Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Desai: My Lords, I rise to support briefly the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Dubs. What I like about the amendment is the general principle in it, which goes beyond refugees, although it speaks only of refugees; namely, that we ought to help people acquire skills to enable them to integrate into the community and to seek jobs. That is very important. That applies not only to refugees but to many ethnic groups and especially to the women. Many ethnic minorities have the same need. At some stage we shall have to say that we ought actively to help people to learn the language so that they can integrate into the community and become economically useful as well.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, let me begin by saying that the Government recognise that special rules within the benefit system are necessary for some refugees who have recently entered the country and who wish to undertake an English language course to improve their prospects of employment.

Such special rules currently exist in income support legislation. Refugees, who have been in Great Britain for not more than 12 months, and who are attending a course of more than 15 hours a week for the purpose of learning English, are able to receive income support for up to nine months without being required to be available for work. I suspect that the Bosnian refugees whom we have allowed to come here as refugees would certainly fall into that category.

I believe this is a generous provision. It allows refugees who are undertaking a full-time English course to continue to receive benefit. It is also much more generous treatment than applies to other claimants who, as your Lordships will know, are not able to receive income support or JSA if they are studying full-time. This income support provision will continue when JSA is in place. There is therefore no need to provide for the kind of treatment available in JSA which this amendment suggests.

If I heard him aright, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, however, argued that his amendment, which would provide for even more generous treatment in JSA, as I said, is necessary because the current provisions do not go far enough on two grounds. Perhaps I may address those concerns in turn.

First, there are the people given exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord quite rightly pointed out, the current provisions provide for a distinction between refugees and those given exceptional leave to remain in the UK. Whether

16 May 1995 : Column 469

someone is given refugee status or exceptional leave to remain is, of course, a decision made by the Home Office, and the distinction between the two is an important one.

No doubt I do not have to remind the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who is a great expert on all these matters, about that distinction. But it may help your Lordships understand my argument if I say that exceptional leave to remain cannot be equated with refugee status, as it represents a temporary permission to stay in cases where it would be unreasonable or impracticable to enforce departure. Exceptional leave decisions can be reviewed. I do not believe that it would be right to blur this distinction by changing benefit rules so that we effectively upgraded exceptional leave status to refugee status. However, that does not mean that those given exceptional leave cannot study English. Like all other claimants, they will be able to study part-time without it affecting their benefit position.

The noble Lord understands that and that the 16 guided hours learning comes into that. I should point out to him that, although on the face of it it looks like a change from the 21 hours—we have had considerable debates on this issue as the Bill has proceeded—the two definitions are quite different. The guided hours learning takes account of the way in which further education has developed and has moved away from how we managed to define part-time courses previously. In fact, in the round, the same number of people will receive the easement which the up to 16 guided hours allows as were receiving the easement which the up to 21 hours rule allowed. I hope that that is helpful to the noble Lord when thinking about people with exceptional leave.

The noble Lord may also be concerned about the current 12-month rule, as part of this situation. We recognised that delays in decisions on refugee status were causing a problem for genuine refugees. That is why we introduced a package of measures, including the Asylum Bill, and a substantial increase of staff aimed at trying to reduce the delays. Those measures have allowed us to bring down the average decision time in new cases from 18 months to around eight months. If the problem still exists, I do not believe that extending the 12-month limit is the answer. In any case, refugees who become caught in that, so to speak, will still be able to study part-time up to 16 guided hours without it affecting their benefit once the 12-month period has expired.

I believe that the current rules operating in income support, which allow certain refugees to study English full-time, are generous and effective in helping members of that vulnerable group improve their employment prospects. They will also, as the noble Baroness said, help them to integrate into life in the United Kingdom. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would extend the provisions in a way which I do not believe can be justified.

I hope that I have given the noble Lord sufficient assurances about the continuation of the current rules in income support. I can assure him that we shall

16 May 1995 : Column 470

certainly reflect on the points that he made. I hope that he can accept my assurances and will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I draw some comfort, but not overmuch, from what the Minister said. It would be wrong to trespass on the time of the House by going into a detailed set of answers to what he said. I shall limit myself to a couple of remaining concerns.

One concern is that, as I understand it, the special provisions mentioned by the Minister apply to asylum seekers before they are given their status. As he said, the waiting time for a decision to be made is now shorter than it was. I certainly welcome that. However, it means that the benefit that an asylum seeker receives is limited to the shorter time period. Given that asylum seekers often arrive shocked and traumatised by their experiences, they need a little more time to adjust in this country before they are able to take the step of working out their future and moving into education.

The Bosnian refugees, to whom reference was made earlier, are a case in point. I met some of them when they first arrived here. They had been detained, as it were, in Serb camps not long before they arrived in this country. Certainly they were very shocked and traumatised. Not many of them could have stepped into learning English all that quickly. But, now that they have been in this country a little longer, that is precisely what they want the opportunity to do. However, the Bosnians themselves, or many of them, have exceptional leave to remain or limited leave to remain. They are the very people who suffer from the distinction between refugee status and having exceptional leave to remain. I do not agree with the Minister when he wishes not to blur the distinction between the two. Although having exceptional leave to remain is not a permanent status, it has in the past been a status from which people have been able to benefit for quite some time and they have often been allowed to stay. To deny those people an opportunity to improve their English and to move into the job market, or to make it more difficult for them, is neither in their interests nor in the interests of this country.

I draw a little comfort, but only a little, from what the Minister said. Serious problems remain and I should like to return to this issue on a future occasion. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.45 p.m.

Clause 9 [The jobseeker's agreement]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 33:

Page 7, line 36, at beginning insert:
("( ) If a claimant fulfils section 1(2) (a) and (c) he shall be considered to be complying with the terms and conditions of a jobseekers agreement.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to a large group which includes Amendments Nos. 34, 36, 37, 40 to 59, and also Amendments Nos. 75, 78 and 83. I gave Ministers notice of the change in the grouping.

16 May 1995 : Column 471

Lord Hay, one of the courtiers of King James VI of Scotland and I of England, was a great advocate of the principle of conspicuous consumption. He invented, in the course of his entertaining—which was lavish and based on the motto "Spend and the Lord will send"—the device of the "ante supper". Guests were brought in to supper and an enormous lavish feast was set out before them. Just as they were about to begin to eat the whole thing was taken away and an even more lavish supper was brought in instead of the "pathetically moderate display" that was put on the table when the guests first arrived. It was the most wonderful principle of ostentation. This group of amendments suggests that what we have before us is an ante Bill and that once it reaches the statute book it will be carried away and a whole new series of legislative principles, even more lavish and extreme, will come into force behind it.

I should say a word about the grouping before I go any further. The grouping includes a string of government amendments. I make no objection to any of those amendments; indeed, some of them were initially my amendments and the Government have put their name to them, for which I thank them warmly. The agenda may not be exactly identical in the two cases, but when one's amendment is accepted by the Government one cannot do other than welcome it with great gratitude.

My speaking to this group as a whole will not present any problem to Ministers when they wish to move their amendments. If I were to push this group to a Division the consequence would be that those government amendments would be agreed; but whether the Government, in those circumstances, would still agree with their own amendments is something we would have to wait to discover. But should I withdraw my amendment, or if it is pushed to a Division and not accepted, the government amendments could perfectly well stand on their own. They can easily be moved and I for one will not in any way oppose them. The grouping therefore will cause no problem.

The central principle of the group of amendments—here I express my gratitude to Anton Obholzer in our Whips' Office, who has done a superb job of work on them—is Amendment No. 33 which states:

    "if a claimant fulfils section 1(2) (a) and (c) he shall be considered to be complying with the terms and conditions of a jobseekers agreement".

In fact, it seeks to ensure that the Bill only requires people to be available for employment and actively seeking employment; that all the detail should be left to traditional interpretation rather than being set out in a plethora of new terms and conditions which will come in after the Bill reaches the statute book.

There are two key clauses to be considered and all the rest of our amendments are contingent and consequential upon them. Amendment No. 34 to Clause 9(1) proposes to delete the words that a jobseeker's agreement,

    "complies with the prescribed requirements in force at the time when the agreement is made".

16 May 1995 : Column 472

That is legislation in the future perfect. The future perfect is no doubt an amusing tense with which to play games, but it is a rather dangerous one for legislation. It is a tense which is necessarily contingent. I know of only one time when it was used for serious legislation, which was the Coronation Oath of King Edward II who was made to swear to accept such good laws as the community of the realm "shall have chosen". It was construed by his barons as being an abolition of the royal veto. The king naturally did not agree and ended up being deposed. So legislation in the future perfect is capable of creating serious problems because one is agreeing to one knows not what. Clause 9(1) allows for the taking away of the ante supper and the bringing in of the new supper; the more lavish display, the contents of which we cannot even now guess at.

The next thing we want to do is to delete Clause 18(5), which is something else that the Minister can bring in by regulation. The clause states:

    "The circumstances referred to in subsections (1) and (2) are that the claimant ... has, without good cause, refused or failed to carry out any jobseeker's direction which was reasonable, having regard to his circumstances".

Subject only to the uncertain test of "reasonableness", it is self guided by regulations which we have not yet seen. The jobseeker's direction can tell the jobseeker to do pretty well whatever it likes. It is within the classic definition of an arbitrary power.

The same clause also allows regulations to deal with a claimant who has, without good cause,

    "neglected to avail himself of a reasonable opportunity of a place on a training scheme or employment programme".

There is provision, therefore, for the possibility of bringing in compulsory training—for adults as well I believe. I do not know what may come in under that. There is much more which I shall not deal with at this time. Noble Lords can look for themselves at the rest of Clause 18(5).

We are told in the Government's memorandum to the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, in their exposition of what they want to do with Clause 9, that they intend to use it to introduce by regulation a substantial and systematic legislative framework. Your Lordships can see what brought me back to the idea of the ante supper. It is the substantial and systematic legislative framework which will be the real Bill; this Bill is only the ante supper and is not really of any importance. It is what is to be brought in afterwards, behind the curtain, which will be important.

That is why we want to bring the Bill back to the two basic conditions of entitlement; that the claimant should be "available for employment" and "actively seeking employment". We are prepared to leave the interpretation of that to the adjudication officer, to an appeal tribunal and ultimately to higher judicial authorities. It is a question which must be settled individually or it cannot be settled properly at all. The rest of our amendments are taking-out provisions to require a claimant to observe terms and conditions which are brought in by regulation.

It is hard enough to legislate in the present without trying to legislate in the future perfect as well. Let us give it up. I beg to move.

16 May 1995 : Column 473

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page