HL Deb 20 January 1993 vol 541 cc890-2

2.57 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the concerns expressed by the Social Security Advisory Committee about the withdrawal of income support hardship payments from unemployed people thought not to be actively seeking work, they will arrange for payment of benefits to continue until cases have been heard by adjudicators.

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

My Lords, no. The effect of such a concession would be to undo the regulations which came into effect on 3rd December 1992.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Does he agree that the principal tenet of English justice is that a person is innocent until he is proved guilty? To deprive a person of benefit and all the supplements that go with that — that is, the passported benefits—before he has even been proved not to be actively seeking work is against natural justice.

Lord Henley

My Lords, no decision to suspend will be taken until there has been a very detailed personal interview, with the individual being given every opportunity to explain his circumstances. If at the next two-weekly signing-on day the normal conditions are satisfied, payment of benefit will be resumed irrespective of whether or not the adjudication process has been concluded. But we would in fact very much hope that that adjudication process has been concluded.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, given that the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee and the chief adjudication officer have both expressed concern about the decision to suspend benefit in the first place, and given that two-thirds of those investigated whose benefit is suspended for these offences are subsequently found innocent of any impropriety, does the Minister think it decent to fine people by withholding their benefit before they are found guilty of any impropriety, and these the poorest of the poor?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, we have already responded to the Social Security Advisory Committee and we have responded to some of her particular points. There is no need for me to rehearse all the arguments that have been produced in this House and in another place in debates before Christmas. As regards the adjudication statistics, I think I ought not to correct the noble Baroness but make it clear to her that if she looks purely at those cases that go to adjudication on actively seeking work alone—that is, only on that particular matter—she will find that only a third are successful: 70 per cent. are in fact disallowed benefit. I think the noble Baroness would find that the figures are even higher if she looked purely at those relating to income support and not those relating to unemployment benefit.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, the Minister seems to be enunciating a curious principle: that if 70 per cent. of people are found guilty of an offence, then all should be penalised. What effect would that have on our criminal justice system?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not saying that at all. I am saying that in 70 per cent. of cases people are found not to have been actively seeking work. In all cases the individual is given a very long interview and adequate opportunities to explain his position and to explain why he is not prepared actively to seek work. We do not see any case for extending his right to abuse the system any further.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is there not considerable danger in drawing a false analogy between the burden of proof and standard of proof in criminal cases and the case of those who are seeking support from social security?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble and learned friend makes a very valid point. I have to say that there is nothing new in the right to suspend benefit. There has always been a power for the Secretary of State to suspend benefit where there is a doubt that the conditions of benefit have not been fulfilled.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, where a person is not actively seeking employment, there is a case for looking at a scheme of workfare?

Lord Henley

My Lords, workfare takes us on to a rather wider question. The point that I should like to make is that the actively-seeking-work rules have worked very well despite the allegations as to what would happen which were made by the Opposition some two or three years ago. The actively-seeking-work rules have worked very well over the past three or four years. We are not changing the actively-seeking-work rules; we have merely brought in a sanction for those who abuse them.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, is there a definition of actively seeking work? If there is a definition, will the Minister please explain what it is? For example, is it in order for someone to say to the investigating officer that he is actively seeking to be a Member of Parliament at the next election? Would that fall within the definition of actively seeking work?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I shall not speculate on whether seeking election to Parliament in four or five years time would count as actively seeking work. Actively seeking work means exactly that—actively seeking work. Reasonability is taken into account. Elaborate guidance is issued to our adjudication officers and to officers in both the employment service and the Department of Social Security as to how they should interpret those words.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, given that when the department suspends benefit while a case is under investigation the claimant also loses all passported benefits, including housing benefit, is the Minister really comfortable that such sharp fines should apply to a doubt—to use his word—rather than to an offence?

Lord Henley

Yes, my Lords, I am perfectly satisfied.