Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Battle : The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) shakes his head. He should read paragraph 4 of the Red Book, where the presumption is that unemployment will not continue falling at the rates at which it has, if indeed it falls at all.

Mr. Burns : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Battle : I will not give way, because the hon. Gentleman would not do me the courtesy of giving way. In future he may like to do his homework before he tries to rebut an argument. I shall come to the points that he made in his contribution.

The hon. Gentleman appeared to create the impression that the regulations before the House will introduce a whole new system to coerce the unemployed into taking jobs. Does he really believe that nobody has been denied unemployment benefit under the current system? People have to be available for work now and they lose benefit if they are not available for work. The hon. Gentleman created the impression that there were no existing regulations making people go for jobs, because the key change in the Bill is the insistence that a person must accept a job regardless of the pay offered. The

Column 1085

Government are going down the road of pricing people into low-paid work. The regulations cannot be read other than as tightening even further, in a most unhelpful manner, the social security coercion for people to work, especially in areas of high unemployment. Those who fall foul of the new actively seeking work rule will lose not only unemployment benefit, but the income support safety net. I suggest to hon. Members that there are already problems, because people who breach the £5 rule, for example, or who are doing voluntary work for more than a particular number of hours, are already being cut out of the benefit system. Those people have no income while they wait for their cases on appeal.

I ask the Minister to look at paragraph 2 of regulation 6, which lists the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether a person has taken steps which are reasonable. I accept that we pressed in Committee for such things as the amount of time spent on voluntary work or on seeking accommodation to be taken into consideration, but if they are to be taken into consideration, the onus is all on the adjudication officer. The adjudication officer will have the daunting task of investigating all the points in that list before he can make a decision.

To choose one item from the list at random, how would the adjudication officer ascertain the claimant's "mental limitations" in assessing whether he is accepting the right job? Will the Minister spell out what the phrase "mental limitations" would mean in particular circumstances? The paragraph in the regulation offers no real protection, because, when the list of factors is taken into account, the adjudication officer will still have complete discretion to decide whether the person has taken steps which are reasonable. In practice, that means that although the Minister is saying that he has confidence in the ability of his Department's staff, he is shuffling off the responsibilities in the regulations into the ambit of the adjudication officers and the appeals tribunals. That will make it bad law, because we shall be back to the position of going through case studies as we contest the regulations, rather than having the matter made clear in primary law and in regulations.

In Committee we debated whether a person would have to accept any job on offer, no matter how little pay was offered. If people are offered wages that they cannot live on and they refuse them, they will be disqualified. It seems that the Government calculate pay solely on the basis of the average wage, which at present is running at £258 per week. Few of my constituents are on £258 per week. This week in the job centre in Bramley town centre, the wages offered for most jobs are just above wages council levels. I remind the Minister that the wages council level for the textile industry is £1.90 per hour, and jobs in catering and in shops are offered at wages below wages council levels.

In other words, if jobs are on offer at much less than £80 a week and a person turns down such a job, the Government are saying that in some circumstances, if the family loses its access to unemployment benefit, it could be worse off. The Government are now prepared to accept that situation to price people into work and to save the benefit system money. That is from a Government who, only in March, told the House that they had saved £14 billion in public expenditure, which they did not dare spend because it might have had an inflationary effect.

I submit that this is not just a tightening up regulation, but it is at the core of the Social Security Act 1989, as it will become known. What the Government are doing is

Column 1086

unbelievable. They are knowingly pricing people into work. Like the poll tax, it may be that people, especially Conservative Members, will only realise what is happening when it is too late--when they have voted and their constituents go to their surgeries to ask them what the Government are doing. The Minister may reply then that it is just a few individual hard cases. The chance to tackle hard cases is now. It is not a matter of hard cases. The Minister and the Government are deliberately changing the social security structure. Under the regulations, that social security structure is clearly stacked against unemployed people. To price people into work will have the impact of compounding a two -tier economy, in which some of us may have reasonably well-paid jobs with some future prospects and security, but the rest of the nation will be forced into low-paid, temporary and part-time work. The Government are deliberately going down that road.

We saw the speed with which the Minister was prepared to move on the issue of the mobility allowance. When we pressed for people to have access to that allowance, the Minister said that he needed time to do more research to see what the implications were for Government policy, for the Budget and for claimants. I suggest to the Minister that he might like to carry out some detailed work on wage rates in Britain, and especially in the Yorkshire region. He might like to do some detailed work on the implications and interworking of the family credit and income support systems.

He should tell us that he is prepared to reconsider the matter and that he will withdraw the regulations. If he does not, the Government will be left with regulations containing punitive and blunt instruments which will force the number of unemployed down by pricing them into the low-paid temporary sector. When the Government try to offer us the language of choice, they are really offering people the coercion for which the Government, despite their Cabinet reshuffle, are now becoming well known, and which the people of Britain are clearly rejecting.

7.28 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding) : I had not intended to speak, but I have been provoked into doing so by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle).

I listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest. At the beginning, he set out a range of suggestions and detailed objections to the criteria for evaluating whether a claimant is genuinely and actively seeking work. When I listened to that part of his speech, I wondered whether the hon. Member had accepted the basic principle that lies behind these regulations and was trying to be helpful. I thought that by suggesting adjustments to the criteria, so that a decision can more fairly and precisely be made about whether an individual claimant is sincerely looking for work, the hon. Gentleman might be making a useful contribution to the workability of the regulations and to the justice with which they will be enforced--or was the hon. Member contesting the basic principle behind these regulations?

Later in the hon. Gentleman's speech, it became evident that he objects to the whole principle, so we should consider some of his detailed suggestions and criticisms in that light. We are entitled to ask whether some of those suggestions, put very reasonably and with great ingenuity

Column 1087

--qualities that we associate with the hon. Member--were not wrecking suggestions, designed to undermine the basic principle of the legislation.

What is that basic principle Mr. Deputy--Madam Deputy Speaker, I beg your pardon. It is that it cannot be in the interests of an individual, or of society, to give a man or woman a financial inducement to do nothing when he or she has the ability to do an honest day's work. That seems to me to be a fundamental moral and economic principle. I will give way to any Opposition Member who wants to dispute the basis of that principle.

We must ask ourselves whether we should take seriously some of the hon. Member's objections. If we do not take them seriously, I believe that we should support the Government in producing a sophisticated set of criteria to ensure that that basic principle is delivered into our social security legislation.

7.32 pm

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : In Wigan, we recently elected a lady mayor and she has introduced a system of fines for people who call her Mr. Mayor. The fines go to charities. I think that we should introduce a similar system in the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, for each occasion that you are called Mr. Deputy Speaker. By the end of the Session, we would be able to put quite a lot of money towards certain charities.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : Perhaps for sacked Cabinet Ministers--a very good cause.

Mr. McCartney : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion.

Regarding incentives and disincentives, Conservative Members' arguments have been based on a crude analysis of job vacancies. They have asked why there are so many vacancies, and why so many people are unable or unwilling to seek employment. We have also heard, again on the basis of crude analyses, that, throughout the country, there is a huge army of unemployed people who are unwilling to take jobs at any cost.

I take that as a grave insult to tens of thousands of working men and women throughout the United Kingdom but especially to people in many Opposition Members' constituencies. We represent people who, because of Government policies, find themselves and their families thrown on the industrial scrap heap. Since the miners' strike, three collieries have been closed in my constituency. Since the end of that strike, some miners have transferred to three separate collieries because they wanted to continue in employment but they have been put on the dole this summer because there are no more pits for them to go to. There are no more jobs for them. They are in the humiliating situation of being placed on the dole. That is a direct result of Government intervention, in privatising electricity and driving down the price of coal.

Many single-parent families in my constituency, mainly women, have a great disincentive to find work, because of the Government's legislation. If they find work they cannot take it up. I shall give evidence of that later in my speech.

If the Government cared less about the Civil List and more about the problems of the poorest in our society, this House might do the nation a proper service. The

Column 1088

Government are hounding the unemployed and people on poor wages. They have been preparing the market, and distorting it, to ensure that we have a large pool of unskilled people that can be tapped any time the market chooses. In the intervening period, they ensure that the level of benefit is reduced, or is at such a level that people cannot remove themselves from the poverty trap.

Many people in my constituency have been brutalised by poverty. Some have been driven to crime by poverty. A prime example is a constituent who was taken to the magistrates court for breaking into his electricity meter. Everyone says, "What a terrible thing to do." He was acquitted on the grounds that he broke into the meter after he had an offer of a job in Aberdeen--he had been unemployed for over 18 months--and, because of changes brought in by the Government, the social security office would not give him a ticket to travel to Aberdeen to take the job. He became a criminal, in an effort to buy a train ticket to take that job. Thank God the magistrates on the bench had sympathy for that man's case.

That is how far many young working people are prepared to go. They are trapped in the benefit system and a life of poverty. They have little real opportunity for jobs that will enable them and their families to get out of the poverty trap.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) mentioned job vacancies in Chelmsford, where employers are unable to find people to take jobs. That is a growing problem throughout Britain. People are unable to move to take jobs because of Government policies.

The changes in social security policy cannot be seen in isolation. The Government have driven up mortgage interest rates to the point where people cannot afford to move house. They have introduced the Local Government Housing Act 1989, to double rents in the private sector. They have introduced legislation to close many hostels for young people, who move from one part of the country to another to find work. They have driven up travelling costs to and from work. In the autumn, the Select Committee on Social Services, of which I am a member, will examine Government social security policies. We have already sought evidence on Government policy and incentives and disincentives from local authorities and bodies such as citizens advice bureaux, the Child Poverty Action Group and Government Departments.

In the light of all these political disincentives, the arguments of the hon. Member for Chelmsford must be challenged. He and many of his hon. Friends must come up with an answer to that challenge. We have received evidence from citizens advice bureaux throughout the country. I will tell him why there are job vacancies in places such as Chelmsford. It is not that unemployed people are not prepared to take those jobs, but that current social security arrangements operate to ensure that they cannot take them.

I shall cite just one example from the CAB's evidence. A middle-aged man in Sheffield could not take a job offer in London because he was refused a loan for rent on the ground that, as he already had an overdraft, he could not repay a social fund loan. Claimants who need to move house to take up work receive little help from the social fund. Removal expenses incurred if a claimant has to move house to take up work are excluded as specifically work-related. Under the previous supplementary benefit rules, a single payment could have been made for removal

Column 1089

expenses, thus improving the claimant's chance of finding work and taking up a job offer. The Government have created a disincentive for people to take up employment opportunities, yet the hon. Member for Chelmsford and his hon. Friends berate them for not being more mobile in trying to get back into the labour market.

Mr. Burns : The hon. Gentleman said that he would answer my constituents' question about why there was both a labour and a skills shortage in Chelmsford. Unfortunately, he has not done so-- [Interruption.] I hope that Opposition Members will let me finish my question. The hon. Gentleman cited the example of a man who would not move from Sheffield to London. I accept that he had a serious problem, but it does not answer the question asked by 1,700 of my constituents who are unemployed at a time when there is a serious shortage of people to work in the local companies of Chelmsford.

Mr. McCartney : The hon. Gentleman raises two points, with which I shall deal in a moment.

There is a serious distortion in the labour market, not just in the availability of jobs but in the types of job, the availability of training and the opportunity for people's skills to be matched to job vacancies. Like the hon. Member for Chelmsford, I could go to my local jobcentre--not a mile and a half from two collieries that have recently closed--and ask about opportunities for the 700 miners who have lost their jobs. I could guarantee that, other than a small number of those miners, they all want to find jobs commensurate with their skills and abilities.

For the past 10 years, the Government have failed to provide proper arrangements for skills training for the country's work force. Indeed, there has been a de-skilling exercise, the like of which has not been seen in the remainder of the western world. That de-skilling policy has resulted in a shortfall of people able to contribute to the economy. That is as true in Chelmsford as it is in Wigan. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Chelmsford is only too ready to vote for those policies.

The regulations will not improve employment opportunities for the unemployed and those in low-paid jobs. The Government are good at targeting people, and they regularly amend the benefit

regulations--not to improve opportunities, but to reduce the number of people able to claim benefit. The Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box seven or eight times specifically to amend housing benefit regulations. On each occasion he turned the screw so that a few thousand more pensioners or unemployed or low-paid workers could not claim housing benefit.

A large number of women want to return to work, not just for family reasons but for their personal satisfaction. They form a large, untapped pool of skills and mental capacity. They are prevented from entering the labour market because of the Government's social security policy, especially on child-care facilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) rightly raised the problem of the regulations acting as a clear disincentive for women to accept opportunities in the job market.

A constituent of mine was prepared to take any job, provided that she was given 24 hours' notice so that she could arrange to put her two children into a nursery. The social worker gave a guarantee to the benefit office that he would do everything in his power to arrange child-care facilities, even if only temporary at first, so that the woman

Column 1090

could begin work. That would have provided some breathing space to arrange long-term child care. That woman was offered a job. She said that she could not start that morning but would ask her mother to look after the children so that she could start in the afternoon. She was prepared to take the job. That woman's benefit has been stopped. Tory Members take the high moral ground. They say that they are not in the business of hounding ordinary people. They find their excuses in legislation. All that woman asked for was a few more hours to arrange child care. That is what she told the adjudication officer, and Tory Members should think about what happened to her. I sometimes wonder just where some of the adjudication officers come from. When they go home at night, do they think about some of the decisions that they have made? Are they aware that they have sometimes wrecked people's lives? They create anxiety and stress in families already overstretched by poverty.

The Minister says, "Don't worry about it ; everything is rosy in the garden. Those people have a great deal of latitude under the regulations." The truth is that there is no latitude. Many of those operating the social security system have a great deal of compassion and they are under stress because they must carry out their duties in a way that affects ordinary working people. Indeed, many of those officers live in the same community as those who are in desperate need of help.

The CAB submitted evidence about child-care costs to the Select Committee. It said :

"A single parent in Birmingham with one child aged 4 had a part-time job of 20 hours per week, for which she earned £40 a week. She had to pay £1.50 per hour for her child to be taken care of, making a total cost of £30 per week. As a single parent, £15 of her earnings are disregarded, but she was still £15 per week worse off by working--so she gave up her job. She had hoped to extend her hours once her child started school--but she has now lost that opportunity."

That woman was working for 50p an hour. Can anyone come nearer to saying, "My God, I want to work. I want to do my part for the nation"? Would the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies)--the merchant banker-- work for 50p an hour? Come on, would you work for 50p an hour? [Interruption.] I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was referring to the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding. He would not work for 50p an hour.

That woman is but one of tens--perhaps hundreds--of thousands of women who are suffering not because they do not want to work or because they are indifferent to society, but because of the Government's social security regulations. It is a national scandal. Indeed, even the Government are embarrassed by some of their legislation. They try to introduce it in short debates late into the night at the end of the summer term in the hope of hiding what they are doing. They do not want the public to know what is happening. The Government are at war with many of our citizens--those who cannot defend themselves, such as single-parent families and unemployed youngsters. People in the north-west, the north, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are unemployed because of the Government's policy of disinvestment in industry. They take a hands-off attitude. They are the victims of Government policy, and when the Government have made

Column 1091

them victims, they attack them for their inability to seek employment and say that they are trying to earn from the state a living to which they are not entitled.

I am not angry just at the fact that the Government are prepared to allow that to continue. What makes me more angry is that Conservative Back Benchers who had well-heeled jobs, who were born with silver spoons in their mouths and who never had to worry about the school or the job of their choice, where they could work, at what rate of pay and about when they could change jobs, do not know about reality. They have no experience of living in a community racked by poverty. As a Member of Parliament, I have had experience of living in such a community. Conservative callousness is born not just of ignorance but out of total indifference to the plight of Britain's poor, the 6 million-plus who live in a twilight world.

The final condemnation of the Government must be the youngsters who sleep not a mile from this place in cardboard city. They get up in the morning, walk to the jobcentre in Victoria street and wait for the doors to open to get a day's work in a London hotel. They work for a few pennies and when they have finished work, sometimes at midnight and sometimes at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, they go back under their cardboard blankets. That exercise is repeated day in and day out ; that is the reality of the Government's policy towards the poor and towards poverty.

There is no denying that reality, and the Government cannot get away from it. We can all go down the road to Victoria street. If the Minister thinks that I am exaggerating, he should come with me and my hon. Friends to Victoria street jobcentre to see the displaced, the unemployed and the poor who are standing there. I invite him to come with us to cardboard city and to other cities in the country where people are living in the streets, forced out by the Government's system. Perhaps when the Minister sees what the Government have done and meets the people, he will ask the victims what they think about the Government's system. He should meet those people face to face and not hide behind statistics presented at the Dispatch Box. He should ask them if they enjoy living under a cardboard box. He could also ask them if they enjoy begging from a porter at the back door of a hotel for a few hours work washing plates just to survive. When the Minister has had that experience, perhaps the next time he comes to the Dispatch Box he will not have the same frame of mind and steely attitude towards the poor. Perhaps after that the Government will come up with a system to replace the dirty rotten system that is operating now. Perhaps they will give all our kids a real opportunity in life and all our women a genuine opportunity for a job at a wage that they can afford to take. If that happens, we can really talk about opportunity for everybody in Britain.

Until the Government do that, opportunities will not exist for hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people. Unless the Government change their attitude, we in the Opposition will continue our campaign of harassment until we get rid of them and replace them with a system and a group of people who are prepared to put in front of those who want to work an opportunity and a system that will allow them to do so.

Column 1092

7.53 pm

Mr. Scott : We shall have to endure with as much fortitude as we can muster the continued harassment of the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and his hon. Friends. The caricature that he paints of this country is totally removed from reality. Every section of the population has seen rises in living standards as a result of the successful economic policies that we have pursued for the past 10 years. We expect that to continue.

Much of the debate was taken up by hon. Members going over the principles behind the Social Security Act 1989 rather than dealing with the details of the regulations which implement those principles. I am grateful for the robust support that we have had from my hon. Friends. I shall sum up briefly and deal with just two or three matters raised in the debate. As hon. Members know, there is no opportunity to amend delegated legislation of this sort and we have to take the regulations as they stand.

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) spoke a great deal about over-payments and criticised the present system. She seemed to object to the fact that over-paid benefit may be recovered as if it were community charge arrears. The only amounts that can be recovered are those which are deemed to be recoverable. Any over-payments that arise through mistakes by the Department would not be recoverable in any case. The ability to recover over-payments and to do it by a small addition to the monthly instalments would be an easy way to repay the debt.

The hon. Lady spoke about the fear of imprisonment, but the only circumstances in which imprisonment could possibly be imposed on anybody are those in which a person had the means to pay the community charge but wilfully refused to do so. The hon. Lady also spoke about people who are fit for light work and those who sign on for credits only. There is no question of such people being challenged week in and week out about actively seeking work. She knows, because we went over it all in Committee in great detail, about the arrangements for initial advice and the subsequent updating of that advice if necessary. There is no question of our setting out in any circumstances to submit people to weekly tests. The hon. Lady well knows that the signing cycle is fortnightly and not weekly.

Mrs. Beckett : As the Minister says, we discussed these matters in Committee. He will know that in Committee we repeated over and over again that what he says is how he thinks the regulations will be interpreted and how the employment service will use them. What the Minister says is not what the law and the regulations say.

Mr. Scott : As I have said in the House more than once, we can look to the employment service to interpret the regulations in a sensible, fair and flexible manner.

As I say, the hon. Lady spoke about light work. The regulations explicitly recognise physical limitations and the type of work to which people can be guided must take account of such limitations. As the hon. Lady knows, credits-only signers attend the office only quarterly after they have been accepted for signing on, and there is no question of them being asked to discuss these matters weekly or more regularly.

I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) recognise the valuable contribution of job clubs. I am delighted that they are a success. Inevitably, in

Column 1093

such an initiative, the pattern is uneven across the country. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman's experience is typical of the experience of job clubs elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Derby, South asked whether participation in a job club would be taken as evidence of someone actively seeking work. In essence, of itself it might not, but I think that it would be a very important piece of evidence to be considered about the attitude of mind of the person concerned. If the person was also taking other steps, it would certainly add up to that. I can think of few better things than an unemployed person wanting to get back into employment could do than to join a job club and avail himself of its facilities.

Some other matters were raised during the debate, but I do not want to weary the House by responding to all of them, because I think that the House is anxious to vote on the regulations. They implement the admirable principles which underline important sections of the Social Security Act. In a year or two, when Opposition Members look back at the speeches that they have made today, they will realise just how wrong they were.

Question put and agreed to .

Resolved ,

That the draft Community Charge Benefits (General) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved. Resolved ,

That the draft Income Support (General) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st July, be approved.-- [Mr. Scott.]

Motion made and Question put :--

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.]

The House divided : Ayes 193, Noes 139.

Division No. 323] [7.59 pm


Alexander, Richard

Alison, Rt Hon Michael

Allason, Rupert

Amess, David

Amos, Alan

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)

Ashby, David

Atkins, Robert

Atkinson, David

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)

Baldry, Tony

Batiste, Spencer

Beaumont-Dark, Anthony

Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)

Benyon, W.

Bevan, David Gilroy

Blackburn, Dr John G.

Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)

Bowis, John

Brandon-Bravo, Martin

Brazier, Julian

Bright, Graham

Brooke, Rt Hon Peter

Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)

Buck, Sir Antony

Budgen, Nicholas

Burns, Simon

Butler, Chris

Butterfill, John

Carlisle, John, (Luton N)

Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)

Carrington, Matthew

Carttiss, Michael

Cash, William

Chapman, Sydney

Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)

Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)

Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)

Couchman, James

Cran, James

Currie, Mrs Edwina

Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)

Davis, David (Boothferry)

Day, Stephen

Dorrell, Stephen

Dover, Den

Durant, Tony

Dykes, Hugh

Eggar, Tim

Emery, Sir Peter

Fallon, Michael

Farr, Sir John

Fenner, Dame Peggy

Fookes, Dame Janet

Forman, Nigel

Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)

Forth, Eric

Franks, Cecil

Freeman, Roger

French, Douglas

Garel-Jones, Tristan

Gill, Christopher

Glyn, Dr Alan

Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles

Gorman, Mrs Teresa

Gow, Ian

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Next Section

  Home Page