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Mr. Roger Knapman accordingly presented a Bill to compel parties providing essential services and involved in industrial disputes to seek arbitration ; And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 199].
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Press Association is reporting that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) has been appointed a Government Whip. He is, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, the director of Eversure Textiles Ltd. in Sheffield. The workers at that plant have been on strike for the past five weeks, seeking trade union recognition, which has been refused by the management and the hon. Member for Hallam.
Madam Deputy Speaker : I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. The Chair has an enormous number of responsibilities, but the appointment of Government Whips--or the notification of this by the Press Association-- is not one of them. We should now proceed to motions Nos. 1 to 3.
Mr. Madden : Yes. I am grateful for your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, but would you go a little further? If it is not within the jurisdiction of the Chair to say whether the hon. Member for Hallam should relinquish his directorship, would you at least say, from your vast knowledge of these matters, that it would be a good idea for him to do so, as that would enable the management and the workers of the company to go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to secure arbitration and a settlement of this unnecessary dispute?
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Has any information gone to the Speaker's Office concerning the responsibilities of the Prime Minister, and what exactly they are? In the past 24 hours, our attention has been brought to the fact that she has started letting houses. I am not sure whether that comes within the general ambit of her responsibilities. Will the Speaker look into this matter to see whether such a role comes under the powers of the First Lord of the Treasury?
I should also like to know whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been given the right to purchase because he has done this before, and he had a big mortgage. I want to know whether this one will be bigger, and whether Lady Porter is involved.
That the draft Community Charge Benefits (General) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved.
That the draft Income Support (General) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July be approved. That the draft Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved.
Mr. Scott : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has, for reasons that he has explained to the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), to be elsewhere at the moment, but he hopes to join us later. I hope that my hon. Friends, and the rest of the House, will give a warm welcome to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), who has joined us in the Department as an Under-Secretary.
The three sets of regulations before the House have the common thread that they all relate to the provision of social security benefits. They do, however, relate to two distinct aspects of benefit provision which I intend to deal with separately. I shall take first the community charge benefits regulations and then come on to the two sets of regulations dealing with the provision of benefits for the unemployed.
The community charge benefits regulations are an integral part of the community charge arrangements. The scheme will ensure that the amount people have to pay will be related to their ability to pay it. People on low income will be able to claim rebates of up to 80 per cent. of their liability, and people on income support will be helped to pay the 20 per cent. of their liability that is not covered by the rebate through the adjustments that have been made to the income support rates. These regulations prescribe the details of how the community charge is to be rebated, and they will apply throughout Great Britain. During the current year, that is April till March 1990, community charge rebates in Scotland are being provided under separate regulations, which will cease to have effect in March next year, and will be replaced by the regulations that we are debating. The community charge benefit scheme will be operated by levying authorities in Scotland and by charging authorities in England and Wales in accordance with the rules laid down in these regulations. The benefit may be claimed by anybody who is liable either for a personal community charge or for collective community charge contributions. The only people who will not be able to claim benefit will be full-time students who are registered as being liable for only 20 per cent. of the charge.
The maximum rebate will be 80 per cent. of the amount that a person has to pay. This will mean that all charge payers have to pay at least 20 per cent. of the charge in the same way that all ratepayers now have to pay 20 per cent. of their rates. The Government hold firmly to the view that everybody should be as aware of the costs of local authority services as they are of the benefits. The maximum rebate will be available automatically to
Column 1060everybody who is getting income support, and also to those people on equivalent incomes. We estimate that this 80 per cent. maximum rebate will be awarded to about 6 million people in Great Britain. We also estimate that a further 4 million to 5 million people in Great Britain will get a rebate on the community charge of less than the 80 per cent. maximum. For them, the amount of rebate they get will depend on three factors : their financial resources, their personal circumstances, and the amount of community charge that they have to pay.
The way in which rebate is calculated will follow closely the way in which rate rebate is calculated now. First, the capital resources of claimants will be considered, because we believe that if people have access to a significant amount of capital they should be expected to use it in meeting their necessary expenses. Then their net weekly income will be calculated, and personal circumstances taken into account, using the same applicable amounts, made up of personal allowances and premiums, as are now used in housing benefit. The applicable amount will be subtracted from net weekly income, and the maximum rebate will be reduced by 15 per cent. of this difference. Rebate will be payable only where it is 50p a week more. I hope that the House will welcome the fact that the taper for the community charge rebate scheme is 15 per cent. as opposed to the 20 per cent. taper used in rebating rates. We estimate that about 1 million more people will be brought into rebate because of this. Our objective in formulating the community charge benefit regulations has been to maintain alignment with the housing benefit regulations wherever practicable. This has a number of advantages, which I hope the House will recognise. It is easier for claimants to understand, and we expect virtually all housing benefit claimants to get community charge benefit, and it is also helpful to the local authorities who will be administering the scheme. It also maintains the overall simplification and alignment of the income-related benefits that we achieved with the 1988 reforms. As well as retaining the same procedures for calculating capital, net weekly income and applicable amounts, we have retained broadly the same procedures for the making of claims, and for determinations, notifications and reviews.
The small number of changes that we have had to introduce are there because rebating an individual liability is not exactly the same as rebating a property-based liability. These changes are most obvious in the case of couples. We have retained the principle that the resources of the two partners in a couple should be considered jointly, so, although in nearly all cases the two partners in a couple will each be liable for the community charge, only one of them will need to claim community charge benefit. Their community charge liabilities will be aggregated, their financial resources will be assessed jointly, and their circumstances will be assessed using their applicable amount as a couple. On this basis, the amount of rebate due to the couple will be calculated, and divided between the two partners.
I wrote to all right hon. and hon. Members at the beginning of May describing the most important aspects of the community charge benefit scheme, and giving some examples of the levels of income at which various categories of claimant could expect to receive a rebate. I do not intend to repeat those examples now, but I should add that we expect about a quarter of all the people who are liable for the charge to benefit from rebates, and in our
Column 1061view this represents the right balance between providing help for people who need it and ensuring that the taxpayers' money is properly used.
I stress that we do not underestimate the need to ensure that claimants move readily from rate rebates to community charge benefit, and the need to help local authorities in their task of implementing the new scheme. To this end we will be introducing a number of special arrangements to facilitate the introduction of the scheme, and these will be prescribed in the Community Charge Benefits (Transitional) Order 1989, which we intend laying before the House as soon as the benefit regulations come into effect. These transitional provisions are not before the House today, and therefore not the subject of our debate.
In commending the regulations to the House, I should like to make clear the extent of our consultation, since the autumn of 1987, with the local authority associations, and to express my gratitude for their co-operation. We have also formally consulted the associations and the Social Security Advisory Committee. The comments that we received were helpful and constructive, and a large number of them have been incorporated in the regulations before the House. Most of the provisions in the regulations dealing with the unemployed flow from the powers taken in the Social Security Act 1989. The matter is slightly complicated by the need for two sets of regulations, one for unemployment benefit and the other for income support. I should first point out to hon. Members that there was a printed error in the published version of the Income Support (General) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989. This was corrected in the version laid before the House, but Members' copies will be wrong. In new regulation 10A(3) of the general regulations the word "recorded" should have read "regarded". I am very sorry that this error occurred and I hope that it has not caused too much confusion.
I hope that the hon. Member for Derby, South will agree that we had a demanding but rewarding Committee stage which resulted in some important improvements to the Bill. I know that we ended up not being able to see eye to eye on the provisions that have led to these regulations, but during our debates in Committee we gave a number of undertakings as a result of those debates. I hope that those who examine the regulations with an open mind will regard them as evidence of our good faith and of our being prepared to listen to the representations put to us.
The two areas that gave rise to the most concern at earlier stages were the introduction of the new, actively seeking work condition and the new permitted period, which limits the time when an individual may, without a risk to his benefit, decline employment outside his usual occupation. We have repeatedly said that employment service staff will interpret these new provisions in a fair and sensitive way. I am sure that we can be confident of their ability to do that. Employment service staff are already faced daily with individuals from all walks of life, with differing needs, capabilities and expectations. They are constantly called on to use their judgment to ensure that the needs of the individual are accommodated, while the conditions for benefit, as laid down by Parliament, are complied with.
Of course, that presents a challenge. Our new provisions will sometimes increase the demands on these staff, but they give them the tools to do the job properly. I am confident that, in their usual way, and with the
Column 1062additional training that is to be provided for undertaking this important work, the staff will rise fully to that challenge. During earlier debates we heard much criticism of the proposal that unemployed claimants should have to seek work actively in return for benefit. Some Opposition Members doubted whether the legislation was necessary to enforce that principle. However, the Bill became the Act, and the appropriate wording is now in place.
The regulations say that an unemployed person must, in any week, take those steps that are reasonable in his case and which offer him his best prospects of employment. That is not unreasonable. However, to ensure that the test is applied in a sensitive and fair way, we have laid down certain things that we think form a vital part of the picture. First, we have given examples of particular matters to which the adjudication officer should have regard in deciding what was reasonable in an individual claimant's case. Some of these are obvious : for example, the claimant's skills, qualifications, abilities, or physical or mental limitations; similarly, how long he has been unemployed, his work experience, what jobs are available and where they are, and what he had done already to seek work. Others may be less obvious, but are none the less important.
One example that came out of our discussions in Committee--a number of Members who served on it are present today--is the effect on job search if a claimant is homeless. Any limitations that that may place on him will be taken into account. The Committee discussions also led us to specify that regard should be had to time spent on particularly worthwhile activities-- for example, service as part-time firemen, lifeboatmen or emergency workers, or attendance at outward bound or guide dog training courses. Another group for whom concern was expressed in Committee consisted of those spending time on vocational training or study, on voluntary work or in an employment or training programme. None of these activities will absolve the individual claimant totally from the need to seek work. We believe that that would be wrong. None the less, all these factors can be weighed in considering either the amount of time which is spent in looking for work or the actual steps which the individual claimant could be expected to undertake.
The regulations also give examples of the types of step that a person may take. As we explained at an earlier stage, the list of examples is not exhaustive or exclusive ; it is up to the individual claimant to decide how best to go about securing employment in his chosen field. The list suggests the most common ways of seeking work, but any other equally or more meritorious steps will be taken into account.
As I have already said, a claimant will be expected to seek work every week. Currently, most claimants attend the benefit office fortnightly, and that will not change. The way the job search week will work will be, for example, that a person who attends the office on alternate Wednesdays will be expected to satisfy the test for each Thursday to Wednesday period. In this way, we think that claimants will readily understand that the period that they are being asked about is the two weeks ending on the day on which they are being asked to confirm that they are seeking work.
The last point that I want to mention on actively seeking work is an important one. There will be a number of circumstances in which an individual claimant may be
Column 1063deemed to be actively seeking work for a given week. These include the first and last weeks of unemployment, when it may be unreasonable to expect a person to meet the condition. Similarly, an individual claimant who is away from home may be excused job search for up to two weeks in a year. Of course, he will still have to be available for work, as now, but I think that this is an important concession. It covers an area we discussed in Committee ; short periods of absence, perhaps due to family emergency, can be catered for within the normal arrangements. Provided the claimant is available for work, he should have time during the week to undertake some job search to satisfy the condition.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : Will the Minister say something about the level of remuneration that people seeking work may be expected to accept? Last year, one of my constituents who had said that he wanted £80 a week was told that under the then rules he was pricing himself out of the market and would therefore lose benefit. He appealed against that and won, but in this day and age it is ridiculous to expect a married person with a family to go for a job at less than £80 a week.
Mr. Scott : The employment service will not offer jobs at derisory wages. We discussed this in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman may well have read our proceedings. We do not believe that it is the Government's job to lay down what wages should be paid in particular industries or occupations. We believe that the market is the right force to determine that.
Only if someone turns down a job offered him by the employment service will he be at risk of losing benefit for not having had good cause for turning it down.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) : Will the Minister confirm--he was unable to do so in Committee--that it would be reasonable for people to turn down jobs if the amount the job pays, plus the family credit that they gain, will be less than their benefit received while unemployed?
Mr. Scott : Given the in-work benefits that are available, it would be almost impossible for someone to be worse off in employment than on benefit. Nevertheless, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that there might not be an occasional case when that happens.
Mr. Field : If the Government are so confident about getting it right, why cannot the Minister give a clear assurance that people will not be sent for jobs that will pay them less than what they received in benefit?
Mr. Scott : It is not right for the Government to intervene in that way. There may very well be circumstances in which it would be manifestly for the long-term benefit of an individual to take employment that might offer him less than he was receiving in benefit as it would get him back into employment and enable him in due course substantially to increase those earnings for the benefit of himself and his family. Therefore, it would be wrong for us to introduce the provisions that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Anyone who attends an outward bound course may be deemed to satisfy the condition for up to three weeks. A blind person attending a training course for the use of guide dogs may be deemed to satisfy it for up to four
Column 1064weeks. We have also arranged to deem as actively seeking work individual claimants who spend no less than three days a week participating in some worthwhile activity. That would include firemen, lifeboatmen, emergency workers and those undertaking employment or training programmes.
Although unemployment benefit is primarily intended for those seeking to return to employed earners' employment, we have agreed an important concession for those hoping to become self-employed. They may be deemed to be actively seeking work for up to eight weeks if they are actively pursuing self-employment via the enterprise allowance scheme. The eight weeks will run between the time when the person attends the awareness day under the scheme and makes the application and the start of his self- employment under the scheme. I hope that those arrangements will provide sensible help to claimants who wish not to go into employment but to pursue self-employment. In Committee there was a great deal of debate about replacing "refusal of suitable employment" with the concept of "refusing employment without good cause". The Act has removed the concept of the employment service having to prove that employment refused by a claimant was in fact "suitable" ; the onus will now be on the claimant to show that he had good cause for turning down employment. We think that this is a much -needed change, but, as it is a change, we also feel that it is right for Parliament to lay down guidelines for deciding good cause so that claimants have an understanding of what to expect.
The concept of good cause is not a new one. Current legislation allows a person to escape disqualification for unemployment benefit for turning down or failing to follow up an opportunity of employment if the adjudication officer decides that he had good cause. The adjudication authorities have built up a considerable body of case law, but currently there is no guidance in regulations on the meaning of "good cause".
The regulations specifically require the adjudication authorities to consider, in relation to a failure to follow up any job opportunity, whether the particular employment would be likely to cause serious harm to the claimant's health or whether it would subject him to excessive physical or mental stress. Other matters that they will be required to consider will include any sincerely held religious or conscientious objections that the claimant may have to undertaking particular work, and certain domestic circumstances that might make it unreasonable for him to accept a particular vacancy.
The regulations provide that a person will not generally be able to show good cause unless his journey to work or training would take at least an hour, but there are exceptions of course for those with health problems and caring responsibilities.
Returning to a point I touched on in response to an earlier intervention, a person who turns down a job on pay grounds will not be able to show good cause outside what the legislation calls the "permitted period" at the start of his claim if the job opportunity has been notified to him by the employment service. Only vacancies handled by the employment service will attract that sanction. That will be an important safeguard.
Column 1065the employment service will not advertise or send people to jobs covered by wages councils, if the employer is trying to pay below the legal minimum?
Mr. Scott : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking. As he knows, the Government do not consider it their role to interfere in the way that he suggests. The employment service will not offer jobs at derisory wages. I cannot accept that it is right or sensible to move into the detailed control of what wages are offered, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is highly unlikely that the employment service would do that, but I certainly cannot give a guarantee that it will neverdo it.
Mr. Frank Field : I am not asking the Government to put their sticky fingers into the private affairs of all employers. The Government still have a statutory responsibility to lay down some minimum wages. I am asking that one part of the Government tallies with another part of the Government, and that people will not be sent for jobs paying below the legal minimum. Will the Minister give that guarantee, as people may lose benefit if they do not turn up for those jobs?
Mr. Scott : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking now, but I shall write to him on the point that he has raised. The final point on this part of the regulations is about "trial periods". That is a new concept which has been widely welcomed. It recognises the concerns that affect people who have been out of work for some time. The regulations define the claimants who will have a right to benefit from that provision. The provision enables a person to escape a benefit sanction if he gives up a job from the sixth week up to the 12th week of a trial period. It will apply to claimants who have neither worked nor been in full-time education throughout the 26 weeks before the day on which the new job starts. That is an important step in the right direction, encouraging people who have been unemployed for some time to try out a job, knowing that if they fail, or the job proves unsuitable, they will not have put their benefit at risk.
I shall not detain the House for an undue length of time. Other points may be raised in the debate to which I may or may not wish to respond, but the three sets of regulations represent a number of changes to the provision of benefit. On the unemployment issues, I hope that Opposition Members will recognise that we have reflected in the regulations, without resiling from the principle we incorporated in the Bill, many of the concerns that they and some of my hon. Friends voiced in Committee. I assure the House that the Committee discussions had considerable influence on the detailed provisions in the regulations. I know that the hon. Member for Derby, South will feel that we have not gone far enough, but we have considered in great detail all the issues that were raised. I hope that she will feel that we have shown that the discussions in Committee were worth while, although we have not allowed them to undermine our policy intention.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : Can the Minister tell the House whether refusal of work on the grounds of the hours of work being excessive, or bad conditions relating to carrying out the job, are covered by what he said?
Column 1066on these matters will do it in a fair and sensitive way. They will take into account a range of factors and I cannot say whether those factors will include the circumstances that the hon. Lady has mentioned.
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) : I join the Minister of State in welcoming the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), to our ranks. I am not sure whether to commiserate with the Minister of State on remaining where he is, as the alternative might have been even less desirable. The Opposition welcome back the new Secretary of State, if only because in the autumn we shall have the opportunity to hold him to his own words about child benefit, instead of seeking to hold a successor to his predecessor's words.
I begin by drawing attention to the absurdity of the debate in which we are engaged today. In a fairly brief time we are debating long and complex regulations, most of which were laid before the House only last Friday. The measures relating to the Social Security Act 1989 will become law before the House returns from the recess, and the timetable does not lend itself to hon. Members having time to consider the implications of the various proposals before us. That is particularly important, as we cannot amend those proposals. It is also important to consider the regulations because each set of regulations is complex, although they have three things in common. First, they all attack members of the community who need support. Secondly, they all reflect and highlight the objectionable nature of legislation to the purpose of which they give effect. Thirdly, such minor concessions as the regulations contain fail utterly either to disguise or to rectify the harm that they will do.
In common with the Minister, I wish to begin by discussing the community charge regulations. The House has debated the poll tax at length, and as recently as yesterday, so I propose to comment on a few aspects only of the regulations which, as the Minister said, in the main mirror the law on rate rebates. The decision to force all citizens to pay at least 20 per cent. of their rates was unjust and damaging. Its reflection in the poll tax, which by its nature is a worse tax, is a more harmful imposition. Those who face that extra bill are being cheated by the Government in poll tax as they were cheated in rates because they are not being compensated, as the Government claim, for the extra that they must pay. Accounting sleight of hand has clawed back the so-called compensation. The figures used in yesterday's debate show how those on extremely low incomes will, despite all the Government's weasel words, be liable to pay not just a large part, but the full poll tax. It is clear, for example, that working under-25-year -olds with net incomes as low as £50 or £60 per week are likely to pay the full amount. Single pensioners without earnings on incomes of about £60 or £70 per week will lose all help. Couples on way below average earnings and with children will also be liable to pay the full poll tax. Having studied the figures, we are somewhat dubious about the Government's claim that it does not matter if the poll tax is onerous and unjust, because one in four will get help to pay it. The Minister repeated that claim today. I am prepared to be generous and assume that, for once, the
Column 1067Government are telling the simple truth and that, when the poll tax first comes into effect, one in four will benefit to some extent from the poll tax rebates. I predict with absolute confidence, however, that if one in four people turns out to get some rebate, it will not be long before voices are heard in the Government or on the Conservative Back Benches arguing that the system must be too generous and that benefits should be cut.
That is what always happens under the present Government. First, they change the system in a way that happens to increase the burden on those on low incomes. Then they claim that that does not matter because those on low incomes will be helped through social security. Subsequently, however, they say that too many people are being helped, so the system must be too generous. The social security is then cut by a process described as "better targeting". The Government have done that over and over again.
We believe that the demand for at least a 20 per cent. payment from everyone is wrong and that the rate of withdrawal of rebate as income rises remains too harsh. The Social Security Advisory Committee, in its comments on the regulations, drew attention to the fact that the combination of Government policies means that low earners still lose 80p or 90p for every pound by which their income rises. In common with the Labour party, the SSAC rightly contrasts that with the way in which those on higher incomes lose only half that amount from their marginal tax rates.
Apart from the overall picture, one or two detailed issues should be drawn to the attention of the House and placed on record. First, serious problems have arisen in Scotland over the backdating of claims. We believe that the Government should re-examine that issue--especially if, as I believe the new Secretary of State for the Environment said yesterday, they want to improve the take-up of rebates. Secondly, there are bound to be occasions when overpayment of rebate occurs. Currently there are limits to the action that an authority can take to recover such overpayments, but under the regulations overpayment will be regarded as arrears, although they are not the fault of the claimant.
The authority can recover those overpayments by all the means allowed under poll tax legislation for the recovery of arrears--by deduction from earnings or benefits, by seizure of goods and by the ultimate sanction to hang over the head of the individual, imprisonment. The authority does not have to take any account of ability to repay a debt which, by definition, may not be the claimant's fault. Again, it is some of those detailed difficulties which foster our conclusion that such problems, whether of backdating or of overpayment, are likely to occur.
It is outrageous that someone in hospital for more than six weeks, whose benefit then drops to £8 or £9 per week, should remain liable for at least 20 per cent. of their poll tax. They may also be treated more harshly with respect to earnings disregard than under the current law--and all at a time when the person may have graver things to worry about. The Minister is fond of using the phrase "a perverse incentive". To give a person seriously ill in hospital for a long time a "perverse incentive" to depart this world is perverse indeed. Similarly, it seems ridiculous that
Column 1068someone with a disability--already liable to a personal poll tax charge because he lives in the community--who goes to spend a couple of weeks in a hostel not only becomes liable to pay a daily collective poll tax as well, but even has to make a separate claim to get the rebate to which the law entitles him on that second poll tax charge. That is the kind of absurdity and nonsense that will cause great anxiety and concern and, which in practice will help to discredit this discreditable tax.
It is important to consider the separate issues raised by the other regulations before us which give effect to the Social Security Act 1989. The purpose of that Act is simply to drive people off the unemployment register at almost any cost--especially to them--and, if need be, into low- paid or even temporary employment.
The Minister referred to the way in which the regulations reflect some of the anxieties expressed in Committee about the dangers for the homeless, about the pressure on those who do voluntary work and about the absurdity of expecting someone on holiday to show what he has done actively to seek work, and so on. We welcome anything that improves the way in which the regulations might operate, but by their explicitness the regulations expose and bring into focus the full horror of what the Government are proposing in the 1989 Act. The Government have claimed throughout that a "tiny minority" of people--their term--might be abusing the system by not looking for work as energetically or effectively as they could. Because of that tiny minority, all those unfortunate enough to be unemployed will be exposed to weekly humiliation and shame as their failures are dragged into the light of day time and time again, week after week. Ministers have argued--the right hon. Gentleman did so again today--that it does not matter that the majority will suffer because a tiny minority might be at fault, because that suffering will be avoided since, whatever the law might say, the employment service will implement the regulations with compassion and understanding. That is not and cannot be true. The employment service cannot implement the regulations with compassion or understanding. One need only look at the regulations for it to become crystal clear, beyond any question or doubt, that if the employment service is to show compassion and understanding it will have to ignore the regulations and fail to put them into effect. It is not possible for anyone to demand a report of the steps that are called for in the regulations and to be compassionate to someone for whom that recital exposes a weekly catalogue of failure.
The regulations require the employment service to ascertain what steps have been taken each and every week to look for work. They explicitly state that one step will usually be insufficient and that more suitable and appropriate steps must be taken. The Minister has identified a framework of possible explanation, justification or, in some cases, exemption, but the point of all our objections to the Act and to the regulations, which the Minister has refused to accept although I am sure he grasps it, is that the sheer process of questioning and eliciting that information, week in and week out, will harass and humiliate the unemployed. This is particularly true of two groups--first, those who have been ruled to be "fit for light work", a ruling that many people unsuccessfully dispute and, secondly, those who are not actually receiving benefit but are forced to sign on to continue to get pension credits, who often know that they
Column 1069have no realistic prospect of finding work and will deeply resent being put through this catalogue to establish their entitlement only to credits.
I should be grateful if the Minister can clarify, either today or in writing later, the steps that people have to take if they are not to risk losing benefit and if he will say whether membership of a job club or acceptance, however reluctantly, of an employment training place will of itself satisfy the provisions. I am sorry to say that, whatever else may be clear, that is not. The main point that concerns us is that those who fall foul of this aspect of the law run the risk of losing all right to benefit. If they lose benefit, they may well receive no income for a month, as the Minister made plain in his remarks and as we elicited in Committee.
At the end of a two-week period, a person will be judged as to whether he or she has been actively seeking work during that period. Such people would normally then get their payment of benefit for those two weeks in arrears. If they are judged not to have been actively seeking work, they automatically lose that money, but they cannot resatisfy that provision for some time. When they do resatisfy it, the benefit will again be paid in arrears. It seemed to us in Committee, and it seems to me now, that the minimum period for which one could lose one's right to benefit would be a month.
I know that a person can apply for a payment on the grounds of hardship-- that would be a payment of income support ; hence our parallel regulations- -but, of course, that person has no right to such a payment. He or she can plead for it only if hardship can be shown. If it is awarded, it is liable to be paid only at a reduced rate of 60 per cent. of normal benefit rates. We are especially disturbed that this may happen where a doubt has arisen about a person's active search for work but no decision has yet been made. Once already, following the suicide of Rachel Caine, the Government have drawn back from withdrawing benefit rights while a formal decision is considered. We particularly regret the fact that in these regulations, and with regard to the provision about actively seeking work, the Government have reneged on that decision.
I am also alarmed that in these regulations the Government take power to withdraw benefit for a whole week if a person is thought to have restricted his or her availability for work on just one day. Apart from anything else, it is hard to see--again, despite the Minister's observations about the variety of circumstances that will be taken into account--how or whether that or other provisions will in practice allow unemployed people to study under the 21-hour rule, which has allowed some people to try to improve their circumstances while remaining unemployed and without losing benefit.
That brings me to the aspects of the regulations which are supposed, by encouraging people to undertake a wider variety of training or jobs, to "ease the rigidities"--the phrase used by the Minister in Committee--of the labour market. This is DSS-speak for removing the protection which our law has offered for 60 years and which prevents a person from being forced into low-paid, temporary or unsuitable work. The Minister said, with commendable frankness, that in these regulations the onus of showing whether work is suitable is removed from the employment service and placed on the claimant. My hon. Friends the Members for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and for Preston (Mrs. Wise) pressed the Minister on that point.
It is clear from the regulations, and even clearer from the Minister's reply, that there is no pay so low and no
Column 1070working conditions so harsh that someone might not be pressed to take a job or training place in such circumstances. The regulations state that the possible danger to health must be "severe". We have had experience--my hon. Friend the Member for Preston will recall discussions in a previous Committee--of how restrictively that definition can be interpreted. If we talk about a person having a degree of protection only if there is a "severe" danger to his or her health, that again fills us with alarm.
Even though we have persuaded the Government at least to consider some of the practicalities of the issue--we are grateful for small mercies--such as travel time and what the work expenses are likely to be before people can be disqualified from right to benefit or credits, we still believe that they will not be enough. It is clear that people may be pressed to take a job or a training place which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead explained, pays less than they can draw on benefit, with possible serious implications for their well-being and that of their families.
In the past, when we have made this point, occasionally Conservative Members have said, "Why should that not be so? After all, people should be in work and not drawing benefit, if there is any work available, even if the pay is less than benefit." We all know that there are people whose devotion to the work ethic is so strong that they are prepared to take work even when they might receive more to support their families if they drew benefit. There are people prepared to make that sacrifice on their own and their families' behalf. The fact that there are some individuals who hold the work ethic so strongly that they are prepared to take that step is one thing, but for the Government to attempt to force people to do so, whatever harm may be caused to their families, is another matter and may cause considerable family problems and hardship.
We are particularly worried about this point--again, it is explicit in the law--because the jobs and places that people are forced to take may be temporary, yet their acceptance may cause the loss of transitional additions to benefit. The House will recall that these transitional additions are paid only to those whose benefit entitlement under the new, improved social security system post-1988 is less than their benefit entitlement under the old unimproved system. These are likely to be people with minor disabilities, who previously received extra weekly payments but who may have lost them under the new provisions. That is exactly the kind of group who may have been ruled to be "fit for light work", but if those people are forced to take such work temporarily they will lose their transitional additions.
There are other detailed anomalies or problems with the regulations, such as the reference to "qualifying former employment", which I presume is meant to deal with those who take maternity leave and whose child care needs may preclude them from returning, or make them wish not to return, to their previous jobs. There are also aspects of the new phraseology for dealing with payments which the Department will decide are payments in lieu of notice, thereby perhaps deriving people of benefit.
These complex regulations raise such a variety of issues that it is impossible to deal with them in the time available to the House. In any event, because we cannot amend the regulations but must accept or reject them whole and entire, we should concentrate on their overall purpose and
Column 1071effect. The overall purpose of these unemployment benefit regulations stems from policies which have produced a vicious Act of Parliament, against the detailed implementation of which we have the strongest objections. I advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the regulations.
Mr. Timothy Kirkhope (Leeds, North-West) : This debate is being held in an atmosphere of rapidly falling unemployment throughout the country. Of course, it has been falling for a considerable period. Although the Government must always remain conscious of the needs of unemployed people, they must be well aware also of the need to fill all the jobs using the labour and skills available as we move towards the 1990s. This is an enormous problem not only in this country but throughout the western world. In that context, the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister is all the more important in showing the Government's caring attitude towards those who are still unemployed and may be unemployed in the future.
I remember well our discussions in Committee on the matters we are discussing this evening relating to the need for those who receive benefit to be actively seeking work. I also remember some of the remarks made by the Opposition which seemed quite remarkable at the time, and the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) has said nothing to alter my view this evening.
The state always has the responsibility to do what it can to help those who are unemployed to find work. However, although that is the responsibility of the state, those who are unemployed and those who advocate the cause of the unemployed also have a responsibility. In exchange for the Government doing everything they can to provide a climate in which jobs are available, social security and financial help in the short term for the unemployed, and extra training and places in employment, it is only right that we should be able to expect that those who are unemployed and who claim to wish to be employed should be asked to demonstrate that in a tangible way. That is not a monstrous or unreasonable suggestion ; it is highly reasonable, and is the purpose of our proposals. It was the purpose of our proposals in Committee and the regulations flesh out those proposals, so the Minister is now carrying out his pledges in Committee.
The regulations and the criteria they contain show the compassion that the Government expect to be shown to the unemployed who go for assessment. It is important not to have the impression that we are trying to tighten up the system. We are not ; that is why the hon. Member for Derby, South is so wrong. We are trying to be as flexible as possible and to give as much benefit of the doubt to as many as we can, taking into account the points my right hon. Friend the Minister made about the skills each individual may have, his work experience, the particular circumstances of his home life and any other difficulties he may have--which, as a compassionate Government, we would want to see put on the back of the legislation.
As a Government, we have done much to provide new jobs. We have done everything any Government could reasonably be expected to do, and far more than previous Governments have managed to do. It is important,
Column 1072therefore, that those who are offered all this help should try to take advantage of what we are giving them to help themselves. In a moral sense, the most important aim is to provide people with the opportunity to help themselves and their families. That must be the moral high ground, and that is the position the Government have taken.
I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short)-- who I regret is not here this evening--speak several times in Committee about the jobs she considered to be unacceptable to present to people who were asked to show that they were looking for work. The worst job she could think of was working for a fast food outlet called McDonald's, and she went on about it repeatedly. I wondered about her motives and whether she had had a difficult experience consuming one of its products. However, she picked the wrong organisation. Organisations such as McDonald's have a proper management structure, and encourage people who show that they are prepared to work to get on.
The hon. Member for Derby, South said this evening that people might be offered work that was somehow unacceptable to them. We should be able to support work in itself. We should value the work ethic because work is good, not bad, as has been suggested. The vast majority of people, as Opposition Members say, agree with that.