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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I too am happy to support this extremely important amendment. It recognises that the jobseeker's agreement is meant to be an individually tailored programme which not only encourages a claimant to apply for suitable vacancies, but will equip him to become suitable for an even greater range of vacancies.

We all know that perhaps the most eligible people in the labour market at the moment are younger women. One of the reasons why they, compared with other groups in our society, find it easier to get work is that they are flexible. From their background they are able to turn their hands to retailing, hotel work, caring work, shop assistants' work, office work and the like. The reason for that is that they will have learnt typing at school, looked after young children, cared for an elderly grandparent, babysat or done a Saturday job in a shop. They have experience, they are flexible and they are not afraid of change.

However, what about the group that finds it hardest to re-enter the world of work? I am talking of the middle-aged, the man in his 30s, 40s or 50s who comes from a working class background, who has relatively few skills and who has become unemployed. That middle-aged or older man finds it hard to regain work. He may have come off invalidity benefit and therefore be reputed to have a poor health record or he may well have been in one type of job for a long time—perhaps in the building industry. That work is becoming scarce and the man may be unsuitable for it. He does not believe that he can do anything else. Yet either the jobs he would wish to do are those for which he is now physically unsuited because of the invalidity benefit or the jobs do not exist.

We know from many such examples in our private lives that the man is apprehensive, deeply worried that he may never work again, insecure and uncertain. He is both intimidated by the benefits system and at the same time resentful of it. He lacks skills, flexibility, self confidence; he lacks the ability to take the initiative; he lacks the energy to get started and he is often deeply depressed.

What advice would each of us give to such men and sometimes women, as we do in our private lives? The advice that most of us would give is: "You need to become more flexible and regain your confidence. The best way is to broaden your horizons, get out and meet people, build up a portfolio of skills". Those are the skills which the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, spoke about. We would say: "Extend your network, take additional training, do part-time study. Above all, do voluntary work". We would tell that person to take every opportunity to widen his or her experience, gain new skills, make new contacts, build up confidence. We would tell them: "Don't be lethargic, don't be depressed".

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The most suitable way of doing that is to re-enter the world of work, but the world of unwaged work, by doing voluntary work or undertaking the relevant part-time study. We know from our own experience that that is the best way for many people to do what we all want—to have the opportunity to regain waged work.

We could add to the arguments ad infinitum: they have been well expressed at various earlier stages of the Bill. I urge the Minister to support the amendment, even at this late stage of proceedings on Third Reading, and to give his blessing to this amendment which is for many people the most practical and useful way for them to re-network themselves back into society.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, from these Benches we too support this important and sensible amendment. A voluntary organisation with which I am connected at the moment employs half a dozen volunteers. They happen to be members of the ethnic minorities, they are extremely valuable to us and we should, I think, be able to give all of them good references to add to their CVs. That can only be helpful in getting people who would otherwise find it difficult to obtain employment back into the labour market. That is what we and the Government want and it is a simple proposal for the Government to accept.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington: My Lords, I am sorry to intervene. I have not yet said one word on the Bill but I know that the Government run a scheme called "Opportunities for Volunteering". Organisations like the National Association of Leagues of Hospital Friends or the Carers National Association can apply for grants. The criterion for obtaining grants is that the organisations should use unemployed people. Having been chairman of the National Association of Leagues of Hospital Friends for over 10 years, I can assure the Minister that it is one of the most successful schemes for getting people back to working in hospitals in various grades.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I too support Amendment No. 11 and I wish to speak to Amendment No. 21, which is grouped with it. At Report stage, a similar amendment was on the Marshalled List and the Minister confirmed that there was no difference between us in your Lordships' House on the amendment's intentions. They were that someone who had taken the opportunity to join a course of study would not be penalised if that course would enhance their prospects of employment.

Unfortunately, the Minister went on to say that, while accepting the intentions of the amendment, he was going to reject it. He said that, after the Bill had been enacted, the Government could, under Clause 28, introduce pilot schemes and conduct research. However, those pilot schemes would not come about until a year or so after the Act had been working. From where I stand, that looked like extreme confidence on the part of the Government and little help to the people who are on courses. I believe that it is highly doubtful that the Government would be in a position to help anyone two years from now, the

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time we are talking about. It is highly unlikely that they will be in office to carry out the undertaking they gave us at Report stage.

That being said, the Government's attitude will not help for example, the man in Devon. With assistance from his family, he borrowed £250 and went on a course that would assist his prospects for employment. His benefit was stopped, even though he went on that course with the full knowledge of the employment officer. It will not help the man in Hampshire who was unemployed for four months. He was very worried that there were no job opportunities, he discussed it again with his employment officer. It was agreed that he should try to take up part-time training, up to 21 hours a week. He did so, but he also paid £20 towards the course. The course cost £190 but, understandably, the college required people to pay something towards the cost, to try to stop people dropping out. He paid his £20, the employment officer knew that he was going on the course, but he lost his benefit. That cannot be right in anyone's book. I cannot believe that that was ever the intention of this Bill. I accept that the Bill does not introduce that principle; it is in existence now. But the Bill could be used to amend that error, to ensure the policy espoused by the Government from time to time that self-help brings self-improvement and would therefore bring the increased chance of job opportunity.

This clause is not there to enable people to receive benefits by not being available for work but by simply going on a course. If we read the amendment, we see that it provides that the only good cause will be that the claimant's course is halfway through, or that there is only six weeks left to run, and if the course itself will ensure that a claimant's prospects of employment will be enhanced.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I too support Amendments Nos. 11 and 21. I do so because of the importance of recognising that voices from different parts of this House have contributed on the basis of their own experience of the issues that are the subject of this amendment.

The unemployed are not a single group of identical people facing the same circumstances in every part of the country. They are not the same age, or the same sex; they do not face the same difficulties in terms of their personal experience. But there is one common feature in unemployment; namely, a lowering of morale and self-confidence in the individual concerned.

With regard to courses, the whole aim of the Government's policy as they have explained it is to encourage people to upgrade their qualifications, training skills and experience in order to make them more able to get work. We do not ask somebody who is taking a degree course at university to be available for work over three-quarters of the way through the course and to forgo their grant and the qualification that was the aim of their going on the course. Is it fair or reasonable; does it build the self-esteem of somebody who has been unemployed to say to them that we value the training course that they are doing and the education that they are undertaking so little? Is it reasonable to say, within six weeks of the end,

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over halfway through, that the course does not matter at all, and that they should drop it and leave immediately? The message being given to individuals is that all they are doing is filling their time rather than being of any value.

Secondly—I shall not go over all the arguments—we have to understand that there are many people who need to return to the labour market after periods of time caring, often for elderly relatives who have since died, and who feel not clinically depressed but low. They lack confidence, perhaps having spent many years, for example, caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease. They are now free to return to the labour market but they lack the confidence to do so. All this is important in terms of the way that people present themselves.

I ask noble Lords to consider the term "available for work". Part of being available for work is being able to present yourself to a prospective employer as having the social skills, the self-confidence and the competence to take on the job, do it and complete it. Let us consider the employer faced with a choice between someone who has not had a break in their employment and someone who has. The employer needs someone who will complete what they take on. He needs somebody who will give a reference on the basis of the most recent activity. Voluntary work can provide that reference. That is much more important for somebody aged 45 or 50 than going back to somebody who knew them when they were at school or when they last worked, perhaps five or 10 years ago.

There is also the importance of recognising that many people are deeply ashamed of being unemployed. They ought not to be, but there is a tendency in the media to stereotype. There are many people—I have met some of them in my time as a councillor—who are embarrassed about admitting that they are unemployed and who feel inside that they have failed. That failure is a self-perpetuating cycle. Therefore I ask the Government, at this late stage, to listen to the different experiences and to take into account the different backgrounds from which people have come. Please will they consider at this stage accepting these amendments?


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