HL Deb 09 December 1993 vol 550 cc1017-20

3.13 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the "single set of measures for those who fail to take the necessary steps to seek work" referred to in the social security up-rating statement (Official Report, 1st December, col. 557–8).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, unemployment benefit and income support have different rules. The new jobseeker's allowance will bring the two benefits together and there will be one set of rules which will take account of different conditions of entitlement. Further details will be announced next year.

Earl Russell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether I would be justified in noting that the Government have not yet decided the answer to the Question? May I also ask whether they will balance the need for those on benefit to seek work with the need not to use starvation as an instrument of policy? Will they undertake not to bring any measures before this House until they know what they intend to do?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we are looking closely at the issues that the noble Earl mentioned. The new jobseeker's agreement will help claimants identify the steps that they need to take to get back into work. There will be clear conditionality, so that people will know what they have to do. There will also be more rigorous testing of job search activity. We shall build on the current back-to-work plan given to unemployed claimants, and the changes will include an amended sanctions regime which will be detailed in regulations following the passage of the proposed Bill.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say when those proposals will come before the House?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we intend to put proposals before your Lordships as soon as convenient, but it will not be during this Session.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the first thing that he should do is provide the jobs for the job seekers?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that is one of the reasons that we are undertaking this reform. It is much needed. At present there are two systems: unemployment and income support. There will now be a single benefit paid on a basis of means and paid as a personal rate for six months. It will entail a firmer commitment to find work for those who need to find work. There will be a better service and simplification will give clarity and improved performance. There will be one set of rules which will take account of the different conditions of entitlement.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that until a person has worked for three or six months and has paid into the National Insurance Fund, there should be no entitlement to this kind of welfare payment?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we have announced that we propose to shorten the period from 12 months to six months for the amount of time paid at a personal rate. After that, people will be paid the new jobseeker's allowance on the basis of means. If necessary those payments will continue—indeed, if they have not found work, until retirement.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Minister spoke about rigorous testing and job search activities. Could he explain what he means? Does it mean that someone will monitor every job application that an unemployed person makes and form an opinion as to whether his activities are sufficiently active to warrant the award of that benefit? If so, does he agree that that indicates an army of snoopers who will poke their fingers into every single application for a job made by an unemployed person?

Viscount Astor

No, my Lords, it will not. It will mean that people will get more help in finding a job. The Department of Employment has announced three pilot schemes: a job finder's grant of up to £200, giving assistance to people who have been out of work for two years or more when they find a job; an extended job search and assessment course, lasting up to four weeks, providing help for young people aged 18 to 25 years who have been unemployed for over a year; and we are giving young people aged 18 to 25 who are unemployed for over a year their own caseworker to help identify the best way out of unemployment for them. We will closely monitor those pilot schemes next year to assess their effectiveness.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the Minister recall that on 1st December 1992 the Government accepted a Motion in my name on the Income Support No. 3 Regulations, in which I asked them to look again at the regulations? Those regulations were to penalise people who were thought not to be actively seeking work. Will he ensure that when the new regulations are drafted, the information contained in the Social Security Advisory Committee's report and the information from that debate are taken into account? Will he also ensure that very great care is taken in the drafting, so that people are not caught in a trap?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I said that we would announce further details next year. One of the important announcements that we have made, which my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Budget, is the proposal to help with child care costs in family credit. That removes one of the major stumbling blocks in the social security system for those families who need help with child care costs in order to get back into work. We believe that 150,000 families will benefit from this change. That includes 50,000 families who are expected to take up work.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the whole question of mobility of labour will be taken into account? Does he agree that most men want work? If there is no work in the area in which they live, they have to move, but often they are unable to move because they cannot find accommodation.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. We are trying to give increasing help to those people who wish to find a job.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, is the Minister aware that at the moment there is concern about the proposals contained in the consultation document on the medical assessment? There seems to be scant attention paid, at least in this document, to mental illness. There is only one page on it containing a few simple questions, from which it could probably be proved that most Members of this House are mentally impaired. I have tried it out on a few of them. Is he aware that there is great concern that not sufficient interest is being taken in the problems of the mentally handicapped under the new assessment? The other problem is the reduction in the role of the GP in assessments. That frightens many people. If the GP is to be virtually ruled out of the assessment procedure, a whole number of new problems could arise as a result of the tests.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting point, but it has nothing to do with the proposed jobseeker's allowance. He is talking of a proposed Bill relating to incapacity benefit and the new test in that regard. That is a totally different matter, and a Bill on that subject will be introduced to your Lordships' House.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, perhaps I may take my noble friend back to his original Answer. Not only do unemployment benefit and income support have different rules, they also have different rates. Is it not time that that point was given serious consideration?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. This year the unemployment rate is higher than the income support rate; next year it will be slightly lower. A single rate, once it is introduced, will help everybody.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, will the Minister remind the House that 500,000 people in this country earn too little to pay income tax but pay national insurance contributions which gives them a right, an entitlement, to benefit when sick or unemployed because they have insured themselves for it? Is the Minister aware that when, on the one hand, the Government raise national insurance contributions by some £2 billion and at the same time cut severely the benefits that flow from it—for example, unemployment benefits—they are frankly perpetuating a fraud on some of the lowest paid in our society?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I utterly reject the noble Baroness's remarks. They are quite untrue. The announcement made earlier this year in relation to the rise of national insurance contributions was connected with the fact that the National Insurance Fund was in debt. Indeed, the Treasury had to inject large sums of money into it. We are talking about the proposed new jobseeker's allowance. It is a new measure. It will provide a better service, it will be simpler to operate, it will get people back to work more efficiently and will provide those people who are unemployed with the protection that they need and deserve.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, bearing in mind that this is a fundamental change in the benefit system, does the noble Viscount think that it is wise to delay bringing legislation before this House until the next Session? Will he recall that the Child Support Act gave the Child Support Agency three years to make a fundamental change? If the new benefit system finds itself in the same mess as the Child Support Agency, the Government and the unemployed will be in deep trouble. Can the Minister assure me that that will not happen and that Parliament will be given proper opportunity to discuss every aspect of the new benefit?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I can give that assurance to the noble Lord. One reason for announcing the changes in advance is to provide the time to consider all the detailed implications. We shall make an announcement in the spring. When the Bill comes before your Lordships' House it will be carefully thought out; it will be a good Bill, and I am sure that your Lordships will pass it.

Earl Russell

My Lords, in his second response the noble Viscount used the words "clear conditionality". Does he understand that what the Question was intended to elicit was the conditions which are to be imposed on those seeking jobseeker's benefit? Does he not understand that that is of intense interest in many quarters in this House? It was unwise to announce conditions before knowing what they are. Can the Minister assure me that the department is not doing what it was doing last year—contrary to an undertaking I received from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in 1989—that is, requiring the illiterate to produce a written record of job applications?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we are trying to help those who are unemployed back into work. We must look at the conditions to see what improvements can be made. It is important that those who are unemployed are helped back into work. For example, it is important that those who obtain job interviews turn up for them; and it is important to see what happens when they do not turn up. The proposals will help those who are unemployed to get back into work. That is what is important.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, can the noble Viscount give me a slightly more relevant reply to my question, which dealt specifically with childless couples and single people? It had nothing whatever to do with people with children and enabling them to obtain work.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, neither did it have a lot to do with the Question on the Order Paper. I sought to answer the noble Countess as best I could. I said that we would announce further details in the spring, and that is what we shall do.