Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene. I cannot understand the point of a review if the prisoner is in prison only because of the original crime. How can the horror of that original crime be mitigated by further reviews? It is meaningless.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I suspect that at the end of the day we shall have to agree to differ. However, the specific responsibility of the Home Secretary of the day is to consider whether retribution and deterrence have been properly met by the serving of the sentence. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made clear, such reviews will be confined to the considerations of retribution and deterrence. I believe that the right reverend Prelate would see that as some limitation; but those are the limitations on my right honourable friend.

I know that such consideration falls short of the type of review that some have in mind—that is, a review which would take account of a prisoner's progress during sentence—but it is the only review which we believe appropriate.

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1094

Once the Home Secretary of the day believes that the requirements of retribution and deterrence have been met, it is then a matter for the Parole Board to make judgments about behavioural patterns, risks assessments, and so on, to determine when a prisoner should be released. Behaviour subsequent to the offence can do nothing to change the seriousness with which such events must be viewed and the retribution which should follow it, so far as concerns the Home Secretary's consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, not for the first time, personalised much of what he said. Much that he said missed the point of the debate. It is not the present Home Secretary who brought about the mandatory life sentence. That has been with us for a long time. My right honourable friend is responsible for making the system more open, for ensuring that those prisoners who are subject to whole life tariffs—they have not at this stage been levied by my right honourable friend but by previous Home Secretaries—have all information available to them, including all information relating to their sentence from the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judges. When the prisoners are in receipt of that information, they can indeed appeal to the Home Secretary to reconsider their tariff.

I believe that that openness is welcomed. I believe it is right that people should have that information. It provides at least a glimmer of hope that, first, the person knows the full information and, secondly, that he or she knows the process by which the case will be reviewed.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, grossly distorted what my right honourable friend has said—again not for the first time. When my right honourable friend refers to prisons, he believes that, for some, prison works. However, my right honourable friend has a robust programme of community sentencing. Where it is appropriate for people to serve their sentences in the community, he believes strongly in that, too. Therefore whether the numbers of people in prison are rising or falling is not the measurement of whether the judicial system works. The measures are the effectiveness of prison sentence where it is appropriate, and the effectiveness of non-custodial sentence where that is appropriate.

In conclusion, I would say that it is in the Government's view vital, both as a matter of principle and in order to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system, that the punishment should fit the crime. There will be few crimes which merit incarceration for life; but, for those that do, this Government will not flinch from ensuring that the perpetrators do indeed remain in prison for life.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.54 to 8 p.m.]

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1095

Jobseekers Bill

House again in Committee on Clause 13.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 131:

Page 11, line 43, leave out ("such meaning as may be prescribed") and insert ("the same meaning as in section 2 of the Employment and Training Act 1973.").

The noble Earl said: We are now back again with training Humpty Dumpty. The Bill states that "training" has:

    "such meaning as may be prescribed".

The Government state in their memorandum to the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee that their intention is that "training" should have the meaning it has in Section 2 of the Employment and Training Act 1973. That meaning is perfectly acceptable to me. Why have the Government not put it in the Bill? I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I listened with interest to the brief speech of the noble Earl who mentioned Humpty Dumpty. I thought that he was going to talk about "The Yeomen of the Guard" which I had the pleasure of seeing on Monday. I hope that I can explain why the provision is arranged the way it is.

As my noble friend explained in the debate on Clause 3, it is our intention to bring forward regulations to define training and other assistance for 16 and 17 year-olds. Our intention is that the definition for "training" will be certain training provided for the youngsters pursuant to arrangements made under Section 2 of the Employment and Training Act 1973. The definition of "other assistance" will be certain other assistance provided for them pursuant to arrangements made under Section 2 of the Employment and Training Act. I know that the noble Earl is not keen on regulations, but I think that this time he is teasing me about what was and was not put into the Bill in this case.

Over the past 15 years the Government have brought about significant reforms and changes in training and other provision for young people. We continue to do so. Modern apprenticeships in particular will provide training for young people to at least National Vocational Qualification level 3. They are a serious reform of our training system and will make a significant contribution to improving the nation's competitiveness.

I believe that the noble Earl recognises the strength of the reforms and I hope he also recognises the seriousness of our intentions. It is important that we maintain forward momentum in order to keep our competitiveness in global markets. That means having flexibility to take account of future developments. Like many matters in social security legislation, the definitions are not entirely straightforward. That is illustrated by the fact that even the noble Earl's amendment is technically deficient. I am sure that he is aware that a wide range of training is provided under Section 2 of the Employment and Training Act. His amendment embraces it all, although only a small part of it—principally youth training and modern apprenticeships—forms the basis of the Government's youth training guarantee. I am sure that the noble Earl would not wish us, any more than we do, to be able to fulfil the guarantee by offering young people pre-retirement training for example.

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1096

I believe that we must specify certain training only in that regard and the training may change over time. I believe that regulations are the best way to achieve that level of detail.

No doubt the noble Earl will tell me that it is unimportant that his attempted draft is technically defective and that we or he could bring forward a correct version. I sympathise and to that extent I am sure that he could get round the problem that I have just raised. However, I do not believe that it is as simple as that, for the reasons I have demonstrated. There are differences that we must be able to reflect in the future; changes will be made and even different arrangements within the United Kingdom. We must ensure that the legislation provides for them. I believe that the matter is best left to secondary legislation to deal with and I hope that on that basis the noble Earl will withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell: I thank the Minister for his reply. I admit that it was not my intention to provide for post-retirement or pre-retirement training. Then I thought for a moment about the state of the labour market and asked, why not? I thought for a moment longer and decided that you cannot retire until you have had work. The Minister appreciates that I have misgivings about the legislation because it enables future governments to change the meaning of "training" in any way they like. However, I have made the points before and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 agreed to.

Clause 14 [Reduced payments]:

[Amendments Nos. 132 to 134 not moved.]

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 [Circumstances in which a jobseeker's allowance is not payable]:

[Amendment No. 135 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (The Viscount of Oxfuird): I must advise the Committee that if Amendment No. 136 is agreed to I cannot call Amendments Nos. 137 to 142, due to pre-emption.

[Amendments Nos. 136 to 138 not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 139:

Page 13, line 44, leave out ("week") and insert ("day").

The noble Baroness said: I should like to move Amendment No. 139 and speak to Amendments Nos. 140, 141, 145, 146 and 147. This set of amendments concerns the period of disqualification. That is after a determination has been made by the adjudication officer. Amendments Nos. 139 and 140 deal with our anxiety that the minimum should not be one week but one day and the maximum not 26 weeks but four weeks. Amendment No. 140 is triggered by the problems of giving up or refusing a training course or failing to follow a jobseeker's direction.

Under the Bill, disqualification for up to 26 weeks may follow where a person has failed to observe a jobseeker's agreement and subsequent directions, where he fails to attend a training course or has lost or refused work without good cause. We on our side believe that the sanctions turn a jobseeker's agreement into a coercive

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1097

policy. Presumably, a person who has failed to abide by the jobseeker's agreement or failed to follow a direction can have the benefit restored if he goes on to comply with the agreement and can remedy the situation. However, if the benefit deduction occurred for something that happened in the past, it cannot subsequently be rectified. Nothing that the claimant can do will permit the benefit to be restored. The problem particularly arises on the issue of training schemes.

In the past only a few such schemes carried sanctions with them. Now, all do. Even though the course itself may last for as abbreviated a period as, say, four weeks, the claimant can nonetheless have benefit sanction imposed for up to six months for failing to attend. Despite the Minister's honeyed words earlier about the courses being "suitable", "relevant", "appropriate" and "quality", as we all know, some of those courses are of poor quality and are deemed irrelevant.

We argue that a penalty of up to 26 weeks' sanction of benefit is grossly disproportionate to the alleged offence. It is a fine of six months' income. Forgive us if we believe, or fear, that this is a back-door method of protecting the TECs, which cannot win their clients in the market-place—as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, put it so persuasively earlier in the debate—and therefore have to do it essentially by workfare-type sanctions.

Turning to Amendment No. 146, a similar problem arises when people voluntarily leave employment. From 1911 to 1986 (75 years) society decided that it could adequately protect the National Insurance Fund by six weeks' disqualification. In 1986, the maximum disqualification period was extended to 13 weeks, and in 1988 to 26 weeks. In other words, the Government are saying that since coming to power they have had to quadruple the period of time during which someone suffers disqualification from benefit because so many voluntarily leave work—at a time of such acute unemployment. To coin a cliché, it beggars belief.

There may be good reason for people leaving employment. We all know of situations where there has been a severe reduction in pay or a worsening of hours and conditions, which nonetheless have not been accepted by the Employment Service as good cause. I am a little familiar with the arrangements that have affected local government since the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering. For example, cleaners' pay was cut from £3.75 an hour to £2.45 an hour; hours of work were put up from 37 to 40; there was no holiday pay and no sickness pay. Yet someone leaving that job was deemed to have left it without good cause.

As we explored in previous amendments, not only is benefit suspension extensive; not only is it applicable to new alleged offences; and not only is it disproportionate to the offence, but also the right to hardship payments has been restricted. Together, this cluster of amendments would limit the penalty to what is still a deeply unpleasant, though perhaps not so life-threatening a sanction as those that are currently in the Bill. If the alleged offence is repeated without good cause, there is nothing to stop a reimposition of the benefit penalty. But there is at least a chance for a turn in direction if that benefit penalty was imposed with good cause.

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1098

Behind the amendment is a wider concern about the effect of poverty on the families involved. The strain on families trying to live on reduced benefit is unbelievable. We know that families go without food; children go to school in the winter in canvas plimsolls with holes in them; we see disconnection of electricity; we see families trying to eat cold food through the winter; we see debts from which they never recover. Children play truant; they leave school; they leave home; marriages break down; the wife returns to her parents and the husband goes into a clinical depression.

I sometimes wonder, when the Government seem so free and easy with their proposals to impose no income for six months and then provide hardship payments for vulnerable families of only 60 per cent. of benefit, whether they have even the faintest idea of what it is like to live for six months either without benefit or on only 60 per cent. of benefit. I wonder how those same Ministers would feel if they could not give their children three meals a day because of a penalty imposed on them by us? I beg to move.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: Perhaps I may begin with some remarks about Amendments Nos. 139 and 145.

The overwhelming majority of people who become unemployed make every effort to find work at the earliest possible opportunity. Experience shows, however, that a small minority seek to abuse the benefits system. Benefit sanctions exist to protect the taxpayer and the National Insurance Fund contributor from subsidising people who have no good reason to be or to remain unemployed. They do that by influencing the behaviour of people who claim benefit or are thinking of claiming benefit. They also have an important role in reinforcing incentives for unemployed people to take the right steps to get back into work.

Both these amendments would reduce the minimum length of sanction from one week to one day, as was explained. Amendment No. 139 applies to the minimum length of a fixed-length sanction which can be prescribed for actions such as failing to carry out a jobseeker's direction or refusing to attend a prescribed course or programme.

Amendment No. 145 applies to the minimum length of sanctions that are determined by an adjudication officer for action such as leaving employment voluntarily without just cause; losing employment through misconduct; and refusing an offer of employment without good cause.

I appreciate that the shortest length of sanction that an adjudication officer can currently impose is one day. We believe that that is so short as to be meaningless. When an adjudication officer decides that a claimant has broken one of the benefit rules in this clause and has failed to show just cause or good cause for his actions, the result should be a sanction that will effectively deter claimants from acting in the same way, even when the minimum sanction is appropriate. JSA will be payable in respect of one week. It follows that the minimum length of sanction should also be one week.

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1099

I now turn to Amendment No. 140. This amendment would stipulate in primary legislation that the maximum period of fixed-length sanction should be four weeks. I can certainly assure the Committee that this is the Government's intention for the regulations that will establish the period of sanction for those circumstances relating to employment and training provisions. We believe it right to set a clear penalty, so that unemployed people will be in no doubt as to the consequences if they reject our help and assistance without good cause. I must emphasise the words "without good cause". They are the key to the triggering off of the penalty. But we must retain the flexibility to revise this period should it prove insufficient in providing the proper incentives for taking up government assistance. For those reasons, I urge the Committee to reject this amendment.

Amendment No. 146 sets a maximum period of 13 weeks for sanctions for leaving voluntarily, for misconduct or refusal of employment and is unacceptable. Our experience in the 1980s showed that maximum periods of disqualification of both six and 13 weeks were simply not effective in discouraging people from making themselves unemployed. Returning to 13 weeks as a maximum would send all the wrong signals to unemployed people. We would, I am sure, see again more people leaving jobs of their own accord or refusing them for no good reason if they were offered.

It is important to recognise that a sanction of 26 weeks is not the norm. Where adjudication officers find that there are mitigating circumstances, they do not impose the maximum sanction—and quite rightly. Only 25 per cent. of cases of leaving voluntarily attract a maximum sanction. Only 40 per cent. of misconduct cases do. That gives a clear indication that adjudication officers weigh up the complex range of circumstances behind any decision to leave a job.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page