House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2005 - 06
Publications on the internet
Standing Committee Debates

Draft Social Security (Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance) Amendment Regulations 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Flynn, Paul (Newport, West) (Lab)
Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)
Kennedy, Jane (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
Maples, Mr. John (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)
Mulholland, Greg (Leeds, North-West) (LD)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Prentice, Mr. Gordon (Pendle) (Lab)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 23 May 2006

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft Social Security (Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance) Amendment Regulations 2006

10.30 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance) Amendment Regulations 2006.
Hon. Members may be aware that it is a condition of entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance that customers have to be available for and actively seeking work. However, a number of exceptions within the jobseeker’s allowance regulations protect jobseeker’s entitlement when, for good reasons, they cannot meet those conditions. These regulations introduce three further exceptions to the actively seeking and availability work rules.
First, the regulations provide that jobseekers required to attend court or a tribunal will remain entitled to jobseeker’s allowance for up to eight weeks. Secondly, jobseekers who have been temporarily detained in police custody for 96 hours or less and then released will retain their entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance. Thirdly, jobseekers with caring responsibilities will have up to 48 hours to attend a job interview and up to one week to take up an offer of employment.
Currently, when jobseekers are required to attend court or a tribunal for longer than one day, they go through a complex process to maintain their existing level of financial support. As they are not available for work during the time in court, their jobseeker’s allowance claim is closed down. They then have the option of claiming income support or claiming for the loss of income through the Court Service. When they are no longer required in court, they need to reclaim jobseeker’s allowance. That process is not straightforward and payment is often delayed. It creates additional financial hardship to those already on limited income. It often leads jobseekers to exercise the right to be excused from jury service on the grounds of severe financial hardship.
The first objective of the regulations is to help stop any financial hardship for jobseekers required to attend court or a tribunal, by treating them as available and actively seeking employment. Although the Court Service advised that more than 99 per cent. of court cases last for less than two weeks, we have extended the period that jobseekers can be excused to eight weeks. That is in line with the maximum period we allow other jobseekers in special circumstances. It will mean that jobseekers called for jury service can undertake that duty without being financially penalised by losing benefit or facing delays in payment. It will also reduce administrative costs as the jobseekers will no longer be forced to swap between benefits.
As with those who are required to attend court or tribunal proceedings, jobseekers who have been temporarily detained by the police are not available for or able to seek work during the time that they are detained. Under current regulations, jobseekers detained by the police for one or two days could lose their benefit for up to two weeks. Following a recommendation from the Court of Appeal, we have decided that those who are temporarily detained by the police and subsequently released should not lose jobseeker’s allowance.
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides for a maximum period of detention of 96 hours before a person has to be released or charged. Under the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, a person can be detained in custody for a shorter period before having to be released or charged. The regulations will therefore allow those who have been temporarily detained by the police for up to 96 hours and then released to be treated as available and actively seeking work during their period of detention. The provision will only apply to those who are in custody for 96 hours or less and then released. Jobseeker’s allowance will not be available for anyone detained by the police for more than 96 hours.
The third objective of the regulations is to provide jobseekers with caring responsibilities sufficient time to make alternative care arrangements before attending an interview or taking up an offer of employment. To receive the benefit, jobseekers must normally be available immediately to attend an interview or take up employment. However, we recognise that for some groups that may not be possible. That recognition is reflected in legislation, which allows volunteers 48 hours to attend an interview and one week’s notice to take up a job offer. Currently, those with caring responsibilities have to be available for an interview immediately and take up the offer of a job within48 hours.
We are responding positively to Equal Opportunities Commission recommendations to provide jobseekers who have caring responsibilities with a longer period in which to make themselves available to attend an interview or to take up an offer of employment. The regulations will extend to 48 hours the time available for carers to attend a job interview, and to one week the time available to take up a job offer. By increasing the amount of time jobseekers have to make alternative care arrangements, we will make jobseeker’s allowance more accessible to people with caring responsibilities. It should be especially beneficial to lone parents and those who do not have access to formal child care, giving them the option of claiming jobseeker’s allowance and enabling them to keep in touch with the labour market.
I hope that hon. Members agree that the regulatory changes are worth while. The changes support the Government’s promise of “work for those who can and support for those who cannot”, by ensuring that in the future, those receiving jobseeker’s allowance are not disadvantaged due to circumstances beyond their control. I am also satisfied that the statutory instrument is compatible with the European convention on human rights. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
10.37 am
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. I have always found your chairmanship to be a pleasant experience, even if on certain occasions our business has been more contentious than the regulations. I am thinking of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, but we will not return to that.
It was a pleasure to listen to the Minister’s clear explanation, and I have signalled to the Committee that the regulations are not a matter for trench warfare between parties. They embody sensible changes that have our general support, subject to the inevitable points on which we wish the Minister to elucidate.
Our general approach is to recognise the problems that people, including jobseekers, have in their normal life, and the entirely sensible wish that they are not excluded from the courts system as jurors in the way that Members of Parliament are no longer specially excluded from the process. We should not put unnecessary hurdles in their way. The Minister certified the compatibility of the regulations with the European convention on human rights. Had we carried on with the old arrangements whereby, at least in the minds of those affected, people lost their benefit, one could have argued that the Minister’s arrangements were unreasonable, and they might have been overturned or questioned. I do not wish to trespass on that ground, however.
We generally welcome the approach. I particularly welcome the new provisions for carers. They have come from the EOC stable; others have come from the Court of Appeal. They are all well endorsed, and they have not required call-in by the Social Security Advisory Committee, so we can assume that we are working with a common mind. It might help if the Minister told the Committee his expectation of the numbers involved. I realise that the provision does not create a business cost, and that, indeed, it is facilitative, but it would be useful to know how many people will benefit from the regulations, and how much in administrative costs will be saved for HM Courts Service in the way that he described.
I want to explore only two matters. I am thinking in particular about the exemption for court attendance, whether as a juror, witness or whatever. It is important that the table of exceptions, which the order sensibly embodies, does not create any unaddressed anomalies. It would help Committee members who, unlike the Minister and his officials, are not expert on the regulations, if he said more about the other exceptions and special cases that might be considered. An example—genuine rather than purely synthetic—is when people plead the need to attend a family funeral, which may entail extensive travel either in the United Kingdom or abroad. It would not be unreasonable to provide relief in such cases, subject to proper conditions.
The Minister may also wish to consider a particular difficulty in relation to police action. I understand that the measure relates to police custody, but someone involved in a demonstration could be prevented from signing on on the appointed day despite not having had anything to do with the demonstration. There have been cases in London in which people have been swept up by the police because of the need to keep public order.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab) indicated assent.
Mr. Boswell: I notice that the hon. Gentleman nods. Such people have been detained for a number of hours, and certainly were not available to attend the Jobcentre Plus centre to sign on. That is a reasonable excuse, and another anomaly should not be created.
In general, we support the Government. Clearly, there must be rules, but we do not want to exclude people who have been the subject of police action that stopped short of detention; nor do we want to exclude other entirely reasonable explanations. It may be that such cases should be within the discretion of officers within Departments.
The rules on presumption of innocence mercifully still apply in this country, despite occasional efforts by the Government to challenge them. It could be argued that those detained in custody are slightly more “culpable” or have brought matters on themselves, but we should not make difficulties that are unnecessary, and I broadly accept the Minister’s proposals. As I understand them, they relate to people who were granted an allowance and who have subsequently been involved in an incident that requires them to be in custody, or which results in custody. They do not deal with circumstances of discharge from custody, including discharge from prison, which I realise is a much wider issue.
Many hon. Members are concerned about the circumstances of discharged prisoners who have a small allowance and who sometimes have no satisfactory arrangements for accommodation, support or finding a job. That is a wider consideration, which I hope the Minister has in mind. He would assist us were he to explain that the regulations are much more precisely targeted towards persons who get into trouble in a loose sense while they are receiving an allowance, and who are not permanently unavailable for work but only temporarily so.
Subject to those general considerations, there is support for the proposed approach. Indeed, if there were further cases in which such a measure would be helpful, I do not think that the Opposition would oppose the Minister introducing a similar order. There must be rules, and people must be treated fairly, notwithstanding the fact that there are different cases. However, as a tidying-up measure that will help to some extent, the Opposition welcome the regulations.
10.44 am
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): I welcome the proposals. However, the subject of carers brings two constituency cases to mind. In the first case, a mother sat with her child, who was seriously ill in intensive care, from 7 in the morning until 6 in the evening. She was in that situation for a great deal longer than a week. At the other end of the age scale, in the second case, the mother of one of my constituents came out of hospital having had a serious operation, and plans were set in train by the hospital and social services in the community to adapt her flat. That took time, during which my constituent had to be with her mother virtually 24 hours a day to facilitate her personal and medical care. It took a great deal longer than seven days for both individuals at either end of the age scale to have time to sign on and make it clear that they were available to work. Are there special, extreme circumstances that will not impact on the carer in those circumstances?
10.46 am
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I add our broad support to this clearly commonsensical and sensible measure, which not only will clear up what we all know is too often an over-complicated benefits system, but will involve savings to the state. I am interested to know the projected savings. I welcome the fact that juries will have the opportunity to be more genuinely inclusive, as recommended by Lord Justice Auld’s review. We must not overlook that.
On care, the regulations are sensible, although I echo the hon. Lady’s concern about whether the time limits are adequate. The broad thrust of the discussion has been that it might be possible to add further commonsensical and compassionate reasons for people to be allowed to stay on jobseeker’s allowance. Will the Minister outline situations in which that might be the case?
I welcome the flexibility, however; it is progressive and we would wholeheartedly welcome a continuing review of the system to see how it can be improved, particularly the jobseeker’s allowance element.
10.47 am
Mr. Plaskitt: This has been a brief, but welcome debate because, as was anticipated, the measures have broad support in the Committee, for which I am grateful. In particular, I welcome the comments from the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who said that the regulations will make sensible changes. We try to make changes that respond to real circumstances and needs.
I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on jury service. After all, that is a civic duty and if it is visited on someone who happens to be on jobseeker’s allowance, there is no rational reason why their receipt of benefit should be interrupted because it would be a situation not of their own making.
Questions were asked about the extent to which people will benefit from the measure, and the costs involved. The numbers involved will be small, although it is difficult to be precise. There will be some cost savings, however, because people will no longer be switching between different benefits. The regulations will help to stabilise the lives and finances of individuals involved. It makes good administrative sense to operate in such a way.
I am grateful to her for raising those instances. We try to make the benefit system respond to the special caring needs that can arise in such circumstances. It would be perverse not to do so.
Glenda Jackson: I gave one example of a mother caring for her child in intensive care. Such incidents arise unexpectedly. They are emergencies and the individual who is the carer is obviously concentrating on the person who requires that care, so basic matters such as simply telling the benefit office what has happened can sometimes evade the individual’s memory. That can have a deleterious effect on how such people are treated when they go back to the benefit office.
Mr. Plaskitt: I appreciate that. To some extent, people working in the benefit offices have discretionary powers and, hopefully, they will be sympathetic when responding to circumstances of that nature which arise in a completely unforeseen way and clearly dominate the life of the person who is dealing with them. It is easy in such circumstances to overlook the obligations that the person might have in respect of benefit entitlement. However, we hope that officers will be sensitive in those circumstances.
Several questions were asked about custody. It is important for me to stress that as soon as a charge occurs, entitlement to the benefit ceases. I think that that is accepted. I was asked about circumstances relating to a family funeral. An exception exists in those circumstances, too.
As the arrangement comes into operation, we will monitor its impact on savings, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Daventry. I shall be happy to report back on that. It is thought that the limits are reasonable as jobseeker’s allowance is a benefit for those able to work. Customers are expected to have put alternative caring arrangements in place when possible. Additional caring benefits are attached to caring responsibilities and, if circumstances are appropriate, people should come forward and claim those.
I hope that I have answered the questions. I am grateful that hon. Members have accepted that the changes are sensible and progressive, and that they should assist people in the circumstances that we have discussed. It should mean that their claim for jobseeker’s allowance is not disrupted. It is a helpful and sensible series of changes to make.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance) Amendment Regulations 2006.
Committee rose at seven minutes to Eleven o’clock.

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 24 May 2006