HL Deb 23 May 1995 vol 564 cc943-94

4.28 p.m.

Proceedings after Third Reading resumed.

Clause 3 [The income-based conditions]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 3, leave out lines 10 to 14 and insert: ("(ii) who has reached the age of 16, but not the age of 18, and is registered for training but is not being provided with any training.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 2 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 4, and 27, which are consequential. Amendment No. 2 is modest to the point of bashfulness. It does not conflict with any of the major items of government policy; with the requirement of compulsory registration for training; or with the requirement that there shall be no benefit for those who do not register for training. In fact it covers only two groups. One of them concerns those who are registered for youth training and are waiting for their first place, who of course have done everything that is required of them by law and still need to eat in the meantime before their place is provided. In 1991, according to Mrs. Shepherd, the average waiting time for a first place was eight weeks. I understand that subsequently the waiting time has considerably improved, in part thanks to Mrs. Shepherd's own efforts, which are appreciated. But it will not necessarily stay that short forever. It is a problem which may recur.

The second group, and I think the rather larger group, to which it applies are people who have registered for a youth training course, have completed it as required and have maybe gained a qualification but have not reached their 18th birthday and therefore are not eligible for JSA.

According to the MORI report commissioned by the Department of Social Security itself, 58 per cent. of youth training courses last three months or less. The likelihood therefore is that in a period of two years somebody will complete a course of youth training before the two-year period is up and before the JSA eligibility comes in; in fact the number might be very considerable indeed. It is in that situation that it often takes longest to find people a new training place, and it is while the Government and the TECs are trying to find such people a new training place that eligibility for JSA, because they have met the condition of registration and no training has as yet been provided, would, I think, be most relevant.

The amendment supersedes the existing severe hardship payments which were a well-intentioned attempt to do what was needed by an extremely cumbrous, ineffective and administratively burdensome route. It supersedes also the "dog licence" of the 1990s, the bridging allowance which, like the dog licence, has been left un-uprated for so long that it has become positively nugatory. The bridging allowance which is supposed to be paid to people between YT placements for eight weeks is £15 a week. That will barely buy you a zone two travelcard in London. It will leave you £1.20 for all other expenses. If there are any people who can eat on £1.20 a week I have not yet met them. I should be interested to talk to them: I might learn something.

The amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 27, which preserves the prerogative of mercy, as with the availability rules, of treating people as registered for training when they are not yet registered for training. That is purely a prerogative of mercy. It is strictly under the Secretary of State's control. It just deals with that part of the severe hardship need which is not actually covered by the registration for training. Take, for example, the following case, which comes to me from Barnardos. A young woman of 17 had been in receipt of severe hardship payments and was due to take up a place on a YT scheme; she was properly registered and looking for a place. The week before her training began she was indecently assaulted and, being severely traumatised, did not begin the course. A prerogative of mercy in a case like that is, I think, not unreasonable. That is the kind of situation that Amendment No. 27 is designed to meet.

The Government may say, since they are so certain that their guarantee is working, that this amendment does not apply to anybody at all. I would say that, if so, it is a cheap amendment and will cost the Government nothing. If they say that it is unnecessary, why do they not accept it so as to ensure that it remains unnecessary? It is after all in the nature of a guarantee that you get something back if a situation is not met. But in fact as at December 1994, the first group covered by this amendment included 15,849 people registered for youth training and waiting for a place. Its cost at the lower rate would be £443,000, or £573,000 at the higher living-at-home rate. Half a million pounds for saving 15,000 lives seems to me to be really quite a good buy. In fact I think that there are many more than that. The Nottingham Young People's Benefit Campaign has drawn my attention to the fact that there are large numbers of people in the last few months before their 18th birthday who do not get a training place because they do not have time to complete a course. They have someone at present who has been refused by three trainers and who is not 18 until July 1995. These people have done nothing wrong. They have done everything that is required of them; they have met all the conditions of eligibility. Why should not something be done for them?

The Minister may say that they should live at home. In the MORI report, 65 per cent. of those claiming severe hardship had been thrown out by their parents. In the Centre Point sample of December 1994, 86 per cent. had been thrown out by their parents. Being thrown out by your parents is bad enough but to be deprived of benefit on top of it is a form of double jeopardy. Ten per cent. of those claiming severe hardship were from care and had no homes to go to; 50 per cent. of them had no money at all; 25 per cent. of them admitted that they had begged, stolen or sold drugs to survive. Self-incrimination usually involves an under-statement of the evidence. That 25 per cent. figure, based on self-incrimination, is startlingly high and should give us all cause for concern. This amendment allows YT to continue on a much more stable basis. Indeed, I would be inclined to believe that without this amendment, YT cannot be on a stable basis at all. On that basis, I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for explaining these amendments. We have had a number of debates on the question of 16 and 17 year-olds, as the Bill has moved through its various stages. The noble Earl has returned to this general proposition on a number of occasions. I fear that we will probably not agree on this issue, but I should like to explain once again how we see the treatment of 16 and 17 year-olds.

My noble friend and I have explained before that we believe it is important that young people should get the best possible start on their career path as early as possible through education, training or employment. I do not believe there is much disagreement on that. To that end we guarantee every 16 and 17 year-old who wants one a suitable training place, a training wage or an allowance. In general this means that there is no need for 16 and 17 year-olds to be unemployed and claiming benefit. However, as we have explained on a number of occasions, we recognise that there are exceptions and we provide for them.

First, certain 16 and 17 year-olds, such as disabled young people and lone parents, are able to claim income support without having to be available for employment, actively seeking employment or registering for employment or training. This will continue after the introduction of JSA. Secondly, certain other 16 and 17 year-olds in prescribed groups such as those leaving local authority care and couples with children will be allowed to claim JSA in their own right by virtue of Clause 3, subsection (1) (f) (iii). Thirdly, other 16 and 17 year-olds will be able to claim JSA if they can show that they would otherwise suffer severe hardship.

The first amendment we are dealing with, Amendment No. 2, would restore entitlement to benefit to all 16 and 17 year-olds who were registered for but not receiving training. That would run counter to the policy that I have described. Not being provided with training covers an enormous range of circumstances. The young person might have walked out of a training course or might have refused training. I have repeatedly said that, only exceptionally, should young people be eligible for benefit. The amendment would seriously undermine that and act to encourage benefit dependency at an early age. As I have said on a number of occasions, we do not believe that that would be right.

I have explained our general policy and should now like to say a few words on Amendment No. 3. The amendment would affect 16 and 17 year-olds in the prescribed groups who will be able to claim JSA without having to prove severe hardship—care leavers and lone parents, for example. It would remove the requirement for them to register for training and employment. I cannot see how that would help those young people. The purpose of registration is to ensure that they receive the best possible help and advice from the careers service, especially advice on training opportunities. Registration is not onerous or burdensome. It enables the young person to discuss his career aspirations with a trained counsellor and will help him to make a start on the career ladder. Surely the House will agree that that is preferable to becoming dependent on benefit at an early age.

Most of the young people in this group are entitled to receive JSA only for a relatively short period. By the end of that period, most will be in training or employment. That is the measure of the success of our policy. As I explained, the few young people who are not in a training place, education or employment at the end of that period will be able to claim JSA if they would otherwise be at risk of severe hardship. In order to do so they will have to be registered for employment and training. So it makes good sense that they should have been registered right from the start I hope that I have reassured the noble Earl that there is nothing sinister in the requirement to register for training and employment. It is not a burden; it is a means of helping young people get started in the world of work.

I turn now to Amendment No. 4. I must say that I was not entirely clear about its purpose. However, now that I have heard the noble Earl's explanation, perhaps I may explain our intentions in a little more detail. Our intention is that regulations will prescribe certain groups of 16 and 17 year-olds who will be able to claim JSA by virtue of Clause 3(1) (f) (iii) without having to show severe hardship. We intend that they will be the same groups as are now able to receive income support on similar conditions. They include couples with children, those who are forced to live away from home due to the threat of abuse, and young people leaving care or custody.

The regulations will also prescribe the period for which they are allowed to claim JSA. In most cases the young person will be eligible to claim during the child benefit extension period (CBEP). That is the period for which a parent could claim child benefit for a child who has left school but has not started training, employment or education. That depends on the time of year at which the child leaves school. The period starts on the Monday after the "terminal date", which is the official date for the end of school; for example, for summer school leavers, the date is the first Monday in September. It continues for about three or four months. For summer school leavers, it ends on the first Monday in January.

Other 16 and 17 year-olds, such as those who leave local authority care and are forced to live away from home, and discharged young offenders, will be able to claim for up to eight weeks. The purpose of subsection (3) is to make clear on the face of the Bill how the period may be defined. In most cases that will be in terms of the number of weeks, but in a few cases the length of the period will be fixed in some other way. For instance, the period could be from the time of registration until the young person reaches the age of 18. There is no hidden intention in the subsection. It is intended simply to clarify how the prescribed period may be defined. I do not believe that it would be helpful to remove that clarification from the face of the Bill.

I turn now to Amendment No. 27 which is the final amendment in the group. It seeks to divert government policy relating to young people from its current path. I recognise that there are differences between the noble Earl and ourselves on the question of universal access to benefit. But it must surely be right for the Government to help unemployed young people into training or employment rather than to create the conditions in which they can drift into benefit dependency. I must emphasise yet again that the Government guarantee every young person who wants one a suitable youth training place. That is our policy and that is why access to benefit for this group is on an exceptional basis.

We recognise, of course, that there must be exceptions; and we provide for them. I have explained that young people in certain specified groups will continue to have access to income support following the introduction of JSA, and that provision will be made in JSA for those who are currently required to be available for work in order to receive benefit.

The amendment seeks to allow young people access to hardship payments where they are not registered for training. That is not a proposition with which I can agree. JSA is not made available to 16 and 17 year-olds unconditionally. They must show that they are prepared to take steps to help themselves out of benefit and into suitable training or work opportunities. The amendment seeks to bring young people within the ambit of the mainstream JSA provisions, which apply to claimants aged 18 and over. We reject that approach which cuts across our policy that young people in risk of severe hardship obtain benefit on an exceptional basis following a discretionary decision by the Secretary of State.

The noble Earl asked about young persons who complete a training course before their 18th birthday. However, very few young people will actually do so. Most complete training courses that last two years. If someone does complete training before his 18th birthday and has not found work, he should re-register for training at the career service. That person will be covered by the Government's guarantee. He may claim JSA while he waits for training if he would otherwise suffer severe hardship.

The noble Earl mentioned the case of a young girl who was too traumatised to take a place on a training course. As I have said on a number of occasions, it is always difficult to comment on individual cases where the full details are not available regarding the young person. However, we have said before—and I am happy to say again—that a young person in such circumstances would be able to put the "good cause" argument for refusing to take a training place under JSA. But that essentially has to be a matter for the judgment of the officer in the Employment Service looking at the case in front of him and taking into account any problems involved such as those faced by the young woman mentioned by the noble Earl.

I apologise if I have gone on a little regarding this group of amendments. I appreciate that some of your Lordships feel most strongly about the position of 16 and 17 year-olds. We have covered the ground on a number of occasions but I thought it only right on Third Reading to set out as clearly as I possibly can the arrangements that we believe are the right ones for 16 and 17 year-olds. I repeat what underlies our whole view on the issue. We believe that young people should not be given any encouragement to start off on a life of benefit dependency. The education is there—both at school and in the form of further education—training is there, and the possibility of employment is there. We believe that we should take all possible steps to make sure that people are encouraged in every way to take up those opportunities and not depend from the early age of 16 on the benefit system.

I appreciate that the noble Earl feels strongly on the matter. I hope that I have at least put one or two things on the record which will show him that we do take into account those young people who fall into vulnerable groups or those who are subject to severe hardship. Nevertheless, I realise that there is a gulf between us. If the noble Earl decides to press the matter to a vote, I hope that my noble friends will support me.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. He is, of course, right to say that there is a gulf between us. However, what he has not altogether taken on board is that that gulf does not relate only to our opinions; it is about facts more than it is about opinions. The noble Lord's response would have been very reassuring if only the central information in it had been true. In saying that, I do not for a moment impugn the Minister's integrity—of course I do not. I am impugning his department's methods of gathering records.

First, I want to take up the most surprising thing that the Minister said, which was that the average YT training course lasted two years. I have previously quoted the MORI figure. My noble kinsman Lord Henley said that he believed that figure to be wrong. I put down a Question for Written Answer asking him what was the mean length of a YT course. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, said that he did not know. I am extremely surprised to hear this information from the Minister today. I ask him when it became the case, because it argues a fundamental revolution in the way in which youth training is provided.

The Minister again invoked the guarantee. I asked the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, when he was at the Department of Employment, within what time a YT place was guaranteed. That is a vital question if you cannot eat until you get a place. The noble Viscount did not know within what time a place was guaranteed. That is precisely the point of the amendment. While you wait for the place you must eat.

The figure that I gave of 15,849 waiting for a place comes from the careers service which, according to my noble kinsman Lord Henley, is the basic source of the Government's information. If it is the basic source of the Government's information how can they disbelieve it? Do they have any independent source showing that the careers service is misleading them? If the Minister can allege that I shall happily give way to him.

The Minister asked how it might help anyone to be exempted from the provision for compulsory training. I answer that it will help in exactly the same way as it helps some people in particular circumstances to be exempted from the rules relating to availability, as in the case of women in refuges. The Minister spoke very powerfully to that issue, and I accept his reassurances. His arguments belong equally here.

Perhaps I may give him one more example: the case of a 17 year-old who had recently suffered a miscarriage. She had been in care from 14 to 16 after being physically and sexually abused and had spent 10 months of her life in a children's psychiatric unit. She had missed a great deal of schooling. No pre-vocational skills programme was available, and she was without the skills to conduct a YT course without appropriate training. Her case represents one of the "two stools" cases to which the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, called our attention. However, she has to remain registered for YT, which she is not capable of undertaking, because otherwise she could not receive severe hardship benefit.

The Minister also suggested that the amendment would help people who refuse training. He may have been out of the Chamber during the consideration of the Bill when his noble friend Lord Inglewood introduced a welcome amendment, which deals with about 10 per cent. of the hardship cases I have here, which provides that you are not penalised if you leave training with good cause. With this amendment we would not help those who leave it without good cause. I believe that the amendment is within the lines of government policy. I believe that if the Government had accurate information they would accept it. In the meantime I ask the opinion of the House.

4.53 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 111; Not-Contents, 159.

Division No. 2
Airedale, L. Carter, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Chorley, L.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.
Avebury, L. Clinton-Davis, L.
Birk, B. Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.
Blackstone, B. Darcy (de Knayth), B.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. David, B.
Bruce of Donington, L. Dean of Beswick, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Donoughue, L. Mallalieu, B.
Dormand of Easington, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Dubs, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Mayhew, L.
Falkland, V. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Meston, L.
Fitt, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Gallacher, L. Monkswell, L.
Geraint, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L. Nicol, B.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Ogmore, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.] Palmer, L.
Peston, L.
Gregson, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Grey, E. Rea, L.
Hamwee, B. Richard, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Haskel, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Rochester, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Russell, E. [Teller.]
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Sainsbury, L.
Howie of Troon, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Hughes, L. Seear, B.
Hylton, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Serota, B.
Irvine of Lairg, L. Shannon, E.
Jay, L. Shepherd, L.
Jay of Paddington, B. Simon, V.
Jeger, B. Southwark, Bp.
Jenkins of Hillhead, L. Stallard, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Stedman, B.
Judd, L. Strafford, E.
Kennet, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Kilbracken, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Kinloss, Ly. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Kintore, E. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Kirkhill, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Lawrence, L. Varley, L.
Lester of Herne Hill, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Listowel, E. Whaddon, L.
Lockwood, B. Wharton, B.
Longford, E. White, B.
Lovell-Davis, L. Wigoder, L.
McCarthy, L. Williams of Mostyn, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Aberdare, L. Carnock, L.
Addison, V. Carr of Hadley, L.
Ailsa, M. Cawley, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Chelmsford, V.
Arran, E. Chesham, L.
Ashbourne, L. Clanwilliam, E.
Astor, V. Clark of Kempston, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Clinton, L.
Balfour, E. Cochrane of Cults, L.
Barber of Tewkesbury, L. Coleridge, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Colwyn, L.
Biddulph, L. Constantine of Stanmore, L.
Blatch, B. Courtown, E.
Blyth, L. Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Boardman, L.
Borthwick, L. Crickhowell, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Cumberlege, B.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Davidson, V.
Braine of Wheatley, L. Dean of Harptree, L.
Brigstocke, B. Derwent, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Digby, L.
Burnham, L. Dixon-Smith, L.
Cadman, L. Downshire, M.
Caithness, E. Dundonald, E.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Eden of Winton, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Elibank, L.
Ellenborough, L. Miller of Hendon, B.
Elles, B. Milverton, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Finsberg, L. Montagu of Beaulieu, L.
Flather, B. Monteagle of Brandon, L.
Foley, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Munster, E.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Nelson, E.
Gainford, L. Newall, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Noel-Buxton, L.
Gibson-Watt, L. Norrie, L.
Goschen, V. Northesk, E.
Gray of Contin, L. O'Cathain, B.
Gridley, L. Oppenheim-Barnes, B.
Grimston of Westbury, L. Orkney, E.
Harding of Petherton, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Hardinge of Penshurst, L. Oxfuird, V.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Peel, E.
Harmsworth, L. Pender, L.
Harrowby, E. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Henley, L. Prior, L.
Hives, L. Quinton, L.
Hogg, B. Radnor, E.
Holderness, L. Rawlings, B.
HolmPatrick, L. Renwick, L.
Hood, V. Romney, E.
Howe, E. Roxburghe, D.
St. Davids, V.
Inglewood, L. Seccombe, B.
Johnston of Rockport, L. Selborne, E.
Kenilworth, L.
Killearn L. Sharpies, B.
Shaw of Northstead, L.
Kimball, L. Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Knollys, V. Skelmersdale, L.
Knutsford, V. Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L.
Lane of Horsell, L. Stevens of Ludgate, L.
Lauderdale, E. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Leigh, L. Strange, B.
Lindsay, E. Strathcarron, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Strathclyde, L. [Teller.]
Liverpool, E. Sudeley, L.
Long, V. [Teller.] Swinton, E.
Lucas, L. Tebbit, L.
Lyell, L. Teviot, L.
Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Mackay of Clashfern, L. [Lord Chancellor.] Trumpington, B.
Ullswater, V.
Macleod of Borve, B. Vinson, L.
Macpherson of Drumochter, L. Vivian, L.
Malmesbury, E. Wade of Chorlton, L.
Marlesford, L. Waterford, M.
Massereene and Ferrard, V. Westbury, L.
Merrivale, L. Wolfson, L.
Mersey, V. Wynford, L.
Middleton, L. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.2 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 not moved.]

Clause 4 [Amount payable by way of a jobseeker's allowance]:

[Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 not moved.]

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 7:

After Clause 4, insert the following new clause:

("Serious underlying medical condition

.—(1) Regulations made under section 20(4) and under paragraphs 8 and 10 of Schedule 1 shall provide that a vulnerable person shall be entitled to income-based jobseeker's allowance from a prescribed date.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular provide for a person to be treated as vulnerable if they have a serious underlying medical condition.

(3) The following are examples of circumstances where regulations may prescribe that a person be treated as having a serious underlying medical condition—

  1. (a) as a result of an existing physical or mental condition, the person's health is likely to deteriorate if benefit is not paid;
  2. (b) the person's physical or mental health is such that the non-payment of benefit will put the person at risk of excessive physical or mental distress.

(4) Where a person is seeking to demonstrate a serious underlying medical condition, any costs incurred in obtaining medical evidence shall be borne by the Secretary of State.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to put on the face of the Bill a definition of "serious underlying medical condition" which would enable a hardship payment to be made immediately, and for any cost of verification of such condition to be met out of public funds.

The amendment will put into the Bill some examples of the meaning of "serious underlying medical condition" which builds on one of the categories of "vulnerability" for the purposes of making a hardship payment. Those payments can be made where a person has been unable to show that he satisfies the conditions for claiming jobseeker's allowance or where a doubt has arisen as to his entitlement.

The Government have already accepted the need to define the key conditions of "availability" and "actively seeking work". Yet there is no indication of the circumstances when hardship payments can be made. As someone is at risk of being without any form of benefit, it is crucial that claimants and staff know precisely what is intended.

At Report, the Minister stated: We wish to allow the adjudication officers discretion to consider individual circumstances and therefore we do not propose to set out a list of specific conditions which could exclude some claimants and not take account of the severity of the condition".—[Official Report, 16/5/95; col. 463.] Given that many illnesses and disabilities are hidden, it is not always easy for staff to make quick but comprehensive assessments about a claimant's condition. How will they decide who is vulnerable when faced with the variety of chronic or fluctuating disabilities? Under the current discretionary system, fewer than half of those applying for hardship payments in 1993 received them. Discretion alone may not be enough to protect the most vulnerable, as is indicated by the department's own research reports (Nos. 8 and 9) into the operation of the discretionary social fund which offered little evidence that those given awards had greater needs than those refused.

Ensuring that sick and disabled people are covered in vulnerable groups is important because only vulnerable people will have access to hardship payments immediately, or once an adverse decision has been made. The Minister has indicated two categories of "vulnerable" which concern ill health and disability. The first is entitlement to a disability premium. However, that helps a minority of unemployed sick and disabled people, as the premium is payable only to those registered blind or receiving disability allowance—which itself covers only care and mobility needs. Other needs such as heating, diet and communication are not met. Indeed, the Policy Studies Institute has estimated that fewer than half the people with health-related needs would have been eligible for the disability premium when it was introduced in 1988.

The second category is "serious underlying medical condition" which the Minister has indicated can include people with dietary needs. However, it is important that someone with a condition like diabetes is considered as having a serious condition for hardship purposes. I understand that one unemployed client of a citizens advice bureau with diabetes was unable to follow a fat and sugar free diet as advised by her doctor because of lack of money. That could have meant that her condition would have deteriorated.

With at least 150,000 sick and disabled people having their incapacity benefit withdrawn and having to sign on, there is concern that many of those people could find difficulty in fulfilling the conditions of the jobseeker's allowance and therefore could have the possibility of hardship payments as their only source of income. Many of those people could have conditions which might deteriorate rapidly if subsequently they were unable to receive hardship payments.

Factors such as possible deterioration in condition or risk of distress are obvious matters which should be taken into account when assessing whether a person falls into that category of "vulnerable". Such matters are already in regulations concerning good cause. Stress brought on by money worries can exacerbate conditions such as mental health, digestion or respiratory problems, and can in turn make it far more difficult for the person to cope with financial problems.

It is equally important that any medical or other evidence required in support of the claimant's contention is free of charge to the claimant. When a hardship payment is being considered, the claimant should not be placed in the position of having to borrow or go into debt—or indeed into greater debt—in order to obtain a letter from his doctor. The amendment ensures that any costs relating to the medical evidence arc not borne by the claimant.

During the Committee stage, the Minister stated that discussions between the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security were under way concerning the costs of medical evidence generally. When the Minister replies, will he state whether the discussions have been concluded, and, if so, what was the outcome.

Finally, the Minister has stated that there has to be a balance between claimants' obligations in return for benefit, and protection for the most vulnerable. As hardship payments are reduced by up to 40 per cent. of the basic rate, which currently amounts to only £27.90 for a single person, access to such payments is unlikely to be sufficiently attractive to undermine the conditions of the jobseeker's allowance. I believe the amendment ensures that the Government's own definition truly protects the most vulnerable. I beg to move.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I was pleased to add my name to those on the amendment, and from these Benches we support it. The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, explained its purpose extremely well, so I can be brief. It is to ensure that the term "serious underlying medical condition" is interpreted broadly in order to protect anyone whose state of health is such as would make them vulnerable, were their income to be removed. The amendment would ensure that claimants are not faced with additional financial burdens of paying for the medical evidence they require in support of their claim.

We can all foresee that there could be problems for the Benefits Agency in deciding whether someone is vulnerable because of sickness. Potentially large numbers of people will not be eligible for the disability premium, as the noble Lord said, but will nevertheless be in poor health and will seek to demonstrate a serious underlying medical condition.

The intention is to ensure that when considering whether a person suffers from such a condition the staff at the Benefits Agency take a broad approach. The amendment therefore provides that an indication be given on the face of the Bill as to the circumstances which should fall to be considered, as well as ensuring that claimants who have to provide medical evidence to confirm their health problems are not financially penalised.

It is clear that the provision of medical evidence to support an argument that someone is suffering from a serious underlying medical condition would be necessary. We presume that the Benefits Agency staff will require such evidence. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that when he replies. There could be problems for claimants in obtaining such evidence. There is increasing evidence that GPs are insisting on charging for medical reports which people need in connection with benefit claims. We feel that that adds yet a further problem to the situation in which such people find themselves.

The people in need of hardship payments on the grounds of vulnerability will need to have their claims dealt with by the Benefits Agency swiftly and thoroughly. It is therefore important not only that a claimant is able to provide proof of their circumstances but also that no delay is caused by arguments over the cost of medical evidence. The amendment therefore provides for any cost to be met automatically by the DSS in that situation. That could be easily implemented through the use of a single form for all claimants to fill in and forward to their GP.

It is an important amendment and we hope that the Government will see the strength of the argument. These people need help and we feel that the words should be on the face of the Bill so that this help can be provided swiftly and efficiently.

Earl Russell

My Lords, hardship payments under the Bill are rather like baths under the rule of St. Benedict. According to the rule of St. Benedict, the old may have baths, and the sick, but to the young and especially those in good health they shall be seldom permitted. That is precisely the situation with hardship payments. To the young and especially those in good health, they shall be seldom permitted.

To be eligible for hardship payments, you have to be established as being in a vulnerable group. That is the point of introducing the phrase "serious underlying medical condition". I think I am right in saying that that was the Minister's own phrase, used in the first day of Committee. So he has to take some responsibility for it.

The kind of thing which, as I understand it, should be covered by the amendment is asthma—which is increasing so distressingly fast—hypertension or depression, which is a particularly common illness among those on benefit. All those make people vulnerable. They are all the kind of things which being totally without benefit might cause to worsen, possibly to the detriment of the person's employability for life. It seems sensible to include them.

The amendment also provides assistance with fees for medical certificates for those conditions. This appears, as a result of the market tendencies inside the health service, to be a rapidly growing problem. For example, there is the case reported by a CAB in Suffolk of a single parent whose son suffered from asthma thought to be caused by mites in house dust. She applied for a grant for a vacuum cleaner. The Benefits Agency, reasonably enough, asked for a doctor's confirmation of her son's asthma. The charge for the report from the doctor was £9.50. She could not afford the fee, so she did not get the vacuum cleaner, so the asthma continued. We do not think that that is in the public interest.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Zouche of Haryngworth

My Lords, I wish to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Swinfen. The Government's current narrow definition will exclude many people in poor health, particularly those with chronic illness or in a state of poor health. Those are the very people who need our help and support.

I should like to give an example from a citizens advice bureau in the south west. It reported the case of a widower who was receiving medical treatment for depression. He was told by the jobcentre that unless he accepted the offer of a part-time job as a driver, paying £2.30 an hour, with no work during the school holidays, his income support would be stopped. Accepting the job led to a number of problems which worsened his state of mental health. He was earning too little to pay national insurance contributions—a situation which worried him greatly. When he visited the bureau, his housing benefit had been withdrawn—it was subsequently reinstated, due to his low income—and he feared that he would be made homeless as a result. He told the adviser that he was contemplating committing suicide by throwing himself into the river.

We should all think long and carefully before rejecting my noble friend's amendment because, if your Lordships reject it, a large number of people who are not severely disabled enough to qualify for incapacity benefit but who nevertheless are in poor health are in danger of failing to meet the jobseeker's test as a result of being deprived of even a minimum income.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, there is an additional point to be made here, following what my noble friend has just said, and it is perhaps a slightly more cynical one. If the amendment is not passed, cases will be brought up by the tabloids in a way that will be highly damaging to Her Majesty's Government. Therefore, serious consideration ought to be given to the matter before the amendment is rejected.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the amendment deals with the definitions of the vulnerable groups which will have access to hardship payments following the imposition of a sanction under Clause 19, or failure to meet the availability or actively seeking work conditions for receipt of JSA, or who have not agreed a satisfactory jobseeker's agreement. I think it is helpful to be clear at the outset about something perhaps not made entirely clear during the course of the debate: that is, the groups we are dealing with and the fact that the claimants involved have either failed to meet the necessary conditions for benefit or have made themselves unemployed or failed to pursue an opportunity to take themselves out of unemployment.

I have made clear on many occasions that we accept that there is a need to provide in these circumstances for claimants whose circumstances mean that they, or others for whom they have responsibility, are particularly vulnerable to hardship. We have set out the basic groups who will have access to payments if they demonstrate they would otherwise suffer hardship. I have also said, and must say again, that we do not accept that claimants should automatically have access to benefit at all times irrespective of their actions and choices. In the case of single, healthy claimants, we believe they must meet the basic conditions of entitlement if they wish to receive JSA.

That is the Government's basic approach to these issues. We intend to set out in regulations the detailed definitions of the vulnerable groups, and the factors which an adjudication officer will have to take into account in reaching a decision on whether hardship will arise. These are sensitive matters which may need fine-tuning in the future. They are therefore best dealt with through secondary legislation.

Turning now to the amendment, I should like to deal first with the issue of vulnerability on medical grounds, which is the subject of Amendment No. 7 and which is also covered in Amendment No. 8. We have already made clear that claimants who have a serious underlying medical condition that means that the removal of benefit would make them particularly vulnerable to hardship will have access to payments.

We will wish to look carefully at how to define that condition in the regulations. Taking physical conditions first, we have made clear that we do not believe it right to list specific medical conditions in regulations. It is important that the adjudication officer should be able to use his discretion to consider the claimant's individual circumstances as a whole, and the severity and effects of the illness in his particular case. Claimants applying for a hardship payment will be asked to give details of any serous illness from which they or a family member suffer and to explain how this affects them. In particular, they would be expected to give details of any essential costs associated with the condition—for example the costs of treatment and dietary or other needs. The basic test will be whether the illness is such as to make the claimant vulnerable to hardship, and the adjudication officer will be free to take into account any factors which he feels are relevant to this decision. We will be giving careful thought to how far we can or indeed should go in guiding adjudication officers to look at particular factors here, given the complex nature of the judgments involved. We believe that the number of cases will be extremely small, given that many serious conditions are controllable through medication, which is provided free of charge, and people on low incomes can receive free prescriptions which will ensure that they can maintain their normal level of treatment. We also believe it is right that any factors that we list should be circumstances which must be taken into account and not circumstances in which a claimant must be treated as in hardship in order to allow for the necessary flexibility to cope with each individual case. I should emphasise again that the presence of a medical condition will not of itself automatically provide access to benefit; the adjudication officer must decide that there is a clear risk of hardship arising.

We have also considered carefully whether the provisions should apply to mental disorders. I have to say that at this stage I am not convinced that they should. The new incapacity test should ensure that no one with a serious mental health problem has to claim JSA. Indeed, they will be exempt from the "all-work" test. Where a claimant's mental illness is mild or moderate the test will be applied but if it is clear from the questionnaire and medical evidence from the claimant's GP that he is not capable of work, then again he will not be required to attend a medical interview and incapacity benefit will be awarded. If the test is applied fully and the claimant does not reach the necessary points score, it is still open to the Benefits Agency medical officer to consider whether, despite the scores, the nature of the clamant's disorder is such that there would be a substantial risk to the physical or mental health of the person if he were found capable of work. Those arrangements—and in particular that final provision, which looks specifically at the risk to the health of the claimant whatever his score—represents a substantial safeguard to claimants with mental health disorders. Any claimant who scores on the mental health aspects but is still found capable of work has been judged capable of undertaking work in the normal labour market. I am not convinced that JSA will be dealing with claimants whose mental condition means that they are significantly more vulnerable to hardship than the average claimant, although I am happy to consider any arguments that have been made in that regard.

My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, mentioned in particular medical evidence. Amendment No. 7 deals with the provision of medical evidence required by the adjudication officer to support the application. In many of the cases concerned we do not believe that special medical evidence will be required. As I explained, the claimant will be asked to provide details of his condition and of how it affects him or, as the case may be, his partner. If the claimant has taken the incapacity benefit "all-work" test, evidence from that test will be available to the adjudication officer, as I mentioned before, provided the claimant has given his consent. In a small number of cases the adjudication officer may wish to seek additional factual medical evidence before reaching a view. We are still considering how that evidence might best be provided, but I can provide an assurance that the claimant—if, for instance, factual evidence was requested from a GP—would not be required to meet the costs.

I listened to the examples quoted, and in fact read them myself this morning in the briefing. I should say that there is no compulsion on a doctor to make a charge for such letters. If the doctor wishes to give a letter to his patient free of charge, then he is free to do so.

I have spoken at some length on these issues, even though we addressed them on a number of occasions at previous stages of the Bill. I hope that noble Lords will agree that their importance merits a detailed reply. Since two of my noble friends have entered the debate for the first time, I hope that they will accept that I have explained carefully and in detail how we intend to deal with the particular problems. I believe that they can be dealt with satisfactorily. Having given my assurances once again to my noble friend, I hope that he will be able to withdraw his amendment. However, if he does not see fit to withdraw it, I hope that my other noble friends will support me in the Lobby.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I am delighted to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, that he does not think that any cost will be incurred in obtaining medical evidence. However, I have a feeling that occasionally that may be the case. It may not always be the intention, but I am sure that some doctors will charge. It may not be very many, but some will do so.

The noble Lord emphasised that under the Bill medical evidence would cover only those who failed to make a jobseeker's agreement or who made themselves unemployed. That may well have come about purely as a result of their disability; it may not have been intentional. He also said that the question of vulnerability would be covered by regulations. All that this amendment seeks to do is indicate the kind of regulations that should be made. The noble Lord also said that people with severe mental disability or mental health problems should not reach the jobseeker's agreement stage because they would be covered by incapacity benefit. However, there is always the possibility of a slip and of things not going as they should. My amendment would cover that position and act as a check.

It is worth emphasising that my amendment is very modest. It proposes hardship payments only for those whose existing medical condition is likely to deteriorate if benefit is not paid, and whose health is such that non-payment would put them at risk of excessive physical or mental distress. I do not believe that it would prove very costly. Despite what my noble friend said, I still consider the amendment to be important. I should like to seek the opinion of the House. I commend the amendment to your Lordships.

5.27 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 7) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 115; Not-Contents, 152.

Division No. 3
Ackner, L. Kilbracken, L.
Airedale, L. Kinloss, Ly.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Kirkhill, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Listowel, E.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Lockwood, B.
Avebury, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Bancroft, L. McCarthy, L.
Birk, B. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Blackstone, B. McNair, L.
Brain, L. Mallalieu, B.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Bruce of Donington, L. Masham of Ilton, B.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Mayhew, L.
Carter, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Chorley, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Monkswell, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Croham, L. Moyne, L.
Darcy (de Knayth), B. Nathan, L.
David, B. Nelson, E.
Dean of Beswick, L. Nicol, B.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Ogmore, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Peston, L.
Donoughue, L. Phillips of Ellesmere, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Rea, L.
Dubs, L. Richard, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Falkland, V. Rix, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Foot, L. Rochester, L.
Gallacher, L. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Geraint, L. Russell, E.
Gladwin of Clee, L. [Teller.] St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Bp.
Gould of Potternewton, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Gregson, L. Seear, B.
Grey, E. Sefton of Garston, L.
Halsbury, E. Serota, B.
Hamwee, B. Shepherd, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Simon, V.
Harrowby, E. Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Haskel, L. Stedman, B.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Strafford, E.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Swinfen, L. [Teller.]
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Howie of Troon, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Hughes, L. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Hylton, L. Tope, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Irvine of Lairg, L. Waverley, V.
Jay, L. Whaddon, L.
Jay of Paddington, B. Wharton, B.
Jeger, B. White, B.
Jenkins of Hillhead, L. Williams of Mostyn, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Judd, L. Wise, L.
Kennet, L. Zouche of Haryngworth, L.
Abercorn, D. Birdwood, L.
Aberdare, L. Blaker, L.
Addison, V. Blatch, B.
Ailsa, M. Boardman, L.
Ashbourne, L. Borthwick, L.
Astor, V. Boyd-Carpenter, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Brabazon of Tara, L.
Balfour, E. Braine of Wheatley, L.
Barber of Tewkesbury, L. Bridgeman, V.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Brigstocke, B.
Biddulph, L. Burnham, L.
Cadman, L. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Caithness, E. Long, V. [Teller.]
Campbell of Alloway, L. Lucas, L.
Carnock, L. Lyell, L.
Carr of Hadley, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Cawley, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Charteris of Amisfield, L.
Chelmsford, V. Macleod of Borve, B.
Chesham, L. Malmesbury, E.
Clanwilliam, E. Marlesford, L.
Clark of Kempston, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Clinton, L. Merrivale, L.
Cochrane of Cults, L. Mersey, V.
Colwyn, L. Middleton, L.
Constantine of Stanmore, L. Miller of Hendon, B.
Courtown, E. Milverton, L.
Cox, B. Monk Bretton, L.
Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.] Monteagle of Brandon, L.
Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Crickhowell, L. Munster, E.
Cumberlege, B. Newall, L.
Davidson, V. Northesk, E.
Dean of Harptree, L. O'Cathain, B.
Derwent, L. Oppenheim-Barnes, B.
Digby, L. Orkney, E.
Dixon-Smith, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Downshire, M. Oxfuird, V.
Dundonald, E. Peel, E.
Eden of Winton, L. Pender, L.
Elibank, L. Perth, E.
Elles, B. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Quinton, L.
Elton, L. Rawlings, B.
Finsberg, L. Reay, L.
Flather, B. Renton, L.
Foley, L. Renwick, L.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Romney, E.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Saint Albans, D.
Gibson-Watt, L. St. Davids, V.
Goschen, V. St. John of Fawsley, L.
Gray of Contin, L. Seccombe, B.
Gridley, L. Selborne, E.
Grimston of Westbury, L. Sharples, B.
Hanson, L. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Harding of Petherton, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Hardinge of Penshurst, L. Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L.
Harmsworth, L. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Henley, L. Strange, B.
Hesketh, L. Strathcarron, L.
Hives, L. Strathclyde, L. [Teller.]
Hogg, B. Sudeley, L.
Holderness, L. Swansea, L.
HolmPatrick, L. Swinton, E.
Hood, V. Tebbit, L.
Hooper, B. Teviot, L.
Howe, E. Teynham, L.
Inglewood, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Johnston of Rockport, L. Torphichen, L.
Killearn, L. Trumpington, B.
Kimball, L. Ullswater, V.
Kinnoull, E. Vinson, L.
Knutsford, V. Vivian, L.
Lane of Horsell, L. Wade of Chorlton, L.
Lauderdale, E. Waterford, M.
Leigh, L. Wynford, L.
Lindsay, E. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.36 p.m.

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 8:

After Clause 4, insert the following new clause:


.—(1) Regulations made under section 20(4) and under paragraphs 8 and 10 of Schedule 1 shall provide that a person shall be entitled to an income-based jobseeker's allowance from a prescribed date if he can demonstrate that he is at risk of hardship if payment is not made.

(2) The following are examples of circumstances where regulations may prescribe that a person be treated as at risk of hardship—

  1. (a) the person is at risk of being denied some or all of the essentials of life such as food, water, necessary clothing, heating and cooking facilities or shelter;
  2. (b) the person is at risk of suffering a deterioration in their physical or mental health;
  3. (c) the person is at risk of being unable to meet the essential cost of any disability or health problem;
  4. (d) the person will be put into debt for essential services or their debts for such services are likely to increase;
  5. (e) the person will be prevented through lack of resources from actively seeking work.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to put on the face of the Bill a definition of hardship to enable reduced-rate payments to be made when someone fails to meet the conditions for jobseeker's allowance.

Currently, the definition of hardship is left to the discretion of adjudication officers, with guidance referring to situations in which the claimant or family could be denied some or all of the essentials of life, such as food, clothing, heating or shelter. This amendment seeks to place on the face of the Bill a definition of hardship which builds on the current definition by including reference to a risk of deterioration or of falling into debt if benefit is removed. It also includes reference to people who may not be able to meet the costs of their disability.

My noble friend the Minister has given few clues as to what "hardship" will mean, apart from a reference to alternative access to funds and capital. During the Committee stage, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, stated that: We consider that it is right in JSA, which aims to set out a clearer sanctions regime, that criteria should be made more explicit in regulations".—[Official Report, 25/4/95; col. 877.]

If criteria are to be made more explicit, why are the relevant matters not on the face of the Bill? A list of examples would not preclude other circumstances being taken into account. Indeed, that is the approach taken by the Government in their own redrafting of clauses concerning availability for work and actively seeking work.

People on low incomes are particularly vulnerable to debt and deprivation, when families may be going without an essential item. Studies suggest that a third of households with incomes below £100 a week have debts and one in five parents have gone hungry because they did not have enough money to buy food. Researchers at Bradford University and the family service units found that over two-thirds of the families that were surveyed had health problems and that fluctuating health problems could be badly affected by a financial crisis—for example, bronchitis and asthma worsen under stress and cold temperatures.

Sick and disabled people are also particularly vulnerable to debt. The Disablement Income Group found that 20 per cent. of single, disabled adults describe themselves as "permanently" in debt, with another 15 per cent. getting into difficulties and 40 per cent. currently behind with payments. Asked how they would spend an extra £10 per week, 27 per cent. replied "on food"; and 37 per cent. would spend a windfall of £200 on paying off debts. Recent research by Sheffield CAB and Debt Support Unit found that for disabled people with long-term low incomes, even a small change in income could trigger debt problems. "Hardship" therefore should include a full assessment of any risk of greater stress or indebtedness if no hardship payment is made.

People with ill-health or disability can often be faced with financial difficulties because of extra disability-related costs. The OPCS surveys found that over 50 per cent. of disabled people incurred additional heating costs as a result of their disability. People with poor circulation or limited mobility need constant warmth; others will need hot water for extra baths or laundry.

Disability costs do not only arise for people with the most severe disabilities. Both the Policy Studies Institute and the Disablement Income Group found that even in lower severity categories, sick and disabled people could incur costs of up to £22 a week. Such costs can include fuel and heating, transport, wear and tear on clothing, laundry and chemists' items.

Of particular concern is the position of the thousands of sick and disabled people who may have their incapacity benefit removed and therefore have to sign on. Such people may not be the most severely disabled but could nonetheless incur additional costs because of their disability. For instance, someone who loses control of his bladder once a month and loses control of his bowels only occasionally would score only 12 points, which is below the incapacity threshold of 15. Yet such a person could incur extra costs in laundry, hot water for bathing and incontinence aids. Such problems could possibly worsen under the stress of being without any form of income. Where someone would be at risk of being unable to meet disability costs, their health should be considered to be at risk and a hardship payment made.

Amendment No. 8 would also offer important recognition that jobseekers need some form of income in order to be able to seek work. Jobseekers with a health problem or disability may incur additional costs when looking for work, yet they may not be covered by the Employment Service. Some deaf people have found that interpreters have not been available even for interviews with disability employment advisers. It is important that those costs are recognised for hardship purposes and that the person is not prevented from looking for work through lack of financial support. The amendment would place a definition of "hardship" in the Bill which develops current rules and ensures that the Government's objective of protecting those in hardship is met. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I have some difficulty with this amendment. First, as I understand it, subsection (1) is automatic in its operation. In other words, one is entitled to an allowance if one is at risk of hardship. Then, under subsection (2), types of hardship are cited. The only one that seems to me to be relevant to a jobseeker's allowance is (e), being prevented from actively seeking work.

Then one comes to the question of paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d). Surely other sources of benefit within the social benefits system will deal with those. Why therefore should they be saddled onto the jobseeker's entitlement? I do not understand that. Also, when one seeks to serialize and give examples, one tends to exclude. It may be all water under the bridge now, but an amendment was tabled in my name and that of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, dealing with family consideration hardship. We would have moved that amendment had not a government amendment been put forward.

What happens about family consideration hardship? I have come to the conclusion that, like many of these matters, it merges in the "good cause" test and that the more one seeks to define, in a sense, the more one seeks to exclude. I am a bit foxed as to how the amendment will achieve a constructive purpose. I am not trying to knock the spirit of it. I do not in any sense question the sincerity that moves the amendment. But, with respect, I do not think it will work.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I rise to support the amendment so well moved by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. With the indulgence of the House, perhaps I may comment briefly on the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. In a strict sense he is quite right to say that only paragraph (e) relates to a jobseeker's allowance. But that is because of the change in terminology introduced by the Government in which, if one is unemployed, one is no longer classed as "unemployed" but as a "jobseeker". If instead, throughout our debates, we talked about the "unemployed", then I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, would agree that not just paragraph (e) but also paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) would apply as hardship—that is, if one is unemployed and therefore has no other income coming from work.

The second point made by the noble Lord was that such people who may be in hardship would be eligible for other benefits and should not be carried by JSA. I wish the noble Lord was right. The amendments that many of us on these Benches—and indeed some on the Conservative Benches—have tabled are precisely to that effect. But JSA has integrated two benefits—the old unemployment benefit of which the noble Lord was, in a sense, speaking and also income support. Therefore most groups of people who, in the past, would qualify for income support are no longer eligible for it; it is JSA or nothing. It is the coming together of those two benefits.

The only other benefit available, except in special circumstances like being a lone parent, is incapacity benefit which replaces invalidity benefit. Therefore one receives incapacity benefit if one is so severely disabled or has such a severe medical condition that one is judged to be incapable of work. But, as we discussed in our debates on previous amendments, one may be suffering from such severe depression that one prefers to be isolated; one may not understand a simple communication or message; one may need supervision or exhibit violent behaviour, yet one may not be eligible for incapacity benefit. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, rightly said, many people who in the past would have received invalidity benefit, will not now receive it even though their condition will deteriorate if they do not receive a hardship payment.

A second benefit available is income support. It is only available for a limited number of people such as lone parents. Everybody else within the employable age must turn to JSA. In other words, jobseeker's allowance is carrying a benefit delivery which in my view it should not do. It should be confined to those seeking work. It is being asked to carry payments to all those who are unable to work but nonetheless fail to qualify for incapacity benefit or income support. Our concern is that many people will not, for good cause, qualify for incapacity benefit or for income support; they may fail some of the JSA tests and also fail a test of hardship.

The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, tabled the amendment for three reasons. First, the Bill remains too much of a framework Bill—and many noble Lords have expressed that anxiety—which contains four pivotal sets of phrases: "available for work"; "actively seeking work"; "vulnerable" and "hardship". As a result of your Lordships' efforts, quite rightly, "available for work" and "actively seeking work"—the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, played an important part in this— are now on the face of the Bill. But when there are doubts as to whether one is meeting the conditions so that "actively seeking work" applies, the two important and pivotal words of "vulnerable" and "hardship" are not so defined. Therefore, the amendment that has just been lost and this amendment seek to bring back into the framework of the Bill a pivotal concept on the basis of which people will or will not be entitled to benefit.

The second reason for wanting the definition on the face of the Bill is not just that otherwise it is still too much a framework Bill but that the Government are tightening up eligibility for benefit, they are tightening up the number of referrals that will be made and they are tightening up the making of hardship payments so that more and more will be left to the discretion not only of the Secretary of State but of the employment officer. Because so much will be left otherwise to discretion, we feel it is pivotal that the definition be on the face of the Bill.

The previous amendment was important. It would have safeguarded the position of people for the first fortnight of benefit. But with this amendment we are trying to safeguard the position of people for up to 26 weeks at a time. If in the judgment of an employment officer someone is not actively seeking work and he fails the hardship test—it may be that he has a mild mental health condition or a moderate learning disability or English may not be his first language: he is inadequate, he is incompetent, he is not significantly manipulative to get by in the system—that person will be without any income at all for 26 weeks—six months. He will have no money whatever. What will he live on except, as we fear, scrounging, stealing, begging, thieving, shoplifting, and the like?

Clearly, those who do not seek work when they should and could, will come within the framework of sanction and penalty. We do not challenge that. But what we are seeking to do here is to ensure that the conditions described by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, are set out on the face of the Bill. I am referring to people who without JSA and hardship payment would go without food, clothing, heating, or a home; or, equally, people who without a hardship payment would see their physical or mental health deteriorate because they are not sick enough to qualify for a new, tough incapacity benefit; people who have a mild disability problem or a health problem which produces additional costs which they cannot meet so their condition will otherwise worsen; or people who are likely to go into debt and therefore suffer disconnection from water or fuel, or eviction; or people who, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said, cannot even re-enter the search for a job because they have no money to pay for fares. We say that all such people surely should be recognised as being in hardship.

The Minister may tell us that this will be done by regulation. We had that argument and your Lordships gave a verdict on it when we discussed availability for work and actively seeking work. If your Lordships were minded to pass this amendment we would turn a framework Bill into less of a framework Bill and place more on the face of the Bill, so people would know where they stood. Secondly, we would be ensuring that people who are in hardship, as so defined, would have some income and would not therefore have a right to break windows and a right to steal. Thirdly, we would be producing some measure of protection for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I support what the noble Baroness has just said. I shall not go into any more detail about the amendment except to make two points. When the noble Baroness said that certain people could be left for 26 weeks without any money, the Minister shook his head. Can the noble Lord make it absolutely clear when he comes to reply that it is not possible for anyone to be left for 26 weeks without any means of feeding himself? My second reason for supporting the amendment very strongly is the fact that this is a framework Bill and we are deeply opposed to the extent to which so many things of importance are being left to regulation. We have fought that all the way through and we shall continue to fight it.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may ask her what I would have asked the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, if she had not already sat down. I should have liked to thank her for her presentation and to have congratulated her on her art of presentation. I should have liked to ask her, before she sat down, how she proposes that the adjudication under paragraphs (a) to (d) in practice would be made, first, by the employment officer, and, then, by the adjudication officer. How in practice does she envisage that that would happen?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I assume that my noble friend will not receive an answer to his question. I support every word that he said in his first speech but I should like to add perhaps an elaboration on my noble friend's second point. Paragraphs (a) to (d) are all totally subjective. I do not think it is good to pass legislation of a subjective character. Where there are examples of things actually happening, my noble friend will, I hope, be able to explain how they are being dealt with. I hope that in terms of medical equipment it will be on the health budget and not on the social security budget.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I accept, as I am sure all your Lordships do, that the amendment is very well intentioned. But I fear that though the intentions may be admirable the effect, if we include it in the Bill, will be unfortunate. As your Lordships may know, I have some experience of social security legislation. This is a difficult and complex subject. It will be made much more difficult if one puts into the Bill, as subsection (2) of the amendment seeks to do: The following are examples of circumstances where regulations may prescribe that a person be treated as at risk of hardship". I say that for two reasons. First, to say in legislation that one is giving examples will open up every kind of confusion and every kind of argument as to whether something is consistent with the example or different from it. Secondly, one is putting into the law simply a discretion for the Minister: The following are examples of circumstances where regulations may prescribe". If the Minister does not prescribe, the whole thing flops.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, perhaps I may—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I shall give way to the noble Lord if he asks in a moment. But I am not going to be shouted down by him. I am saying that the amendment—perhaps the noble Lord would be good enough to listen—states that the regulations may prescribe. As far as I know there is nothing to compel the Minister to make the regulations. I shall now give way to the noble Lord.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Lord, but I can assure him that I was not shouting at him. I never said a word. I wanted to draw his attention, since he does not like the idea of the examples in paragraphs (a) to (d), to the fact that the wording was taken from Clause 6(3) of the Government's own Bill: The following are examples of restrictions for which provision may be made by the regulations". The subsection then goes on to set out (a), (b), (c) and (d). Surely what is good enough for the Government is good enough for us.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord has such admiration for the Government's drafting that he finds it necessary to quote it in favour of the amendment. It is very gratifying, but perhaps there is a touch of simplicity about it.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has made an interesting point. I do not know whether he was in the House on Report when we debated Amendment No. 26A, which was moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. The noble Lord may remember that both the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Renton, to both of whom I listen very carefully indeed on drafting matters, argued for the proposition, to which the Renton Report gave support, of the use of examples as a way of giving greater precision to a general clause. It is one way of getting at the intention of the legislator, which is of course what the courts must do.

If one accepts the suggestion which the noble and learned Lord then made of construing this by the rule ejusdem generis—I hope that he will correct me if my pronunciation of Latin is not sufficiently legal—we are approaching clarity. So there is a contrary view to that which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has expressed which deserves a hearing.

6 p.m.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, this debate has been very interesting and the arguments have been persuasively put on both sides. One has received material about this matter and read it. With some of my noble friends on this side of the House there are doubts. Where are we going to end in defining hardship? If one is to continue defining the word, one is not going to help those who are in hardship. Surely we must place trust and reliance in those who are administering the provisions. I shall not vote against the Government. The only thing I do at any time is abstain.

I do not believe that my noble friend Lord Swinfen, and even the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who speaks so well and so persuasively, have convinced me by their arguments. I am sure that my noble friend on the Front Bench will convince me that I am right. From what I have understood of the Bill and what has been said about it in all its stages in this House, I believe that reasonable and proper measures have been taken. For the life of me I cannot believe that this country would allow to happen some of the things which have been suggested. I cannot believe it. There must be trust and reliance shown. I would not vote against the Government. Others would have to put an even stronger case for me to abstain from voting.

I feel sure that my noble friend on the Front Bench will be able to show me that what I feel is right. That does not mean that I have no feeling for people suffering hardship. As a minister one sees hardship in a way which perhaps otherwise one would not. It is not that I am hard or unfeeling, because I know what it can be like. Even some clergy families know what it is like to face hardship. So it is not as though the clergy were unaware and not in the real world. Most clergy have their feet in the world and know what is happening.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, this debate overlaps the debate which we had on the last amendment. I do not wish to go over that ground again unless I am severely tempted to do so. As it was such a short time ago, I presume that most noble Lords will not wish me to go over the ground again. We have also had coming into the edges of this debate the other debates we had on incapacity benefit. I have listened to this issue coming into the debates on a number of occasions. One could be left with the view, if one had not been present at the debates on incapacity benefit, that the benefit introduced in April would virtually exclude every possible person from the new benefit. That is simply not true.

About 1.5 million people will still be entitled to incapacity benefit. That figure has doubled over the past 10 years and expenditure has gone up even more. As I have said on a number of occasions when discussing this matter, I find it quite hard to square that with the fact that our population is becoming healthier. The Government took the view that we had to take steps to deal with the explosion in incapacity benefit payments and make sure that the people getting it were entitled to it and required it and that everyone who failed the tests would come within the ambit of the jobseeker's allowance next year.

I turn now to the amendment. It proposes a number of additional circumstances in which a claimant should be treated as being in hardship. Subsection (2) (a) sets out a number of general factors based on the premise that the claimant will be in hardship if he is at risk of being denied some or all of the essentials of life. I have made clear in earlier debates that we shall be listing in regulations factors which the adjudication officer should take into account in deciding whether there is a risk of hardship. Setting aside the exact wording of the amendment, I am happy to say that in principle we intend to include factors of the type set out in subsection (2) (a). However, I say again that the regulations will be drafted in a way which will allow the adjudication officer discretion. A person outside the vulnerable groups will not be eligible for hardship payments if he is not available for or actively seeking work, nor during the first two weeks of the sanction.

I shall consider carefully the remaining points in the amendment, but the issue of borrowing and debt is currently left to the adjudication officer's discretion, and it makes sense for that to continue. I do not accept that it would be right in every case for the benefit system to step in when it is open to the claimant to re-arrange his commitments and re-schedule his payments if he can avoid hardship by doing that.

I am also not convinced of the need to include provisions on the lines of subsection (2) (e) of the amendment. The actively seeking work test requires claimants only to take those steps which are appropriate and reasonable in their own circumstances. That is a subject which we have discussed at some length.

Single, healthy claimants currently have all benefit withdrawn if they are not actively seeking work, so there is nothing new here. It is open to anyone who wishes to start seeking work to take the very basic steps; for example, by applying for jobs which are displayed in the jobcentre which are necessary to satisfy this test. Indeed, there was some confusion in the latter part of the debate between the issues we have discussed. We debated whether someone was actually entitled to the benefit where they were actively seeking work and available for it and where the entitlement was established, but a sanction is being applied because they have taken steps to leave the previous job, and so on. I shall come to that situation in a moment when I reach the question of sanctions.

People who do not seek work lose benefit at once. However, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that they can return to benefit after two weeks by simply starting to look for work and obeying the principal test of the jobseeker's allowance. Nobody is actually left without benefit for 26 weeks if they are undergoing a sanction and would suffer hardship. All claimants, including childless healthy claimants, will have access to payments after the 2 weeks are over. The point about the sanctions, as I mentioned at the beginning of my contribution on the last amendment, is that they run from one to 26 weeks, as determined by the adjudication officer. The suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that every sanction is 26 weeks is quite wrong. That is not the case at all. The great majority of the sanctions are for a great deal less than 26 weeks. The sanctions are for between one and 26 weeks. They are for people who left their employment voluntarily without just cause, who lost their employment through misconduct, who have refused employment without good cause or who have refused to carry out the jobseeker's direction.

As I said at the beginning of my contribution on the previous amendment of my noble friends, we do not accept that claimants should automatically have access to benefit at all times, irrespective of their actions and choices.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the average period of disallowance is 20 weeks, which must mean that quite a lot of people suffer the sanction for 26 weeks?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, my recollection—I accept that it is only a recollection—is that the average disallowance is fewer than 20 weeks. I do not have the figures to hand, but my recollection is that the period is more like 13 weeks. As I am not entirely sure that I am right, I shall check because I do not like to be wrong. I believe, however, that the noble Lord vastly overestimates the situation when he refers to 20 weeks. I think that my recollection of 13 weeks is nearer the case.

My point remains that, as I have clearly said, many of the points that my noble friend raises will be placed in regulations. However, I believe that claimants who have either failed to meet the necessary conditions for benefit, who have made themselves unemployed or who have failed to pursue an opportunity to take themselves off benefit should not automatically have access to benefit. People who are able to show that they would suffer hardship will be eligible for the hardship payments. I have made that position clear on a number of occasions and I do so again.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway did not like the drafting of the amendment. I assure him that all parts are relevant to seeking work. The point is that the more restricted incapacity benefit makes less severely disabled people, people in poor health, need even more protection.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, did not like to see "examples" in amendments. I suggest that he looks particularly at Clause 6(3) which begins: The following are examples of restrictions". Therefore, I am only following the Government's lead. I am sure that my noble friend would always expect me to follow the Government's lead although there are times when I try to improve the direction in which they are going.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am naturally very impressed by the noble Lord's loyalty to the Government and his indication that if the Government have provided something, it must be right. Personally, I do not accept that.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. I was only saying that in this amendment I was following the Government's lead. Perhaps they have taken me down a dead end.

I am tempted to seek to divide the House on this amendment, particularly given the fact that if these provisions are not included in the Bill, the only chance now of the Bill being improved or amended would be in the other place. However, bearing in mind what happened on my last amendment, I think that it would be kinder to the House if I was to seek leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.15 p.m.

Clause 6 [Availability for employment]:

Lord McCarthy moved Amendment No. 9:

Page 5, line 43, at end insert: ("( ) Regulations shall provide that entitlement to a jobseeker's allowance is not lost without the claimant being given reasonable notice in writing of the grounds for such loss and a reasonable opportunity to comment on or challenge those grounds.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we return to the issue of the warning notice and to the point at which the employment officer suspects—he or she does not know, but merely suspects—that the applicant may not be actively seeking work. Warning notices used to be issued. There is some argument that warning notices may still be out there somewhere. Indeed, we were told during previous debates that there might be two notices or at least two letters, but that sometimes there would be no letters at all. This is an attempt to clarify the situation and to provide that there should be a warning notice.

The amendment states: Regulations shall provide that entitlement to a jobseeker's allowance is not lost without the claimant being given reasonable notice in writing of the grounds for such loss and a reasonable opportunity to comment on or challenge those grounds". It is not exactly the same as the amendment that was moved in Committee on 25th April because the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, did not like the last part of that amendment which referred to "an opportunity to establish". The noble Lord felt that that would give too much strength to the applicant, so we are merely suggesting that there should be a reasonable opportunity to comment on or challenge". Therefore, this is a somewhat weaker amendment, the object being to try to take the Government with us.

In that debate, I and other noble Lords both on this side of the House and the other tried to make four points. The first was that, as we understand it, before 1992 it was normal for employment officers to send warning letters to unemployed persons who they had reason to believe, or thought or suspected, were no longer sufficiently available for and seeking work. That used to happen before any reference to the adjudication officer. The first point, therefore, is that that was the tradition.

Our second point is that that appeared to us to be a very successful practice. It was an effective way of checking up on the situation. In 1989–90 28,910 warning letters were sent out. That point was made in the debate and was not contradicted by the Minister. As a result of the sending of those letters, there were 23,000 satisfactory replies—in other words, 23,000 of those who were written to were able to establish that they were actively seeking work. As a result, there were only 6,000 references to adjudication and only 2,000 disallowances. In other words, the success rate was something like 93 per cent.—at least, it was a "success rate" if you are concerned with natural justice and if you believe that an applicant who is suspected of not actively seeking work ought to have an opportunity to justify himself. Claimants were able to do that in 93 per cent. of all cases.

Our third point was that for inexplicable reasons—perhaps I should say for reasons about which the Government had not been sufficiently frank—as far as we can see the number of warning letters began to decline after 1989. There is some debate about the figure to which they declined and to whom those letters were sent. Our figures for 1991–92, which were not denied by the Minister, show that they had declined to 25,000 and that they declined further to 9,000 in 1993–94. Meanwhile, disqualifications rose. According to some figures, they rose from 2,000 to 113,000—an increase of some 5,000 per cent. I do not know whether those figures are accepted by the Government, but what is certain is that the number of disqualifications rose.

Therefore, we thought that there was a case in natural justice for the restoration of the warning letters. Clearly, they are of use and are a way of discovering whether or not the suspicions of the employment officer are justified. I should have thought that issuing such letters was only reasonable and fair on the ground of natural justice. Unfortunately, the Government's answers on that point were inexplicable. Four different grounds were given. I am merely trying to ask the Government which one they want tonight.

In the first place, the Minister went back on an understanding or statement which we thought had been made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. In a debate in this House initiated by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, the Government appeared to us to be saying that, yes, they had abandoned the letter, but that that had not had any disadvantageous consequences in terms of disallowances or disqualifications. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, said: if there were further evidence that these regulations are catching those whom it is not intended to catch and are not dealing with those who consciously and deliberately fail actively to seek work, obviously we would then reconsider".—[Official Report, 1/12192; col. 1332.] That is why we thought that the Government might say that they were going to reconsider the position, as had been promised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. The first problem was that they did not. They seemed to be saying that the letter had been abandoned but that that was not a bad thing.

Secondly, at col. 848 on 25th April, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, seemed to be saying that the letter was still being sent. He said: Let me assure the Committee that under the JSA the jobseeker will receive full information about his or her position. The amendment is therefore unnecessary. Under current practice when a doubt is identified on a claim for unemployment benefit the claimant is notified in writing"— so it is still there— that the claim is being referred to an adjudication officer for a decision. The form explains the adjudication process in general terms. A further leaflet is available containing more details of each of the benefit rules. The claimant is invited to ask at the ES office for help with points not covered in either leaflet. We shall be following similar practices in JSA".

The trouble is that subsequently the noble Lord seemed to take a third position. He then seemed to suggest, to us at least, that they had stopped the letters and that they were justified in stopping the letters, and the stopping of the letters and the effect of our amendment in restoring the letters was a reason for not accepting the amendment. It was not now that it was unnecessary; it was that it was unacceptable. The noble Lord said again: We must be careful about the perverse effects of the second part of the amendment. If it is intended to enable a jobseeker to be given a second chance"— which of course it is— to be available or to seek work actively in a given period, that would significantly weaken the incentive effect of the available and actively seeking work condition". The Minister continued: If a jobseeker does not take the necessary steps or has not been available for employment in any week, the employment officer must be able to refer the question on the facts of the case. He should not be hindered by considerations of what the jobseeker might do in the future, before the adjudication decision". He seems to be saying that the Government believe that people who received the letter suddenly went out and started work—actively seeking, actively looking—and somehow the employment officer and the adjudication officer could not take into account what such people had done in the past. They had to take into account what they were then doing and because of that they were able to obtain their allowance in circumstances in which they were not entitled to it. That is why the Government do not send the letters.

I believe that that is all the following passage can mean, because the Minister seemed then to think that he had not referred to any letter at all. He said halfway through the debate: I should have referred to the letter at the outset of my remarks. The letter merely enabled the claimant not actively to seek work until he was warned to do so. Active seeking is a clear condition of benefit. The required steps are made clear to the individual at the start of his claim. Such a written warning in that regard should therefore be unnecessary".

We were—we are still—confused at that point. That was not helped when the noble Lord said: There are two separate letters here. We do not send a warning letter to people telling them to start active seeking, but we send a letter to the claimant advising him that the matter is being sent to the adjudication officer".

The result of all that was that the debate in Committee began to be affected by arguments not merely about the letters—whether there was one or two letters—but whether during the period of one or two letters the individual claimant was still receiving his allowance. That is another matter which I should like the Government to clear up, because the Minister seemed to say (col. 850) that during the period of suspension the applicant was still receiving the allowance, whereas he seemed to be saying later that he was not. He said: I am afraid that I honestly do not know. Perhaps I may deal with a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about people who might have difficulty in speaking English".

To try to bring the (debate to a close we asked the Minister a number of questions. We have had no answers to any of those questions. So I put them at this late stage on Third Reading: are the letters still being sent? Are there 9,000 or 28,000 of them? Are there some letters or no letters? Are there two letters? If they are not sent to all applicants, on what basis are they sent? Whenever they are sent—if some are sent—when does the benefit stop? What do the Government think they are doing? When all this was put to the Minister he said he did not know the answer to all the questions, but he stated: Needless to say, I shall write to the noble Lord having made sure that I am right in my description".—[Official Report, 25/4/95; cols. 848–853.]

I have to say that so far as I know I have received no correspondence from the noble Lord about any of those questions. The questions remain to be answered. There still seems to us to be an overwhelming argument for restoring the warning letter in the way that it operated before the Government cut it down. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I support the amendment. I have given notice that I intend so to do. The crux of the matter is: is the allowance paid during suspension? If it is, much of the steam goes out of the kettle. If it is not, natural justice demands that the claimant is given notice of grounds for removal of his entitlement under Clause 1 and that he should have a reasonable opportunity to deal with the situation.

I put aside past practice. I am not concerned with these letters; whether they were sent; whether they were not sent; whether they exist; or whatever happened to them. I regard all that as; totally immaterial. I look at the matter as I think any ordinary lawyer would look at it. If one removes an entitlement—there is an entitlement under Clause 1—one has to say why in writing quite simply and give the person adversely affected a chance to make representations. I cannot see that there is anything adverse to the Government in the spirit of that proposal, and I so informed the Government Chief Whip and my noble friend the Minister.

Indeed, the proposal would assist the Government, because if he is aggrieved the applicant can seek judicial review. He can say, "They have taken away my entitlement. I want a judicial review of this". If there are no reasons, and one reaches the Divisional Court, the Divisional Court will say, "Well, if there are no reasons given, we are entitled to draw certain inferences". Those inferences will not be drawn against the. claimant. They will be against the Government, if anything.

I do not know enough about this subject without some assistance from my noble friend the Minister and perhaps other noble Lords. In principle, if that allowance is suspended, I cannot see why the Government should not accept the substance of the amendment. The provision does not necessarily have to be on the face of the Bill. It could be set out in regulations against an assurance reported in Hansard that regulations would be introduced. I believe that the provisions are at Clause 9(6) to (9). It would fit in there well. If my noble friend were able to give the assurance that they would bring in the regulations to accord with natural justice, I should be satisfied.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has put his finger on the very heart of the issue. I shall listen, as he will, to the reply that the Minister gives him. I shall not presume to speculate on how the reply on 25th April of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, came into existence. The noble Lord may be interested in some remarks made by one of my former colleagues at Yale. It was at the time when undergraduates were just beginning to use word processors. He remarked that because it was possible to insert a new paragraph into an old text without having to change the old text to fit in with the new paragraph, it became remarkably easy to produce inconsistent documents. I shall not presume to speculate on the relevance of that story; but the noble Lord may be interested in it.

However, I believe that we should clear up the confusion about the letter to which we are referring. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, referred to a letter which informs the claimant that he is being referred to adjudication. I understand that that process continues and that one cannot have adjudication without it. However, the amendment refers to a different letter which is more like the traditional police caution. It is a warning to the claimant that his conduct has given rise to suspicion, which on some occasions is dispelled.

I have two examples of the kind of people who would have benefited from the passing of the amendment. The first was a man who normally looked for work extensively, but in addition to having a heart condition, he happened to be moving house. During the week of the move he did not look for work with his customary zeal. He supposed that that would be understood and acceptable. It turned out that that was not the case and his benefit was suspended. If—and I use the word "if— it is the law that a claimant moving house must look for work as extensively in the week of the move as in every other week, it seems fair to notify him and let him act accordingly, which that person would have done.

The second case was reported by a CAB in Cheshire. It involved a woman who wanted to work for about 30 hours a week and who described that as "part-time" work. In ordinary speech one can understand that distinction perfectly well but as a term of art within the Employment Service 30 hours a week is not part-time work. The Employment Service thought that she was prepared to work only 16 hours a week and that she was putting unreasonable restrictions on her availability. Her benefit was stopped. That was a simple, plain misunderstanding. The issuing of a warning letter would have given ample opportunity to clear it up and would have avoided unnecessary hardship.

It illustrates that the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, was wrong to say at the notorious col. 848: The letter merely enabled the claimant not actively to seek work until he was warned to do so".—[Official Report, 25/4/95; col. 848.] That does not apply to the two cases which I have quoted, nor does it apply to many others.

The noble Lord was also mistaken to insist that the person was not meeting the conditions from the moment any doubt arose about his availability. The noble Lord said: the benefit is payable so long as the criteria are satisfied; in other words, so long as the person concerned is in fact actively seeking work. Therefore, that is a matter of fact and not of opinion so far as concerns the point in time".—[Official Report, 25/4/95; col. 850.] In relation to the cases that I have quoted, that judgment was mistaken.

The point of the warning letter is that it enables us to put the situation right, to clear up the misunderstanding, to ensure compliance with conditions where there is any doubt, to explain the meaning of the conditions and to put things back on an even keel. Surely it is much better to put things right than to go around penalising people because you cannot be bothered to explain the position to them. This is a good amendment and I hope that the Minister will accept it.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, twice mentioned the principle of natural justice, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. It is generally accepted that it is a principle of natural justice that anyone adversely affected by a decision should be given the reason for it.

The principle which lies behind that appears clearly in the way in which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, explained the matter. The principle of natural justice is similar to the principle that an adjudicator may not be biased and that reasons should be given for an adverse decision. Perhaps I may mention a third principle; that the other side should be heard. That too is relevant to the amendment.

It may be that the matter is to be dealt with by regulation, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. It may be that it is dealt with by practice, as suggested by a quotation given by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that anyone adversely affected will be apprised of the reason. I hope that unless he can give that assurance he will accept the amendment.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I agree with the amendment but I do not believe that the notice required will need to be served often. Under the terms of the jobseeker's agreement, the jobseeker must meet and discuss with the Employment Service officer at regular intervals in order to tell him about the steps that he has taken to obtain employment. Any difficulties should be able to be sorted out verbally at those meetings.

However, there will be occasions when due to language difficulties—that is, translation from one language to another or a genuine misunderstanding because someone is not well educated—the jobseeker does not understand what is required. If the jobseeker has a speech difficulty, the employment officer may not understand what he is proposing to do or the steps that he proposes to take. Furthermore, there may be hearing difficulties.

People may fail to turn up for the meetings as a result of illness and they may have no one who is prepared to, or can, inform the Employment Service. For the most part, there will be little cost to the Government in handing out such letters because it can be done face to face without the cost of postage. Therefore, if cost is a factor, it should not be considered.

It is important that any proposal to remove the allowance should be given in writing so that the person who is to lose the allowance can at least seek advice and make certain that he understands the reasons. If the claimant is willing to do so, he can then take steps to ensure that it is not withdrawn and can continue seeking work in a manner that the employment officer thinks fit.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we have debated the subject of suspension and loss of benefit on a number of occasions throughout the passage of the Bill. It has been clear that on a number of occasions we have been at cross-purposes. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, referred to muddle and letters. I wish to say merely that we have discussed the matter and that it was put extremely clearly by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Rather than muddle the issue further still, I endorse his description of the position. However, there is one point that is most important—

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, so far as I understand it, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that there were two letters and that the second letter was the critical one because it did not just inform them but gave them a chance to reply. What the noble Lord has not said is whether there still are two letters.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it may be a disappointment, but I have hardly started what I am going to say. We have talked about letters, disentitlement and benefits. The point I should like to emphasise at the outset is that we are talking about a new system that is going to replace the existing one. The particular examples that have been drawn from the working of the existing system of unemployment benefit and income support are taken from an entirely different context to that which will be the case when this Bill becomes law.

It has been implied by a number of speakers, not only this afternoon but on previous occasions, that the provisions of the Bill are primarily intended to catch jobseekers out and trick them out of their benefits. I should like to say right at the outset that that is not the case. One of the prime objectives of the new system of JSA is to ensure that all jobseekers understand fully that they have duties and obligations in the receipt of benefits and that they know exactly where they stand. The help of employment officers and the pivotal role of the jobseeker's agreement should ensure that jobseekers take the right steps to get back to work.

At the start of a claim for JSA, the jobseeker will complete the initial claim form and will receive a pack of information setting out details of the conditions for benefit and the rights of jobseekers. Right from the first time when the jobseeker comes into the jobcentre the emphasis will be on informing the individual of what is expected of him and what he can expect from the Employment Service. The jobseeker will book an interview with a skilled employment adviser. At that interview the jobseeker and the employment adviser will discuss the jobseeker's work experience and qualifications, the sort of work he is looking for, his availability, his plans for getting back to work and a range of other issues. Together they will seek to draw up a jobseeker's agreement.

The agreement is therefore crucial in ensuring that jobseekers understand right from the outset the conditions of receiving JSA and how their benefit may be affected if they do not satisfy those conditions. It will contain a statement that the jobseeker understands that he must continue to be available for employment and actively seek it; that he may be asked to give evidence of what he has done and has been advised to keep a record; and that if he does not do enough to meet these conditions, his allowance may be affected and his case will be referred to the adjudication officer, in which case he will be informed. I emphasise that the employment officer must impartially assess the position, and it is only when he believes that there may have been a breach that the matter is referred to the adjudication officer. Perhaps I might echo a comment made by my noble friend Lord Swinfen: there is dialogue between the parties.

The jobseeker will also be told about his right of appeal. No one need be uncertain or ill-informed about what is required. Each fortnight the jobseeker will return to the jobcentre to sign on. If he finds that he is uncertain about whether he should continue to take the steps he agreed in his agreement or if he feels that he wishes to vary his agreement, he has every opportunity to discuss those concerns and to have his agreement altered. Again, this is an example of the ongoing opportunities of the employment officer and the jobseeker to ask questions of each other and to explain where each stands.

I have set this out at length because I wanted to make clear that there is no question of a jobseeker being caught out, of being wrongfooted. In an earlier debate, noble Lords opposite called for a return of the "warning letter". We have already talked about that this afternoon. That letter is the one to which the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, referred and which in the early years of the actively seeking employment test used to be sent by employment officers to people whom it was felt were not meeting the actively seeking employment condition. This, of course, was under a different system from the one we are debating this afternoon. The value of such a letter was that it informed claimants of their obligations under the then new condition.

The introduction of the jobseeker's agreement and wide experience of the actively seeking employment condition entirely alter the context. It means that there is now no excuse for any claimants not understanding their responsibilities to seek work actively. And we do not want to see repeated the practice of claimants who regarded the warning letter as some kind of final red telephone bill—the moment when at last they had to start meeting the condition. Jobseekers should be seeking work actively from the start of their claim for JSA and should continue to take steps every week. Otherwise, they should forfeit their right to receive JSA.

The crucial question is whether each week a jobseeker has shown that he has met the condition for benefit which justifies the payment of benefit. Entitlement involves continuing to satisfy the essential criteria, and when, for example, the actively seeking work or the availability tests are no longer satisfied, the entitlement stops. There is also no question of a decision being taken without the claimant being given the opportunity to put his case. Referrals to adjudication officers will generally follow an interview with the jobseeker, when he will have had the opportunity to discuss the steps he was taking to look for work and to comment on any other evidence—for example, from employers—which might be used by the employment officer in making the referral. All claimants then receive a letter if their case is referred to an adjudication officer which makes clear that their award of benefits is under consideration. The letter makes clear that they can at any time write to the adjudication officer with more information or evidence. The claimant has every opportunity to comment on doubts raised about his availability or his job search. I can confirm that we shall be continuing these arrangements.

I should now like to turn to the actual terms of the amendment, which refers to the specific question of—

6.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend? Could he deal, please, with the question as to whether the payment is suspended after the employment officer has made a decision? Then could he deal with the problem of Clause 9(6) to which I referred, where it refers to the decision of the adjudication officer? That is the problem I am really concerned with, and not the employment officer. The employment officer would merely give notice and then the matter would go to the adjudication officer. All it says is that the determination of the adjudication officer shall be binding. We want it to be in writing. Would my noble friend comment on this please?

Lord Ingle wood

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. I am now coming on to the point that he has quite properly raised, which is of crucial importance. So far as his first point is concerned, where the employment officer considers there has been a breach of entitlement and the matter is referred to the adjudication officer, benefit is suspended until the question of entitlement is established by the adjudication officer. If the adjudication officer determines that entitlement still exists, the benefit is paid. However, if entitlement is found not to exist, then benefit is not paid. As a rider, it is important to appreciate that the hardship provisions back this up and apply in appropriate circumstances.

I should now like, if I may, to turn to the point raised by my noble friend, which is another aspect of the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale: decisions about entitlement. I think there is common ground between us that it is very important that claimants should be given full information about any decision which has been taken regarding their entitlement to benefit and their right to appeal against any decision. Under current regulations, all decisions by the adjudication officer on entitlement to unemployment benefit or income support must be notified to the claimant in writing, giving reasons for the decision.

This decision letter explains the effect that the decision will have on their award of benefit and on their national insurance contribution credits and the course of action open to them if they are dissatisfied with the decision and wish to appeal. Once more, I can confirm that this obligation to inform the claimant in writing will continue under JSA.

However, I fear that the effect of the amendment may go further. It may be intended to introduce a period of notice between the notification of the decision and the termination of entitlement during which the claimant could challenge the decision. That would introduce unnecessary and unwelcome delays into the system. We must bear in mind that adjudication officers made well over 1.3 million adverse decisions in unemployment benefit in 1993–4 and that less than 1 per cent. of decisions are appealed against. Of course if on appeal, or on review by an AO on the receipt of new information relevant to the decision, there is a decision in the claimant's favour, benefit will be back dated and paid in full.

To introduce a delay before action was taken on the adjudication officer's decision would, we believe, be very costly, involving needless overpayments of benefit to which claimants were not entitled. That would not be an appropriate use of taxpayers' money. We must ensure that claimants receive full information about decisions affecting their entitlement. We must also act responsibly as the guardians of the taxpayer. We believe that the amendment fails the second test.

The key point about the amendment is that we are in fact talking about cases where someone who is entitled to jobseeker's allowance ceases, by reason of his actions, to be so entitled. For all practical purposes, we are talking about—

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Minister just said that we are dealing with a case where entitlement ceases. That is not our understanding; we are dealing with a case where entitlement is called into question. The cases are different.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the amendment refers to a "loss" of entitlement. For there to be a loss of entitlement, there must have been an original entitlement.

I return to the point that I was about to make. So far as concerns loss of entitlement, there must be satisfaction of the relevant criteria which includes the existence of a jobseeker's agreement which has been entered into by the person in question. The crucial point about that jobseeker's agreement—

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene again, but I have checked the text of the amendment and I do not read it as saying what the Minister mentioned. Indeed, it does not refer to a loss of entitlement. It provides that, entitlement to a jobseeker's allowance is not lost", while there is doubt. There is a crucial difference.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I hear what the noble Earl says. However, that is not my understanding of the way that the amendment has been drafted.

I wish to conclude by stressing that, in order to have a jobseeker's allowance, one must have met the entitlement conditions and have entered into a jobseeker's agreement. It is specified in Clause 9(5) of the Bill that the, employment officer shall not enter into a jobseeker's agreement with a claimant unless, in the officer's opinion, the conditions mentioned in section 1(2) (a) and (c)"— which relate to entitlement and actively seeking work— would be satisfied with respect to the claimant if he were to comply with, or be treated as complying with, the proposed agreement". All that a jobseeker need do to be sure that he is meeting the two criteria is to follow what has been set down in his jobseeker's agreement to which he has put his name. There are other ways of meeting such criteria. It is possible that the jobseeker would prefer to meet those criteria in other ways. The right thing for him to do in those circumstances is not to walk away from it; the right thing to do is to try to negotiate a variation in the jobseeker's agreement or to appeal against it. It seems to us that that is the responsible way for a person to deal with the predicament where he wishes to change his course of action. The mechanics of the system enable him to do so in a manner which would enable him to keep his allowance.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, with respect, and before my noble friend the Minister sits down, I must point out that that is not quite the issue that is troubling me. I agree with everything that my noble friend said, but the issue is not quite as he put it. The issue is: on what grounds is the entitlement to be removed? It is not a question of walking away from the situation or of knowing what is in the agreement. The question is: what is the person doing that is contrary to the agreement which constitutes the grounds upon which the entitlement is being removed? I have put it very badly, but that is the issue.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, where there is an agreement, all that a jobseeker need do to ensure that he is meeting the available for work and actively seeking work test is to meet the steps that have been set out in the agreement. There are a myriad of other ways of meeting the test. If a jobseeker wishes to do it in a different manner, it should be a matter of negotiation. In other words, the best way to approach it is by way of negotiation with the employment officer. In the event of the matter being referred to an adjudication officer when such a person does not take the sensible course of action, he is in a position to make inquiries and make representations to the adjudication officer as I described.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I have to tell the noble Lord that he has not clarified the position. We are more confused than we ever were before. No doubt we shall read what the noble Lord said in Hansard with great care. Perhaps, as the noble Lord said, we shall find that it is something to do with a computer. I do not know. However, it is certainly no clearer than it was before.

It seems to me that everyone who has spoken in the debate, except the Minister, has been absolutely clear. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said—and he is absolutely right—that it is a matter of natural justice. It is a matter of whether or not there are reasonable grounds; it is a matter of doubt. It is a matter of what happens under the principles of natural justice if, as it were, a charge, an allegation or a suggestion is made or, indeed, a suspicion advanced. Is the God-forsaken individual to be told what it is and given the opportunity to answer and say, "I don't think that I have broken the agreement"? Is he to be able to do so in some kind of quasi-judicial way?

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said that that should be the case. I agree with him. However, I am not convinced that it is still the case. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that it is all about the second letter. I was glad to hear that. I have one piece of clarity: I now know that there are two letters. The first one does not matter, while the second letter does; but I doubt that it exists. I do not believe that the noble Lord understands what that second letter is supposed to do. The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, also agreed. He said that we might not often need such a letter. However, the noble Lord went on to say—and I agree with him—that it is as well to put something in writing because otherwise those God-forsaken people will not be quite certain as to the nature of the charges that they have to answer. They must be given some idea.

During his reply, the Minister talked all the time about a new system which is entirely different. I would not like to believe that; indeed, I would not like to believe that helping jobseekers, or unemployed people as they used to be called, is something totally new to the Employment Service and that those concerned have never given jobseekers any information, never told them what is expected of them and never told them what they needed to do to get jobs. I do not believe that. From the inception of the Employment Service, I am sure that that was its objective. It is not anything new, except in the sense that it seems to want to get those people off benefit. That is what is new. That is the basic difference.

I do not believe the statements that the poor job applicant will be informed of his responsibility. All the language that the noble Lord used was about informing the jobseeker of what he or she had to do, not whether he or she had gone beyond what was said to be necessary for actively seeking work or whether that could be evaluated by some quasi-judicial process. Therefore, we assume that the letter does not exist. We believe that it should exist. I intend to divide the House on the issue.

6.59 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 9) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 63; Not-Contents, 115.

Division No. 4
Airedale, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Kennet, L.
Birk, B. Kilbracken, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Kirkhill, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Longford, E.
Chorley, L. McCarthy, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Craigavon, V. McNair, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Mayhew, L.
Donoughue, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Napier and Ettrick, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Foot, L. Nicol, B.
Foot, L. Ogmore, L.
Gallacher, L. Richard, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L. Ripon, Bp.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.] Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Russell, E. [Teller.]
Grey, E. St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Bp.
Hamwee, B. Seear, B.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Serota, B.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Swinfen, L.
Hughes, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Hylton, L. Tonypandy,V
Hylton-Foster, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Jay of Paddington, B. White, B.
Jeger, B. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Abercorn, D. Carnock, L.
Addison, V. Chesham, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Clanwilliam, E.
Astor, V. Clark of Kempston, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Cochrane of Cults, L.
Balfour, E. Coleridge, L.
Bethell, L. Colwyn, L.
Biddulph, L. Constantine of Stanmore, L.
Blaker, L. Courtown, E.
Blatch, B. Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Blyth, L.
Borthwick, L. Cumberlege, B.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Dean of Harptree, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Digby, L.
Braine of Wheatley, L. Dixon-Smith, L.
Bridgeman, V. Downshire, M.
Brookeborough, V. Dundonald, E.
Burnham, L. Elibank, L.
Butterfield, L. Elles, B.
Cadman, L. Elton, L.
Caithness, E. Foley, L.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Melville, V.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Mersey, V.
Gibson-Watt, L. Miller of Hendon, B.
Glenarthur, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Goschen, V. Monteagle of Brandon, L.
Gray of Contin, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Grimston of Westbury, L. Munster, E.
Hanson, L. Northesk, E.
Harding of Petherton, L. O'Cathain, B.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Orkney, E.
Harmsworth, L. Oxfuird, V.
Henley, L. Pender, L.
Hesketh, L. Perry of Southwark, B.
Hives, L. Plumb, L.
Holderness, L. Rawlings, B.
HolmPatrick, L. Reay, L.
Hothfield, L. Romney, E.
Howe, E. Seccombe, B.
Inglewood, L. Sharples, B.
Jeffreys, L. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Johnston of Rockport, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Kenilworth, L. Skidelsky, L.
Kingsland, L. Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L
Knutsford, V. Stockton, E.
Lauderdale, E. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Lindsay, E. Strange, B.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Strathclyde, L.
Long, V. [Teller.] Sudeley, L.
Lucas, L. Swinton, E.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Tebbit, L.
Lyell. L. Teviot, L.
McConnell, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L. Torphichen, L.
Macleod of Borve, B. Torrington, V.
Malmesbury, E. Trumpington, B. [Teller]
Marlesford, L. Wynford, L.
Massereene and Ferrard, V. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

7.7 p.m.

Clause 7 [Actively seeking employment]:

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Lord Wise moved Amendment No. 11:

Page 6, line 26, at end insert: ("( ) The following are examples of reasonable steps for which provision may be made under subsection (2)—

  1. (a) voluntary work which enables the claimant to improve his prospects of gaining employment;
  2. (b) part time study which enables the claimant to improve his prospects of gaining employment.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the main purpose of the amendment is to encourage Employment Service staff to recognise the benefits of voluntary work and part-time study as a means of obtaining a return to work. Many already do, but the amendment will ensure that a consistent approach is adopted in all parts of the country.

It has already been amply demonstrated in previous debates that what unemployed people want more than anything is a paid job. They do not see volunteering or part-time study as a substitute for paid employment. Many see both as a step towards a paid post. Others see volunteering as a constructive way of filling the time not taken up with job seeking and, happily, it often leads to employment. As has been shown in previous debates, often official training schemes and voluntary work enable almost equal percentages of people to return to work. I am sure that the same will be shown to be the case with part-time study.

While voluntary work carried out by unemployed people involves no extra cost to the state, it can be of enormous benefit to the community and lead to jobs in fields not previously considered by the jobless. For example, Shipley Volunteer Bureau recruits more than 50 per cent. of its volunteers from the unemployed with the co-operation of the local employment office. More than 50 per cent. of those have gone on to paid employment, many of them to posts within the field of care in the community. This has been due to the experience they have obtained while working with voluntary schemes.

Another example which the National Association of Volunteer Bureaux gave me—I make no apology for relating such instances—involved a hairdresser in the Spalding area who went to her local volunteer bureau after being unemployed for 18 months. She was at a very low ebb. She helped out in a charity shop and at a day care centre for the elderly, both of which she enjoyed. However, after helping at a local training agency for the disabled for two weeks she had a paid job within days caring for patients with mental health problems. She undertakes this difficult work with energy and enthusiasm and still finds time for occasional voluntary fund-raising as a thank-you to those who helped her when she needed it.

One final example comes from someone in Gwent who was compelled to give up work for four years to care for her mother suffering from Alzheimer's disease. After her mother's death she found it difficult to get back to the work ethos. However, she was encouraged to become a hospital volunteer. When the volunteering co-ordinator gave up her post, this lady obtained it. Understanding the difficulties of the unemployed, she has aimed to encourage her volunteers to take advantage of training courses to increase experience. Among her successes are one who has become an auxiliary nurse and another who has obtained a clerical post. Another volunteer is seeking to obtain the qualifications and experience to become a medical social worker.

It is because of success stories such as these that I hope the amendment will be accepted. Some of the examples I have given come from relatively small organisations. Other noble Lords may give examples of larger organisations offering more structured training. However, both types of organisation offer valid paths back to employment, which I hope that the Minister will appreciate. I must again emphasise that in the examples I have given none of the volunteers saw their voluntary work as a substitute for paid employment and continued their job search while volunteering.

I thank the Minister for his letter, which I received this afternoon, in which he reiterated the Government's recognition of the value of voluntary work and that they would reflect further on this issue. At Committee stage my noble friend stated that he recognised the value and importance of volunteering in the community. There can be no doubt that voluntary work can both help unemployed people to stay in touch with the labour market and provide an opportunity for them to maintain and develop their skills while looking for work. Having heard what he said, I was then at a loss to understand why he could not accept the amendment that voluntary work should count as a positive outcome from a Restart interview. I can only think that it may have been because the claimant remains unemployed and my noble friend feared that it diluted the focus in JSA of helping people back to work as quickly as possible.

The amendment takes account of that objection by suggesting a more constructive way of recognising the legitimacy of voluntary work as a step towards actively seeking work. It is a modest measure which focuses on encouraging unemployed people to take up voluntary work and part-time study, thereby greatly improving their prospects of finding employment. In so doing in no way does it detract from the main purpose in JSA of helping people back to work as speedily as possible. In fact it aids that purpose and, as I said, ensures that a consistent approach is taken in all parts of the country. My examples show what can be achieved with the co-operation of the local employment office.

I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment, which I strongly support. As chairman of the National Trust, I must immediately declare an interest.

At the re-committed Committee stage, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, was good enough to quote a small example of the use the trust makes of volunteers in its conservation work in the Lake District and our ability to pass our young volunteers on into full-time jobs through our work programmes. I thank her for mentioning it. I have many other equally successful examples—dozens—but, with an eye on the clock, I shall write to the Minister with those details.

The trust now has 30,000 people a year regularly giving a significant amount of their time to our work. In terms of work done, it is worth over £6 million a year to us. The volunteers are of all ages and skills. The long-term volunteers—the people about whom we speak today—often work for three to four days a week for periods of three months or more. Every year there are hundreds of those young people going through our work programmes. That, I submit, is not negligible. They receive training and a curriculum vitae of real work experience. It is real work and it ends in real jobs—two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, during the Committee stage. The great majority of them—some 80 per cent.—end up with a positive outcome. That is our experience: that 80 per cent. obtain a job. I submit that that is not negligible.

I should like briefly to mention the European Social Fund, which has been an important factor in progressing National Trust projects with long-term volunteers. In 1994, ESF funding enabled us at no direct additional cost to the trust or the Government to involve 117 long-term volunteers in structured work experience and training placements which in many cases led to national vocational qualifications and other accreditation. I urge the Government to consider measuring both ESF schemes and volunteering against a set of measured criteria in much the same way as they already do for their own training schemes.

The point has been made to me over and again that those young volunteers are well qualified from school or university but that they have this difficult first step: to get real work experience and practical skills on to their CVs. It is difficult for those of us like myself who entered the job market 40 years ago, when one could walk into almost any job one wanted, to appreciate the difficulty of that first step.

But why put the issue at risk? The noble Lord, Lord Wise, explained some of the problems and why the amendment is necessary. Indeed, it is with some reluctance that I intervene at all. My natural habitat, if I may put it that way, is with heritage and environmental issues. But I felt that I had to respond to the plea of our hard-pressed staff. It is a madness to put this doubly useful activity at risk. I have to say, and I do so with reluctance, that we already find that we are being tripped up by officialdom and red tape. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, put the matter rather more politely. What the Government say may be absolutely fine in theory, but it is what occurs at ground level that matters. We need the amendment to combat red tape.

I read with interest the interchange between the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, at the re-committed Committee stage. The noble Lord stated that the only difference between them was one of emphasis. That to me meant that he rather agreed with our argument. I hope therefore that the new wording of the amendment means that we can secure agreement—if he will forgive the phrase, that we can agree a "positive outcome". It would be a great help.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I support the amendment and Amendment No. 21 which is grouped with it.

One of the most useful things that voluntary work can do for an unemployed person is to keep him in the habit of taking part regularly in some form of useful activity and in the disciplines of that activity. When one is unemployed, particularly for a long time, it is very easy to slip out of the self-discipline of getting up in the morning, travelling to one's place of employment and then getting on with the job conscientiously all day.

I work for a voluntary organisation, a charity. It is no use charities or voluntary organisations having volunteers who sit around chatting, drinking cups of tea and doing nothing all day. The type of people they want are those who are prepared to roll up their sleeves, get on with the job and work conscientiously all day. That is also the kind of person an employer wants. If someone can leave a charity with a good report, he or she is far more likely to get a job and stop drawing the jobseeker's allowance.

The second part of the amendment concerns unemployed people or jobseekers who are undertaking part-time study. It is also extremely important that they should be allowed to continue their part-time study course, complete it and obtain qualifications.

Amendment No. 21 deals with those who are undertaking a course of study that is relevant to the prospects of obtaining employment where the claimant has completed at least half and is within six weeks of completing his course. Again, that is extremely important. For a long time the Government and other people have been saying that what the country needs above all else is a trained and skilled workforce. The amendment helps to produce that.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I too am happy to support this extremely important amendment. It recognises that the jobseeker's agreement is meant to be an individually tailored programme which not only encourages a claimant to apply for suitable vacancies, but will equip him to become suitable for an even greater range of vacancies.

We all know that perhaps the most eligible people in the labour market at the moment are younger women. One of the reasons why they, compared with other groups in our society, find it easier to get work is that they are flexible. From their background they are able to turn their hands to retailing, hotel work, caring work, shop assistants' work, office work and the like. The reason for that is that they will have learnt typing at school, looked after young children, cared for an elderly grandparent, babysat or done a Saturday job in a shop. They have experience, they are flexible and they are not afraid of change.

However, what about the group that finds it hardest to re-enter the world of work? I am talking of the middle-aged, the man in his 30s, 40s or 50s who comes from a working class background, who has relatively few skills and who has become unemployed. That middle-aged or older man finds it hard to regain work. He may have come off invalidity benefit and therefore be reputed to have a poor health record or he may well have been in one type of job for a long time—perhaps in the building industry. That work is becoming scarce and the man may be unsuitable for it. He does not believe that he can do anything else. Yet either the jobs he would wish to do are those for which he is now physically unsuited because of the invalidity benefit or the jobs do not exist.

We know from many such examples in our private lives that the man is apprehensive, deeply worried that he may never work again, insecure and uncertain. He is both intimidated by the benefits system and at the same time resentful of it. He lacks skills, flexibility, self confidence; he lacks the ability to take the initiative; he lacks the energy to get started and he is often deeply depressed.

What advice would each of us give to such men and sometimes women, as we do in our private lives? The advice that most of us would give is: "You need to become more flexible and regain your confidence. The best way is to broaden your horizons, get out and meet people, build up a portfolio of skills". Those are the skills which the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, spoke about. We would say: "Extend your network, take additional training, do part-time study. Above all, do voluntary work". We would tell that person to take every opportunity to widen his or her experience, gain new skills, make new contacts, build up confidence. We would tell them: "Don't be lethargic, don't be depressed".

The most suitable way of doing that is to re-enter the world of work, but the world of unwaged work, by doing voluntary work or undertaking the relevant part-time study. We know from our own experience that that is the best way for many people to do what we all want—to have the opportunity to regain waged work.

We could add to the arguments ad infinitum: they have been well expressed at various earlier stages of the Bill. I urge the Minister to support the amendment, even at this late stage of proceedings on Third Reading, and to give his blessing to this amendment which is for many people the most practical and useful way for them to re-network themselves back into society.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, from these Benches we too support this important and sensible amendment. A voluntary organisation with which I am connected at the moment employs half a dozen volunteers. They happen to be members of the ethnic minorities, they are extremely valuable to us and we should, I think, be able to give all of them good references to add to their CVs. That can only be helpful in getting people who would otherwise find it difficult to obtain employment back into the labour market. That is what we and the Government want and it is a simple proposal for the Government to accept.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene. I have not yet said one word on the Bill but I know that the Government run a scheme called "Opportunities for Volunteering". Organisations like the National Association of Leagues of Hospital Friends or the Carers National Association can apply for grants. The criterion for obtaining grants is that the organisations should use unemployed people. Having been chairman of the National Association of Leagues of Hospital Friends for over 10 years, I can assure the Minister that it is one of the most successful schemes for getting people back to working in hospitals in various grades.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, I too support Amendment No. 11 and I wish to speak to Amendment No. 21, which is grouped with it. At Report stage, a similar amendment was on the Marshalled List and the Minister confirmed that there was no difference between us in your Lordships' House on the amendment's intentions. They were that someone who had taken the opportunity to join a course of study would not be penalised if that course would enhance their prospects of employment.

Unfortunately, the Minister went on to say that, while accepting the intentions of the amendment, he was going to reject it. He said that, after the Bill had been enacted, the Government could, under Clause 28, introduce pilot schemes and conduct research. However, those pilot schemes would not come about until a year or so after the Act had been working. From where I stand, that looked like extreme confidence on the part of the Government and little help to the people who are on courses. I believe that it is highly doubtful that the Government would be in a position to help anyone two years from now, the time we are talking about. It is highly unlikely that they will be in office to carry out the undertaking they gave us at Report stage.

That being said, the Government's attitude will not help for example, the man in Devon. With assistance from his family, he borrowed £250 and went on a course that would assist his prospects for employment. His benefit was stopped, even though he went on that course with the full knowledge of the employment officer. It will not help the man in Hampshire who was unemployed for four months. He was very worried that there were no job opportunities, he discussed it again with his employment officer. It was agreed that he should try to take up part-time training, up to 21 hours a week. He did so, but he also paid £20 towards the course. The course cost £190 but, understandably, the college required people to pay something towards the cost, to try to stop people dropping out. He paid his £20, the employment officer knew that he was going on the course, but he lost his benefit. That cannot be right in anyone's book. I cannot believe that that was ever the intention of this Bill. I accept that the Bill does not introduce that principle; it is in existence now. But the Bill could be used to amend that error, to ensure the policy espoused by the Government from time to time that self-help brings self-improvement and would therefore bring the increased chance of job opportunity.

This clause is not there to enable people to receive benefits by not being available for work but by simply going on a course. If we read the amendment, we see that it provides that the only good cause will be that the claimant's course is halfway through, or that there is only six weeks left to run, and if the course itself will ensure that a claimant's prospects of employment will be enhanced.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I too support Amendments Nos. 11 and 21.I do so because of the importance of recognising that voices from different parts of this House have contributed on the basis of their own experience of the issues that are the subject of this amendment.

The unemployed are not a single group of identical people facing the same circumstances in every part of the country. They are not the same age, or the same sex; they do not face the same difficulties in terms of their personal experience. But there is one common feature in unemployment; namely, a lowering of morale and self-confidence in the individual concerned.

With regard to courses, the whole aim of the Government's policy as they have explained it is to encourage people to upgrade their qualifications, training skills and experience in order to make them more able to get work. We do not ask somebody who is taking a degree course at university to be available for work over three-quarters of the way through the course and to forgo their grant and the qualification that was the aim of their going on the course. Is it fair or reasonable; does it build the self-esteem of somebody who has been unemployed to say to them that we value the training course that they are doing and the education that they are undertaking so little? Is it reasonable to say, within six weeks of the end, over halfway through, that the course does not matter at all, and that they should drop it and leave immediately? The message being given to individuals is that all they are doing is filling their time rather than being of any value.

Secondly—I shall not go over all the arguments—we have to understand that there are many people who need to return to the labour market after periods of time caring, often for elderly relatives who have since died, and who feel not clinically depressed but low. They lack confidence, perhaps having spent many years, for example, caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease. They are now free to return to the labour market but they lack the confidence to do so. All this is important in terms of the way that people present themselves.

I ask noble Lords to consider the term "available for work". Part of being available for work is being able to present yourself to a prospective employer as having the social skills, the self-confidence and the competence to take on the job, do it and complete it. Let us consider the employer faced with a choice between someone who has not had a break in their employment and someone who has. The employer needs someone who will complete what they take on. He needs somebody who will give a reference on the basis of the most recent activity. Voluntary work can provide that reference. That is much more important for somebody aged 45 or 50 than going back to somebody who knew them when they were at school or when they last worked, perhaps five or 10 years ago.

There is also the importance of recognising that many people are deeply ashamed of being unemployed. They ought not to be, but there is a tendency in the media to stereotype. There are many people—I have met some of them in my time as a councillor—who are embarrassed about admitting that they are unemployed and who feel inside that they have failed. That failure is a self-perpetuating cycle. Therefore I ask the Government, at this late stage, to listen to the different experiences and to take into account the different backgrounds from which people have come. Please will they consider at this stage accepting these amendments?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we have had yet another full debate on this subject. We have debated it on a number of occasions with regard both to voluntary work and part-time study and the links with what I have to keep repeating is the primary condition for jobseekers; namely, to be actively seeking employment and being available for work.

I do not think there is an argument about the simple fact that voluntary work and part-time study can help unemployed people keep in touch with the labour market. It can develop new skills, and it can maintain existing skills, while at the same time—certainly in the case of voluntary work—helping the community. The question is: should those kinds of steps be listed as steps that meet the "actively seeking employment" condition?

I want to emphasise again that actively seeking employment is a basic labour market condition of JSA. The underlying principle of the condition is that the jobseeker should take steps which give him his best prospects of securing employment. That is the litmus test that we must apply when we are considering any changes to the actively seeking rules.

The current regulations include a non-existive list—I apologise, a non-exhaustive list of activities which count as steps—

Noble Lords


Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I had thought that by this time we should be in the dinner interval. Obviously, my little programme has put me slightly out of time. I do not intend to eat my words. I intend to do slightly better than that, although my words are of course excellent food.

At present these are all steps that are closely linked to actual jobsearch, such as job applications and registering with employment agencies. But in the JSA regulations, we propose to expand the list to include steps that may help to improve a jobseeker's employability. We are doing this because we recognise that activities that do not relate directly to jobsearch may, nevertheless, improve a jobseeker's chance of getting back to work.

I should now like to explain the special arrangements that we propose to make in JSA for people undertaking voluntary work and part-time study. First, people claiming JSA will be able to undertake full-time voluntary work provided that they remain available for and actively seeking employment. That is a significant recognition of the important role that voluntary work can play in helping them find paid employment.

Secondly, the availability rule will be relaxed for people who undertake voluntary work. Jobseekers in general, as we have seen, will have to be available for work immediately. People undertaking voluntary work will be allowed 48 hours' notice before having to take up an offer of work or before attending an interview for a job.

Thirdly, the current regulations specifically state that any time during which the jobseeker was doing voluntary work is a circumstance to be taken into account when considering whether he has met the actively seeking employment condition. We have given an undertaking that this will be carried forward into the JSA regulations.

Fourthly, the voluntary sector plays an important role in delivering the Government's programmes for unemployed people, such as Training for Work, Youth Training and Community Action.

Finally, in recognition of the arguments which noble Lords have put forward in the course of our debates, we have agreed to consult the voluntary sector. We will be writing to representatives before the Summer Recess to seek their views. We shall consider the responses carefully before the regulations are drafted.

Turning to part-time study, people will be allowed to study part-time while claiming JSA, so long as they remain available for and actively seeking employment. Indeed, we have announced that we are updating the rules to remove the problems that some people have experienced with the current rules, so that people are clear about what study they can undertake while claiming JSA. In particular, we have addressed the problem caused by further education courses no longer being classified as full or part-time, which has caused uncertainty for jobseekers, colleges and those administering benefits. Also, we have said that after three months of unemployment, the course will not of itself be a reason for finding that someone is unavailable for work, provided he is prepared to take a job.

Secondly, I mentioned a few moments ago that the list of active seeking steps will be extended to include actions which improve employability. For the first time, one of the steps will be attending a full-time job-related course of up to two weeks in a year.

Thirdly, again just as with voluntary work, the current regulations specifically state that vocational study or training is to be taken into account when considering whether a jobseeker has met the actively seeking employment condition. This, too, will be carried forward into the JSA regulations.

Finally, in response to arguments from noble Lords last week, I undertook to reflect on the matter further and to collect new and better information on part-time study arrangements, and perhaps pilot new approaches. This would be intended to provide secure evidence on what kind of arrangements will best enhance jobseekers' prospects of obtaining work.

I believe these special arrangements are extensive and generous. They are a clear indication that we recognise the potential value of undertaking voluntary work and part-time study while claiming JSA. But, as I have said, the specific issue before us is whether to accept an amendment which would put a statement on the face of the Bill that voluntary work and part-time study may count as active seeking steps.

While we all agree that voluntary work and part-time study can in many cases help improve a jobseeker's chances of finding paid employment, there can equally be cases where we must question whether a person's other activities may be acting against their chances of finding employment. We have to strike the right balance in favour of both the jobseeker and the taxpayer.

I believe that we have to weigh up very carefully the questions in Amendment No. 11. In the case of voluntary work we have given a commitment to reflect and consult. In the case of part-time study, we have said that we recognise that it is important to get the balance right; that is why we shall collect new and better information on part-time study arrangements. I am afraid that I cannot go further at this stage. In particular, I cannot agree that it would be appropriate to deal with these matters in primary legislation.

I am sure that the public at least and certainly, I suspect, many of your Lordships would find it most odd if the Jobseekers Bill listed voluntary work and part-time study as examples of steps for which provisions may be made in regulations but not applying for jobs.

Let me turn to Amendment No. 21, which is very similar to an amendment that we addressed at Report stage. Its purpose is to provide that if a jobseeker has completed at least half of a course of study which is relevant to his prospects of obtaining employment and is within six weeks of completing it, that will be good cause for failing to apply for or refusing or neglecting to avail himself of a reasonable opportunity of employment.

I explained last week, when replying to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that although I could not accept her amendment, I understood the principles behind it. I undertook to reflect further on the matter. As I said earlier, we intend to collect some new and, it is to be hoped, better information on part-time study arrangements and perhaps pilot new approaches using the powers in Clause 29 of the Bill. I should like to consider whether an approach based on the noble Baroness's proposals might be tested alongside other ideas.

I feel that it is worth saying that if somebody is studying part-time and takes a job, he will have every opportunity to adapt the way in which he studies in order to study and carry on with the job. Many people undertake further study while they are working. I see no reason to believe that people in the situation portrayed by the Benches opposite will not be able to make the same kind of accommodations as people in work and studying, perhaps to improve their situation, are already doing.

Let me make one other point to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. She mentioned the kind of rule-of-thumb system that the Employment Service operates; namely, that if a person has invested more than £100 in fees for a course, that matter should be referred to the independent adjudication officer. I should like to make clear, as there appears to be some confusion in this matter, that it is a rule of thumb for there to be referral to the adjudication officer; the decision always rests with that officer, who will make his decision according to the usual rules of availability.

I understand that £100 may seem an arbitrary figure. But there must be some point at which one can question whether a person who has made a substantial investment in a course of study is in fact no longer available for work. We have made it clear—I have done so again today—that unemployment benefit is not for people whose first priority is to study. Those people should look elsewhere for financial support.

7.45 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. He mentioned the sum of £100. Is he prepared to index-link it?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

If, my Lords, the noble Earl will contain his patience for a moment, I shall come to the point that I want to make about the matter. There has to be some distinction made. I reflected on the points made on this issue after Report stage. I feel that there has to be some kind of level. I am prepared—I hope that it will be considered helpful, although I accept that it will not be considered nearly so helpful as accepting the amendment—to write to the chief executive of the Employment Service and suggest that he might review the level at which the employment officer will consider referring to an adjudication officer the question of whether a claimant is available for work. I hope that that will go some way toward reassuring the noble Earl and indeed the noble Baroness.

I am sorry that I have gone on a little, but I wanted to emphasise the point that both part-time study and volunteering are allowed for currently and will be allowed for in the jobseeker's agreement. I am not prepared to go so far as to say that somehow we should set aside the fundamental conditions of availability for work and actively seeking work, which are at the heart of JSA, just because someone is volunteering or doing part-time study. The two can go together. I hope that I have explained how we believe that they will be able to go together to the satisfaction, I hope, of the many organisations which use volunteers, to the satisfaction of the jobseeker himself and to the satisfaction of the taxpayer, whose interests ultimately have to be protected when it comes to spending public money.

Lord Wise

My Lords, I thank all those who have supported the amendment. From the support from all round the Chamber, it is very evident that it has been very worthwhile. Indeed, in many ways I am heartened by my noble friend's remarks. The points that he made on voluntary work are indeed most welcome. I certainly welcome his assurance that the Government will consult with the main representatives of the voluntary sector before the drafting of the JSA regulations. That is indeed a very good thing.

With regard to part-time study, that would be only one way in which a claimant could seek work. Indeed, a claimant would have to show other evidence that he was actively seeking work. So this a modest amendment, primarily designed to promote a positive attitude by employment officers.

Having said that, there is no point in putting this amendment to a Division at this late hour. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I should like to make a short business statement. It has been agreed through the usual channels that we should now adjourn proceedings on the Jobseekers Bill until 8.35 p.m. It has also been agreed by all those who have put down their names to speak on the Land Registers (Scotland) Bill, that the Second Reading should be taken during that dinner break. If no noble Lord objects to this proposal, I hope that we can proceed as I have proposed. I beg to move that proceedings after Third Reading of the Jobseekers Bill be now adjourned to 8.35 p.m.

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