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Lord Inglewood: Like my noble friend Lord Wise, and all those who have spoken so feelingly, we recognise the value and importance of volunteering in the community. There can be no doubt that many people throughout the country who undertake voluntary work perform a wide variety of tasks which are of great value and benefit many others. Nor can there be any doubt that voluntary work can both help unemployed people to stay in touch with the labour market and provide an opportunity for them to maintain and develop their skills while looking for work. In recognition of that, there are significant concessions for voluntary workers in the current benefit rules for unemployed people and we will be carrying those into JSA regulations. I do not believe, however, that the amendment is an appropriate way to deal with either voluntary work or positive outcomes from Restart interviews.

All claimants who have been unemployed for six months are required to attend a Restart interview, and to continue to do so every six months as long as they remain unemployed. Related to this, the Employment Service, as part of its annual performance agreement with the Employment Department, has targets for positive outcomes achieved from certain Restart interviews. Examples of positive outcomes include job placings or a referral to a programme such as Training

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for Work. But voluntary work is in a different category from these examples, the crucial difference being that the claimant remains unemployed. Treating entering voluntary work as a positive outcome would therefore risk creating a perverse incentive to encourage people to remain unemployed. That cannot be right.

Moreover, no other positive outcomes are set out in legislation. Neither are any other Employment Service targets. Indeed it would be most odd to do so, since these are primarily management tools and they change from year to year to reflect the annual performance targets. If Members of the Committee such as my noble friend Lord Wise and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, know of problems on which they can give chapter and verse, please will they let us know? As I have already mentioned, it will carry forward important concessions from existing availability and "actively seeking employment" regulations. Jobseekers who undertake voluntary work will continue to be allowed 48 hours' notice before taking up the offer of a job. Any voluntary work which a jobseeker is undertaking will continue to be taken into consideration when assessing whether in any week he has met the "actively seeking employment" condition.

In view of the points that I have made about both the status of restart interviews and the concessions for those undertaking voluntary work which will carry into JSA, I do not believe that this amendment is necessary. I hope that this will satisfy my noble friend.

I turn now to Amendment No. 84. Current regulations provide that a person undertaking volunteer work can be deemed available for work provided that he or she is prepared within 48 hours' notice to attend an interview for a job with the Employment Service or DSS officers. If the purpose of this amendment is to seek to gain a commitment from the Government that these provisions will be carried forward into JSA, I can give that commitment. But it is very important to appreciate that any person undertaking voluntary work will have this reflected in their own jobseeker's agreement. That is because the agreement will record the terms of a person's availability and the steps which he or she intends to take to look for work.

The amendment as drafted would seem to require that the conditions relevant to volunteer workers must be specified in the agreement of every claimant. That would be very confusing. I am sure that my noble friend cannot have intended this effect. Against the background of that commitment, I hope that my noble friend will be satisfied.

9 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: Perhaps I may ask the Minister one question. I may say that I find him more interesting when he is speaking from his own heart than when he is reading a brief. The problem with the brief is that it does not allow for the real eventualities of the situation. What troubles me is this. If we can consider voluntary work as a positive outcome—not the first priority positive outcome, which would be to get a job, and not even the second priority positive outcome, which would be to get a training place, but at least

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within the realm of positive outcomes, which would then become the basis of his own instructions to the Department of Employment staff—all of us in this Chamber would feel happier than we do.

I wonder whether the noble Lord will take the matter back and think about the possibility of including voluntary service as at least one positive outcome among several. The case that has been made out by the noble Lord, Lord Wise, and others, is very convincing. I wonder whether the Minister will think about the possibility of some slight amendment of the positive outcome definition that he could bring forward on Report.

Lord Swinfen: As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, just said, the Government have brought forward in recent years care in the community, an awful lot of which falls on the shoulders of voluntary organisations. These are non-profit making organisations which, in order to get the work that is needed done, rely to a very large extent on volunteers, both skilled and unskilled, to help them.

The noble Lord gave me the impression that he did not think that volunteering helped unemployed people. I do not know whether he has been unemployed or whether his advisers have been unemployed. However, I spent a two-year period unemployed. I must admit that the voluntary work that I was able to do was of very considerable assistance in keeping up morale and helping me to make the effort to go on attempting to get jobs the whole time rather than becoming dispirited.

Lord Inglewood: I can confirm that we do value voluntary work for the kinds of reasons that my noble friend Lord Swinfen has given. We are all agreed on the value of voluntary work. In response to the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, we shall certainly consider very carefully the remarks that have been made this evening and the points made to see whether we feel it would be appropriate to do something. Clearly, we have to keep the jobseeking aspects of the jobseeking agreement in the forefront.

Lord Wise: I am sure that my noble friend, as he said, has been most impressed by the speeches from all sides of the Committee. I thank him for his assurance that he will consider what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, said. That is most helpful.

I wonder whether he can confirm that the new guidance and training will be given to employment officers on the eligibility of volunteers for jobseeker's allowance. Can he give an assurance that the Government will consult the voluntary sector on the drafting of any new regulations? It would be most helpful if he could give such assurances. Perhaps my noble friend will reply to that point before I withdraw the amendment.

Lord Inglewood: I can confirm those matters.

Lord Wise: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 59:


Page 5, line 30, at end insert—

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("( ) provide that where a doubt arises as to whether the claimant is available for employment or actively seeking employment, or is to be treated as available for employment or actively seeking employment, an income-based jobseeker's allowance shall be payable pending a determination by the adjudication officer at an amount determined in accordance with section 4 but reduced by 40 per cent of the claimant's personal rate which would otherwise be applicable to the claimant.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I should also like to speak to Amendments Nos. 69, 95 and 110.

As the Bill stands, if a frontline benefit officer believes that a claimant is not actively seeking work or is failing to meet the jobseeker's agreement, that officer can, as we explored earlier this evening, stop the claimant's benefit. If the person is judged vulnerable—for example if he or she is sick, disabled, pregnant or has dependent children—he or she may in the meanwhile get a hardship payment of some 60 per cent. A claimant who is not vulnerable—that is, if he or she is single or part of a childless couple—will receive nothing for two weeks, and then, if he or she is in hardship, a hardship payment until the adjudication officer has determined the case; whereupon, if the adjudication officer upholds the ruling of the benefit officer, that claimant may get a hardship payment if he or she is vulnerable and, if not vulnerable, absolutely nothing.

Why are we worried about this? We are worried for several reasons. First, the frontline employment staff are being asked to assess whether the jobseeker's agreement has been infringed or whether someone is not actively seeking work. It is an area of discretion which, for non-professional staff, I find almost unprecedented. How qualified will the staff member be to assess whether someone who has mild mental health problems is or is not being reasonable about their jobseeking activities? Will they be able to judge, as we also explored this evening, whether someone whose first language is not English or who has learning disabilities, understands what is entailed? What will happen when someone's behaviour or appearance affronts them—for instance, a punk hairdo, silver nose rings or Rasta dreadlocks—when all sorts of prejudices come into play? Will that be deemed reasonable excuse for "not seeking work"? That is especially so when the jobseeker's allowance has not been acceded to voluntarily in the first place and is regarded as coercive and unreasonable by the claimant from the beginning. So there is an area of discretion at that wicket gate.

Secondly, that area of discretion, which is so wide, must be and will be abused. That is reinforced by the fact—it is covered in an amendment that we shall explore later—that Employment Service staff are asked to increase their referrals to the adjudication officer where there is an arguable case. We know that each year the number of referrals has been ratcheted up: 135,000 in 1994-95 to 185,000 in 1995-96; and in practice this year's target has already been exceeded. Over and beyond the referrals, we know that the number of disqualifications—despite what the Minister told us earlier in Committee—has in fact doubled: 76,000 in the nine months from April to December 1993-94; 113,000 in a similar period, 1994-95. What the Minister should

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have mentioned at the time is that it means that while that referral process is going on, many people will lose two weeks' benefit as well as being put through all the complexities of stop/start with housing benefit and council tax benefit.

If benefit denial is locked in with performance-related targets, the most humane staff will be under pressure to deny people interim benefit; the less humane staff will have the perfect opportunity to pander to their prejudices. No one should have such power on a belief, whim, prejudice or on imperfect evidence to deny another human being the amount of money on which to live.

Our third concern is that those regarded as vulnerable may receive a hardship payment. That is another area of discretion which concerns us. Of those who applied in 1993-94, only 48 per cent. received such payments. At the last discussion that we had on this matter, the Minister was unable to tell us whether someone with 4, 5, 6 or 7 incapacity points, but not sufficient points to gain incapacity benefit, will automatically be regarded as vulnerable. I ask the Minister particularly to tell us whether somebody coming to JSA with incapacity points will thereby be judged as vulnerable. I hope so. But if not, there will be considerable distress on the part of those losing invalidity benefit who have fluctuating health conditions. How wide a category is "vulnerable"? Who will decide? Why, if those people are vulnerable, will there be a hardship payment made from the benefit office rather than a straight 40 per cent. deduction of JSA from the Employment Service?

Finally, in the fourth area of discretion, the appeal goes to the adjudication officer, who may recommend the restoration of JSA. But if he does not, the vulnerable will continue on hardship and the non-vulnerable—young, single people, childless couples and those perhaps with less easily diagnosed mental health problems—will have no income at all. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, said the other night, they will not starve peaceably—at least I hope that they will not. They will beg, steal, become prostitutes and sell drugs. In the process they will become entirely unemployable ever again.

The continuing right to even 60 per cent. of benefit is, I should have thought, surely a severe enough penalty to help keep them off the streets. Deny them benefit for up to six months and send them back to the streets and they are lost to all of us. We beg the Minister not to do that. If we outlaw from benefit some of our fellow citizens, assuredly we outlaw them from the law itself. Even the Victorians in their most penal and policing authoritarian mode—the classical Ricardian economists—never did that. They always had available either outdoor or indoor relief. Why did those most severe and judgmental of Victorian moralists continue poor relief on the rates? They recognised that if they refused money for bread, those people would break the bakers' windows. As Richard Oastler, a Tory philanthropist and J. R. Stephens, a Methodist minister, said in the 1830s to people such as are in this Chamber:


    "I put these things to the men of wealth and property ... if the poor have no right to the rates, then the rich man has no right to his rents".

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Precisely.

So there is Amendment No. 59—that where a doubt has arisen and there is a referral to the adjudication officer, a penalised JSA should be paid to all and should not be deducted from those who are surely innocent until proved guilty. Last year, 180,000 people were proved innocent. And there is Amendment No. 69—that if a claimant is pursuing his right to benefit through the appeals system, such benefits payments should continue in full if a Social Security Advisory Committee deems it a not unreasonable claim.

We have argued that because, first, we believe that under this Bill a person is being fined and punished in advance of being found guilty of an offence. That is what benefit stoppage means. Secondly, that person is being fined and punished in advance of being found guilty of an offence on the basis of the judgment of a relatively inexperienced and untrained frontline officer who has a financial interest in increasing the number of referrals and therefore the temporary withdrawal of benefit. Thirdly, it is going to an adjudication officer who, if he finds against the claimant, will deny him any income whatever; yet all the appeals evidence shows that the record of decisions is weak, and that 39 per cent. of their judgments are in error or are unsatisfactory, as are 92 per cent. of those that go to appeal.

I find this part of the Bill so unbelievably awful that I am ashamed of all of us who collude in its provisions. I beg to move.

9.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: The noble Lord, Lord Acton, tells me that his great-grandfather is regularly misquoted. He said the words are in fact: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely". It is a significant qualification but some tendencies are a good deal stronger than others. Employment officers in this situation are being given something which has a great resemblance to absolute power over other individual human beings. The tendency to corrupt may not always be resisted. Temptation has been known to be succumbed to.

When we debated this element of the Bill on Amendment No. 3, we were consistently told that the power to disentitle is not an arbitrary power because it will be referred to an adjudication officer. It became very clear that that argument cannot carry any weight unless the benefit is allowed to continue until the adjudication. I suspect that one of the motives behind the Bill is to take the workload off the adjudication officers, who are already overworked. But by delegating it to employment officers, who are in the frontline and not in any judicial situation, it will only become more severe.

Most of us are not in any position to cope with the certain and total disappearance of every last penny of our income. We do not all have something laid by for a rainy day and, in particular, those who are on benefit do not. So, as the noble Baroness was saying, people need to take some sort of emergency action. In this context,

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yet once again, I will say how much I regret that the Department of Social Security has not undertaken any study of levels of debt among those on benefit.

People live on benefit. I have never known anybody who succeeded in paying off large sums of debt while on benefit. If one is trying to do that, one is without the resources that one needs to look for work and the unemployment—which we all want to see stopped—is prolonged. I appreciate that the Minister will say that there are payments for those who experience severe hardship. I will put again to the Minister a question that I put last Thursday. I asked him whether he could explain how one can be disentitled to a means-tested benefit without experiencing hardship. The Minister replied that we were beginning to go into hypothetical cases. That did not answer the question, but it most certainly begged it. The question whether those cases are hypothetical or actual is the hub of the whole argument. I should like to hear a real answer to that question tonight.


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