Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, it is probably only fair to say that the questions I put to the Government today

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1554

on this Bill--which I warmly welcome--are exactly the sort of questions that I would have put to my officials before coming into this House to defend this important Bill, in order to see not only how the international community will respond to these issues, which are the thrust of the points the noble Baroness will answer in a moment, but also how much progress we can make with this Bill towards ratification.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I hope he will be as pleased as I am that those were also the points I put to officials before coming to the House today. Perhaps I may start with the question of North Korea.

North Korea is a party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and it is therefore already prohibited from testing. We see no reason why the North Koreans should not sign and ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty in due course. Of course, the far more difficult question is the question of India. We all want to see the treaty work and the best way would be for all the states specified to ratify it. There can be no difference between us on that point. The question is what happens if India refuses to sign. The implication of some of the remarks was that perhaps the treaty would lose all purpose.

We do not take that view. This is a treaty supported by almost all the international community. That includes seven of the eight countries with a capacity to test which are not already prohibited from doing so through other international agreements such as the non-proliferation treaty and the regional nuclear weapon-free zones. We believe that the treaty will act as an international moral and political norm against testing. The rest of the international community must now work to persuade India and other non-signatories to support it. The UK is not alone in believing that all states should be parties to the treaty. We shall endeavour to do everything we can to persuade other states to do so.

We therefore urge India and Pakistan to sign the treaty. We believe it is in their interests and in the interests of international security. Of course we understand the domestic background. The UK and others, however, have made sacrifices in accepting the treaty and we hope that, through the international pressure and the moral arguments that we shall bring to bear upon India and Pakistan, they will feel able to sign. Even if the treaty does not enter into force because India refuses to sign, we shall still have a monitoring system. That is a very important point. The monitoring system will still be there. We will still be able to scrutinise what is happening around the world.

Other questions were raised in relation to the sustaining of the nuclear deterrent in this country. We are committed to our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. Our goal is the global elimination of nuclear weapons. This must be achieved, as I have said in the House on a number of occasions in answering questions, by mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions. Our overall objective remains a strong defence against the security challenges of the post-cold war world.

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1555

Questions were raised about what the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to as the rogue states. We have said that we will retain Trident. We have strong armed forces. We are pledged to maintain robust British defences. Our overall objective remains a strong defence, in the way I have described, facing, yes indeed, the different challenges in the current world situation. We have said that we will retain Trident for as long as necessary while we work for our goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, asked about the number of warheads on Polaris. Our deterrence requirements, including nuclear warhead numbers, will be examined by the strategic defence review. We believe that we already have the fewest nuclear warheads of any nuclear weapons state.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, referred to the ratification process. Clearly, the earliest time that we could ratify is shortly after Royal Assent. The treaty cannot enter into force before September next year but we hope to ratify before that date. As we have said, the treaty can only come into force six months after the 44 states named in the annex to the treaty have ratified it. I come back to the point with which I opened. With regard to the three states which at the moment have not ratified it, all our energies and the energies of those who support the goals in the treaty must now be bent towards persuading those states to ratify the treaty in the way that we were able to do.

Let there be no doubt about it. The treaty ends nuclear weapon test explosions for all time. It therefore constrains the development and the qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons and it ends the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons. We believe that this constitutes an effective measure of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in all its aspects. I welcome the support that noble Lords have expressed for the Bill. I commend it to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Jobseeker's Allowance (Workskill Courses) Pilot (No. 2) Regulations 1997

6.13 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 3rd July be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I wish today to seek your Lordships' approval to introduce two pilot schemes that will allow us to assess flexible arrangements for helping people into work by allowing them to undertake education and training while receiving the jobseeker's allowance. These will be introduced under Section 29 of the Jobseekers Act 1995 which provides for regulations for pilot schemes to test whether new arrangements will encourage or help people to get and retain work.

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1556

As your Lordships know, the Jobseekers Act provides that people studying full-time cannot normally receive JSA as they are not considered available for work. JSA was designed as a benefit for those available for and actively seeking work. People receiving JSA are allowed to undertake part-time training and education as long as they meet the entitlement conditions which include being available for and actively seeking work.

The Jobseeker's Allowance Regulations 1996 provide a definition of part-time education and training. Courses funded or part-funded by the Further Education Funding Councils for England and Wales are part-time if they consist of an average of no more than 16 guided learning hours per week. There are comparable provisions for students on further education courses in Scotland. For all other courses--for example, those in the private or voluntary sectors--each case is decided on its merits, as was the practice pre-JSA.

It has always been difficult to balance the aim of helping people on benefit to return quickly to work with measures designed to help them to improve their longer-term employability. There are no easy answers and we need to proceed carefully. We have made clear our intention to introduce measures to improve the skills of the workforce through lifelong learning and to help people back into work. The pilots will help us in this. They involve a significant expansion of the existing workskill pilots. We need good quality evidence about the potential effects, short-term and long-term, of changes in benefit rules before going any further. That is why we want to introduce this second round of pilots. They will extend beneficial flexibilities to four more areas, allowing about 2,000 people voluntarily to take part in each area. They will provide us with a firm basis for evaluation.

The pilots also support our plans for the New Deal for unemployed young people. There we are seeking to help 18 to 24 year-olds from benefit dependency to work. We are including provisions to improve their employability. For the 25 year-olds and over who have been unemployed for two years or more, we want to change the JSA rules to allow them access to full-time education and training while receiving JSA. These are important matters. We will further review the jobseeker's allowance rules on education and training in the light of the results of the workskill pilots and early experience in the New Deal.

I should like to introduce the regulations to the House by explaining briefly the powers we are seeking and describing how the pilot schemes would work. We want to introduce the pilots on 1st September 1997. People who have been receiving JSA for six months or more will be able to apply for a workskill course for up to one year.

There will be two types of pilot schemes: full-time and part-time. Full-time pilots will be run in Scotland, in the Glasgow and Dumbarton districts and in the north-west region in the Lancashire and Cumbria districts. These pilots will allow people to undertake certain full-time courses of up to a year and to be excused from the normal JSA rules on availability for work and actively looking for work while they are on the course.

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1557

Part-time pilots will be run in the London and south-east region, in the south and south-east London districts and in the south-west region, in the Avon, Somerset and Wiltshire districts. These pilots will allow people to undertake certain part-time courses of up to a year and to be available and look for part-time work which can be fitted around their course. Participants will be able to choose from a wide range of courses, most of which will lead to an approved qualification. The course will have to be employment-related; that is, it will help people to get skills needed for work, for particular occupations or for jobsearch. It will help them to obtain a job.

We know from the correspondence we have received that people will want to take up these opportunities and to succeed in the courses they undertake. For the few who might be tempted to take the opportunity less seriously, we will provide an incentive to fulfil their commitment. The regulations will not encourage people to leave a course without a good reason. Those who do so may lose their JSA for two weeks.

Your Lordships may wonder what is happening to the existing pilots which were introduced on 7th April this year under the Jobseeker's Allowance (Workskill Courses) Pilot Regulations 1997. Those pilots, which operate in other areas, will continue as planned for one year. Together with the pilots we are seeking to introduce under these draft regulations, they will provide us with valuable information.

The new pilot schemes under these draft regulations will allow a period of one year for applications starting on 1st September in the new specified areas. These regulations, if approved, would be in force for one year and would establish pilot schemes which will operate in the specified areas. I hope that my opening explanation has helped the House. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 3rd July be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Baroness Blackstone.)

6.20 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, on behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the main thrust of the Minister's remarks with regard to the new pilot schemes. The measures proposed aim to improve the skills of the workforce through lifelong learning and to help people back to work--a move which I am sure would be welcomed by all noble Lords. Indeed, the Minister said that there are no easy answers and I believe that we all accept that, too.

We are pleased that the Government recognise the importance of the Workskill pilot schemes, which were launched by the previous Government. At that time the Opposition parties were not so supportive and indeed many expressed their concerns. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, when moving an amendment at Committee stage on Recommitment said:

    "We regard it as a mean, nasty, rather vindictive piece of legislation which will make life more difficult for some of the most vulnerable sections of our society".

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1558

The party opposite now recognises the benefits of such pilot schemes and we are pleased to add our support. The schemes should provide good quality evidence about the potential effects, short and long term, of the changes in benefit rules. The Minister highlighted the importance of a careful evaluation of the practical effect of specific changes in benefit rules to check that the schemes deliver good value and that we accurately refine our rules when the pilot schemes are established.

I have three questions for the Minister. The first concerns the monitoring of the new pilot schemes. Will the evaluation be the same for schemes whether they are in the city or rural-based, or will there be any additional factors? Secondly, the Jobseekers' Allowance (Workskill Courses) Pilot (No. 2) Regulations give a great deal of power to the employment officer. Is that of any concern to the Minister? Thirdly, under paragraph 8, will the Minister consider giving greater flexibility, for those who are studying for exams, by adding:

    "or revision the week before exams"?

During the past five years, we have seen a steady reduction in the number of young people between 18 and 24 years of age who were unemployed. From the 789,000 in January 1992 the figure fell to 479,000 in April this year. That is still too many, but the previous Government encouraged the right economic climate and hundreds and thousands of our young people have entered or re-entered the workplace as a result of the range of measures and economic policies that were pursued.

As I said at the beginning, we welcome the measures proposed to improve the skills of our young people and to ensure that they are not consigned to a life which is dependent on benefit. With these few comments and questions, we are pleased to support this further initiative extending the pilot schemes to a further four areas and benefiting another 2,000 young people.

6.23 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, with great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Crosby, who spoke on behalf of the Conservative Opposition, I believe that the Government are attempting to do the best they can with a piece of legislation which I regard as having been vindictive, arbitrary and in many ways cruel. In moving these regulations, I believe that the Government are attempting to make the best of what we can only describe as rather a bad job.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about the Jobseekers Bill when it was going through this House. Only last week, in a telling and trenchant report by the Citizens Advice Bureau, which some noble Lords may have seen, it used these terms as regards the Act and its effects--"arbitrary", "cavalier", "crude" and "mechanistic". Even the noble Lord, Lord Richard, could hardly have spoken in stronger terms.

The truth of the matter is that deep in the very centre of the Jobseekers Act was an extraordinary degree of arbitrary judgment allowed to employment officers. I once worked for the Department of Labour, as it then was, and I have great respect for employment officers.

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1559

They have a tough job and they do it as well as they can, often under tremendous pressure to produce results. But the truth of the matter, as anyone who has read and knows this Act will have seen, is that it gives an extraordinary level of arbitrary judgment to the employment officer, as the noble Baroness has just said, although I have to say that it is in the Act itself and not in the regulations that this degree of arbitrary judgment was instituted.

There is the sheer breadth of the terminology of the legislation as to how one defines such phrases as "availability for work" and "actively seeking work". Not on the face of the Bill, but in every decision that is made under its umbrella, we see the real effects and consequences of this legislation. Some of those consequences are only now emerging. Those noble Lords who read last week's report in the Observer will know that, among other things, we now have some people who are unable to work their way through the traps and mazes of the benefits system and are becoming heavily dependent on charity, often through no particular fault of their own. For example, noble Lords will recall the case of the man who was obliged to look after his young children when his wife was detained in hospital during a very difficult birth. He was told by his employment officer that he was regarded as no longer actively seeking work and was cut off from every possible form of benefit.

I now turn briefly to the regulations and then I shall ask the noble Baroness whether she will respond to a few questions. She will probably be the first to admit that these are modest schemes. There is also a danger that they may be bogged down in the levels of bureaucracy that surround them. It is about that that I wish to ask the noble Baroness a few questions. The requirements are stringent. They are that people must have been unemployed for six months; that the course they take must be employment-related; that they must be willing to work for at least six months or more; that they must receive the approval of the employment officer; and that there must be regular reports back on attendance and satisfactory progress, and I do not complain about that.

As the noble Baroness will know, in paragraphs 7 and 12 there is consistent reference to the phrase,

    "as often as may be required by an employment officer".

That may be an innocent phrase as regards the insistence on receiving reports back on attendance and on satisfactory progress. But the phrase is also an open door to bureaucratic regulation of a kind that could make life difficult for people who are quite genuinely seeking to follow through a course. Therefore, first, can the noble Baroness give an assurance that that phrase will be subject to a reasonable interpretation of what those words convey?

Secondly, I am somewhat troubled by the difference in the regulations. There is a reference to "guided learning hours" in England and Wales. In a more elaborate way there is a definition of the application to courses in Scotland. It seems to me that the Scottish definition is much more precise and better. I am not sure

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1560

what "guided learning hours" means when it comes, for example, to work done at home to complete a project or when reading the textbooks required for the course. If the textbook is read at home in my own time, is that "guided learning" because the member of the faculty teaching me said that I must read the book or is it unguided learning because she is not leaning over my shoulder while I do it? Can the noble Baroness respond on the definition of what is a "guided learning hour" and why there is this strange distinction between Scotland on the one hand and England and Wales on the other?

Thirdly--this is perhaps rather less of a matter of detail--I refer to the purpose of the original pilot scheme. The then Minister, Mr. Forsyth, said in another place that the main measure of the pilot's success will be how quickly unemployed people get into work. He made it plain that not only was that the guiding requirement, but that--perhaps more significantly--a ceiling would be put on recruitment to such courses, set at about 1,000 for each of the group of pilot schemes, because if the courses did not get people back into work, he was not particularly interested in people completing their courses.

The new Government have said repeatedly that one of the matters about which they are most concerned is the need for this country to have a skilled and flexible workforce. At the moment, 41 per cent. of the people of Britain hold a vocational qualification at level 3 or above, but 59 per cent. hold a qualification at a lower level. Therefore, I would have expected--I am sure that this is the case--the Government to place the greatest possible premium on people acquiring qualifications and skills that will enable them not just to pick up a job at McDonald's, but to get a job that will serve them for a substantial period of time.

The latest figures on this, in the current issue of The Economist (dated 19th July), indicate--not surprisingly at a time of rapid growth--that serious skills shortages are once again emerging in the British economy. The Economist makes specific reference to the representations made by the Construction Industry Training Board and the Engineering Industry Training Board about the lack of apprentices coming forward and the difficulty in finding people to fill vacancies requiring true trade qualifications. Given that--and this is my third penultimate question to the Minister--can some thought be given to the link between these courses for those who have been unemployed for six months or more and the Government's general strategy of welfare to work for young people to ensure that we step up the provision of training for skills? We have lots of training for higher education, but we have pathetic training for what one might describe as the craftsman, tradesman, or technician level, from the shortage of which this country still suffers badly in competitive terms.

My final question picks up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who spoke on behalf of the Opposition. Would the Minister be willing to consider giving advice to employment officers that, on the balance of uncertainties which they are constantly having to judge, the assumption should be that if a man or woman has started a course and is showing

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1561

indications of being seriously committed to that course (that is to say, fully satisfies the attendance and performance criteria), that person will not then be pushed into a dead-end job?

I am sure that the Minister is aware that in DfEE circles it is quite widely known that there is a small group of extremely poorly paid, unattractive and low skill jobs which are nevertheless full-time and which are available as a kind of benchmark of how successfully employment officers are meeting their quotas. I do not believe that the new Government would put the meeting of quotas above all other considerations. However, I wonder whether the Minister can give us some assurance that employment officers will be asked to weigh considerations of skills and training in at least equal part--and perhaps in a somewhat more than equal part--as against getting people into jobs, however unattractive and pointless those jobs may be.

6.33 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I rise to welcome the regulations which have been introduced by my noble friend Lady Blackstone and to thank her for the clarity with which she explained them to the House. Of course, the regulations fulfil to some extent the manifesto commitment made by my party and I am sure that the intentions behind them will command widespread support. It is right to try to get people off benefit and into employment. The mandate given by the electorate was precisely to that end.

I particularly welcome the factors to be taken into account by employment officers. Incidentally, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, about the power of employment officers. That power, however, resides in the original Act rather than in these regulations. Nonetheless, I agree that there should be some sort of brake upon the way in which such bureaucratic powers are exercised. If there is no such brake, I do not think that the regulations will be as successful as everybody hopes.

The factors which particularly attracted me come under paragraph 3(3). Paragraph 3(3)(b) states that,

    "an employment officer must take into account ... whether the course would assist him [the claimant] to acquire new skills and qualifications".

Paragraph 3(3)(g) states than an employment officer must also take into account,

    "the number of jobs in the labour market and, if relevant, the local labour market, which require the skills and qualifications which he [the claimant] would acquire on the course".

One of the complaints that is often made, particularly by young people, about previous schemes is that they would often take course after course, but at the end they would still not have skills that could get them any kind of position. The training that they had received simply did not qualify them for the jobs available, such as they were, in the locality. As a result, people became disillusioned and frustrated.

I hope that the new regulations will match the skills in which people are trained with the local job opportunities so that those emerging from training will be able to find a job of a reasonable level and of good

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1562

quality. I share the view expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, with regard to monitoring. I hope that the courses will be effectively monitored to ensure that they are of a reasonable level and quality.

Similar considerations apply with regard to the long-term unemployed. Perhaps I may now put in a plea for older workers. I know that the regulations are aimed primarily at young people. That is quite right because action must speedily be taken to deal with the problem of youth unemployment and the lack of skills among many of our young people. However, as a result of widespread downsizing, many older people have been landed on the labour market at an age when they find alternative employment difficult to come by. They may still have much to offer, but the skills in which they have previously been trained have been rendered obsolete by the onward march of technology and they may not yet be ready to contemplate early retirement. Although the regulations are clearly aimed at younger people, I hope that the Government will take into account the position of older people.

I very much welcome the fact that there will be a pilot scheme and opportunities to discover how the regulations will operate in practice in regard to benefits, the level and quality of training and the extent to which people manage to obtain employment at the end of their courses. That is what training is all about.

I welcome also the reference to carers and the disabled. Clearly, special arrangements have to be made in those areas.

However, there are problems and I turn first to the problem of sanctions. There have always been sanctions against people who break the rules and who are not prepared to participate. We know that there will be sanctions under the New Deal and that the sanction will be the loss of JSA. I am worried by that. Although those provisions existed under the previous regime, I am concerned about those who may be extremely disadvantaged and who may slip through the net. I do not want to see more young people sleeping on the streets, which could very well happen unless there is a proper safety net. I should like to be assured that there will be such a safety net to look after those who are desperately disadvantaged. We know very well that there are such young people in our society.

The regulations have clearly been introduced with the very best of intentions and I wish them well, but as we said repeatedly when we were in Opposition--I say it again now--it is the job of government to protect the vulnerable. I should like to be sure that in operating the regulations (with this new concept of training, which is admirable in itself), we shall not overlook the duty of looking after the vulnerable. We have had extremely divisive social policies over many years and we have seen the result, over the past decade, in the very large numbers of disadvantaged young people. It will be difficult to accommodate some of them, even under a very well intentioned scheme. This must be handled with sensitivity, and I very much hope that the Government will bear those considerations in mind. Having said that, I thank my noble friend for explaining the regulations this evening, and I wish them well.

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1563

6.40 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to this debate, although not in the depth as my noble friend the Minister or the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, who have long experience in this area. When I saw the regulations I believed that I could contribute on the basis that I have two sons in their thirties who, unfortunately, needed to apply for jobseeker's allowance. It is soul destroying to see someone who is fit, who is able and who wants to work, presented with what is ostensibly a golden package of training and skill relearning yet still seeking the right package and the right encouragement.

I join my noble friends in congratulating the Government in doing what they can--I believe that that was the expression used by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams--to improve the situation following one of the bitterest battles that we have had in this Chamber. My noble friend Lady Hollis, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and others were involved. Those on the then Opposition Benches attacked the Bill for what it was. It was described as cruel, vindictive, mean, petty and destructive of the enthusiasm of young people who found themselves in difficulties. Sometimes Ministers and those who advise them, who have decent jobs, pay and prospects, have no idea of the soul-destroying situation faced by someone in Britain who is out of work in 1997 irrespective of whether or not he contributed to that job loss. Such people need all the encouragement that they can get both from the Minister and those who work in employment offices.

The intention behind the regulations is to help back into work about 8,000 people in addition to 4,000 in existing pilot areas. Given that there are more than one million people out of work, 8,000 is a tiny proportion of the total. Nevertheless I believe that each of them will be grateful to the Government for this measure. I start on the basis that almost any work, skilled or unskilled, is better than the prospect after training of getting a better job. What is required is work. The money is not necessarily important to someone out of work and living on allowances who is given the prospect of a job.

I should like to know whether the Minister agrees that in the short term it is important to get a person into work. My noble friend will inform the House that pilot schemes are experiments carried out in different parts of the country in different circumstances in order to provide the right mix of opportunities. Based on the experience of my two sons and close observation of the position, I am not convinced that the enthusiasm, dedication and honesty of those whose job it is to train them and to provide the skills are as they should be. For many years part of the solution, apart from finding jobs, has been to retrain people or give them better training. There are many situations in which the training that is provided is half-hearted, inadequate and certainly not tailored to suit particular needs.

What are the needs of someone who is out of work and desperate to find work? Certainly, he wants more money, but he also wants greater respect and skills. Many noble Lords have pursued the same route I have.

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1564

They have become better qualified for certain posts. Sometimes qualifications are useful; sometimes they are not. The ethic that drives a person to become better qualified in the abstract is a glorious thing. Most people seek education and attend classes or skill centres as a means of obtaining jobs. Leaving aside the laudable objective of helping 8,000 people, I take up the point made by my noble friend Lady Turner. The regulations are designed to aid the young more than the old. But we must not forget those who are no longer classified as young jobseekers. One knows that unemployment, which stood at 1 million in 1979 and went up to 3 million, is now below 2 million. However, one realises the enormity of even 1.5 million unemployed. And even that figure is suspect, until my noble friend does a better job than the previous government in being honest about the situation. There are many more people who are without work but who are not classified as unemployed.

Someone who is not desperate for a bob or two may be turned off by the questions and procedures under the scheme. I see on page 2 of the regulations a long list of definitions under "Interpretation". Someone who goes into an unemployment office is met by an officer with an order and an Act. A number of matters must be interpreted: "the Act"; "benefit"; "receiving benefit"; "caring responsibilities"; "casual employment"; "employment officer"; "employment-related course"; "examination"; "full-time employment"; "full-time student"; "the Jobseeker's Allowance Regulations"; "jobseeking period"; "made a claim for jobseeker's allowance"; "part-time employment"; "period of study"; "qualifying person"; "region"; "term-time"; "vacation"; "week"; and "workskill course". That is just for starters.

I am sure that my noble friend will inform the House that an interpretation is necessary, and it is. I merely point out the difficulty faced by officers if they have to interpret these matters and receive guidance upon them. Occasionally, they will misinterpret. The effect is that a young person or perhaps older person who seeks assistance will find that he or she is on the wrong side of the interpretation of the officer.

I turn to page 3. Under "Application" one sees that Regulation 3(1) has four subparagraphs; Regulation 3(2) has three; and Regulation 3(3) has nine. I can well imagine that in those circumstances a person will lose heart. One comes to the availability for employment in term-time and the tortuous way in which an applicant may fall on the right or wrong side of the interpretation. The Minister has been quite fair in saying what she seeks to improve. I believe that that is right. Without wishing to nitpick, someone may be turned off by the wording of the regulation that deals with the availability of carers in term-time if the applicant is pressed, challenged or monitored as to whether he or she is inside or outside the law.

Is my noble friend satisfied that the level of education and training is approved or monitored by the department? I know her well, and I admire her background in education. Is she satisfied that the courses provided will be tailored to the needs of the individual? It is all very well having a youngster who wants to be trained and a set of training modules, but they must be

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1565

matched. Is my noble friend satisfied that her department and her colleagues are ensuring that individuals are dealt with as individuals?

Will my noble friend clarify the position with regard to people who have savings of more than £16,000? They find themselves disqualified because they have some savings. There need to be minimum amounts above which one cannot claim. Do my noble friend and her department consult the DSS about easing those limits?

The regulations are described as a new deal. They are designed to improve the employability and labour market prospects of young people who have been unemployed for six months or more. That is laudable, and we must welcome it. The task is daunting. The resources are limited. The prospects for those who have been unemployed for six months or more, as many people have been, must be depressing and terrifying. I hope that my noble friend will be able to say more about other measures of which she may be aware to ease the passage from welfare to work. I welcome what she said and look forward to hearing something even more hopeful when she responds.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I have what may be an interest so I might as well declare it. I am chairman of a charity called Training for Life. It takes young people who have left school without qualifications and gives them life skills, numeracy and computer literacy and places them in work. It is a small but successful charity.

I welcome the order and the way my noble friend presented it. That is not an empty formal compliment. A long time ago when I was briefly on the Opposition Front Bench I had to discuss an order. It had something to do with the income entitlement of 16 and 17 year-olds. Like my noble friend, I have three degrees and four honorary degrees. I am sure that she has many more than I have. It was extremely difficult to understand what was going on.

As my noble friends Lord Graham and Lady Turner have said, some of the regulations are complicated. I do not know who understands them. I shall make a general point which I have made before. We have created a welfare state that is so complicated that few of us understand it. The claimants' book that the Child Poverty Action Group publishes contains 500 pages. It is difficult to understand what one's entitlements are. There is a great difference between whether you are a 17 year-old woman who has previously worked but who is now pregnant, or who has not worked and is pregnant or is not pregnant. The difference between those categories amounted to 35p per week either way. Someone has set up lots and lots of pigeonholes and lots and lots of regulations, because what we have set up in the welfare state is suspicion of the claimant.

I hope that with the new Government and the new climate that is being created there will be room to rethink the welfare state so as to trust the citizen rather than suspect him. We have to create a great many regulations because we have got into the way of thinking that the claimant is out to cheat us. It is not for very much, because we do not pay the claimant very

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1566

much. The claimant is out to cheat us by claiming what he or she is not entitled to or by claiming in a different category from the one they are entitled to. So we set up lots and lots of little pigeonholes. We create work for ourselves, waste resources and cause a great deal of unhappiness.

To return to the jobseeker's allowance, I remember the Bill clearly. I recall what I said at that time. I did not say anything about the Government being vindictive, because I was used to that. The jobseeker's legislation was predicated on the belief that there were jobs out there if only people looked for them. People were unemployed because they were not looking for jobs.

The City, the Bank of England and everyone admits, that we are currently at the top of a business cycle. We have between 1.75 million and 2 million people unemployed, depending upon whether one uses the claimant formula or the labour force survey method. I do not deny that unemployment has been going down. Between 1993 and 1997 cyclical demand-created employment has meant that unemployment has declined. But there are still about 1.75 million people unemployed. They are not the same people. There has been a bit of churning around. However that shows us that unemployment is not at the top of the cycle. It means that old-fashioned demand policies do not work. People are not unemployed because they are not looking for jobs, they are unemployed for supply-side reasons.

I would go further than that. The fact that the previous government set up the pilot schemes was a recognition of the fact that some people do not get jobs because they do not have the appropriate skills. It is not laziness. I welcome the order. Early in the new Government's term of office we are adding new pilot schemes to the previous pilot schemes. We want to be generous and help people and not hinder them. So when we relax the rules and look for supply-side measures to create employment, we want to create opportunities which will not further frustrate people, and make them unhappier, but which will give them the skills needed to do a job.

We have to look at the schemes within the wider context of the welfare-to-work scheme which was announced in the Budget. That is a rolling programme which will continue for the next five years. It will begin slowly. It is a big adventure. It is almost a gamble. How do we know that supply-side policies will work? Everyone has said that they will work, but no one actually knows that they will. Indeed, people who assert supply-side policies do not actually need them; they are already in jobs and very comfortably off.

One very important point--and this is perhaps something that my noble friend the Minister can either answer this evening or later--is that, if we create such pilot schemes, it is extremely important for us to analyse the results carefully. Moreover, the scheme to analyse such results should be set up either before the pilot starts or simultaneously with it. I would even urge the Government to employ an anthropologist to analyse such schemes. I say that because we actually do not know, except at a kind of bar-room conversational level, how unemployed people seek work. What do they actually do? How do they try and what are the

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1567

frustrations that they face? Economists do not carry out such studies, but anthropologists observe and an urban anthropologist would be ideal.

We really need to understand such frustration. For example, what is it that frustrates the unemployed? Why is it, as my noble friend Lady Turner asked, that some people join courses which are not suitable for them? Of course, it takes some time for them to realise that the course is not suitable. The regulations may state that within five days one has to report that the course is not suitable, but how does one know that in such a short space of time? How do people get on to such courses? What are the real obstacles? The evaluation of such schemes must be set up very early on so that the 12,000, as it were, units of observation can be studied very carefully and quickly. That will enable us to make policies for the next 100,000 or 200,000 places which will be required under the welfare to work scheme.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, mentioned skills shortages. Again, with all the electronic data and information that we have, I wonder whether we can somehow ease and speed up apprenticeships or placements aimed at acquiring such skills at work. There is no denying the fact that the shortages are there. Someone in some part of the Government has recorded such shortages--for example, the Construction Industry Training Board, and so on. In other words, somewhere else in the machinery of government people know that there are people seeking work. But, even in these modern days, it is difficult for us to match the two concepts.

From my experience of another charity with which I am involved, I know that the Government have a co-ordinating arrangement concerning drugs across several ministries. Perhaps we ought to have such an arrangement whereby someone is always tracking the problem of skill shortages. That is especially important because, over the next few years while the spending boom lasts, skill shortages might actually cause inflationary problems to arise sooner than we would like and that would only lead to the Bank of England going even more berserk than it already is and putting up interest rates. I believe that somewhere here there is a co-ordination problem. I do not know quite how we can fix it, but I believe that it is necessary to do so.

I am not a very practical person, but when I look at Regulation 3(3) under "Application" I wonder whether employment officers are adequately trained and capable of handling so many considerations. Indeed, one has only to look at all those considerations--like, for example, paragraph (g) which refers to,

    "the number of jobs in the labour market and, if relevant, the local labour market, which require the skills and qualifications which he would acquire on the course"--

to understand my point. As a professional economist I know for a fact that labour market data are not easily and quickly available. Moreover, local labour market data are even more difficult to get hold of and not very accurate.

The regulations actually require someone to look at the labour market data for particular kinds of skills. But the local labour market may not be relevant. What are

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1568

we really asking such people to do? Is it really necessary? Broadly speaking, we want to know that the person who is trying to claim the jobseeker's allowance while doing something else and looking for jobs--or, indeed, taking a course--is not defrauding the state. That is all we want to know. I am sure that all the other conditions set out in the regulations are surplus to requirements.

The regulations before us have already been presented. However, as we become more experienced in such matters and as we need to place more and more people on such schemes to tackle the out-of-work problem, I hope that we will think completely differently about how we monitor or check people's sincerity in seeking training and skills. Perhaps we should reverse the burden of proof and trust people to know what they are doing. In that way we could help them. Indeed, if they have gone into courses which are not suitable for them, we must not blame them; it is not their fault. We must help them along in a positive way.

It is very rare that people go out of their way deliberately and repeatedly to cheat. There are, perhaps, better illegal ways of making more money than this--which I am not recommending. People do not cheat for such amounts of money all the time. Let us change our way of thinking on the matter and start to trust people. The next time that an order is placed before the House, let us approach the matter in a more positive and helpful way. Employment officers should become helpers for the people who are seeking work and actually become more positive, rather than just being negative monitoring persons--in other words, powerful people hanging over the jobseeker, which is the picture that we have at present.

Such regulations worry me when I read them. I do not expect a jobseeker to understand them; he does not have to do so. The jobseeker will be examined when he goes to claim the allowance and state that he is doing this or that course. However, at that stage, I worry about the situation. After all, employment officers are only human. Perhaps we are making them do far too much. We have actually not thought the problem through in a positive way and, as I said, we ought to think about a much greater simplification of rules. There ought to be much more leeway, a greater degree of tolerance and much more trust in our citizens. Basically, we want our welfare state to be good for our citizens; indeed, we are talking about their entitlements. If we become more helpful, more positive and indeed more trusting, I believe that we might be able to create a better welfare state than the one we have at present. It seems to me that the more suspicious we get the less efficient we become. So let us trust people and thereby help them.

7.8 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, we have had a very interesting and helpful discussion about the regulations, in which a number of important matters have been raised. I was also interested to note that a number of my noble friends were able to draw on their personal experiences and bring in the useful information that one

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1569

can always glean when one has relatives, or people that one knows well, who are unemployed and are having to rely on JSA.

I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, speaking on behalf of the Opposition, for her welcome to the regulations. However, I was a little surprised by some of her remarks in relation to what my noble friends said regarding the JSA legislation before the election. I should point out that the Government entirely stand by what was said by Members of what was then Her Majesty's Opposition in this House at that time. I fully endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said.

I am grateful for what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said about the regulations. As she said, they are designed to mitigate what we have inherited from our predecessors. The schemes are quite modest. I am ready to admit that. But they are a helpful beginning. They are about providing us with much better information to help us consider how to make progress towards a better regime for the long-term unemployed than there has been for the previous 18 years, before the general election in May 1997.

Of course, it is very much at the centre of this Government's ambition to put the greatest possible premium on people acquiring skills. I say that by way of starting. I hope that everything that I say as I go on will fill that out and convince the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, who asked that that should be at the centre of everything that we do.

I now turn to the large number of questions which have been asked in the debate and shall do my best to answer them. But if I fail to deal with anything, I shall write to noble Lords who have asked questions. There were one or two quite specific questions to which I may not be able to give the answers.

A number of participants in the debate were concerned about employment officers in a variety of different ways. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and my noble friend Lord Desai were concerned about the powers that were given to employment officers. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the very difficult job which employment officers must now do. Many of the problems which they face are a direct result of the legislation which they must implement.

But having said that, employment officers are being trained and will receive extra training through the coming months to operate properly the provisions in these regulations. They are being given very detailed guidance and we are confident that they will play a vital role in helping people to take up courses. I should tell my noble friend Lord Desai that they have access to a national labour market computer system which provides very full details of local jobs, opportunities and the training courses which the long-term unemployed, for whom these regulations are intended, can take. Employment officers build up good contacts with local employers; they hold marketing events throughout the year; and they know the importance of keeping up to date with local labour market needs. I hope that that satisfies my noble friend Lord Desai.

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1570

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, asked whether we would be willing to advise employment officers that someone who is on a course and looks totally committed to that course should not be pushed into a dead-end job. There is absolutely no question of participants being forced to take up either unsuitable or very low-paid work. Employment Service advisers take their work seriously and seek to match people properly with vacancies. The service would not be able to place people into work if it acquired a reputation with employers for submitting unsuitable people for their vacancies. I do not quite understand why it is suggested that participants should be forced into unsuitable work once they have taken up a Workskill course when they had not been forced into unsuitable work by the Employment Service in the previous six months. It would be highly undesirable if that were to happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, asked also about reports which may be required by the employment officer. I assure her that those powers will be used sensibly, as they must be.

My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton asked whether we are satisfied that the lever of education or training is monitored adequately by the department. Again, that relates to the role of employment officers. The courses must be approved. An employment officer will help an applicant to choose a course which is appropriate to his skills, qualifications and abilities and also a course which interests him. An employment officer will then make sure that the course which the applicant takes is relevant to the job which he is interested in obtaining in the longer term.

My noble friends Lord Graham of Edmonton and Lord Desai made the point that applicants are likely to face a long, complicated and bureaucratic list of rules and regulations. I am sure that all noble Lords will understand that legislation is necessary, detailed and complex. It must be in order to ensure that we are clear about what we are trying to do. But employment officers are trained--I have already said this and I repeat it--to help people to decide whether they wish to participate and will explain the rules to them. There will also be explanatory leaflets available which will be short, simple, clear and easily comprehensible for all applicants. That is vital. It is extremely important that anyone who is to take part in a pilot scheme should be clear as to what he is doing, why he is doing it and what he is likely to get out of it.

The noble Baroness speaking for the Opposition asked about monitoring. She questioned whether the evaluation would be the same for rural areas as for city schemes. In relation to the rural schemes, it will be necessary to look also at any problems which might be specific to rural areas; for example, where a participant must travel a long distance. Apart from those rather special considerations which relate to people who live in the country and some way from an urban area, the same detailed monitoring and evaluation will apply.

She asked also whether we should be introducing greater flexibility in order to treat participants as available for employment, as actively seeking work, the week before they take examinations. We have already

24 Jul 1997 : Column 1571

relaxed the rules as regards availability for employment. We are seeking to ensure that part-time students undertaking a Workskill course under these regulations, both during term time and the vacations, take up such employment which allows them to successfully complete the course. We certainly do not believe that we should treat a person as available for employment and actively seeking employment in the weeks before examinations. That would completely defeat the object of the regulations and the pilot schemes which we are introducing; namely, not only to help people undertake a course but to achieve a qualification at the end of it. That means that they must be able to take their examinations and not be pushed into a job at that point in time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked a rather specific question about guided learning hours and what the English definition includes. I think she asked about the distinctions between Scotland and England. As I understand it, the definition does not include homework or voluntary study. Definitions reflect the way that education courses are designed by colleges in England and Scotland, and they are, of course, different because of the different education system in Scotland. The Further Education Funding Council does not fund courses in Scotland.

The noble Baroness also asked whether it would be possible to provide advice to employment officers, asking them to assume that if someone is committed to a course that person should not be pushed into a dead-end job. I believe that I have already touched on that.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page