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Baroness Williams of Crosby: I rise with great pleasure to support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I hope that the Minister will consider seriously accepting the amendments or tabling similar amendments on Report.
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, referred to the target set in the Employment Service annual performance agreement for 1994-95; namely, a target of 135,000 cases to be referred to adjudicators on the grounds of an arguable caseI use the words in the actual agreementfor disallowing benefit.
The amendment seeks to distinguish between those people who have no grounds for continuing to receive benefit because they are not seriously seeking work and those who are seriously seeking work but who have legitimate and powerful reasons for not accepting all the work which may be offered to them. Members of the Committee will know of the fears expressed by the Church of England, Roman Catholic bishops and representatives of the Islamic community. They fear that people who wish to worship on a Sunday may instead be obliged to work. Such people would be placed in an extremely difficult position of conscience. I am sure that the Committee would not wish to see that situation arise.
A second strong argument has been put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. Some people, especially those with learning difficulties, those not in command of the English language, or those who come from an ethnic culture, are not immediately attractive to employers and may be disallowed benefit on those grounds alone. We know now that the proportion of cases disallowed benefit by the adjudicators has literally doubled in the past four years from 40 per cent. to 80 per cent. because the adjudicators are more likely to reject appeals than they were four or five years ago.
Therefore, I plead with the Minister to consider granting the protection we suggest. It is very carefully worded to ensure that it applies only to those who are bona fide seekers of jobs but who have genuine grounds of conscience, culture, education or handicap. Such people need that protection. I very much hope that this set of amendments will commend itself to the Committee.
Lord Rix: I rise to support briefly but enthusiastically the clarification proposed in Amendment No. 52 and the further clarification proposed in Amendment No. 43. Both amendments seek to achieve the same ends.
I wish to stress the problems of people with disabilities. I am glad that clarification is sought. I am sure that the Government, even at their most pigheaded and cloth-eared, are not suggesting that disabled people should be directed at employment for which their disability makes them totally unsuitable. If the rules are not absolutely clear and reasonable to those administering them, disabled people may find themselves dealing with officials who are neither clear nor reasonable. Therefore I support Amendments Nos. 43 and 52.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: I do not wish to duplicate the points already made. But I wish to add my voice in support of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Hollis. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rix, I support Amendment No. 52 in particular. I endorse the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. Particular regard should be paid to those groups of peoplethose who are disabled and those who may be affected by the circumstances set out in that amendment. Unless we have that specific protection against discrimination, I am absolutely certain that it will result in tears for many thousands of people.
Earl Russell: Perhaps I may interject a few points about carers. First, I should like to ask the Government if they will look again at one point in the income support general regulations. It concerns the availability for work of those who have young children. The specification at present is that they are responsible for finding care for the child and for making themselves available for work within 24 hours; otherwise they are found to be "not available".
We believe that that 24-hour period is unrealistic. I say that because, until one is offered a job, one does not know what the hours will be, what travelling will be involved, what sort of care will be appropriate, or what kind of shifts are required. I should be most grateful to hear that the Government are prepared to consider a rather longer interval.
Secondly, I should like an assurance from the Government in the following respect. Where responsibility for care of young children is involved, I should like an assurance that they will not assume a priori, before knowing how that family manages its business, that only women are capable of being carers of children. I believe that that assumption is out of date. I would welcome an assurance that it will not be operative in the administration of the legislation.
I hope that the Government will think very hard about the matter. I ask them to study the speech in the Debate on the Address made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool regarding the pressure that some retailers put on employees to work on Sundays. I believe that that is a very strong reason for thinking that legislation is needed.
Lord Inglewood: In responding to the amendments, I hope that Members of the Committee will bear in mind the fact that I shall be dealing with the nuts and bolts of the form of the amendments and also referring to the underlying concerns. Amendment No. 43 seeks to define the conditions of restricted availability on the face of the Bill. As with a number of other amendments that we have been discussing, I fear that the amendment serves only to demonstrate how difficult it is adequately to provide for this complex term in primary legislation and why we believe that it is necessary to do so in secondary legislation. The details of availability have always been set out in secondary legislation. It is by that route that we can most effectively encompass the different aspects of the modern labour market to which the benefit must be sensitive.
I understand why the noble Baroness and the noble Earl want to provide explicitly for areas of restrictions, but Amendment No. 43 would turn JSA away from its focus on jobseeking. Any restriction on grounds of religious belief, caring responsibilities, disability, or for training and study would have to be disregarded in determining availability. There is no provision to enable an adjudication officer to decide whether or not the
Let me emphasise once again that the Government are committed to meeting what I believe lies at the heart of what the amendments seek. The conditions of availability and actively seeking will be applied reasonably. The steps which a person must take to be actively seeking should be those which offer him best prospects of securing work. People with disabilities will be able to restrict their availability in accordance with their mental or physical condition without reference to their prospects of securing employment notwithstanding their restrictions.
People with caring responsibilitiesbe they for children or for sick and elderly relativeswill be able to place restrictions on the hours of their availability. People with sincerely held religious or conscientious beliefs will be able to place restrictions on the type of work that they are prepared to undertake. For example, I believe that reference was made to Moslems. If a Moslem woman was under consideration, she would not be required to be available for employment which required working alongside men if that would cause difficulties. Equally, a vegetarian would not be expected to work in an abattoir. Those restrictions would be discussed with the ES adviser.
In addition, people will not be required to be available on their normal day of worship by virtue of the framing of the general 40-hour availability requirement. That will enable them to stipulate from the start of their claim that they are not available on, say, a Saturday because of their Jewish faith. I see that the noble Baroness wishes to intervene. I give way.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I am much obliged. I should like to pursue the Minister on that point for just a moment. I do so because what he said is extremely important. Indeed, he has been very precise in using the phrase, "will not be required". Given the fact that that wording is not on the face of the Bill, can the Minister tell the Committee how we can ensure that the word "not" is applied in practice? For example, will it be in regulations or in the guidance to Department of Employment officers?
Lord Swinfen: Before my noble friend the Minister responds, perhaps I may make a further point. My noble friend specifically referred to Jewish people working on the sabbath. However, what is the position of an Orthodox Jew where the sabbath starts at sunset on the Friday and when, in winter, that can be as early as 3.30 in the afternoon? How will that position be affected?
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