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Lord Palmer: My Lords, I think that the amendment is a classic example of what your Lordships' House can do. It is about defending people's basic rights. If the Government really want support throughout the country, I feel that the Minister must accept the amendment. That will also give the Government an opportunity to show that they care about the less privileged members of society. I strongly support the amendment in the best traditions of the House.

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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, before I turn to the amendment now before the House, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to refer back to a debate that we had on the first day of Committee, Thursday, 20th April. When responding to the amendment moved by the noble Earl and supported by the noble Baroness which invited me to defer the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance until April 1997, I explained that we were closely monitoring the progress towards implementation and that we had commissioned an external review of the work being carried out on implementation of JSA. I then added:

    "If we conclude, for whatever reason and at whatever date, that the arrangements being made for the introduction of JSA in April 1996 are such that there is an unacceptable risk that things might go wrong, then we shall certainly consider alternatives. One of the alternatives would be to delay the date of introduction".—[Official Report, 20/4/95; col. 590.]

As I have made clear on a number of occasions, the Bill aims to help people into jobs, to improve services to people while they are unemployed and to achieve better value for the taxpayer. The Government's priority is to introduce the allowance successfully through the network of 1,200 jobcentres for unemployed people throughout the country. That is a large and complex undertaking. It involves development of two substantial new computer systems and very large-scale training programmes. As I said, we have kept the project under close review and substantial progress has been made. But we have now concluded that sticking to the planned date would entail risks to the smooth delivery of services to unemployed people.

Therefore, the Government have decided that the jobseeker's allowance should be introduced in October 1996. However, that does not affect our policy. The transitional arrangements for JSA will be such that the duration of an unemployed claimant's entitlement to unemployment benefit will, from April 1996, be the same as it would have been had JSA been introduced on that date. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the plans for the introduction of the back-to-work bonus are unaffected. The bonus will be introduced as planned in October 1996. As I said on 20th April, one of the objectives of the jobseeker's allowance is to improve the service that we offer to jobseekers. We do not intend to put that at risk. I hope that your Lordships do not mind me making clear at the beginning of today the decision that we have come to on that important issue.

I turn now to the amendment before us which concerns an area which we have debated on a number of occasions. In fact the amendment is couched in very similar terms to one which the noble Baroness tabled at the recommitment of Clause 6. I have to disappoint both her and the noble Earl by saying that I have not had a change of heart since then.

Where there is a doubt over whether someone is entitled to JSA—whether he is a jobseeker—then the Employment Service must refer this for decision to an adjudication officer, and payment of benefit cannot be made on the normal basis. If it appears that a claimant has not been available for work in the previous weeks, he should not receive benefit for that period as if he had actually been available. It really seems that the noble

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Baroness has accepted that principle in her amendment in providing for reduced payments in those circumstances.

However, unlike the noble Baroness, we do not accept that everyone should have immediate and automatic access to benefit while the adjudication decision is reached. Jobseeker's allowance is a benefit which is intended to support claimants who are available for work. That is a central condition and if the claimant has not shown that he is, he cannot expect to receive the allowance just as if nothing had changed.

The great majority of claimants have no difficulty in meeting the basic conditions. In cases where the Employment Service makes a referral for a decision, 80 per cent. are subsequently found to be not meeting the conditions by the adjudication officer. In those circumstances, I do not see a case for moving to automatic payments for all claimants throughout the period of adjudication, as the noble Baroness wishes. I see that the noble Baroness wishes to intervene. I give way.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I am much obliged. I have a question to ask the Minister on a matter to which he referred regarding the first Committee day. At that stage, on 20th April, the Minister told us that work was being done to ensure the implementation of the Bill on 26th April 1996. We now understand that there may be a delay of six months. In the light of the fact that the Government obviously do not have plans for the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance—and, therefore, it could be subject to further delay—could the Minister be persuaded to reconsider introducing such a draconian measure as removing all benefit in the case of someone where there is doubt about his satisfying the conditions before bringing in the jobseeker's allowance, so that we know that the system is working well, given that we are refusing all income to a substantial number of our fellow citizens and giving them no redress in that respect?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the matter in front of us will actually come into place when the jobseeker's allowance itself comes into effect. As I told the House a few minutes ago, that will now be in October 1996. At that stage we hope to introduce all the parts of the jobseeker's allowance that we have been discussing. Indeed, I mentioned the position as regards the transitional arrangements for the duration of unemployment claimant's entitlement to unemployment benefit which will change from April 1996. However, the other parts—namely, the proposals that we have outlined to the House over some days—will come into effect in October 1996.

I was just about to deal with the point raised by the noble Earl. As he elegantly says, I believe that there is a problem as regards language. I do not consider that we are actually looking at whether or not an offence has been created; we are actually looking at whether or not someone is entitled to receive that particular benefit. If someone is actively seeking work or if he is available for work, those are the basic entitlements which enable him to claim jobseeker's allowance. That is a difference of language which I am afraid runs through much of our

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discussions. However, there are other issues in respect of which we are looking at "offences" and where we are looking to impose a sanction. The way in which we deal with such circumstances is quite different from the way in which we deal with the question of entitlement.

Earl Russell: My Lords, can the Minister explain what he means by the word "entitlement"? If he does so, it might get us a little further in the proceedings.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have gone into the question of entitlement in some detail. Quite clearly, so far as concerns receiving income-based jobseeker's allowance, what income a person has comes into the matter. However, as regards the employment conditions, entitlement depends on availability for work, which we have defined in Clause 6, and on actively seeking work, as set out in Clause 7. Those are the important considerations. Before a person's claim can be validated, he has to show that he is actively seeking work and that he is available for work. I believe that those are two very clear preconditions to someone receiving jobseeker's allowance.

However, our proposals—for those of your Lordships who have followed them—will protect claimants in vulnerable groups by making hardship payments from the outset to those who show hardship. That includes all claimants who have children, and cases where the claimant or partner is sick or disabled, pregnant, or has caring responsibilities. Other claimants will receive hardship payments after two weeks. We believe that that is a reasonable period in the case of childless, healthy claimants.

We have been over the issue on a number of occasions before, both in Committee and indeed on recommitment. The arguments on both sides have not changed much. I fear that there is still a gulf between us. Our view remains quite firmly that, until entitlement is established, it would be quite wrong to pay benefit. I realise that the parties opposite do not accept that, but I am afraid that I cannot agree to the amendment. I hope that those concerned will agree to withdraw it. However, if they do not do so, I hope that my noble friends will support me in the Lobby.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, before he sits down, I have a question for the Minister. Is the speech that he has just made perhaps related to a different concept of burden of proof from that which my noble friend put forward? Is it not the case that the Minister has spoken of it appearing that someone is not available for work? Therefore, surely that person would not be able to make a prima facie case. It may be that someone can make a prima facie case that he meets the conditions but the employment officer says that he still has a doubt. It is surely to the second case that my noble friend's amendment is addressed. Where he can make a prima facie case that there is still a doubt which must go to appeal, surely in those circumstances he or she is entitled to retain the benefit or allowance in the interim.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall respond to that point. What we are talking about is the doubt that exists in the mind

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of the Employment Service officer about a case. He must then refer it to an adjudication officer. As I think we discussed at some length yesterday, the situation is that the Employment Service official who makes the reference has to be sure that there is an arguable case with supporting information to show that the claimant is not available for, actively seeking, or willing to accept work. That is the situation. As I think I mentioned earlier, something like 80 per cent. of the cases are found by the adjudication officer not to meet these conditions.

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