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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: There may not be very much between us if the Minister were able to remove the two-week provision for those people who, whatever the definition of vulnerability, move from incapacity benefit or have points which nonetheless fail to take them to the incapacity benefit level. Perhaps the definition of vulnerability could be expanded to include
To return to the amendments in front of us, we recognise that undertaking courses of study can help unemployed people improve their employability and get back to work more quickly. That is why the Government are spending £574 million this year to provide 225,000 opportunities for training for work in England alone. We also continue to provide for people to study part-time while claiming JSA. Our proposals are designed to allow the same number of people to study part time while receiving JSA (about 80,000) as do so under the current rules, and to ensure that the rules can be administered fairly and consistently. I believe that it would set an unacceptable precedent to treat people as actively seeking work just because they were studying part time. Unemployed people are able to study only if they remain available for and are actively seeking work. It is not, and never has been, the purpose of unemployment benefit to support those whose first intention it is to study. While I appreciate that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, may not entirely agree with that proposition, he is at least prepared to accept that there is no point in reopening it so far as concerns the present argument.
We believe that it is entirely reasonable to expect someone who is claiming benefits as an unemployed person to seek a job actively. It is important that he maintains contact with the labour market. This will ensure that he is aware of any opportunities that are available. These principles apply to claimants studying part time as they do to others.
Perhaps I may set out the Government's proposals and look at the amendments in that light. In the further education sector, the definition of part time courses which we have used to date is no longer workable. The Further Education Funding Council now uses the concept of the guided learning hour. We have proposed a limit of 16 guided learning hours per week. A limit of 21 guided learning hours per week will mean a considerable increase in the number of people who are able to claim JSA, and of course in expenditure. We estimate that some 6,000 more people will be in a position to claim. If other benefits were in line with that, the additional cost would be some £40 million per year. The new rules that we are bringing in will produce a greater degree of consistency and clarity than is possible under the current rules.
There appears to be a misunderstanding about the term guided learning hours. This terminology is used by the Further Education Funding Council for England as a basis for funding colleges for the courses they offer. A similar definition is used by the FEFC for Wales. The term has no meaning in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In England and Wales the definition of a guided learning hour will be that used by the FEFC. The arrangements for Scotland will be similar, but will need to reflect the education arrangements there. The Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland. It is not practical or sensible to use the same definition across the whole of the United Kingdom. This would create difficulties in applying the rules consistently and could lead to similar anomalies to those experienced under the present system.
There are one or two other amendments in this group. While I do not believe that anybody has spoken to them, I think it is only fair that I say one or two words about them. I refer to Amendment No. 61B. I understand the spirit of this amendment. It is important that guidance to staff on how to apply the jobseeking conditions, and indeed the other conditions for benefit, should be made available to the public so that claimants and advice bodies can fully understand their rights and responsibilities under JSA. That is an important part of open government. I can give an assurance that this amendment is unnecessary. The guide of the chief adjudication officer to adjudication officers in the performance of their functions is a document published by HMSO and available in libraries. The majority of ES internal guides on unemployment benefit and advice and services to jobseekers are also available to whoever wishes to consult them. The same approach is followed in the Benefits Agency. We intend to continue these open arrangements for JSA.
I turn to Amendment No. 73A. Your Lordships have heard me say that the Government keep all of their programmes and policies under review as a matter of course. That is prudent management. Therefore, I suggest that this particular amendment is unnecessary. Public expenditure and public policy must always be monitored to ensure that resources are focused where they are needed and that we get value for money.
The education sector is undergoing rapid development at present. There is rather a deficiency of detailed information about study while on benefit, and the advantages it may bring. It is therefore particularly important that we keep the rules in this area under close review. That we shall do. We shall make any particular results of such work available in the normal way. The changes to the rules on part-time study are intended to ensure that the rules can be applied consistently, and they have been carefully defined to ensure that the same
Baroness Nicol: Before my noble friend rises to speak, perhaps the Minister will answer my question about the degree of consultation that occurred before the changes were made. There appears to be a great deal of unease among training providers. It would be helpful to know whether they were consulted.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I cannot give an immediate answer regarding the people who were consulted. One of the problems is that someone who feels that he ought to have been consulted and has not been is aggrieved. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that there has been consultation. The Further Education Funding Council has indicated that it feels that what we have arrived at will bring clarity for all students and is roughly the same as the previous position.
Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I thank the Minister for his reply. I should like to press him a little further on a number of problem areas. These matters arose at a meeting with the Minister the other day when he kindly said that he would look at these issues. Referring to those in work at the moment, a considerable number accept that they have to upgrade their skills. Many are in part-time education and also hold down jobs. That is to be encouraged and welcomed. When those people are made redundantan example is the 150 redundancies declared today at the Financial Timesthey register for work and find that if a job is offered they cannot refuse it on the grounds of the education course. They have to decide whether to give up the course or take any job that may be offered. That may be a false economy, particularly if the course will give them added skills so that they may get better forms of work. They will lose that investment in time and their commitment to it. That is a real anomaly faced by people in work today. I do not believe that the Bill deals with that situation.
Another anomaly arises where somebody says he wishes to go on a course and is prepared to pay for it. The money for that course may come from savings. It is quite often the case that a family member who has been unemployed for some time suddenly realises that the only way to get out of that situation is to gain added skills. He may go on a course. At the meeting that we had the example of the heavy goods vehicle licence course was referred to. One has to pay to get training to obtain a heavy goods vehicle licence. There is a whole range of other skills that can be acquired and paid for. Yet, if more than £100 is paid, the current interpretation
I must press the Minister on those two points. Is he prepared to consider whether it is possible to deal with those kinds of anomalies, which are not individual examples but anomalies which genuinely arise and in considerable number in some areas?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As I explained, it is difficult to deal with individual cases without knowing all the aspects of the case. If an officer's view on a matter appeared to be wholly unreasonable, the claimant has the opportunity to appeal to another adjudication officer and up through the system. I should have thought that if it were wholly unreasonable, the first adjudication officer would see that. So I find it quite difficult to give cast-iron guarantees about hypothetical cases.
I have discussed the matter with officials since the noble Baroness and others came to see me. We find it difficult to create a case and make a decision about how an officer might deal with it. I find it a little hard to believe, if the HGV licence in question would clearly help that person get a job and do it reasonably quicklyI do not suppose that such courses are terribly long, although they may be very concentratedthat an employment officer would insist on desertion with a week or two to go when, on completion of the course, there was every prospect of a job.
It is not necessarily the case that every course will leave you in a far better position to get a job. There must be circumstances in which, frankly, taking the job on offer on that day or week gives a much better prospect of obtaining employment than continuing with the course to its end. The course may not in fact increase your chances so very much when it comes to jobs. It is difficult to say.
I should like to be more helpful, but these matters are difficult. One of the reasons why there are adjudication officers' guidance and other things all around the country is to enable these situations to be dealt with fairly. Frankly, I should be living in a totally unreal world if I were to pretend that occasionally mistakes are not made on either side of the divide. Sometimes people have remained in benefit who did not deserve to do so; at other times people may have fallen out who, equally, did not deserve to do so. We all know that, in any system which has to deal with the individual cases of people, those things are always likely to happen in a very small number of cases.
I should like to think that the officers of the employment agencies, with the background and all the guidance that they have, would take a realistic and fair view of the course continuing compared with the job offer. There is always the possibility and much more
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