Previous Section Home Page

Column 71

from benefit. However, if Britain's welfare system has been a gold-mine for those who wish to take unfair advantage of it-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order.

Mr. Sykes: --it is and will remain a blessed--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should pay a little more attention to the occupant of the Chair.

I recognise that hon. Members have not had the chance to use their voices much during the recess, but I should be grateful if they would reserve their comments until they have the Floor.

Mr. Sykes: I assure Opposition Members that I shall listen to them in silence.

If Britain's welfare state has been a gold-mine for those who wish to take unfair advantage of it, it is and will remain a blessed relief to those who genuinely need it. Elements in the Bill will be especially welcome to such people.

Near my home in Scarborough lives a hard-working family, all of whom are in work except the head of the household, who is 50 years old and desperate for a job. The tragedy is that he is almost always told, "Sorry, we are looking for someone younger." In my business experience I find older people reliable, skilled and experienced--I can even extend that description to the hon. Member for Workington. My neighbour and many like him, who constitute the long-term unemployed, will be helped back to work by provisions and incentives such as a national insurance holiday for companies that give a job to someone who has been on the unemployed list for more than two years. In Scarborough and Whitby we have our own powerhouse of a micro-economy. A wide range of dynamic companies have established themselves on the coast, providing jobs and prosperity. That is what counts. However, when most of my parliamentary colleagues think of Scarborough and Whitby they think of it as a nice place to go on holiday or to retire to. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Workington is welcome any time.

Many part-time jobs have been created in tourism and nursing, which suits many of the families living in Scarborough and Whitby, who value the flexibility afforded by part-time work. There is especially good news in the parts of the Bill that help people who wish to engage in part-time work. A claimant's partner will be able to work for up to 24 hours per week without the claimant being disqualified from benefit. The measures that encourage people to leave benefit by taking part-time work as a prelude to full-time work will also prove helpful, as will many other measures in the Bill.

It is almost three years since I became a Member of Parliament--

Mr. Janner: Too long.

Mr. Sykes: It may be too long for the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I expect to be here for an awful lot longer than he will be. It is almost three years since I became a Member of Parliament, and in that time the Government have taken many important steps forward--the Trade Union Reform

Column 72

and Employment Rights Act 1993, the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, and now the Jobseekers Bill. All are entirely consistent with the Government's overall strategy of sustaining and building on our achievements during the 1980s.

British business is now well equipped, with startling advantages in its ability to compete with the world. Opposition Members must not forget that it is the rest of the world with which we are competing. That is nothing to do with post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory or symbiotic relationships of one kind or another; it is straightforward common sense.

The closing years of the 20th century will magnify continental Europe's failure to create the right conditions for jobs. Its minimum wages, massive welfare systems, extreme employment protection laws, parental leave directives, works councils, directives on part-time work, working hours restrictions and social chapter are all profoundly misguided. Curse Europe's efforts to impose such conditions on the English.

I finish by reminding the House about my friends who run subsidiary companies in other European countries. One told me before Christmas that he could not afford to take on anyone else in Europe because of the cost of employing people. But I have saved the best example until last. A large company in my constituency has decided not to build a new factory in France, because of the cost of employing people there, and instead has doubled its production in Scarborough. Those are the hard facts, and in the end it is the hard facts that count. That is why hon. Members should vote for the Bill.

6.44 pm

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale): I welcome one or two features of the Bill, and I shall come to those later. I had been hoping for some positive measures, as had unemployed people throughout the country and many other hon. Members, but unfortunately the Bill is a sad disappointment to us all.

I had thought that the Secretary of State for Social Security had had a change of heart, especially when I read the speech that he delivered in Northern Ireland a few weeks ago, in which he seemed to take into account the problems of the low-paid and the unemployed, but after his speech yesterday I realised that that was a fallacy and that there had been no change of heart. I did not even expect a change of heart from the Secretary of State for Employment. There is no denying that new legislation is needed, but the Bill represents a missed opportunity. The benefits system is too complex and it has too many poverty traps. The Secretary of State for Social Security admitted in the White Paper that the overwhelming majority of people make every effort to find work at the earliest opportunity, so why are these draconian measures needed? The Bill's aim was supposed to be to get people back to work; instead, it will do nothing but save the Treasury money.

Let us look at some of the specifics--for instance, the measures affecting 18 to 25-year-olds, who now get less income support than anyone else. I have never thought that that was fair, but instead of taking the opportunity to change it the Government have extended the disadvantage. When the jobseeker's allowance is introduced people under 25 who have paid national insurance contributions will still get less--£9.55 less, to

Column 73

be precise--than everyone else. How are young people supposed to manage on less than anyone else? Do food, clothes and rent cost them less? Of course not; the proposal is totally unfair.

Cutting entitlement to the contributory benefit that is now called unemployment benefit from 12 months to six months will make thousands of people with savings ineligible for benefit. Liberal Democrats say that we will reverse that, and I should like to hear a similar guarantee from the Labour party. People who oppose the Government cutting the time from 12 months to six months should say what they would do if they ever took office.

I asked the Secretary of State for Employment how much it would cost to implement the jobseeker's agreement, and I received a written answer saying that the subject was still under consideration. I now ask the right hon. Gentleman, or whichever of his colleagues is to reply, to give me an answer to that question. We need to know. I know that the jobseeker's agreement is an extension of restart, but so much more weight will be put on the interviews. How much will it cost to train the interviewers? At present many people who go for restart interviews are humiliated and demoralised, and we do not want that to happen with the jobseeker's agreement. The Secretary of State said that the subject was still under consideration, but we need to know those figures now.

If the Secretary of State for Social Security thinks that people are really trying to find work, and the Secretary of State for Employment agrees with him, why is the Bill necessary? Why not concentrate on the long-term unemployed, and on providing proper training packages for people?

Will the training necessary for the jobseeker's agreement to work be available? For example, if an unemployed person gives the Government the guarantee that he or she will seek work, and the interviewer says that the person needs training to find a job, will the Government commit themselves to providing the training for which a need has been identified? I doubt it very much, because the training budget has been reduced from £1 billion to £782 million in the past five years. I should like some reassurance from the Secretary of State that training will be available if an unemployed person is identified as needing it.

At present, a person is allowed to study for 21 hours a week before losing benefit. The Bill provided a great opportunity for the Government to change that, and to make sure that people could study for longer, but the limit will remain at 21 hours. The Government talk about education and training. If they really believed in a properly educated and trained work force, they would ensure that people could study for longer than 21 hours.

Let us look at the problems that disabled people will face. With the new medical test for incapacity benefit, a lot of people will lose that benefit.

Mr. Barry Porter: I was much impressed by the hon. Lady's argument about extending the hours of study before a person loses benefit, but how much longer than 21 hours should the limit be? She cannot just leave it there.

Ms Lynne: It is obvious that someone who is studying will have better job opportunities after he has qualifications, so it is short- sighted to restrict the study

Column 74

time to 21 hours. I will not say what the limit should be for everybody, but a person who is studying should be available for work at the same time. If a job opportunity comes up and he takes that job, he will of course cease his studies. The 21-hour limit is not feasible.

If disabled people lose entitlement to incapacity benefit, they may try to get the jobseeker's allowance. A jobseeker's agreement will then be drawn up, but what will happen if that disabled person cannot meet its conditions? Will he then be denied the jobseeker's allowance? I should like an assurance that disabled people will not fall through the gap between two benefits.

There are some good points in the Bill. The back-to-work bonus is welcome as far as it goes--it does not go far enough--as it gives people an incentive to return to work. I also welcome the jobseeker's grant and the year's national insurance holiday for an employer who takes on someone who has been unemployed for two years.

I also welcome workstart, which the hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) mentioned. I do not see why the Government cannot extend the pilot schemes across the country. Indeed, they could go further and introduce a proper benefits transfer scheme under which benefits could be given to employers who take on someone who has been unemployed for more than two years. That would get people back into work, and I am sure that that is what all hon. Members want. We need comprehensive reform, not the piecemeal approach of the Bill. Instead of merging unemployment benefit and income support, the Government should merge family credit and income support. That would get people out of the poverty trap and create a new low-income benefit so that people would not lose benefit pound-for-pound when they get back into work. There would be a real incentive, and it would end the situation where the partner of a person who loses his job is sometimes better off going on the dole.

The Bill is punitive. It proposes some good measures, but the vast majority of it is punitive. It will not achieve the real objective, which is supposed to be to get people back to work. I am desperately afraid that some of the people who cannot meet their commitments under the jobseeker's agreement for whatever reason may be forced into starvation--I know that that sounds dramatic--and some could be forced into crime.

6.53 pm

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, in his address in Liverpool cathedral last week, said how struck he had been--particularly since he went to the Department of Employment--by the need for public debate on ethical issues. I welcome that invitation. My right hon. Friend is a person of high seriousness, and he is regarded by many people as the standard-bearer for the Conservativism of the future. I hold him personally in the warmest regard, but I differ profoundly from him as to the course that the Conservative party should take. The Bill crystallises our differences.

Why have my right hon. Friends--I am not sure how many have been closely involved--introduced the Bill? They have not done it to achieve substantial savings in public expenditure. I do not doubt that the preliminaries to the Bill go back to 1993, when my right hon. Friend

Column 75

was Chief Secretary. There was at that time a fiscal crisis, and no doubt my right hon. Friend took the view that a fundamental review of unemployment benefit and income support might yield substantial savings.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security rightly insists that we attend to a problem that we must address on both sides of the Chamber. That is that the growth of social security expenditure is at least as fast as the growth of the economy. I would put it to my right hon. Friends that the policies to create more jobs that they are pursuing are very much the best way to tackle the problem.

Meantime, we have found that any savings that the fundamental review may yield from benefits will not be large. The Bill states that savings on benefit costs of £410 million in 1996-1998 will be offset by an increase in administrative expenditure of £280 million in three years.

Much as I welcome the closer integration of the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service in their practical operations, I do not think that that is the reason why the legislation has been brought in. I doubt whether primary legislation is needed to achieve much that can usefully be done, and the purpose of the Bill goes way beyond making the services more user- friendly.

My right hon. Friend rightly insists that a condition for the receipt of benefit should be that claimants must be available for work and be actively seeking work. That has not been in dispute, as he suggested, since the time of Beveridge.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): It might be as well--as Beveridge is so misquoted in the House--to recall that, when the actively seeking work principle was dropped in the 1930s, he said:

"May it never rise again from its dishonoured grave".

Mr. Howarth: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but--as my right hon. Friend explained earlier--Beveridge certainly expected the exercise of active personal responsibility on the part of unemployed people.

The White Paper acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of people who become unemployed make every effort to find work at the earliest opportunity. That is the positive recognition which ought to animate policy. If we take care of the jobs, jobseekers will in the main take care of themselves.

The White Paper claims that the policy is designed to improve incentives, but I find that the Government's policy is contradictory in that regard. I welcome the concessions on earnings and hours of work on the part of partners before loss of benefit, the relaxation of the rules for trying a new job experimentally, the bonus to encourage people to progress through part-time work to full-time work, the improved transition to in-work benefits and the jobfinder's grant. Those measures complement other sensible initiatives on child care and nursery education. I also welcome the alteration of the rules governing employers' national insurance contributions for those who employ low-paid workers and people who have been unemployed for two years.

Column 76

The Bill, however, moves in the opposite direction in an important sense. It serves to intensify the disincentive for work and saving by switching people on to means-tested benefits and into the poverty trap six months earlier than in the existing system. That seems perverse.

The true explanation of why the Government are introducing the legislation is to be found in paragraph 2.7 of the White Paper. It says:

"Changes are needed to make clear to unemployed people the link between their receipt of benefit and the obligations that places upon them."

The purpose of the Bill is to establish an emphasis. It is to assert a set of values and a view of human nature, society and the role of the state.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was candid in a carefully considered speech to the Conservative political centre in October 1993 when he sought to rehabilitate stigma from its decline at the hands of political correctness and argued that we needed in our public philosophy a renewed emphasis on right and wrong and on personal responsibility. In an address to Church at Work a month earlier, he said:

"too broad a benefit system can undermine the morale of those who receive help . . . By its choices, a government demonstrates its philosophy and shows its moral fibre."

The argument about the effect of poor relief on the morale of recipients goes back at least as far as the debates on the 1834 Poor Law. On that occasion it was not the Tories but the Benthamites who argued that dependence on poor relief should be a "less eligible" and desirable condition and who required that paupers should be distinguished from the rest of society. It was Disraeli, the young future leader of the Tory party, who said of the new 1834 Poor Law that it was

"both a moral crime and a political blunder."

Decisions on welfare are--or ought to be--among the most difficult that Governments have to take. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State observes from time to time, they involve issues of moral hazard. I put it to him that they do so not only for the poor but for the powerful and affluent. If Ministers are sometimes uncertain what to do--in all humility, how can they not be?--they should take a risk in the direction of generosity. It may be argued that that way lies fiscal perdition, but I would say that to be generous in this respect is a proper use of our money, which Ministers raise in taxes and hold in trust on behalf of us all. It is perfectly proper and also prudent to do so. We need to consider carefully whether targeting, taken over the life cycle, will save public expenditure.

The circumstances in which my right hon. Friends make those decisions are of giddying economic and cultural change. Employers are stripping out surplus labour and skills and keeping only the core. They call in outworkers as and when they need them. The cost of supporting spare capacity increasingly falls on households instead of shareholders. Those changes are, no doubt, exhilarating for the strong and ambitious. They are frightening for the less capable and the less fortunate.

Of course, my right hon. Friends are right to embrace change. There is no prosperous future for us in refusing to face the future. So the Government drive forward. Sometimes, even to their most affectionate supporters, they are reminiscent of Bakunin's chariot of revolution, rolling and gnashing its teeth as it rolls. My right hon. Friends vigorously dismantle the old and throw out historical lumber. Deregulation, flexibility, free trade,

Column 77

contracting out, opting out and targeting are our nostrums. Radicalism is our watchword. In their eagerness for change, I trust that my right hon. Friends will not forget that it is the responsibility of Government to ensure that the victims of change are not destitute.

In Liverpool, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took to task some churchmen who had been, he suggested, seduced from individualism into collectivism. I observe to my right hon. Friend that the Church has always usefully reminded us that we are members one of another.

The dismantling of an old order is not the creation of a new one. As the old dies, the new struggles to be born. As Gramsci noted, in the interval morbid symptoms appear. They include systemically higher unemployment, and casualisation and insecurity extended across society. People are rendered derelict because their obsolete skills, or their lack of skills, mean that they cannot find employment. Inequality widens and the poorest households become poorer. We are elected to Parliament and we serve in government with a responsibility to take care of our society. I do not believe that market forces are an invisible hand that of itself will create a worthwhile pattern out of all this. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher as well as an economist and he insisted on the need for what he called sympathy.

The Bill widens inequality and deepens impoverishment. It would reduce benefits paid to people unemployed over a year by between 20 and 70 per cent. The changes that it seeks to introduce in the benefits system would be prejudicial to families. That seems an aberration for the Conservative party. The changes would be particularly prejudicial to young families. Under the present system of income support, if both partners are below the age of 25, they receive a lower rate of benefit. Under the new arrangements, that will also apply to recipients of contributory benefit. I have never understood the rationale behind the lower rate of income support for 24-year-olds. If people are 24, their household costs are not thereby less than if they are 25. We need to think carefully about the effect of the changes on children. Poverty is most concentrated in families with children.

I have to say with sadness that I find the Government's policy too harsh. I also find it improvident. The traumas of poverty carry dire long-term consequences both for society and for the Exchequer. Those who are stigmatised and alienated from our society into the workhouse, so to speak- -one might say that workwise is our modern workhouse--feel less sense of obligation to society. It is as well that we should consider at least the correlation between lawlessness and unemployment.

Mr. Barry Porter: I have followed my hon. Friend's philosophical discourse with some interest. It has been intellectually stimulating. He seems to suggest that we should show more generosity. We all agree with that. Is not the dilemma that he has to face, and everyone regardless of party has to face, that by being generous and increasing the unit costs of labour, our industry would become less competitive than it otherwise would be and could not sell its products? That would cause more people to come out of work. That generosity would then increase and keep the circle going. There is the dilemma.

Column 78

While any Tory of the old school--I hope that I can include both of us in that--would like to be as generous as possible, there is a practical difficulty. Unless someone can square that circle, there is no real or obvious answer.

Mr. Howarth: I was talking about the benefits system, not the minimum wage, although I would willingly discuss that with my hon. Friend. I suggest that if he has a moment, he should go to the Library and look at the research on that subject by Professor Card of Princeton university.

I wonder how people on income support can manage decently to feed their families and heat their homes. Under the proposals in the Bill, we would require some people on benefit to live in yet deeper penury. As matters stand already, if people, in the opinion of an Employment Service official, leave a job voluntarily or for reasons of misconduct, they are liable to a deduction from their income support of up to 40 per cent. That may last for up to 26 weeks.

For single people under 25, income support after a 40 per cent. deduction is £21.70 a week. I ask my hon. Friends to imagine what it must be like to try to live on £21.70 a week. In Liverpool, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, towards the end of his address, that among other things,

"Britain stands for . . . the freedom of the citizen . . . to offer his labour and to withdraw it."

I wonder whether he overlooked that feature of the benefits system when he used those words.

As it is, we are increasing the use of sanctions. Between April and September 1994, 40,000 people suffered sanctions of up to 40 per cent. for refusing to attend or complete a compulsory programme. That was an increase of two and a half times over the previous year. Disqualifications on the ground that claimants are not actively seeking work have trebled since 1990 -91.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I am concerned about older claimants. It is a remarkable fact that 59 per cent. of people now aged between 55 and 64 are not in employment. That compares with 8 per cent. in 1977 and it is stark evidence of the insecurity and, in all too many cases, the impoverishment caused by technological change and the impact of a global, competitive labour market.

Under our present rules, which will be perpetuated through this measure, people under the age of 60 will have to seek work actively if they are to receive benefit. As my right hon. Friend told me when I put this consideration to him on a previous occasion, we must not give up on them, but I fear that, for that age group, the requirement actively to seek work will be a humiliating ritual associated with benefit dependency, rather than a functional feature of the labour market. It is as if one of us were to go into the pulpit and tell those older people, "Seek, even though ye shall not find." We are introducing a further severity. If a single person, who is in good health, declines to conform with a jobseeker's direction, and if he does not agree with or accept the say-so of an Employment Service official, as my right hon. Friend explained when he opened the debate, he or she will not receive benefit for a fortnight and will have no means of subsistence. Paragraph 4.40 of the White Paper makes it clear that such people would not

Column 79

even be eligible for a loan from the social fund. I was interested in that aspect in relation to what my right hon. Friend said in Liverpool:

"We must face the new moral and spiritual challenge of living in less adverse times".

I am not sure that that particular circumstance was what he had in mind.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) rightly drew attention to the possible predicament of about 200,000 people who are eligible for invalidity benefit, for whom there is no work, and whose disability may not be severe enough to qualify them for the new, more stringently assessed, incapacity benefit, but who may find themselves unable to satisfy the availability and actively seeking work requirements to qualify for the jobseeker's allowance.

On a previous occasion, my right hon. Friend observed that it is the responsibility of the state to provide a comprehensive safety net for the needy. I very much hope that the interests of that group will be carefully safeguarded.

I am dismayed by the authoritarianism of the Bill. I am perplexed that it should be so. In Liverpool, my right hon. Friend said: "The first duty of government . . . is to create conditions in which people can become what they want to become".

This legislation is not consistent with that attractive spirit. Last summer, about three times the number of people were required to go on compulsory courses than on vocational training after restart interviews. The Government's plans suggest that, in replacing job plan workshops with workwise and 1-2-1, they anticipate that about twice the number of 18 to 24 -year-olds will go on compulsory courses. Perhaps that is our variant of workfare, which has its supporters among Opposition as well as Conservative Members. Enthusiasts for that system should realise that we need to be very self-aware as we explore those policies, to be sure that it is not a tendency to indulge the authoritarian personality that is tempting us forward, and that we are genuinely trying to find practical ways in which to help unemployed people.

The jobseeker's direction is the most authoritarian feature of the policy. It goes well beyond the existing official recommendation and provides that the state should be able to lay down detailed requirements of behaviour for our citizens. It provides vague, but extensive, discretionary powers for officials to require their fellow citizens to undertake activities that seem appropriate to them and to alter their personal ways and style. In Liverpool, my right hon. Friend said that

"over-zealous intervention by the state undermines

personal responsibility".

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North): Does not my hon. Friend agree that, as a society, structural, long-term unemployment is one of the problems that we face? Countries that try to tackle that problem all end up with some element of compulsion. For example, Sweden is the most liberal regime and it is no doubt one of which he might approve, but after a year it requires an unemployed

Column 80

person to take work. Most countries do so, but that is an element of what he is criticising. Surely an element of compulsion is necessary and has to be part of any scheme.

Mr. Howarth: I am not arguing against the condition about availability and actively seeking work. I have deep doubts about the wisdom of allowing the Employment Service to exercise dictatorial powers over unemployed people. I find that profoundly illiberal. In Liverpool, my right hon. Friend observed how much better the democratic state is than the authoritarian variety--certainly, it at least allows us to question the policies.

I am confused by the Government's moral position. The centrepiece of the policy is the jobseeker's agreement--an undertaking whereby the unemployed person commits himself to be available, to seek work actively and to comply with requirements stipulated in return for benefit--the jobseeker's allowance.

The Conservative party has always attached importance to contract as a principle that marshals and orders the energies of free enterprise. It is in the nature of a true agreement, however, that it is made freely and not under duress, such as the loss of benefit. The Government should also abide by their pre-existing contract. Unemployment benefit is an entitlement based on national insurance contributions, which lasts for 12 months. We are going to substitute for that the contributory jobseeker's allowance, which will be available for six months only. We are taking out the adult dependant's allowance. Similarly, we have been reducing contributory benefits for the long-term sick and disabled. Those cuts for the unemployed and for disabled people come in the wake of a 10 per cent. increase in employees' national insurance contributions.

My right hon. Friends insist that one should not have something for nothing, but nor should one have nothing for something. What is the Government's view of the contributory principle? Is it simply to be an illusion--a device for rationing benefit--or is it still to be a bargain between the Government, employers and our citizens for the provision of social insurance?

My right hon. Friends speak moralistically about the "job-shy", but if they rewrite the national insurance contract in their favour, they will undermine their moral claim on the unemployed.

None of us condones abuse of the benefits system. Nor should we condone abuse of the sanctions system. I commend my hon. Friends to read the latest annual report of the chief adjudication officer. He found that 39 per cent. of Employment Service adjudications in 1993-94 were unsatisfactory and that in no less than 92 per cent. of appeal decisions a claimant disputed the suspension of benefit. He therefore recommended that there should be an

"investigation of the reasons for the continuing poor standard." That report should be read in conjunction with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux report issued in October, "Benefit of the Doubt", which describes how, in 1993-94, 180,000 people whose benefit was suspended erroneously had to subsist on reduced income support payments or even none. Many had to do so for months on end while waiting for their case to be heard.

Column 81

Those failures in administration and justice are the real scandal. They dwarf the scandal of abuse by fraudulent claimants of benefit. I worry that present policy may make the position worse. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just left the Chamber because, in response to the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), he said that the Employment Service had not been incentivised to disqualify more claimants. The Employment Service agreement seems to show that a target is set of 135,000 challenges to claimants on the basis that they are not making themselves available for or actively seeking work. I am struck by the confidence of my right hon. Friends, therefore, in systematically encouraging the service to challenge more benefits, given the background of miscarriages of justice described by the chief adjudication officer. My right hon. Friends' confidence in the capacity of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency for wise administration is great. Clause 28 of the Jobseekers Bill establishes new offences. It says that a person is guilty of an offence if he

"refuses or neglects to answer any question or to furnish any information . . . under this Act.

Regulations under this Act may provide for contravention of, or failure to comply with, any of their provisions to be an offence. A person guilty of an offence under . . . any regulations made under this Act, shall be liable . . . to a fine".

Are the unemployed to be treated as criminals? They are our fellow human beings and should be able to count on our sympathy and support. What will it do to the morale of our society to proceed in this way? We must base our policy on a belief in human worth and good will. If we do not, we shall provoke a cynicism and demoralisation that will be truly ruinous.

What will it do to the public service ethos, to create arbitrary powers, systematically encourage officials to disqualify from benefit, sanction claimants even more severely than at present and criminalise them? Why should we do that? Is it to achieve candle-end economies for the Treasury-- candle ends that might provide light and even some warmth in the households of the poor? Is it to appease the consciences of the affluent so that they can feel more comfortable, believing that those who are poor are feckless and fiddling the system? Are the poor so undeserving that they deserve this? We need to deconstruct some of the Orwellian language in the Bill, such as "jobseeker's agreement" and "motivation courses". How can we compulsorily motivate someone? I am sure that those who work in the Employment Service are decent people--some will no doubt wish to minimise the harsher effects of the policy--but observation of history and human nature suggests to me that if people in their official capacity are given the power to control and punish their fellow citizens, in less than five minutes some of them start to abuse that power. It is fatuous to suppose that there is something so redeemingly British about our officials that it will not occur here. The moral energy of Margaret Thatcher's Conservatism lay in her commitment to freedom and responsibility. The history of this Parliament is, perhaps most importantly, that of resistance to arbitrary power. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to Church at Work, he was dismissive of

"high generosity with other people's money"


Column 82

"collectivised charity".

He said:

"High taxes erode personal values."

But do low taxes enhance personal values? How much could the good Samaritan, my right hon. Friend's moral hero, achieve of himself and alone? The state is an agent and Ministers are trustees of a collective purpose on the part of us all to further certain things--a purpose that kindliness makes us share but mere individualism prevents us fulfilling. Do my right hon. Friends reject the view of Iain McLeod, in another address to the Conservative political centre, that it is the task of a Tory to heal and unify?

The labour market is changing fast. There are few fixities in our national life, but one is the British sense of fairness. My right hon. Friend, like Saint-Just, desires only to act with due rigour and promote virtue. We are not, thank goodness, a nation of puritans or of rednecks. There is no constituency in this country for a kind of country-cousin Gingrichism. Republican virtue is alien to the Tory tradition. In 1945, voters ignored heroic leadership and were mindful of what they took to be the indifference of Conservative politicians in the 1930s to poverty and social injustice. After 1945, the Conservative party learnt the lesson. That precedent contains a warning for the party to which my right hon. Friend and I both belong.

7.26 pm

Next Section

  Home Page