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Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, humanitarian assistance is the most important factor. It is reaching those in need. The strengthened security measures, the improved relief distributions and the thorough registration exercise have significantly reduced diversion.

Lord Judd: My Lords, in the context of security, do the Government agree that there is a close and growing interrelationship between the instability in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire and indeed the region as a whole? Will the Government do everything possible to support the early convening of a conference to examine the economic, social and political issues of the region in endeavouring to find a comprehensive solution?

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I must make a plug. The UK has responded quickly and generously since the start of the crisis in April 1994. We continue to monitor the situation and are ready to do more. A meeting of the Development Council on 1st June will be attended by my noble friend Lady Chalker.

We have been following the events in Burundi for some time. That is the reason that my noble friend Lady Chalker went there last summer. We continue to monitor the situation and keep in close touch with British NGOs and other bodies.

Schools: Parental Choice

2.59 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

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Lord Lucas: My Lords, our policy is to increase the opportunities for parental choice. As a result of government reforms, parents now have more rights, more information and access to a wider choice of schools than ever before.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that at this time of the year thousands of parents have come to realise that choice of schools is a myth? Is he further aware that this is also the time when examinations, tests, assessments and interviews of both pupils and parents have no place in the choice of the school? It is not possible to give parents universal choice. Will the Government be honest and agree that that is the case and that the result of their policy is not what they pretend it to be?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, as regards the last part of what the noble Lord said, of course I agree completely that it is not possible to give parents universal choice. What is possible is to try to improve it.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, is it not a fact that the official DFE figures given in parliamentary Answers show that appeals against the refusal of school places rose from 20,981 in 1989-90 to 41,927 in 1992-93—the latest date for which figures are available? That is an increase of 99.8 per cent. Is it not proof positive that parental choice is becoming more limited?

Lord Lucas: No, my Lords, I do not think so at all. It is proof that parents are taking a much more active interest in which school their children should attend. I welcome that, as do some members of the party opposite.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, would my noble friend care to join me in congratulating the Benches opposite on their conversion to parental choice and their decided move away from local education authority dictatorship which they used to support so fervently?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, it appears that that view is held at least by the leadership of the party opposite. I am not sure that every single Member of the Benches I spend my time looking at would agree with my noble friend.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that one area where there has been little parental choice is nursery schools? Perhaps the noble Lord will confirm my belief that before the next election the Government have plans to increase parental choice. Can he elaborate on that?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I very much look forward to elaborating on it but not today.

Baroness David: My Lords, is the Minister aware that between 1974 and 1979 I sat on an appeals committee? In Cambridgeshire we gave parents choice and we had an appeals committee. So it was fair. I hope that the Minister will take back the suggestion that parental choice is a recent invention of the Conservative Party.

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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am aware that some local authorities encouraged choice well before the Government came into office. However, we have consistently improved and increased it and that we shall continue to do.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, it is interesting that twice in answer to me the Minister said that the Government continually seek to increase parents' choice of schools. I have seen little or no evidence of that in the past two or three years. Will the Minister say what has been done in that respect?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, a great deal has been done. We have grant maintained schools which we never had before; schools are specialising, which they never did before; and the city technology college movement continues. In many different ways, schools are taking on more individuality than they had. We are encouraging parents to look around and choose between their local schools and to take a more active interest about which school their children should attend.

With local authorities, we are pursuing the ways in which they may make it easier for parents. Many of the difficulties which parents experience are because of obstacles put in their way by the structures employed by local authorities. We hope that they will continue to remove them, as has happened in many instances but not all. It is a gradual and difficult process but one which we shall continue to push on with.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, perhaps I may return to the question I put to the Minister. I have been considering what he said in answer to me. Instead of being delighted and pleased at the increasing number of dissatisfied parents shown by the figures I quoted—and those figures are considerable—can the Minister tell us what Her Majesty's Government are doing about the increasing levels of parental dissatisfaction, as evidenced by the number of parents appealing against the schools to which their children are allocated?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, we continue to try to increase choice in a whole variety of ways. The fact that that does not keep pace with the expectations and hopes of parents is a matter for regret. Nonetheless it is a condition which we expect to persist from now until doomsday.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, having heard the Minister's reply to my noble friend regarding nursery education, do I understand that he does not wish to reveal the Government's commitments at this stage? Will he give an assurance that the Government's avowed principle of supporting parental choice will be part of the commitment to all parents in all places that they will have choice in access to free nursery education? That is a quite logical and inevitable conclusion of the statements that government Ministers have made.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, as has been clear from other answers I have given today, the question is not one of choice. It is of giving parents the right to express a preference. The ability to give first choice to everyone is not within the gift of this Government or anyone else.

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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, may I press the Minister to say whether parental choice, or preference, that a child should enter nursery education is a logical continuation of the ethos of parental choice?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, put that way, I agree entirely.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, will the Minister make it absolutely clear in any documents published by the Government that government policy is that parents have the right of preference but not the choice of schools?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I believe that that is what we do.


3.7 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m., my noble friend Lord Astor will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on media ownership.

Business of the House: Debate, 24th May

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lady Saltoun of Abernethy set down for tomorrow shall be limited to 5 hours.—(Viscount Cranborne.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Jobseekers Bill

3.8 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [The jobseeker's allowance]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 9, at end insert ("but until such time as a jobseeker's allowance is payable in accordance with the provisions of this Act, nothing in this Act or in any regulations made under it shall reduce the period of payment for unemployment benefit calculated in accordance with section 26 of the Benefits Act.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, at the Report stage the Minister caught us somewhat by surprise when he made an announcement to the House of a change in the Government's policy. He said:

    "the Government have decided that the jobseeker's allowance should be introduced in October 1996"—

not, as originally planned, in April 1996. He continued:

    "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".—[Official Report, 16/5/95; col. 418.]

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That was not a written statement, we did not have the advantage of the words in front of us. It was an announcement made by the Government, perfectly correctly, and inserted into an answer on an entirely different amendment. We were unclear then and remain unclear what will be the full import of the Minister's statement. For that reason we tabled this amendment to seek to understand what the Government have in mind by slip-starting the JSA from the April 1996 original date to October 1996.

None of us, certainly on this side of the House, quarrels with delaying the introduction of this new arrangement. It is right that when two benefits are amalgamated—in this case unemployment benefit and income support, which is what the jobseeker's allowance represents—the process should proceed as smoothly as possible, employment officers should be fully trained, and the computer systems should function smoothly. Frankly, this is such a nasty Bill that any delay is very welcome—except in so far as that may not be quite what we shall get.

The Government have persistently—and I believe honourably—told us that the jobseeker's allowance represents a package of measures. Perhaps I may quote the Minister's words at Second Reading in this House:

    "The jobseeker's allowance is part of a much larger package"—

I emphasise the words "package"—

    "of incentives announced in the last Budget and social security statement. The package of measures included in jobseeker's allowance legislation underpins the Government's determination to remove barriers to finding work and helping every unemployed person to find a job quickly".—[Official Report, 3/4/95; col. 14.]

Later in the same speech, at col. 15, the Minister talked of,

    "a package of measures which will provide an approved means of delivering benefit to unemployed people".

A few days later, in Committee, the Minister stated:

    "We are closely monitoring progress towards implementation ... to ensure that all the necessary arrangements are put in place ... If ... there is an unacceptable risk that things might go wrong ... one of the alternatives would be to delay the date of introduction. One of the objectives of the jobseeker's allowance is to improve the service we offer to jobseekers. We certainly do not intend to put that at risk".—[Official Report, 20/4/95; col. 590.]

That approach is entirely correct.

The emphasis throughout has been that the Jobseekers Bill offers a package, one that consists of the "carrot" of jobseeker measures such as the jobseeker's agreement, the national insurance holiday for employers and the run of housing benefit and council benefit. Back-to-work benefit was only ever to have been introduced from October. Those were among the incentives to get people back to work. The other side of the package—the "stick"—was the cut in contributory benefit from 12 months to six months. Thereafter people were to go on to means-tested benefit and, in the process, if a person claimed for a dependant or was under 25 he or she would immediately suffer a reduction in benefit.

What does the Minister's announcement mean in this context? What has happened to that package? From the Minister's statement and from, I have to say, an extremely opaque letter I received today, it seems that

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the carrot part of the package is to be delayed until October but the stick part is to be introduced six months before that—in April. So much for the package. The cuts in benefit start in April, but the so-called goodies that were mentioned in the winding-up speech of the Minister in the other place are not to start for another six months. When it suits the Government, the concept of a package appears to be ripped apart. The Bill is transparently clear in what it seeks to do; namely, to cut benefits first and only as an afterthought seek to encourage people to find work.

What makes matters almost even worse is that this cut is not the result of a new benefit being introduced; namely the jobseeker's allowance. What the Minister appears to be doing is cutting an existing benefit, unemployment benefit. So this measure is as harsh as the new JSA, but without any of the attendant advantages that the Minister claims for JSA.

My reading may be incorrect. I gave the Minister brief notice of the questions that I wanted to ask, but I received the Minister's reply only today and therefore could not give him earlier notice. Will he clarify, for example, what happens if someone becomes unemployed on, let us say, 1st February 1996? Is it the case now, as it was before the Minister made the statement, that such people will receive unemployment benefit up until April 1996 and will thereafter continue to receive unemployment benefit only up to October 1996—in other words, as they would have done under the old unemployment and JSA arrangements? What happens to those who are under 25? The under-25s who are on unemployment benefit receive the same rate of benefit as those who are over 25. Under JSA they receive a lower rate. What happens now? What now happens to adult benefits, to dependants and their benefits—for example, to the spouse who looks after children? Such people were entitled to unemployment benefit as part of contributory benefit. Under JSA, they are not. Will the Minister help us to clarify the situation? On the basis of his explanation we may wish to seek the opinion of the House. But, first, let us ask the Minister whether what we fear is the case; namely, that he is cutting benefit as of April 1996 but introducing the "carrots" only from October 1996 and that therefore all the talk of a package goes out of the window when it suits the Minister's computer system? I beg to move.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I listened with great attention to all the questions put by the noble Baroness. I wonder if she can help me. Is it the concept of this clause, as I read it, that if unemployment benefit under Section 26 of the benefits Act is currently received, it continues until the jobseeker's allowance is paid but not thereafter? If that is so, I ask the question only because the use of the phrase,

    "it shall reduce the period of payment for unemployment benefit calculated",

left matters somewhat open as to whether the intention was that there should be, as it were, a hangover. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for indicating that that is so.

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What worries me is whether this amendment relates to the essential transitional provisions expressly dealt with in Clause 40(2) of the Bill. I shall not quote the clause at length because that would be to waste time. The clause states:

    "Regulations under this section may in particular make provision ... for the termination or cancellation of awards of unemployment benefit or income support".

I ask, with respect to the noble Baroness: is this not the part of the Bill under which transitional provisions need to be dealt with, rather than under Clause 1. The amendment relates this matter to Clause 1, which is primarily concerned with entitlement.

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