Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Turner of Camden: I am not surprised that the briefing to the Minister said "reject" because that has been the situation throughout our discussions this evening. However, I am grateful to him for the assurances he has given us this evening about the pack of information being available to claimants. I hope that adjudication officers and employment officers are trained in giving vulnerable people assistance, because that is what lay at the root of our arguments. Many people simply do not understand the procedures; they need to be told what they are and how to go about them if they are to obtain their full rights under legislation.

I do not intend to press the amendment. I shall look with interest in Hansard tomorrow to see the assurances that the Minister gave in some detail. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 50, as an amendment to Amendment No. 4, by leave withdrawn.

Baroness Williams of Crosby moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 4, Amendment No. 51:

Line 122, at end insert:
("( ) Entitlement to a jobseeker's allowance shall not cease on any grounds related to whether a claimant is available for employment or is actively seeking employment or has failed to comply with regulations under this section unless the claimant has been notified in writing that consideration is being given that his entitlement should cease.").

The noble Baroness said: At this late hour I hope I may be able to tempt the Minister into one of the great constitutional glories of our system: that he is perfectly able to get up and refuse to take any notice of an advice which says "reject" if in his view he feels it would be politically wiser, more sensible, more imaginative and more responsive to pay no attention to what the Box advised him to do. I strongly recommend to him the extraordinary delights that that brings to one if one ever tries it.

Having said that, let me turn for a moment to the arguments. The Minister will recall that, when we discussed this matter earlier in Committee, I put forward arguments—I shall not repeat them—based upon the proportion of cases where, having been notified, people took steps to try to come within the conditions laid down which, if not satisfied, might lead them to lose benefit. At that point it seemed to me that a considerable administrative load could be lifted off the Department of Employment and the Department of Social Security if it was indicated to people that their benefit might be lost if they failed to take steps to meet the conditions.

However, during the Committee stage we had a long and bitter discussion on an earlier amendment on the issue of the payment of benefit until such time as an adjudication takes place, and this amendment would go at least a little way to bridge the gap between the two sides of the Committee on that matter. At the very least, it would draw the matter to the attention of people who had, perhaps unwittingly, failed to satisfy employment officers

11 May 1995 : Column 285

on the issues of actively seeking employment or availability for work, although they might believe that they had taken the steps that they thought were adequate to justify the continuation of benefit. By drawing this matter to their attention it would at the very least give them notice that the issue was now before the employment officer and would go before the adjudication officer, and that some steps might be taken by the claimant before that hearing was held.

On every ground it seems to me that this would ease what was one of the acute differences of opinion within the Committee and that it would be an issue on which the Government might well be able to concede—the giving of notification to people whose entitlement to benefit was indeed at risk for the reasons given. It is perhaps all the more important because one of the arguments of this side of the Committee was that this was a particularly tough penalty to exact. However, if the Minister feels unable to concede with regard to that tough penalty, I am sure he will agree with us that at the very least the person concerned should be warned that this was the danger he might be undergoing and that this was the penalty that might come his way unless he took steps to try to deal with the matter quickly.

If the Minister reads in Hansard tomorrow what he said on that earlier amendment he will find that he said repeatedly that it was open to people to take steps to satisfy the employment officer and the adjudication officer that they were actively seeking employment and that they were available for work—it was a matter for them. In those circumstances, notifying them what is at stake is surely the very least we might ask for to enable them to take the steps that would avoid this very heavy penalty falling upon them. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I must say to the noble Baroness that time has gone very slowly today because she seems to have forgotten that at the beginning of the session I introduced three new clauses in recognition of arguments put to me by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. Indeed, I made concessions in response to the committee's arguments on affirmative orders. So I do not think I always say "resist" or "reject".

Baroness Williams of Crosby: I notice that the noble Lord has graciously conceded to the scrutiny committee. It would be very nice if he would now concede to noble Lords at the Committee stage of the Bill.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall see what I can do at the next stage; but I do not think I can do that now. If the noble Baroness talks to her noble friend Lady Seear, she will find out that I made a concession to her on the Pensions Bill which quite took her breath away—the first concession she had had in 24 years, if my memory serves me right. My record cannot be bad if the noble Baroness got one out of me after none for 24 years.

To return to the amendment, I think the noble Baroness means that we should not stop payments of JSA on the grounds of doubt as to a person's availability or actively seeking unless we notify the jobseeker that consideration is being given by an adjudication officer

11 May 1995 : Column 286

as to whether his entitlement should cease. That is precisely what we propose to do. It is what we do now. A jobseeker will always receive notification that his claim has been referred to an independent adjudication officer and, in consequence, suspended. If, on the other hand, the noble Baroness is concerned that we should notify jobseekers when an employment officer is merely contemplating whether to refer a matter to the adjudication officer, while we do not issue such notification we would not suspend entitlement either. Either way the amendment does not add anything to our proposed arrangements.

When we considered the old Clause 6 (if I may refer to it in that way) we discussed a warning letter that used to be issued by employment officers to people who it was felt were not meeting the actively seeking work condition. The warning letter was an Employment Service administrative procedure introduced after the actively seeking employment condition was introduced in 1989. Its purpose was to ensure that unemployed people understood the implications of not meeting that new condition. It was specifically intended to ensure that people were fully informed about the new condition.

In 1992, three years after the introduction of the actively seeking employment condition, we decided that it was no longer necessary to issue warning letters as unemployed people would by then be acquainted with the new actively seeking employment condition. It is discussed in detail when a person makes a new claim for benefit and at subsequent review interviews under the Restart programme. Claimants also sign a declaration fortnightly to say that they have been actively seeking work during the period that they are signing for. Also, it became increasingly evident that some claimants—I mentioned this last time—were behaving as though they needed to start meeting the condition only after they had received a letter. That certainly was not the intention. To ensure that all claimants were in practice required to seek work actively, the logical consequence would be that we should issue a letter to that effect immediately at the start of each claim. I do not believe that that would be sensible.

The sensible approach is to ensure that claimants are fully aware of the requirement actively to seek employment from the start of their claim for benefit. The jobseeker's agreement will be of great assistance in making that clear to all. One of our main aims in introducing JSA as a whole, and one of the principal purposes of the agreement, is to ensure that jobseekers understand the conditions of receiving JSA. Of course, that includes including the requirement to be actively seeking employment.

To sum up, I do not believe we should issue warning letters to every jobseeker who is not meeting the availability, actively seeking employment or attendance requirements under Clause 6B. The requirements are made clear to all existing jobseekers when they first make a claim and regularly thereafter, and our ability to do this will be greatly enhanced by the jobseeker's agreement. If there is a genuine doubt this should be referred to an independent adjudication officer to make a decision. With

11 May 1995 : Column 287

that explanation, including the one that I cannot either reject or anything else, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Earl Russell: Can I beg the Minister at this time of night to choose his language in a way which will not tend to prolong our discussion? He is again saying that a person who has been warned is not meeting the conditions of the benefit. Does he understand that those words are a red rag to us? Can he word it a little differently so that we can get home tonight?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page