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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): No one would object to the measure that we are debating today if the country were in a position of full employment. But we are not in a position of full employment, so the task that we set ourselves in this debate is to try to understand the extent to which the Bill helps us to move back to a position of full employability.
Not for the first time, two Conservative Back Benchers have helped us to understand the failures of a measure before us to live up to the objective of full employability. This is not the first time that I have heard that elucidation from the hon. Member for
Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) and my hon. Friend--if I may call him that- -the Member for Norfolk, North (Sir R. Howell). They have both underlined important points which I merely wish to underscore. Above all, I want to emphasise a point made by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North about what unemployment does to people. He did not present it in a fairytale way as though there were only one type of unemployed person, but stressed the image of unemployed people who are nearly broken by the experience of unemployment and who, in a market economy, feel a lack of worth because they cannot contribute fully to the society in which they live. As he said, the picture is more complicated than that. But whatever I go on to say, we must never lose that image from our debates. All of us, especially those with industrial constituencies, see many people in our surgeries who say that they are playing the system. Although their mouths smile, their watery, wintry eyes tell a different tale about what unemployment does to them. It is extremely important to keep that image before us.
The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon asked what moral lessons we could draw from the Bill. I thought it extraordinary that a Secretary of State who had just
Column 83journeyed to Liverpool to talk from one of the most prestigious pulpits in that city should have scored a first in this House by introducing a measure concerning the unemployed. He told us that, ever since measures were first introduced here, conditions were attached to benefits. That is true, but it is only one of the issues about which we should remind ourselves at this time.
There have been many measures against unemployment, whether from Lloyd George and Churchill in the last Liberal Government, Chamberlain in the inter-war period, the coalition Government or from the Governments who followed in the post-war years. But before tonight no Minister has spoken about such a measure without relating it to the moral framework within which the Secretary of State thinks individuals should operate and the moral framework within which society operates.
It is no longer good enough to think that people outside believe that mention of incentive and the market system means that one has conducted an appraisal of moral systems and how they affect individuals and build up to affect the quality and tone of the society in which we work.
For a long time, it has seemed that the Government are brain dead when it comes to looking at the moral and physical impacts of their measures on the wider society. I shall recall just three. Millions of our constituents were taught by the poll tax that it pays to break the law. They were given individual tuition in the Thatcher seminars that one could get away with breaking the law and there were no penalties. Millions learnt that lesson, and they store it in their hearts and act on it. Before then, they were proud never to be lawbreakers. The Government pushed them into that position. Just before the Christmas recess, an answer was sneaked out about the Child Support Agency. A third of a million people in the country were told, "Well done, lads, for breaking the law and for putting your two fingers up to the Government. Well done for saying that you will not abide by what we enact as the law of this country. We are calling the troops off. The dogs are off you. Don't worry, we will not seriously pursue you for maintenance."
What sort of lesson is that for the single mums who have been deserted, or for all the fathers who protest because they think that the agency has acted arbitrarily or is asking for too much money from them? What does it mean to them to see the Government reward people who hold two fingers up to the House? The Bill tells the country that it is all right to tear up contracts, because the measures that we pass are contracts with our constituents. When we pass national insurance measures and instruments we levy taxes on people and the agreement is that when they need it, they will get benefit. Now it is being said, "Never mind about that, lads and lasses. We are tearing up that agreement because we are the Government and we can do such things." The Bill may well get its Second Reading, but what will that teach the outside world about honour or about giving one's word or a commitment?
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe): Surely the contract on national insurance is that the money which is taken under the national insurance heading goes into a fund and is used
Column 84only for specified purposes such as the provision of unemployment benefit and pensions. Can the hon. Gentleman point to one penny in that fund which has not been used for those purposes? Will he please acknowledge that the fund is used fully for those purposes and that when it is inadequate we use a Treasury supplement? Therefore, we have surely kept our side of the contract.
Mr. Field: I almost despair. The Minister is very able. Often, when that is said in the House, it is said condescendingly, but I do not mean it in that way at all. She knows perfectly well that that is a mind-boggling way of describing what we mean by legal contracts between Governments and those who are governed. We are not saying to people that should the national insurance fund fall into deficit, we may have to increase national insurance charges to meet the bill. What is on offer is the tearing up of a contract that is understood. Successive Government measures have taught people to encourage the worst side of human nature, and that has the most profound effect on our society. The Bill does that in a further way because it increases the number of people who will be dependent on means-tested benefit. The Secretary of State's answer at Question Time was revealing. I asked him how many people, who thought that they had paid contributions to cover them should they become unemployed, would be pushed on to means- tested benefit now that he is tearing up the contract. He did not know.
The reason that the Bolsheviks so hated the novel "Doctor Zhivago" was that Lara was killed by them and they were so inefficient at going about their killing that they did not even know in which death camp they had done it. The Bill will push a whole army of new people on to means-tested benefits and the Secretary of State who is responsible for the measure does not even know how many will be pushed into that form of dependency.
What means-tested benefits are doing to the moral fibre of this country is important, and it registers in the country even if perhaps it does not register as fully as it should in the House. The problem is no longer marginal. Nearly 10 million households--I am not double counting--depend on one or other of the major means-tested benefits. That is almost half the country; when their dependants are added, it means that some 25 million people, almost half the population, have their standard of living determined to some extent, if not totally, by means-tested assistance. The Bill will increase that number. When David Piachaud and I coined the phrase in the early 1970s about the poverty trap, I thought of it in a sort of passive way. I thought that people would be on benefit and would find it difficult to disentangle themselves. I now realise how simple that was and how much more complicated life is. Over the period since then, there has been a change in attitudes in respect of honesty, and it extends from the boardroom to the benefit office. Large numbers of people are denied the possibility of full-time, reasonably paid jobs and are offered only part- time jobs. They continue to draw benefits and work on the side. The evil of means-tested assistance is that it is spreading to those other groups who have learned under this Government how to break the law and that it pays to do so. Many people know that the way to survive is to do that.
Column 85The hon. Member for Norfolk, North was right when he said that some people were abusing the benefit system and that we should take specific measures against them. My charge against this measure, as against practically all the Government's measures in this field, is that it roughs up all claimants and assumes that they all cheat the taxpayer. The Government lack the courage or the willpower to target measures at those constituents with whom I strongly disagree because they commit fraud against fellow taxpayers. But the Government's measures do not do that.
There are general charges to be made against the Government, but there are also important lessons to be learned for the Opposition from this and similar debates. My hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) was right to say that, at this stage of a Parliament, we would not give details about what would be in our election manifesto. But the lesson that I draw from a stewardship of Tory Governments that has pushed half the population on to means-tested welfare is that disengagement from that will take a long time. We must first be clear about how it is to be done, and it will then take many Parliaments to achieve it.
None the less, it is crucial that Ministers in a Labour Government do not give the sort of response that we have heard from Ministers in this Government, who have always adopted the "short fix" approach. They tend to say, "It looks good now; never mind the long-term consequences." That has led to the society that we now have. There has been a dispute across the Floor of the House about what Beveridge did or did not say. Beveridge said that a back-up training or work scheme could not be administered at a time of mass unemployment; in those circumstances, control collapsed. Given that --despite what the Government have done to the figures--mass unemployment still exists, it seems proper to give those of our constituents who want to work the right to a job guarantee. There is no need for compulsion: so many people want jobs that we shall never have to compel them to take what job opportunities exist. If we seriously believe what Conservative Members have said today--if we hate unemployment because it destroys self-worth--we shall judge the Bill a wretched little measure that will do little to deal with fraud, which is in any event a minor problem compared with mass unemployment, and even less to give our constituents who have waited long and hard in the queues for work a chance to add positively to a society to which, unbelievably, many are still proud to belong. 7.41 pm
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), whose views I usually respect. I must, however, disagree with one thing that he has said this evening. He seemed to be saying that it was not possible for Governments to change, clarify or refine policies in mid-term; that could be done only if the change was set out in a manifesto and received the mandate of the population at a general election. Surely Governments must reserve the right during a five-year term to take the steps that they consider necessary to improve systems, focus resources and so forth.
Column 86Unusually, hon. Members have said a good deal about "morality" today. I believe that the nation's moral framework still stems from our Christian faith; I am proud to consider myself a committed Christian and I should be delighted to make a few comments about morality.
One reason why the nation's moral fabric is now in disarray is the diminution of our Christian faith since the second world war. If we are to establish a more coherent moral framework, we need to deal with the root problem--the issue of faith. Morality, however, is not just about being nice to people or spending more on welfare; it is not necessarily about acting collectively. There is another side to the morality coin. Morality is also about personal responsibility, about accounting for our lives, about commitment to family and other responsibilities and about not running away from those
responsibilities. It is about taking responsibility for our own lives, and not living entirely as we wish.
Of course there is a societal element in morality, but it cannot be discussed only in those terms; individual responsibility is a huge factor. Although I do not agree with every word of it, I find just as much moral content in the contract that is now being discussed in America as in the report on social justice.
All sorts of people become unemployed. Some are genuine, good and decent people who are desperate to find work and ashamed that they do not have it; they hate the idea that they may have to take money from the state. We all know people in that category. But there are also people who are lazy--who prefer idleness to industry. Beveridge, of whom we have heard much this evening, recognised that. There are also those who are dishonest and will skilfully exploit any benefit system to their advantage: even as we speak, many hundreds--if not thousands--are involving themselves in the black economy while drawing benefit. Ideally, wise people would assess each individual on the basis of his needs and motivation and decide his benefit accordingly, but that is not possible in 1995. Hundreds of thousands rely on benefits and we therefore need a system to assess all those people, to draw lines in the sand and to create thresholds if the benefits are to be delivered.
Apparently, some Conservative Members believe that all those who are out of work are layabouts. That is far from the truth. Many of my relatives and long-standing friends in Plymouth have been out of work at times, and have been desperately keen to find work. In the 1980s we heard much from Conservative Members about opportunity and choice, but alongside those two fine words we should place the word "encouragement". We must find ways to encourage those who want to find work and improve their lives to escape and stand on their own two feet.
Ms Eagle: Many would agree with the hon. Gentleman's view that people should be encouraged to take jobs; indeed, I do not think that anyone would disagree. But how does he think that draconian benefit sanctions, which the Bill increases, encourage people to do anything? Do they not simply humiliate people?
Mr. Streeter: The hon. Lady does not address the real point. We need to approach the benefit system with both carrot and stick. The jobseeker's allowance is an incentive: it gives people a clear sense of what is expected from them and a clearly defined route through the benefit system, and tells them what they can and cannot achieve.
Column 87It gives them the encouragement of which I speak. However, we also need an arrangement that cracks down on those who wish to defraud the system. Opposition Members may think that Conservative Members believe that all unemployed people are layabouts, but we do not. Does the hon. Lady believe that all those people are good, honest and decent, and that they lie awake at night saluting the Union Jack and believing in the common good?
Mr. Streeter: So far this evening, I have not heard any Opposition Member--with the possible exception of the hon. Member for Birkenhead-- suggest that there are people who defraud and exploit the benefit system, and have no intention of finding work. We must have a system to deal with those people. I wish that it were otherwise, but we live in the real world. We need systems that include targets, incentives and thresholds, and I believe that the Bill is a step in the right direction.
First, the Bill seeks to target help on those who really need it. There are people out there in the real world for whom we should do much more than we do. However, there are people for whom we do too much and who lean on the state when they should be standing on their own two feet. [Interruption.] Yes, both sorts of people are out there. Opposition Members agree that there are people for whom we should do more, but as soon as Conservative Members suggest that there are people--perhaps only two-- who lean on the state when they should stand on their own two feet, Opposition Members say, "Oh, no. That is not acceptable as a thesis." One must see both sides of the coin to discuss this issue properly. That is what the Bill seeks to do--to target and to focus.
The Bill does not, of course, solve all the problems of targeting, but it is a step in the right direction. It is good that each claimant, who after all receives money from everyone else in the nation, should enter into a bargain with the taxpayer and should clearly understand what is required of him or her. Earlier, much mockery was made of the fact that people would have to sign an agreement. It is important, however, that they should have to sign up for a package of measures and rights. It means that they are personally engaged in the process, as they should be.
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield): A constituent of mine is 23 years of age, has worked for the past seven years and has paid class I national insurance contributions. He has recently been made redundant. In an agreement with the Government, he made those contributions on the basis that, if he were made redundant, he would receive a level of benefit for 12 months. He now finds that he will receive that benefit not for 12 months but for six months and that, because he is under 25, the benefit will be further reduced, despite family and other commitments. Is not that a moral breach of an agreement with an individual who has made those contributions since he left school and who, through no fault of his own, has been made redundant in the past few weeks?
Mr. Streeter: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me and all hon. Members in hoping that, as unemployment continues to fall, his constituent will find a job. Two thirds of unemployed people find jobs within
Column 88the first six months of unemployment. We all know that the contributory scheme is not an investment programme. Through that scheme, we pay today for other people. We do not save for ourselves and for the future.
The second reason why I support the jobseeker's allowance involves the issue of simplicity. It is important to make the benefit system as simple as possible. I welcome the fact that we are merging income support with unemployment benefit and that we have one system, with, I hope, one centre dealing with benefit claims in most cases. That is far better than traipsing from one location to another and filling in other sets of forms. It is important to simplify the benefit system. Thirdly, I welcome the measure because it gives increased accountability. The provisions state:
"As under the existing scheme, in order to receive jobseeker's allowance, benefit claimants will have to be available for, and actively seeking, work. The test will be extended to ensure that people who take steps deliberately which undermine their prospects of finding work will be penalised."
I wish that there were not people who took steps deliberately to exclude themselves from work, but all hon. Members know that those people exist. We must make them more accountable to the system. I also welcome the back-to- work bonus, which is part of this important package of measures. I believe in the concept of stepping stones and of helping people out of unemployment and full-scale benefit dependency and into part-time work to give them a sense of self-esteem. We should also help them go from part-time work to full-time work if that is what they seek. We must take one step at a time. The jobseeker's allowance will help that process.
A young lady works for my wife and me at our home just outside Plymouth. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) will laugh and scoff because that young lady helps my wife with the horses that she owns and enjoys. I am sure that Opposition Members will not accept that it is right and decent for anyone to own horses. In their view, that is a pursuit of the aristocracy.
The young lady, a single parent, was unemployed for several years. She put a card in a local shop asking if anyone would employ her to work with horses. She was desperate to return to such employment. The months went past and no one employed her. My wife saw the card, made contact, had an interview and took her on 12 months ago on a small part-time basis. That small part-time job, however, has developed into a larger part-time job, which will, I hope, one day be a full-time job. It has helped the young lady to get back on her feet and to buy more for her children this Christmas. The benefit system, including family credit, has helped to support that family. We need that sort of system. It works in practice. Opposition Members may scoff at part-time work, but it is an important way back into work and an important stepping stone.
Of course there are people who want only a part-time job. I understand that 85 per cent. of people in part-time work want to work only part-time. Why? Perhaps it suits their family circumstances. Perhaps they feel that they want to spend some part of the day with their young pre-school children. Part-time work is important. How foolish it is for Opposition Members to wish to load burdens onto employers to ensure--it seems almost their wish-- that they will cease to employ as many part-time people. How foolish it is to load on employers of such
Column 89workers all the employment rights that normally apply to full-time workers. What will be the result of that? Only a reduction in the number of part-time jobs available.
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise the non-sequitur of which the Government are constantly and reprehensibly guilty--the fact that many people want part-time work does not imply that they do not want full-time work? For them, part-time work is no good.
Mr. Streeter: The hon. Gentleman will join me again in rejoicing over the fact that employment is falling so rapidly. Both full-time and part-time jobs are being created. I wish Opposition Members would stop criticising part-time jobs. As I said earlier, they are an important stepping stone into full-time work for people who want it. Some people may want part-time jobs perhaps as a second job for the household or to help them support their family.
The arguments on the minimum wage sound compassionate and excellent in theory. I have no doubt, however, that to impose a minimum wage of £4 a week on a guest house owner in, for example, Newquay for his receptionists, chamber maids and other employees--
Mr. Streeter: £4 a week is what some Opposition Members deserve. Imposing a minimum wage of £4 an hour can have only one result: employers will take on fewer employees. The idea of a minimum wage sounds excellent and compassionate in theory, but in reality it is cruel and callous.
Earlier in the debate, in an exchange between the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and myself, I expressed the view that Opposition Members did not know what it was like to be employers and did not understand how the employment system worked. She says that she has employed people. I am grateful that she acknowledges that fact. I ask her to answer this question. Has she ever had to put her house up as collateral on a business loan? Has she ever lain awake at night worrying about how she will pay the wages that week for her part-time and full-time employees? Has she ever woken up at 5 o'clock in the morning in a cold sweat, worried about where the next order will come from? Until she can answer yes to those questions, she is not qualified to talk about what small businesses, companies and businesses go through in employing people.
The hon. Member for Wallasey scoffed at the fact that the national insurance contribution holiday for long-term unemployed people is only £6 a week. For many small businesses, £6 a week per employee is a significant sum and could mean the difference between taking a person on or not taking him on. Until she has experienced the workplace and been an employer in that business sense, she will have no understanding of that matter.
The Bill has my support. It is an important step in the right direction, but the most important thing that we can do for unemployed people is to create real jobs for them. These measures can be of benefit only within a dynamic economic framework and where there is economic growth. Therefore, is not it good news that we live at a time when there is sustainable economic growth with low inflation and low interest rates and when all the businesses
Column 90that I visit regularly in my constituency are talking about growth, growing order books, increasing exports and taking on new staff? The most important thing that any Government can do for their citizens is to provide the economic framework in which jobs are created so that people can find remunerative work which enables them to provide for themselves and their family and to stand on their own two feet. That is the framework in which we are now living. The jobseeker's allowance is worthy of our support. It is a further step towards targeting help to those who really need it and I hope that the House will support it.
Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham): We have heard the Secretary of State for Employment claim that the Jobseekers Bill is about more jobs, benefit reform and better services for the unemployed. In reality, it is about the opposite of all those things. It is about job losses, greater dependency, an absolute loss of income for many unemployed people and fewer rights for them all. Far from creating more jobs, the Jobseekers Bill will force more people, especially women, out of work. They will be the partners of unemployed people who, under the present unemployment benefit, which is not means tested, may remain in full or part-time employment for the full 12 months of the benefit. That will change with the shrinking of the
contributions-based jobseeker's allowance to six months and the loss of the adult dependency allowance and associated benefits. On the Government's own figures at least 150,000 unemployed people will be obliged to switch over to the means-tested jobseeker's allowance in its first full year of operation. Their partners will follow them into unemployment as the clawbacks on family income under the means-tested jobseeker's allowance make work financially pointless for them. The inevitable consequence of the jobseeker's allowance will be a massive switch out of jobs and into dependency. The Government proclaim the advantages of the Jobseekers Bill in terms of benefit reform and it is true that there will be some simplification of the procedures. However, what sort of benefit reform means forcing thousands of our citizens into benefit dependency and the loss or reduction of benefit for thousands more? What logic is it that penalises in particular the 18 to 24-year-olds who have paid national insurance contributions and who receive the same rate of unemployment benefit as all other age groups at present, but who will under the jobseeker's allowance find their benefit cut by 20 per cent? How can it be justified that those who have worked longest and saved the most should suffer most under the jobseeker's allowance?
Anyone who has been a conscientious, hardworking employee all his life but who experiences the catastrophe of unemployment had better beware. If one's savings and redundancy payments amount to more than £8,000--a modest amount at the end of a working life--the unemployment benefit that might be received under the current system will be reduced by half under the jobseeker's allowance. If one claims for a dependent relative, it will be cut by 70 per cent., leaving the princely benefit of £23 a week. In total, nearly one in three male claimants with working partners will lose all entitlement
Column 91to benefit at six months and nearly two out of three female claimants will lose out entirely after six months instead of 12. Already in our society there is a pervasive anxiety about the threat of unemployment. That is understandable. What family has not been touched by it to some degree? At least those in work used to be able to reassure themselves that what they had paid for by way of national insurance contributions they would, in some measure, get back. They could also feel that their contributions justified their entitlement to benefit. It was a source of self-respect for the out of work which the Government are now undermining by their shrinking of the contributions-based benefit. The new and arbitrary powers of benefit sanctions conferred on minor officials in the Employment Service compounds this loss of respect by a further loss of rights for the unemployed.
The truth is that if one is out of a job, the Jobseekers Bill means a loss of income and a loss of rights. Those two losses mirror the political purposes of the Bill. It is a device to slash public spending regardless of the social cost. It is born out of the continuing Tory conviction that the unemployed have brought it on themselves. What will happen to the £270 million saved by the Bill? Will it be used to help unemployed people? Will it be used for more or better training? The idea is laughable. We all know that it will be put into a pot for electoral bribes later.
The Jobseekers Bill is dressed up as an attack on the work-shy. Yes, authentically work-shy there may be. The White Paper says: "Experience shows . . . that a small minority seek to abuse the benefit system."
"Experience" is all very well, but who are those people and how many of them are there? The sparsity of the evidence is matched only by an excess of rhetoric such as we have heard in the Chamber tonight.
This year the Secretary of State for Employment--we all know about his vast experience in these matters--instructed the jobcentres to challenge 135,000 claimants about the genuineness of their search for jobs. He wants to take them off benefit. Last year his predecessor set the target at 69,000. Are we to understand that the number of the feckless unemployed has doubled in the past 12 months? It does not matter that every serious study of the unemployed shows that the overwhelming majority hate being out of work and are desperate for jobs. In Tory dogma, if one is unemployed, it is a personal failure and the workshy and the job hungry are all tarred with the same brush. If the Minister disagrees she should listen to the logic of my next observation.
Some of us, perhaps even the Minister, would say that if a person had been in regular employment for all or most of the two years or more before losing a job, it would create a reasonable presumption that such a person was committed to work. After all, what normal person, having worked consistently, would forfeit a regular pay packet to luxuriate on unemployment benefit of £45 or £46 a week, even for 12 months? Yet, such individuals who are out of work through no fault of their own will, under the jobseeker's allowance, pay the penalty for being unemployed by seeing the time in which they are entitled to benefit halved. Under the guise of tackling the work-shy, the Government are penalising the job hungry. The Government's message to the unemployed is that it
Column 92is their fault that they are out of work; the Government intend to take them by the scruff of the neck and rub their noses in it.
Mr. Heald: The basis of the hon. Gentleman's speech seems to be that these measures will not work, but I can recall that on previous occasions when the Government made suggestions to help the long-term unemployed back to work, the Opposition said exactly the same thing. How does he therefore explain the fact that 250,000 people have gone back to work in the past nine months?
Mr. Hill: I doubt very much that many of them were the long-term unemployed. It does not seem likely that compulsion and coercion are the way to get the long-term unemployed in particular back to work, although compulsion and coercion are the ethos of the measure that we are debating.
The Bill gives significant new powers to Employment Service officials to withhold benefit payments if claimants are judged not to be available for work or actively seeking work. In future, benefits may be stopped if claimants are deemed not to be taking steps "to present themselves acceptably to employers",
to quote the White Paper. There is enormous scope for the use and abuse of arbitrary judgment in that phrase alone.
Still more threateningly, benefits may now be stopped for up to half a year if a person is considered to have left a job without good cause. The White Paper promised that the legal concepts involved in determining "good cause" would be defined more clearly by legislation. We now know, however, that the definitions do not appear in the Bill but are to be published subsequently in the form of regulations. It appears that a great deal is to emerge in regulations although this is a matter of human and legal rights.
The proposal means that the most permissive and possibly dangerous element of personal interpretation by minor officials will not be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. It is a deeply worrying development and has been made worse--
Mr. Hill: It is a deeply worrying development which has been made worse by the additional anxiety that front-line jobcentre officials may in future be able to impose benefit sanctions without external adjudication. The fundamental importance of that safeguard is demonstrated by the fact that, in 1993, 44 per cent. of those appealing to the independent adjudication service had their benefits reinstated after they had been stopped by Employment Service staff. That safeguard is not in the Bill, but the Secretary of State for Employment reassured the House today that an independent adjudication procedure will remain in place. It is an essential concession and I invite the Secretary of State or the Minister of State to confirm that the procedure will now be inserted formally into the Bill.
Column 93Nevertheless, considerably wider powers for benefit sanctions will appear on the statute book. That is why the National Union of Civil and Public Servants, which represents many of the staff at the Benefits Agency and jobcentres, was absolutely right to warn that such staff will be seen increasingly not as the helpers but as the "policers" of the unemployed.
We can draw no conclusion other than that this measure will add to a climate of coercion and compulsion in the benefit system. It will force many people on to worthless training schemes or into low-paid, temporary or part-time jobs which will be useless for their long-term employment needs. If one asks what the jobseeker's allowance offers unemployed people, the answer is less chance of getting benefit and more chance of losing it.
The Bill will do nothing for the vast majority of unemployed people who sincerely want a job, but it will ensure that losing one's job will be a more painful experience than ever before. That is why the House should reject this mean-spirited and vindictive measure. 8.14 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): This has been a debate of considerable passion, but I was somewhat disappointed to hear the angry words of the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill). For him to describe the Bill as "mean-spirited" and "useless" strikes me as if he has overlooked the main issue, which is that the Bill will give the unemployed every possible opportunity to get back into work. It is the reverse of what the hon. Gentleman suggested.
When passions are running high, it is important to take a step back. While we care deeply about the plight of the unemployed, we do not help if we blind ourselves to reality and clear thinking. It is important to take an almost lateral view of the topic and look at it from the point of view of the unemployed person who is trying to get back into work and from that of the employer who wants to take him into his employ, whether part time or full time, or to undergo training.
I heartily welcome the Bill. Social security costs are escalating and if we do not take firm control now, whichever party happens to be in power in the next century will have a huge problem to solve and the entire community will be shouldering an unbearable cost. We should examine with a clear mind ways to ensure fair play for all. A minority must not be allowed to take taxpayers for a ride. We have a black economy, and people are in fact stealing when they claim social security while at the same time earning cash in hand. That is to be condemned.
Mr. Flynn: Has the hon. Lady read the book written by the hon. Member presently in conversation with Madam Deputy Speaker? It is called "The Age of Entitlement" and contains a chapter entitled "The Demographic Myth" in which the hon. Gentleman says that the Government have exaggerated the number of elderly people in the next century because they wish to distort policies, as they are doing now? The book was written by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts).
Lady Olga Maitland: Although I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), it does not necessarily mean that I have to concur with all his comments. I regret to say that I have not read his memorable book, but I shall.
Column 94The Bill aims not only to ensure fairness for the taxpayer, who has a responsibility to support those in need, but to encourage those who are out of work to get back into work. It aims to shift the reluctant, which is not always easy. I have talked to them. I can think of one young man who came to my surgery saying that he was a bartender. I said, "If you are not prepared to take work as a bartender, why don't you think of something else to do?" "Oh," he said, "I only want to be a bartender." More than that, he said, "I want to be a bartender only in a particular type of bar." That told me that he did not want to get back to work at all. When I pressed him on the point, he said that he was quite happy to live on a minimal amount because it came from the Government and required him to do nothing. That is unacceptable. It is absolutely right and appropriate that we should create a climate in which people who are young and able-bodied do not sit around because it suits them.
I find it rather depressing that we are now in a new climate in which people are polarised. There are those who are keen to work, who are part of the engine of this country and who are driving it along. We see that tremendous initiative and enterprise in all age groups. There is another, much smaller group--a very unattractive group--who are almost the professional unemployed. They take part in demonstrations, it does not seem to matter which. We saw them demonstrating outside Parliament against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. We now see demonstrations about animal welfare taking place on the south coast. There is a group of people in that crowd who should be asked clearly and persistently, "What are you doing to try to get back to work? Are you actively seeking a job? Are you genuinely available for work?" I think that there are some who do not fit that category.
The wider picture is that there is undoubtedly positive movement in the job market today. As has been said earlier, the number of jobless has fallen by 45,800 since October. The figure has fallen by almost half a million since December 1992. More than that, in my constituency, the unemployment figure is now down by 3 per cent. and is only just above the level of the late 1980s.
Ms Eagle: The hon. Lady has just mentioned the unemployment figures in her constituency. Does she know how many vacancies there are in her constituency in comparison with the number of people who are searching for them?
Lady Olga Maitland: I will not agree to the figure of 164 per cent., but I agree that there has been a rise in unemployment. The truth is that today, unemployment is down. More than that, I draw the attention of the House to a reply that I received from the Minister of State, Department of Employment. She tells me that the Employment Service has placed almost 2 million people in jobs in the past year, which is 16 per cent. more than in the previous year. That has to be a triumph and one on which we can build.
Column 95It is not just a matter of us getting more people back into work, although we must continue to strive to do so. We must also show considerable imagination. I congratulate the Government on having, to date, 15 different schemes and initiatives to help people back into work.
Lady Olga Maitland: I stand corrected. I understand that there are 23 different schemes, which is even better than I had expected. The schemes build on the £600 million package of work incentives which were announced last November.
I give the House a taste of the initiatives that have been put into motion. There is the travel-to-interview scheme whereby unemployed people can no longer say that they cannot go for an interview because they cannot afford the fare. That particularly applies when the interview is outside their home area.
I especially appreciate the job search seminars which offer coaching to unemployed people to help them develop their job-hunting techniques and interview skills. That is extremely important. Often people who are not very articulate do not know how to present themselves when they go out into the job market. Some of them barely have a clear idea of exactly what they can do and what they want to do. No employer will take on an applicant who turns up with a muddled approach and, perhaps, an untidy and messy appearance. If such applicants only had a bit of forethought, training and assistance, they could give a much better justification of their real skills. I have great praise for the system of job clubs all over the country. I have seen them being effective in helping very demoralised people in inner-city areas, such as Tower Hamlets and Haringey. In my constituency as well, people get tremendous moral support from coming together, talking to other people in the same plight and getting one-to-one advice and support in their job applications.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Sir R. Howell) for his work over a long period in encouraging workfare or, as it is known in this country, the workstart pilot schemes. I very much hope that one day I shall be able to visit one of the pilot schemes--I understand that all four of them are up in Norfolk--which are well worth seeing. The Secretary of State for Employment would be well advised to think carefully about how these schemes can be developed. Helping the long- term unemployed into work can only benefit everyone in society, not just the individuals concerned.
Mr. O'Hara: I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady's eulogy about efforts to put people back into work in her constituency. I happen to have some statistics here; one must put the matter into context. Unemployment in the hon. Lady's constituency has gone down by 19 per cent. in the past year, but by only 1 per cent. in the past three years. Indeed, in 1989-90, unemployment went up by 148 per cent.
Column 96juggling with statistics. For the man who has managed to get a job, that job means a tremendous amount. The truth is that the Labour party would almost die rather than admit that schemes operated by the Government are a success.
I pay tribute to another Government scheme--the jobfinder's grant--under which up to £200 is provided to an applicant for tools for his trade. I understand from my local jobcentres that that could have quite a significant effect on those who are in manual work, whether painters and decorators or carpenters, and who have felt that a lack of capital support for buying essential tools has kept them out of the job market when they could easily be back in it. We must, of course, understand the mood and morale of someone who is without a job. I have seen such people being deeply demoralised, especially those who, as has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, have worked for 20 or 25 years and who suddenly, in mid-life, are cut off in their prime. I have felt deeply when I have talked through those problems with people who have come to see me. I understand their feelings and I can feel their shock.
There is, however, another group whom we must take into account. We must teach them how to be more flexible in their approach to finding new work and how to be more imaginative. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on- Avon (Mr. Howarth) asked earlier how we could teach people initiative and enterprise. I believe that we can by raising people's confidence, self- esteem and self-worth, and by giving them the feeling that they count for something and that they are important. It is amazing how, once that framework is in their minds, they can leap over a mountain that they had not believed they could leap over. All that could be done is being done through the framework provided in the Jobseekers Bill. I find that the problems of apathy are very serious, especially among the young.
I shall digress for a moment on the subject of the young. The time has come when we should try to create a climate in which we educate the young not to start families until they know that they are on a job ladder. It is staggering to read cases, such as that recently reported in the newspapers of a young girl who had her first baby while she was aged 14, who is now aged 16 and is expecting her third child, while her partner--they are not married--is only 19. How could they possibly have thought that they were ready to support a family when there was no job on hand? They were clearly burdened with their domestic problems and it somehow escaped them that they would have a moral obligation, if they were to have a family, to ensure that they would be able to provide for their children. That is known as moral responsibility.
It would be a great help if, in bringing up young people through the education system, they were taught to understand that having children is an obligation of responsibility, which means ensuring that they accept training and, by the same token, ensure that they embark on a career and have a job structure before they start with the expenses of having children. Indeed, it denies children security if their parents willy-nilly bring them into the world without any thought or planning.
It is very important to recognise those people who have been caught in the benefit trap, who want to get out and want to get back to work. The Bill will do just that. The Bill especially delights me--it is a relief--because