so and have called on the Government not to implement these changed regulations. Why? First, the changed regulations assume a labour shortage but, as a claimant in Newport said, "If the jobs ain't there, you won't find them, will you?" Competition is intense, and that same benefit office in Newport found that 82 per cent. of all job vacancies were filled within one week of being listed. As of June 1992, there were something like 3 million claimants and a stock of 124,000 registered vacancies. One can multiply by three perhaps to get the total vacancies in the country but you still have eight claimants for every job. If one claimant takes a job, another person becomes a claimant. As the Social Security Advisory Committee itself says, in times of high unemployment the actively-seeking-work rules should be eased and not tightened. To tighten them is cruel and perverse.

Secondly, the changed regulations assume that claimants are able to fill the vacancies, but employers want skilled and experienced people. Many employers will not use job centres precisely because many claimants are illiterate, innumerate or inexperienced, and, if they do use the job centres, employers find themselves deluged with applications which they cannot field. Indeed the claimant's request for evidence that they are actively seeking work from employers is actually deterring employers from using the job centres themselves. No matter how hard claimants may search, they cannot thereby alter how suitable they are to an employer who wants the requisite qualifications and experience. Indeed, as nearly half all the vacancies notified are in any case part time, and anyone seeking work actively must seek a full-time job, I think one can see that this is irrelevant.

Notwithstanding that, the Government apparently believe that many claimants remain claimants because they are work-shy. On the contrary, as the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has said, all the evidence suggests that they are desperate for work. What stops them working, then? It is the stigma of being, in the eyes of employers, one of the long-term unemployed. It is their lack of basic skills, their poor health, their lack of money to job search, to travel, to have respectable clothes. It is sometimes discrimination: by age, by gender, by race and by where they live in the countryside perhaps. For many people it is the problem especially of the vicious cycle of joblessness and homelessness, but, above all, it is the lack of jobs—a 3 million lack of jobs.

That is why the marginal are unable to re-enter the labour market: not because they are choosy, not because they are work-shy and not because they demand too-high wages, but because they face unemployment such as they have never known. For these men and women, as the Policy Studies Institute has pointed out, the actively-seeking-work rules are seen as an irritant which contributes not to job seeking but to a pointless recording of fruitless efforts chasing non-existent jobs for which they are probably not qualified.

Yet the Government insist perversely that there is a core of the work-shy, presumably kept afloat by a benefit system and hardship payments at 60 per cent. of income support rates which are thought to be sufficiently generous to encourage scrounging. A single person gets £25 per week hardship payment, with £49 a week for a couple. But, given, as the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has said, that claimants almost invariably responded to the Government's warning letters about needing evidence to show that claimants are actively seeking work, it is clear that they do recognise that benefits depend on a willingness to work. Now of course the Government have seen fit to withdraw the warning letters.

Why? For heaven's sake, why? It means that many more people will unwittingly fall foul of the actively-seeking-work rules, will be referred to an adjudicating office and will, while their case is being considered, have benefits suspended and will not now after Thursday—unless your Lordships see fit to alter the situation—be eligible for hardship payments. They will therefore be destitute. The Government appear to believe either that benefit is generous, which it is not, or that fraud is increasing, which it is not. Indeed, the number of fraud cases handled by the benefits agency not only is not increasing but has actually fallen. The number of benefits suspended during 1989 was 104,000; that is now down to 67,000.

What is worse is that when a benefit officer has doubts about a claimant actively seeking work, benefit is suspended until the case is determined. In two-thirds of all cases involving availability and actively seeking work, the original decision has been found to be wrong. As a result, 300,000 innocent people per year have lost benefit and will in future have no recourse to hardship payments and, with that, the passport to benefits for housing and community charge. The chief adjudicating officer is extremely worried about this. In his 1989/90 report he commented: Too often time is wasted on an appeal to an appeal tribunal when the original decision was clearly wrong and ought to have been revised". There were 300,000 people losing benefit who should not have done. Now, if these regulations go through, they will have no access to hardship payments while their claims are being investigated. In other words, it is not a problem of people claiming benefit when they should not have it but of claimants losing benefit when they should continue to receive it.

But at least we have had the fail-safe of hardship payment, even though only one in five of those who were entitled to it actually applied for it. That suggests there is no evidence of "feather bedding". Now, under these regulations, there is nothing at all: no buffer between an unsafe decision and destitution. As the Social Security Advisory Committee itself says—and I read from its report at paragraph 26: This is a severe penalty to suffer on the basis of a doubt about which, until the Employment Service adjudication officer has decided the matter, the person has no redress. We regard"— this is the Government's own advisory committee— leaving a person without even a reduced level of income whilst the doubt is considered as unjust and we urge the Secretary of State to reconsider this proposal. We regard it as unacceptable to put at risk an unknown number of people in order to deal with the problem of New Age travellers. We are concerned about the wider implications of leaving people without any visible means of support for a period including possible homelessness and resort to crime". What do we expect? Do we expect destitute people to starve quietly or do we instead expect them to beg, pilfer or steal? The Government assume that the withdrawal of benefit and hardship payments will modify the behaviour of claimants and will administer a short, sharp shock, especially to the New Age travellers. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, here tonight defending New Age travellers. What I will argue is that these people will not he caught by these regulations. They are sufficiently streetwise to produce evidence that they have indeed sought work but were refused. They can engineer refusals. Indeed, if they were probably not available for work in the first place as well as not actively seeking it, they will continue to be available and to apply for hardship payments under Regulation 8(3). So these regulations will not catch the travellers. Who will they catch?

They will catch the honest, the foolish and the fragile; they will catch the marginally employable—those who are illiterate and therefore do not keep records of actively seeking work. They will catch the million people with learning difficulties who may not know that they need to keep records. They will catch those for whom English is not their first language and who therefore do not keep records in English. They will catch those who have mental and physical difficulties in holding down work, those recently discharged from long-stay hospitals and those who experience severe depression. They will catch those who are partially sighted, those with hearing problems, those suffering from epilepsy and those with chest and heart conditions; or indeed those actively visiting people in hospitals or who are themselves carers in the home. They will catch those who dare not actively seek work, such as battered wives in hostels without their children who are avoiding rough husbands. They will catch those with AIDS who are shunned by the labour market.

Who else will the regulations catch? They will catch the unskilled, long-term unemployed older man in an area of high structural unemployment who has gone through several bouts of employment training, been rejected from countless jobs and who is now among the ranks of the discouraged workers. One is insisting that such people undergo yet further rebuffs.

We believe that the regulations will catch 30,000 such people: the vulnerable, the marginal, the isolated, the partially-disabled adult with low self-esteem and few skills at the very edge of the labour market, from whom for the first time in 400 years government will withdraw all visible and legitimate means of financial support. In this context, to talk about a short, sharp shock is cynical and callous.

Will we have more examples like the following? I cite the case of a man with three children who failed the availability for work test because he had spent one day per week in hospital having his kidneys matched for a kidney transplant to his sick brother. He lost his benefit. I cite the case of a woman who was on invalidity benefit for two years and was taken off by the DHSS on the 26th December without being told about it. She learned of it on 19th January, applied for benefit and was refused on the ground that she had not been actively seeking work during the previous three weeks when she had not known that she needed to. I give an example from my own city, Norwich, which occurred in July 1990. Youngsters who were training for heavy goods vehicle licences to make themselves marketable lost their benefit because they undertook training.

I could go on and on by referring to dozens of such cases. What I hope they show is that the regulations and the assumptions on which they are based are deeply and profoundly perverse—the most perverse regulations it has been my misfortune to encounter. It is my misfortune but claimants' misery. For those who lose not only their income support but housing benefit and hardship payments, such perversity will make them destitute and perhaps homeless, unless your Lordships will otherwise tonight. We plead with government to think again.

6.43 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Countess for introducing the debate. I hope that the Government do not regard it as a minor matter to leave people without visible means of support. I must express my regret that a change of this magnitude is being brought in by regulation. Not for the first time it raises the question of how this House should discharge its duties as a revising Chamber in relation to regulations, but I shall not detain the House with that now.

The regulations were brought forward with a fanfare of publicity about travellers. I am unsympathetic to travellers for the good Liberal reason that they have a lifestyle which interferes with the liberty of others. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will confirm that I wrote to him in August suggesting possible ways of dealing with the problem of travellers. Like the Social Security Advisory Committee, on the whole I was looking in the public order direction. I do not believe that he found my remarks unhelpful, whether or not they were practical. But this is not the right way to address the problem of travellers. Travellers are by definition itinerant; benefit officers are stationary. I believe there will be some difficulty in catching up with travellers.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, suggested, the regulations will catch only the artless dodgers. As the Social Security Advisory Committee put it in paragraph 19 of its report: We understand that it is not possible to draw up regulations in such a way as to identify precisely those people who clearly have no intention of actively seeking work and who seek to maintain an alternative lifestyle supported by state benefits". Most of the people caught by the regulations will not be travellers. As a response to the genuine problem of travellers it will be about as effective as pursuing a pickpocket down Oxford Street with a shotgun. If the regulations are in the event withdrawn, I hope that the Government will pay attention to various alternative routes to tackle the problem of travellers. We agree that there is a problem that needs to be tackled.

I object to these measures on three different grounds. First, there is a list of people withdrawn from exemption on whom the requirement actively to seek work is now placed when it was not before: for example, childless women in refuges. My noble friend Lady Hamwee intends to speak further on this. What she will say will be said with the full support of these Benches. I say only this: that this is a subject on which I have hitherto spoken warmly of government policy. I would be very sorry to have to cease to do so. In addition, the actively-seeking-work regulations are being applied to those with minor disabilities insufficient for a premium—for example, people who are educationally subnormal. That has caused considerable concern to Mencap and many others. To my surprise, it applies to the newly disabled. Being newly disabled is in every meaning of that overworked word traumatic. It takes most people a little while to know what work they will be fit for after becoming disabled and whether they should register as disabled. The effect of the regulations will be to make people register as disabled when they might not otherwise have needed to do so.

The second matter that concerns me is the total withdrawal of the safety net, which is the most serious aspect of all. One is talking of £20.15 a week. If that is a perverse incentive it is a very little one. I cannot think of many people who would change their whole lifestyle for the sake of £20.15 a week. Some people have already been deprived of the safety net. It seems to me important—and unfortunate —that we do not know what has happened to them. No research has been done on it and we are destitute of information. That seems to me to be a little incurious of the Government, and I hope they will not reply like Goldfinger, who said, "She left my employment". We should know what happens to people without the safety net before we propose to put a large number into that category.

But on both sides of the House I think we must face the fact that in some respects we are experiencing here a clash between right and right. We on these Benches support the requirement that people should actively seek work. We do not regard it as acceptable that people should simply take benefit and do nothing. But that is not the only factor we regard as right. We also believe it is right that people should not die of starvation and that the use of starvation as an instrument of policy is unacceptable. If we deliberately decide to withdraw sustenance from other people, we diminish ourselves.

One of my friends was once catching a train from Waterloo when she slipped and fell. She was wedged between the train and the platform. The train was just about to move, which naturally caused her anxiety. She called for help, but the other passengers on the platform just looked at her and walked away. I think that the people who did that were diminished by doing it. Similarly, if we see people absolutely without means of support and do nothing we risk diminishing ourselves.

So, how do we solve this clash of right and right? Depriving people totally of benefit is like switching off a life-support machine. One can make a powerful case for saying that that should never be done, but that is not what I intend to do. What I intend to do is to say that, rightly, those who wish to switch off a life-support machine must shoulder a very heavy burden of proof. It is that burden of proof which I do not think that this Government at present can shoulder.

Let us look, for example, at the way in which the Government are applying the actively-seeking-work test now. They are disentitling people—the citizens' advice bureaux have reported a number of cases—for not showing written records of job applications even when they are illiterate. I raised the possibility that this might happen when the actively-seeking-work regula-tions were introduced in 1989. I told the story of the occasion which is seared on my childish consciousness—when my father was refused a ration book on the grounds that he was illiterate. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, who was at the Dispatch Box replied:

If the claimant cannot read or write, we shall not expect him to write letters to employers or indeed to read advertisements in newspapers".—[Official Report, 22/6/89; col. 392.] In the light of that assurance, I hope that my noble kinsman will consider whether more guidance is needed on the question of the illiterate. I could make similar points about the mentally handicapped, and many similar points about those with an undiagnosed mental illness. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that that is common among people on benefits, but I shall invoke only what noble Lords have seen on our streets.

On the question of the burden of proof, which is the one the Government must answer, the crucial evidence to me is the withdrawal of the warning letter, which is not even in the regulations. It is a Department of Employment circular of last August. This makes it seem like what the first Lord Burghley described as, rather a device to seek for offenders than to reform any". In fact, it prompts in my mind the suspicion that what is at issue here is not the moral principle—not even the travellers—but a financial savings target connected with what we know has been a very tough public spending round. Of course, I know that savings are needed, but we might consider whether savings will actually be achieved. If these people become disentitled to benefit they will disappear from the records of the Department of Social Security, but they will not, I hope, instantly disappear from the globe. Something else will happen—and whatever that something else is, it may have cost implications.

The Secretary of State says that he hopes that when they have received their short sharp shock these people will behave in a more socially responsible manner. He did not say,"Get a job"; he used language in a more socially responsible manner. This is not just because there are no jobs; it is also because actively seeking work is a very expensive process. My two sons have been doing it recently. In London it costs them something over £10 a week. I know that because I audited it. I heard recently from a voter in South Molton explaining that in South Molton actively seeking work is impossible unless one has a car. Those of your Lordships who know South Molton, will, I am sure, find that believable. However, one does not run a car on no visible means of support. So, if one physically cannot actively seek work, one will not.

I have tried to estimate the net costs. It is a hypothetical question, but one must try. I do not think that more than 5 per cent. of those involved are likely to get work. I have estimated a saving in the region of £55 million—perhaps £1 million more as a result of tax and national insurance contributions from those who get work. A certain number will, of course, sponge. Some, ironically, will become New Age travellers and create public order costs which I have made no attempt to quantify.

Perhaps about 25 per cent. will become ill. It seems likely that we shall be dealing with about 25,000 people, so that means 6,250 people becoming ill. Here we have something a little like the old procedure of ducking witches. It always seemed to me unfair that the innocent witch sank and was in danger of drowning and the guilty witch floated and was quite safe. Those who are not prepared to behave illegally are those who are liable to become ill. As a hypothesis—and this is not unreasonable—I have assumed that of those 6,250 people, 10 per cent. may become mental hospital patients. According to the Mental Health Foundation, that would cost £26,280 a year per patient. For 625 people, that would amount to £16.5 million, and one could probably add on £5 million in administration costs. I have not costed those who will rely on anti-depressants. That is rather tricky, but it is a real figure.

Perhaps about 50 per cent. will turn to crime. The MORI report on 16 and 17 year-olds and the case studies that I have recently received from the Nottingham Young People's Benefit Campaign show that theft, drug pushing and prostitution will be among the crimes selected. The Secretary of State says that they will feel the full rigour of the law. Fair enough, but he has to catch them first. More of these crimes will lower the detection rate. I shall not dwell on the risks of the bankruptcy of a major insurance company, but it is not impossible. Shoplifting may put up prices. My noble kinsmen can tell me what it would cost the Department of Social Security to have a 0.1 per cent. increase in the retail prices index. I think that it would wipe out all his savings. Putting someone in prison costs £4,779 a year. If 10 per cent. of these people were imprisoned, that would cost some £6 million.

Some will go into prostitution, and some of those are likely to get AIDS. I have used an estimate here of perhaps 125 people. This is out of an initial sample of 25,000 people. I have assumed—and this is not an unrealistic assumption to make about prostitutes—that each of these 125 might infect 50 people. The cost of treating an AIDS sufferer in a hospice is £104,025 a year, which adds another £13 million. That means that £40 million of the £55 million saving has gone in identifiable costs. I have not calculated the police costs, the GPs' costs or the security costs.

We are often told that humanity is all very well but we have to count the cost. I agree that we have to count the cost and I think that humanity is the best policy.

7 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, not for the first time I find myself wishing to support this Motion and also the Government's order. I am sure that many, if not most, of your Lordships have been in a similar position. The problem—or perhaps the privilege —of sitting on these Benches is that the Whips do not put pressure on us to vote against our consciences, so I get no help from them. If I decide wrongly, I hope that I am the guilty witch and not the innocent one.

I have tried to tackle the problem as follows; first, is the intention behind the order correct? Secondly, does the order encourage the right methods to achieve its intention? Thirdly, what improvements, if any, can your Lordships make to either the intention or the method? Many of your Lordships have implored the Government to do something about people who exploit the welfare state, in particular New Age travellers. I have pressed, and will continue to press, the Government to make it more difficult for New Age travellers to disrupt and exploit the lives of the public. I am pleased to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and my noble kinsman Lord Russell take a similar view so far as concerns New Age travellers. The order certainly makes an attempt to do that. I hope that other measures will be forthcoming. I must therefore come to the conclusion that the intention behind the order is correct. I had hoped that all noble Lords would agree, but I fear that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, does not. Perhaps I interpreted what she said too narrowly.

I turn to my second question. Does the order encourage the right methods to achieve its intention? Having listened to your Lordships and read brief after brief from many organisations which are experts in the field of social security, I am not so sure. I am inclined to think that the order may catch the innocent helpless person rather than the New Age traveller for whom, as I have already said, I have absolutely no financial sympathy. But I am probably one of the least knowledgeable of your Lordships on the workings of social security payments so I am not in a position to judge. Assuming the worst, as any farmer always does, that the method advocated in the order is at fault, what can your Lordships do to encourage the right method to achieve the order's objective, with which I am fully in agreement?

As I see it, your Lordships have an alternative: to press the Motion or to accept what my noble kinsman Lord Henley is going to say. I hope that my noble kinsman will spell out what action the Government could take if they find the order flawed. I shall listen to him very carefully.

I support the intention behind the order. I am worried as to whether the method is correct, but even if its method is flawed we cannot and should not overturn the order. Apart from anything else it has a financial aspect. However, the Motion before us does not do that but its effect if agreed would have no practical result in altering the order. It might even discourage the department from keeping the matter under review, which is what I hope the Government will do. Certainly I shall be extremely worried if that is not said by the Government.

Therefore I come to the conclusion, for better or worse, that the best way forward is to make sure that the Government keep the matter under review. To press the Motion would be childish; it might be petty; but it certainly would be pointless.

7.5 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, I wish to support the Motion of my noble friend Lady Mar. I find it strange that the Government should ask the Social Security Advisory Committee to advise on the Income Support (General) Amendment (No. 3) Regulations 1992, and have then refused to accept many of its recommendations. I cannot agree with fraud in the social security system in any sense, but, reading the report of the SSAC, it would appear that there are already sufficient regulations to achieve the Government's object.

The present system penalises those people who have been referred to the Employment Service adjudicating officer for a decision on "actively seeking work" and are later found to satisfy the test. Under the present regulations, if the adjudicating officer believes that any of these people would suffer hardship, he may agree to a reduced payment of income support while awaiting a decision. However, under the proposed changes, they would be left without any income. Such people constitute a significant proportion of those referred to the adjudicating officer. In the six months to March 1991, a high percentage of those referred had their claims allowed. The proposed regulations would remove any discretion to make a hardship payment to a single person or a couple without dependants, even if hardship would result, while awaiting an appeal hearing. Would the Minister not agree that this could force people into crime? In suspending benefit while an adjudicating officer decides on a case, surely then the person concerned is treated as guilty before any decision has been made which is appealable. Is this not contrary to the spirit of English justice?

Many of the voluntary agencies dealing with persons of varying disabilities are concerned that the interviewing officer may not fully understand their particular difficulties, such as those with physical, sensory or learning difficulties, in seeking work. The two latter disabilities may not be obvious, particularly those with learning difficulties, who may well not understand the need to keep a record of job applications. The withdrawal of the warning letter, except where the person is considered genuinely to have misunderstood what is expected of him, may cause the disabled further distress.

The Social Services Advisory Committee also suggested that one letter of warning would be sufficient in any period of unemployment before any further action was taken. This would at least warn people of the need to take action. The Association of County Councils fears that the Government's proposals will affect a large number of disadvantaged and vulnerable people, such as those of no fixed abode, whose mental and emotional health may be poor and who are on the margins of unemployment/sickness benefit. The effect may well worsen the very marginalised destitute single people.

The Spastics Society feels that the Government's proposal to remove access to hardship payments of income support from certain groups of claimants, while appreciating their attempt to protect disabled people from these charges, breaks the "safety net" in the social security system and is afraid that some disabled people will not be protected by the exclusions. MIND finds that inquiries to mental health work schemes for help when benefit is under threat of suspension indicate that people in this group do need the chance which the warning letter gives them to avoid this action. The knowledge that suspension of benefit can be done in this way can heighten the anxieties of claimants and be detrimental to those with a psychiatric history.

The CABs are reporting considerable hardship under existing rules, when benefit is suspended if a doubt arises about entitlement to unemployment benefit, when it is believed that they have left work voluntarily without good cause, or appear not to be actively seeking work. At present an unemployed person can apply for a hardship payment, but under the new regulations an unemployed person whose case is before an adjudicating officer will have no recourse to any payment. What do they live on? Thin air?

A CAB in North London reports the case of someone whose local unemployment benefit office insisted upon him completing a written job search record, despite his having stated that he could neither read nor write. What will happen in such cases if these new regulations come into force? Should not the interviewing officers perhaps be encouraged to help claimants such as the case I have just mentioned?

One group of people who may find it hard to prove that they are actively seeking work are women without children who are in a refuge because of sexual abuse and violence. This group may find it very difficult to show evidence of actively seeking work, because of their need to be as discreet as possible of their whereabouts. The SSAC believes that some discretion to make hardship payments should be retained where fear and the need for protection makes it more difficult actively to seek work. I hope that the Minister will agree to bring this point to the attention of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

My noble friend Lord Rix, who is unfortunately unable to be here this evening, has asked me to speak of the worries that the charity Mencap has with regard to people with mild disability, with no educational qualifications, little or no literacy, and deficient in social skills, struggling to live independently and falling outside the scope of services increasingly focused on those with a more severe learning disability. They may be very anxious to work, but quite unable to organise their affairs and present their case in a way which will defend their benefit interests. It would be a tragedy if these people were to fall through the safety net.

Finally, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that 20th November was the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge Report on social security. Are we now to go backwards?

7.12 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I support the Motion. One of the few things that has been said in the debate with which I do not agree is the analogy of my noble friend Lord Russell. He said that the regulations were comparable to using a shotgun to catch a pickpocket in Oxford Street. I believe that a different weapon would be the correct analogy—one whose shot is scattered more widely; or perhaps a fishing net which catches many minnows but does not necessarily catch the big fish. Among the minnows are the women to whom reference has already been made by a number of your Lordships who are in refuges and who have suffered from domestic violence. They are single women and women without children.

I should like to expand a little upon the recommendations of the advisory committee with regard to those whom it describes as vulnerable women. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I concentrate upon that group. It should not be taken as an indication that I do not support the anxieties expressed about other groups.

Not all residents of refuges have children. There are many single women—"single" as defined in the regulations. They may be young women who are especially vulnerable due to family violence or sexual abuse, older women who have endured many years of violence and who finally leave home when their children can lead independent lives or women who have left home in such desperation that they have gone without their children and who claim as single individuals until their circumstances are sorted out.

Women in those circumstances may need to go a long way from home to find sanctuary. They may need to move several times to find a secure environment where abusing partners cannot easily track them down. I fear that the new regulations will limit the mobility of those women because they will need to stay in one place to find work, if that is possible. For reasons that I shall mention, the ability to look for work is especially difficult in their cases.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I use language which may seem extreme, but the situation of those victims is extreme. Abusing partners are known to track down women through a variety of means. Recently a man was convicted of murdering his wife, who had escaped to a refuge far from home. Men are—this is a disgrace, but it appears to be the case—able to obtain information about their wives through DSS benefit offices. There are countless stories of men who have turned up in places of employment. Many single women escaping domestic violence feel forced to give up their jobs through fear. The intention cannot be to say to such women, "You have no ties. Why should we assist you? You have given up your job. You are young and able-bodied". If that is the line of argument, it does not take into account the trauma experienced by single, abused women. They are not "able" in the same way as a single person not suffering from such a background is "able" to seek work. They are often not in a fit state to seek work.

It may be said that such women can go to their GPs for a medical certificate. They would have to rely upon the discretion of their GPs, but shame, humiliation and embarrassment often prevent women in those circumstances from disclosing their abuse. Nor should we underestimate the effects of fear. Many women who have experienced extensive periods of violence and intimidation feel so frightened that they will give up their jobs.

I have heard from a worker in one refuge—we have over 200 refuges, but that is not enough—that during a period of four years she knew at least 50 women who had given up their jobs through fear. An anecdote was repeated to me about a woman and a daughter who had been abused by the husband and father. The daughter worked for a building society. She plucked up the courage to tell the personnel department about the position. It gave her compassionate leave and helped her to move to another branch; but within six weeks the father had found her. There is a limit to the number of times an employer can be expected to relocate an employee, even if that is possible in the first place.

The knock-on effect of the regulations on housing benefit has been mentioned. It presents a genuine dilemma. Either the women or the refuges will suffer. The refuges which are in receipt of housing benefit for such women will be affected adversely. They may find it difficult to accommodate single women who will not be eligible for benefit. They may need to reconsider whether to provide such accommodation. Such women cannot easily or appropriately be assessed on whether they are likely to be able actively to seek work when they apply to a refuge.

It is not possible to ask a woman who is using a crisis line telephone number whether she is able actively to seek work. Such an interrogation would be inappropriate. On arrival at a refuge, in all humanity, that cannot be the first consideration. I am sure that your Lordships can envisage the situation and will understand the anxieties that I am expressing.

The Secretary of State's reply to the advisory committee, when rejecting its recommendation that the entitlement be retained in the case of women in the care of refuges or similar agencies, stated that current legislation required an adjudication officer to take all the circumstances of a case into account. I understand that, but the adjudication officer will be faced with enormously difficult judgments and will need to have an extremely wide knowledge in order to make a safe, reliable decision in such a case. Reference has already been made to the report of the chief adjudication officer.

I urge the Minister to consider the need for guidance and for training adjudication officers so that they can understand the scale and effect of domestic violence. I have to say that this is very much a fall-back position. I should not like to think that it would be necessary to apply such a judgment. It is too precarious a situation for the relatively small number of women who are affected. But if they remain within the regulations, I hope that adjudication officers will have the necessary training to enable them to assess the circumstances. However, I strongly urge reconsideration of the regulations.

7.21 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I wish to join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for bringing the subject to your Lordships' House. I support the Income Support (General) Amendment (No.3) Regulations as applied to New Age travellers. I suggest that many of them are available for work and could actively seek it, but many will know how to get out of it. Therefore, many who should be brought before the adjudication officer will know how to work the system and I am not sure that the regulations will affect those people to any great extent.

I agree with the statement in the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee that: The Committee has every interest in preventing fraud in the Social Security system". However, the report goes on to state: We believe that the proposed regulations would not achieve the Government's objectives but would be likely to create potential hardship to a vulnerable group of people". I am bound to ask my noble friend why the department has set up this advisory committee only to disregard its views and reports. It seems strange and perhaps a waste of money to have a good committee with knowledgeable people and then to refuse to accept its recommendations. I should like to know what reason the Minister can give for refusing the recommendation of the Social Security Advisory Committee.

In Paragraph 2 of the regulations Her Majesty's Government are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The regulations will not achieve what the Government are setting out to do and it is not clear which groups of vulnerable people the Government are targeting. I imagine that it is those whose mental and emotional health may be poor, the destitute single people, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, those with limited education and few capabilities.

We are suffering a recession and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, there are few jobs for the many people requiring them. I contend that not only are we experiencing a recession, we are experiencing an industrial revolution. In this age, manual workers are being replaced by those with technical skills and many vulnerable people in our society do not possess technical skills, they are mostly manual workers.

I give one example. I placed a boy with the Oxford City Council to keep St Giles's clean and he kept it very clean, but it took him the whole week to do it. Along came the Audit Commission which said, "This is very expensive". So a machine was bought which cleans St Giles's in two days and as a result the boy with manual skills was given notice and is now out of work. That is being applied throughout the country to many people, particularly the vulnerable.

Are not the regulations putting on to adjudication officers unrealistic responsibilities? How can they know the personal histories and capabilities of clients? I have much sympathy with the staff of social security offices; they have a hard task. I cannot believe that they can always know the exact backgrounds of those with whom they deal.

The regulations will apply to the most vulnerable. What considerations have been given by the Department of Social Security to their future? They will, I fear, become the flotsam and jetsam of society. As has been said by other noble Lords, they will find themselves without sustenance and without work and without a place to sleep. What will happen then? They will become a responsibility for other departments and will be more costly to the country as a whole. It is worrying that departments work separately, in isolation, instead of with each other. I have to say that I consider that the Department of Social Security should have consulted the Minister for Health concerning the social services departments.

I realise that it is 15 years since I was a director of social services, but in time gone by there used to be industrial training units. They were workshops where the mentally handicapped and people without great skills could be trained and helped to earn a living. It is true that many social services departments have closed the workshops, but some still have them. I cite the Oxfordshire social services department which applied to the European Social Fund for training for those with disabilities. I think they are called the blind handicapped industrial workshops. Sheltered work-shops are provided for people who seek, where possible, practical sheltered employment, if the client can be placed in employment.

If these regulations are to be brought in there must be a safety net for these very vulnerable people. Furthermore, we must not lose them in a kind of morass where they do nothing and ultimately become a greater charge on the state. We must use what capabilities they have; we must train and help them.

I cannot understand how it is that one department can bring in these regulations without consulting another department as to who will deal with those people, who will help them and who will creatively and positively give them work. That would be possible but, I have to say, over a period of time. Therefore, in all humanity, to bring in these regulations without a safety net damages the people themselves, but ultimately it will also be at great cost to the country in other areas, and certainly to the young people.

Like my noble friend Lord Stanley, I find myself in some difficulty. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can give your Lordships the assurance that these regulations will not be brought into play until a safety net and creative help are provided by another department to help those vulnerable people who need help, training, support and advice. Unless that assurance is forthcoming I find myself unable to support him.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I am very happy to follow the noble Baroness whose speech shows the deep unease felt throughout the House and not simply on the Benches from which speeches have hitherto been delivered. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, although less committed, was critical of the effect of the regulations, if not the intent. However, I should remind him that hell is sometimes paved with good intentions.

After those powerful speeches there is not very much left for me to say that is new. However, like others, I wish to express my disappointment and dismay that the Government, or the Secretary of State, should have seen fit absolutely to reject the carefully argued principal recommendation of the Social Security Advisory Committee and all but reject the subsidiary recommendations. Like the noble Baroness, I wonder what the purpose of the Social Security Advisory Committee is if its carefully considered recommendations are to be summarily dismissed in that way.

The regulations were sold to the public as measures to deal with the plague of so-called New Age travellers. As we have heard, they do not seem capable of doing so. I have to differ unfortunately from the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. Like other speakers, I feel that the plague of the New Age travellers cannot be cured in this way. I do not need to elaborate. The Minister knows, as I do, because we live in the same county, about the plague of travellers which very nearly came our way. I may say it came nearer to me than to him.

The travellers were diverted—here I entirely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell—by a combination of public alertness combined with police co-operation. To my mind that is the route for dealing with this undoubted plague—not through social security. I feel that the whole exercise is being adopted vainly because it will not catch the New Age travellers. Instead it will put in peril and in fear something like 25,000 of the most vulnerable people in our society.

The regulations represent a tear, a rent, in the safety net which the Secretary of State, Peter Lilley, curiously enough claimed so proudly that we had. He said we had a safety net as, comprehensive and secure as any of the other members of the European Community". This rent in the ultimate safety net is surely a rather cynical way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, to which the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, drew our attention. It is indeed a cynical measure because it reduces the final net in the complex of nets which we have enjoyed in our society. It is a further rent, in addition to other recent holes which have been torn in the net, not only by the removal of single payments and the substitution of that leaky sieve, the social fund, but also by the removal of benefit altogether from young people who have just left home or school, the 16 and 17 year-olds who can, by the gracious leave of the Government, receive, if they fulfil certain conditions, half the payment which anyone else can receive. However, that only applies if they can prove they have been actively seeking work. I believe they receive a mere £25.25. To add to those rents in the safety nets, we now have no hardship payment for those alleged not to be seeking work.

We have heard much about the lack of evidence to support the Government's taking of such a drastic and inhumane step. There has been so much said that I hope the Government will take note of all the evidence which has been adduced during the debate up to now, including unpublished evidence from the Minister's own department and from the Employment Service, which the Secretary of State does not seem to have taken account of. All this hard evidence which we have, and which the House has heard of this evening, points to the fact that the number of those not actively seeking work is very small. Indeed it is so small as not to be worth the elaborate machinery and effort for such a small and pathetic catch. It is a very small and pathetic catch that will eventually be drawn up. However, 25,000 people or so are put in fear and are put at risk by the measure. That is a large number of people. As we have heard, most are inadequate people. The really "fly" ones can easily get round the regulations if they wish to. The large number of inadequate people I have referred to are being targeted, unfortunately, by the regulations. And at what cost? The noble Earl, Lord Russell, touched on the matter. He made some attempt at a cost benefit analysis. Have the Government made any attempt at a cost benefit analysis? We have not heard how much this elaborate fishing expedition will cost.

The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, told us—I entirely agree with her—that the Secretary of State seems to have embarked on the regulations without consulting his colleagues in the Government. If he had done so, he would have realised what huge potential costs will be incurred by the Government if the regulations are put into effect. Among the large number of departments incurring costs will be local authority social services departments, which were mentioned by the noble Baroness. There will certainly be increased pressure on hostels for the homeless. There will be increased pressure on the National Health Service; on the police; on prison cells; on the courts; on legal aid; and on the prison service. All those are very expensive. The total cost must hugely outweigh any benefit which could conceivably accrue to the Government from chasing a few inadequate people and putting in fear some 25,000 inadequate people.

It is late so I shall not speak for much longer. I wish only to say that during the employment debate of 26th November my noble friend Lord Harris of High Cross, in his usual rather naughty way, referred to the moral hazards of social benefits. I ask the Government to weigh against those supposed hazards the undoubted moral hazard of the destitution to which the regulations will bring a large number of inadequate people without catching the so-called New Age travellers.

I am sure that we are all grateful that the right reverend Prelate will be speaking. He will be able to help the noble Lord on the Front Bench by giving some moral guidance on the question.

If Her Majesty's Government cannot be persuaded to reconsider the regulations in terms of the human cost, will they not at least reconsider the regulations on the basis of the cost in cash terms?

7.41 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I say a word before the right reverend Prelate speaks. I had not intended to speak but I believe that your Lordships have given insufficient emphasis to certain issues during the debate.

Noble Lords have quite rightly identified the many groups about whom they are concerned. A number of those groups were represented in letters about the order sent to your Lordships. There are fears that those people will be caught by a measure which is intended for a different purpose, a purpose with which everybody on all sides of the House appears to agree. It is the purpose of catching the people to whom the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, referred as the work-shy. It is right and it is the duty of this House to express those fears. We shall all listen with the greatest possible care to the Minister's reply.

There is one point, however, which seems to have been forgotten by most speakers—namely, the skill, concern and care of the people in the employment service who interview claimants and discuss with them whether they are looking for work. Do noble Lords really suggest that those people in the employment service do not have the skill, experience and perception to identify the vulnerable and ensure that they receive their payments? Should mistakes be made—and they are made sometimes—do noble Lords suggest that the adjudicator will not, likewise, have great skill and understanding? I believe that it is important not to underestimate the professionalism of these people. It should not be suggested that they are there just as a matter of form and do not do a wonderful job. My experience of the Employment Service, having been present at some interviews, is very much to the contrary. The staff are greatly to be admired and we should support them.

Are speakers not forgetting all those people who are in work and who much resent seeing the money which they earn and which they pay in tax being handed over to people who could work but make no attempt to do so? We must remember those people. They are one of the reasons why the change is being made. The advisory committee naturally emphasised the other side of the argument, but elected representatives know the point of view of those people, who resent the illicit claiming of benefits. That viewpoint was expressed very well by Mr. David Blunkett, who was reported in the Daily Express in June 1992 as saying: Labour has been linked to freeloaders for too long. I was brought up on a council estate and know ordinary folk expect rewards for hard work. They have no time for people who lie in bed when they are fit and able to get a job". We must also be concerned with the people Mr. Blunkett talked about. I shall listen to the Minister with interest but please let us remember, besides the vulnerable, those other people on whom we depend for so much.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may ask whether she really believes that, with the pressure resulting from the number of people who are unemployed now, the staff in social security offices will be able to deal with every case on its merits in the kind and considerate way she mentioned.

7.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, in supporting the Motion of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, I shall not repeat the detailed arguments and persuasive statistics which have already been mentioned in the debate. I simply wish to make two general but not unimportant points.

I have read with care the advice given to Her Majesty's Government by its own Social Security Advisory Committee. Clearly the membership of that committee is highly qualified and experienced in a variety of disciplines and has researched its subject thoroughly. The report reveals, as one would expect, a clear and sympathetic understanding of the problems faced by the Government in this matter. Its conclusion is carefully argued and it is emphatic in its recommendation.

I may be dense, but I am comforted to know that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, shares my difficulty. I find it impossible to understand why the Government choose to ignore the chief recommendation and the authoritative voice of that eminent and knowledgeable committee.

My second point concerns the way in which moral judgments are made. Moral choices, both for individuals and institutions, are rarely simple choices between right and wrong and between good and evil. They are usually much more complex, and often involve weighing the good against the better or else judging which is the lesser of two evils. In this issue the Government are faced with just such an ethical dilemma.

The purpose of the legislation is to counter an abuse of the benefit system. That is a good objective which deserves support. But the moral issue is not simple because all the evidence, including the evidence of the Government's own advisory committee, points to a greater evil which the legislation, despite its good intentions, would bring about. The advisory committee summarises that starkly in paragraph 12 of the report. The report considers a likely consequence of the regulations to be an increase in socially unacceptable factors such as homelessness and crime. By any standards, even the possibility of such a consequence is a far greater moral evil than the abuse of welfare by some people. I believe that there is a clear moral choice facing Her Majesty's Government in this matter.

7.48 p.m.

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

My Lords, it might be helpful if I begin by reminding the House what the amendment regulations are not about. First, they are not about the actively-seeking-work test itself—despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said—which has been a fundamental condition of entitlement to benefits for unemployment for some three years now, since the Social Security Act 1989. All the evidence suggests that during that time the test has become accepted as fair and reasonable by the public, including unemployed people themselves.

In passing, perhaps I may refer to evidence that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has looked at. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, both asked on what evidence my right honourable friend had based his decisions and what were the research and evaluation that he had referred to in the Social Security Advisory Committee's report. I answered a Question for Written Answer on this matter only last week, on 26th November, from my noble kinsman Lord Russell. I listed there three major pieces of research—one commissioned by my department, the Department of Social Security, and two commissioned by the Employment Department—that my right honourable friend had examined. So I believe I can say that this is not something we have jumped into blind; it is not something we have jumped into without any research at all.

These regulations will impose a tougher penalty on a very small minority of people who are not taking reasonable steps to find work. On that we are quite clear.

The second point I would like to make, about what the regulations are not about, is that they are not, despite what my noble kinsman said, in any way an attempt to save money. They are not a savings measure. On the contrary, it would seem obvious that if what we are trying to achieve was achieved and we encouraged more people actively to seek work, we would increase expenditure, as those who do actively seek work will obviously be entitled to full employment benefit or income support, whichever is appropriate in their conditions.

Thirdly, the regulations are not exclusively concerned with New Age travellers. I think everyone would agree that there is no way in legislation that one could particularly isolate such a group. I would also say that the New Age travellers are not primarily a social security problem. Quite rightly, as my noble kinsman Lord Russell said, the main issues relate to public order and illegal and anti-social behaviour, and they are matters for other government departments. Bearing in mind what has been said by many noble Lords on the occasion of this debate, I am sure that all other government departments will note what has been said and what might possibly be done to deal with problems relating to New Age travellers.

The Government have made no secret of the fact that the so-called travellers who openly flout the rules are one of the main targets of these regulations. But they are not the only target.

Let me now say a few words about the Social Security Advisory Committee and its report. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, my noble friend Lady Faithfull and the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, as well as the right reverend Prelate, all seemed to imply that we were riding roughshod over what the Social Security Advisory Committee had said. That is quite simply not the case. The Social Security Advisory Committee, as is its duty, made a number of recommendations to my right honourable friend. My right honourable friend, as is quite right, responded in due course. I refer the House to the response of my right honourable friend and particularly the response in paragraph 3 of the statement by the Secretary of State for Social Security where he says that he rejects the primary recommendation but does accept: two of the secondary recommendations made by the Committee: namely cases involving pregnancy or young persons should be added to those claimants exempted from the requirement actively to seek work". In response to that, my right honourable friend amended the regulations that are now being debated before the House.

One has to say that in the end it is not a matter for the Social Security Advisory Committee to make decisions. It is a matter for Ministers and Parliament to decide.

I also say to my noble friend Lady Faithfull that of course other government departments have been consulted. They always are. I should also stress that the local authorities, if not consulted by the Social Security Advisory Committee, certainly were able to make their submissions to the Social Security Advisory Committee which were taken on board by that committee in coming to its views.

The Government are determined to step up efforts to counter fraud and abuse. Those deliberately not looking for work should not expect open-ended support from the taxpayer as a right. As my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour said, that would be an insult to both employers and people in work, upon whom the burden of state support largely falls. It would be an insult to the vast majority of unemployed people who are desperate to get back into work and make every effort to do so. So the tougher penalties that we propose will rightly extend to most single people and childless couples. Bona fide travellers who move around in search of work and satisfy the normal conditions of entitlement will quite rightly remain eligible for financial support when they are unemployed.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord will give way. He has twice mentioned the word "penalties". If he looks at the statement by the Secretary of State for Social Security on the report of the SSAC, he will see in paragraph 11: Nothing in the regulations imposes any penalty".

Lord Henley

My Lords, that is quite right. Nothing in the regulations imposes any penalty. The noble Lord failed to read the next five words: for failing to find work". We are talking about a failure to actively seek work. A failure to find work makes no difference at all. All we ask is that people should actively seek work. Failure to find work is deeply tragic, but it is not relevant to the regulations now before us. If the noble Lord is to start quoting from that document, it would help to include the relevant words that I quoted.

Many of those who have spoken expressed concern that the regulations will hit many vulnerable people whose ability actively to seek work has been affected by their personal circumstances; for example, the homeless, or women forced to take refuge from violent partners. The Government fully recognise and share those concerns. I shall try to deal with as many as possible.

I start by referring briefly to a document which I received only late this afternoon. It is a Labour Party press release. I must thank the noble Baroness for failing to send me any copies of it in advance, as is customary on these occasions. That document was quite simply scaremongering. There is no evidence whatsoever that under the existing regulations the vulnerable unemployed people—for example, people with learning difficulties or women living in refuges without children—are currently having their benefit reduced because of doubts about their job search. The same is true of the illiterate and the newly disabled. It is simply mischievous scaremongering to suggest that from tomorrow employment service staff will single out such people for harsh treatment. That is exactly what the Opposition said would happen in 1989 when we brought in the "actively seeking work" test and it is exactly what has not happened. It will not happen now because we are not changing the regulations in that respect.

I believe my noble kinsman Lord Russell quoted my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale as saying that illiterates should not be made by their employment advisers in the employment service agencies to read newspapers for advertisements. I accept that that is the case and should be the case.

The noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, quoted examples from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux of illiterate people being, in their job search, made to read and write. That simply cannot be right. I stress that it should not be happening. If the noble Lady can give me details of the particular case I shall be more than pleased to look at it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give way. Does he accept that, under these proposed changes of regulation, when a reasonable doubt has been raised about whether a person—such as someone in a refuge, someone partially disabled, someone partially sighted or illiterate—is actively seeking work, even though subsequently the adjudication officer has discretion to take all those factors into account and benefit will be awarded, nonetheless, during the period in which that doubt is being considered all those groups will have lost not only their benefit but their hardship payments? All the evidence shows that in two-thirds of the cases where benefit was lost during the adjudication officer's review the people were subsequently found to be "innocent".

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Baroness has hold of the wrong end of the stick. Perhaps I may begin with the example of the woman living in a refuge in fear of violence. She is living on her own, and we accept that if children are involved she will have full entitlement to income support. That woman living in a refuge in fear of violence cannot go out actively to seek work. Therefore, the first test that one must apply has nothing to do with actively seeking work; it is to ascertain whether she is available for work. The first thing that an employment adviser would have to say was, "If you have a genuine fear—and that is up to me to decide—you are not therefore available for work and the regulations do not apply". We are talking not about the availability for work test but the actively-seeking-work test. The two are very different.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, appeared to say that the actively-seeking-work test was not worth bothering about. I was grateful to receive some support for that test from the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is primarily about motivating people to look for work. It is right that unemployed people should take a personal responsibility to look for work. As I said previously to the noble Lord, there is no penalty for failing to find a job.

I was pressed on why we did not follow the other secondary recommendations to retain the hardship provisions for women in refuges, those with disabilities insufficient to qualify for a disability premium, the newly disabled and others at the discretion of an adjudication officer. It is for that officer to take into account all the circumstances when deciding what steps are reasonable for a person to take actively to seek work. But as I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, there are those such as carers, women in refuges and the newly disabled who because of their circumstances are quite simply not available for work.

Perhaps in passing I may stress in answer to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that men should not be able to get details from either my department or the employment service of the whereabouts or the jobs of their estranged wives. If the noble Baroness has examples of such cases I shall be more than happy to look at them. Obviously in organisations as large as the Department of Social Security and the employment service mistakes can happen. People who work in such organisations are only human. However, we try our hardest to make sure that mistakes do not happen, and if the noble Baroness will give me the evidence I am prepared to look at it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, gave an example of a man failing the actively-seeking-work test because he attended hospital for only one day to receive renal dialysis. I stress that the test is a weekly test and does not have to be satisfied on a daily basis. I should be prepared to look at any cases which the noble Baroness has relating to someone who has been refused benefit on the basis that they attended hospital for one day. I shall make inquiries into any examples.

The noble Baroness went on to suggest that the New Age travellers are sophisticated people and will try to avoid work by saying that they are not available for work. If such a person failed to provide any reason for unavailability for work, the availability question would be put to the adjudication officer. In the case of a New Age traveller taking such a line, it would be quite fair to conclude that a hardship payment should not be awarded. The person could simply avoid hardship by making himself available for work and look for work.

It was further suggested by the noble Countess and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that this is the first time in 400 years that benefit has been suspended in such a way. That is not so. The right to suspend benefit is not new. The Secretary of State has power to suspend payment where there is a doubt about whether conditions of benefit have been fulfilled. However, the decision to suspend will be taken only after a detailed personal interview in which individuals will have been given every opportunity to make their case. In any case, where benefit is suspended the adjudication officer must be asked to reach a decision as soon as possible and certainly within 14 days where possible.

I ought to emphasise that a benefit suspension because of a doubt about active job search is for a maximum of two weeks only. If at the next signing-on day the normal conditions to entitlement are satisfied, payment of benefit will resume irrespective of whether the adjudication officer has reached a decision in relation to the period to which the suspension related. People will not therefore be suspended if there is a delay in the adjudication process.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene but I should be grateful if my noble kinsman could tell me whether he has any evidence to show what happens to such people during those two weeks.

Lord Henley

My Lords, as we have made clear, those people in vulnerable groups will be protected. However, we do not see a case for protecting those who fail quite blatantly without making any effort whatever actively to seek work. If they are prepared actively to seek work they will receive benefit; if they are not there will be no benefit. It is as simple as that.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked about industrial training units. They were replaced by skill centres during the 1970s and have recently been replaced by employment training and employment action. Help on the government employment and training programmes for unemployed people is being increased by almost 500,000 opportunities during the next year. That is a rise of some 50 per cent.

The noble Countess was the first to refer to the removal of the warning letter, and other noble Lords followed. When the actively-seeking-work test was first introduced in 1989 we thought it right to undertake that people would be given a written warning if their job search was inadequate. We have fully honoured that commitment. However, the test has been in operation now for some three years. It has been accepted as fair and reasonable by the public, including unemployed people.

All newly-unemployed people now receive a detailed interview at which the actively-seeking-work test is explained to them. A personal back-to-work plan is devised and the consequences of failing to look for work are also explained. Those who genuinely misunderstand, or who appear to be in a position of not being able to understand what is happening to them, as was suggested by the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, will continue to receive written warnings. But others will no longer be able to exploit the warning letter regularly to evade their responsibility to look for work.

Employment service research using a sample of almost 900 people showed that 16 per cent. were warned at least twice and some five times or more during the same spell of unemployment. The new administrative arrangements will end that open abuse of the system. Again I wish to stress to the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, that the interviewing officers, the employment advisers and others will be instructed to treat with especial care all those who are illiterate or who have learning difficulties. The policy is quite clear. Those officers must take into account the personal abilities of any individual unemployed person.

The actively-seeking-work regulations require the officer to have regard to all the circumstances of any individual's case. In response to the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, I am happy to say that officials in the employment services agency and those in the Department of Social Security who are involved to a lesser extent, can deal with those matters even now in a time of recession in a sensitive, capable and caring manner.

There is also specific provision in the regulations to allow the homeless to seek accommodation. Those built-in safeguards have worked very well and they are unaffected by the amendment regulations being debated this evening. Moreover, the Government have been careful to ensure that those people whose availability for work is in doubt because of their personal circumstances will remain eligible for the reduced rate of income support if they or a member of their family would otherwise suffer hardship. Despite what was said in the Labour Party press release, the safety net will remain for carers who are not automatically exempt from the requirement to be available for work but whose prospects of work are adversely affected by their caring responsibilities.

At this point I turn to the regulations themselves. As I mentioned earlier, their effect will be to ensure that most single people and childless couples who fail actively to seek work will not be entitled to income support. But, where a person has the care of a child or a young person or is pregnant, entitlement to a reduced rate of income support will continue if an adjudication officer is satisfied that the child or young person or pregnant person will suffer hardship. We have also provided similar protection where a disability premium is paid. There is no change here for those people. It is simply that those single and childless couples who fail actively to seek work will not be entitled to income support.

The principle is clear. It is right that the Government should continue to protect those who are unable to support themselves but able-bodied adults without family responsibilities who are capable of work but unwilling to look for it cannot expect open-ended support at the taxpayers' expense.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, will the Minister confirm again that, while those queries about whether someone is actively seeking work are being investigated, the person or couple being investigated will, for that period of time, not only lose benefit, as now, but will also lose hardship payments even though, for two-thirds of them, the doubt was not valid?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not accept the second part of the noble Baroness's premise but I can confirm that those single people or childless couples who are fit and capable of work but who fail actively to seek it will not receive benefit during that two-week period. However, as long as they have made that effort actively to seek work, in the next two-week period they will regain their entitlement to unemployment benefit.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, just before the intervention of the noble Baroness, the noble Lord referred to able-bodied men and women. Does he include among those able-bodied men and women a person who must attend on one day a week for dialysis treatment?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I cannot deal with that off the cuff but my view would be that in that case the person would not be able bodied. He would have some entitlement. He must attend hospital and his availability for work is somewhat restricted, although I must stress that the actively-seeking-work test is a weekly test. I suspect that in that case there would be an entitlement to benefit. We are talking about those who are able, active, single or, in the case of childless couples, without responsibilities for children. I see no reason why such people should obtain an entitlement to benefit and play the system as has been done in the past and continue to receive benefit. Those who combine that unwillingness to look for work with anti-social and illegal behaviour, often at the expense of local communities, should forfeit their right to benefit.

As I stress, income support is only lost for a short, past period—usually two weeks, in line with the fortnightly signing-on cycle. As my right honourable friend made quite clear in his response to the Social Security Advisory Committee, the intention is to administer a short, sharp shock to those who fail to help themselves. People will not lose out if the adjudication takes too long and, if it is not settled two weeks later when they sign on again, they can regain entitlement to income support by actively seeking work.

It is even more important in the present labour market conditions that unemployed people should maintain their efforts to find work. I totally reject the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that now is the time to relax the actively-seeking-work rule.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I was simply quoting the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee's comment.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I take it then that it is not the view of the noble Baroness that now is the time to relax the actively-seeking-work rule and I welcome her support for that rule. I would go further and say that now is the time that people should be looking even harder for work. I stress to the noble Baroness that some two-thirds of the newly unemployed find jobs within six months. Now is the time when it is most important for those unemployed to retain their job-seeking skills. Even during a recession, there are jobs to be had. As the noble Baroness will probably know, employment services have already placed some 700,000 people in work in the current financial year.

The Motion standing in the name of the noble Countess that we are debating this evening asks first that the Government should take account of further evidence about the effect of the changes proposed and accordingly asks us to reconsider the desirability of the regulations. As always, I can give the House a categorical assurance that, as regards the first part of the Motion, we shall take all and any evidence into account as we continue to monitor and review those regulations. We shall take account also of any submissions, suggestions and comments from local authorities—referred to by my noble friend Lady Faithfull—or from any body affected by the system. if necessary, we shall bring forward changes.

As regards the second part of the Motion, we intend to go forward with the regulations on 3rd December. On the basis of the evidence before us now, we are satisfied with the desirability of those regulations. But, if there were further evidence that these regulations are catching those whom it is not intended to catch and not dealing with those who consciously and deliberately fail actively to seek work, obviously we would then reconsider—in the words of the Motion—their desirability. On that basis, we do not intend this evening to oppose the Motion.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord. He has rather taken the wind out of my sails, as I was about to take issue with him on many of his remarks. In the circumstances, I should say that I am extremely grateful for their reassuring speeches to all noble Lords who have taken part. In spite of what the noble Lord said. I wish to test the feeling of the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes past eight o'clock.