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Column 725and conditions on offer are entirely irrelevant. They are to be ignored in deciding whether someone has good cause for not seeking or for refusing a job, although some flexibility may be allowed against that general rule.
The Government have shown signs--one must be fair to them--of what they no doubt regard as generosity. The Secretary of State said it was right to give people time to find a similar job, if they can. The Government will give them time, but within a maximum, of course--they would not want to run the risk of this gracious gesture being misused in any way by the ungrateful. The Government are prepared to wait as long as 13 weeks--about three months--before this legislation will be brought into play.
Of course, to be fair to him, the Secretary of State identified that as the maximum. No doubt it will be only really deserving cases--those who have full consideration given to the length of time that they have been employed previously, to their experience, to the range of opportunities open to them, which are the Government's criteria--who will receive the full 13 weeks. If they have been unwise enough to write to the DSS or, perhaps, the Home Office for work, they probably would not even receive an acknowledgement within 13 weeks.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : The hon. Lady quoted Beveridge, but she was rather selective. If she had looked further on in the report, she would have seen that Beveridge suggested that 13 weeks was the longest period in which people should draw benefit before compulsorily attending a training centre. Did not Beveridge say that the danger of providing benefits, which are both adequate in amount and indefinite in duration, was that men, being creatures who adapt themselves to circumstances, may settle down to them?
Mrs. Beckett : I did not hear the end of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, because my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) was speaking to me, but I am told that I did not miss anything. I concede the hon. Gentleman's point that Beveridge referred to that period. However, even allowing for the words of Beveridge, it still appears to us that it is wrong for the Government to resurrect this basic, harsh condition, which he so condemned, and to continue to use that as the test against which those 13 weeks would be set. Nothing that the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) has said invalidates that basic point.
I remind the House that, after the maximum period of 13 weeks grace, the person involved can be forced not just to take lower paid work or work in less favourable conditions, but temporary or part-time work. I am especially alarmed about that because, as Ministers know all too well, although I doubt that they have drawn it to the attention of their Back Benchers, the present benefit system offers possible substantial penalties in the withdrawal of benefit rights from those who choose to work on a part -time or temporary basis only. The short title of the Bill should be, "Heads I win, tails you lose." It will have devastating impact.
The period of grace against the test in the Bill, which will not exceed 13 weeks, is not a period of grace. It is a sop, a token gesture, a period of consideration before compulsion begins to apply. It is all too short a time for many to adjust to the loss of their jobs, especially if that job loss is now to be combined with job searching against a harsh deadline. If the deadline pressures people into a
Column 726mistaken decision and into a job which they soon want to leave, they will face the loss of all rights to unemployment benefit and, at most, a reduced rate of income support, probably for six months, because they have voluntarily left work.
Those who leave work voluntarily cannot benefit from the trial period allowed in the Bill, because it is for the long-term unemployed only. The Secretary of State referred to that trial period in answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, although it was irrelevant to the question. I notice, however, that the maximum trial period allowed forces the long- term unemployed to make a decision to leave--if they make that decision at all--before they are allowed, under clause 8, to requalify for unemployment benefit.
Under clause 7 there will be a list--not an exhaustive one--of examples of the steps that each claimant will be expected to take every week. In some circumstances someone may be deemed to be seeking work--for example, when they have a job, but have not started it. I appreciate that, otherwise, the Government may have looked slightly silly. The fact that such a common- sense matter must be specifically allowed for shows how rigidly the Government mean the Bill to operate.
Week in and week out, the claimant must show that action has been taken to look for work. I noted what the Secretary of State said to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) about not forcing people dependent upon local labour market conditions to take unsuitable work. If that is the Secretary of State's view, however, it is hard to see why the Government have gone to all the trouble in clause 9 to remove all references to suitable work. I do not believe that the Secretary of State's remarks make any difference. It may not mean that someone will be disallowed benefit depending on the local labour market conditions, but I do not believe that those conditions will make any difference to the way in which the test will operate or to the way in which claimants will be forced to make statements about what they have done every week.
I want to emphasise the word "claimant". Whatever terms the Government may use to justify the provisions in the Bill and whatever they sound like, it may well be that the person affected is not receiving a single penny piece from the state. There are many unemployed people who must be available for work--that is the term now--but who have used up their entitlement to unemployment benefit or who cannot receive income support perhaps because their partner is in work. They must sign on to receive their pension credits. That person may have worked for 30 years and it may be their first experience of being unable to find work. They tend to describe their situation as being "thrown on the scrap heap". Because people need between 30 and 40 years of contributions or credits--a large share of a lifetime's work--to receive a full state pension, the person unemployed after 30 years of work will be caught by the legislation.
Let us consider the core resentment that the Bill will rightly earn. The overwhelming majority of those people without work are decent men and women who have no choice about being without work. They include many whose health is impaired by sickness or injury who have been ruled "fit for light work" to save money on disability benefits. No consideration has been given or will be given to whether light work is available or whether any employer would hire such people to do it. We are also talking about
Column 727many who have been made redundant at what they thought was a fairly young age until they discovered that employers think otherwise. If one is as young as one feels, those people feel old before their time.
The Bill puts all the pressure on the unemployed and does nothing to address the attitudes they face from employers. It ignores the fact that, on the Government's figures, there is no work for at least two out of three or, more probably, five out of six of those whom the Bill will force on to the treadmill of a tiring, depressing and utterly fruitless job search.
The Government and the Secretary of State have drawn heavily on the Department of Employment survey of the London labour market, although I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman also referred to the national survey and what it said about how often people look for jobs. The Government have ignored, however, other elements of the former survey. It suggested that people without work were realistic in their expectations of the wages that they may command. That means that the major switch in law represented by clause 9, which pushes people towards low-paid work, is unjustified. It is not the unrealistic demands of the unemployed that are keeping them out of work, but lack of work.
The surveys also drew attention to the attitudes of employers and their reluctance to recruit those who have been out of work for more than six months, whatever their qualifications or experience. It showed that many employers, even in boroughs with high levels of unemployment, did not know that such a pool of labour was available. We have heard nothing about what the Government are doing about the attitudes, ignorance and prejudice of employers.
The survey also reported :
"Most benefit claimants are keen to work".
That judgment reinforces similar reports previously published over the years by the Manpower Services Commission. The report suggested that, at most, a minority might not be actively looking for work. Even then, the Government have not considered that, among that minority, there may be many who have good cause to believe that active search for work would merely add to the mountain of rejections and humiliations that they have already suffered because of their age, colour or disability.
Unless the Government take action, on a scale commensurate with that in this Bill, to change the attitudes of such employers, they know that the search on which people will be sent will serve no purpose except to pander to the prejudices of those who have never suffered unemployment and never expect to do so.
I am reminded of the observations made in 1929 by William Jones KC, spiritual ancestor of the Secretary of State. He described how the then law was applied to the Rhymney valley to pressurise men into tramping substantial distances to look for work in neighbouring valleys. He said :
"We know it is useless for the men to go over the hill, because the first thing they are told is We have our own unemployed here : go back to your own valley.' We know that, but we do not tell the men." As in the days of William Jones 60 years ago, so now. The Bill is not designed to help people back into work, it is intended to prod and goad them and to bring the
Column 728unlucky ones--when there is not enough work, there will be many of them--up against their failings and failures over and over again, week after week after week.
Ms. Short : What my hon. Friend has said so powerfully is true. Does she agree that the real strategy underlying the Bill is to force people to take lower-paid work? We have all heard the Government proclaim the prosperous boom, but 40 per cent. of our work force earn low pay. The Bill will mean more of that, as well as more of the humiliation that my hon. Friend has described.
Mrs. Beckett : My hon. Friend is entirely right, because, unless that was so, it hardly accounts for the way in which the Government have ignored that part of the Department's survey or explains why they have also retained the provisions that take no account of pay.
Mrs. Beckett : First of all, I am not entirely sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been here while I have been speaking but, if he has, he will have heard me say, first of all, that yes, of course we agree that people should be seeking work, and indeed, most of them are. Is the hon. Gentleman contending that most of them are not, and is that the policy of the Conservative party? That certainly appears to be the policy behind this Bill.
Secondly, I have already said--again, if the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard--that we believe that the existing tests of willingness to work are quite sufficient, and indeed, can be quite stringent and can debar people whom we think should not be debarred. There is no need for those tests to be further strengthened.
My hon. Friend, as I say, mentioned that she believes that the Government's intention is to drive people into more low-paid jobs, and I have no doubt that that is the case. I have no doubt also that it is the Government's wish and intention to drive still more people off the unemployment register. I have no doubt that it will drive some of them off the register, even if they have to sacrifice their pension credits, and, ultimately, their full pension. I have no doubt either that it will drive some of them nearly crazy.
The financial memorandum suggests that money will be saved. The only estimate of the cost in people is that of the staff who might be required. There is no estimate of the distress, the illness, the divorces or the suicides. Let me remind the House again of the justification the Government offers. They claim that there are 700, 000 unfilled vacancies and over 2 million unemployed people registered. The Government know, of course, only of 250,000 actual vacancies, which they multiply by guesswork to get an estimate of the overall picture. Independent estimates suggest that it is more like 3 million people who are pursuing those 250,000 or 700,000 vacancies. Certainly there is no question that there are remotely enough vacancies for the number of unemployed people, however they are fiddled or calculated, although to listen to Ministers and some Government Back Benchers one might think there were more vacancies than there are people unemployed.
The purpose and the effect of this Bill is to foster the idea that all that is needed for the unemployed to find work
Column 729is for them to look harder for work, although the Government's own figures show that many of them cannot possibly find it. For the long-term unemployed especially, who cannot get work, some adjustment to the reality of their position is not just desirable ; it is vital. That is how they hold together the remnants of their self-respect, their dignity, their pride, perhaps even their sanity. Heaven knows this Bill is doing enough to encourage a climate of opinion that denies them the respect of others, and the reality for most of them remains that there is no work, and nothing in this Bill changes that one iota.
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : Is my hon. Friend aware that there is no such thing as a stack of vacancies? There is a flow of vacancies ; vacancies flow in and filled vacancies flow out. Most of the vacancies are filled in a couple of weeks or so and most of the vacancies go to employed people who are switching jobs. The unemployed do not get these vacancies, because of the recruitment policies of employers, and even in the London survey, if the Minister will read the foreword written by the Secretary of State, he says that only "a small minority" of the unemployed are not seeking work.
Mrs. Beckett : My hon. Friend is entirely correct, and I am most grateful to him for making those points. I would only say that what I am addressing is the Government's arguments rather than the reality. Of course it is bad for people to despair and for people to give up hope, and certainly one must wish that the long-term unemployed receive encouragement, but it is also bad for them to be forced continually to jump hurdles at which they are bound to fall. This Bill does not offer a helping hand to the unemployed ; it shows them a mailed fist. Unemployment itself has a shattering effect on the lives of many who face it. It is an unexploded grenade, and in this Bill the Government are pulling the pin.
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne) : The Government's social security programmes have an impact on the lives of millions of people : on the unemployed, on the elderly, on the families and also on the young, and social security spending, we all know, has risen inexorably since the foundation of the welfare state. Today, it represents the largest single item of Government expenditure, accounting for one pound in three of public spending. The average taxpayer currently contributes about £11 a week to social security spending.
It is crucial that spending on this scale is effective. Equally, it is essential that our social security programmes not only provide immediate help for those who are in need, but that they do not have perverse and unwelcome long-term effects. It is right that our social security system should evolve to ensure that it does not institutionalise dependence on the state, that it does not create barriers to enterprise and wealth creation, and that it does not undermine the family.
The Bill represents another very important stage in the evolution of the social security system. It builds on the 1986 reforms and underlines the Government's commitment to a system of benefits which provide help where it is most needed, at the same time as reinforcing the principles of individual responsibility and self-help. Understandably, much attention has focused on the changes to the rules governing unemployment benefit, and these changes will,
Column 730I believe, be almost universally perceived outside this Chamber as being long overdue and common-sense adjustments.
The man on the proverbial Clapham omnibus would be the first to subscribe to the notion that the very minimum the state can expect from those out of work in return for the payment of benefit is that they actively go about finding work. The idea that the state should perpetually subsidise those who seem happy to remain unemployed indefinitely not only offends the average person's view of what is fair ; we all know that a system which allows such a state of affairs to persist is fundamentally flawed since it actually creates dependence and robs individuals of responsibility for themselves. Equally important principles are at stake elsewhere in this Bill. Clause 4 on liable relatives is a case in point. The savings that will accrue from this change are relatively small, although by no means insignificant, but of far greater importance is the fact that, by obliging single parents to take responsibility for their children while they are in the sixth form, we are bringing the treatment of single-parent families into line with family law. Why should a single parent receive more favourable treatment from the state in this matter than a couple with children?
There is no reason why the taxpayer should be forced to underwrite the maintenance of 16 to 19-year-olds in full-time education simply because they come from a single-parent family. Responsibility for the welfare and maintenance of children will in a free society always rest principally with parents ; that basic rule applies equally to couples and to single-parent families.
The family is the cornerstone of our society, the basic and most essential unit, and it would be wrong to allow a system to persist which discriminates in favour of single-parent families and thereby against couples with children. Equally, we should not tolerate a system which enables parents to evade their basic responsibility as parents, and we should be aware that the very knowledge that the state will provide for children may remove an obstacle to fathers deserting their families.
Some, of course, will claim that these changes are designed to punish one- parent families in pursuit of minor cost savings, but I for one do not regard £2.5 million as small change. It is more than enough to pay for an extra 100 policemen on the streets of our inner cities or to fund important medical research.
The real purpose of clause 4 is to create a benefit system that encourages responsibility and self-reliance, a system that does not unintentionally provide incentives for fathers to abandon their children, and it is of course essential that the state provides help to the needy single-parent families, but it is even more important that the very availability of those benefits does not encourage illegitimacy and the break-up of families. The happiness and well-being of children depends to a far greater extent on their family background and on the love and care of their parents than on the availability of cash benefits from the state.
The primary aim of our social security system should be to use benefits to help to build a stable and loving environment in which children can be raised. The provision of benefits cannot be seen as a substitute for parental love and responsibility. It is precisely for that reason that the clause is to be welcomed.
Perhaps the main themes of the Bill are fairness and economic efficiency. Nowhere are those concepts better illustrated than in clause 19, which implements the EC
Column 731Council directive on equal treatment for men and women in occupational social security schemes. I was very pleased to hear the welcome given to this clause by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) on behalf of the Opposition. I know that that change will be welcomed by millions of working women throughout the country. In the last 10 years we have managed to shed so many of the outdated stereotypes of what women can and cannot do. Women are achieving more than ever : in the professions, in business and--dare I say it?--also in politics.
Clause 19 of the Social Security Bill will bring to an end discrimination in employment-related schemes. Sensibly, it will also stop indirect discrimination against women in pension and other benefit schemes. Such discrimination is often unintentional and usually the result of custom and tradition, but it is no less damaging or unfair than more overt forms of discrimination. Benefit schemes which discriminate against women as a result of their family or marital status are unfair to women, and also represent an obstacle to the smooth operation of the labour market.
At a time when the number of young people in the labour market is contracting--when employers will increasingly have to consider employing older people, especially married women--our economy simply cannot afford to place obstacles in the way of the employment of women. All such barriers are a disincentive to women to seek work and an impediment to the creation of prosperity and jobs.
Clause 19 will also ensure that women who take maternity leave do not lose benefit entitlement as a result. In future, women who take leave to have a baby will, for the purposes of calculating benefit levels, be treated exactly as though they had been at work. That is a very sensible reform which will help women to reconcile the competing pressures of children and work.
I know that many women who take maternity leave are immensely irked when they discover that the period of their absence is treated, for the purposes of calculating pensions, as though they had been on a prolonged holiday. Any woman who has had children would tell us otherwise.
Mr. Corbyn : I agree with the hon. Lady that much of this legislation acts as a disincentive to women to return to work and that it discriminates against them. Does she also agree that one of the major problems over women returning to work is the lack of pre-school child care facilities in this country, which has the worst record of any country in western Europe? Does she not believe that the Government ought to address that problem?
Mrs. Roe : I believe that parents have a responsibility to consider the welfare of their children. I started a new career in middle age, having first reared my family. Parents must consider the welfare of their children. Women who stay at home to look after their children do a very important job.
There is one further item of unfinished business that relates to pensions and the equality of treatment between men and women--the equalisation of the pension age.
Column 732Those of us who believe in giving women a fairer deal in matters of employment and social security legislation recognise that the argument works both ways.
On the pension age, women should understand that the principle of equality may require them to retire later than at present. I know that the Government have accepted the principle of equalisation, but the implementation of that principle is less than straightforward. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will reassure the House that the Government's proposals will be very carefully worked through. The Government should not be rushed into a crucial decision that will affect the lives of generations of workers and pensioners.
The 1986 social security reforms dragged our lumbering benefits system into the late 20th century. That great reform showed that it was possible to provide help for those who are in genuine need without eroding the responsibility, initiative and enterprise upon which the happiness of individuals and families so greatly depends. This Bill represents a further important adjustment to the operation of the social security system. By making social policy operate in a much fairer fashion and by reinforcing the paramount importance of individual responsibility, these changes will promote what Opposition Members are fond of calling economic efficiency and social justice. I prefer to call it prosperity and happiness. Therefore, I fully support the Bill.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) : We are discussing a renegotiation of responsibilities between the individual and the state. I disagree fundamentally with one of the points that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) made at the beginning of her speech--that if all of us were travelling on the back of an omnibus to Clapham common this Bill would strike us as fair. It would strike us as unfair--not for the reasons that have been put forward so far in the debate but because the renegotiation between the state and the individual is, under this Government, only one way. The Bill changes the duties and responsibilities of the individual to seek work. It does nothing about the duties and responsibilities of the state to ensure that work is available for the individual.
Because I want to develop that theme briefly, and because some of it may be controversial, let me begin by referring to a point that unites both sides of the House of Commons--that the vast majority of the unemployed are seeking work to the very best of their ability. I believe that I speak on behalf of the vast majority of the unemployed in Birkenhead when I say that they see nothing wrong with the idea that their superhuman efforts to find work should be matched by every other unemployed person. However, the question that we have to ask ourselves is how we are to treat those people who genuinely cannot find work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) referred to the abolition of a hated rule in the 1930s. I go back to the negotiations that Margaret Bondfield had with the TUC and the employers. The TUC was not soft on this issue. It did not wish the message to go out that it was feather- bedding a tiny minority who did not wish to seek work. The TUC thought that it was perfectly proper that the test should be applied, but in the final resort the real test, and the only test, was to present someone with a job. That is the test that we should be implementing today. I should happily vote for it.
Mr. Field : If we were to insist on decent human conditions, large numbers of my constituents would not be in work, given the circumstances in which they have to work. However, I was taking it for granted that both sides of the House agree that the statement should stand that Lord Joseph made to this House--that nobody should be forced to take a job that makes him financially worse off. Before my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) intervened, I was about to make the point that, given the emphasis that this Government have placed on tightening up on the tiny minority of people who are not using all their energies to find work, they ought to be appearing before us today in sackcloth and ashes.
Since 1979, we have seen a number of Government reforms that have made it more difficult for people to find jobs. That is why I spoke against the Government's measures to break the link with signing on in a place where the job vacancies were advertised. The Government pushed through that reform for the simple reason that it enabled them to cut the size of the Civil Service. When they brought forward proposals to abolish the re- establishment centres, I spoke and voted against them. I thought it wrong that there was not that final sanction.
When the Government come forward with these measures, I suppose we should be pleased that there will be much rejoicing in heaven over those sinners who repent today. However, it is interesting to note the means by which they bring forward their reforms, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South pointed out, given the Government's track record, gives us cause for concern about how people will be treated if they cannot find work.
This renegotiation between the state and the individual, which is all on one side, is an incomplete renegotiation and a half measure. I want to spend my couple of minutes emphasising the other side of that contract that must be drawn up between the state and the individual. I wish to go on record as saying--I fight elections on this platform--that unemployed people have a duty to use everything in their power to find work. The vast majority of my constituents do that with considerable skill. However, if we are not to make a mockery of people when they put in that affort, the other side of the contract is to say, "Yes, the state's responsibility must match that of the individual," but the Bill is totally silent on that matter. We should ask the Government for three measures if we are satisfactorily to renegotiate the deal between the state and the individual and the responsibilities of each as we approach the 1990s. First, support services should exist for people who actively seek work, as the vast majority of our unemployed constituents do. Year by year, the Government have cut the size of those services. Let me give the House one example which shows that--the effort that the Swedish Government put into helping people find work compared with this Government. Obviously, there is a different ratio between the number of unemployed here and in Sweden, but the Swedish Government employ 20 times more staff than the British Government in trying to make sure that people are trained and suitably placed in work. We should welcome the beginnings of this
Column 734renegotiation, but let us also be clear about the full, comprehensive terms on which we want that contract renegotiated. Secondly, what will happen to those of our constituents who put everything into their employment training course to make it a success, if there is no job at the end of that course? Will the Government say that they can go back on benefit? Will they think of some other way of roughing up those people? Will they say, "You have now done your duty. Our responsibility is to provide you with some form of work and we will provide that form of temporary work"? I should like the Minister to answer that point when he winds up this evening. Thirdly, we must consider full employment. The Minister made much of Pamela Meadows's report. Perhaps I should say that he did not make much of it, as he waved it about and then quoted from another survey about the tightness of the labour market in parts of London. When Opposition Members try to put full employment back on the political agenda, we start from the basis that there is full employment in some areas of the country and in some trades, so we are not talking about a crude Keynesian policy of inflating demand in an attempt to move back to full employment. We are asking for much more selective--or, as the Government would like us to argue, more targeted--measures. My constituents and those of many of my hon. Friends believe that the Government can make some moves to ensure that we move back to full employment in those areas that are now hard hit by unemployment. The Government can control where they place their jobs and contracts. We want to see much more effort than we get even from this Secretary of State. He is better than most Secretaries of State when it comes to moving Government jobs out of areas of high employment to areas of low employment.
We need to see those Government jobs moved into areas of high unemployment and so begin to underpin the local economy, so that the private sector can build on that. The private sector does not come to Birkenhead in the numbers that we would like, for the simple reason that so many other areas in Merseyside are much more attractive. The private sector will not come until we raise the level of money and demand in that local economy that attracts them.
This begins to lay the basis of a move back to full employment. I speak as someone in favour of renegotiating the contract betweeen the state and the individual with which this Bill deals. I criticise the Bill, as do other Opposition Members--and, I hope, Conservative Members--because it is a partial measure which does all the renegotiation on the individual side and does nothing to deliver on the state side.
The state needs to come up with three moves if it is to match the changes that we want in respect of the individual. First, we want to see placement services and help for people trying to find work, to match those, for example, in Sweden. Secondly, we want a reply from the Government about what will happen to those of our constituents who have gone through the mill, including ET. Will they be kicked back to the dole queues afterwards or will the Government come up with schemes of work for them? Thirdly, areas such as the one that I represent desperately need their economies underpinning, and that
Column 735will come only from the Government. If the contract were renegotiated on those terms, many of us would feel much happier than we so far feel about the measure.
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford) : It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I have listened with great interest to his comments, both in this House and in the media, for many years. Many Conservative Members respect him for the things he says and the activities he pursues with great vigour and determination in the House and elsewhere. I might go so far as to place it on record that he has as many friends on this side of the House as he has enemies on that side. We listen with great interest to what he says.
Neither the hon. Gentleman nor the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), who is appropriately dressed in pink for this occasion, referred to the taxpayer, the economy and the changes that need to be made, bearing in mind the demographic changes that lie ahead, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) referred.
I am delighted to take part in this debate, for a number of reasons. This is the first occasion that I have had since my translation from Government to the Back Benches to take part in a major policy debate. On this occasion, I have the strange feeling of being able to say what I believe and to believe what I say.
I remember many occasions at the Dispatch Box when I thought that if I had the choice of being here or in France, I would rather be in France. The second reason why I am delighted to be here is that I wish to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and his ministerial team for introducing this important and much-needed measure which addresses our social security system and seeks to bring about much- needed reform through a radical policy which I hope will be the first of several initiatives in this area over the years.
The encouragement of individual freedom and the maximisation of opportunities for individual success, while taking account and care of those who through no fault of their own are going through temporary or permanent difficult times, have always been a cornerstone of the philosophy of this party and this Government. It is refreshing to have a fresh re- emphasis and reaffirmation of it in this Bill.
That we can discuss these reforms against the background of a successful economy is undoubtedly an enormous advantage. Because of the success in and of our economy, it has been possible to provide social security expenditure at levels 40 per cent. above inflation. From listening to the speeches of Labour Members, this Bill and the trend that I hope it will start on the subject which it addresses is clearly a point of philosophical division between us.
This is the parting of the ways and must be so. We see the legislation as targeting and focusing help on those in need. Clearly it will provide a better service to British
Column 736people by making the benefits system easier to understand and, for those who work within the system, easier to administer. Moreover, it will encourage greater independence in personal pension provision, which I fully welcome. Of those advantages, the most significant is the first--the proper targeting of help for and support of those in need.
I welcome several clauses. I welcome clause 3, which requires employers to keep a record of the earnings on which their employees have paid national insurance contributions. I know from constituency experience that, when employers fail to keep proper records, it can cause enormous anxiety to those approaching retirement who feel that there may be a gap between what they know they have paid and the information that the record offices have. The clause brings that into the open and destroys a gap in the system.
I welcome clause 4 because it deals with liable relatives and provides an extension of liability. I hope that, on Report, we shall see that the Standing Committee has given long and determined thought to the question of one-parent families and the attitude of those who, having created children, decide to leave the family and throw the children on the state. The House must welcome the clause. I hope that the Committee will make it clear to those who may wish to take that opportunity at some time in the life of their family that they must take account of their personal responsibilities, having created the children in the first place.
I welcome clause 5, which extends the upper age limit for the payment of mobility allowance from 75 to 80. All hon. Members will welcome that provision, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on it.
I welcome clause 9, because it requires a person claiming unemployment benefit to show that he or she is actively seeking work. I welcome it because it will enshrine in law that which most people believe is the case but which is not the case--that benefit should not be paid if there are opportunities to gain work which are not being actively pursued by those seeking benefit. I think I am right in saying that this is not an original provision, as some of our colleagues in the Commonwealth--for example, Labour Australia--follow such a provision--
Mr. Dunn : Of course I shall give way in one moment, although the hon. Lady did not give way to me. Our neighbours across the Irish sea also follow this provision. Clearly, there is evidence of support for this provision elsewhere in the world.
Mrs. Beckett : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for not having given way to him, but I shall do so another time. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of what is done elsewhere, because it is included in the Central Office brief. However, that brief does not tell him that, although some such provision, which could loosely be described by the same words as are in the Bill, exists in the countries to which he referred, in none of those countries does it operate in any way, shape or form as it is intended to do under this Bill.
Column 737seems that she agrees that the principle behind the provision is being followed in part or in full by other countries. She said so.
Mrs. Beckett : No. The hon. Gentleman will remember that the Government are reluctant to make glib comparisons between one social security system and another--for example, on pension levels. I said that some of those different countries use the word "actively" in their legislation and some have various tests, but that in not one does the provision operate in the same way or to the same extent as it is intended to under this Bill. The comparison is invalid, although I recognise that it is not the hon. Gentleman's fault, because he has been misled.
Mr. Dunn : I am grateful to be so informed, as befits two former Education Ministers arguing across the Floor of the House--but for them to do so can hardly be salutary, educational or beneficial. At least the hon. Lady pointed out that there is a principle abroad that is being followed, and I welcome her support. She may make her interpretation of what happens abroad, as indeed I do.
In her speech, to which I listened with great interest, the hon. Lady did not answer the point ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redmond), and perhaps I may make it again. If a person is offered a suitable job for which that person is suitably qualified and turns it down, is that person, under Labour policy, still to be entitled to benefit?
Mr. Frank Field : The answer to the question is that that person would not be entitled to benefit. In what the hon. Gentleman might have thought to be a rhetorical question but which we were only too pleased to answer, the hon. Gentleman asked whether the test will be that people will be offered actual jobs.