|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and I thank too those who have come to listen to the debate on a Bill which is often technical. We appreciate that. We have two questions to decide this afternoon. The firstto repeat the question put by the noble Earl, Lord Russellis: does an accusation of an employment officer equal proof? Is there a difference between accusation and proof? If there is a difference between accusation and proof, the penalty should not start until proof has been established.
The Minister made much of the point that 80 per cent. of referrals by the employment officer go to the adjudication officer and are upheld. That may be the case but the argument would apply even if 95 per cent. were upheld. One is still innocent until proved guilty. However, the Minister conceded that 20 per cent. of those cases are found to be valid at adjudication. That is one in five, 20 per cent. What is morethe Minister did not tell us this 185,000 of the cases that then go to appeal are found to be valid. That is not some trivial number. The chief adjudication officer has said that in 92 per cent. of all cases which go to appeal he is uneasy about the quality of evidence.
Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me for intervening in her excellent speech. Does it not occur to her that the whole of her argument is based on a false premise; namely, that the rules of criminal law, which are not in issue in this case, should apply to a case where someone is entering an office and asking for money? He must establish something before he obtains that.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful for the intervention of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham. It allows me to clarify a point which perhaps I failed to do when I introduced the amendment; namely, that we are not for the most part talking about people who are seeking to establish an entitlement to JSA which they have never had. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, would, I think, be broadly correct if that were the situation. However, we are not talking about that situation. We are talking about someone whose entitlement has already been established and who is already receiving the benefit. Then, because an untrained employment officer thinks there may be a possibility that the claimant is not actively seeking work, that benefit is denied to the claimant, perhaps without any discussion and without a warning letter. The employment officer denies the claimant the benefit while that doubt is being explored.
On that basis I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, will accept that he is on our side because here an existing entitlement is being withheld on grounds of a doubt. Therefore, the principles of criminal law should surely follow. It was noticeable that the Minister, in reply to my amendment, said all the time, "He appears not to have been available". The Minister chose his words carefully. He said that the claimant who is already in receipt of JSA "appears not to have been available". He did not say that the claimant was not available for work but that he appeared not to be available. What we are saying is that until it is established that the claimant is not available for work, he should have the benefit of the principle of British justice, which is that one is innocent until proven guilty.
That is the first question we have to answer today. Is a doubt the same as a determination? Is an accusation the same as proof? The second question is: on the basis of that doubt is it fair to take away someone's livelihoodsomeone who is already in receipt of JSAof just £5 a day and send him into destitution on a doubt? Can we do that? Can we send someone into destitution on a doubt? I was wrong when I said that there were two questions facing usone, whether an accusation is the same as proof and the other about destitution. There is a third. Your Lordships regularly, as a House, protect the rights of the most marginal and most vulnerable against the Executive when necessary and when that is correct. In my view this is very much a House of Lords question. I hope that your Lordships will take that course today. I ask the opinion of the House.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down I wish to ask her a question. In the case of the 80 per cent. who are proved to be ineligible, what are the practicalities of trying to reclaim this money from them when they have been paid during the period until they have been proved to be non-eligible? How is this money to be recovered because it is money belonging to every taxpayer in the country?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite correct. The benefit stops from the moment that an offence has been established and not before. That is surely what we all accept, is it not? We do not punish in advance of the offence being established; we punish at the point that the offence is established. That is what we would achieve today. As I say, if we support this amendment we will be saying that punishment follows the establishment of an offence. If noble Lords do not support the amendment, what this House will be saying is that on a mere doubt we can deny someone a livelihood of £5 a day that stands between him and destitution. I do not think that we should do that on a doubt but only if we are sure of our facts. That is why we have an adjudication system. On the theory we are discussing we do not even need an adjudication system; the doubt of an employment officer would be enough. It is because it
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.