Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I express my support for Amendment No. 17. While doing so, I may refer to Amendment No. 18 which arrives at the same point but by a different route. I shall also be speaking to Amendment No. 19. The amendment would remove the age discrimination—because that is what the clause provides for at present—as regards payment of "contribution-based" benefit. In fact, it means that the claimant is being fined for being a certain age. I say that because there is no discrimination regarding the terms under which they contribute. Indeed, a young person may have been in work from the age of 18 to, say, the age of 23 and have paid contributions based on his income in the same way as everyone else. Yet, because that person is of that age, he is discriminated against when it comes to drawing benefit and that benefit is reduced.

The Minister said in Committee, at col. 681 of Hansard, that it was a well-established feature of income support that young people receive a lower rate of benefit. Well, it may be established but that does not make it right; indeed, it is wrong. Moreover, because it is wrong, it should be changed. In fact, in 1988 the Social Security Advisory Committee said that it was wrong to introduce the provision in such a discriminatory way. Eighteen to 24 year-olds will receive £36.80 per week instead of £46.50. Both are very small sums of money on which to live. The problem is that, if it is the lower rate, the person is penalised even more and is expected to live on £5.25 a day which must cover all except rent; for example, all one's food, heat, lighting, water, clothing, household goods and, yes, the cost of looking for work.

The Minister may say, as he said previously, that 75 per cent. of that age group live at home as if that is the answer to all their problems. But what if the members of the family at home are also unemployed? They cannot claim support for that 18-20 year-old because he or she is an independent person under the Bill and is receiving the reduced rate of benefit. I suggest that one cannot automatically assume that, because someone is living at home, there is the resource, the wherewithal or, indeed, the commitment to look after such young people.

We have before us a really nasty little clause which gets at a small number of people but does so in a very profound way. Amendment No. 19 is a natural follow-on to Amendments Nos. 17 and 18. The Bill currently says that the age-related amount will be applicable and will be determined "in accordance with

15 May 1995 : Column 394

regulations". We keep returning to that point time after time; indeed, as did the scrutiny committee. What will the regulations contain? What requirements will they make of young people? What penalties will be imposed? What tasks will the young people be expected to fulfil in order to qualify for benefit? There is no indication in that respect and we would like the Minister to outline the nature of those regulations.

Many nasty comments have been made about the Bill. It has been said that it is mean and that it penalises people in a way that does not help them when they need a helping hand. As regards the age group we are discussing, I believe that the legislation will condition their attitude to society for the rest of their lives if they are discriminated against in the way proposed and treated in the appalling way suggested by the Bill. Such young people have paid their contributions and are entitled to the benefits without having such discrimination aimed at them. I hope the Minister will accept that point and indeed that he will accept Amendments Nos. 17 and 19.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I support these amendments. Many of these young people are still growing and therefore they need more food than those of us who have reached rather more advanced years. Because they are still growing they will require new clothes in order to be smart enough to go to job interviews. Those clothes are not always easy to get. Because they are young they are likely not to have family commitments and therefore will be expected to go very much further in search of work, and they will consequently need to pay the additional travelling costs.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, these amendments are designed to carry forward current unemployment benefit rules and would mean that contribution-based jobseeker's allowance would be paid at a flat rate regardless of age. We had these amendments and this debate in Committee. Everyone who has spoken has suggested that they do not wish to hear my arguments again. I regret to say that they will hear them again because I think they are good arguments and I believe they should be accepted in defence of what the Government propose in this clause.

One of the major aims of JSA is to introduce a simplified and equitable benefit structure for unemployed people. We are doing this by bringing unemployment benefit and income support together. It is a well-established feature of income support that young single people receive a lower rate of benefit. Under JSA we shall be adopting the same treatment for all unemployed young people. I have said before—and noble Lords rather predicted I would say again—that the lower benefit rates recognise the fact that younger people generally have lower earnings expectations and commitments. The average earnings for the 18 to 24 age group are less than two-thirds of the average for all adults, and the large majority—about 75 per cent.—of young people receiving income support do not live independently, and the lower rate also reflects this.

15 May 1995 : Column 395

However, young people who have families can claim income-based JSA and receive the same rate of benefit as any other family in the same income circumstances. Where the claimant does not live at home, he can obtain housing benefit on the same basis as anyone else. The best thing we can do for this group is to help them get into work, and that is what we are doing. The Employment Service has been testing special programmes geared to the needs of young people, and national programmes will provide something like 130,000 places from this April. The lower rates that will be payable to young people in JSA, as I said, carry forward the well-established principles currently operating in income support. They reflect the lower commitment and earnings expectation that young people generally have.

Having listened to noble Lords, I do not expect them to agree with me or to be won over by my argument. I think my position is perfectly clear; I understand their position. However, I am afraid that there is rather a gulf between us.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and I thank all those who have spoken. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, drew attention to the fact that the family may also be unemployed. That is a distressingly common situation. It creates real hardship and it makes the denial of the child premium up to the age of 18 all the more relevant. It also emerged from the MORI report that when parents throw out 16 and 17 year-olds, one of the commonest reasons for doing so is that they cannot afford to support them because they receive no benefit. Therefore the policy is achieving precisely the opposite of its intention.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, for his point about growing people of that age eating more, needing more new clothes and costing more. I can confirm from my memory as a parent, as I think many of us can, that he is exactly right.

I understand the Minister's weariness with hearing our arguments, as we are weary of hearing his. However, it is important that it should remain on the record that it is a measure which does not enjoy general consent. This is not something which is accepted simply by passage of time. There is no Burkean title of prescription for this to go on. So long as there is the least risk that anybody may say that there is, it is an issue which we shall have to continue to reintroduce. I regret the time it takes, but the continuing lack of consent cannot be signified in any other way.

I ask the Minister one precise question. If he is able to intervene and give me the answer to it I shall be happy to give way to him. Can he give me a guarantee that when regulations determine the age-related amount those regulations will not widen the gap between the young and the over-25s? If he can give me that guarantee it will be very welcome and it will make a difference to me.

The Minister said that he wanted to introduce a structure which is simplified and equitable. He has not done so. He has not got within miles of it. I

15 May 1995 : Column 396

cannot see how it can be a simplification to introduce a whole lot of different rates which have to be calculated and when people's entitlement and the applicable amount changes on their birthday in the middle of a financial year. That does not sound like a simplification to me. As for it being equitable, I have never heard anything less equitable in my life. It is discriminatory, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said, and it is causing real anger among the young.

The Minister should listen occasionally to the youth and student Liberal Democrats. Whenever we put before them any policy paper which has inadvertently, perhaps because the drafter was not thinking about it, omitted to rule out age discrimination absolutely, immediately they put down an amendment demanding that we put that right. More power to their elbow: we do.

10 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will allow me to intervene before he concludes. I can tell him that the same rates will apply as apply currently in respect of income support, so the gap will not be widened.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page