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Viscount Long: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.53 to 8.5 p.m.]

Jobseekers Bill

House again in Committee on Clause 1.

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 1, line 20, at end insert ("or is studying for less than 21 hours per week").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 8 I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 61A and 61B. This amendment seeks to confirm the present entitlement; that is, 21 hours of study, and it will remove the provision of 16 hours of guided tuition which the Government wish to impose. It is alleged that the

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present 21-hour rule is not applied consistently throughout the country. We accept that that is the case. Certainly there have been many complaints about that. However, we do not believe that reducing the provision from 21 hours of study to 16 is the way to deal with that kind of inconsistency. Although this is not an issue which will necessarily require a long debate, it is a fundamental issue and it goes to the heart of the Bill in that the Government's declared intention is to get people in Britain out of unemployment and into work. I do not believe that the Government's wish to reduce the hours of study to 16 will in any way assist that situation. While I accept that there are different points of view as regards whether some people will lose and some people will gain from the provision, those involved in education have said that about 36 per cent. of people will be discouraged from taking courses. Individuals will be discouraged and so will employers.

In the UK there is an increasing problem of long-term unemployment, especially among men. Some 21 per cent. of the unemployed have no qualifications at all and 38 per cent. of the long-term unemployed—over 400,000 of them —have no qualifications. The Bill does nothing to address that problem and yet it is supposed to be a Bill which is trying to encourage unemployed people to get back into work. I would suggest also that the Bill does nothing at all to rectify the skills shortage. In some areas of work there is a real skills shortage. There are not enough people to fill those positions and now it appears that training will be cut back.

A wide range of reports from within the UK and from outside —and indeed the Government's own statistics on this are perfectly clear—show that the qualifications level in this country is low. Where there are low qualifications, there is high unemployment. People are increasingly vulnerable to unemployment. The CBI report Tackling Long-Term Unemployment, the work done by the TUC, the universities, the Institute of Personnel Management and indeed other organisations and the OECD report or the ILO report all show that those countries which invest most in education and training have populations with better employment prospects. That is at the core of this Bill. We do not understand why the Government wish to move away from that and have at the same time, in parallel, cut back considerably on the training places available.

Statements by the Minister in another place give little comfort in this area. People will be forced out of education and into low-paid jobs because they will be required to take any job no matter what that job pays. Low pay is a substantial problem in Britain. Some 328,000 people earn less than £1.50 an hour and over one million earn less than £2.50 an hour. The only way we will begin to rectify that problem is by encouraging more people to take better training and be better educated. In that way they will have some chance of getting back into the work market and having better job security. It would be better investment in the individual, it would be better for the taxpayer and it would certainly be better for the employers in Britain to have a workforce which is skilled.

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With that philosophical approach, underpinned by a Bill which will make that a reality, I believe we will begin to make some progress. This Bill does not do that. It is regarded by people who are unemployed as mean and penny-pinching. It is a Bill which neither gives them encouragement nor practical help to get themselves off the unemployment list and back to work. I beg to move.

Baroness Nicol: So much unease has been expressed about this particular provision in the Bill that I wonder whether the Government consulted the training providers about the possible effects of what they propose. If they did, what was the result? Are they able to tell us?

I am very impressed by the evidence from the Association for Colleges which supports the view that helping unemployed adults to study benefits both them and society as a whole. By gaining new skills and refreshing old ones, as my noble friend on the Front Bench said, the unemployed can be helped back into the job market. I have heard spokesmen from the Government Front Bench say that so often that I wonder whether they have thought through the consequences of what they suggest with this provision.

The Association for Colleges says that the changes will introduce new inconsistencies and confusion and lead to thousands of adults being forced to give up their study, thereby undermining their attempts to return to the workforce.

I have also heard from the British Retail Consortium, which normally supports most of the Government's actions. It is very concerned about the effect that this provision will have, particularly on part-time workers. In a letter to me the consortium says:

    "Recent discussions with TECs have indicated that there are already insufficient training for work weeks for those currently seeking training opportunities and those weeks which are available are being offered to those looking for full-time work. Consequently, we believe those seeking part-time work who require training could already be experiencing difficulties... There is therefore a real concern that if TECs have less hours to offer they will be less inclined to part fund part-time courses and the NRTC's entitlement to apply for EU funding for training will be lost without equal funding from TECs, thereby reducing opportunities to offer training for retail skills to those who seek part-time employment within the industry".

The Committee will appreciate that a vast number of jobs in retailing are part-time. Without those part-time jobs, for which a considerable degree of skill is needed in some cases, the industry would be in difficulty.

The BRC makes a second point. Retailers are seeking clarity as regards the number of hours which the unemployed will have actively to seek work in order to qualify for the JSA, and would be grateful for assurances that if those people who want part-time work sign up for part-time training courses of 16 hours a week they will still be eligible for JSA.

I very much support the amendment moved by my noble friend. I hope that the Minister will have second thoughts on the issue.

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8.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: I should like to thank the Ministers for their courtesy in giving us a meeting on this issue and for listening very sympathetically and helpfully to what we had to say.

There is a substantial measure of common ground between us. We are agreed that we welcome the unemployed undertaking study in order to increase their qualifications. I think that we agree that the issue of benefit for full-time students, whatever we think about it, is not involved in this Bill or this amendment. I think that we agree that there is difficulty in working out how a distinction should be made between some students who are eligible and some who are not.

I understand that the Government have had difficulties with the old 21-hour rule. They will have at least equal difficulties with the new 16-hour rule. In my view, particularly since the modularisation of courses, a distinction by hours is not viable for the reason, among others, that it does not work equitably between subjects.

There is also a cultural problem of interface between the Benefits Agency, the Employment Service and the institutions. If there was any room for concession along that cultural interface that would be very welcome indeed.

Meanwhile, I understand that this is a point which does not require primary legislation. For all I have said, I perfectly understand that flexibility has advantages as well as disadvantages. This is a matter which does not have to be settled finally now, and I ask the Minister whether he can undertake that if between us, perhaps in consultation with the Association for Colleges, we could find a better way of making a distinction he would be prepared to listen and see whether we could do anything about it.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps, with the indulgence of the Committee, I may say a few words harking back to what we discussed before the dinner break, when I answered a number of interventions which came fairly thick and fast from the other side of the Chamber, to make sure that I got one point exactly right.

That point concerned the clarification of arrangements for hardship payments for disabled people who fail the availability requirement for JSA. As I explained, where claimants fail the availability test but fall into a vulnerable group they may have access to hardship payments. However, if a person does not fall into a vulnerable group he can have access to hardship payments only if the adjudication decision takes longer than two weeks. He can then receive payments while awaiting that decision. However, once an adverse decision has been reached, a claimant who is not in a vulnerable group will not have access to payments and must make himself available for work.

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