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House of Lords

Monday, 16th January 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Message from the Queen

The Earl of Airlie: My Lords, I have the honour to present to your Lordships a message from Her Majesty the Queen, signed by her own hand. The message reads as follows:

    "I have received your Address and, relying on the wisdom of my Parliament, I desire that my prerogative in so far as it relates to the succession of peerages, should not stand in the way of consideration by Parliament, during the present Session, of any measure that may be introduced providing for an amendment of the law relating to the succession of legitimated persons to the dignities and titles of honour".

Royal Assent

2.37 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

    European Communities (Finance) Act;

    British Waterways Act.

Education for the Unemployed: 21-hour Rule

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to change the 21-hour rule for education for the unemployed.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, the 21-hour rule is a special concession which enables income support claimants who are unemployed to spend their time usefully in part-time study while continuing their search for work. The Jobseekers Allowance White Paper, which was published on 24th October 1994, makes clear that the Government intend to continue broadly with the same approach and will be introducing appropriate arrangements within the jobseekers allowance.

Baroness David: My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister did not have something a bit more encouraging to say. Would he agree that in the light of the need to have many more highly trained and skilled people in the workforce it would be sensible to make the 21-hour rule very much more flexible so that full-time as well as

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part-time courses would be available to those students? Students ought to be eligible to benefit irrespective of the designation of a course. Is he aware that in some cases the decision whether a course should be full time or part time may be taken by a DSS official and that of course can lead to very bizarre and inconsistent decisions being taken across the country?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am sorry the noble Baroness found my reply unsatisfactory. My reply, of course, restates the distinction between full-time students who are not eligible for benefit but are eligible for maintenance benefit, etc., inside the education system and people on income support who are unemployed and seeking work for whom obviously full-time studenthood would be inconsistent.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that unlike the noble Baroness many of us found his Answer wholly satisfactory?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thought my Answer was wholly satisfactory also, so I am grateful to my noble friend. I reiterate the point that once the jobseekers allowance comes into place we would expect the situation to be broadly similar to that of today. Those people who are unemployed and seeking work but wish to undertake part-time study will continue to be eligible for support.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, as we are constantly being told about the improvement in the economy, is there not a parallel need, as indeed my noble friend has implied, for an increase in these educational opportunities? Further, will the Minister say something about the very special case concerning the long-term unemployed? Many people now have been unemployed for two years and these opportunities would be the first rung on the ladder for people in that position. There is a great need for that. Surely the Government can be a bit more flexible than they have shown themselves to be, particularly in the answers that we have been given so far?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I think the rule is flexible. I invite your Lordships to divide 21 hours a week by five days in the week. Your Lordships will see that this allows for up to four hours of study a day—indeed it is more than just study; it is supervised study—for someone to undertake and remain on unemployment benefit while seeking work. As regards the general question the noble Lord has asked me, there has been a huge increase in the opportunities in higher and further education over the lifetime of the Conservative Government since 1979 with unbelievably high percentages of people in further and higher education compared to what was conceived by the party opposite. So far as concerns unemployment, of course we have some way to go but we have made an excellent start in recent months with unemployment falling by half a million.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, I accept that, as the Minister said, there has been a considerable and very desirable increase in educational opportunities during the lifetime of this Government. However, will the noble

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Lord explain why it is not possible for someone who is seeking work also to be in full-time education? One does not have to be in full-time education from 9 o'clock in the morning until 6 o'clock at night. It is perfectly possible to apply for any job which may come up. Does the Minister agree that it is highly desirable that people should get the maximum amount of education and training while they are out of work? Why can that not be done?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as I explained, 21 hours a week translates into four hours a day. That is a considerable amount of time for education. I must say to the noble Baroness that there is a distinction in my mind, if not in hers, between somebody who is a full-time student—and most full-time students I know are not seeking employment—and somebody who will be eligible for the jobseekers allowance in the future or is currently on income support and who is actively seeking work. I should have thought that those two conditions—being a full-time student and actively seeking work—cannot apply concurrently.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, while I concede to the full the importance of full-time students having full-time education at suitable ages and under suitable conditions, is it not obvious that they come under the maintenance provisions and not under the provisions relating to unemployment and seeking work? Is that not perfectly logical?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right to underline the points that I have made that those people who are full-time students are eligible for the maintenance grants and the fees paid to the institutions, and those people who are unemployed, actively seeking work and available for work can study for up to 21 hours a week while maintaining their benefit position.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, will the Minister answer the point which my noble friend Lady David made regarding discrepancies in different parts of the country?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I would need to see details of the cases suggested here. However, there is no doubt that one of the aspects which we have to address—and which we are addressing—in the shift from the old rules to the rules relating to the jobseekers allowance is that, increasingly, further education colleges are designing courses on a more flexible basis. Of course, we want to take account of that because they are moving away from the nicely clear-cut situation of full-time courses and part-time courses. I do not disagree with the noble Lord that there are some problems. Those are the problems which we hope to address when considering these matters.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, in the government White Paper on the jobseekers allowance issued last October the Government recognised that by acquiring skills unemployed people are helped back into employment. An increasing number of the long-term unemployed lack skills. In many

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instances the only way they will acquire skills is by returning to study. Will the Minister give a reassurance that the 21-hour rule will be applied flexibly and will be examined in the review of higher education which is currently taking place?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as I said, as we move to the jobseekers' agreement we are looking at how we should interpret and design the 21-hour-a-week rule in the new situations in relation to both the jobseekers' agreement and further education. However, I can confirm to the noble Baroness—as she confirmed to the House—that in the White Paper dealing with the jobseekers allowance we say clearly that:

    "Unemployed people sometimes undertake courses of study. That can increase their employability and give them a better chance of getting a job".

I do not believe that there is anything between us in that regard.

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