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Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 4, Amendment No. 5A:

Line 3, leave out ("immediately") and insert ("within reasonable time").

The noble Baroness said: I apologise for the amendment being in manuscript form but your Lordships will be aware that we have all been pressed to scrutinise the new clause, which understandably has come to us very late. I hope that the Government will treat the amendment as a drafting amendment which they can therefore accept.

The amendment provides that a person would be regarded as being available for employment if he were willing and able to take up the work not immediately but within reasonable time. It embodies the understandings that the Minister gave to the House 14 minutes ago and the concessions that he has already made to the House; for instance, that someone with caring responsibilities would have 24 hours notice and someone with volunteering responsibilities would have 48 hours notice.

The amendment is a tidying up of this part of the new clause in line with the undertakings given by the Minister. It recognises that many of us have commitments which society encourages claimants of JSA to take on board as regards their families and organisations. The more that that is recognised the more that jobsearch is extended to jobs that we may regard as having unsocial hours, to late evening work and to Saturday and Sunday work. A jobseeker may not have anticipated that he would be expected to meet such unsocial hours and if he has other commitments he will need time to make arrangements.

The amendment in no sense alters what the Committee has already accepted and what the Minister has already conceded. It merely embodies it. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I oppose the amendment, not because I object to the spirit of it but because, if it is passed, it will create a very woolly form of administration. The situation is perfectly satisfactory under the clause as drafted, which uses the words, "take up immediately", as implemented by the regulations, which then provide that that shall be done within 24 hours. If the words "within reasonable time" are inserted and the implementing regulation refers to 24 hours, that makes matters very difficult for the employment officer. In all the circumstances, I believe that it is best left alone.

Lord Inglewood: I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for explaining the amendment and for the way in which she has approached the subject matter. While we may disagree as to the way in which it should be approached in a technical sense, there is considerable common ground between us in relation to what we are trying to do.

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An effective availability condition is vital for any unemployment benefit and this has been one of the main underlying principles in drawing up the availability condition in JSA. Jobseekers must be available to take up work, and in order to ensure that they are open to as many job opportunities as possible, they have to be available to take up employment immediately.

This is not a new condition—it has been a long-standing principle in case law that those who wish to receive unemployment benefits should be available to start work immediately. The aim of the jobseeker is, and must be, to get back to work as quickly as possible. This means that he must be ready to start work immediately should the opportunity arise. To require any less would be to diminish the range of work for which the jobseeker might be eligible, and that would be in the interests of neither the jobseeker nor the labour market.

Of course we recognise that there are certain groups who will find it difficult to meet the immediate availability condition and that it would be unreasonable to expect them to do so. That is why we are carrying forward the concept of 24 and 48 hours' notice for special groups. Thus, a claimant who has caring responsibilities or who otherwise provides a service will be entitled to 24 hours' notice of any job or job interview. That gives carers longer to rearrange their caring responsibilities and be available for employment. Similarly, volunteers will be entitled to 48 hours' notice to rearrange their voluntary duties.

We strongly believe that these concessions will allow both carers and volunteers to participate in the labour market. Such people will, as now, need to plan in advance the best way of rearranging their responsibilities to fit in with any future employment that may be offered. In that way, when an opportunity of work arises, they will have some time to put these plans into place and take up work or attend an interview.

The requirement to be available immediately is longstanding and necessary. In today's increasingly flexible labour market, it is probably more important than ever before. Therefore, I feel that we must oppose the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I shall read the Minister's response. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said, it is important that Clause 6(1) should be understood, as modified by the subsequent subsections. There is concern in relation to carers and volunteers. We fear that the concession which the Minister has made will not perhaps be at the forefront of employment officers' minds when dealing with those matters unless it is written on the face of the Bill. However, I shall read what the Minister has said and return to the subject if necessary. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 5A, as an amendment to Amendment No. 4, by leave, withdrawn.

6.15 p.m.

Earl Russell moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 4, Amendment No. 6:

Line 4, at end insert ("which his age, qualifications, and experience might reasonably enable him to undertake").

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The noble Earl said: I am not completely wedded to the words of the amendment and if the Minister wishes to suggest an alternative form of words, I would be perfectly willing to discuss them. However, in the text of the Government's amendment, I am worried about the requirement to take up immediately any employed earner's employment. That is quite a sweeping requirement. If I had not already determined to table the amendment, I should have done so as soon as I heard the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, refer to "absolute availability". Those words caused me some alarm.

Some of us are suited to do some forms of work and some of us are suited to do other forms of work. To require us all to be available for any sort of work whatever will put us into work at which we will be no good at all and in which we might cause quite considerable harm.

I remember one person who was about to undertake driving lessons. He was asked to read a car number plate at 25 yards. He replied, "Where is the car?". I would not have required that person to take a job as a lookout. That would be extremely dangerous.

I remember the Minister—I believe that it was on 9th February—telling me that people were not all required to apply for jobs as professors of history. If he was right on that occasion, does this government amendment represent a significant change in the law? Are people in fact going to be required to apply for absolutely anything? If so, when is that change coming in?

I remember another case which was in the newspapers recently. A man held a job in a clothes shop fitting ladies with bras. The customers thought that he was not suitable for the work. He was dismissed from it. He brought a case under the Sex Discrimination Act and he lost. I think that it was quite right that he lost, but if this becomes law, will that man be required to apply for all similar jobs, even though we know perfectly well that he is not suitable to do them?

I take a case which could happen. Let us suppose that in time to come the Minister is no longer employed in his present capacity. Let us suppose that an employment officer were to require him, in order to prove that he is actively seeking employment, to apply for a job doing telephone fund-raising for the Labour Party. I believe that such jobs are advertised at the moment. Should the Minister refuse to undertake such a job? I would most warmly support his right of refusal. There is such a thing as an issue of conscience. We cannot have people altogether deprived of any choice whatever about the jobs for which they apply. They should apply for anything that they can reasonably do; that makes sense. But to say that they must apply for anything, however unsuitable, however much conscientious objection they have, however bad they may be at doing the job and however unsafe they would be, seems to me to come remarkably close to forced labour. Indeed, I suspect that absolute availability enslaves absolutely. I beg to move.

Lord Renton: It is just possible that my understanding of our wonderful language is not as good as that possessed by other noble Lords. But when I read the words,

    "to take up immediately any employed earner's employment",

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I read that as a suggestion that it means that he is going to pinch somebody else's job. It seems to me that we should consider that very carefully.

There is an easy way to achieve the purpose of the noble Earl's amendment; that is, instead of saying "any employed earner's employment", we should simply use the words "any suitable employment". That might be worth considering.

Earl Russell: If it would assist the Minister, I should be entirely ready to go along with the suggestion just made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton.

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