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Column 766commend. It is a measure which should command widespread support, and certainly I know that clauses 7, 9 and 10 will be warmly welcomed by the general public.
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : I think it is noted by many commentators now that this is a Government run on the basis of image and presentation. The Department of Social Security recently put out a new logo in the shape of what seemed to be a smiling mouth, which for many people in receipt of social security benefits is proving to be the empty grin of a Cheshire cat. If image and presentation are the key--they depend upon a keen sense of the instant present that the media insists we acknowledge--if one is addicted to image and presentation, memory becomes repressed and history is suppressed. I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) make a plea for to be the first of a number of radical reforms. He has been in this House much longer than I have--I think throughout the whole of this Government's term of office. I am surprised that he has not noticed what has actually been going on in social security and, because of his remark, I would like to focus my comments on the background and intentions behind the Bill impression given by the Tory Members tonight is that there has been no major legislation in this area for years. I would like to ask them this : what about the great Fowler review, the "back to Beveridge" approach that this Government set in train in the last Parliament? What about the reform of social security documents published and set in motion in June 1985?
The Secretary of State stated plainly that the Bill embodies the Government's vision of the social security system. I absolutely agree. It is all of a piece I argue that it is not a question of tidying up, not just a piecemeal Bill that is catching one part of the legislation that seems to have fallen behind ; it is all of a piece with the Government's approach to the economy and to social security which--add, includes the establishment of a low-wage sector within the British economy.
The Bill tries to drive those who are currently unemployed into that low- wage sector to keep it going. In the Green Paper "The Reform of Social Security" published in June 1985, there was an interesting emphasis :
"Most people not only can but wish to make sensible provision for themselves State provision should not discourage self-reliance or stand in the way of individual provision and responsibility While it is one of the functions of the social security system to help those who are unemployed, it is self-defeating if it creates barriers to the creation of jobs, to job mobility or to people rejoining the labour force. Clearly such obstacles exist if people believe themselves better off out of work than in work ; or if employers regard the burden of national insurance as a substantial discouragement to providing jobs If we wish to encourage individuals to provide for themselves, then the social security system--public and private --must not stand in the way."
The Bill continues this Government's effective repeal of the social security system. The principle is to ensure that the social security system is out of the way so that the conditions outlined in the Green Paper of June 1985 can be established. There have been three Social Security Bill while I have been a Member of Parliament. This is yet another Bill to get the social security system out of the way.
The Green Paper on the reform of social security concluded blandly
Column 767"The proposals will make it more worthwhile for individuals to work and to save."
This may not be the right debate in which to comment on people's savings, which are remarkably low. Such a comment may be more appropriate to a debate that is to take place later this week. However, the Government are now insisting on driving people into temporary, part-time and low-paid work. The Bill provides an instrument for that purpose.
The Green Paper of June 1985 contained only a brief reference to the unemployed in the proposals to review the social security system. They were passed over almost in silence, despite the pleading of many groups on their behalf. I recall that my hon. Friends pleaded for assistance to be given to the long-term unemployed and their families. They got a scant response from the Government. We are entitled to ask the Minister to explain why the change in the work test was not presented as part of the Fowler reviews. Why was it kept in the background, to be slipped in piecemeal as the full proposals in the Fowler reviews are exposed year after year? I find it hard to believe the statement in the Green Paper :
"The Government's proposals are not based on a grand design for a new state system".
I believe that they are based on such a grand design.
Just before the publication of the Green Paper, in June 1985, two other Government documents were published in March by the Department of Employment. The first was a Government report entitled "Burdens on Business". It set out the terms for reducing the burden of Government regulations ; PAYE, national insurance contributions, VAT, employment law, the health and safety regulations and the planning and trading standards were all to be repealed. The terms of reference of the report were :
"What are the areas in which reductions in compliance costs would make the biggest difference? What are the main obstacles to securing a substantial reduction in their costs? What areas of regulation should be amended?"
Its proposals included
"abolishing or drastically relaxing Wages Councils control over young peoples' wages which price some of them out of their jobs." In the same month, March 1985, the Department of Employment also published a booklet entitled "The Challenge for the Nation." It was even more explicit than "Burdens on Business" and contained proposals headed "Helping the Jobs Market." It proclaimed :
"The Government has acted to ease wage rigidities More realistic levels of youth pay have been encouraged by the young workers scheme and the training allowance of the YTS."
I remind the House that the young workers scheme gave employers £15 a week for every young person they were prepared to take on at a gross wage that averaged £50 a week or less. "The Challenge to the Nation" emphasised throughout that the biggest single cause of high unemployment is the failure of the job market. By that it meant that the labour market was the weak link. What this Government mean is made absolutely explicit in the introduction to that document : "Improving the work of the labour market is particularly important. Jobs will be created to the extent that people are prepared to work at wages that employers can afford."
No reference was made to what workers and their families can afford to live on, if they are given those wages. The question was simply whether they could be channelled into the low-wage economy.
Mr. Battle : I shall respond later in detail to the hon. Gentleman's question. Under this Government, the people on low pay now number 9.4 million--40 per cent. of the work force, a figure that is unprecedented in recent British history. They are on wages well below what is referred to in Europe as "the decency threshhold." Since the Fowler review there have already been two Acts dealing with social security. It was claimed during the last Session that the whole system ought to be revamped. We shall soon have further legislation to abolish the wages councils. There have already been numerous attempts, by changes in the method of calculation, to reduce the number of unemployed people in Britain to a statistical fiction. This Bill proposes to open up the labour market. It encourages people to take up
"the growing number of jobs on offer",
as the Government's own press release put it in December of last year. They propose to do that by reducing the protection for the unemployed, by proposing that the level of remuneration will not be "a good cause" for claimants refusing a job and by insisting that they demonstrate, somehow, "in conversation" that they are actively seeking work. The Government will penalise those who do not accept part-time, temporary and low-paid jobs.
The key shift in our economy is not simply between the employed and the unemployed. It is between those in relatively secure, reasonably--if not well--paidwork with prospects and those who are condemned to the part-time, temporary, low-wage economy.
I am reminded by the intervention of the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) that many people in Britain live on a wage that is well below £132 a week, or £3.50 an hour. I invite Conservative Members to say whether they would be prepared to negotiate their benefits away for wages of less than £2 an hour, which is the rate at which many jobs in my constituency are now advertised. That hidden economic division is the basis of the assumptions that are made in the Bill. It is the basis of the assumption that the long-term unemployed have unrealistic wage expectations and that they are facing what the Government describe as "disincentive problems". I submit that to sustain current economic development the Government need actively to promote a two-tier economic structure--those in full-time, relatively well-paid jobs, with good tax reductions, and those in part-time, temporary and low-paid work.
Different standards apply. Those in the top sector get the benefit of tax cuts and more income as an incentive, but those at the bottom will find that even those benefits that they now have will be taken away. That is a classic example of the carrot for the top and the stick for the bottom. That is the reality that faces many of the 9.4 million people in our society who are currently on low pay. The Government's economic development depends on the development of a part-time, temporary and low-paid sector. The Bill is about forcing the unemployed into that sector. That is what flexibility means when Conservative Members refer to it. There is no talk of a sense of contribution of work by people in our society. There is no talk of their having something to offer and some prospects. It is simply a matter of their being available for a few hours
Column 769a week, or they will get nothing. They may be accused of pricing themselves out of work, but the Government are intent on pricing the unemployed out of sight altogether.
In the first place, I welcome clause 19, which introduces the principle of equal treatment for men and women in occupational social security schemes. Something good can sometimes come out of Europe, as Labour Members might like to note. It is a useful move towards equal professional opportunities for men and women which will be much welcomed; we hope that it will be developed in other areas and in other legislation.
I should like to give a warm welcome, as Members on both sides have already done, to the extension of mobility allowance from age 75 to 80, which is again in principle of help that reflects the increasing numbers of very elderly people. It is an excellent move, and I am glad that Labour Members have welcomed that and other parts of the Bill.
Clearly, one of the most controversial parts of the Bill is contained in clause 7 and those other clauses that are to be taken with it. They amend existing legislation so that a requirement for entitlement to unemployment benefit is that a person must be "actively seeking" work and must also demonstrate that he is so doing. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have already pointed out that the current position is that claimants are required to be available for work. They should apply for jobs ; they should respond to suggestions given by jobcentres ; and they are required from time to time to confirm that they are available.
However, the very reason that those clauses are in the Bill is that the law needs enforcing. People working in jobcentres need to be given powers to ensure that it is being carried out. The law also needs this to take account--this is most important and has not been mentioned by Labour Members--of the vastly changed and changing employment situation in much of the country. It should be made clear at the outset that the majority of claimants--again, there is broad agreement here--are genuinely seeking work, but it must also be recognised, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) said, that those working in jobcentres know the people who are not genuinely seeking work, who turn down job opportunities for a variety of reasons, sometimes not genuine reasons, and who continue to claim benefit. Some of those people are undoubtedly working in the black economy. It is as absurd to pretend that all abuse the system as to maintain that none do.
Some people have pointed out that the public understanding of the position is that it is not possible to claim benefit if the claimant is not actively seeking to find and take available work. I am not so sure that that is in fact the case, because, certainly in areas such as the one that I represent, where employment opportunities are many, the public are mystified when they see, side by side, unemployment statistics and job vacancies. I accept that there are regional variations and it would be foolish to pretend that they do not exist. They have already been recognised in the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who said that regional differences would be taken into account when the regulations were
Column 770being applied. However, meanwhile, in areas where there are good employment prospects, people feel that the numbers of unfilled vacancies sit oddly next to the statistics of the unemployed. I should like to quote a specific example drawn from my constituency. A major employer, a food processor, based in one of my market towns, currently employs 600 people. The company wishes to expand its operations and to recruit at least 100 more people. I should point out, mainly because of the point made by Labour Members, particularly by the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), that the company pays above the average manual wage to the factory. Transport is provided, not from a central point, but from the doors of the people working in the factory. The work is done in shifts, which suits many people, including women. It is pleasant and there are good staff benefits.
In November, according to the statistics, the number of local people unemployed was 1,400 ; that is about 6.9 per cent. The company therefore undertook a major advertising campaign on local radio, in the local press and through the local jobcentre. As a result of this major campaign, the company received 44 inquiries, rather less than 2 per cent. of the 1,400 people unemployed. Twenty-six people attended for interviews, 20 were offered jobs, 17 started work, four left and two who accepted failed to turn up. The company therefore succeeded in taking 13 out of an alleged 1,400 people in the area, rather less than 1 per cent. One of the leavers commented that it was "harder work than staying at home" ; that is undoubtedly true, but we must ask ourselves whether that is a good reason for turning down work. I must also point out to Labour Members that the comments of the people working in the factory, when they learned of the numbers who attended and the numbers who stuck to the job, bear very little relation to the attitudes that we are assured by Labour Members are held by many people. Many of the comments were not such that I could repeat them in this House.
Mrs. Beckett : That is the second time that the hon. Lady has referred to our remarks about the attitudes that we believe are generally held. Certainly I do not suggest that the attitudes that are generally held are anything other than those that she has described. That is a matter for sadness. It is my understanding and experience that those who have work, particularly people in low-paid work, frequently show little understanding of or interest in the position of those who are less fortunate. I do not for that reason think that those comments are invalid.
I would not in any circumstances suggest that the attitudes expressed by the hon. Lady or the attitudes quoted by the Secretary of State are not generally held. It is a different matter whether they are valid and represent the reality of the situation in most parts of the country in respect of the number of jobs available and the number of people seeking to take them. I feel sure that the hon. Lady is unwittingly misrepresenting what has been said by Labour Members.
Mrs. Shephard : I do not wish to misrepresent anything said by Labour Members, but, as mention has been made of the Clapham omnibus and the feelings of those people riding on it, I should point out that considerable resentment is felt by people in work if they perceive that
Column 771others, who have the opportunity of the same work, prefer to remain at home supported by the taxes of those people who are in work.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : As they feel so strongly about this, can my hon. Friend inquire from the Opposition Front Bench why only three Labour Back-Bench Members are present to consider this?
My area is fortunate, as we have several companies wishing to expand and a buoyant job market but, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will point out, there are many such areas in Britain and their number is increasing all the time. Given the job opportunities available, employers and the public are mystified that there should be at the same time unemployment-- apparently 6 per cent. or so in my area--and unfilled vacancies.
Naturally, allowances must be made for inaccurate statistics--in a rapidly moving job market, it is difficult to keep track of statistics--but when suitable work is available, surely it makes good sense both for individuals and the economy as a whole, first that people should be encouraged to take that work and to demonstrate their wish to do so, and secondly, that unemployment benefit should be used for those in genuine difficulty. Again, there must be agreement on all sides on that.
The principle behind clause 7--that people should be encouraged to take available work and to demonstrate that they are actively seeking it--is broadly welcomed by the public. But care will be needed, and will undoubtedly be taken in Committee, in drafting regulations to ensure both that it will be more difficult for people in the black economy to claim benefits and that the regulations will not make life harder for unemployed people with genuine difficulties.
I wish to single out a particular group where special care will need to be taken--those people who are 50 or over. Despite a buoyant job market, those people often find it difficult to get work. I note that age is to be one of the good causes to be taken into account by the adjudicating officer, together with physical capabilities. It will be important for people over 50 who have had long work experience to recognise the particular difficulties that their age and even their physical capabilities may present for them in taking an unfamiliar job. If older people have been out of work for some time, they may suffer a lack of confidence about taking on unfamiliar work. A trial period of six weeks should help to ensure that no one will incur sanctions if the job genuinely does not work out. Clearly, when the Bill comes into force, officers who organise job clubs and who are involved in restart schemes will have increased responsibilities in ensuring that people are helped to keep the necessary records and can keep up the search for work. That must be recognised in appropriate training for those officers.
In the interests of the economy as a whole and of the use of public money to help those genuinely in employment difficulties, and in the interests of unemployed people who may need encouragement to take advantage of a rapidly improving employment market in many areas, the whole Bill, and this clause in particular, deserve to be welcomed, as I believe they will be throughout the country.
Column 7728.54 pm
The so-called justification for that is based on a survey of the London labour market carried out by the Department of Employment. The Government have either misunderstood or misrepresented it. It refers to 150,000 unfilled vacancies in London. I have studied the survey, and that is an estimate, not an accepted figure. I always distrust such nice, round figures, and I do not know how Ministers conjure them out of the ether.
That figure is incompatible with another figure. Table 18 of the report says that employers in London notify 45 per cent. of their vacancies to jobcentres. The Department of Employment figure for unfilled jobcentre vacancies in London is 35,000. If employers notify 45 per cent. of their vacancies, the total number of vacancies should be about 78,000, or 2.25 times the number notified to jobcentres, not 150,000. If the main conclusion of the report can be so wrong, we should be a little cautious about the remainder.
The Government are seeking to give the impression that there is a big stock of either 78,000 or 150,000 vacancies in London, and they claim 700,000 vacancies nationwide that are ready, waiting and available for the unemployed. But they suggest that the unemployed will neither look for nor take them. That is a complete illusion and a grotesque misunderstanding. There is no stock and any idea that a stock of unfilled vacancies exists is nonsense.
These figures are a measure of turnover, not of stock. Vacancies flow in and filled vacancies flow out. If the Minister will read the report--I doubt whether he has, but if he wishes to correct me he may do so--he will see that it acknowledges what I am saying. It states that 700,000 new employees are taken on each year in London. The annual vacancy outflow from London jobcentres is about 400,000 a year which is nearly 34,000 a month, so the truth is that it is not a stock, but a flow.
In the quarter to 2 September 1988, clerical jobs were filled after a median period of four weeks, retail jobs after 2.7 weeks, catering jobs after three weeks, building labourer vacancies after 3.2 weeks and general labourer vacancies after 4.2 weeks, so there is not a static figure, but a flow. There is no evidence of a large pool of vacancies remaining unfilled because the unemployed are unwilling to take them.
Mr. Leighton : No. I am grateful that the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) is paying attention, but I should prefer it if he would lend me his ears rather than his prejudices, because there is the question of time to consider. If there is time later, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Leighton : I make such visits regularly. I extend to the hon. Gentleman an open invitation to accompany me on a visit to my local jobcentre, where I regularly review the results of restart interviews. I do so all the time. As
Column 773Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment, I suspect that I know as much about the subject as does the hon. Member for Fylde. One crucial question to which no one has yet paid any attention is that of who fills the vacancies that occur. The truth leaps from the report that has been prayed in aid. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Fylde, who just intervened, would pay attention. I thought that he was interested in this matter, but apparently he is not. If he is interested, I am anxious to enlighten him.
The truth of the matter, which leaps from the pages of the survey that has not been read by the Minister, is that most vacancies are filled by those who are already employed and who are merely switching jobs. Of those recruited to non-managerial or professionl jobs, for example, during the last 12 months, only 2 per cent. had been unemployed for six months or more. That demonstrates a huge employer prejudice against recruiting unemployed people. The report reveals that employers either did not know that long-term unemployed existed or were hostile to them. The unemployed fail to get jobs not because they are unwilling to take them but because of employers' recruitment practices and their reluctance to hire those who are currently unemployed.
The phenomenon of the discouraged worker is well known. I speak of the person who has been rejected so often that he or she wonders whether it is worth continuing to seek employment. Yet the report shows that 87 per cent. of unemployed had looked for work in the month preceding their interview. It reveals also that the unemployed do not expect high wages, and that they are willing to travel. The Secretary of State for Employment is not present in the Chamber, although the Secretary of State for Social Security is on the Government Front Bench. If the right hon. Gentleman will examine the document that he has prayed in aid, he will see that in his foreword to it, the Secretary of State for Employment states that only a "small minority" of unemployed have never looked for work. It is wrong to formulate public policy and enact legislation for a minority rather than for the majority.
A core of vacancies is hard to fill, but that is because of skills or geographical mismatches. The unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed--most of whom are victims of Government policy--need and deserve help and understanding. They do not need, nor do they deserve, persecution and harassment. Many black people have higher qualifications than whites. They visit jobcentres more often than white people, yet they suffer twice the level of unemployment. I hope that the Minister will comment on that point.
There is a fundamental division of approach between Government and Opposition Members, but I hope that it does not include every Conservative Member. That division is between those, apparently including the Government, who believe that the poor and unemployed cannot find jobs because of their personal deficiencies--such as a lack of motivation and a willingness to live off the state--and those, like myself, who believe that there are several reasons why people remain so long on benefit. They include the absence of fair opportunities to compete for suitable jobs, a lack of skills, a lack of supporting services such as child care, discrimination and, most importantly, a shortage of jobs in the first place.
The first group want schemes and programmes to be compulsory for the reasons I have explained. Because we
Column 774know the unemployed better than they do, the second group, knowing that the unemployed want to work, want voluntary programmes that will win willing support and participation. Voluntary programmes enhance their participants' feelings of control over their own lives--the feeling that they have choices, which are usually denied to the poor.
Instead, the Government are going for conscription. Already YTS is compulsory. Now, other programmes are moving towards compulsion--that is what the Government are doing by changing and tightening the "availability for work" formula. No one in the House defends those who defraud the system, but that is already unlawful. This Bill threatens to police and prosecute people who are already disadvantaged enough. They need understanding and aid, and more effective, better staffed and more user- friendly employment services.
Employers need to be induced to send all their vacancies, not merely a small percentage of them, to jobcentres. Unemployed people need more trained counsellors to offer them quality training, advice and assistance. When people are unemployed through no fault of their own, they need to be made to feel valued members of society and to be helped and supported through a difficult period back into good and well-paid employment. Like others, the unemployed and their families have paid their rates and taxes and have their rights as citizens to these services.
This is an unworthy, mean, nasty, spiteful measure, which cannot conceivably be justified by an analysis of the survey of the London labour market.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) : As two thirds of the Bill consists either of minor adjustments or of tidying-up measures, I am amazed by the stance of the Opposition on it. If only they would apply common sense, they would support it. Instead, the usual prejudice and accusations have been trotted out, that the Government have ahidden agenda. As usual, the Opposition have claimedthat the Government do not care about people in this country--
Mr. Battle : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman should make it clear that whereas some of us have been here throughout the entire debate, he has not--yet he has the audacity to cast a slur on what we have said.
Mr. Speaker : I have only just come into the Chamber. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) gave notice earlier that he wanted to participate. I do not know whether he has been out of the Chamber.
Mr. Wilshire : I have been in and out during the debate for the simple reason that part of Heathrow is in my constituency, and matters to do with air crashes have kept me having to go in and out in the course of the day. So I make no apology for not having heard all the speeches. What I have heard has convinced me that once again the Opposition are talking nonsense. They ignore the abuses in this country, they ignore the waste, and above all they ignore public opinion. If they do not believe that, or will not take it from me, let them check the opinion polls, which prove how out of touch with public opinion the Opposition are on this matter.
Column 775It is important to set the Bill in its context. Twenty of its 29 clauses are routine--refunding contributions, helping individuals with housing benefits and streamlining war pension administration. These and other matters dealt with in 20 of the 29 clauses should receive the support of us all. The remaining nine clauses raise six issues that may divide us in Committee. I have no hesitation in saying that I support wholeheartedly all six major issues. As I am conscious of the time, I shall deal with only three of the six issues. First, I shall speak about clause 4 and the matter of more parental support for children. Secondly, I want to deal briefly with clauses 6 to 10, which concern unemployment benefit and income support changes. Thirdly, I want to speak briefly about clause 18, which concerns the recovery of payments when damages have been awarded. I have chosen those three issues because they demonstrate to me--and, I believe, to everybody else--three basic truths about the Government's approach. The first truth is that the Government have values that are founded on clear principles. The second truth is that the Government are doing a great deal more, through the Bill, to help those who are in real need. Thirdly, the Bill shows that the Government are still busy reversing the Socialist excesses of the post-war years.
Clause 4 proposes that parents should be asked to make a bigger contribution towards their children's education. For me, that is another important step towards revitalising the concept of the family in this country. At present, there is blanket help for all children of divorced or separated parents, which has two effects. First, it makes it easier for a parent to walk out on a child and secondly, it undermines the role of parenthood. Those two effects lead in themselves to a further undermining of the family unit. Clause 4 has nothing to do with financial savings ; money is not the issue being raised. Clause 4 seeks to encourage family life and stresses that parenthood is a matter of great responsibility, so people who can afford to do so must be encouraged and required to make a contribution to their children. I am reassured to see that, when such help cannot be afforded, there are provisions to make alternative arrangements through Government help.
The second issue with which I want to deal is covered by clauses 6 to 10. They have been discussed in detail and deal with changes in unemployment benefit and income support. The clauses address circumstances that the great majority of people in this country feel are unjust as they stand. Let us consider those who retire--I stress the word retire--early with a pension. Such people do not need and should not expect as much help as someone who is genuinely wholly unemployed. Let us also consider those who are not really seeking a job or are moonlighting. Such people exist, whatever the Opposition say, and do not need or deserve as much help as those who are desperate to find work and are doing everything they can. I shall respect the Opposition when they speak from their own experience.
Mr. Heffer : It is clear that Conservative Members have never experienced the humiliation of being out of work, losing their dignity and believing ultimately that they themselves, rather than the system, are responsible for unemployment. The system is responsible, so we have a responsibility to all those who are more unfortunate than ourselves.
Mr. Wilshire : I am very happy to speak from direct experience. In my constituency--which is just as valid an example as the other 649--a total of 934 people were unemployed when I checked yesterday, and there were 1,200 vacancies. Given those circumstances, the Government are absolutely right to act. My experience is just as valid as that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). I make no apology. The circumstances to which I refer apply in a growing number of constituences. We have to ask why all those people are unemployed when there are more vacancies than there are people seeking work. The third issue about which I wish to speak briefly is the recovery of payments when damages are awarded. This is dealt with in clause 18. Like others, I have been approached by the CBI--
Mr. Leighton rose--
Mr. Wilshire : It seems to me that if the CBI is against something we are probably justified in being in favour of it. But taxpayers' money should not be used to subsidise negligence, and double recovery of damages is wrong. I ask myself who is speaking against this, and I reply that it is those who would have to pay. The answer to them is simple : if they are not negligent, they will not have to pay anything.
Two-thirds of the Bill is relatively minor and deserves the support of us all. The remaining six issues are wholly in tune with public opinion and a sensible concept of a social security system. Anyone who votes against these measures will be ignoring the wishes of the overwhelming majority in the country. As I said at the outset, if Opposition Members will not believe me, let them read the opinion polls.
Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : I wish to confine my remarks to the core of the Bill. We all know that the Bill is about the new tests on availability for work. The tests move on from availability for work to actively seeking work, and are linked with the new provision that people must take a job at any level of income. That is the core ; the rest of the Bill contains bits of reforms of one kind or another that were added on once that central strategic move had been made.
I object strongly and deeply to the style of the debate. The quality of our democracy has declined gravely and worryingly in recent years, and the quality of debate in the House is at such a low level that if most people in the
Column 777country who confront the issues that we discuss were to hear it our institutions would be brought into grave disrepute.
It is plain that Tory Members have received some kind of handout from Conservative Central Office. One after another--often they have not all been in the Chamber at the same time--they have churned out the same remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), who has obviously read the material concerned, gave some examples.
The line that Conservative Members have been taking is the "big lie" tactic. One after another they have tried to say that the Bill is all about reforming our social security system, which at present allows the minority who scrounge and defraud the system to get away with it. They say that they are imposing constraints to stop that, and that the Labour party is in favour of scroungers. They have said that over and over tonight, and have constantly challenged us to say that we are not in favour of scroungers.
If there were some level of objective rationality with which we had to comply in the Chamber, such junk would not be allowed. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who spoke for the alliance or the Democrats--I am sorry that I cannot keep up with the labels--put on record the existing framework of law. I do not know whether Conservative Members are at all interested, but the framework in the 1975 Act, which is the basic framework that has been in place in the post-war social security settlement, imposed on everyone a duty to seek work and to accept jobs that were offered. If they did not accept jobs that were offered, they had to take training. That framework used to be agreed between the parties and was part of Britain's post-war settlement.
Since 1979, under this new-Right Thatcherite regime, there has been a considerable tightening up on availability for work. There has been a tough new questionnaire. People have to prove that they are instantly available to start work and that they do not have dependants for whom they have to care. In my constituency, as a result of the collapse in the west midlands after 1979, many men started picking up their children from school, giving them tea and so on--something that they never used to do in the past. They say that one of the few enjoyments that have come from losing the job that they did for 20 or 30 years is seeing more of their children. If such people cannot make arrangements overnight to accommodate their children or their elderly parents, they are not available for work. People have to prove that they are willing to travel further and to accept lower wages. That tightening up has taken place under the Government.
Then the restart scheme was introduced along with another massive questionnaire. People were called in every six months. There was a menu of so-called opportunities, job clubs, schemes that did not lead to jobs and such a series of offers. People received letters saying that their benefit would be stopped unless they attended their restart interviews. Surveys show that the majority of people who go through that process think that they have to join a job club, community programme or employment training scheme or lose their benefit. All that is in place now.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire read out the tribunal's interpretation of availability for work as "actively seeking work" ; a person must take positive measures to seek work. All that is in place and thousands of people have had their money questioned. The unemployment benefit of 500,000 people has been called
Column 778into question because they were not available for work. Between July 1987 and June 1988, a total of 173,268 claims for unemployment benefit were referred because of doubts about availability. The figures have gone up and up as the Government introduced their stringent tests.
People are hounded now on availability for work in an unsavoury and nasty way. Most end up going in and out of rotten schemes, job clubs, short-term work, low-paid jobs, being laid off, or going into a scheme and out of a scheme. That is the reality for large numbers of people in Britain. So do not let this Chamber descend to such a level that the big lie is repeated time and again. Conservative Members pretend that everyone is in prosperous work and that only the scroungers will be threatened by the Bill. That is false. If we are to discuss new legislation, let us discuss it accurately. If Tory Members do not know that the line that theyare putting across is false, the people in need in their constituencies do not go to them. Some Tory Members could not have made the speeches that they made tonight if they had seen the kind of people that Labour Members see regularly in their constituencies. Either they know that their line is false or they do not help the people in need in their constituencies. There is poverty and low pay throughout Britain. Things are better in the south-east than in the rest of the country, but there is plenty of poverty and low pay in the south-east as well.
Why do we have the Bill? Is it just one of those nasty, knee jerk, Sun - level, Mr. Murdoch promises that have to be made at the Tory party conference, which is where the Bill was promised? We know that the Secretary of State's reputation was in difficulty at that time. We know that he had been ill, and we are sorry about that, but he came up with this promise to catch the scroungers. Is it just the result of prejudice and nastiness or is there a strategy underlying it?
Part of the Bill is the result of prejudice and nastiness, but there is a strategy underlying it. It is a serious strategy which affects Britain's whole labour market. Since the Government took power they have set about systematically dismantling a series of minimum protections--many put in place by Winston Churchill, who is supposedly the Prime Minister's hero--so that we did not have competition through ever-cheapening wages, the bad employer throwing out the worst, and so on, in a downward spiral.
A series of historical protections that have existed for many years in our country have been deliberately and systematically removed by the Government in order to encourage low pay which, they say, is better than unemployment. However, we know that areas of high unemployment have many people on low pay. The Government have just promised to look again at the very existence of the wages councils and to demolish yet another piece of protection. They have been enormously successful.