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Earl Russell: The Minister could go quite a long way to reassure us on the ground that we have been covering if he could give us an assurance that a claimant who is not satisfied with the jobseeker's agreement he is asked to sign would continue to enjoy benefit pending the hearing of the appeal to the adjudication officer, and if he could tell us that adjudication officers in future may be able to get through these cases and have time to hear

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them properly in rather fewer than the 22 weeks, which the Minister referred to as the present duration. Those two points are vital; after that we can begin talking.

Lord Henderson of Brompton: I wish to say a brief word on this. I strongly support the words of the noble Earl. I think that what he suggests would go a long way to ease one's anxiety. I also believe that it would go a long way to relieve our anxiety if the word "agreement" was replaced by something more suitable. After all, we have heard from the Minister that this so-called agreement is going to adjudication. If something is adjudicated upon and one side does not agree but nevertheless has to abide by, and does abide by, that adjudication, it does not necessarily mean that he agrees with it. It is a judgment which has been imposed upon him. Therefore "agreement" is simply not a suitable word. If the Minister would consider substituting something which is more truthful than the word "agreement", I believe that would help a great deal.

Lord Swinfen: Perhaps my noble friend should consider the use of a jobseeker's plan or a jobseeker's planned search because obviously this is a proposal between the agency and the individual seeking a job as to how best he can find a job. I do not think the word "agreement" is right. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, on that.

Lord Rix: I have a question for the Minister that I pose wearing my British actor's Equity hat. Will actors seeking employment be made to enter into this jobseeker's agreement? As I am sure the Minister is aware, many actors can be out of work for long periods while actively seeking employment. I have never yet known a Jobcentre help an actor to obtain such employment. Therefore I am interested to know the wording that would be used in that particular agreement.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am afraid I have to admit to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that I do not know a great deal about the lifestyle of actors other than what I sometimes read in the more popular press and I am sure that that represents the lifestyle of only a minority of actors. We are getting into the problem of detail. It is difficult to go into detail as regards hypothetical cases. However, if such an actor were to claim benefit, in his agreement his jobseeking would outline what he might do. I concede that there might not be too many advertisements for actors in Jobcentres. However, I believe there may occasionally be some. It perhaps depends on the grade of the actor. However, the top ones are probably earning so much money that I suspect they would not qualify for any of the benefits that we are discussing. Obviously going to theatrical agents or the like would be the way that an actor would actively look for work. I believe it would be perfectly acceptable for that to be included in an agreement. However, the person will have to sign the agreement. I believe that is how he will be able to indicate that he is actively seeking work.

I say in reply to the noble Earl that all vulnerable groups will have access to hardship payments immediately. I believe he referred to someone who was not prepared to sign an agreement and who wanted to

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get a second opinion. Others will have access to hardship payments after two weeks but the vulnerable groups will have it immediately. I hope that answers the question that he posed to me.

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. However, can he explain to me how one can be disentitled to a means-tested benefit without experiencing hardship?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We are now beginning to go into hypothetical cases. I presume that the reason that someone does not wish to sign an agreement is one of principle. I would hope that we would then be able to conclude a second opinion quickly. The option is available. Members of a vulnerable group can be paid immediately under the hardship payments. For those who are not in a vulnerable group the period is two weeks. We believe that people ought to sign an agreement. We do not believe that they ought to be able to spin out not signing the agreement.

Lord McCarthy: I am beginning to get the measure of the noble Lord. He does not like being asked about hypotheses and, even more, he does not like being asked about detail. So we have to get between a hypothesis and the detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, does not seem to have heard of a back-to-work plan. He seems to think that the Employment Service works on the basis that you just sign on. I shall not say what it did, but it certainly does not work on that basis now. A lot more than signing on goes on now. There is a back-to-work plan. Much of the back-to-work plan is analogous to what the Government say they want to do with their new agreement. We do not see why that should be imposed by law, by fiat, through this Bill on the poor unemployed person. That is one of our main differences.

Before I come to what the Minister said, I can answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rix. After seven days the noble Lord, Lord Rix, would be asked to go and wash up or dig the roads, at any rate or any price. Otherwise he would receive no unemployment pay. He would get unemployment pay for seven days and then he would be out. If anyone says that there will be special arrangements for actors, the noble Lord knows very well that there will be no such special arrangements.

So we come to what the Minister actually said. He said what he said before. It is just as unsatisfactory and just an unconvincing. We do not see why a developed back-to-work plan needs to be put into legislation like this and imposed on unemployed people, forcing them more and more into quasi-judicial activities in order to try to get their rights. It is exactly the same issue. It does not involve hypotheses. It does involve a little detail, but we shall not press it tonight. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

6.15 p.m.

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 5:


Page 1, line 14, at end insert ("except in the case of a disabled person").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 5 is grouped with Amendment No. 48 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, and another of my amendments, Amendment No. 78. I do not propose to speak to Amendment No. 48. The noble Baroness is quite capable of doing that for herself.

Disabled people will be significantly affected by the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance. In 1996-97 it is expected that between 150,000 and 190,000 disabled people will sign on following the replacement of sickness and invalidity benefit with the more restrictive incapacity benefit. The conditions for the jobseeker's allowance are that someone has to be capable of work, available for work and actively seeking work. Disabled people can face problems at each of those stages. Proving that steps are being taken to find work will become an issue for disabled people once they have been accepted as capable of and available for work.

I shall deal first with the category of capable of work. During the passage of the Bill through another place, Ministers stated that a decision on work capacity made by the Benefits Agency for incapacity benefits purposes would be accepted by the Employment Service, so there should be no problem of people falling between two stools. However, there is already some evidence, in a survey by RADAR and the Disability Alliance, that a third of people moving from invalidity benefit to sign on had problems in establishing a claim for unemployment benefit because they were not accepted as being fit enough to sign on or to be available for work.

As regards availability for work, the current rules allow people to place restrictions on their availability for work where those are reasonable given the person's physical or mental condition. If the restrictions are accepted as reasonable, the individual is exempt from the requirement applied to other claimants with restricted availability to show that he still has a reasonable prospect of finding work despite the restrictions.

As regards the actively seeking work test, once claimants have been accepted as capable of work and available for work they have to show that they are taking steps actively to seek work, which include contacting employers, looking in newspapers and drawing up a curriculum vitae, as well as other things. Those steps will form part of the jobseeker's agreement which has to be signed as a condition of receiving the jobseeker's allowance.

The amendment would exempt disabled people from having to show that they are actively seeking work. The aims of the jobseeker's allowance, as stated in the White Paper, include the tightening of the labour market conditions for receiving benefit. The amendment does not seek to undermine that aim but to limit its application.

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The actively seeking work condition for receiving benefit was introduced only in 1989. However, it appears that more people are having their benefit disallowed for failing actively to seek work. The Unemployment Unit reports that between April and December 1994 some 20,000 claimants were disqualified for that reason—three times as many as in the previous year. I understand that at the same time the Chief Adjudication Officer's report shows that 92 per cent. of decisions to disqualify from benefit were unsatisfactory. A growth in numbers being disqualified for failing actively to seek work, together with an increase in disabled people signing on because they have failed the new all-work test for incapacity benefit, has given rise to concern that many disabled people could encounter problems in meeting the condition of actively seeking work.

Surely those people who only just fail the incapacity test by scoring less than 15 points and who are likely to have substantial disabilities should only have to show their availability for work rather than also to have to show that they have taken steps to find it.

Incapacity benefit regulations now allow disabled people the choice of signing on as unemployed where they would pass the incapacity test and so be entitled to incapacity benefit. The regulations were debated in Standing Committee in the other place on 23rd March. It appears from Hansard that such people will not have to pass tests of availability and actively seek work when signing on.

In the case of disabled people it is illogical on the one hand to exempt them from the requirement to show that they must have a reasonable prospect of finding work while on the other hand to require them to take steps to seek work.

Many disabled people moving from incapacity benefit to jobseeker's allowance are likely to have been on benefit for a number of years, in many cases six years or more according to the Department of Social Security's own research. Their skills are likely to be out of date and they will require considerable assistance in moving into work. That will not be achieved by making them demonstrate how many job applications they have completed or how many telephone calls they have made to potential employers. Similarly, merely pushing disabled people towards jobs which are not realistic or for which they are not ready may mean that they take the job and then have to leave, possibly then falling foul of the voluntary unemployment rules when reclaiming jobseeker's allowance.

Rather than forcing disabled people into demonstrating that they are taking active steps to find work, surely it would be a better use of resources to encourage the greatest possible use of the specialist advice of disability employment advisers and placing, assessment and counselling teams. Although the Employment Service has been given an extra £71 million to help people who come off incapacity benefit and sign on as unemployed during the next three years, it is of some concern that the estimated numbers referred for specialist help to the placing, assessment and counselling teams are fewer than one in five of the total

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number expected to sign on. This suggests that the proposals will help only the minority of disabled people who sign on.

I turn finally to Amendment No. 78 in Clause 7. This clause introduces the jobseeker's agreement as a condition of receipt of the jobseeker's allowance. It stipulates that an agreement shall not be entered into unless the employment officer is satisfied that the conditions of availability for actively seeking work are satisfied. This amendment will remove the reference to the actively seeking work condition where the claimant is a disabled person. In moving the amendment to Clause 1, the arguments for removing the condition of actively seeking work from disabled people remain. This amendment seeks to carry through those arguments to the jobseeker's agreement itself. It will ensure that an employment officer cannot decide not to enter into the jobseeker's agreement if he considers that the disabled person cannot undertake the steps required in showing that he is actively seeking work. I beg to move.


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