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Earl Russell: When the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, spoke on Second Reading, she said that the jobseeker's agreement was not an agreement. That is the hub of the whole argument. A claimant has to enter into a jobseeker's agreement on pain of losing benefit. If that was an abduction case, that would count as evidence of duress. The penalties of not entering into an agreement are so severe that it seems to me that the claimant will, in effect, have to enter into whatever agreement the employment officer demands.

I am not happy about anyone being so completely under the power of another. I am certainly not happy about having conditions which are that fundamental to a person's survival being made that far down the line. I know that the Minister will say that the situation is subject to review by the adjudication officer, and I shall not go into details because we have done so before. However, what worries me is the imposition of unreasonable conditions.

I shall give the Committee one example which has actually happened. If someone is homeless, it is part of proving that he is actively seeking work to prove that he is looking for accommodation. That is fair enough; indeed, I do not believe that anyone would argue with it. But what appears to those concerned to be proof that someone is seeking accommodation may vary.

There was one case which happened in London this past winter. It involved someone who was homeless and who was ruled not to be looking for accommodation because he had a dog which he would not give up. Because that person would not abandon his dog he was deprived of all right to benefit. I find that absolutely outrageous. It is an exercise of arbitrary power, without

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any warrant, which one might successfully appeal against under the present law. But whether one could successfully do so under the new law is something that we simply cannot tell until we know what criteria the adjudication officer is to use. Moreover, as such criteria will be in the regulations, which are not before us, we cannot make a judgment.

Here we have someone "drest in a little brief authority" who can sign away someone else's future. Alternatively, because many employment officers are not the type who like to be "drest in a little brief authority", we may have someone who was previously capable of enjoying an excellent relationship with claimants but whose relationship with them is completely ruined by the power that he now has to use. The noble Lord, Lord Acton, told me that his great-grandfather's actual words were: "Power tends to corrupt". It does not always do so, but the risk that it may is very great. The amount of power which is being given to the employment officer is such that I would not give to anyone on earth. I am happy to support the amendment.

Lord Dean of Harptree: It seems to me that the jobseeker's agreement is an essential part of the Bill. I would very much regret to see it removed. I take the point just made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that the parties to the agreement may not be entirely equal. However, the fact is that there is an agreement. It is a positive matter which strikes me as being more effective than the present signing-on arrangement, which is often a rather negative procedure. At least in this concept there has to be an agreement between the Employment Service—and I assume its good will and intention to do everything it can to assist the unemployed person to find a job—and the person who is seeking employment. As I understand it, the agreement is a continuing one. It seems to me that it has the makings of a great improvement on the present rather negative signing-on arrangement. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will resist the amendment.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, is exactly the nub of the issue that we are now discussing. If the jobseeker's agreement is indeed a valid and voluntarily entered into agreement between an employment officer and a jobseeker, then, as the noble Lord suggested, it might be a very valuable and constructive way for people to go back into work. I believe that all of us on both sides of the Committee strongly approve of that aim.

However, the problem is whether that is the kind of agreement that it will be or whether it will be the kind of agreement referred to by my noble friend Lord Russell—namely, a coercive one with the word "agreement" having Orwellian overtones and not meaning what it stands for. Quite sincerely, that is the point about which a number of us are probing the Minister.

On 3rd April, when responding to questions on the issue, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred to the fact that jobseekers have different paths and different qualities. That was certainly music to many ears because

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it is right that jobseeker's agreements should match the individual capabilities, talents and experience of the jobseeker. However, those of us who have read the memorandum from the two departments carefully are more frightened now than we were before about what is constituted within that agreement. For example, it looks as if one of the questions that jobseekers may be asked to respond to is: "What is the lowest wage you will accept for a job?" If that is correct, it would remove the whole basis of a free market because there cannot be an open agreement reached when one side has already had to declare in advance the lowest possible reward that he will accept and the other side has not had to give any information whatever.

The memorandum indicates that there will also be provision for just how long someone can insist upon trying to get a job in the area for which they are qualified and trained. We spend thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on training young doctors, young architects, skilled craftsmen and the like and we are now saying that as little as seven days may be laid down in a jobseeker's agreement as the time within which he can seek jobs for which he is qualified and not be forced to become a dishwasher. A dishwashing job is an honourable job but whether we really want people who have been trained for many years to take such jobs is an open question and yet the jobseeker's agreement leaves that question entirely in the hands of an employment officer. However well disposed he or she may be, this puts a whiphand with the bureaucracy and it amazes me that any Conservative Government, of all governments, should so readily accept that.

I find the jobseeker's agreement, if I may say so, the most ambiguous, the strangest and the most misleading of all the parts of this troubling Bill. I hope that Members of this Chamber will consider carefully before dismissing this amendment because we could reframe it in terms of a genuine agreement reached voluntarily by both sides. Such wording would certainly lay many of my fears to rest—like the wording used by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, at Second Reading—but certainly the memorandum does not bear out that interpretation and puts a much narrower and much more coercive slant on the whole concept of the jobseeker's agreement.

6 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This amendment would remove one important part of the jobseeker's allowance proposal that we are bringing before the Committee. It would remove the requirement that jobseekers should draw up and agree a jobseeker's agreement in order to receive a jobseeker's allowance. The agreement is a central feature of JSA. It will ensure that all claimants understand from the outset the conditions of entitlement to JSA. This is not the case at present and too often people are unaware of or misunderstand what is expected of them. The agreement is also a vital step in helping each individual decide, with the Employment Service, the best way for him or her to look for work. Making the agreement a condition of benefit ensures that each jobseeker will get the individual attention that he deserves.

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The agreement will improve understanding of the labour market conditions of JSA by bringing them together in one place. It will be a record that the individual and the Employment Service can consult. I was not entirely sure whether the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, was saying that if only I agreed to make this voluntary, he would be quite happy with that. Indeed I think he mentioned the current voluntary back-to-work-plan which the vast majority of jobseekers already complete, I presume because the vast majority see the benefit in doing so. I believe this amendment would deprive the jobseeker of an opportunity to focus on his best route back to work. This would damage the intention of the reforms, which is to maintain the individual's focus on the labour market.

We will discuss more of the detail of this matter when we discuss Clause 7. At the risk of repeating what will be said later, I wish quickly to outline some matters in order to answer one or two of the points that were made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. Each agreement will set out what the jobseeker has agreed to do to meet the availability for work and the actively seeking employment conditions of JSA which will be contained in regulations made under Clause 6 of the Bill.

If the employment officer and the jobseeker cannot reach agreement—this perhaps answers the point made by the noble Earl—then regulations will provide that the proposed agreement can be referred at the instigation of either party to an independent adjudication officer. That officer will determine whether or not the proposed terms and conditions would allow the jobseeker to meet the availability and actively seeking employment conditions, and if it is reasonable to expect the jobseeker to have to comply with them. If the jobseeker is not content with the adjudication officer's determination, the intention is that the regulations will enable him to ask for his case to be reviewed by a second officer. If he is still dissatisfied, he can appeal to the social security appeals tribunal.

Therefore I do not believe that it is quite as coercive a document as perhaps we were being frightened into believing. I believe this document and this agreement are an important part in helping people back to work, which is certainly what we in the Government are trying to do. We are trying to help people find ways back into employment. We believe this agreement does that. I hope that with my explanation the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, will withdraw his amendment but if we wish to maintain the record of the Committee—we have had two Divisions on the two amendments we have discussed so far—and if we have a Division, I hope that my noble friends will support me.


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