Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, we got nothing wrong. We interpreted the regulation and on that basis carried it into our own legislation. As the noble Lord will be aware, there was considerable pressure from the industry, both here and on the Continent, to bring in such a scheme. It was therefore processed quickly. The UK was not the only nation to ask for interpretative notes after the scheme had been published.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, so that we may study the matter further, will the Minister inform the House whether the regulation was subject to the approval of the Agriculture Council, or was it issued direct by the Commission under previously delegated powers? I ask the question because the replies seem to be a little unsatisfactory and one would like to investigate them further.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the directive was agreed by the Agriculture Council. The regulation was agreed to by the management committee. So it was done through the normal procedures and subject to the normal checks and balances.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the Minister said that he believed that it was right that we should have a regulated market in apples. Is he aware that some of us are put out that we should hear that from a Conservative? Does he agree that there are many other markets which would benefit from regulation?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I was not suggesting that we wanted a regulated market in apples. The market presently suffers a weakness due to the fact that there is a huge oversupply. There is also an intervention system which continues to encourage that oversupply. We are merely trying to bring the market back into balance. We are not seeking to regulate it, as the noble Lord implied.

16 May 1995 : Column 412

Channel 5

2.58 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will delay awarding the Channel 5 licence until cross-media ownership rules are in place.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Viscount Astor): My Lords, no, the award of the Channel 5 licence is a matter for the Independent Television Commission.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, does the Minister agree that anyone who establishes a dominant position in the media can control much of what people read, see and hear, and can influence a great deal of what they think? Would not one small, sensible step be to delay the granting of the Channel 5 licence until the new cross-media rules can guarantee that no person and no group can exploit its cross-media capacity?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the process for choosing a licence holder for Channel 5 is being conducted under long-standing rules legislated in your Lordships' House in 1990 in the Broadcasting Act.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, surely my noble friend is right. It is dotty that 18 months ago the Government announced that the rules under which the channel allocations were made were inappropriate and out of date but now have such an allocation taking place under those rules. We can read in the newspapers about the new cross-media rules down to the detail of what every Cabinet Minister said. When will the Government grant the House the favour of learning what their new cross-media rules are?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I do not need to warn the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, not to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers. However, I can tell him that we shall be publishing our rules on cross-media ownership somewhere between soon, shortly and in the near future. The noble Lord can read into that as he wishes.

Perhaps I may return to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. I assumed that he was referring to a bid made in conjunction with News International. That was the fourth bid on the list for the new Channel 5 licence and it was for the lowest amount of money. The ITC is publishing summaries of the applications and is inviting comments by 13th June. Those summaries will be available in ITC offices, selected libraries throughout the country and, of course, the Library of your Lordships' House. The public will be able to give their views on the applicants' proposals, in particular with regard to the nature and balance of the programmes proposed. The ITC intends to announce its decision by 30th November. If a licence is awarded Channel 5 will begin no later than 1st January 1997.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, it may be a good joke to talk about shortly, in the near future and so forth. However, are we not entitled to a more serious answer

16 May 1995 : Column 413

to the Question? A large number of people want to know the answer and therefore is not something a little better than the Minister has given called for?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I can add no more. Our conclusions will be announced in due course.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, has any of the proposed European legislation been taken into consideration in respect of cross-media ownership?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, we are aware of the EC Green Paper on pluralism and media concentration in the internal market. The Government will soon be responding to the Commission's questionnaire on pluralism and media concentration. That response will reflect the Government's assessment of the way forward in this country. A copy will be placed in the Library of your Lordships' House.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, do the Government still believe that there is a case for Channel 5?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, yes, we do. The case is proved by the fact that four bids were made for the licence.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, what would the view of the Government have been if News International's bid had been the top bid?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, that is an entirely hypothetical question. It was the lowest bid. Perhaps I may emphasise that it is for the ITC to decide and not the Government.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, my noble friend gave an answer about timing. Will he advise the House, even in general terms, the differential in timing that he envisages between the award of the Channel 5 licence and the cross-media ownership rules being in place? Are we talking of one year, five years or three months?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am afraid that my noble friend must wait until the Government announce their proposals on cross-media ownership. At this stage I can give him no further clue.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, as we are still waiting for the decision to be made there is time for discussion. Will the Minister inform the Secretary of State for National Heritage that if it is true that he supported a 10 per cent. maximum holding, but that other Ministers supported a 29 per cent. holding, he will receive great sympathy if he continues to fight for the lower level?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I must warn the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, about believing what he reads in the newspapers. We have looked most carefully at cross-media ownership, which is an important issue. Our review aims to protect the pluralism and diversity of the media in this country while allowing companies to exploit new opportunities and to compete internationally.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the House realises that Mr. Murdoch and News International made the lowest bid? However, the Minister should not jump to the conclusion that Mr.

16 May 1995 : Column 414

Murdoch is making any uncharacteristic mistakes. We do not know the true story of what is happening. However, let us assume that the Government are proved to be wrong, which would not be unprecedented, and that someone takes control to a large extent. In that case, will the Government plead that they do not believe in retrospective legislation?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the noble Lord posed an interesting question. However, it was entirely speculative and hypothetical and I am afraid that I cannot possibly answer it.

Jobseekers Bill

3.5 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be now further considered on Report. —(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 22A:


Before Clause 6, insert the following new clause:

Payment of benefit when awaiting determination.

(". Where a doubt arises as to whether the claimant is available for employment or is to be treated as available for employment under section 6, or actively seeking employment or to be treated as actively seeking employment under section 7, 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.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment is one of natural justice: that one should not be punished before one's case has been heard and a decision made as to whether one is guilty. I hope that because the amendment relates to natural justice, all noble Lords will feel able to support it.

Let us suppose that you are unemployed for more than a year and that you are in receipt of the jobseeker's allowance, which is worth about £5 a day and is all you have to live on. Suddenly, without a warning letter or any chance to discuss the matter, you discover that your benefit has been stopped. You have no income at all. Why? Is it because you have been found guilty of not meeting the conditions of the jobseeker's allowance? No. It is because a junior, relatively untrained employment officer wonders whether you are actively seeking work, has a doubt and refers your case to the adjudication officer for decision.

There is nothing wrong with that. The case reviews and spot checks are entirely welcome. However, your benefit will stop not when you are found guilty by the adjudication officer but from the moment the junior employment officer has a doubt and sends your case for review. We assume that it is an honest doubt but the junior employment officer has a target of referrals to meet and perhaps he has not yet met it. So he sends your file along for review and the moment that he does so your benefit is immediately stopped. You are fined in advance of your case being heard. You are punished

16 May 1995 : Column 415

before you are found guilty. As a result of a doubt—not a decision—you have nothing to live on. As a result of a doubt your entire income is taken away.

Why do we object to the proposal, and why have we tabled this amendment in order to correct it? First, on the ground of simple, natural justice. So far as I am aware, in no other walk of life are you punished in advance of being found guilty. Even if you are suspected of a major offence at work, you are suspended on full pay. But not if you are unemployed living day to day. In that case, your benefit is taken away while your case is merely being investigated. It is assumed that you are guilty of the offence that has yet to be proved.

The Minister has said repeatedly, including last night, that only if a jobseeker is meeting the conditions of entitlement to the jobseeker's allowance and is available or actively seeking work is he entitled to the benefit. We agree, but until the offence is established, how do we know whether the jobseeker is or is not meeting the conditions of entitlement? The Minister has always argued—and I hope that he does not do so again today—as though a doubt is the same as a decision; that to suspect someone is a good enough reason for finding him guilty and denying him benefit. I am not talking about people who have never received JSA but about those who are currently in receipt of it and whose benefit will be stopped because of a doubt.

When the Minister replies, I beg your Lordships to ask themselves one question. Is a doubt in the mind of a junior employment officer the same, and should therefore be visited with the same penalty, as a decision made by the adjudication officer? If a doubt is different from a decision, why is benefit stopped in advance of being found guilty?

Therefore, our first argument is that, in all fairness, punishment should follow the offence being established. The second argument is that if one does not follow that route the consequences for those on JSA will be devastating. A jobseeker is living on barely £5 per day. He is often hungry and scruffy because that £5 per day must pay for all his food, his clothing, cleaning materials, heat, light and fuel bills. It must cover his costs for travelling to interviews, train fares, tube fares, newspapers to see the job advertisements, postage and phonecards. After all, if he attends two interviews in one day, the tube fare will take £4 of his £5 for that day. That £5 is all that stands between him and utter destitution. And yet, because of a doubt, not a decision, that £5 is taken away while the doubt is investigated.

From whom is it taken? It is not taken from the clever people, the real fiddlers, because they will always be able to manipulate the system. It will be taken away from those, for example, for whom English is a second language or from those suffering from a mild learning difficulty or from those who are inadequate or incompetent. What then, my Lords? That jobseeker cannot buy food and he certainly cannot keep himself clean. He cannot afford to travel to look for work. We shall have put him on the streets and we shall have trapped him on the streets. As a result, he will live off the streets, not by starving quietly but by begging, thieving, shoplifting, prostitution or selling drugs. We

16 May 1995 : Column 416

shall have outlawed him because if he cannot live on £5 a day within the law he will find a means of living outside the law.

We have taken that £5 away not because he is guilty but because we think he may be guilty. We do not know whether he is, or is not, but he will have been fined all the same. If we are not willing to continue that £5 a day on grounds of justice, should we not do so on grounds of decency towards him and as a form of social insurance for us?

None of us wants fraud or for people to cheat the system. But, for heaven's sake, let us ensure that when we punish someone by taking away his benefit—the £5 per day which stands between him and destitution—that is done because we know that he is guilty of the offence. Surely we should not treat people who are awaiting a decision as though that decision has already been taken.

Finally, perhaps I may quote David Hunt, the former Secretary of State for Employment. He was asked to regard an employer suspected of discrimination at work to be presumed guilty but, quite rightly, he refused because, he said,


    "It is fundamentally inconsistent with justice and the rule of law in this area. The idea that a person on proof of certain facts should be presumed guilty unless he can prove himself innocent appears hard to reconcile with natural justice".

David Hunt was right. He was right to protect employers in that way. I ask your Lordships today to similarly protect the unemployed. I beg to move.

3.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the debate on this issue has been somewhat prolonged because there has been quite a deep culture clash between the two sides of the House. We are acting on two quite different sets of theoretical assumptions and we have not yet succeeded in finding a common language in which to discuss them.

To us it appears perfectly simple that when someone is accused of not meeting the conditions necessary for entitlement to benefit he should be innocent until proved guilty. He should not be disentitled to benefit until there has been a hearing before the adjudication officer. For us, that rests on a concept of benefit as an entitlement, a civil right; something which, if you meet the means-tested conditions, you enjoy until it can be proved that there is a good reason for taking it away. It is a right of citizenship.

Clearly the Minister does not see it in that way. A great deal of time has been spent on trying to find out how or why the Minister does not see it in that way. He thinks that it is perfectly justifiable to disentitle people to benefit before the proof of the offence. In fact, I believe that he thinks that the word "offence" is misplaced. If he thinks that to be so, I should be grateful if he will explain why, because that may help our understanding.

He also seems to believe that the accusation of not meeting the conditions amounts to proof. As near as I can follow what the Minister said, that seems to rest on two premises on his side. The first is the premise which he stated clearly last night; namely, that JSA is a conditional benefit. That is clear enough; it is. Secondly,

16 May 1995 : Column 417

the Minister seems to have reversed the burden of proof. He seems to be arguing now that you should not receive JSA until you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you meet all the conditions necessary for entitlement rather than that you should continue to receive the benefit until he can prove that you do not meet those conditions. That is a major change and I should like to know why it has happened.

It is likely to cause grave hardship. If you take all benefit away from people, possibly wrongly and on a ground which turns out on appeal to be unjustified, at the very best you plunge those people deep into debt and make it more difficult for them to clamber back into earning a lawful living. That is a great pity.

There is a danger here that we may be looking at, in effect, the end of the Beveridge principle of the safety net and at the end of an assumption that people have an entitlement to protection through the benefit system unless a specific offence can be proved against them. We now have an idea that you have to jump through a whole series of hoops before you can enter the benefit system. I do not know why that change has been made and I should be grateful for an explanation. I have heard no reason for it. Not only will it cause grave hardship but it will also generate expense. A few moments ago at Question Time we heard that the Minister does not yet know what those costs will be. Until he knows, at least on grounds of financial caution, perhaps he should go a little easy on disentitlement.

But there is another major issue behind this which was raised 21 years ago by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman; that is, how far the field of social security is subject to the rule of law. It is a field in which the broad concepts of common law have a slightly more tenuous hold before tribunals than they sometimes do in the courts. It is a field in which the administration of the law depends very heavily on statute and regulation. Therefore, it is one in which it is difficult for the law to exercise sufficient control over the power of the Executive. As that affects people's welfare so deeply, that is a matter for regret.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, giving judgment in the social fund case in 1990, commented that it was impossible to believe that Parliament had done anything so arbitrary, save that Parliament had. That is a comment which can very often be made in the field of social security. It is because we believe in terms of Parliament controlling the Executive, and as we have been told many times that it should, that that should be put under control. We want social security governed more than it is now by the concepts of the rule of law. That is my strongest reason for supporting the amendment.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page