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Earl Russell: The Minister objects to the idea that the jobseeker should have a second chance. Is it not proverbial that a dog is allowed one bite? Why should the jobseeker be treated worse than a dog?
Lord McCarthy: I am not sure that I understand what the Minister is saying. If I understand him aright, he is saying that it is perfectly all right because we do it anyway, and the amendment is merely declaratory of the existing situation:
The Minister seems to be saying that we do it anyway and yet somehow, as the noble Baroness said, these letters are no longer sent. So the difference is that the decision is taken first. Is not that what the Minister is saying? The officer in the Jobcentre decides that the person is no longer fulfilling the tests, and the benefit stops. Subsequently he writes to the adjudication officer and then to the unfortunate unemployed person and says, "The benefit has gone, but I have written to the adjudication officer". Of course we know that in certain circumstances if the individual is vulnerable and in hardship, a lower rate of benefit can be paid. But if he is not, then no benefit is paid, and in the meantime what the unemployed person knows is that, subject to review by the adjudication officer, the benefit is stopped, and he is considered to be not actively seeking work. That is not the same thing at all. It is entirely different. What is wrong with having our amendment?
Baroness Williams of Crosby: Before the Minister responds to the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, perhaps I may ask just one other question. It was not clear to me, although I recognise that the Minister is doing everything he can to help us, what was the position with regard to warning letters. There was a lack of clarity, at least in my mind, for which I apologise, as to when the claimant is supposed to read leaflets and when he receives a letter.
I am sure that the Minister will recognise that there is a real difference between receiving a personal letter and being expected to understand a leaflet. Having had the experience of being a Minister at the Department of Employment, I have to say that many of the leaflets are not completely clear. In Committee, we have talked on occasion about people with learning difficulties, people who may not have English as their first language and those who may not find it easy to read.
As regards the objection that the noble Viscount raised about the dangerand I understand it wellthat a warning letter might arrive some months after someone has started drawing benefit and that the person concerned only then takes action, I appreciate that that might well apply to someone who was anxious not to take work and who wanted to live on benefit. It is not impossible for the Department of Employment to send that letter after, let us say, a month or six weeks. I do not see why it has to wait four, five or six months to validate the noble Viscount's comments.
Lord Inglewood: There are two separate letters here. We do not send a warning letter to people telling them to start active seeking, but we send a letter to the claimant advising him that the matter is being referred to the adjudication officer.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: If the letter is being sent at the point at which the employment officer is referring to the adjudication officer, that means that there is a presumption that benefit will be stopped simultaneously with the sending out of the letter, rather than the letter being sent out in advance saying, "We are minded, and if there is good reason why we should not refer this", with the implication that the benefit will be stopped, which surely is the just way.
Lord Inglewood: I understand that the position is as described by the noble Baroness. It is important to be clear that in this case the benefit is payable so long as the criteria are satisfied; in other words, so long as the person concerned is in fact actively seeking work. Therefore, that is a matter of fact and not of opinion so far as concerns the point in time.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am taken aback to be told that the position is as I have described it. Does that mean the Minister is saying that a letter will be sent in advance to any JSA claimant saying that there is some doubt about his or her availability for work and that unless that doubt can be satisfied there will be a referral, and that any problem of loss of benefit will begin only if the claimant has failed to respond to the letter, failed to meet that doubt and as a result the matter goes through to the adjudication officer.
Lord Inglewood: As I understand it, the benefit is payable for the duration of the time that the person is actively seeking work. I believe that I am right in saying that, if there is anxiety that the person may not be actively seeking work, the employment officer will advise the jobseeker at the same time as referring the matter to the adjudication officer
Lord McCarthy: The Minister used the word "suspended". During the period in which the letters are going backward and forward to the unemployed person and to the adjudication officer, will the benefit be suspended?
Lord Inglewood: I am afraid that I honestly do not know. Perhaps I may deal with a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about people who might have difficulty in speaking English. As I said previously, one of the characteristics of the jobseeker's agreement is that there is an interview between the employment officer and the jobseeker. Therefore, the position can be explained before the process gets under way. To some extent, that will go towards meeting the point which the noble Baroness made.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I am sure that he will sympathise when I say that it does not fully meet the point. If the original jobseeker's agreement was an open, careful and detailed discussion of the difficulties and possibilities of employment, I fully accept what he said. However, one of the points that we on this side of the Committee have been makingand not without some awareness about how these things occasionally work in real lifeis that the agreement may not sufficiently allow for the disabilities with which the particular individual must cope. That person may genuinely seek to find work but cannot because of the reasons given by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, or because he or she is not attractive to employers. Benefit will be disallowed. The earlier situation in which someone could come forward before benefit was taken away and say, "Look, I have tried 20 employers and they have all told me that they don't want someone who lisps", offered a great advantage.
I believe that the Bill will lead us into more bureaucratic tangles and appeals at some expense to the public purse than would a simple decision to return to letters of warning. That would provide the Post Office with a little money and give the Civil Service and those concerned in the long period of exploring such issues a more efficient administration of the Bill.
Earl Russell: Perhaps I may tell a story which I hope no one will take personally, because it is not so intended. When I was an undergraduate I remember Mr. Hugh Dalton speaking and being asked what was the best degree for politics. He replied, "a second", because the first-class mind was too conscious of the possibility of error. I thought at the time that he was wrong and, having listened
The suspension of benefit may happen in error and it may cause gross hardship. One case, for example, involved a man no longer able to pay for electricity with all the food in his freezer, on which he hoped to live for two weeks, going bad. Another case involved someone who had to travel 30 miles to work without public transport. He relied on a lift from his mate, who later left the job. He was then unable to get to work and was disentitled to benefit on the ground that he was voluntarily unemployed.
Were a warning letter to be sent to the person in that position it would be very easy for the misunderstanding to be cleared up before the gross hardship of a fortnight's suspension from benefit, and with nothing to live on, was imposed. The possibility of error is the hub of the whole issue and I hope that the Minister will recognise that.
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