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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I was hoping to put some questions to the Minister, and so we need to continue this debate. Like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I simply do not comprehend the ethical natureI use those words purposelyof the Government's position. I shall put some questions to the Minister and then make a comment. First, does he accept that not to pay someone benefit is a fine or a penalty? Secondly, does he acceptI am following on from what the noble Earl, Lord Russell, saidthat by taking away benefit from the moment a consideration is raised the Minister or the employment officer is assuming what he has yet to prove? Does the Minister accept that?
I followed the Minister's answer carefully, and I was quite interested in his linguistic shifts as his answer developed. Sometimes he said that the claimant was not meeting his obligations; sometimes he said, "even though we believe he is not meeting his obligations"; sometimes he said, "he does not satisfy his obligations"; sometimes he said that there is a doubt as to whether he satisfies his obligations. That is the problem. The Government are consistently acting as though to raise a doubt is itself to determine the case. They assume that the doubt of the employment officer carries the same weight as the judgment of the adjudication officer. In other words, the Minister is assuming what is yet to be proved and in the process is fining in advance of the offence being established.
I cannot believe that the Minister cannot ethically comprehend what is evilI use that word advisedlyabout that. None of us in this room would accept that in any walk of life where it affected us; but we shall do it to them out there because they do not have our voice, our weight, our clout or our status. It is evil to fine someone in advance of establishing whether an offence has been committed. The process of fining them will remove from people who are among the poorest of the poor even the barest of livelihoods. I hope the Minister can persuade me that there is some ethical basis and not merely Treasury money cutting to his reply.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I apologise, for I was called out of the Chamber by an urgent message and therefore was not present when the amendment was moved. I shall be brief in what I want to add to what
Secondly, I hope Ministers will consider the implications of this amendment. I can only add to the very eloquent things said by my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, the quite devastating experience of the United States as regards refusing any form of benefit to those who do not have children. As the Committee will know it has long been the case in the United States that only the so-called aid for dependent children applies in the case of people who have ceased to have unemployment benefit. There is no form of income benefit for people without dependent children.
The consequences have been dire. Sometimes I think that we should not follow the United States, but we seem to have a tendency to do so all the time. I cannot say whether it will happen in this countryI hope it will notbut there is no doubt that in the United States this has been a factor which has driven people into taking extreme measures in order to get some kind of income. Very often those measures take the form of low-level drug running. The outcome of that is far more expensive to society than occasionally giving benefit to people who, after six, eight or 10 weeks, may be found to be not entitled to it.
I do not believe, with respectand I do respect itthat the Department of Employment has much experience of American welfare conditions. I do not believe that it has very much experience of the enormous levels of crime which have overtaken inner cities in the United States. I say that with due seriousness and some first-hand knowledge of what I am talking about. I accept everything that the Minister said with regard to the fact that claimants should not be entitled to benefit if they have drawn themselves out of the necessary conditions. But in this case we do not know whether they have.
I plead with Ministers to think again. The ultimate consequences for society and for public expenditure could be very much more grave than they recognise. When one compares the United States with some other countries like Canada, one has to draw the conclusion that one of the reasons for the problems is the non-entitlement to legitimate benefit for people who for one reason or another are unable to get work.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure what I can add to my argument that will help Members opposite to understand it. I understand their argument but I do not agree with it. They probably understand mine but they do not agree with it, and that is the difference between us. I have made the point before that it is a question of judging entitlement. Some sort of legal
We are talking about a benefit to which people are entitled if they meet the conditions. Earlier this afternoon I mentioned the principles of availability for work and actively seeking work. Claimants are entitled to those benefits only when they satisfy the entitlement conditions. If there is doubt as to whether they meet the conditions, it cannot be right to pay the allowance. That is the difference between us. The claimant then has to wait until that has been decided by the adjudication officer. A great deal was made
Of course, in any adjudication procedure some will be successful and others not. If they were all unsuccessful, the Benches opposite would be complaining that somehow I had rigged the rules against any claimant to make sure that all were unsuccessful. Therefore, I am not in the least surprised that some are successful and others are not. That is what one would expect from a system where an adjudication officer examines a case and decides whether the claimant is entitled to the benefit because he satisfies the conditions. That is the first clear point that I want to make.
On the matter of hardship, I have tried to explain some of the criteria and things for which the officers look when they examine for hardship. I explained that not all people who apply for these tests are totally without funds. Some may have capital resources up to £8,000; some have wages from previous employment or access to part-time work for themselves or their partner. Anyone who is in disagreement about availability for work has the alternative of taking steps to fulfil the conditions and not have a doubt placed on his availability and actively seeking work criteria. So I do not believe that this is such an either/or situation as the noble Baroness and the noble Earl try to make out.
Frankly, I think that it is extravagant to talk about this measure as being evil. My definition of evil and that of the noble Baroness are clearly poles apart. I do not believe that trying to run a benefits system which is fair to both claimantsas we are trying to beand the taxpayer, who is fundamentally footing the bill for those benefits, can be described as evil. Trying to look after people in certain categories who can show hardship is perfectly sensible and reasonable. But saying to people who have not established whether or not they are eligible for the benefit, "I am sorry but until your basic eligibility is established, you cannot have this benefit", is neither wrong nor evil. In the opinion of the Benches opposite it may be misguided and they may not agree with it, but I do not think that extravagant argument helps this particular argument.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I wanted to interrupt because the Minister was making an elision from one statement to another. I wanted to break it at that point to see whether he could justify the leap that he was making. He is talking all the time as though people have to establish a benefit and, if there is a doubt, they do not receive it. That is not the situation at all. They have the JSA. The employment officer has a doubt as to whether they are meeting the conditions. It is presumed that because he has a doubt they are not meeting the conditions and therefore they are denied benefit until their innocence is established.
It is not the job of the claimants to establish the basic eligibility. There is already a basic eligibility. That is their entitlement. It is being denied on a doubt. The Minister moved from saying that a claimant was entitled to it if he met those conditions to saying that it was therefore entirely reasonable to stop it if someone doubted whether the claimant was meeting it while he was investigating. How is that fair to the claimants? It is not a penalty in advance of determining whether they are meeting the conditions. A doubt is not a determination. The Minister is treating it as though it were. That is what is not fair to a claimant who is entitled to that benefit until evidence has been found for the fact that he is not meeting those conditions and it has been so ruled. Doubt is not the same as adjudication. Would the Minister please comment on that?
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