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Lord McCarthy: My Lords, so far as I understand it, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that there were two letters and that the second letter was the critical one because it did not just inform them but gave them a chance to reply. What the noble Lord has not said is whether there still are two letters.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, it may be a disappointment, but I have hardly started what I am going to say. We have talked about letters, disentitlement and benefits. The point I should like to emphasise at the outset is that we are talking about a new system that is going to replace the existing one. The particular examples that have been drawn from the working of the existing system of unemployment benefit and income support are taken from an entirely different context to that which will be the case when this Bill becomes law.
At the start of a claim for JSA, the jobseeker will complete the initial claim form and will receive a pack of information setting out details of the conditions for benefit and the rights of jobseekers. Right from the first time when the jobseeker comes into the jobcentre the emphasis will be on informing the individual of what is expected of him and what he can expect from the Employment Service. The jobseeker will book an interview with a skilled employment adviser. At that interview the jobseeker and the employment adviser will discuss the jobseeker's work experience and qualifications, the sort of work he is looking for, his availability, his plans for getting back to work and a range of other issues. Together they will seek to draw up a jobseeker's agreement.
The agreement is therefore crucial in ensuring that jobseekers understand right from the outset the conditions of receiving JSA and how their benefit may be affected if they do not satisfy those conditions. It will contain a statement that the jobseeker understands that he must continue to be available for employment and actively seek it; that he may be asked to give evidence of what he has done and has been advised to keep a record; and that if he does not do enough to meet these conditions, his allowance may be affected and his case will be referred to the adjudication officer, in which case he will be informed. I emphasise that the employment officer must impartially assess the position, and it is only when he believes that there may have been a breach that the matter is referred to the adjudication officer. Perhaps I might echo a comment made by my noble friend Lord Swinfen: there is dialogue between the parties.
The jobseeker will also be told about his right of appeal. No one need be uncertain or ill-informed about what is required. Each fortnight the jobseeker will return to the jobcentre to sign on. If he finds that he is uncertain about whether he should continue to take the steps he agreed in his agreement or if he feels that he wishes to vary his agreement, he has every opportunity to discuss those concerns and to have his agreement altered. Again, this is an example of the ongoing opportunities of the employment officer and the jobseeker to ask questions of each other and to explain where each stands.
I have set this out at length because I wanted to make clear that there is no question of a jobseeker being caught out, of being wrongfooted. In an earlier debate, noble Lords opposite called for a return of the "warning letter". We have already talked about that this afternoon. That letter is the one to which the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, referred and which in the early years of the actively seeking employment test used to be sent by employment officers to people whom it was felt were
The introduction of the jobseeker's agreement and wide experience of the actively seeking employment condition entirely alter the context. It means that there is now no excuse for any claimants not understanding their responsibilities to seek work actively. And we do not want to see repeated the practice of claimants who regarded the warning letter as some kind of final red telephone billthe moment when at last they had to start meeting the condition. Jobseekers should be seeking work actively from the start of their claim for JSA and should continue to take steps every week. Otherwise, they should forfeit their right to receive JSA.
The crucial question is whether each week a jobseeker has shown that he has met the condition for benefit which justifies the payment of benefit. Entitlement involves continuing to satisfy the essential criteria, and when, for example, the actively seeking work or the availability tests are no longer satisfied, the entitlement stops. There is also no question of a decision being taken without the claimant being given the opportunity to put his case. Referrals to adjudication officers will generally follow an interview with the jobseeker, when he will have had the opportunity to discuss the steps he was taking to look for work and to comment on any other evidencefor example, from employerswhich might be used by the employment officer in making the referral. All claimants then receive a letter if their case is referred to an adjudication officer which makes clear that their award of benefits is under consideration. The letter makes clear that they can at any time write to the adjudication officer with more information or evidence. The claimant has every opportunity to comment on doubts raised about his availability or his job search. I can confirm that we shall be continuing these arrangements.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend? Could he deal, please, with the question as to whether the payment is suspended after the employment officer has made a decision? Then could he deal with the problem of Clause 9(6) to which I referred, where it refers to the decision of the adjudication officer? That is the problem I am really concerned with, and not the employment officer. The employment officer would merely give notice and then the matter would go to the adjudication officer. All it says is that the determination of the adjudication officer shall be binding. We want it to be in writing. Would my noble friend comment on this please?
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I thank my noble friend. I am now coming on to the point that he has quite properly raised, which is of crucial importance. So far as his first point is concerned, where the employment officer considers there has been a breach of entitlement
I should now like, if I may, to turn to the point raised by my noble friend, which is another aspect of the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale: decisions about entitlement. I think there is common ground between us that it is very important that claimants should be given full information about any decision which has been taken regarding their entitlement to benefit and their right to appeal against any decision. Under current regulations, all decisions by the adjudication officer on entitlement to unemployment benefit or income support must be notified to the claimant in writing, giving reasons for the decision.
This decision letter explains the effect that the decision will have on their award of benefit and on their national insurance contribution credits and the course of action open to them if they are dissatisfied with the decision and wish to appeal. Once more, I can confirm that this obligation to inform the claimant in writing will continue under JSA.
However, I fear that the effect of the amendment may go further. It may be intended to introduce a period of notice between the notification of the decision and the termination of entitlement during which the claimant could challenge the decision. That would introduce unnecessary and unwelcome delays into the system. We must bear in mind that adjudication officers made well over 1.3 million adverse decisions in unemployment benefit in 1993-4 and that less than 1 per cent. of decisions are appealed against. Of course if on appeal, or on review by an AO on the receipt of new information relevant to the decision, there is a decision in the claimant's favour, benefit will be back dated and paid in full.
To introduce a delay before action was taken on the adjudication officer's decision would, we believe, be very costly, involving needless overpayments of benefit to which claimants were not entitled. That would not be an appropriate use of taxpayers' money. We must ensure that claimants receive full information about decisions affecting their entitlement. We must also act responsibly as the guardians of the taxpayer. We believe that the amendment fails the second test.
The key point about the amendment is that we are in fact talking about cases where someone who is entitled to jobseeker's allowance ceases, by reason of his actions, to be so entitled. For all practical purposes, we are talking about
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