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Column 1022Stevens, Lewis
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Stewart, Rt Hon Ian (Herts N)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Walters, Sir Dennis
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Younger, Rt Hon George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Tony Durant and
Mr. David Lightbown.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment made : No. 99, in page 7, line 9, leave out from means' to end of line 13 and insert
in relation to any person, such period, whether expired or not, as may be determined in accordance with regulations by an adjudication officer on the submission of the question whether that person is disqualified under section 20 above for receiving unemployment benefit ; and any such regulations may prescribe-- (
(a) the day on which any such period shall be regarded as having commenced in any case ;'.-- [Mr. Scott.]
(7) In section 97(1C) of the principal Act, at the end there shall be added the words "and, in particular, on the determination of the period for which a person is to be disqualified, under section 20(1) above for receiving unemployment benefit".'.
I shall move the amendment with extreme brevity in view of the constraints on time.
In Committee, we discussed the unfettered discretion that adjudication officers have to impose a period of disqualification which can range from one week to 26 weeks. We pointed out to the Minister that there is substantial evidence that adjudication offices automatically imposed the maximum period of disqualification when it was six weeks, continued to do so when it was 13 weeks and still impose it automatically now that it is 26 weeks. Although there must be some, I have never come across a case in which anyone was disqualified from the benefit for less than 26 weeks. Before the Minister says that those are the people who write to Members of Parliament, the same decision continues to apply to people who have been told that their disqualification is being called in question and have not received a formal decision as to the period of disqualification. But invariably the formal disqualification is for the full 26 weeks.
The Minister said that advice might be given by the chief adjudication officer or that commissioners' decisions should provide guidance on what consideration should be given to the period of disqualification. However, the commissioners have said that, because of the way in which the legislation is drafted, they can give no real guidance, and the chief adjudication officer in his annual report complained about his inability to offer guidance. Therefore, it is clear that no guidance will be offered, although the chief adjudication officer has said how difficult it is for adjudication officers to exercise that discretion.
Column 1023The amendment seeks to give the chief adjudication officer the power he wants to give more detailed advice on the subject. I commend the amendment to the Minister. Although I do not expect him to accept it tonight, it deals with an issue which he should seriously consider.
Mr. Scott : I recognise that the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) has raised an important point, but amendment No. 4 is unnecessary because there is a general duty on the chief adjudication officer to provide advice and guidance. However, as we all know, adjudication officers have unfettered judgment in these matters. Despite what the hon. Lady said, I accept that she was conveying the facts to me as they were presented to her. I have no reason to believe that adjudication officers are not imposing disqualification periods to reflect the merits of any particular case. When we extended the maximum period of disqualification from 13 to 26 weeks last year, we made it clear that we would wish to ascertain what effect that change had on the amounts of benefit claimants lost and on the behaviour of claimants. We set up arrangements to study the impact of the change.
During the past three months, we have carried out a survey which will provide information on the numbers and lengths of
disqualifications imposed nationally and regionally. The results of that survey are being analysed. We also commissioned an independent agency, Social and Community Planning Research, to explore the impact of the change on decisions about leaving or taking work, as well as on the circumstances of those who are disqualified. I expect the results of both of the surveys to be available in the summer. Of course, they will be published and that will be the appropriate time for us to consider the matter.
Ms. Short : If the results of the survey show that almost universally people are disqualified for 26 weeks, which is an incredibly long period, and even the Government are persuaded that the hardship is too great, what action does the Minister propose to take? What is the point of the survey? What will he do if the results are bad?
Mr. Scott : However charmingly the hon. Lady presents it, I am certainly not going to be drawn into answering a hypothetical question. Let us establish the facts and then decide on the appropriate action.
Mrs. Beckett : I do not think that the Minister has answered the matter fairly. The chief adjudication officer said that legal advice confirms that he is unable to do more than guide adjudication officers on their general approach. However, I am quite confident that, unless the Minister is prepared to take some action, the issue will come up again. So that we can make progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave withdrawn.
, unless he is responsible for and a member of the same household as a child,'.
bearing in mind any limitations that may be imposed on a person by virtue of any physical, sensory or mental impairment'.
Mr. Flynn : The amendment strikes at the squalid heart of the Bill because clause 10 harbours outrageous new powers. Part of the new parrot cry of the Conservative party is its claim that it wants to make parents accountable for the crimes of their children, but clause 10 will chastise children for the faults of their parents. It is malevolent because it will deprive people of their only source of income. It sinks to new depths of incompetence, indifference and spite.
It has always been recognised that unemployment entitlement must be subject to certain conditions designed to show that the claimant has not become or remains unemployed through his or her deliberate action. That is understood and recognised by both sides of the House, but it has also been recognised that disqualification from unemployment benefit on those grounds should have some effect on entitlement to a minimum income under the means-tested fallback scheme--previously supplementary benefit and now income support. Under the present rules, a person who leaves a job voluntarily without just cause or who refuses an offer of suitable employment loses all entitlement to employment benefit for up to 26 weeks--in most cases, it is a minimum of 26 weeks--but he or she can still claim income support, although not at the full rate, and subject to a reduction of 40 per cent. of the rate for a single person. That is accepted as a harsh, if not a punitive, disincentive for anyone to claim benefit when he is not available for work.
Many people would argue that the 40 per cent. reduction is excessive, especially when it is applied, as it usually is, for as far as we know, no one has ever suggested that it should be increased to a 100 per cent. reduction, leaving the claimant with no income to provide for his own needs and those of his family. That extreme penalty is imposed only when someone is claiming income support as an unemployed person and is judged not to be available for work at all and is not really unemployed. Clause 10 will extend that 100 per cent. penalty and the judgment of total destitution to people who are available for work but who have failed to satisfy a fairly junior civil servant that they have maintained an active search for jobs for at least 50 weeks of the year.
We are giving an extraordinary new power to junior civil servants to set up kangaroo courts in which they will detect offences, carry out interrogations and then preside, as judge and jury, over the case--subject to appeal. Even if one accepts that such an offence should be punishable by law, the penalty is wholly disproportionate. Twenty-six weeks'--a half year's--salary plus possible benefits for children is a formidable fine for any offence. The only safeguard against the worst effects of that massive penalty is a little-known, little-used and gossamer-weak provision in the regulations, which provides that a person who is not available for work can nevertheless receive benefit if the claimant or a member of his family would otherwise suffer hardship.
The Minister has said that the provision might be extended to cover people not actively seeking employment, but the concept of a civil servant being able to cut off a person's sole source of income without inevitably causing
Column 1025hardship is nonsense. I accept that it is possible for that to happen in some rare cases where vast savings are available to fall back on. But it is nonsense to apply that to single claimants and arrant nonsense for those with families to support.
Amendment No. 5 concentrates on the threat posed by clause 10 to the families of unemployed people with dependent children. It does not wholly represent our views. We would like to get rid of clause 10 altogether, but, being practical people, we believe that the amendment is an attainable and reasonable end, even in terms of the way in which the Government see the Bill.
The case for exempting families with children from the effects of clause 10 is overwhelming. Even if it were right to punish an unemployed person for failure to take active steps for 50 weeks a year to search for work, it cannot be right to punish that person's children. The principle that children should not suffer for the sins--or imagined sins--of their parents is recognised in the rules relating to strikers' families. Those rules themselves have been changed disgracefully in recent years, imposing savage reductions in the benefits available for strikers' families, but even the present Government have not dared to withdraw those benefits altogether. The effect of amendment No. 5 would not be to exempt people with children from the actively seeking employment test. They would still stand to lose entitlement to unemployment benefit. The amendment would mean that such people would be able to claim income support, and to receive it, if they could show that they were available for work. If a person refused a job without due cause, his income support would be subject to the usual stringent 40 per cent. reduction for voluntary unemployment. It cannot be argued that the amendment would open the floodgates to abuse. It would merely prevent the actively seeking work test from condemning children to utter destitution.
"bearing in mind any limitations that may be imposed on a person by virtue of any physical, sensory or mental impairment."
That is an attempt to ensure that disability is taken into account in the actively seeking work test. We had important discussions on that in Committee. Some assurances were given, but only in relation to the prospective total exemption of disabled people from passing some of the tests to prove that they were actively seeking work. Amendment No. 113 takes a slightly different tack and seeks to mitigate the test that will be applied to disabled people. That is important because we still do not know, with any certainty, just how active a person will have to be to prove that he is seeking employment. Against that background, it is right that we should consider the problems that disabled people may face. The regulations may, for example, require the person to accomplish tasks that are beyond his physical or other capacities as a result of disability. I am sure that the House agrees that it would be wrong to refuse benefit to disabled persons by virtue of their special behaviour in seeking work. They may not match the behaviour prescribed because they are suffering from disabilities.
Some of the problems were described in Committee. Difficulties would inevitably be experienced by people who are bound to spend their lives in wheelchairs. It would be
Column 1026unfair if there were requirements that necessitated them having access to places of work and methods of transport that were difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate in wheelchairs. It would be similarly unfair to require people to search out job opportunities by telephone or other means if they were deaf or blind, or had difficulty in writing and consequently needed help from someone without such impairments, who might not be available when required. Expecting someone to call regularly at a jobcentre where there may be no accessible transport is similarly unfair.
We received some assurances from the Minister that exemptions would be considered. The amendment seeks to improve the position by requiring some account to be taken of disability in the actively seeking work test. I hope that the Minister has had a chance to study our discussions in Committee and that he will be able to make some positive comments this evening.
Mr. Tony Banks : If someone is ruled to be not actively seeking work, will he lose his entitlement to all benefits unless he can demonstrate hardship? As the Minister knows, I was a member of the Standing Committee for a while until I was transferred to another Bill, so I was not present when clause 10 was debated. It seems outrageous that, if someone is ruled not to be actively seeking work, he could lose his right to all benefits unless he could prove hardship. Once again, humiliation is being heaped on people. Amendment No. 5 seeks to establish that, if somebody has family commitments, he will not have to demonstrate hardship. It will be immediately accepted, and the person will at least receive the 60 per cent.
I find it strange that two otherwise seemingly decent Ministers--I have described them as such several times, but I do not know whether they are deceiving me or whether I am being overly charitable--could allow such a situation to occur. At this stage, I assume that I am misreading the Bill and that that will not be the situation. I cannot believe that the Minister would allow someone to lose his benefit unless he could prove hardship and that he would be required to do so under the circumstances that we know exist, when people have to lay bare their private lives. I am assuming that the Minister will tell me that I am wrong, but if I am right I am assuming that the Minister will accept the amendment.
Mr. Scott : I want to make it clear first that, whatever view the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) may take of my attitude, the situation now is no different from the situation that existed under previous Governments, including Labour Governments. It has always been clear that one's entitlement to what in those days was supplementary benefit was affected if one was not available for work. There was a reduction of 40 per cent. or in certain circumstances 20 per cent. in the personal rate of the individual who was not satisfying the available for work test, which is now changed to the actively seeking work test.
Of course, the allowances paid for dependants of the family would not be affected. There is nothing new in that. There is also a provision in the income support legislation that claimants can receive benefit without having to be available for work if they are lone parents, or if they are looking after a child because the responsible adult is ill or temporarily absent from home, or looking after a member
Column 1027of the family who is temporarily ill. All those groups would be exempt from the requirement to be actively seeking work.
It seems bizarre to suggest that a couple with children should both be exempt from the need actively to be seeking work. If one tried to think of circumstances in which a family should be encouraged to provide income from employment, it would be where young children are in the household. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West considerably overstated things when he said that all the benefit will be taken away. If the benefit comprised the only resources available to the family, which is what the hon. Gentleman was predicating, it would obviously be difficult to pretend that there would not be hardship. Therefore, the hardship provision would come into effect and the benefit would be paid--and be reduced by either 20 per cent. or 40 per cent.--to the person who was not satisfying the condition, but the dependency additions would not be affected. That is precisely the same as circumstances that existed under Labour Governments.
Mrs. Beckett : First, although what the Minister is saying is right in terms of the background provisions working against the availability for work test, the whole point of having the actively seeking work test is that it is likely to be much more stringent and therefore much more likely to bite on people.
Secondly, surely my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is right in saying that people's rights to benefit will be removed from them under clause 10 if they are ruled not to be actively seeking work, although, as the Minister drifted into saying in his last few sentences, if they can show that there is hardship, they may get some income with which to support their family. That is not the same as talking as if it is an automatic process. We think that it should be an automatic process, and that is the purpose of the amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) has moved.
Mr. Scott : I am not saying that everything should stand still and that one should not, from time to time, consider such matters, but the hon. Lady was herself a member of Government--admittedly of one that applied the "availability" not the "actively seeking" test--who had exactly the same provisions to discourage people from resting on benefit instead of being in the business of getting themselves re-employed. I cannot accept amendment No. 5.
On amendment No. 113, in the name of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), it is fair to say that anybody claiming benefit on the basis of unemployment should be in the business of seeking work. That is what unemployment benefit is for : it is to help people who, through no fault of their own, become unemployed, and it is right that they should be encouraged to get back into work as soon as possible. I believe-- I said this in Committee and I repeat it now--that that test will be applied fairly and reasonably.
Of course, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that we must take account of a wide variety of factors and a wide range of abilities and disabilities in reaching the decision. What we propose to do in regulations is to require that the claimant should show that he is looking for work by taking steps to secure the type of employment for which he is best
Column 1028suited and for which he is most likely to be recruited. If the claimant could not be expected to take any such step because physically or mentally it is beyond his capabilities, that would have to be taken into account in reaching a view about what is appropriate for him.
It is a question of balance. We do not want to write off people with disabilities and say that they cannot have any sort of work, but a judgment must be made about the sort of work that their handicap enables them to do. We shall write that, as well as other matters, into the regulations.
Another matter raised in Committee was the effect of homelessness on the sort of employment that people might be able to take. There will obviously be opportunities for us to discuss such issues under the affirmative procedure in due course when we discuss the regulations, but we are anxious to see that the regulations are drawn in such a way as to meet the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire.
Mr. Flynn : Obviously, the point is not getting through. The present deduction of 40 per cent. is made in cases where someone has, in the judgment that has been made, voluntarily made himself or herself lose a job, or where a claimant has given up a job. That punitive measure is then taken. At the moment, we allow the 100 per cent. deduction where people are not available for work and the conclusion is reached that the person is not really unemployed, but is working at another job. Our objection is that, if a junior clerk decides that someone is not actively seeking work--allowing for what has been said today, we know that claimants are allowed two weeks' holiday in which they need not be actively seeking work--because he or she has failed to keep the log up to date or has missed a certain week through inadvertence, neglect, or 101 perfectly acceptable reasons, the claimant is then subject to this punitive and harsh measure whereby he or she loses not only any benefit available to him or her, but also the entitlement to income support--as does the family.
That is our point. Although it was not said in Committee, as it stands at the moment, this clause will punish the person who is claimed to be not actively seeking work, and that punishment is harsh not only on that person, but on the family. That is what comes out clearly when we read and re-read the reports of the Committee stage.
Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 152, Noes 265.
Division Number 179] [8.37 pm
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)