|Previous Section||Home Page|
We came to the conclusion in Committee that the Opposition thought that there was something wrong about work and that work itself was not an especially good thing. They seemed to believe that, if the work was not eminently suitable for all the requirements of an individual, he should not work at all. That seems an odd attitude ; if they want to be sensible, they should realise the need for us to be able to fill jobs as we go into the 1990s.
The regulations are not only eminently sensible and in line with the commitment that my right hon. Friend gave in Committee that he would puruse the matter further : they show yet again how we care and how we shall try as hard as we can to ensure that the regulations are applied in a humane and compassionate, but nevertheless a determined manner.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : The whole purpose of the regulations, despite the Minister's protestations, is to intervene in the market, and to drive down wages and worsen conditions for those who are already low paid and already in difficulties as a result of lack of skills or other problems. They are the people who will suffer because of the Government's actions.
The Minister talked much about not intervening in the market. We know that the labour market exists and that it is a market in which people buy and sell labour, but we also know that the buyers and sellers of labour do not meet on equal terms. A person trying to sell his or her labour does so under the constraint that, if he or she fails to obtain an adequate price or proper conditions, he or she cannot withdraw from the transaction except at the risk of being unable to have the means of life. Those are not equal
Column 1073terms. The buyer of labour--the employer-- does not face such a constraint ; that is why workers have had to try to combine to protect themselves and to have some chance of achieving fair wages--a fair price for their labour.
Mr. McCartney : I can give my hon. Friend an example of the Government intervening in the marketplace to drive down wages. The Department of Health has circulated rules to district health authorities about the privatisation of internal activities such as laundry. One of my local health authorities recently awarded a contract to a company outside the direct labour organisation. The employees were sacked. Some were offered their jobs back at two thirds of their previously low wages. As they had already received the letter, refusal to accept the offer meant that they would not be awarded benefit. Some still refused to accept the offer and now do not receive benefit as a result of the Government's direct intervention in the marketplace.
Mrs. Wise : I thank my hon. Friend for that example. We have been treated this evening to a clear demonstration of the lengths to which the Government are prepared to go. In response to pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the Minister categorically refused to give an undertaking that Government agencies would not offer work at illegally low wages.
We are discussing not undesirable wages, but illegal wages. The Government hint and threaten that they intend to abolish wages councils. They would dearly like to do that because they do not want any wage floor--they do not want any wage to be regarded as too low. They have not yet abolished wages councils, however, and there are still wages that are illegal. The Minister has refused to say that the Government employment service would not offer jobs at those illegal wages. The Government are thus prepared to connive at employers breaking the law. Yet the Minister talks about not intervening.
I inquired whether refusal of work on the grounds that the hours were excessive or unsuitable would be regarded as within a person's rights. The Minister refused to give any such undertaking. In parallel with the Social Security Bill, an Employment Bill has been going through the House whose effect will be to remove a great many rights previously attaching to young people and women. There are jobs which at this moment it would still be illegal for women to take, but if, after the Employment Bill becomes an Act, women are unwilling to take such jobs, they may well be refused benefit. The stress that is being placed on workers to take jobs, regardless of the conditions and hours, and no matter how sweated the work may be, is unprecedented since early this century.
Let me give the House an example of the kind of thing that is happening to women's work at the moment. A well-known supermarket is trying to impose on its checkout operators a target of handling 25 items per minute. Does the Minister regard that as likely to do serious harm to a person's health? I can assure him that it does.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : Is the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) talking about the new system EFTPOS, whereby the checkout operator passes an item carrying a bar code over a light? If so, 25 items a minute does not seem that arduous.
Mrs. Wise : Oh, so it is not arduous. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) does not seem to understand that supermarket checkout operators have to lift the produce. Has the hon. Gentleman ever tried to lift-- [Interruption.] Yes, it has to be lifted. I have the impression that the hon. Gentleman never goes shopping.
My union has calculated that such workers may be handling a ton of goods every few hours-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Pembroke thinks that it is nothing, does he? The hon. Gentleman does not know what a Europacket of detergent looks or feels like. Members of my union who work on supermarket checkouts know what it feels like to lift endless products on to and off a conveyor belt.
Mrs. Wise : No, I will not give way. I recommend to the hon. Gentleman that he volunteers to go to work in the supermarket to which I have referred--not for five minutes but for a week at least. I shall make very sure that his words and attitudes are made well known to the women in the retail trade whom he derides.
Mr. Pike : Is it not also a fact that, when checkout operators pass items across the machine that reads the bar code, the machine often does not read the code on the first time? When I have been standing in checkout queues, the operators have often had to repeat the process two or three times before the light has caught the bar code in the right way to register the transaction on the till.
I might tell the hon. Member for Pembroke that another well-known supermarket chain has a target of 20 items per minute, or three items per second--
Mrs. Wise : I am sorry--I mean an item every three seconds. That is already causing considerable harm to the workers in that supermarket chain. Conservative Members and their wives and daughters will never work as supermarket checkout operators.
Mr. Bennett rose --
Mrs. Wise : No. [Hon. Members :-- Give way.] No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall tell him why. Yesterday evening I waited three hours hoping to speak on health. The debate was hijacked by Conservative Members who took an inordinate amount of time so that only two Labour Members were able to speak although the debate was on an Opposition day. I have let him intervene once. He has talked rubbish once and I shall refrain from allowing him to reveal his superior attitude and his arrogance again.
I have described the developments that are taking place in the retail trade. Employers are being aided and abetted
Column 1075in their attacks on employees by their Government--because this is the employers' Government. Workers who try to resist conditions which are totally unsuitable will be deprived of the means of life. That is what this debate is about, and it is a serious matter.
Let me give the House some further examples of the Government's hypocrisy. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who has not managed to stay to listen even to the speech following his own, talked about the high moral ground, and the Government claim that high moral ground. But the regulations that already exist--which will be worsened by those under debate--include requirements that people should be available for work at 24 hours' notice. That requirement applies to people who care for children or elderly people, who want and need to go into the labour market and who could accept work were they given a reasonable opportunity to make care arrangements.
The Government allow them 24 hours. That can have one of two effects : either the person refuses the job and loses the benefit, or the child or old or sick person has to be left in unsuitable care, or even with no care. The requirement for availability at 24 hours' notice gives people very little opportunity to arrange care. If the Government wanted to be reasonable, they would allow at least a fortnight, so that the person seeking work could make arrangements. It is impossible for people to make arrangements for child care before they know whether they have a job, where the job is or what wages will be offered. It is only possible to arrange child care once those things are known. However, people are allowed only 24 hours to arrange care. If the Government really wanted to make it easier for people to enter the labour market, they would have changed the regulations, and had they done so, we would have supported them tonight.
To some extent, travelling costs are taken into account when judging whether it is reasonable for someone to refuse a job. However, child care costs are not considered. Under pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, the Minister refused to give an undertaking that someone would not be required to accept a job which left him or her worse off in an absolute sense. The need to pay child care costs can exacerbate the problem and lead to people being worse off. However, so far removed from reality are Conservative Members that they have ignored those genuine problems.
Conservative Members prefer to pretend that they stand on the high moral ground, and they accuse other people of wilfully refusing work. I believe that people do not wilfully refuse work. The vast majority of people dislike being unemployed. They dislike its stigma and lack of income and the fact that it causes many people to feel that their lives are without purpose.
The unemployed want work. It is the final straw for those people when the Government tell them that they are to blame for their own problems. It is the final insult for the Government to claim that the unemployed are wilfully refusing work and to tell them that, for their own good, they will be forced to accept work, regardless of the wages, the hours and whether it is night work or totally unsuitable shifts for women workers--which will now become legal--and even regardless of whether the wages are actually
Column 1076illegal. Those people will be forced to accept work so that Conservative Members can believe that the work ethic is being pursued in this country. It would be more tolerable if Conservative Members abandoned their hypocritical claim to the moral high ground and simply said that they were against the workers. That is the truth. 6.42 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : I agree with the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) that it is a great pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard) to the Government Front Bench as the new Under-Secretary of State for Social Security. Without wanting to sound in any way patronising, it is particularly welcome to see joining the Government for the first time one of my Back-Bench colleagues who has a great deal of experience in the subject for which she now holds a brief.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West lived in the real world, many miles from this place, she was associated with health and social security matters in Norfolk. The Department of Social Security, the Government and the House will benefit from her knowledge and expertise and from the sympathetic way in which she deals with these matters, as I witnessed before her elevation, when I had the privilege, over the past two years, of sharing two Standing Committees with her--the Committee stages of the Social Security Acts 1988 and 1989. I want to wish her every success.
It will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) to learn that I could not agree with almost anything that she said. Fortunately, I have never fallen into the trap of regarding everyone on the unemployment register as a scrounger, a ne'er-do-well or someone who does not want to look for work. However, I have not made the gross mistake of claiming that everyone on the unemployment register desperately wants to find work and is looking for it day in, day out. Sadly, that is not the case. I do not believe that there are many scroungers on the unemployment register or people who are not prepared to look for work. In many instances, the numbers are grossly exaggerated. However, we must be realists.
I want tonight to consider the regulations which bring out the fine detail of the broad sweep of the Social Security Act 1989, which introduces the requirement for people actively to seek work before they can qualify for and claim unemployment benefit. I see nothing wrong with that requirement. As I have said before, I cannot see any justification for fully able-bodied people to claim unemployment benefit if they have no intention of trying to find a job or taking a job if one is shown to them.
The 1987 labour survey showed that there were 700,000 vacant jobs and that 350,000 unemployed people could have found jobs because the vacancies did not necessarily require specialist training or those jobs included an offer of training. We are extremely fortunate in my constituency at the moment. There are 1,711 unemployed people, representing 2.9 per cent. of the population. However, companies in Chelmsford are crying out for staff to fill vacancies. It is not surprising that business men and retailers ask me in amazement, "Where is the unemployment? I am looking for someone to work for me and I am prepared to train them if they are not trained, but
Column 1077I can't get anyone and haven't been able to get anyone for weeks. Nevertheless, I understand that there are more than 1,700 people unemployed in the area."
There is a great deal of confusion about this. I believe that this requirement is long overdue and it is right for the Government to introduce the regulations, which lay down the ground rules.
Mrs. Beckett : As the hon. Gentleman has attended more than one of our debates on social security matters, I am sure that he can enlighten his constituents' confusion. He will have heard several of my hon. Friends who are experts in this subject remind the House that levels of unemployment and of vacancies form a shifting pattern. It is not a simple matter of saying that there are X people here and X vacancies there and the two can simply be put together. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman could have explained that to his constituents.
Mr. Burns : The hon. Lady has not made a new point. It is obvious that there are constant changes. However, there are far too many vacancies going begging while the unemployed people do not take the jobs. That is the crux of the problem.
It is churlish of Opposition Members not to give credit where is it due to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security. As my right hon. Friend said, the regulations which deal with actively seeking work take into account the numerous debates that we had in Committee on the Social Security Act 1989, and they meet a number of the points that were raised by Opposition Members. The regulations have been improved by my right hon. Friend listening to the arguments and taking on board those arguments that were justified.
The regulations will place the onus on the individual to go out and find a job. There is welcome flexibility in the fact that the Government have accepted that there are times during the year when people must be away and cannot actively seek work--perhaps, for example, because of a death in the family or because of other personal problems. There are two weeks in which people can, for want of a better word, be exempt from actively seeking work.
Hon. Members should warmly welcome the fact that the Government have recognised the need to encourage self-employment. Allowances are made for people to become self-employed under the enterprise allowance scheme. Part- time firemen, emergency workers and other people who undertake employment or training pro-grammes for no more than three days a week will also be helped by the regulations. The regulations will ensure that people who are out of work will register with employment agencies, contact employers and apply for jobs so that they can demonstrate that they can actively seek work. The improvement is that there will be no cop-out for those who genuinely do not want to work, but claim money.
Mr. McCartney : The previous Minister of State, Department of Employment sent his resignation to the Prime Minister on the grounds that he could not survive on £35,000 a year. In her reply, the Prime Minister said that she understood his problem. A Minister for
Column 1078Employment could not be persuaded to do his job for £35,000, yet that man wanted to take benefit off some kid who cannot work for £64 a week or less.
Mr. Burns : I understand what a mistake I made by giving way to the hon. Gentleman. He expected a cheap titter of laughter for that intervention, and I am sure that he was disappointed. It was a disgraceful and totally unwarranted intervention, which brought down the level of the debate. I shall continue, after being rudely and unnecessarily interrupted.
The actively seeking work test will apply to people who have no intention of seeking work. The Government have prevented a coach and horses being driven through the regulations by shifting the onus so that a claimant must prove that he is actively seeking work, rather than the other way round. In the past, it was too easy for people who did not want to work to go reluctantly to a job interview and to fall at the first fence. It is very easy for people who do not want a job to be singularly unimpressive in a job interview, so that no employer will employ them.
A claimant will have to justify his actions over the set period. A glaring loophole will be avoided before the regulations come into force.
I welcome the regulations. The Opposition should be grateful for them. Only the most churlish Opposition Member would not recognise that the arguments in Committee were listened to and adopted. The country will accept that, if people are to take unemployment benefit because they are genuinely unemployed, as part of the contract the least that anybody can do is honour his side of the bargain and go out and seek a job. That will also ensure that unemployment is genuine.
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport) : I welcome the Under-Secretary of State to her new position. I always examine Cabinet reshuffles to find out whether any hon. Member with compassion will join the Government. The Under -Secretary has compassion, and I hope that she brings it to social security debates.
There is deep concern about the regulations. They will result in severe hardship for claimants, compel the unemployed to take up temporary training and employment schemes--whether or not they are suitable--and close the option to study on a part-time basis. The introduction of restart interviews resulted in a marked increase in the number of unemployed claimants having their availability for work challenged, often wrongly. Claimants lost benefit for prolonged periods while their appeals were heard and their cases were decided. Many lived on the arts and cultural side of life. I have known young writers and artists to be caught in prolonged periods of non-payment, and I hope that their cases will be sympathetically examined. In response, the Government introduced a special regulation which meant that an existing claimant did not lose benefit until his case was decided by an adjudication officer. What happens to a new claimant? How long must he wait for his case to be adjudicated, and how long will
Column 1079it be before a decision is made? In such cases, there appears to be a safeguard--long-winded though it may be. However, there is no such safeguard for claimants who fall foul of the actively seeking employment regulations.
A circular to employment service managers states that claimants will not be deemed to be actively seeking work pending adjudication, as presently happens with avail-ability testing.
A claimant will be ineligible for unemployment benefit or income support until an adjudicating officer makes a decision, a process which can take weeks. A sample of 5 per cent. of availability decisions between July and September 1987 revealed that only approximately 85 per cent. were made within four weeks. Only when an adjudicating officer has made a decision can a claimant appeal and take advantage of the opportunity to receive income support at a reduced rate if hardship can be proved.
Although participation in employment schemes will be formally voluntary, a claimant can demonstrate his active job search by joining a scheme. The regulations specify that the actively seeking work condition is satisfied by application for or acceptance on a course or programme that the Secretary of State has specified and considers will improve the prospects of that person obtaining employment or becoming self-employed. It is vital to know what specifying a course or programme means, which ones are to be specified, who gives the information, and who decides what is to be specified.
In practice, joining a job club, entering employment training or attending a restart course are likely to be steps that the Secretary of State considers will improve a claimant's prospects. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point. The job club in Southport is certainly successful, but I am far from certain about how job clubs are faring nationally. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point also. I believe that job clubs are not successful throughout the regions. Joining a job club is one way of satisfying the actively seeking employment condition. Job club leaders will have to ensure that all members are genuine and realistic in their search for jobs. How are they to do that? Job refusals may raise doubts about actively seeking employment or the availability of employment.
Finally, the draft regulations outline a range of active steps, including job applications and registering with employment agencies. They say nothing about claimants taking up part-time education as a way of improving their skills and employability. Given the existing pressure on 21-hour rule claimants to give up their studies, many motivated claimants will find themselves forced to take up less appropriate vocational rather than educational options. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point on further education.
I appear to have asked seven or eight questions in my short speech. I hope that the Minister will answer all or most of them. I have studied the documents carefully and I find that in many ways the Government's stance lacks compassion. Because of that, we shall vote against the motion.
Column 10807 pm
I find it astonishing that in this day and age Conservative Members still make the sort of remarks that we heard from the hon. Members for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) and for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East had the audacity to talk about the Government's caring attitude. I find that unbelievable. Having done his duty for this evening by delivering his speech prepared by Conservative Central Office, he has gone off, no doubt to dinner somewhere. I hope that he enjoys it. He also talked of the high moral ground of the Government. The word "high" applies to the Government only in terms of their high and mighty attitude to people less well-off than them.
The hon. Member for Chelmsford told us that we should be grateful for the Government's policies and the new regulations. I find it difficult to accept the Oliver Twist mentality thrust down our throats by Conservative Members. It is utterly unacceptable because it is hypocritical.
The regulations in no way represent a caring attitude. They are absurd, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) said. There should be no need to prove that one is actively seeking employment. I believe that only a small number of people are prepared to be unemployed for any length of time. Everyone I know who is or has been unemployed has found it insufferable. In my constituency, the official unemployment rate is 21 per cent. In real terms, if we leave aside the massaged statistics, it is much closer to 30 per cent.
Every day I come into contact with people who have been unemployed for periods, in many cases, in excess of two or three years. They do not need to be told that they will not receive unemployment benefit unless they can demonstrate that they are actively seeking employment. They are desperate for employment. They are crying out for it. Sometimes they take jobs with ludicrous rates of pay, part-time jobs or demeaning jobs which they never dreamed that they would have to take. That is the reality of Britain in 1989--a reality which the Government utterly refuse to take on board, as the new regulations show.
I refer the House to regulations 12B, D and E. Paragraph 1 of 12B states that an individual must take
"the steps which are reasonable in his case as offer him his best prospects of receiving offers of employment."
The regulations do not specify how the individual is to know what steps are likely to offer the best prospects of employment, yet, when it comes to the bit, the adjudication officer will be required to decide that there may have been other steps that the individual should have taken which may have improved his prospects. How will the adjudication officer, or, indeed, the individual, make such decisions?
Paragraph 2 lists the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether a person has taken reasonable steps. It is notable that he is not required to take the steps which are reasonable but only those likely to
"offer him his best prospects of receiving offers of employment." Imagine being desperate for work and having to plough through regulations, crossing one hurdle after another while all the time it is assumed that one is trying to defraud the system, does not want to work and would rather sit at
Column 1081home with one's feet up receiving unemployment benefit. That is the assumption inherent in the regulations. The Government are wrong to assume that people do not want to work.
Mr. Scott : The hon. Gentleman is putting up Aunt Sallies and knocking them down. They are not in the least valid. When people first claim benefit they will be interviewed by a new claimant adviser. Their personal circumstances and past record will be analysed and advice will be given about the appropriate steps to take. Subsequently, if it is felt that they are not taking the most appropriate steps, they will be given further advice. Only when someone declines to accept the advice will he be in danger of falling into the trap that the hon. Gentleman outlined. The object of the employment service is to help people back into employment, not to deny them benefit.
Mr. Watson : I am glad to hear the Minister say that, but I wish that it was specified in the regulations. As in so many other cases where it is not specified, all power rests with the adjudication officer. I should be delighted if a provision could be inserted in the regulations to say that it is incumbent on DSS officers to give that advice to individuals. The regulations seem to be characterised by confusion, or at least potential confusion. Complete discretion for the adjudication officer is unsatisfactory.
Paragraph 4 of regulation 12B lists some of the steps that a person may be required to take to show that he is actively seeking employment. Presumably, the word "include" means that the list is not exhaustive. It seems odd to exclude the use of a jobcentre. I should have thought that that was the obvious place to which an individual would be expected to go to show that he is actively seeking employment. I hope that the Minister will inform us whether that has been excluded deliberately or whether it was a mistake.
In paragraph 12D, we see the Government at their most patronising. It deals with cases where individuals are deemed actively to be seeking employment even when it is clear that they are not. Apparently--I say apparently because it is not clear--they will not be required to seek work for two weeks a year. I presume that that is a form of holiday, which is generous, but it must be specified. Paragraph 4 deals with enabling people to establish themselves as self-employed. The Government continually inform us that during the years that they have been in power, the number of self- employed has increased dramatically. Not surprisingly, Conservative Members welcome that. It is inconceivable that someone could set up a business and achieve self-employed status in eight weeks, given all the obstacles of obtaining grants, taxation, raising capital and finding premises. Apparently, if people do not have the business up and running within eight weeks, they can be denied benefit. That is extraordinary.
Paragraph 12E lists the matters to be taken into account in deciding whether a person has good cause for refusing or failing to apply for employment or training. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) eloquently outlined the difficulties into which that could pitch people. It seems strange that we are qualifying those conditions.
Paragraph 12E(2)(a) refers to employment or training that "would be likely to cause serious harm to his health." The implication is that people will be disqualified from benefit for refusing work that would harm their health
Column 1082unless they can prove that it will cause serious harm. What is the difference between harm and serious harm? Where is it defined how an individual will know the difference? Surely, to a significant extent, it should be for an individual and his or her doctor to decide. Paragraph 2 refers to responsibility for the care of another member of the household. What happens if a member of an individual's close family, such as one's mother, father, grandmother or grandfather, is in need of attention and does not live in the household but lives instead in accommodation nearby and yet requires care? Apparently such a situation is excluded from the regulations.
I do not intend to talk about those regulations at any greater length, because they have already been dealt with, but it is fair to say that they form part of a pattern. As I said earlier, the assumption is that people are dishonest and do not want to work. The pattern appears designed to punish people who are unable to find work but who, in many cases in my experience, have tried hard, indeed desperately, to find work, but who have been hit from several directions. The pattern involves other attacks on people's living standards, such as housing benefit cuts and the abolition of single payments with the introduction of the social fund. All those things were basically designed to save public expenditure.
If I may be allowed to digress slightly, appalling figures about the social fund were produced at the beginning of this month showing massive under- claiming of the grants available in its annual budget. It was precisely the Government's intention to cut such expenditure when they introduced the social fund, and it has worked.
I have already arranged to meet the staff at my local DSS office to find out why there has been a 54 per cent. underspend in the Lauriston area of Glasgow. Of the £379,000 allocated budget, £205,000 remains unclaimed. In an area of multiple deprivation, with high unemployment and appalling housing, it is not credible that that figure is accurate unless people are being deliberately dissuaded from claiming. Indeed, that is the trend that the Government are encouraging. They are trying to make the people who make a claim on the state feel that they are a burden, that they are doing wrong, and that they should therefore stop claiming. That is especially harsh on the unemployed.
My final point relates to young people. Another part of the pattern relates to 16 and 17-year-olds who, with effect from September last year, have been denied income support if they are not either in work or on a youth training scheme. Again, I refer to what has happened in my own constituency where there is a shortfall--there are 1,300 more people wanting YTS places than there are places available. Unless those young people can demonstrate severe hardship, they are denied income support. That is appalling, but it is again part of the pattern to which I have referred.
The Government can do what they like in terms of regulations, in trying to suppress the unemployment figures or to dissuade people from claiming benefit by making it as difficult as possible, but they will not fool the people of this country in the long term. They will not fool the unemployed people of this country who will bear the brunt of these hurtful, spiteful and completely unnecessary regulations on the actively seeking work condition.
Column 10837.13 pm
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : After 10 years' experience of a Conservative Government, and of the present Government in particular, perhaps we should not be surprised by the amount of time that the Government are taking to push through a tightening and reduction of benefits. It does not seem to take any time to get those things on the agenda. The machinery of government moves with remarkable speed when they want to reduce benefits or to tighten the social security structure. I say that because the Social Security Act 1989, to which these regulations refer, passed back to the House only last week and was given Royal Assent last Friday. Within hours, the regulations were before the House, and they will be law before we return from the recess.
We should be absolutely clear that the regulations on the community charge mean a benefit reduction. The Government have said that the new system will mirror the existing rebate system. However, the new system distorts the reflection because under the poll tax proposals people will get less than they get under the present rebate system. Conservative Members have been in real difficulty with the poll tax. The Government sold it on the premise that every person had to pay, but some hon. Members asked, "What about those who are unable to pay and those who receive rebates?" The Government then decided that they would have to relax the provisions but said that everybody would have to pay at least 20 per cent. However, there is a difficulty in the provisions in the regulations. Because there is a finite and fixed figure in the income support regulations, this means in practice that, because of the average figure that has been assumed for the poll tax, some people will have to pay more than 20 per cent. That means that they will face a real reduction in their living standards because they will have to pay more than they do now under the current rebate system.
The Government seem to be carrying out a giant tax con trick. They constantly tell us that their Budgets cut personal taxation, but they are actually increasing taxation as a whole, not least by increasing indirect taxation, and now by effectively increasing local taxation. They are insisting that, if we want any residue of local government to be left in this country, everyone must pay the price because the Government are not prepared to make the contribution that they should make from the centre, from the Treasury at national level. In other words, to use the language of insurance--we may look back on the social security system wistfully as a system which did, indeed, provide national insurance--when we get to the small print, we find that the national sales pitch really means that full cover will no longer be provided because the total cover for the 20 per cent. payments will not be matched by the demands of the poll tax. Conservative Members have woken up rather late in the day to the implications of the poll tax. Indeed, it is only in the last two weeks that they have come to the House and insisted that Ministers look again--after those same Members spent months voting for every clause in the legislation. As soon as they realised that the poll tax would hit their constituents, they were on their feet practically asking the Secretary of State to withdraw it. I am tempted to argue that if we had a re-vote and a free vote on the poll tax legislation now, there would be no poll tax and thereafter no need for these regulations.
Column 1084I hope that Conservative Members will work out the figures relating to these regulations during the recess. It is not enough for them simply to protest about the poll tax, and it is certainly not enough for them to pretend that the provisions will protect the poor against its implications. If they look at the detail in relation to their constituency cases, they will find that the provisions will not do what is claimed. I am sure that Conservative Members will be back--not this autumn, but the following autumn--asking why particular cases are not getting the support that they thought had been promised when the poll tax legislation was before the House.
Perhaps the most significant of all the regulations are those relating to the new Social Security Act and especially, as my hon. Friends have said, those relating to the actively seeking work test. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) surprised me because he speaks as though he does not come from the same city as myself. He obviously does not look at the various briefs that are sent out to all Members of Parliament representing our region. He may be surprised to know that unemployment in Yorkshire and Humberside is not falling as fast as elsewhere and that the chamber of commerce in our region has suggested that it is likely that unemployment will rise again. It is concerned that the so-called "hard landing" of the economy will mean that firms will go into bankruptcy and that as a result there will be redundancies in our region. I speak on behalf of a constituency in which we have seen and continue to see redundancies in textiles and engineering.
When we talk about unemployment falling, it is interesting that even under the adjusted figures--the 26 reductions and the massaging of the figures-- we still have unemployment at 1.9 million. It is higher than it ever was under any Labour Government, yet the Red Book--the basis for this year's Budget--says that unemployment is not expected to continue falling as rapidly. In other words, the Government's Budget presumptions are that unemployment will rise again and not go down as it has in the past.
Mr. Burns indicated dissent .