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Column 379the local economy, and low-skill, part-time employment has been offered in place of their previous permanent, high- skill employment. It is precisely those groups of men and women who require the opportunity to study and train under the 21-hour rule to learn completely new skills that will give them an opportunity to get back into the labour market, yet they will be worst affected by the Government's proposals. I sometimes think that the Government do not give a damn what happens to mining, textile or heavy engineering communities because, on each and every occasion, their direct action has led to mounting unemployment and a dislocation of employment patterns in those communities. The employment opportunities of those former work forces are increasingly reduced. Unemployed people are offered part-time menial jobs because we have an economy in which skilled jobs are being replaced by unskilled, part -time, semi-skilled employment. Eight out of 10 new jobs created under this Government are part time. Although the opportunity for full-time employment has been ominously eradicated by the Government's proposals, they intend further to reduce access to training and education.
On numerous occasions in Committee, we attempted to get some information from the Government about why those who attend European social fund courses are treated as second-class citizens. The rules that relate to those courses are radically different from those that relate to programmes directly supported by the Department of Employment. The contrast is stark. People on training for work courses are guaranteed benefit plus £10 a week and are not required to be available for or actively seeking work.
Unemployed people who want to take up a place on a European social fund course and need to retain their benefit payments can do so only under the limits of the 21-hour rule. That means that they cannot participate in a full-time training programme but must remain immediately available for full -time work and show that they are actively seeking work. They must continue to sign on and attend compulsory restart interviews and courses like job plan workshops or workwise, irrespective of whether those courses cut across the European social fund course that they are attending.
If successfully completed, European social fund courses provide individuals with a marketable skill. Despite that, the Government will reduce or stop benefit entitlement if, during those courses, an individual fails to attend a compulsory restart interview or a compulsory job plan workshop. A student who applies for or participates in a course cannot take the course employer or provider to an industrial tribunal on the grounds of racial or sexual discrimination.
If an unemployed person, who has signed on, takes up a full-time training place through the European social fund, he loses the right to income support and his automatic entitlement to housing benefit and council tax benefit. That person also loses automatic entitlement to free dental treatment and free prescriptions, becomes ineligible for some of the loans available from the social security social fund and must forgo assistance with mortgage interest payments.
Column 380Why do the Government take such draconian action against an individual seeking retraining and qualification through the European social fund? For many unemployed people, that fund represents the most practical way back into the labour market, because in many areas of high unemployment the European social fund is providing the practical investment for training and education. Why do the Government insist on treating those trainees differently from those who receive funding through our Department of Employment? It has been suggested that the European social fund training programmes simply represent the means for the Department of Employment to distribute money and that the arrangement is purely administrative. I find it strange that as a result of a purely administrative arrangement people may be denied a range of benefits, including council tax benefit and income support. In fact, they run the risk of losing access to any income. Surely the arrangement is a bit more than an administrative one. In truth, the Government have always opposed European social fund schemes in, for example, former coal mining communities. When the Government were forced, for political reasons, to accept the necessity of European social funding of education and training courses, they decided to make it increasingly difficult, through the nature of the rules they set, for people to participate in those schemes or to take full advantage of them. We receive additional resources from our European partners in the Community to help retrain and redeploy tens of thousands of unemployed people. It is disastrous that the Government should simply respond by undermining an unemployed person's ability to participate in and complete such a course.
It is important for the Government to say that they intend to integrate the rules governing European social fund courses with those courses under their direct responsibility. It seems only sensible that that relationship should be equitable. After all, the qualification gained from a European social fund course is recognised by the Government as a route back into employment. Despite that, the Government seem intent on continuing to undermine the rights of people who join such courses.
The Government should have used the Bill to deal with the real issue--the 21-hour rule--because they received thousands upon thousands of requests from citizens advice bureaux and other organisations to do just that. Six key amendments are necessary. What is meant by actively seeking work should be defined more clearly. What is meant by being immediately available for work, when many individuals on courses of 10 hours--not 16 or 21--have lost the right to benefit because of the interpretation that local employment officers have placed on those courses and those individuals' availability for work?
That leads on to the problem of arbitrary local decision making. The Minister said nothing in Committee about what she intended to do about that. She failed to mention that, as a result of such decision making, however, individuals on the same type of course, or even on the same course, are dealt with differently by different officers who judge their respective ability to continue a course or their right to receive benefit while on that course.
The Minister has tried to define the difference between full-time and part- time education through her attempts to reduce 21 hours of supervised study to 16 hours. When the problem of that definition was originally raised by
Column 381Opposition Members and organisations representing the unemployed, we had supposed that the Minister would not reduce the hours from 21 to 16, but would extend the regulations to allow people to enjoy a full 21 hours of learning rather than run the risk of having their ability to continue on a course undermined by Employment Service officers.
Local DSS officers have different customs and practices, which has led to many people losing their right to benefit, despite the fact that their circumstances are similar to, if not exactly the same as, those of claimants on courses in other parts of the country. There is no clear central guidance from the Department about how individuals should be treated sympathetically.
The Bill is a wasted opportunity on the Government's part. It has undermined the capability and the range of options of many thousands of unemployed people. The proposals are not only mean-minded, but unforgivable. The Government, having first placed hundreds of thousands of people on the dole, are now attempting to blame them for that. They are using coercive measures to reduce funding for the very schemes that would allow unemployed people to get back into work. If the Minister does not respond positively to the debate, we will divide on the new clause.
Mr. Alan Howarth: We all recognise how crucial it is to develop the competences and skills of our people. That is what individuals want in terms of their personal fulfilment and it is absolutely necessary for our economy.
There is no lack of evidence to tell us that the unemployed want training and education. As the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said, some 80,000 unemployed people are studying while in receipt of benefit. The Employment Service national customer satisfaction survey in 1993 revealed that 60 per cent. of the unemployed people surveyed were interested in finding training opportunities; of that number, 32 per cent. wanted to train for a specific occupation, 27 per cent. wanted to pursue a vocational qualification and 17 per cent. wanted an educational qualification. My hon. Friend the Minister has recognised that need and addressed herself to the reform of benefit regulations as they bear on part-time study. I welcome the fact that she has modified the regulations in recognition of the ending of the old distinction between part-time and full-time work resulting from the way in which further education courses are now delivered.
I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is increasingly difficult to cling to that distinction for higher education. Open university courses already benefit a considerable number of unemployed people. The increasing move toward credit accumulation and the increasing tendency for higher education courses to be franchised for their delivery to further education colleges suggests that, over time, there is likely to be a blurring of the distinction between further education and higher education in terms of vocational studies.
Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Minister was kind enough to respond to a number of questions for written answer that I had tabled. I noted her acknowledgement that part-time education
"can enhance some clients' prospects of finding work". I welcome that recognition as far as it goes, although it was perhaps a less fulsome recognition than I would ideally have wished. We need to adopt a much more
Column 382positive view of the desirability of providing opportunities and supporting unemployed people to undertake studies so that they can upgrade their skills. Their right to study while drawing benefit is termed a concession. If that approach is carried through from income support to jobseeker's allowance, I fear that it will remain somewhat too negative.
My hon. Friend the Minister has robustly, and rightly, argued that the move from a 21-hour rule to a 16-hour rule in respect of part-time studies is not a cut; those 80,000 people will still be able to study under the new rules. However, not only do we want to preserve the present position but we want many more people to be encouraged and enabled to undertake studies. Policy should encourage part-time study.
Unemployed people often believe that an employer is more likely to rate highly what they have gained from pursuing a course that leads to an academic or vocational qualification than what they have gained from taking part in one of the Government's own courses.
We speak in terms of an Employment Service. That term suggests that it should not always be assumed that the Employment Service knows better than unemployed people what is appropriate for them. I recognise that there is to be a spirit of consultation and discussion in the development of individual jobseekers' agreements.
I submit that an unemployed person should be able to embark on a part-time course confident that she or he will not lose benefits as a result, and should have every prospect of completing the course. However, at the moment it is not quite like that. Far from systematically building in encouragement to study, in too many instances we appear to discourage it.
I was disappointed that the learning for work scheme was so quickly scrapped. That scheme would have allowed as many as 30,000 people to take full-time vocational courses. My hon. Friend the Minister of State may have had good reasons to discontinue support for that programme, but at first blush it appears to be a slightly retrograde decision.
I am also somewhat disappointed that the target under training for work for the numbers of participants to achieve qualifications has been lowered from 39 per cent. to 30 per cent. Training for work is accepted as a positive outcome in respect of restart interviews, but it appears that we are missing an opportunity by not allowing other opportunities for education and training to be treated as "positive outcomes", in the jargon.
That is especially strange, in that signing off from benefits and benefit sanctions are regarded as positive outcomes. They may be outcomes that are justified in specific circumstances, but it is strange to call them positive outcomes. I regretted the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister of State was unable, in her answers to me yesterday, to confirm that part-time study would be regarded as a positive outcome at restart interviews.
I do not know the extent to which my hon. Friend the Minister has already clarified arrangements for incentivising Employment Service officials to discourage--if that is not too strong a word--unemployed people from undertaking part-time education and training. Will she clarify to what extent the system of incentives for Employment Service officials does, in effect, discourage unemployed people from undertaking part-time education and training? My impression is that we are at least moving
Column 383towards arrangements whereby the remuneration of Employment Service officials is related to their contribution to enabling the service to achieve its business objectives. Among its business objectives are those "positive outcomes", which do not include part-time education and training.
I also remember noting in the Employment Service agreement that there was a target for challenging benefit claims. Where is the incentive for Employment Service officials positively to encourage unemployed people to improve their skills beyond the opportunities provided under training for work--opportunities that are, sadly, diminishing in number? Jobseekers' directions will reinforce the scope for Employment Service officials to steer unemployed people towards outcomes other than education and training.
We already have a tightened availability test. As I understand it, if unemployed people are to be eligible to receive benefit, they must satisfy the requirement that they should be willing to take time off their course for a job interview, they must be willing to adjust their attendance to fit in with a job and they must be willing to give up a course at once to take a job.
I am especially worried about the latter requirement. Is it really sensible --is it far-sighted--to insist that an unemployed person should abandon a course if a temporary job is offered, or if an unskilled job is offered, when he is developing a higher level of skills, which would enable him, in quite a short period, to contribute more effectively to the creation of wealth in our economy? That appears to me wasteful and short-termist.
I suspect that that is somewhat akin in approach to the thinking that underlies the notion of the permitted period, which is reaffirmed in the new policy. A permitted period, so-called, will be of 13 weeks, during which people claiming benefit are entitled to confine their search for work to work that matches their skills and experience. Thirteen weeks is a very short time to allow for that. After 13 weeks, they will have to accept any job that the Employment Service considers appropriate for them.
I suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends that it is prodigal--somewhat too destructive--after only 13 weeks to set aside a person's accumulated skills and knowledge. That approach appears to me consistent with the requirement to give up a course immediately if any job comes on offer. We should value and nurture higher levels of skills more than we do at the moment.
I was surprised to note that revised instructions in the context of unemployment benefit regulations were issued last summer which insisted that people should be disqualified from benefit if they had paid more than £100 to attend a course or if their course led to a qualification needed for the job that they were seeking. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will correct me if I am wrong; I am happy to withdraw that point if I am in error. I am puzzled by that measure, because it appears to be almost a surreal policy. Surely it must be desirable that people should pursue courses that lead to qualifications that better enable them to do the jobs that they want to do.
I understand why full-time students should not be smuggled into the benefit system and I well understand the dilemmas that confront my hon. Friends, but how insistent do we have to be--how much on the qui vive do we have to be--to cut off benefit when there is even the
Column 384faintest suspicion that someone might be a so-called student? We should try to be as flexible and constructive as we can.
Speaking as a Warwickshire Member of Parliament, I must also comment on the dearth of funding for discretionary awards in our county. We have not seen discretionary awards for some years. Every now and again, the local authority is sued by someone who feels that it is only fair that, living in the county of Warwickshire, he, like people living elsewhere, should have at least the opportunity to obtain a discretionary award. But that does not occur.
We should invest in education. I am worried about the collapse of the discretionary awards system. Some of the features of the system which I have been describing seem to discourage self-help and the impulse to self- improvement, values that my hon. Friends often praise. In addition, it does not help that the regulations are somewhat inconsistently applied.
The hon. Member for Makerfield touched on European social fund-funded courses. The Government's position on that subject seems to be curious. As I understand it, they argue that resources for the courses are not payable out of public funds, but they are derived from the European Union, whose funding is derived from the taxpayer. Also, the funds are administered by, among others, local education authorities. That seems to be a quibbling distinction that tends to discourage and take away opportunities.
In one of her answers to me, my hon. Friend the Minister of State said that client advisers would give advice and guidance on part-time education opportunities. I am glad that she has been able to place that on the record. The 1993 survey which I mentioned found that more than half the unemployed people inquiring about vocational qualifications went elsewhere- -presumably, because the Employment Service found it difficult to answer them. We were told in the survey that the Employment Service was able to supply information to only one third of unemployed people interested in pursuing an educational qualification. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her determination to improve on that state of affairs.
On a more general note, abuse by a few should not prejudice the opportunities of the many. Of course, my hon. Friends are right to say that we must police the system to ensure that people are not able to exist on benefit while pretending to be on courses and to be undertaking education and training. That would be unacceptable, but we should not design a system to which that consideration is central. It is a valid factor, but we should do everything that we can to ensure that as many good-quality training and education opportunities as possible are available.
I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench are afraid that if they increase public expenditure, even on education and training, they will be visited by the most terrible retribution by international markets. But that will depend on the quality and purpose of the public expenditure we undertake and on what we fail to do. If we were to degrade our labour force by pursuing a low-skill, low-pay policy, international investors might look elsewhere. Quite rationally, they would become much less interested in investing in our economy. The devaluation of our skills would have just as damaging a long-term effect on our
Column 385economic fortunes as the devaluation of our money through inflation has had over a previous generation. International investors are more likely to back our economy if we demonstrate that we are investing in human capital.
I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister of State said in the context of her announcement on the 16-hour rule. She recognised the need to focus help where people have poor skills or where their skills are obsolete. I welcome, too, the commitment in her press release to keep the situation under review.
I raised this issue at Employment questions and wish briefly to exercise my right of reply. In response to my question of 7 March, the Minister argued that there was no change and that the new position would be the same as the existing one. She said:
"At present, the 21-hour rule covers both guided learning hours and private study".--[ Official Report , 7 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 134.]
When I checked regulation 9(3) of the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987, I discovered that the reference was to supervised study. There is a crucial difference. Will the Minister admit that 21 supervised hours are becoming 16 guided learning hours? There is a change--will she admit it? I know that, in a sense, the reason why the Minister says that there is no change is that many other mechanisms have been introduced to attack the rights of the unemployed to part-time study and education.
I would refer in detail to Employment Service notice 7/95, issued in January, but I do not have time to do so. It deals with the definition of "student" and tries to define as students more and more people who are studying part time, thus disqualifying them on the grounds that they are students. Employment Service notice 104/94, issued in July--to which the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) referred--attacked people's rights in terms of their availability for work. I mentioned the subject on Second Reading. Students who pay more than £100 for a course are automatically disqualified from benefit. If the course leads to a qualification needed for the job for which they are looking, they are also disqualified.
The rights of unemployed people to undertake part-time study are being attacked. We opposed those regulations and we oppose the new change, which takes us in the wrong direction. Everyone says that we want to expand the rights of the unemployed to part-time education and training because that will create the skills that the economy so badly needs.
Miss Widdecombe: Once again, the debate has been interesting and once again, there is common ground between Opposition and Conservative Members on the necessity to make it possible for people who are looking for work to undertake courses of part-time study or to undertake training that will enhance their job prospects. That was very much uppermost in our minds when we formed the rules that were to apply under the jobseeker's allowance.
In response to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), I must say that it is simply not true that the Government are disinvesting in further education and training. The reverse is true. There is a planned increase of 25 per cent. in further education starts between 1993-94
Column 386and 1995-96. I do not think that an increase of 25 per cent. is a disinvestment. There is a planned further expenditure on further education of £2.7 billion. I am not certain how that can be called disinvestment.
This country stands up extremely well in terms of training investment and its outcomes when compared with its European neighbours. In 1990, 94 per cent. of 16-year-olds were undertaking some sort of education and training- -that figure is among the highest in the main developed countries. In 1991, a higher proportion of the United Kingdom's population between the ages of 14 and 49 had recently undertaken a period of education and training than was the case in France, West Germany or most other European Union countries. Our record is a proud one. The Opposition always believe that if we are not spending more, we cannot be doing more. But we are offering the same number of opportunities through our training and our special programmes as we have offered previously--1.5 million.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) is utterly wrong to pick out just one programme of training for work and make deductions from it while ignoring the measures for training in the White Paper on competitiveness, the creation of modern apprenticeships and the large number of other initiatives such as Investors in People. All those factors show our clear commitment. I shall explain the change. Once again, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm) is wrong. Supervised study was a combination of tutored and private study. There was and has been until recently a clear distinction between part-time and full-time education. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon warned me that we may not be able to maintain the distinction in higher education for ever, but for the moment we can, which is why there was no change. But the distinction has become so blurred in further education, where more and more courses are modular and based on guided learning hours, that there is no longer a common definition of what is part time.
The net result was that rules were being applied inconsistently from area to area because there was no recognised definition of "part-time". In seeking to redefine part-time study--I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford has welcomed our efforts--we were guided very much by the view that we should help the same number of people. There has been no reduction in assistance. We currently help about 80,000 people and some 80,000 people will be assisted under the new proposals.
Miss Widdecombe: No, the hon. Gentleman has got it completely wrong. I understand that his concern is genuine and I honestly believe that he is confused--I do not mean that rudely. I shall explain it to him later.
Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have written to her about a constituency case and, uncharacteristically, I have not received an instant response, so it must be a difficult question. A man in my constituency in his early 30s
Column 387who is currently studying for 15 hours per week has been told by the Department of Social Security that he no longer qualifies for assistance because he does "homework"--to use the Department's term. That seems quite extraordinary and, judging from what the Minister has said, it must be incorrect.
Miss Widdecombe: If it does not, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has written to me about the matter. I will examine exactly what has occurred and reply to him. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not receive an instant response--we are a trifle busy in my Department at the moment. However, I will respond to the hon. Gentleman. I turn briefly to the question asked by the hon. Member for Makerfield about the European social fund. I am baffled as to why the hon. Gentleman is making such a meal of the ESF. Should we conclude from the Opposition's new clause that they want all ESF courses to be treated in the same way? Would the Labour party undertake that spending commitment?
Under our proposals, ESF-funded courses will be treated like any other course. If people undertake an ESF-funded course which is part of our training scheme, such as training for work, the rules of that scheme will apply. If they receive a training allowance and not a jobseeker's allowance they will not have to be available for work. However, if they are undertaking the course while receiving JSA, the rules of JSA will apply. That is common sense.
I get the impression that the Opposition are struggling tonight. Their kneejerk opposition to the legislation was based on the false assumption that it would mean a reduction in assistance. That has been disproved and Labour Members feel that they must justify their ridiculous stand in some other way. There is no reduction in assistance. The Government have made a clear commitment to funding part-time study and that commitment will continue. I think that the Opposition should withdraw their new clause 4 and perhaps, in so doing, Labour Members might also apologise for misinterpreting the legislation.
Mr. McCartney: If there are any apologies to be made tonight about the unemployed, they should come from Conservative Members. There have been two recessions in the past decade and there are 3.5 million people unemployed. Yet Government Members have the cheek to come to the Chamber and ask Opposition Members to apologise for the effects of mass unemployment.
The Minister of State has failed once again to answer the pertinent questions about why the Government discriminate against people on European social fund courses. The truth is that the Minister is disinvesting in training. The Secretary of State goes around the country saying that he is disinvesting in training and education; he prides himself on that fact. The training for work scheme has been cut by 66,000 places and the learning for work scheme has been cut by 30,000 places.
Column 388The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon is absolutely right: the Government have cut grants to local education authorities to such an extent that virtually no money is available for training or for creating further employment opportunities through further education. I urge my hon. Friends to join me in the Lobby in voting for the new clause in order to assist the unemployed of this country.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:--
The House divided: Ayes 254, Noes 277.
Division No. 108] [6.04 pm
Column 388Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Blair, Rt Hon Tony
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D N
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)