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Jobseekers Bill

4.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee (on Recommitment) in respect of Clause 6 of the Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee (on Recommitment) in respect of Clause 6 of the Bill.—(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee (on Recommitment) accordingly.


11 May 1995 : Column 196

Clause 6 [Availability for, and actively seeking, employment]:

Lord Richard moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 5, line 11, at beginning insert:
("( ) No regulations made under this section shall be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the regulations has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House, whether or not those regulations are made before or after the date on which jobseeker's allowances first become payable.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 5. It is essentially the same point, whether one considers the original Clause 6 or the Clause 6 which is about to be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. It is a simple amendment which I hope that I can move relatively simply. It may have some complicated results, but in essence the point I wish to make is simple.

Perhaps I may remind the Committee of the discussion that we had last week on the Motion to recommit Clause 6. The basis of the argument then was the report of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. I am delighted to see the chairman of that committee, the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, in his place. In relation to Clauses 4 and 6 of the Bill, that committee felt that the procedures for dealing with regulations should be the affirmative procedures. It is perhaps important that we trace the argument to understand why the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee came to that conclusion and why I urge the Committee, too, to come to that conclusion.

The provisions for parliamentary control in the Bill are extraordinarily complex; they are almost Byzantine in their complexity. The Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee analysed a difficult legislative passage in a few words. It stated:

    "There are five categories of parliamentary control, as set out [in the Bill]. The first three categories are normal: categories (4) and (5) go somewhat further than is usual in legislation of this kind".

To adopt an Americanism, "You can say that again".

The first three categories, the normal ones, are, first, delegated legislation subject to no parliamentary control, namely commencement orders and that sort of power; secondly, under some sections of the Bill subject to the negative procedure, and some subject to the affirmative procedure. The report continues with the fourth category:

    "Subject to affirmative procedure on first exercise and negative thereafter".

There is then an even more unusual category:

    "Subject to affirmative procedure if made before the date on which jobseeker's allowances first become payable, but to negative procedure if made thereafter".

As I understand it, that applies to all the other regulations in the Bill. The idea is that the jobseeker's allowance should first become payable in April of next year. Therefore if the regulation is made before April of next year, it is the affirmative procedure; if made after April it is the negative procedure. That seems both illogical, difficult to justify and somewhat burdensome.

Applying those provisions to the current Bill, the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee concluded in relation to Clauses 4 and 6 that the procedure should be the affirmative procedure. Again, I hope that the Committee will allow me merely to give the flavour of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee's report on this.

11 May 1995 : Column 197

In relation to Clause 4 the further report states:

    "It is against the background of the views we have expressed above, and without prejudice to them, that we now review the specific provisions of the bill. Clause 4 allows the calculation of the amount of the jobseeker's allowance to be governed by delegated legislation. The Departments' memorandum states the provision follows current income-related legislation. In spite of the fact that it is precedented the Committee draws this provision to the attention of the House because the amount of the jobseeker's allowance will be fundamental to the operation of the statute".

It then states:

    "The House may wish to consider with care whether regulations under this Clause should not always be subject to the affirmative procedure regardless of when they are made".

That is as regards Clause 4. My amendment relates only to Clause 6 because it is only Clause 6 that has been recommitted.

In relation to Clause 6 the committee stated:

    "The House has already considered the possibility of restricting in some way the breadth of the powers to be exercised under Clause 6... If the House is satisfied that it is not desirable to amend the bill so as to limit the powers themselves"—

the House has not so decided because it has not amended the Bill as such—

    "we consider that the argument becomes stronger for improving Parliamentary control over the way in which those powers are exercised".

That is the crucial point. It is the basis of my submission to the Committee tonight.

The report continues:

    "In line with the views that we have expressed at paragraphs 5 and 7, we urge the House to consider most carefully whether, irrespective of whether Clause 6 remains in its current form"—

in other words, the clause as drafted, before the amendment to be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is passed—

    "the level of parliamentary control provided for the exercise of the powers in that Clause is sufficient to ensure that the accumulation of changes does not result in an unacceptable level of uncertainty for those affected by the regulations. In particular, the House may wish to consider whether the affirmative procedure should not apply to any regulations changing the meaning of the terms 'available for' and 'actively seeking work', whenever those regulations are made"—

in other words, whether they are made before or after the Jobseekers Bill comes into force.

The fact of the matter is that either in the original Clause 6 as drafted or in the amended form to be proposed by the noble Lord there are too many provisions for regulations to be made. I do not wish to bore the Committee too much, but perhaps we may consider the proposed new, clarifying clause which the Government introduced when they recommitted the Bill. The amendment deals with the difficulties caused by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. What are the provisions? The proposed Clause 6 provides that,

    "Subsection (1) is subject to such provisions as may be made by regulations".

Subsection (3) states:

    "The following are examples of restrictions for which provision may be made by the regulations—(a) restrictions on the nature of the employment ... (b) restrictions on the periods for which he is available; (c) restrictions on the terms or conditions of employment ... (d) restrictions on the locality or localities within which he is available".

Subsection (4) states:

    "Regulations may prescribe circumstances in which, for the purposes of this Act, a person is or is not to be treated as available for employment".

11 May 1995 : Column 198

Subsection (5) provides that:

    "Regulations under subsection (4) may, in particular, provide for a person who is available for employment—(a) only in his usual occupation, (b) only at a level of remuneration not lower than that which he is accustomed to receive",

or is to be treated as though he is available, and so on; I shall not bore the House. But a glance at the proposed amendment put forward by the Government tonight indicates that almost every subsection provides for regulations in relation to this part of the Bill.

My position is simple. It is this. The fact of the matter is that the meat of the Bill is contained in the regulations and not in the Bill itself. As the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee said, it is a skeleton or a framework Bill. In its wisdom or otherwise, the House decided not to amend the Bill in the way that we on this side of the Chamber suggested. However, in a situation in which the real substance of provisions which will affect the lives of people in this country who are subject to the Bill will be dealt with by regulation rather than by primary legislation, it is wrong that Parliament should not have a full opportunity to consider them. In our view, it would be wrong that matters of this importance should pass unremarked as a result of a framework Bill.

Perhaps I may make two more points. The tendency to legislate in this way is a temptation for all governments and from time to time they lean in that direction. It is much easier for them to legislate by regulation than in primary legislation and it is much easier to do it by the negative procedure than the affirmative. The regulations are scrutinised far less and observed far less, the Government can get away with far more and do not have to deal with difficult questions of interpretation or restive parliamentarians.

With regard to the Bill, the Government are not leaning, they are horizontal. In our submission, it is a point that would appeal to the Front Bench below the gangway on the Government's side, where the constitutionalists of the House tend to sit. It is time that we put some limitation on the Government's desire to avoid the proper examination of crucial parts of the legislation.

We have never hidden our view on the merits of the Bill. We regard it as a mean, nasty, rather vindictive piece of legislation which will make life more difficult for some of the most vulnerable sections of our society. However, that is not the point raised by the amendment. We believe that the Bill deserves greater, not less, scrutiny. Quite apart from one's view of the legislation, here there is a more fundamental constitutional point: how far are the Government entitled to go in denying such a Bill detailed parliamentary scrutiny? We believe that the least the Committee can do is to demand that the affirmative procedure be used for the regulations which are brought in under Clause 6, which are important and fundamental to the operation of the Bill and which are the meat of it. I beg to move.

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