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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I support the amendment. I have given notice that I intend so to do. The crux of the matter is: is the allowance paid during suspension? If it is, much of the steam goes out of the kettle. If it is not, natural justice demands that the claimant is given notice of grounds for removal of his entitlement under Clause 1 and that he should have a reasonable opportunity to deal with the situation.
I put aside past practice. I am not concerned with these letters; whether they were sent; whether they were not sent; whether they exist; or whatever happened to them. I regard all that as totally immaterial. I look at the matter as I think any ordinary lawyer would look at it. If one removes an entitlementthere is an entitlement under Clause 1one has to say why in writing quite simply and give the person adversely affected a chance to make representations. I cannot see that there is anything adverse to the Government in the spirit of that proposal, and I so informed the Government Chief Whip and my noble friend the Minister.
Indeed, the proposal would assist the Government, because if he is aggrieved the applicant can seek judicial review. He can say, "They have taken away my entitlement. I want a judicial review of this". If there are no reasons, and one reaches the Divisional Court, the Divisional Court will say, "Well, if there are no reasons given, we are entitled to draw certain inferences". Those inferences will not be drawn against the claimant. They will be against the Government, if anything.
I do not know enough about this subject without some assistance from my noble friend the Minister and perhaps other noble Lords. In principle, if that allowance is suspended, I cannot see why the Government should not accept the substance of the amendment. The provision does not necessarily have to be on the face of the Bill. It could be set out in regulations against an assurance reported in Hansard that regulations would be introduced. I believe that the provisions are at Clause 9(6) to (9). It would fit in there well. If my noble friend were able to give the assurance that they would bring in the regulations to accord with natural justice, I should be satisfied.
Earl Russell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has put his finger on the very heart of the issue. I shall listen, as he will, to the reply that the Minister gives him. I shall not presume to speculate on how the reply on 25th April of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, came into existence. The noble Lord may be interested in some remarks made by one of my former colleagues at Yale. It was at the time when undergraduates were just beginning to use word processors. He remarked that because it was possible to insert a new paragraph into an old text without having to change the old text to fit in with the new paragraph, it became remarkably easy to produce inconsistent documents. I shall not presume to speculate on the relevance of that story; but the noble Lord may be interested in it.
However, I believe that we should clear up the confusion about the letter to which we are referring. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, referred to a letter which informs the claimant that he is being referred to adjudication. I understand that that process continues and that one cannot have adjudication without it. However, the amendment refers to a different letter which is more like the traditional police caution. It is a warning to the claimant that his conduct has given rise to suspicion, which on some occasions is dispelled.
I have two examples of the kind of people who would have benefited from the passing of the amendment. The first was a man who normally looked for work extensively, but in addition to having a heart condition, he happened to be moving house. During the week of the move he did not look for work with his customary zeal. He supposed that that would be understood and acceptable. It turned out that that was not the case and his benefit was suspended. Ifand I use the word "if"it is the law that a claimant moving house must look for work as extensively in the week of the move as in every other week, it seems fair to notify him and let him act accordingly, which that person would have done.
The second case was reported by a CAB in Cheshire. It involved a woman who wanted to work for about 30 hours a week and who described that as "part-time" work. In ordinary speech one can understand that distinction perfectly well but as a term of art within the Employment Service 30 hours a week is not part-time work. The Employment Service thought that she was prepared to work only 16 hours a week and that she was putting unreasonable restrictions on her availability. Her benefit was stopped. That was a simple, plain misunderstanding. The issuing of a warning letter would have given ample opportunity to clear it up and would have avoided unnecessary hardship.
The point of the warning letter is that it enables us to put the situation right, to clear up the misunderstanding, to ensure compliance with conditions where there is any doubt, to explain the meaning of the conditions and to put things back on an even keel. Surely it is much better to put things right than to go around penalising people because you cannot be bothered to explain the position to them. This is a good amendment and I hope that the Minister will accept it.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, twice mentioned the principle of natural justice, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. It is generally accepted that it is a principle of natural justice that anyone adversely affected by a decision should be given the reason for it.
The principle which lies behind that appears clearly in the way in which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, explained the matter. The principle of natural justice is similar to the principle that an adjudicator may not be biased and that reasons should be given for an adverse decision. Perhaps I may mention a third principle; that the other side should be heard. That too is relevant to the amendment.
It may be that the matter is to be dealt with by regulation, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. It may be that it is dealt with by practice, as suggested by a quotation given by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that anyone adversely affected will be apprised of the reason. I hope that unless he can give that assurance he will accept the amendment.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I agree with the amendment but I do not believe that the notice required will need to be served often. Under the terms of the jobseeker's agreement, the jobseeker must meet and discuss with the Employment Service officer at regular intervals in order to tell him about the steps that he has taken to obtain employment. Any difficulties should be able to be sorted out verbally at those meetings.
However, there will be occasions when due to language difficultiesthat is, translation from one language to another or a genuine misunderstanding because someone is not well educatedthe jobseeker does not understand what is required. If the jobseeker has a speech difficulty, the employment officer may not understand what he is proposing to do or the steps that he proposes to take. Furthermore, there may be hearing difficulties.
People may fail to turn up for the meetings as a result of illness and they may have no one who is prepared to, or can, inform the Employment Service. For the most part, there will be little cost to the Government in handing out such letters because it can be done face to face without the cost of postage. Therefore, if cost is a factor, it should not be considered.
It is important that any proposal to remove the allowance should be given in writing so that the person who is to lose the allowance can at least seek advice and make certain that he understands the reasons. If the claimant is willing to do so, he can then take steps to ensure that it is not withdrawn and can continue seeking work in a manner that the employment officer thinks fit.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, we have debated the subject of suspension and loss of benefit on a number of occasions throughout the passage of the Bill. It has been clear that on a number of occasions we have been at cross-purposes. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, referred to muddle and letters. I wish to say merely that we have discussed the matter and that it was put extremely clearly by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Rather than muddle the issue further still, I endorse his description of the position. However, there is one point that is most important
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