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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2002

Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 4 December 2002

[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2002

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2002.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. I also welcome the opportunity to introduce the debate on the regulations. The title gives little away about their content beyond that they amend the current jobseeker's allowance regulations. The amendments will achieve two aims. First, they will ease the requirements on jobseekers who engage in voluntary activities. Secondly, they will support the introduction of statutory paternity and adoption leave. I shall deal with each of those in turn.

With the exception of draft regulation 5, most of the draft regulations are concerned with jobseekers who undertake voluntary work while unemployed. As hon. Members will be aware, the current rules for jobseeker's allowance generally require claimants to be available to take up an offer of paid employment immediately. Those engaged in voluntary activities, however, may already take advantage of an easement in that general rule. They must be available to take up a paid job at 48 hours' notice rather than immediately. That enables them to give the voluntary organisation with which they have been working notice—albeit very short notice—that they may have to stop their voluntary activity.

The regulations will extend the easement. Instead of having to be available at 48 hours' notice, jobseekers who undertake voluntary work will be given a week's grace before they must start employment. That will enable them to give the voluntary organisation with which they have been working a full week's notice before having to leave their voluntary work, if necessary. A week's notice will be comparable to the notice requirements that apply to many people in employment, and in that respect put voluntary organisations on the same footing as many employers.

The greater certainty that this change will give voluntary organisations should, in turn, make it more worthwhile for them to take on unemployed volunteers. The further relaxation in the rules should also make it easier for jobseekers to make a greater commitment to volunteering. As a result, we hope that people who are unemployed will be less deterred from taking up voluntary activities. We estimate that approximately one in 10 of those on jobseeker's allowance become involved in voluntary activity. We would like to see that proportion increase and the change in the rules should encourage more jobseekers to become volunteers.

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We recognise that the change will be a small one and I do not wish to make exaggerated claims for it, but it reflects the Government's policy of promoting volunteering among all sectors of society—an objective shared by all parties in the House. The policy has been given further impetus today by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Home Secretary. The discussion document that they published today, ''Next Steps on Volunteering and Giving in the UK'', sets out how the Government intend to continue to promote a culture of giving and volunteering for all.

When unemployed people become involved in voluntary work, not only can they give something back to the community, they can also help themselves. Voluntary activity can have a positive impact on employment outcomes. Although it does not necessarily lead directly into paid work, it can be a valuable means for people to extend their experience, widen their horizons and undertake self-development. The more hours volunteers put in, the more likely it is that the work will improve their chance of getting a job.

The rules in jobseeker's allowance have done much to encourage a proper focus on work among those who are unemployed—that is its purpose. The general requirement to be immediately available is an important element of those rules, so we do not propose an extension of the current relaxation for volunteers lightly, and we propose two safeguards to prevent any blurring of the work focus. First, the amended regulations require that jobseekers who undertake voluntary activities should still be available at 48 hours' notice for an interview in connection with a job. That is to ensure that they do not miss out on opportunities of paid employment as a result of their volunteering. Secondly, we need to be sure that extending the easement does not encourage people to take advantage of it to avoid paid employment.

We intend to evaluate the effects of the new rule during its first year, and towards the end of 2003 we shall decide whether to continue with the extended easement. Should there be clear evidence that jobseekers have been abusing the week's grace or that the extended easement has made getting paid jobs more difficult for volunteers, we will consider restoring the existing arrangements. That would mean introducing amending regulations proposing that the concession be withdrawn. I emphasise that we have deliberately not incorporated a sunset clause in the draft regulations. As the Committee will see, they contain no expiry date or mechanism. That reflects our hope that the evaluation will be favourable enough to continue the extended easement permanently.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Will the Minister clarify the second safeguard? I may have missed it.

Malcolm Wicks: It was evaluation: we do not have a sunset clause, but we will evaluate whether we think there has been abuse—although I doubt that there will be. We will make a judgment on that by the end of 2003.

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I said at the outset that the amending regulations have two aims. The first is about volunteering; the second is supporting the introduction of statutory paternity and adoption leave, which is the subject of draft regulation 5. It deals with the need to provide that people on adoption or paternity leave are not to be treated as available for employment. It is a rather technical and to some extent obscure change. As the Committee will know, the Employment Act 2002 introduced important new rights to help parents balance their work and family lives. As well as improvements to existing maternity rights, the Act has provided, for the first time, rights to paid time off work for fathers and adoptive parents.

The amendment under draft regulation 5 is one of several changes that we are making to social security rules to take account of the introduction of the new adoption and paternity rights. The aim is to reflect the existing treatment of maternity pay and leave. At present, women are ineligible for jobseeker's allowance while receiving statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance because the regulations say that they are not to be regarded as available for employment.

The draft regulation extends that approach to cover the one or two-week period of paternity leave and the 26-week paid period of adoption leave. It is essentially a backstop measure, as we do not expect that people who are on leave from their jobs to look after their children will try to claim jobseeker's allowance in any number, if at all. However, if they do, it is clearly reasonable to treat them as not being available for employment. It is important to prevent double provision between jobseeker's allowance and statutory paternity or adoption pay. Specifying in the regulations that people are not eligible for jobseeker's allowance in those leave periods will avoid disputes in marginal cases and help to ensure that people use the rights appropriate to their situation.

The draft regulations have two purposes. First, they signify in a small way the importance that we all attach to volunteering: they remove a barrier to volunteering among the unemployed and do away with the notion that volunteering is an activity that can be abandoned at almost no notice. Secondly, they deal with the need to provide that people on adoption or paternity leave are not to be treated as available for employment, should they try to claim jobseeker's allowance. I am satisfied that the draft regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights and commend them to the Committee.

4.39 pm

Mr. Brazier: The Opposition are minded to support the general drift of such moves. The Conservative party strongly supports the principle of voluntarism, although sadly much evidence shows that it is in decline at present—the recent awful figures concerning special constables being the latest example

I should like to ask the Minister four questions, or groups of questions. The first is small. I do not think that he mentioned the effect of draft regulation 3 on carers. The draft regulation does not seem to change

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the 1996 regulations. It may simply be a consolidation measure, and that may be why he did not mention it.

The second point is larger. We share the Government's view on the importance of voluntary activity and the Minister rightly highlighted two safeguards to ensure that such activity is not misused in order to avoid employment. The safeguards were that people would be required to be available for interview at 48 hours' notice and that the new measures would be evaluated later. I hope that he will confirm that that evaluation will be published. At the time of the evaluation, he might consider a further safeguard to do with the nature and volume of voluntary work. If people are to be less available, they should be fairly heavily involved in voluntary work and not simply doing an hour or two when a particular interview comes up. That would obviously form part of the evaluation. More important, perhaps, is the scope of the voluntary work. Currently, voluntary work is broadly defined. It does not have to be work with a charity or other recognised body. It is important that the definition be pinned down. Activities that are purely social, or purely for amusement, should not come under the voluntary label. We agree that there should be a commitment to help people back into work and also that we have to encourage genuine volunteering.

The Minister has largely answered my third question, but I should like to take him a little further on the impact on adoptive families. As he can imagine, I listened carefully to that part of his speech. What he said was reasonable. Obviously, people should not be able to double-claim benefits. However, I am concerned that, although Governments of all shades have had good intentions towards adoptive families, when the discretion of local authorities has been taken into account and it has all come out in the wash, those families repeatedly lose out. Will he assure me that the new measures will have no effect on adoptive families other than to prevent double-claiming—that is, preventing such families from claiming both the adoption allowance and the jobseeker's allowance, and that the small print contains no other knock-on effects?

My fourth question relates purely to money. As far as I can see from the draft regulations, the answer to this question is no, but I should like a firm answer from the Minister. Will the changes affect in any way the cash disregards that exist for people who carry out certain forms of worthwhile part-time activity for the state? I am thinking mainly of members of the volunteer reserve forces and part-time firefighters.

We broadly support the measures and I look forward to the Minister's response.

4.43 pm

 
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