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Lord Inglewood: The actively seeking work criterion relates to the work that is being sought. I hope that will

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answer my noble friend's point. There has to be a reasonable prospect of obtaining the kind of work which is the subject of the agreement.

Without checking the matter myself, I would not want to make an unequivocal statement relating to whether the "not" had or had not been inserted in Hansard. I shall write to my noble friend.

My noble friend asked whether discussions had taken place between the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security and, if so, what the outcome was. Currently, those discussions are under way, but they have not yet been completed. We cannot take this matter any further until we are clear what the outcome of the discussions will be.

Lord Swinfen: The question of whether the "not" should or should not be there is an extremely important one as it totally reverses the unemployment benefit rules if the Minister is reported accurately. I am sure my noble friend would agree with me that the matter is so important that between us we should find a method of it being reported in Hansard.

I thank my noble friend for his answers to my questions. I shall read them in full in Hansard and give them my consideration. I may well come back to these two matters at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 47 and 48 not moved.]

Lord McCarthy moved Amendment No. 49:


Page 5, line 22, at end insert:
("( ) A person in regard to whom a question has arisen as to whether he is still available for and seeking work, is to be notified in writing that such a question has arisen and is to be given an opportunity to establish whether or not he is still available for and actively seeking work before a determination is made.").

The noble Lord said: This is a small amendment which seeks to take us back to the period when it was normal for a person about whom a question arose as to whether he was available for and seeking work—before he was, as it were, struck off—to be notified in writing so that he had some prior warning and so that he could come into the benefit office or the Jobcentre to explain the situation.

As I understand it, that provision was removed in 1992 as part of a general tightening up, seeking to make the actively seeking work test, first changed in 1989, more effective. The results were disappointing. So certain things were done, and the idea of sending the letter of warning was abolished. Together with many other things, the result has been that the number of disallowances has risen significantly.

It is not difficult to see why. To get rid of a simple administrative device of this kind is, in a very real sense, a denial of natural justice. The individual unemployed person may have had very good reasons for being unable to meet the activity or availability tests. The first knowledge that he or she would now receive in many cases is that the benefit has been disallowed whereas if a letter were sent it would presumably give some details of the way in which in future the unemployed claimant had fallen behind and had not carried out the provisions of the job agreement. Before the cancellation of the

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benefit some chance would be available to make a case at the office. We have had many examples put forward by the CAB of what seem quite unreasonable denials to individuals and to the CAB of benefit where prior knowledge of the kind that used to be provided by a letter would have significantly helped the unemployed person. I beg to move.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: This amendment emerges with more significance than I first thought when I started to explore it. Perhaps I may take the Committee back for a moment to November 1992 when the Social Security Advisory Council drew attention to the effects of the warning letter that, until 1991, had been regularly issued, as the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, said, to those who were likely to find their benefit withdrawn.

At that time the advisory council pointed out in some very interesting figures that of 28,910 warning letters issued in the year 1989-90, in the vast majority of cases they were followed by action taken by the persons to whom the letters were addressed, pointing out that active steps were being taken to find work. Indeed, only 5,000 cases out of 28,910 were ever referred to an adjudication officer and of those only 1,768 were found to be justified. In other words, of nearly 29,000 warning letters under 2,000 cases were shown to be justified. So the warning letter had the exact effect that the Department of Employment at that time thought it would have. It led many of our fellow citizens to show reason why they should not have benefit withdrawn.

In December 1992 the noble Countess, Lady Mar, concerned about the findings of the Social Security Advisory Committee, led a debate on a Motion in this House in which she sought an assurance that if there were to be any major changes in the figures indicating that the abandonment of the warning letter had led to many more cases of disqualification, there would be further consideration given to the matter. In view of the number of instances during the progress of this Bill when the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, I am sure for the best motives in the world, has told us to rely on the fact that employment officers will treat regulations with due sympathy and consideration, I would like to quote the words of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who responded to the noble Countess's concerns as follows:


    "On the basis of the evidence before us now, we are satisfied with the desirability of those regulations. But, if there were further evidence that these regulations are catching those whom it is not intended to catch and not dealing with those who consciously and deliberately fail actively to seek work, obviously we would then reconsider".—[Official Report, 1/12/92; col. 1332.]

That was on 1st December 1992. From that time until now the number of warning letters has dropped dramatically. In 1990-91, the year after that in which the Social Security Advisory Council drew the attention of noble Lords to the issue, the number of letters of warning issued was 37,000. Of those, most led to no disqualification. In the following year, 1991-92, 25,097 warning letters were issued and of those less than 2,000 led to disqualification: in other words, less than 1:10.

However, last year 9,000 letters of warning were issued and there were 113,000 instances of disqualification from benefit. So it is not unreasonable

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to say that as the number of letters of warning declined the number of cases of disqualification increased. I do not seek to draw a direct correlation but the figures seem sufficient to justify a sense of real disturbance.

There is one other argument to explain why I believe that this amendment is one of the more important ones before the Committee. The submissions for adjudication on the issue as to whether benefit should be withdrawn, according to the annual performance agreement, depend on an arguable case with supporting information to show that the claimant is not available or actively seeking or willing to accept work.

I draw the attention of the Committee to the phrase, "an arguable case". Perhaps I should not risk saying this in the hearing of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, a former Lord Chancellor, although I believe he may agree with me. Normally, an arguable case is one where the argument is presented on both sides—in other words, the prosecution implies a defence. In this case the defence cannot be advanced because the defendant does not even know that a prosecution is being brought. As stated by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, the first the claimant knows is that his or her request has been disallowed without he or she being able to advance reasons to the contrary.

What makes the matter even more serious, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, is that on this issue turn the assurances given us in good faith by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. He told us that the set of regulations about which we were concerned in Amendments Nos. 43A and others, as regards reasons why people may not genuinely be available for work, ranging from the need for caring for their children or for an elderly relative or a religious objection such as not being willing to work on a Sunday, would be carefully taken into account in regulations. But if the person so affected does not even have the opportunity to argue that the reason they were not available for work or not actively seeking it was because they were not willing to work on Easter Sunday for religious reasons or they were unable to work in a particular job because an elderly relative had to be cared for, then what possible weight can be placed on a genuine promise that the regulations will reflect those needs?

For all those reasons I believe this to be an amendment which goes to the very heart of the rights of the individual citizen. The more I become familiar with the Bill the more profoundly concerned I am about its implications.

Lord Inglewood: Let me assure the Committee that under the JSA the jobseeker will receive full information about his or her position. The amendment is therefore unnecessary. Under current practice when a doubt is identified on a claim for unemployment benefit the claimant is notified in writing that the claim is being referred to an adjudication officer for a decision. The form explains the adjudication process in general terms. A further leaflet is available containing more details on each of the benefit rules. The claimant is invited to ask at the ES office for help with points not covered in either leaflet. We shall be following similar practices in JSA.

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In response to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, if we could see chapter and verse of instances where the system has broken down completely, that would enable us to see what we could do to put matters right. Another point raised by the noble Baroness related to Sunday working. One of the characteristics of the jobseekers' agreement is that it should be able to identify such points at that stage, thereby getting around the practical problems which, if they have occurred, must be extremely distressing and something that we would not want to condone.

I am puzzled by the second part of the amendment. If the noble Earl's concern is that the jobseeker must be able to put his case, let me reassure the Committee. If the adjudication officer has any questions about the jobseeker's case, he can and does ask the jobseeker to supply more information before he makes his decision. As we may discuss later, there is a system of transfer from the first adjudication officer to a second adjudication officer at the claimant's wish, if he is unhappy. Similarly, both before and after a decision, if more evidence or information comes to light, an adjudication officer must take account of the evidence and may revise his decision as regards the award accordingly.

But we must be careful about the perverse effects of the second part of the amendment. If it is intended to enable a jobseeker to be given a second chance to be available or to seek work actively in a given period, that would significantly weaken the incentive effect of the availability and actively seeking work condition.

Jobseekers must be available for employment and take steps to look for employment every week. Those are the conditions of entitlement to JSA, and we shall be seeking, through the jobseekers' agreement and in other ways, to make them as clear as possible to all claimants. If the jobseeker does not take the necessary steps, or has not been available for employment in any week, the employment officer must be able to refer the question on the facts of the case. He should not be hindered by considerations of what the jobseeker might do in the future, before the adjudication decision.

I should have referred to the letter at the outset of my remarks. The letter merely enabled the claimant not actively to seek work until he was warned to do so. Active seeking is a clear condition of benefit. The required steps are made clear to the individual from the start of his claim. Such a written warning in that regard should therefore be unnecessary.


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