Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am sorry that the Minister did not take the very simple point that I made. The income support level for a couple is £73 per week and that will passport the couple on to other benefits. It is regarded as a poverty threshold.

Perhaps I may take the example of two couples. In one couple, the woman—and I choose the woman, although I take the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—is working 21 hours per week for £3 per hour and receives £63 per week. At that point, because the woman is working for fewer than 21 hours per week, the benefits of the couple may be topped up by income support. In other words, there is offsetting and that income is floated up to £73 per week. The woman remains in work and the couple receive other benefits.

In the next-door house, the woman works for 25 hours per week receiving £2.50 per hour, which means that she is also receiving an income of £63 per week. Because of the hours rule, that couple are disqualified from receiving income support and, consequently, their income is not floated up to £73. Therefore, that woman is financially worse off because she is in work and she would be stupid to stay in work.

If the Minister means what he says—and I am sure that he does—that we wish to keep people in work and that part-time work may be a pathway into full-time work, we should do our damnedest to encourage people to stay in part-time work. I am not knocking the additional bonuses and so on to which the Minister has referred. But how can he defend the proposition that one

20 Apr 1995 : Column 669

family with a member working for 21 hours a week for £3.00 has its income topped up by income support but the other family with a member working for 25 hours a week for £2.50 per hour does not? As a result, that latter family would be financially better off to pull out of work. Will the Minister explain why we need an hours test over and beyond an income test?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I have attempted to explain but clearly I have not succeeded. The point is that the benefit is paid to people who are out of work, unemployed and all the other matters which we discussed today. Remunerative work is just that and does not count for the payment of benefits.

It would be unreasonable if all remunerative work were to knock people out of the system and I should have thought that the increase from 16 to 24 hours was a generous concession to the argument which the noble Baroness makes. I hear that she wants the Government to go further and virtually abandon the rules but she will not be surprised to hear me say that that would involve a cost implication.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: But why are the Government testing remunerative work by the hours worked rather than by the amount of remuneration received? The Minister says that there are cost implications but once a person leaves work and becomes unemployed, that costs us all £120 per week.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Dare I say that it is a good deal easier to judge the hours of work than it is to try to compute hours against wages and the wage level earned? It is a simple rule which has existed for some time. We are making an increase from 16 to 24 hours, which is a concession. I doubt whether many people are tempted to follow the route which the noble Baroness says almost everybody is tempted to follow. I believe that this provision is sensible. When the £10 is added and the back-to-work bonus is added, that provides generous assistance to people in the circumstances which we are discussing. That assists them to not only look for work and to stay in part-time employment but it defines the number of hours that a person may work without looking as though he really is working and can no longer be considered an unemployed person.

Lord Swinfen: The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, makes an extremely good point. I hope that between now and the next stage of the Bill my noble friend will read and consider this debate and see whether he cannot make a proposal to answer and ameliorate the situation.

Earl Russell: The Minister's argument that the hours are easier to measure reminds me of the Black Country man who was found looking in the gutter under a lamp post. Somebody asked him, "What are you looking for?" He said, "I dropped half a crown." He was asked, "Did you drop it here?" The reply was, "No, I dropped it over there". He was then asked, "Well why are you looking here?" The reply came back to him, "Because the light is better here". I admit that the Minister has got the better light; but he may not see anything by it.

20 Apr 1995 : Column 670

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who took part in the debate. We hope that the Minister will not only have the light but that he will also see the light. When we return to the issue on Report—as I am sure we must because it is a silly anomaly which costs us all money—we ought to be able to resolve the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 21:

Page 3, line 6, leave out ("or unmarried").

The noble Lord said: In moving the above amendment I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak also to Amendment No. 181. Amendment No. 21 is a probing amendment. I should like to learn from my noble friend the Minister what is meant by the phrase "an unmarried couple" in the context of the Bill as set out in Clause 3(1) (e). While I am in favour of marriage, I do not believe that it is necessary for a couple to establish a long and satisfactory relationship by going through a formal ceremony either in a religious or a civil establishment.

However, I believe that the matter needs some explanation from the Government. An "unmarried couple" is not necessarily a stable relationship. How long do the couple have to be in a relationship, living together? What happens if there are regular, possibly even frequent, changes of partners? What is the position with a couple who have got together while abroad and then come to this country where they claim benefit after having been here for only a very short time? What is the position if one of the partners in such an unmarried relationship has a living spouse from whom there is no legal separation? Can someone possibly have more than one partner?

If a married man comes to this country having legally married more than one wife abroad, I believe that he can support both, or more, wives on benefit because they were legally acquired abroad. But would that be the same situation if he entered into a legal, unmarried relationship with more than one woman? Will people who share a home but who do not cohabit automatically be considered as an unmarried couple?

There are all kinds of permutations that one could go into. However, at this hour of the night I shall not do so. Nevertheless, I should be grateful if my noble friend could explain what is meant by "an unmarried couple" in the Bill. On the face of it, it looks as though it is straightforward and very simple. But in the real world we know that some partnerships change, and change quite often with some individuals. I believe that all parties in this country want to establish and protect long-standing relationships. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My noble friend is asking for elucidation. Therefore, he does not need me to tell him that his amendment would mean that in the case of unmarried couples the income-based jobseeker's allowance would treat them in quite a different way

20 Apr 1995 : Column 671

from married couples. Perhaps I may explain how we tried to venture into what I fully concede is by no means a straightforward area.

As a general rule, unmarried couples who are living together as husband and wife are treated in the same way as a married couple. The principle underlying that rule is that they should not be treated either more or less favourably than married couples. We will be defining "partner" in the JSA regulations. We intend to follow the definition currently used in Income Support, which is tried and tested and which includes both married and unmarried couples and indeed polygamous marriages too. I hope that my noble friend does not ask me about that regulation, because I look forward to reading it tomorrow.

Lord Swinfen: I hope that my noble friend will send me a copy!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My noble friend rightly asks me how we decide whether a couple are living together as man and wife. Some of the factors that are taken into account include membership of the same household, stability of the relationship—which I think answers the point about time—financial support, public acknowledgement, sexual relationship, if that information is volunteered, and any children. The criteria do not represent a rigid formula. I am sure most Members of the Committee appreciate that they cannot and the presence or absence of any single factor does not of itself determine the decision.

The basic policy intention is that unmarried couples who are living together as husband and wife should not be treated either more or less favourably than married couples. The emphasis in the treatment of couples is on either the existence of an actual contract of marriage or on an unmarried couple living together as though a contract of marriage existed between them. Our comparison is a general one. We are looking to see whether the unmarried couple are living together on the same kind of basis as they would do when they are married. I hope that, with that rather complicated explanation, my noble friend will at least go away and contemplate what interesting points he might make in his next speech on this subject.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page