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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This might be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn. I suggest that the Committee stage begins again in one hour at half-past eight o'clock.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.31 to 8.30 p.m.]

Lord Inglewood moved Amendment No. 56:

Page 5, line 27, leave out ("or omissions").

The noble Lord said: We have brought forward this essentially technical amendment in order to clarify our intentions for regulations which will be drawn up under Clause 6 and which are spelt out in more detail in subsection (3) (b).

First, we propose to extend in the regulations the actions which count as a step towards meeting the actively seeking employment test to include steps which can improve a jobseeker's employability. At present only steps which amount to actual job search are specified. Under JSA actions such as drawing up a CV or taking action to improve jobsearch skills will count as a step in actively seeking employment. I am sure that the Committee will welcome that.

Secondly, a jobseeker who deliberately undermines his chances of receiving particular employment by, for example, being abusive to an employer at a job interview, will negate that step. Clause 6(3) (b) makes clear that that is the intention of regulations to be drawn up under Clause 6. It is surely right that a jobseeker who undermines his chances of finding work in such a way should not then be able to claim that by attending the interview where the abusive behaviour took place he was actively seeking employment.

Taken together these two changes amount to balanced and fair improvements. On reflection, however, we feel that it is not necessary to include reference to omissions in Clause 6(3) (b). While it is certainly our intention to disregard acts which would otherwise help the jobseeker to satisfy the condition but which have effectively

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destroyed the chance of his being offered a job, we cannot envisage any circumstances where it would be necessary or desirable to disregard omissions. I therefore urge the Committee to accept this government amendment, which simply removes a redundant word from Clause 6(3) (b). I beg to move.

Lord McCarthy: In so far as we understand what the Minister is doing we do not see much wrong with it. Therefore, we do not oppose the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 57 not moved.]

Lord Wise moved Amendment No. 58:

Page 5, line 30, at end insert:
("( ) provide for voluntary work by unemployed people to be recorded as a positive outcome at any Restart interview carried out by an employment officer.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 58 is grouped with Amendment No. 84 and I shall leave it to my noble friend Lord Norrie to deal with that amendment. The amendments are similar.

I am sure that we all recognise the importance to unemployed people of undertaking voluntary work and the benefits they derive from so doing while actively seeking full-time employment. Voluntary work is helpful in enabling them to keep in touch with the labour market. It also provides them with an opportunity to maintain and develop their existing skills, and possibly to learn new skills, while looking for a job. It maintains their self-esteem and confidence in their own ability. Eventually, the reference they obtain from the voluntary organisation, which they can show to a potential employer, giving proof of their commitment, timekeeping, reliability and so on, is of enormous benefit and greatly enhances their chances of obtaining a job.

The National Association of Volunteer Bureaux has many examples of how volunteering helps in jobseeking. Perhaps I may give a couple of examples from the many that have been sent to me. The first example is the case of a former soldier who was unable to find work. He started to do odd jobs for the elderly, arranged by a volunteer bureau. After obtaining a first aid certificate he became active with the St. John Ambulance service and then obtained a paid job as driver/handyman at a day centre for the elderly.

In another case a young man made redundant from his potential post, despairing of finding work, offered to do some driving for his local volunteer bureau. Before long he was helping the bureau with marketing, publicity and so on. He is now the paid manager of a large local voluntary organisation. The organisation says that it is difficult to believe that that confident young man could ever have felt the despair that he described. He is proud to tell of how volunteering kept him sane.

I have first-hand knowledge within my own family of how voluntary work helps in times of unemployment. One of my sons has twice been made redundant. I witnessed his despondency and despair during the difficult times when he was striving to find other employment. One could see the traumatic effect that had not only on him but on his wife and family. However, undertaking voluntary work, keeping his mind occupied and using his skills, kept him going. It was of immense

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help to him and in no way detracted from his efforts to gain employment, which I am thankful to say he has now achieved. His considerable ability is again recognised and fully used.

It is because of that first-hand knowledge and all the evidence that I have received of how people have attained work in all sectors of employment that I wish to see voluntary work for unemployed people recorded as a positive outcome at any Restart interview. Although the Department of Employment is, in general, sympathetic to unemployed people undertaking voluntary work, I feel that at the moment it shows a somewhat negative approach. There is fear among the voluntary organisations that, unless volunteering is recognised as a positive outcome, some local employment offices will continue to create difficulties. Jobseekers may well be told that they must undertake voluntary work only during the evenings and must spend all the rest of their time seeking paid work, whether or not much is available.

Such people often become depressed by their lack of success and are the people least likely to obtain employment when it becomes available. In some cases unemployed persons may be too scared to undertake voluntary work for fear that they will not attain a positive outcome from a Restart interview, and as a result will have their benefit withdrawn.

In reply to a letter from Mrs. Winbury, who is Vice-Chairman of the National Association of Volunteer Bureaux, my honourable friend Mrs. Widdecombe, who is the Minister responsible for JSA in another place, points out that a volunteer is allowed 48 hours' notice before he has to start a job if one becomes available. The regulations for actively seeking employment also take account of a person's voluntary work when an assessment is made as to whether that person has met the conditions. Mrs. Widdecombe goes on to say:

    "The jobseeker's agreement will provide an opportunity for a jobseeker to focus his job search activities on his own circumstances and needs. It will set out the jobseeker's availability and any restrictions which he wishes to place on that and the steps he will take to find work. A jobseeker will be able to include voluntary work in his agreement. We do not, however, intend that voluntary work shall count as a step towards actively seeking as we believe the existing concessions strike the right balance".

I cannot agree that the existing concessions strike the right balance. I cannot understand the Government's reluctance to include voluntary work as a positive outcome. No extra costs should be involved. In fact the reverse could well be the case.

The Government recognise the importance of voluntary work. All the available evidence indicates the value to the unemployed of undertaking voluntary work. It positively assists them in their quest for paid employment. In no way is voluntary work detrimental to their actively seeking employment. I believe that it must be right to regard voluntary employment as a positive outcome at any Restart interview. I implore the Minister to give the amendment serious consideration. I beg to move.

Lord Swinfen: I support the amendment from my own experience. An acquaintance of mine who was unemployed obtained voluntary work in a care centre.

25 Apr 1995 : Column 862

With the new skills that he learned, he ended up, first, in part-time employment, and then in full employment. Voluntary work can give the unemployed person not only new skills but can also inculcate the habit of going to work, very often at a regular time. From my own experience of unemployment some years ago, it is a habit which is extremely easy to lose.

There is nothing detrimental to the Bill in the amendment. Even if my my noble friends do not like the exact wording, I hope that they will accept the principle underlying it. If they do not accept the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wise, perhaps they will come back with their own amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We on these Benches support Amendment No. 58, and Amendment No. 84 with which it is grouped. We all know that the best way to obtain a job is already to have one. In other words, remaining attached to the labour market is the best way to stay in the labour market. Part-time work, which may not be financially rewarding, enables the individual to remain in contact with the labour market. Voluntary work is part-time work which, although not financially rewarding, allows individuals that experience. For many it is a highly appropriate way to re-enter work. It is a form of on-the-job training, often more appropriate and more socially valuable than many of the training schemes run by the Employment Service or TECs. I do not believe that any noble Lords who have knowledge or experience, either themselves or within the family, of volunteering will deny that the experience of volunteering is more valuable to many people as a pathway to work than anything formally provided by government under their auspices which counts as a positive outcome.

We strongly support the amendment. At present the only positive outcome regarded as acceptable by the Employment Service is a job offer, the loss of benefit or a referral to an employment scheme run by the Employment Service or a TEC. We believe that that is not only too narrow but downright perverse. Only government-sponsored schemes count. Those of charities and other bodies do not, even though they are more valuable, more relevant and often a more effective pathway to work.

What happens if an unemployed person does voluntary work on a regular and reliable basis? Some of these points have been made but they bear emphasis. First, such a person is motivated to go into the office or workplace to construct a structured commitment to work in a routine and reliable way. Old skills are polished and new skills learned. It may mean the introduction to information technology required to organise a car driving service for hospitals or using driving skills to take vulnerable people to hospital. In the process those involved learn of salaried job opportunities; it is the voluntary way in.

Such volunteering is socially useful. Half the population undertake some volunteering. One-third volunteer on a regular basis. Their informal contribution to the society of which they are members is at least as valuable as many structured training courses. The majority of those who volunteer are in work precisely because they fear losing benefit.

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The National Association of Volunteer Bureaux has dozens of instances, some of which have been quoted, of volunteering contributing towards the rebuilding the confidence of the unemployed on the one hand, and people who are volunteers having to withdraw from voluntary work for fear of losing their benefit.

Perhaps I may give examples. A former soldier, unable to find work, volunteered to work with the elderly. He took a first aid course. He is now the driver handyman at a day centre for the elderly. Nearer to my home, a neighbour's daughter who volunteered to hear children read at her local primary school is now a welfare assistant at that school. A young man, a volunteer at the coffee shop of a hospital for the mentally disabled, was apprehensive about the work but enjoyed the volunteering and is now training as a mental health nurse. That young man is my nephew. Without that voluntary work, he would not have found his way into not only a fulfilling career but paid and properly organised work.

I hope that the Minister can assure us tonight that he will take on board the substance of the amendments. If he does not do so, he is sending a signal that we in the House of Lords do not value volunteering, not only for the social value it offers those at the receiving end but for the training and educative opportunities it offers those people who volunteer. I am sure that the Minister will understand the reasons for supporting the amendment. I hope that he will now utter similar words.

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