Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Inglewood: The noble Earl is right. I wish to return in particular to his second example about the friend who drove the car and who left the job and left the other party high and dry. That is exactly the kind of incident that the jobseeker's agreement ought to take into account. It is a characteristic of the system that there is regular contact between the employment officer and the jobseeker. A change in circumstance is intended to be part of the flexibility of a jobseeker's agreement. The agreement can be adjusted and matters can be resolved in that way.

Lord McCarthy: The Minister told us that he does not know the answer to the question and I wish to know whether he can tell us the answer subsequently. We understand that previously a warning letter was sent to the person who was thought not to be actively seeking work. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that at one time those letters were running at the rate of 37,000 per year, while the number of disallowances were 4,700 per year. Now the letters are running at the rate of 2,000 per year and the number of disallowances is 14,772 per year. Those two facts may be connected. That is the situation as we understand it and that is what the amendment seeks to prevent. It seeks to create a situation in which letters are received in advance.

The Minister described a situation in which a decision is taken by the employment officer that someone is not actively seeking work. Of course, the person can protest and go to an adjudication officer. In order to put that process into action, two letters are sent; one to the adjudication officer and one to the poor unemployed person who is no longer actively seeking work. In the meantime, that person receives no money. Is that right?

Lord Inglewood: Needless to say, I shall write to the noble Lord having made sure that I am right in my description. I understand that, in the circumstances that he has described, the benefit is suspended. Two separate letters have entered into our discussions. First, there is the possibility of the warning letter which at one time was sent. That process was discontinued because it was often

25 Apr 1995 : Column 853

used as a trigger for people to go out and actively to seek work when hitherto they had not been doing so, even though it was part of a condition of benefit—

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Is that not what the Minister wants? To suggest that the warning letter was effective surely is exactly what the Minister wants. Or is he using this as an excuse to cut benefit rather than get people back into work?

Baroness Williams of Crosby: The 1992 report of the Social Security Advisory Committee made it clear that a great majority of cases were satisfactorily resolved after the warning letter had been sent. That is why we believe that the Government would be saved money and trouble if warning letters were again sent out.

Lord Inglewood: I understand the argument both noble Baronesses are putting forward. However, one is not meant to wait for the warning letter before one actively seeks work. One is meant to be actively seeking work ab initio and one should not wait for a warning letter to trigger that. That is the point.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The Minister's reply really will not do. It is not a question of waiting for a warning letter to trigger a person into seeking work. A person may well believe that he is meeting the actively seeking work requirement. The first that he knows that he is not doing so is when he receives a letter from the employment officer to tell him that his benefit is being suspended while the matter is referred to an adjudication officer.

Lord Inglewood: The point is that, with the jobseeker's agreement in place, much of the potential misunderstanding will be ruled out.

Earl Russell: The Minister seems to be saying that the Government withdrew the warning letter because it worked. I am reminded again of the first Lord Burghley's description of the High Commission: that it was rather a device to seek for offenders than to reform any. The Government's policy is beginning to sound rather the same.

Lord McCarthy: It is time for me to withdraw the amendment: it has had a very good run. The Minister has given an off-the-cuff answer. I hope that he will give us a full answer in writing. We want the Minister to say exactly how this matter was dealt with, how it is dealt with now and how it will be dealt with when the legislation comes into force. I hope that he can find a better answer than that he has given this evening. That answer implies that the Government would rather have a system that does not work than pay for a few weeks people who are not actively seeking work. It is a dreadful thought that the Government are prepared to break any system in order not to waste money. In that context, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment. We shall return to the matter on Report.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount St. Davids): I should point out that if Amendment No. 50 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 51.

25 Apr 1995 : Column 854

[Amendments Nos. 50 to 53 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees: In calling Amendment No. 54, I should point out that if it is agreed to I cannot call Amendments Nos. 56 or 57.

7.15 p.m.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 54:

Page 5, leave out lines 27 to 30.

The noble Earl said: I am sorry that it should have fallen to me to move such a particularly contentious amendment right on the hour of dinner. It concerns the clause in the Bill which allows for acts to be disregarded—that means, actively looking for work to be ignored—in circumstances connected with behaviour or appearance.

The Government are attempting to devise divine intentions from a single outward act. I admit that there may be people not actively seeking work who use a scruffy and unprepossessing appearance as a device to that end. On Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, quoted such a case. Since that was based on the claimant's own confession, when he did not know that anyone of any substance was listening, I take it seriously.

To go directly from the outward appearance to a presumption of the intention which leads to a loss of benefit is not sensible. Again, it is extremely difficult to define intention in legislation. It is an individual matter and must be tackled individually. If the Government wish to get into trouble for a few weeks, they should go in for defining dress codes. That way lies nothing but trouble.

The problem with prescribing dress codes is that they change and while they are in the process of changing you start prescribing restrictions which are not acceptable. I take an example of a dress code in the process of changing. The court circular in 1851 said:

    "Since no ladies will be present, trousers will be worn".

The noble and learned Lord, who is not at present on the Woolsack, were he here, would have been the first to understand what was really the purport of that remark.

One need think only of the problems in relation to Sikhs being required to wear crash helmets in the 1960s from which the Government very sensibly backed off, and the problems that the French are having as regards the enforcement of headscarves in schools. There is endless scope for trouble.

When I wrote to the Minister about this matter on 27th November, I quoted the question of women being forbidden to wear trousers. I wondered then whether I was being rather old hat. It turns out that I was not. Recently, I received the latest report from the Equal Opportunities Commission. It was taking to court in Stoke on Trent the case of a woman who worked for the town's urban transport committee and who was dismissed for wearing trousers. Fortunately, the authority admitted that that was wrong and agreed an out of court settlement. But the case illustrates the endless problems which the Government may face if they go down the road of allowing regulations to prescribe dress codes.

25 Apr 1995 : Column 855

I said of this clause at Second Reading that it was possible for an employment officer to disentitle someone's benefit if he did not like his face. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, shook his head at that point. I waited with great interest for the Government's reply to hear why he was shaking his head. I never did hear. If he can tell me this evening, I shall listen with great interest.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister to consider the case of Mr. Graham Gooch. Mr. Gooch has a fancy for wearing what is known nowadays as designer stubble. One could regard that—and I can imagine an employment officer regarding it—as evidence that Mr. Gooch was not actively seeking work whereas I can think of no one in the whole of the English cricket team who is more notorious for his addiction to hard work.

Therefore, the attempt to deduce the intention from the appearance may be very gravely mistaken. It also gives an employment officer the sort of power which it is not wise to give junior functionaries—indeed, which it is not wise to give to anyone. I should not be at all content for anyone to have that power over me. Where there is a personal relationship, there are personal feelings. Where there are personal feelings, there may be hostility. Where there is hostility, an unjust decision may be taken. That is why I believe that it is gravely mistaken to delegate power to take those decisions right down to the employment officer instead of having them taken by the adjudication officer who has no personal relationship with the claimant and who can take the decision merely on the basis of the facts. I should much rather that he were asked to consider such evidence which bears on the question of intention and to have the intention judged on the whole of the claimant's record.

If the Government go down the road I have described they will be treated mercilessly by the tabloid press. Some of that may be undeserved but not all of it. This amendment is designed to save the Government from that unpopularity. If they do not wish to be saved that is their right. But it is rather unfair on the claimants who will be deprived of benefits in the process. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page