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Column 366million will be split up. I greatly fear that they will make do with the present number of disability employment advisers in order to save money.
We all know that people are falling through the net at present and it would be an absolute disaster for the jobseeker's allowance if it got worse.
We have heard already that anyone who decides to appeal against a decision to withdraw or refuse incapacity benefit is faced with an impossible dilemma. They either get income support at a reduced rate of 20 per cent. or they sign on. We need definite clarification from the Minister as to whether signing on at the employment exchange will mean that they are debarred from getting benefit or that it will hinder their appeal. In Committee, the Minister justified the penalty clause on the ground that it would reduce the number of appeals, but everyone should have the right to appeal against being debarred from a benefit. The Minister did not make it clear whether signing on would count. There have been many contradictory statements, so clarification is needed.
Disabled people are disadvantaged in society. Next week we will debate the Disability Discrimination Bill--but I do not believe that it will help a great deal. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) spoke of the need to obtain medical evidence to support a claim of being unable to perform certain jobs because of disability. Will the Government meet the cost of obtaining that evidence? Will the Employment Service make an allowance? Otherwise, there will be a disincentive to appeal. People should be made to feel that they can appeal against a decision and not be denied that course because of the cost.
The cost must also be met where a disabled person finds it more difficult to meet the expense of travelling to and from a new job, as well as all the other costs that he or she might incur in meeting a new job commitment. I agree with new clause 2 and hope that the Government will accept it.
Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham): The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) asked a number of pertinent questions, but she could have elicited answers to many of them if she or any other Liberal Democrat had taken the trouble to serve on the Committee that considered the Bill.
Ms Lynne: No doubt the hon. Gentleman is aware that I served on the Committee considering the Disability Discrimination Bill, so was unable to be on two Committees at the same time. As I am my party's social security and disability spokesperson, I should have served on the Committee considering the Jobseekers Bill, but I served on the other.
Mr. Hill: To conclude this slight spat, both the Government and my party were able to place social security and employment spokespersons on the Committee considering this Bill, and I imagine that the Liberal Democrats have an employment spokesperson.
Figures released by the unemployment unit today show that the number of jobless people losing benefit has doubled in the past 12 months, which fully justifies fears repeatedly expressed by the Opposition that the jobseeker's allowance legislation is paving the way to a harsher and more repressive regime in the Employment Service. There is deep anxiety on these Benches that new
Column 367toughness will work to the special disadvantage of the most vulnerable claimants--the sick and disabled, who will be presenting themselves in vastly increased numbers at jobcentres.
Incapacity benefit will replace invalidity benefit on 13 April, when it is estimated that more than 200,000 ex-claimants will fail the new test of incapacity and will be treated as capable of working. There is widespread evidence that a clampdown is already operating in the run-up to incapacity benefit. Streatham citizens advice bureau has seen significant growth in recent months in the number of cases where DSS medical boards are finding people fit for work and discontinuing their invalidity benefit. Trades Union Congress unemployment centres are reporting a tenfold growth in appeals against loss of invalidity benefit over the past 12 months. One of the purposes of the new clause is to make some provision for the extra costs that are faced by disabled people, in satisfying the availability and actively seeking work requirements of the proposed legislation. I want to say a word in support of that proposal, but before I do, I ask for a specific assurance from the Government with regard to the costs of supporting medical evidence. I mentioned the experience of Streatham citizens advice bureau, of the recent growth in judgments against invalidity benefit claimants by DSS medical boards. Apparently, where claimants wish to appeal against such judgments, some doctors are now charging for the medical reports necessary for appeal, regardless of the patients' ability to pay. I find that a distressing and unfair development. It does not auger well for the new arrangements under the jobseeker's agreement where a person is seeking to restrict his or her availability for work on health grounds and needs to produce supporting medical evidence. In Committee, the Minister appeared to offer an undertaking that no charge would be made to a claimant where the Employment Service requested such evidence. That form of words appeared at the same time, however, to exclude provision for such evidence to be free when it is the claimant who requests it. I seek an assurance that where either the Department or the claimant requests evidence with regard to limits on work, on health grounds, it will be free at the point of supply.
I notice that the Minister is shaking her head. I hope that, by the conclusion of my observations on this matter or at the end of the debate, a more generous spirit will have surged through her and that that assurance will be offered.
In more general terms, it is obvious that the sick and disabled usually face greater living costs than other people as a result of their illnesses and disabilities. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security offered to consider the possibility of making provision for specific travel, interview or search costs incurred by disabled people in search of work. I hope that the Minister will be able to undertake to include such provision on the face of the Bill later.
The new clause also removes the new appeal penalty that was introduced in Committee, which is explicitly designed to act as a disincentive to appeals against the withdrawal of incapacity benefit. Rather than penalising those who exercise the right of appeal, it seems more reasonable to increase the resources available for dealing with appeals. The truth is that although many will choose to sign on while appealing, not least to preserve their national insurance record, those who feel least able to
Column 368work will be penalised the most. Not only will the withdrawal of incapacity benefit in itself reduce their income but they now face a further loss of income of at least £9 a week. I commend the proposal in the new clause that will at least ensure that disabled people are treated as available for work for the duration of their appeal. It is a grave cause for concern in my view to force the sick and disabled out of benefit as a result of illness and on to lower benefits and the highly notional job market. When I visited my local CAB recently, I was told of the pressures experienced by an arthritis sufferer. She had been forced out of her old job by her disability and was told by the DSS to apply for a job as a cleaner. Another client, more than 60 years of age, who had been out of work for years, also because of arthritis, faced the loss of invalidity benefit. Where is the fairness or common sense in that?
Even more worrying is the situation of those suffering from non-physical disabilities under the new arrangements. Let me cite two further cases dealt with by the Streatham CAB in recent months that illustrate the problems that are likely to be faced by those suffering from mental illness. In one case--that of a controlled schizophrenic--the DSS suggested that that person could be employed, again, as a cleaner. It is interesting that in this new world of work that is being opened up and the wonderful, flexible labour market that is being created by the Government, the characteristic job that seems to be on offer to those about to move into the labour market is that of cleaner.
Another case, also passed to me by the Streatham CAB, concerned a severely alcoholic man, part of whose brain had been affected by alcoholism. He too faced the threat of losing his invalidity benefit. The CAB helped both those people to win on appeal, but that is no basis for complacency. People with mental illness are the least able to help themselves, and could be said to suffer from one of the least easily provable illnesses. They are in great danger of being disadvantaged by the new tough regime that the Bill presages.
Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend is entirely right. My local CAB has given distressing examples of the enormous difficulties experienced by its clients in obtaining benefits--or any form of income--during that period.
People suffering from mental illness are most likely to be pressurised into job search activity that may be unsuitable or even detrimental to their health. There is a danger that a number of long-term sick and disabled people will find themselves squeezed out of the benefit system altogether. New clause 2 is designed to offer some safeguards against the risk posed by this worrying, repressive and mean-spirited legislation.
Dr. Godman: I support new clause 2. I hope that the Minister will be able to clear up some ambiguities relating to transfer from invalidity to incapacity benefit and thence--in some cases--to the jobseeker's allowance.
The hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) and for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) said that some 200,000 people were in receipt of invalidity benefit. If I have misquoted either of them, I shall of course give way.
Column 369Ms Lynne: According to the Government's own estimate, 220,000 people will be ineligible for invalidity benefit or incapacity benefit.
Dr. Godman: I am grateful for that clarification. I wonder whether the statistics include the approximately 80,000 women aged between 60 and 65 whose invalidity benefit has been suspended by the Department until such time as the European Court of Justice offers an opinion in the test case of Mrs. Graham.
Mrs. Graham appealed against the suspension of her invalidity benefit. A commissioner by the name of Skinner--I am sure that he is no relation to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--found in her favour, but the Department challenged his finding and went to the English Court of Appeal, whose judges sent the commissioner's decision to the European Court of Justice. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the position; I am sure that she is wonderfully clear about the issue of the 80,000 women who are currently in a curious state of limbo.
In a letter sent to me last week, the Secretary of State assured me, and I believe him, that if the opinion of the European Court of Justice--for that is what it offers: opinions--is accepted by the English Court of Appeal, he will ensure that women caught in this appalling trap will receive invalidity benefit backdated to, I believe, 1 April 1992. I welcome that commitment from the Secretary of State. I know that the Minister cannot speculate on the likely outcome of a case that is to begin in Luxembourg on 6 April, I think, with the oral evidence of Mrs. Graham's QC, a gentleman by the name of Drabble. The Minister will readily acknowledge that the Government have a fairly honourable record in honouring European Court of Justice decisions that go against the legislation, policies and procedures of the United Kingdom.
Of those 80,000 women, some 3,000 or more live in Northern Ireland, several thousand live in Scotland and about 400 live in my constituency. What will happen to such women if they are paid invalidity benefit as a result of the intervention of the European Court of Justice? Presumably, they will be assessed for incapacity benefit, even though some of them are aged between 60 and 65--some of them, of course, will be aged over 65. If those who are aged under 65 years move to incapacity benefit, will some of them then be assessed for the jobseeker's allowance? It would help if that could be clarified.
A small number of those women have visited me at my surgery. I readily acknowledge that I organised a take-up campaign in Scotland on behalf of such women. I hope to organise such a campaign in Northern Ireland because those women are being miserably treated by the Government.
Incidentally, Commissioner Skinner decided that the Government were in contravention of a European Community directive. I cannot remember its classification, but it was obviously an equality directive. It will help if persons who will be directly affected by the legislation know what the position will be if the case goes Mrs. Graham's way, as, naturally, I sincerely hope that it will, or if the Government's case is accepted by the European Court of Justice.
Column 370It is unfair that those women have been treated in this way. I readily acknowledge that, in cases of hardship, such women can have the benefit restored, as has happened to some of my women constituents. Some 800 women throughout England, Scotland and Wales have had the benefit restored on the ground of hardship. A small number of women in Northern Ireland have also had their benefit restored on that ground, which they had to prove. It would be extremely helpful if such women were informed, especially given the imminence of the case. As the Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) in another letter, no opinion will be offered by the court until July, but those women are coming to hon. Members' surgeries--they are certainly coming to mine--and asking what their likely position will be if the court offers an opinion in favour of Mrs. Graham or, on the bleak side, if it offers an opinion that supports the Government.
This matter is important because we are talking about scores of thousands of women. It would be remiss of hon. Members to ignore their sparse circumstances in a debate on the new clause, which seeks, however directly or indirectly, to protect people who have suffered long bouts of sickness. Also, some of my constituents and many other women in Scotland, who are so affected and who have been in touch with me, have contributed to such benefits. They have a right to demand from the Government some sort of indication of where they will stand in the near future vis-a -vis the test case which will shortly begin its proceedings at the European Court of Justice.
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe): We have had an interesting debate and I think that there is a genuine shared concern on both sides of the House that we should ensure that when we introduce the jobseeker's allowance, people with disabilities, having been refused incapacity benefit--as it will then be-- will not fall between two stools. The main concern that has informed contributions to the debate--with the exception of the specific question raised by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) to which I shall return later--has been that people should not be caught and fall down some black hole. That was the main thrust of the speech made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne).
I can reassure the House, as I reassured the Committee on several occasions, that we are concerned to ensure that people do not fall between two stools. It is important to understand--I say this particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth)--that when people sign on for JSA, rather than for income support, they will be able to place restrictions on their availability, on the type of work that they are able to do and even on their job search activities. They will be able to include such restrictions as arise as a result of their condition. I shall go into a little more detail about how we will make those judgments later.
Ms Eagle: When the Minister does go into detail, will she explain how the jobseeker's agreement will tie into that and what would happen if there were no agreement? Will she also refer particularly to whether specialist advisers will be on hand to interpret the practical effects of some conditions which ordinary Employment Service staff may not always appreciate?
Column 371Miss Widdecombe: Those are all important questions and I can answer most of them in a positive way which I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome.
In Committee, I made available copies of the draft jobseeker's agreement. I demonstrated that there are questions on that agreement which ask, for example, about the hours that somebody is willing to work. If somebody's condition is such that they are able to do some work--one would presume that to be the case since they have been turned down for incapacity benefit --but are not able to work a full working week, which we define as 40 hours for the purposes of JSA, they would be able to agree with the Employment Service adviser, not the disability employment adviser, some restrictions on the hours. There is then a catch-all section which says:
"Other agreed restrictions on . . . availability".
That is a section to which people with disabilities might wish to add extra points that are not necessarily to do with hours or the type of work. It is important to understand that the jobseeker's agreement is meant to be tailored.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon said that any applicant should be able to have his circumstances taken into account in all reasonable conditions. That is a view to which we would subscribe. I spent some time during the Committee--as the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) will remember--trying to reassure hon. Members on that point. I shall deal with the hon. Lady's other points when I come to discuss in greater detail how the matters will be managed, and she can intervene again at that point if she is not satisfied. I shall now address some of the specifics which came up in the debate in relation to the clause and its various subsections. First, we dealt with the question of the extra costs involved in a job search, and the particular difficulties that a person with disabilities might face. Such a person would be able to put restrictions into his jobseeker's agreement, and specialist help designed for each individual will also be available.
Help with travel to interviews will be available, and that will include the costs of an escort to or from an interview. Premiums are also payable to people with disabilities which do not depend on their availability for work, such as disability living allowance, severe disability allowance and mobility allowance. All of those will still be available, and should address the specific problems which people with disabilities have.
The jobseeker's agreement focuses on the steps to be taken, but those steps will have been agreed. There is no single prescription of the steps that should be taken. I sympathise with the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) on subsection (2) when he talked about discrimination. Clearly there is discrimination against people with disabilities, and the Disability Discrimination Bill was introduced to address that. That Bill is where we shall base our help for people who face discrimination.
Miss Widdecombe: If they are very willing to take on disabled people, there is no problem at all. What we have said in the Disability Discrimination Bill is very straightforward. We do not wish to place undue burdens on small businesses. If small businesses find that it is not
Column 372possible within reason to make adjustments, they must still prove that that is the case if they are caught within the terms of the Bill. They also have to master a fairly complex piece of legislation, and we must bear it in mind that they do not have discrete personnel departments as larger concerns do.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that small firms have been exempted in other countries where such a measure has been brought in. We encourage small firms to take on people with disabilities. Access to work covers large, medium and small firms, and is available to each individual. We have gone a long way towards addressing the particular concerns of the hon. Gentleman.
Miss Widdecombe: There is no need for us specifically to follow the United States. We have made a judgment on what we think is reasonable in terms of our legislation and the burdens we are proposing to put on business. The hon. Lady will be well aware that, under the Disability Discrimination Bill, regulations will be able to provide for that threshold to be altered if necessary. We have built in flexibility, and I feel that her point on that issue is not fair. While on the issue of subsections (1) and (2), this is probably a convenient place to explain the figure of £71 million which has been raised by hon. Members this afternoon. Unemployed and disabled people have priority for places on all main employment and training programmes for which they are both suitable and eligible. The Employment Service will spend an additional £71 million in the first three years of incapacity benefit on all those who come on to unemployment from incapacity benefit. That £71 million will cover, among other things, in-depth interviews, specialised help from placing assessment and counselling teams--the PACTs to which I referred earlier-- and extra provision for job plan, job club and the job interview guarantee. Therefore, people affected by the introduction of incapacity benefit will have early access to the most appropriate provision. The access to work scheme--
Miss Widdecombe: There has already been substantial training as a result of the new incapacity benefit. There will be additional training as a result of the introduction of jobseeker's allowance, which will include such things as reasonable restrictions. I shall deal specifically with disability employment advisers when I talk about the particular route that I said that I wanted to follow in more detail.
The access to work scheme, which extended and replaced existing programmes, will also be of use to people who have the difficulties which hon. Members on both sides of the House rightly acknowledge.
Column 373Miss Widdecombe: If a scheme is up for review, I shall not prejudice that review any more than I am willing to speculate on the outcome of a court case. However, access to work is recognised as a successful scheme. I am sure that that success will be taken into account when the review is conducted.
Miss Widdecombe: I did not say no. If I had said no, it was not here to stay, I would have been speculating on its demise. I am not doing that. I am saying that when anything is the subject of a review, it ill becomes Ministers to speculate on the likely outcome in the House.
Much that I have already said covers subsection (3) of the new clause. Of course, the individual is not forced on to income support with a 20 per cent. deduction. He has the choice of going on to full JSA, placing restrictions on the hours and type of work and anything else that may be immediately relevant to his disability.
Ms Eagle: This is an important point. Will the Minister confirm that if an individual who wishes to appeal against being disallowed incapacity benefit signs on to JSA, with all the restrictions, no tribunal will regard that as in any way prejudicial to the appeal?
Miss Widdecombe: Yes. I can confirm that absolutely unequivocally. Signing on for work will not prejudice an appeal against a refusal to allow incapacity benefit. I can furthermore say that the courts have made that clear. The chief adjudication officer has also made that clear. Therefore, I do not think that that need be a worry. I know that it exercised several hon. Members who spoke in the debate. I intended to deal with it at a subsequent stage.
Subsection (4) of the new clause would ensure that a person with disabilities receives the advice of a disability employment adviser rather than just an Employment Service officer. We shall ensure that the individual will be able to make a free choice. He may not want to go to a disability employment adviser. There are people who do not. They want to be treated in the main stream. They want to stay in the main stream. One needs to respect that choice, but there will be a choice. Anyone who wants the services of a disability employment adviser and who is eligible through having some physical or mental restriction will be able to receive that advice. I hope that the hon. Member for Withington will accept that assurance.
I can also reassure the hon. Gentleman on subsection (5). Claimants who are, or have partners who are, sick or disabled will automatically be classified as vulnerable and, therefore, will receive hardship payments throughout the sanction. However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, and I wish to confirm, they will have to establish hardship. As they are in a vulnerable group, it will be assumed that where there is financial hardship, they qualify. I shall deal now with some of the specific points that were made in the debate. The main thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow was about women between the ages of 60 and 65 awaiting the outcome of the Graham decision. If the appeal goes in their favour, they will come under the rule which says that people aged 58 or over in receipt of invalidity benefit since 1 December 1993 will be exempt from the all-work test. Accordingly, if they win, they will not move off benefit through the all-work test. They will have their
Column 374position restored and they will then be covered by the protection extended to those over the age of 58. My understanding is that if they lose, they will be in exactly the same position as anyone else over 60 in terms of retirement pension or income support where the pension is not appropriate, or whatever the case may be. I hope that that clears the matter up.
The hon. Member for Withington was probably slightly confused. I think that I heard him say that access to work and general help was for those in work. I reassure him that the Employment Service can fund the costs of travel to interview, the cost of escorts to and from interview, which are important for people with disabilities, the cost of providing communications for the deaf at interview and other similar measures. For example, when talking about people facing extra costs in looking for work, one can call to mind the blind and whether they can type a CV. The PACTs and the Employment Service can provide such a service.
I said that I would go into the detail of the position of those who cross from one benefit to another. The full detailed arrangements will be set out in regulations, but I can give the following assurances. When a claim is made, Employment Service front-line staff will take the claimant's own evidence about the extent of his condition and the impact that it has on his availability or whatever he seeks to restrict. In many cases, that will be agreed and there will not be any further problem.
Where a claimant has left incapacity benefit and makes a claim for JSA, the Employment Service will have a range of medical evidence available to assess whether the restrictions are reasonable, given the claimant's particular condition. That will include, always assuming that the claimant has given written consent, the incapacity benefit disallowance notice, which will set out the case, evidence provided by the Benefits Agency medical services and specialist expertise within the Employment Service.
Where a claimant has not made a previous claim for incapacity benefit, our front-line staff will have full access, where they need it, to the range of services offered by the disability employment advisers and the PACTs, who have specialist knowledge and expertise on the impact of disabilities on occupations and the effect on a person's prospects in the local labour market. If they have doubts about the reasonableness of the claimant's proposed restrictions, the case will go to an independent adjudication officer. He or she will, in turn, have access to the full range of evidence provided by the all-work test and incapacity benefit, if appropriate, or the expertise of the disability employment advisers and the PACTs. The adjudication officer may also require the claimant to provide further evidence, which could include medical evidence.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon that we expect that to be necessary only in a small proportion of cases. We understand that many doctors will be prepared to provide that sort of evidence free of charge and we do not, therefore, see the need for legislation to provide for any other system.
Ms Lynne: The hon. Lady says that doctors will be available to provide medical evidence free of charge in many cases, but what if no doctor is prepared to do so? She said that she does not want to introduce legislation, but if that were the case it would be essential.
Column 375Miss Widdecombe: We expect that the provision will affect only a small number of cases, and within those we would expect many doctors to provide the evidence free of charge. That is not merely a vague expectation, as it is based on the knowledge available to us. If the hon. Lady is challenging me to agree to the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, who is also about to intervene, we do not accept that there is a case for an open-ended commitment from the Department of Employment to fund medical advice in that way. We do not see the need to fund it in that way. First, there is no good reason why we should fund some doctors and not others, and we would have to have an open-ended commitment whereby we would fund all such evidence. Secondly, we must remember that the procedure occurs only in cases of doubt and after all the other evidence that I mentioned has been exhausted. We are not talking about imposing charges at an early stage in the process.
Mr. Alan Howarth: I am a little worried that my hon. Friend may be at risk of underestimating the incidence of such charges. We should certainly acknowledge that, where they occur, they bear heavily on people on low incomes and in a precarious situation. While I recognise her difficulty about making a commitment to funding, will she say here and now at the Dispatch Box that she believes that it is right in principle that doctors should not charge to provide claimants with that evidence? Will she also undertake to confer with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to find out whether further steps can be taken to encourage doctors to conform to the standards that I am sure that she and I would both want them to adhere to?
Miss Widdecombe: While there is no reason to doubt the good faith of the claimant concerned, I hope--I can put it no higher, as I cannot lay down ethics for the medical profession--that the doctor would provide such a service free of charge. I cannot undertake to apply pressure on the Department of Health as my hon. Friend suggests, but I undertake to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, in whose province that falls, to talk to the Department of Health.
I hope that I have given the hon. Member for Withington sufficient reassurances to enable him to withdraw the new clause.
Mr. Bradley: I am grateful for the detail in which the Minister responded to the debate on new clause 2 and for the contributions from both sides of the House. It was always a great sadness to Opposition Members that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) was not selected to serve on the Standing Committee to help us in our deliberations.
We accept the Minister's assurances on certain areas, but the proof will come out in the detail in 1996, after the Bill becomes an Act, when we can judge the interrelationship of its provisions with incapacity benefit in practice. We reserve our judgment on whether the seamless service between the two benefits will be as effective as the Government suggest.
We are concerned that £71 million will not be sufficient to meet the extra demands that will be placed on the Employment Service. On the pertinent question of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon about the access to work fund, which is under review, I can only say that the
Column 376independent living fund was a huge success and we all know what happened to that, so we will be watching with great interest. We will look at the operations of the Act in practice and I am sure that these matters may be considered in further detail in another place. With that comment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion. Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn .
` .--(1) A person who--
(a) is attending a course of education, training or instruction; (b) would, if he were not attending that course, be available for employment;
(c) is prepared to terminate the course if a suitable job becomes available to him; and,
(d) was for a prescribed period or periods before he first attended the course in receipt of a prescribed benefit or on a prescribed course of training or instruction,
shall be treated as available for employment for the purposes of this Act.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), "course" means-- (a) a course of a prescribed description financed by the European Social Fund; or,
(b) a course in the pursuit of which time spent receiving instruction or tuition, undertaking supervised study, examination or practical work or taking part in any exercise, experiment or project for which provision is made in the curriculum of the course, excluding time occupied by meal breaks or spent on unsupervised study, does not exceed 21 hours a week.'.-- [Mr. McCartney.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I want to set the new clause in context as it concerns one of the issues over which there was great contention in Committee. There was contention for a number of reasons. One was the way in which the Government introduced the measure in Committee and the other was the fact that we believed it to be a perverse and mean-spirited approach to reduce the 21 guided learning hours to 16.
Yesterday, more than 1,000 people representing all aspects of education came to the House to voice their disapproval of and concern about the Government's continuing disinvestment from education. This new clause should be seen in the context of the Government's overall drive to disinvest from education, whether at primary, secondary or tertiary level or, as in this case, from people who are unemployed and require training and further education to get back into the work force.
For those reasons, we opposed the Government's statement in mid-February and submitted a new clause in Committee to reverse the decision back to 21 hours. This afternoon, we are continuing the fight with a further new clause, which contains an additional provision to that tabled in Committee, as the Government did not give any clear indication of the way in which they intended to deal with education and training schemes run under the European social fund.
Column 377Up to 80,000 jobless people are using their time on the dole to study. They will be forced to consider giving up their studies to take low-paid, part-time and casual work with no prospects for future career development or educational training.
The present rules allow for 21 hours of guided study or learning, but under JSA rules, the Government will cut that to 16, with five hours or more for private study. In general, the Government are presenting that measure as a continuation of the current scheme, which it is not. As we already know from information received following the Government's announcement, at least 11,500 people each year will be disqualified from taking part in further education because of that cut. It is also believed that that is a gross underestimate.
During discussions on the Minister's statement in mid-February, she said that there would be some losers, but that the Government could not put a figure on it, or were not prepared to do so. The truth of the matter is that the Government are making the reduction to save £40 million. It is not about clarifying the position in respect of the 21-hour rule as regards educational establishments, or pulling it into line with the Government's position on other benefits and access to them; it is about saving £40 million. This Bill is about saving £400 million from the benefits of those who have been put on the dole by Government economic policies.
What will be the result of this swingeing cut? It will undermine training programmes that are run with social fund assistance. It will put at serious risk the viability of further education colleges that specialise in helping the long-term unemployed to train or study. The Government's meanness seems to move in the opposite direction to the needs and wishes of further education colleges, students, the jobless, teaching organisations, trade unions and employers. All those with a stake in further education and training have argued that, rather than reduce the 21 hours to 16, the Bill should have contained measures to relax the 21-hour rule and make it easier for people on the dole to take up part-time training and study. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence presented to the Government in advance of the Bill, they have chosen not to relax the arrangements but to tighten them up and introduce far more coercion into the system.
This Government are the only western Government with an advanced economy who are now disinvesting in training and further education. Because of changes in both national and international markets, we see a dramatic change in how people are employed in local labour markets. Governments overseas and in Europe are meeting that challenge with massive investment in education and retraining. Only this Government are taking steps both in the Bill and the Budget to reduce overall funding in the education and training budgets. They have cut more than £300 million from training budgets, tightened the rules and undermined people's opportunities to have genuine access to education and retraining to allow them to return to the marketplace and seek employment in their local labour market or further afield in the British or European economies.
In many instances, the current rules provided a genuine open door for individuals who, through sheer misfortune, found themselves out of a job and needing to train or
Column 378retrain to improve their career chances and job hopes. May I give an example of the type of individuals who will be badly affected by the proposal? In Committee, my hon. Friends and I referred to individuals anonymously. I hope that the Minister accepts that we do so to protect the individuals concerned rather than mislead or deceive anybody about the circumstances.
Mr. P, aged 28, was made redundant from a junior management post and was unsuccessful in obtaining work for some while. He had no formal qualifications and had experience of work only in the retail trade. He took an access course under the 21-hour rule while employed and is now working in a residential care home with the intention of qualifying as a social worker. There can be no guarantee under the new 16-hour rule, which will apply a much tighter definition and a shorter period of learning each week, that that gentleman will be able to escape unemployment and find a route into a worthwhile occupation by retraining.
In Committee, we gave specific examples of individuals who had been denied access to income through unemployment benefit and income support while retraining for the caring professions. Despite that evidence, the Government made no effort to acknowledge that those individuals would be affected in that way or to acknowledge the hardship that their proposal would cause. The Bill is a lost opportunity to invest in people and get them off the dole and into meaningful employment.
The new 16-hour rule comes at a time when the long-term unemployed find it even more difficult to clamber back into the job market. Those with low skills are more likely to be long-term unemployed than highly skilled and qualified people, who find it easier to get another job. The unskilled and semi-skilled are four times more likely to lose their jobs than the average person and less likely to find a new job quickly. Those with few or no qualifications form the majority of the long-term unemployed, 38 per cent. of whom have no qualifications and 58 per cent. of whom have qualifications below O-level standard. Unqualified men are four times more likely to be unemployed than graduate men and eight times more likely to be out of work for more than a year.
Those are not Labour party statistics but figures produced from Government labour force market surveys. Government statistics show that long-term unemployment exists because of under-investment in training. Those trapped in that position find it increasingly difficult to enter the marketplace, which is why the Government continue to pay benefit whereas they should invest in giving people opportunities to be in gainful employment. The Government have chosen to ignore the evidence and have taken steps to tighten up the 21-hour rule to 16 hours.
Skills among the jobless become out of date quickly, which further penalises their chances of getting back to work. In a world of rapid technological change, employees need continually to update their skills. The longer the period that someone is out of work, the less currency his old skills and qualifications have. Labour Members like me who represent former mining, textile and engineering communities have seen that all too clearly. Direct intervention has resulted in the dislocation of our local economies and, almost overnight, tens of thousands of skilled and semi- skilled workers, mainly men, have found themselves unemployed. Their skills have become redundant because of the changing nature of