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Mr. Burns : I hope that the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) will forgive me if I do not take up the points he made, except to say that I do not believe the Bill, including clause 7, is an attack on the unemployed. If the amendment to clause 7, which is the centre of the Bill, were passed, it would completely emasculate the authority of the legislation by withdrawing from it the requirement actively to seek work in order to receive unemployment benefit. I see no reason why there should not be a clause requiring people actively to seek work in order to qualify for the benefit.
I agree with the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) that only a small minority in this country claim the benefit, are not working, do not want to work and would try to duck any job one gave them. However, we must not blow this fact up out of all proportion. The vast majority of people who are out of work want to work and are looking for jobs. The news that the unemployment figures are falling is certainly welcome, but it does not alter the fact that many people desperately want work.
I believe, however, that it is the duty of Government, of whatever party, to ensure that the money paid to people who are out of work goes to those who really want to work but cannot find a job, rather than to the small minority who have no intention of working and are on the benefits register simply because they see it as an easier alternative.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) sighs ; but there are such cases. I am sure that, when they were canvassing for the last general election, hon. Members heard the odd person--not loads of people of course- -say, "Why should I work? I get x pounds a week in benefit, and if I were working I would probably not get as much as that." The Government have a duty to protect the
Column 987taxpayer--and those in work--against such people. There is no reason whatever for an able-bodied person enjoying good health not to seek a job.
At present, just under 2 million people are unemployed, and there are between 600,000 and 700,000 vacancies. In Chelmsford, my constituency, 1,841 people are out of work and there are more than 700 vacancies. I believe that some of those vacancies could and should be filled. Companies in my constituency, such as Marconi Communications and the English Electric Valve Company, find it very difficult to get people to work for them. That is not because they are bad employers ; they are certainly not that. It is because some people who are out of work could be working.
Mr. Battle : Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell us what house prices and rents are like in his constituency, near those factories? Might not the fact that people do not take up such job opportunities have something to do with the fact that they cannot afford to move their families from the north to the south?
Mr. Burns : The hon. Gentlemen has a very valid point. The Housing Act, when it is in full operation, will help to create a right to let, and will build up the rented accommodation market. [Interruption.] I should be grateful if, having asked a question, the hon. Gentleman would listen to the reply before catcalling. I was not saying that people should come down from the north, because what he says is absolutely right : people do not want to come down to Chelmsford to work, particularly those in the north who are on lower incomes, because of the level of house prices. I was making the point that people already living in Chelmsford could take up work in companies that are suffering from a serious labour shortage.
A report published last year on the London labour market provides compelling evidence that thousands of jobs are available in the Greater London area for those who are out of work in that area, but they are not being taken up. I believe that clause 7 will encourage more people to take up such jobs. People who are genuinely and actively seeking work should have no worries, because they are already doing what the Bill, when enacted, will ensure that everyone does. If they are unsuccessful in their attempts to find jobs, they will receive the benefit to which they are entitled.
I shall oppose amendment No. 1 and support the Government. Bringing into benefit regulations a provision requiring that a person is actively seeking work is, in my view, long overdue.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, south (Mrs Beckett) that the clause paves the way for more and more misery to be inflicted on people who are already experiencing poverty, dilemma and much else. It will make such people responsible for their own dilemma. Those of us who represent areas of high unemployment know very well that most, if not all, of those who are out of work are out of work not because of their own actions but because of the Government's economic strategy--a strategy designed not just to put people out of work, but to destroy
Column 988the strength of the trade union movement and make it subject to the will of Government. That is all part of the Tory philosophy, and has been for some time.
Mr. Michie : I do not wish to educate the hon. Gentleman. If he knew anything about industrial strategy and trade union politics, he would also know that it is necessary to plan for the future rather than living for the day. Protection of jobs and of the union is essential to the future of working people--although that, of course, is not something that the hon. Gentleman wishes to see.
Instead of using so much valuable time in trying to find a way to save a few bob at the expense of the poor, the Government should use legislation and powers to create real jobs and stop hounding people who are not unemployed for their own ends. Many of those people will be permanently on trial, week after week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South has already pointed out. We are returning to the bad old days ; in fact, things are worse. We put a stop to this kind of legislation years ago because it was too harsh, but we now see that the present Government's legislation is harder than some of the bad laws that were scrapped a long time ago.
In most cases, the difficulties experienced by claimants actively seeking work will not be a good enough reason to qualify for benefit. It will be difficult for a claimant to prove that he could not make it for one reason or another, and he could lose at least a month's benefit. Moreover, people with disabilities which are not always recognised will find it hard to prove that they are actively seeking work, if suitable work is available.
The same applies to those who are caring for the sick or the disabled. One of the amendments makes the point that the more someone tries to help others the more likely he is to jeopardise his chance of drawing benefit. I should have thought that that would be entirely against the Government's philosophy, but perhaps nothing is sacred in today's Tory-rotten world.
The people whom the Government intend to penalise are not lazy ; most are helping others in a voluntary capacity--working hard for nothing at all. The fact is that suitable jobs are not there, despite what the Government say. Work opportunities in many areas are very scarce. Someone could have a full-time job applying for jobs that do not exist. I wonder whether a full- time job trying to find that elusive post of real consequence and of a reasonable standard would qualify a person for benefit.
The Government do not seem to understand the plight of many unemployed people. In many cases, there may not be a job opportunity in the area. That may not seem much of a problem to hon. Members on £24,000 a year plus expenses, who can get into a taxi whenever they like. Sometimes, apparently, they get on to tube trains and talk to members of the proletariat, but they do not do that very often. Hon. Members can all travel first-class on the train.
However, we are talking about unemployed people who do not have the money to apply for jobs in other areas. What will happen if a single parent sees a poorly paid job four or five miles away? Can she afford to take it? Can she afford the hours away from her family or sick relative?
Column 989Should she apply for the job knowing very well that she cannot take it, but if she does not apply for the job will she be penalised? We asked those questions time and again in Committee.
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : We discussed the matter in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman must know that a lone parent with children under 16 is not required to be actively seeking work. [Interruption.]
Mrs. Beckett : In view of the Secretary of State's remarks about single parents being dependent on the State, when the Minister replies to the debate, will he tell us how long that happy circumstance might obtain? It is clear from my hon. Friend's remarks that many single parents wish to seek work and are trying to be active in the labour market but face these difficulties.
Mr. Michie : We discussed in Committee problems such as travelling to work and expenses, and I made that point that a four-mile journey in London is very different from a four-mile journey in Yorkshire or Derbyshire. The rules will apply throughout the country and will not change because people live in different areas, so, while I accept the Minister's point, I hope that he will realise that the Government have provided no help whatsoever for those people.
The Government have fallen for their own propaganda that there are plenty of jobs. The hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) does not appear to understand the implications of the Bill. Because of the scrapping of the wages councils and protection against low pay, ultimately people will have to apply for extremely low-paid jobs and face the dilemma that they cannot afford to take the jobs but will be penalised by the DSS if they do not apply for them. The Government gave us no comfort in Committee to the effect that they would take that into consideration.
Mr. John Marshall : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who might take the jobs to which he has referred would all be eligible for family credit, which would increase their incomes significantly?
Mr. Michie : I did not realise that the Government were so generous. I have written to the Minister about one or two cases of family credit, and I look forward to receiving his reply. We have received no assurance that people who cannot afford to apply for jobs in certain areas will receive any help. I am afraid that the Government will have to come back in a year's time. They will not apologise for having made a mistake, but they will have the brilliant idea of helping some of those people to move.
Mr. Battle : Perhaps my hon. Friend should ask the Minister to apologise now. I am sure that the Minister would not want inadvertently to mislead the House. If a single person is claiming income support, the availability for work test will not apply, but if someone is claiming
Column 990unemployment benefit, the test will apply. That should be made clear. I would not like the impression that the Minister was misleading the House to go further than the Chamber.
The people that we are trying to defend are the victims of a rotten system. They are unemployed through no fault of their own, yet they will carry the burden of guilt and will continually have to prove their innocence week after week. They are not scroungers or lazy, but simply finding it difficult to find work, but many of them will not have the opportunity to prove their case.
Clause 7 is a very bad clause designed by a powerful Government to bash the most vulnerable people. It is time that the Government used time and legislation to help those people instead of bashing them. They could start by scrapping clause 7, and if they want to be unnaturally generous to people in need, they should scrap the entire Bill.
I have an interest in clause 7 because I am a trustee of Community Service Volunteers and have been interested in the voluntary sector for a long time. It is clear that the Minister understands that the nature of unemployment varies considerably from person to person. Even in places such as my constituency, where there is no shortage of employment, a substantial proportion of those who are unemployed are psychologically incapable of taking a job, or even applying satisfactorily for employment. One of the most helpful ways of enabling those people to recover confidence and social skills is giving them the opportunity to work as a part-time or full-time volunteer with a voluntary organisation which is skilled and experienced at bringing the best out of such young people. One example is the information bubble in Waterloo station which is manned by volunteers who have been given the job by Community Service Volunteers. Their task is relatively simple but becomes increasingly complex as the volunteers provide information about a wide variety of events in London, train timetables and so on, and it gives many people who have become socially isolated the chance to recover their self-confidence. Many of those young people have gone on to find perfectly satisfactory employment. The people who carry out that task vary enormously between people with advanced degrees to those who can barely read and write but are taught the job and manage to cope very satisfactorily.
Those people volunteer for two reasons--because they want company and support and because they know that such work is a way back into the employment market. I believe that they should be deemed to be actively seeking work because they are preparing themselves for work, and because the organisation for which they are working is perfectly willing to be quizzed about the people it employs in a voluntary capacity. That is particularly important, because some of those people could easily obtain a job as a street sweeper or another pretty solitary activity in many parts of the country. But that could exacerbate the psychological isolation which those people--who are usually, but not always, young people--experience and
Column 991render them unemployable in the medium and long term because eventually they will crack up and be unable to continue.
It is essential that amendment No. 14, or a similar amendment, be accepted. The Under-Secretary of State for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has already said that he sees no serious difficulty in creating a system whereby the voluntary organisation set aside one day or half a day a week during which the individual would be expected to apply for jobs. It would be wrong for people engaged in voluntary activity under the auspices of a properly organised and caring organisation to be deemed not to be seeking work.
Ms. Short : My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) said that we were now getting to the guts of the Bill and the reason why it was introduced. That point was confirmed by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). This is not a social security Bill, but an employment Bill. Its origins are in the Department of Employment and it seeks to further the Government's strategy of reorganising our labour market, which they have been working out for a considerable time. That reorganisation involves positively encouraging low-paid employment in our economy and lowering the protections and security in employment of workers. It has been, sadly and disastrously for many people and for the efficiency of the economy, an enormously successful strategy.
We now have 2 million more low-paid workers than in 1979 and, disgracefully and shockingly, 49 per cent. of people in employment are now low paid on the measure set down by the Council of Europe, which is the equivalent of £132 for a full working week. Clause 7 is intended to take that process further and to force more people to take even lower-paid and worse employment. Amendment No. 1 seeks to delete clause 7, but it is impossible to understand the purpose of clause 7 without considering clause 9.
Clause 7 will require those who become unemployed to prove, on a weekly basis, that they are actively seeking work. If they do not, they will be threatened with the loss of benefit for six months. Clause 9 removes any minimum conditions about the jobs offered, so people will be forced to take the jobs that remain vacant in jobcentres--in areas of high and low unemployment--because the pay and conditions are so disgraceful. People will be forced into those jobs. As employers realise that, the unemployed will be used as a battering ram to erode standards of employment. That is clearly the long-term strategy of the Government and the Bill will make the position much worse.
The hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) did not intend, I am sure, to mislead the House, but he was wrong when he said that it was not the purpose of Conservatives to force people to take jobs that pay less than their benefits. The Opposition moved an amendment on that in Committee, but it was turned down by the Government and the hon. Gentleman did not vote for it ; he supported the Government. Let everyone be clear that under the Bill, people will be forced to accept employment
Column 992that pays less than the level of benefit to which they are currently entitled. That is what the hon. Gentleman voted for in Committee, but he may have forgotten.
We know that the Conservative Whips do not allow Conservative Members to contribute in Committee, but that does not mean that the hon. Member for Chelmsford might not have learnt a little from the debate. He said that, in Chelmsford, there were 700 vacancies and 1, 800 people unemployed. Obviously, he has not learnt what we tried to explain to him--that vacancies do not wait for ever for the unemployed to fill them. There is an enormous turnover. If the hon. Gentleman goes back to the jobcentre, he will find that of those 700 vacancies, most have been there for a short time and that the overwhelming majority have been taken by people already in employment who are seeking improved conditions.
The chances are enormously high that many of the 1,800 people cannot apply for the 700 vacancies because they do not have the necessary skills. If there are highly skilled job vacancies that cannot be filled in Chelmsford, that is the fault of local employers for not supplying adequate training so that the jobs can be filled.
Mr. Burns : The two companies that I mentioned in Committee are bending over backwards to take on unskilled workers and are more than prepared to train them, so that they can learn the necessary skills. They realise that it is difficult to find skilled workers in the area. English Electric Valve had over 200 vacancies last year that it could not fill. As a good employer, it is more than prepared to train unskilled people to fill jobs, yet it still has difficulty in filling them.
Ms. Short : The next time I visit Chelmsford, I shall call into the jobcentre. As the hon. Gentleman may know, I attend to these matters in some detail. I visit jobcentres and study the labour market. Chelmsford is not an island. Unless it is quite different from the rest of the country, the description of the likely employment market I have given will apply to Chelmsford.
To hear Conservative Members speak, one would think that we did not already have benefit conditions that have been enormously tightened in recent years. People have to be available for work to obtain unemployment benefit, and the tests are rigorously applied. As a result of the Government's strategy which I have already explained, and because of the prejudices among Conservative Members, many new provisions have been introduced in recent years. When people first become unemployed they have to fill in a questionnaire of 22 questions as part of the availability for work test. Under the restart scheme, the unemployed are called in every six months and receive a letter saying that their benefits will be stopped unless they come for an interview. Before that interview, they have to fill in a questionnaire of 17 questions. Many of the unemployed take places in job clubs or on one-week restart courses after going through that frightening process.
Research shows that the majority of the unemployed believed that the schemes were compulsory and that if they had not accepted places on them, they would have lost their benefits. The unemployed are harassed now and are frightened into schemes that lead them nowhere. The unemployed want jobs and we all want them to have jobs and good training, but the Government are so obsessed with reorganising the labour market and cutting wages
Column 993that the schemes seek to lower wage expectations rather than give skills that enhance the employability of the individual and the competitiveness of our economy.
The only purpose of this change is that matters should become worse and the conditions tougher. Anyone who is close to unemployed people who go through the restart scheme knows how much fear there is already. In Committee, we gave many examples of people who were frightened and harassed by the process, including examples of many older workers who had worked from 14 to 50-odd and had been laid off in the great recession induced by the Tory Government when they came to power in 1979. They are harassed under the restart scheme and will be humiliated under the processes in the Bill.
I am especially concerned about unemployed people who seek to study under the 21-hour rule. People who do that are worthy of great admiration. They have the experience of being unemployed and of having to manage on little money, but they have the motivation to find a place at college and to take courses that enhance their employability and learning. The Government have already wiped out that opportunity for 16 and 17-year-olds. About 30,000 of them used to use the opportunity to acquire O and A-levels. I know constituents who went on to become graduates through that difficult route. Now about 300,000 older workers will be affected. I do not know the precise figures, because one cannot obtain them from the Department of Employment.
In Committee, the Minister said that he was sympathetic to that point. I pushed him for an assurance and he asked me not to push him further. I shall push him now because we want an assurance. It will be intolerable if people who seek to study while on benefits are prevented from doing so and forced into schemes such as employment training, which lead them into crass employment experiences and not into decent prospects of a job and enhanced employability. It is no good the Minister saying that social security does not exist so that people can be educated and trained. Employment training, the Government's main scheme for unemployed people, consists of people training while on social security benefits. I sincerely hope that the Minister will give us serious assurances that the regulations will explicitly provide that people who are studying under the 21-hour rule are allowed to continue to study despite the tighter regulations that are being introduced.
I add my support to the amendments that have been tabled to protect voluntary workers. The Bill presents a real danger that people who do voluntary work will be found not to be actively seeking work and that they will be penalised and lose their benefit because they sought to help their community when they were unemployed.
Taking up voluntary work can be an enormously successful strategy for getting a job. When people go to agencies in areas of high unemployment to seek advice about how they might get employment, they are constantly advised to look for voluntary work in the area in which they are interested because that will give them confidence and experience and when openings occur, they will get jobs. Many people have found employment in that way. If the Minister does not make some such provision, not only will much of the care that is provided to our communities be destroyed, but a valuable route into employment will also be destroyed.
This is a foul Bill and clauses 7 and 9 are an outrage. They will mean that lots of our people will be harassed and
Column 994humiliated as happened in the 1930s. That is not an exaggeration because the parallels are close. The Bill will also mean that more and more of our people will be low paid. Low pay is not only bad for individuals--it is no use the Government talking about family credit, because only those with dependent children are eligible for family credit and many people without dependent children could be forced into a job that pays less than their benefit--but is enormously bad for the economy. It leads to a high turnover of labour, low investment and poor training. Britain will have no future as an economy that rests on low pay. However, more and more the Government's strategy is to restructure our economy in that way. That is bad for individuals and the future of the economy. Clauses 7 and 9 will make everything much worse for a lot of people.
The Chancellor and the Government talk about inducing a recession in our economy to deal with the problem of inflation and they hope that we will have a soft rather than a hard landing. That means that there will be another--and inevitable--increase in unemployment. Harsher conditions will be imposed, when it is inevitable that unemployment will start to increase again. I am afraid that that is the future we face.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : I apologise to colleagues for having missed a quarter of an hour in the middle of the debate when I was in Committee upstairs. however, I am glad, even at this late stage, to be involved in the debates on this Social Security Bill, because I was involved with the preceeding two Bills and I was sorry to miss the Committee stage of this Bill.
I want to address my remarks not only to amendment No. 14 which has been tabled in my name, which was spoken to by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) and which is supported by the all-party disablement group, but also to the basic amendment, amendment No. 1, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). I support both, if that is not mutually exclusive.
I refer first to the position of volunteers. I have close contacts with the Spastics Society and with Mencap and am very much aware of the important role played by volunteers in such disablement groups. We must ensure that in its final form the Bill cannot be interpreted--much is open to interpretation--by people who do not fully appreciate that significance in such a way as to reduce the number of volunteers available or to lean on them to move in other directions. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) spoke of the enriching experience of being a volunteer and of the help that it gives in finding other work. Both those points are true. When the Minister replies to the points that have been made about volunteers, I hope that he will give an assurance not just that they can continue to be volunteers but that they will have to show that they are still actively looking for work because that could be a "Catch 22" for volunteers. If one is actively looking for work, that cuts across one's voluntary work, which would not be a satisfactory outcome. It would be better to have the wording suggested in amendments Nos. 109 or 14 to try to overcome that.
I accept that amendment No. 14 may need to be tightened and that we may need definitions of the voluntary organisations. I can see difficulties, in that people might be able to create a voluntary organisation
Column 995and one person might be able to become a voluntary organisation and "employ" an unemployed person as a volunteer. Given that the wording may need to be tightened, I hope that the Government will not rest their case just on the fact that, of course, people can continue to be volunteers but they must also show that they are actively looking for work because that would not be anything like satisfactory. I turn now to clause 7. The area that I represent is extremely scattered. There are 93 villages in my constituency and some people may live 15 or 20 miles from their unemployment benefit office. If the expectation is that people will go to the office regularly to show that they are actively involved in seeking work, significant costs could arise. Indeed, trying to go to interviews or to knock on doors asking for a job also involves costs. People may live 10 miles from their nearest possible employer, there may well be no bus service and transport could be difficult. Many unemployed people will not have cars of their own because of their financial circumstances. The question then arises, is writing a letter enough? It may be--I do not know. Other hon. Members who are present may also have received the letter that I received the other day from a young person in a hostel in Grimsby. It had clearly been written to more than one Member of Parliament and I know that another colleague has received the same letter. It was a one-liner, asking, "Have you got a job for me?" One's first instinct was, "What on earth does this guy think he is doing?" The second instinct, of course, was to give priority to that letter above a lot of others and to give a fairly substantive answer to explain why one does not. However, I wonder whether a one-line letter like that meets the requirements. If that is the case and we are to have an industry of turning out, cyclostyle, "Have you got a job for me?" letters, all that we are requiring to meet the provisions of the Bill is the cost of a stamp per week to show that one is seeking work.
That raises another problem, to which hon. Members have already referred, about employers' reactions. There is nothing more dismal or soul-destroying for somebody who takes the trouble to write a letter--not just a one-liner, but a substantive letter trying to get a job--than not even to receive an acknowledgement from the employer. I know that that happens far too often. If we are to tighten the system in the way that the Government want, there is a tremendous responsibility on employers to reply in substance to every letter they get. That should be the other side of the coin of these provisions. When people take the trouble to write such letters, a reply should be sent to them which can then be shown to any authorities that may want to see the evidence.
I welcome the part of the Government's provisions that will remove the disbarment of seasonal workers from receiving unemployment benefit after their third year of seasonal work. Where those rules are introduced, I hope that such workers will not be hit by the impossibility of finding work out of season or of finding even a job opportunity to which they could apply out of season. Unemployment in the Lleyn peninsula in my constituency reaches a high of 25 per cent. in winter but can come down to 10 per cent. in mid-summer. The difficulty is that people will need to prove, in mid- winter, that they are actively looking for work--that is, at the very time that no work is available. Therefore, we must ensure that we are not just
Column 996changing the excuse for not paying unemployment benefit to those people who most certainly would like to work if work is available. The hon. Member for Ladywood referred to the level of pay. There is a danger that people will be forced into working at low levels of pay. That danger could be significant. The other side of the coin to the tightening of the rules should be a move towards a national minimum wage policy. If people are driven to take work at a low level of remuneration because otherwise they would lose their benefit, vulnerable people may be exploited.
It seems clear from the evidence available to me that those who will have the greatest difficulty in showing that they are actively seeking work are those in the 50-plus group who have got into an almighty unemployment rut through no fault of their own, but because they have been caught by the recession, by structural changes that have taken place in industry and by the decline of many older industries ; young people who do not have experience of life and who do not know how to go about obtaining work ; and disabled people. For those three categories of people I am fearful about the effect of the Bill.
Inevitably, there will always be some who are working the system for their own benefit, but the overwhelming majority of people are not doing that. There are now possibly more people working the system than were doing so 10 or 15 years ago ; they are in the habit of being unemployed because of unemployment--they are in a vicious spiral--and I favour any policy that helps them get back into work. But such help must mean the provision of dignified work, with people being helped and trained for work and not having the threat of being without a livelihood if they do not obey the letter of what is, as it stands, a rather unclear law.
I do not suppose that the Government will accept the amendment and delete clause 7, although I should support it if it were taken to a Division. I hope that between now and the Bill appearing in another place they will give careful thought to the points that hon. Members have made. I hope also that, when the Minister replies tonight, he will answer the questions that we have asked and will deal with the points that have been made about amendment No. 14 concerning volunteers, an issue of significance to many organisations.
Mr. Scott : It was common ground in Committee that unemployed people should have to seek employment rather than adopt a totally passive state. The case made at that stage by some hon. Members was that the present availability rules were sufficient to achieve that common goal and that the use of the phrase "actively seeking work" was unnecessary. I believe that the case is proved in the opposite direction.
We know--my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) spelled this out--that more jobs are becoming available. But present legislation does not make it clear that unemployed claimants must go after those jobs. Some assert that it does, but I believe that the commissioners' decisions add up to a substantive case that it does not. People are required to be available for work, and that will remain the situation under the 1975 Act.
The decision of the commissioner in R(U)5/80, which was often quoted in Committee, says that availability must be more than a simple passive state- -a claimant must take some active step to draw attention to his availability. As I said in Committee, a series of decisions since then by the
Column 997commissioners--authoritative decisions, although unreported--have made it clear that when someone declares that he is available for employment and backs that up by taking some simple step, such as attending a jobcentre, that is enough.
The case that arose in Committee was of a person who simply turned up at a jobcentre, did not leave any name, address or contact and was judged to have done enough under the existing arrangements. A claimant today would not have to do more than that ; he would not have to examine openings, look in the newspapers, inquire of friends or contact employers to satisfy the availability for work condition.
Ms. Short : I am sure that the Minister does not wish to misrepresent the position. The present position is that if a person's availability is called into question, he must prove that he is actively seeking work and produce evidence to that effect.
Mr. Scott : It can be judged--even if a person has not taken those steps--that having been available, he can continue to be entitled to benefit. The commissioners have decided that. They have decided that those who have been available in the most passive way are entitled to continue to receive benefit. It is common ground, particularly when unemployment is falling rapidly and more jobs are being created, that we should be motivating, encouraging and persuading people to take advantage of the country's increased prosperity.
The clause is not a vehicle for harassing unemployed people. It is a way of encouraging them to get back into work. As I said in Committee, repeating what I said on Second Reading, only a tiny minority of the unemployed could be described as workshy or trying to work the system. As we know--as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said today and as the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said more than once in Committee--there is a minority of that sort. But the rest of unemployed people, particularly in an improving unemployment situation, need encouragement to seek out the increasing number of vacancies that are becoming available. So I do not resile from the broad thrust of what we are trying to do in the clause. I promised in Committee to look sympathetically at the question of holidays. I have now agreed with the Secretary of State for Employment that in regulations we shall have power to deem that for up to two weeks in any 12- month period a holiday can be taken, and people will be deemed to be actively seeking work during those two weeks. I hope that that will be accepted as a sensible solution to that issue.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) again returned to the point she raised in Committee about people attending funerals and not being able to satisfy the condition of actively seeking work during the day or two they were away. As we have changed the test from being a daily test of availability to a weekly test of actively seeking work, there is no reason why somebody should not attend--as it might be in the hon. Lady's case, across the water--for a few days, and for the rest of the week be able to take sufficient steps to show that he or she was actively seeking work.
The hon. Lady also raised the question of studying, and my remarks on that will, in a sense, have an impact on my comments about volunteering. I accept that if someone is
Column 998taking a course of study, that person is, simply by doing that, helping to improve his or her eventual possibility of getting back into employment. That should be taken into account, but I do not believe that simply because a person is engaged in part-time study, he or she should be exempt from any requirement to take steps actively to seek work. The fact that a person is studying should be part of the pattern that is taken into account when a judgment is made about the totality of the effort that is being made to get back into employment.
In Committee we discussed the sort of steps we would expect people to take to show that they were actively seeking work--following up advertisements in newspapers and visiting employers and so on. The steps that they would take would, of course, vary according to the type of employment that they were seeking.
There are some types of employment where turning up on the site and offering one's services would be appropriate. There are others where a properly prepared CV, sent to a number of employers, would be more appropriate to show that one was actively seeking work. Our intention is that the system should respond in a flexible and sympathetic way to the differing needs of people in showing whether they are seeking work.
In essence--this will sound familiar to those who were members of the Committee--there is a contract between the state and unemployed people. As a Government, we should be trying to run the economy in such a way that more jobs are created. If people are unemployed through no fault of their own, they should, for the relevant period, be entitled to unemployment benefit.
There should be a state service providing advice about vacancies and guidance to people on how they can get back into work. But the other side of that contract--which is that people should be prepared to take active steps to find their way back into employment--should not be ignored. That is the essence of the contract, and in my view it is sensible and proper.
I am keen on people using their time to study, and I am also keen that individuals should make good use of their time when they are unemployed, and there can be few things more beneficial than caring or otherwise using one's time in a voluntary capacity. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Kent (Mr. Rowe), I have had close contact in the past with Community Service Volunteers and I know that the work done by volunteers is immensely valuable to society in general. Those in voluntary work are improving their prospects of gaining employment in the longer run, and that is what clause 7 is all about.
I hope that I can persuade the House that the amendments, which are well intentioned and with which I have sympathy, are not necessary, as we already intend to make special provision for the treatment of voluntary work. The hon. Member for Caernarfon recognised that there are technical defects in both amendments. I shall not rest my case simply on the technical defects. I am anxious to persuade my hon. Friends and other hon. Members who put their names to the amendments that I recognise that some charitable organisations depend heavily on the use of unemployed people as volunteers. The work that they do is commendable, important and of benefit to the individuals as well as to society, but I do not believe that the fact that they are doing voluntary work should mean that they should be exempted from the need to take steps actively to get themselves back into paid employment. That would be wrong.
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Mr. Rowe : I want to be absolutely clear. If someone wishes to start a career in residential work, looking after the elderly, and if he is told that he should work first for six months as a volunteer, is my hon. Friend saying that that would still not be regarded as seeking work?
Mr. Scott : I cannot accept that the purpose of unemployment benefit is to provide for and sustain such activity. The purpose of unemployment benefit is to insulate people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. I will provide in regulations that when a decision is taken about whether someone is actively seeking work, the fact that the person is engaged in voluntary work should be one factor to be weighed in the balance. But, just as anyone doing voluntary work at present has to be available for work to qualify for unemployment benefit, that person will have to take steps--in most cases fewer steps than someone not doing voluntary work--to show that he has been actively seeking work.
I do not believe that it would be impossible for people to take additional steps, such as writing letters in the evening, telephoning employers and so on, to satisfy the system that they are still actively seeking work while carrying out voluntary activities. I shall make sure that that is provided for in regulations so that the adjudicating authorities can take proper account of it. That is the right balance. The very fact that it will be accounted for specifically in regulations means that it will be impossible for adjudicating officers not to take account of it. In those circumstances I hope that those who put their names to the amendments will agree not to press them. As I have said, they are in any case, technically not accurate. If they are pressed, I shall have to ask the House to reject them.
clear in Committee, there is a fundamental division between the two sides of the House on clause 7. I do not think that further argument will resolve that division. I suspect that the only way to resolve it will be in the Lobby. Mrs. Beckett : It has been an interesting debate. We remain of the view that the clause is as unnecessary as it is harsh. The issues raised on the various amendments about, for example, the impact of the clause on the possibility of study or voluntary work, show how harsh it might be. I welcome the fact that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Employment have agreed that if a person takes two weeks' holiday he can be deemed to be actively seeking work in that period, but it shows paradoxically how tight the provision is when that has to be accounted for specifically in the legislation.
We have concentrated primarily on the provisions of the law rather than on its administration. In a sense the Minister sought to justify the law by saying that its administration can be flexible and sympathetic. That is possible. Equally it is possible that the reverse will be the case. The law itself is draconian. The clause will place enormous discretion in the hands of fairly junior officers who may use the denial of the right to benefit to penalise people who come before them if they judge differently from the Minister, in general terms, the value or the justice of people being able to study or to do voluntary work while unemployed.
What the Minister said to his hon. Friends about the value of voluntary work was revealing. It is generally
Column 1000recognised in the House and outside that people who have no choice about joblessness have tried to turn that joblessness to good use by taking such opportunities as arise to study, to do voluntary work and so on, in the hope usually of improving their capacity later to find work. The message from the Minister to his hon. Friends about their amendment on voluntary work is in effect that that permission, as it were, is being withdrawn. The Minister said that he will cover that position in regulations, but the thrust of what the Government are saying is that the recognition of the powerlessness of many jobless people is being withdrawn and that they should spend their time, however fruitlessly, with however little point and to whatever effect, just looking for work. That is why we wish to delete clause 7. Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 187, Noes 306.
Division No. 177] [6.36 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Home Robertson, John
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Mo n)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil