HL Deb 10 December 2002 vol 642 cc185-90

7.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 20th November be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, these draft regulations are entirely benign. I hope, therefore, not only that they will be welcomed, but welcomed uneventfully. They have two purposes. First, they will remove a barrier to volunteering among the unemployed. As your Lordships will be aware, those claiming jobseeker's allowance must generally be available to take up an offer of paid work immediately. Jobseekers who undertake voluntary activities are, however, allowed 48 hours' notice before they must start a job. That short period of notice leaves it difficult for voluntary organisations to manage the activities of unemployed volunteers. The amending regulations should make it easier. Claimant volunteers will in future have a week's grace before they must start employment. That will give voluntary organisations a week to arrange for others to do the work that the unemployed volunteers have been doing. They will thus have as much notice as many employers, whose employees must give a week's notice before quitting.

The relaxation in the rules should also make it easier for jobseekers to make a greater commitment to volunteering. At present, around one in 10 jobseekers participates in voluntary activities. We hope that this amendment may, in a modest way, enable that proportion to rise. By undertaking voluntary activity, unemployed people can both make a difference to their own community and improve their own lives. It does not always lead to a paid job; but it can help people to acquire more experience, skills and confidence, which may in turn help them to succeed in the labour market.

We do, however, need to retain the work focus of jobseeker's allowance if it is to be effective in getting jobless people into employment. So we propose that claimant volunteers should still be available at 48 hours' notice for an interview in connection with a job. That should prevent them from missing employment opportunities because of their volunteering. As a further safeguard, we shall evaluate the effects of this rule change during the first year. However, we are not deliberately building an expiry date or mechanism into the amending regulations. So, if we consider it necessary, we can revisit the subject.

The second purpose of these amending regulations is to take account of the introduction of statutory paternity and adoption leave. As your Lordships will know, this year's Employment Act introduced important new rights to help parents to balance their work and family lives. Those include, for the first time, rights to paid time off work for fathers and adoptive parents. Draft Regulation 5 deals with the need to provide that, while they are on paternity leave or the paid period of adoption leave, parents are not to be treated as available for employment. That is essentially a back-up measure, as we do not expect that, in practice, parents who are on leave from their jobs to look after their children will try to claim JSA. But, if they do, it is clearly reasonable to treat them as not being available for employment. It is also important to prevent double provision between JSA and statutory paternity pay or statutory adoption pay. Currently, women are ineligible for JSA while receiving statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance because they are not regarded as available for employment. We are simply extending this approach to cover the new situations created by the Employment Act.

In conclusion, these draft regulations have two aims. First, they indicate—albeit modestly—the Government's commitment to supporting an expansion of voluntary activity among unemployed people. Secondly, they deal with the need to provide that people on adoption or paternity leave are not to be treated as available for employment, should they try to claim jobseeker's allowance. I am satisfied that these draft regulations are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I commend them to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 20th November be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].— (Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I agree that the draft regulations are benign and can be welcomed. The noble Baroness hopes that they will be welcomed "uneventfully", but I am not sure what she means by that. I have only two "events" to raise. First, the regulations do not appear to define voluntary work. I understand from what she has said that it means voluntary work for an organisation. That still leaves unanswered the question of what is an organisation in this context. She may be able to enlighten us.

Secondly, as the noble Baroness rightly points out, the regulations also cover statutory paternity leave or ordinary adoption leave. I am clear on what statutory paternity leave is, but I am unclear on what ordinary adoption leave is, as against extraordinary adoption leave, if there is such a thing. Perhaps she might clarify these points. Otherwise, I agree entirely that these are sensible regulations, which should be approved.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Minister was in the House just now, listening to my noble friend Lord Goodhart. When I say that he gave a brilliant demonstration of why it is a pity that regulations are not amendable, I do not mean to criticise the drafting of these regulations, which has been done with great care. I make purely a general point. I join the general and—as far as I can see—universal welcome of the main principle of these regulations. The encouragement of volunteering, which has been pressed for consistently since the introduction of JSA under the previous government, is warmly to be welcomed, both on the ground of the need to encourage civic spirit and on the need to give people training that may help them to get into future employment—and for the public good that much of it does. In that way, this is entirely welcome.

I very much welcome the inclusion of paternity leave. I have believed for a long time that the supposed female monopoly on childcare needs to go the same way as the past male monopoly on work. These two changes have come together. That is welcome, as is the recognition of adoption leave, which is coming in, worded as it is, in the light of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which has just completed its passage through this House.

I have just one reservation, which concerns not what is in the regulations, but a missed opportunity in the amendment of Regulation 5 of the original Jobseeker's Allowance Regulations, which provides that people with carring responsibilities should be available for work within 48 hours. The extension of that 48 hours to volunteering is to be warmly welcomed, but in general it could have been extended for people with caring responsibilities. Very often, it is impossible to know exactly what caring responsibility you need to find help with until you know the hours of your employment, the physical geographical direction of your employment and what transport is available. If, for example, there is a bus that runs once an hour, it does not help if your nursery or place of childcare is on the same bus route. You have to stop to drop your child off and then you have to wait an hour for the next bus and you arrive late at work. You probably will not last long that way.

The same applies if the hours or directions are incompatible. When you actively seek work, you do not know whether you will need to travel north, south, east or west to find it until you get it.

In the light of that, a lot of parents will need to arrange their childcare all over again once they know what work they are being offered. For that, 48 hours is a very short time.

I am sure there will be future regulations dealing with jobseeker's allowance. If and when there are, I hope that point will be considered. That is the only note of reservation I wish to sound on these regulations, which I warmly welcome.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and the noble Earl for their warm welcome. I am sure that had the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, been here he would have scolded me for the use of the word "uneventful" I meant it as an alternative to saying that the regulations were not controversial and did not give rise to an issue of concern. Fortunately, I may be able to help the noble Lords with their eventful issues.

The definition of voluntary work is work for a not-for-profit organisation or work for anyone other than a member of a claimant's family, provided the claimant receives no payment, or only the payment of reasonable expenses. The proposals do not affect the existing small disregards for retained firemen and so on. Whether somebody is a volunteer is a question of fact for the Jobcentre Plus decision-maker. Clearly, someone is not a volunteer just because they do not accept a wage for a job for which somebody alongside them is accepting a wage. Then they are forgoing a wage that they would otherwise be entitled to have.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked about paternity and adoption leave. This is primarily a DTI matter, which is why he would not normally be familiar with it, but it has kickbacks into eligibility for jobseeker's allowance. Fathers will normally have a new right to two weeks' paid paternity leave, which can usually be taken within two months of a child's birth. Statutory paternity pay will be at the same standard rate as statutory maternity pay—£100 per week or 90 per cent of average earnings if that is less than £100 in April 2003. Of the 400,000 new fathers every year, we expect perhaps 70 per cent to take it up. It is a welcome two-week break for them to be able to give their partners the support that they probably need at that time.

Adoptive parents—I am thinking now of the primary carer, not necessarily the father—will have a new right to 26 weeks' adoption pay and up to one year's adoption leave in total. Again, that is to be paid at the same rate as statutory maternity pay. We expect this to affect perhaps 4,000 adoptive parents. It is interesting that about 82 per cent of adoptive parents—both parents—are in full-time or part-time work. There is a need for that support, particularly, from my experience, if the parents are trying to settle into the home not necessarily a baby, but an older child who may have had a troubled background. We know that about 20 per cent of such placements can easily break down, with the child being recycled back into the care system as a result. I hope that answers the noble Lord's question.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. I understand all that, but it was not my question. What is "ordinary" adoption leave as against, perhaps, extraordinary adoption leave or not ordinary adoption leave, or whatever? The term is used precisely.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the Employment Rights Act provides for 26 weeks' ordinary leave and 26 weeks' additional leave. The right to pay applies only during the 26 weeks' ordinary leave period. The rest is unpaid.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, is the second category not covered by this?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, my Lords, that is an optional addition. In other words, it is unpaid. The point is that employment law protects your right to return to your job during that period, even if you are not paid. That is what we are talking about. The noble Lord looks baffled. Is that all right? Good.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked about the situation of carers. He presented the situation of somebody who had a job and was seeking to fit their caring around it. The regulations do it the other way around, allowing people to fit their job around their caring responsibilities. In other words, a carer needs to be available only at those times when they do not have any caring responsibilities, provided it is not for less than 16 hours a week. Carers claiming JSA will therefore record their specific limited hours of availability for employment in their jobseeker's agreement. These will normally be the hours when the carer has no caring responsibilities, so 48 hours' notice to take up employment should be sufficient, because it is to take up employment in the hours in which they are not caring.

We are not expecting carers to give up their caring in order to take up employment, unlike volunteers, whom we expect to give up volunteering to take up employment. That is why the apparent discrepancy continues. It is worth saying that any primary carer such as a lone parent would normally be on income support and therefore not claiming JSA and not falling within this regime. However, some lone parents who may be widowers may be seeking JSA. They will be entitled to limit their eligibility for work to fit around their caring responsibilities, provided they are significant—more than 16 hours.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, but the point remains that one cannot be certain of one's hours of availability for work until one knows the amount of travelling time that has to be fitted in as well as the hours of caring.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I take that point. The point here is that if somebody has caring responsibilities and is also on JSA, we have no evidence not to expect that Jobcentre Plus staff and those associated with them have not been using their discretion appropriately. If the noble Earl has any cases to suggest that someone has fallen foul of these rules, I shall be very happy to look at them, but I have not come across any. Given that most lone parents in that situation would be on income support rather than JSA, it would be unusual. We are more likely to be talking about someone who is caring for somebody other than a child in these circumstances. Therefore, some of the issues that the noble Earl posited about taking a child to school or to nursery might not arise. If he ever comes across any such troubles, I ask him to let me know and I shall make sure that they are responded to in a civilised way.

With those responses, I hope the House will accept the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.