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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have had yet another full debate on this subject. We have debated it on a number of occasions with regard both to voluntary work and part-time study and the links with what I have to keep repeating is the primary condition for jobseekers; namely, to be actively seeking employment and being available for work.

I do not think there is an argument about the simple fact that voluntary work and part-time study can help unemployed people keep in touch with the labour market. It can develop new skills, and it can maintain existing skills, while at the same time—certainly in the case of voluntary work—helping the community. The question is: should those kinds of steps be listed as steps that meet the "actively seeking employment" condition?

I want to emphasise again that actively seeking employment is a basic labour market condition of JSA. The underlying principle of the condition is that the jobseeker should take steps which give him his best prospects of securing employment. That is the litmus test that we must apply when we are considering any changes to the actively seeking rules.

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The current regulations include a non-existive list—I apologise, a non-exhaustive list of activities which count as steps—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I had thought that by this time we should be in the dinner interval. Obviously, my little programme has put me slightly out of time. I do not intend to eat my words. I intend to do slightly better than that, although my words are of course excellent food.

At present these are all steps that are closely linked to actual jobsearch, such as job applications and registering with employment agencies. But in the JSA regulations, we propose to expand the list to include steps that may help to improve a jobseeker's employability. We are doing this because we recognise that activities that do not relate directly to jobsearch may, nevertheless, improve a jobseeker's chance of getting back to work.

I should now like to explain the special arrangements that we propose to make in JSA for people undertaking voluntary work and part-time study. First, people claiming JSA will be able to undertake full-time voluntary work provided that they remain available for and actively seeking employment. That is a significant recognition of the important role that voluntary work can play in helping them find paid employment.

Secondly, the availability rule will be relaxed for people who undertake voluntary work. Jobseekers in general, as we have seen, will have to be available for work immediately. People undertaking voluntary work will be allowed 48 hours' notice before having to take up an offer of work or before attending an interview for a job.

Thirdly, the current regulations specifically state that any time during which the jobseeker was doing voluntary work is a circumstance to be taken into account when considering whether he has met the actively seeking employment condition. We have given an undertaking that this will be carried forward into the JSA regulations.

Fourthly, the voluntary sector plays an important role in delivering the Government's programmes for unemployed people, such as Training for Work, Youth Training and Community Action.

Finally, in recognition of the arguments which noble Lords have put forward in the course of our debates, we have agreed to consult the voluntary sector. We will be writing to representatives before the Summer Recess to seek their views. We shall consider the responses carefully before the regulations are drafted.

Turning to part-time study, people will be allowed to study part-time while claiming JSA, so long as they remain available for and actively seeking employment. Indeed, we have announced that we are updating the rules to remove the problems that some people have experienced with the current rules, so that people are clear about what study they can undertake while claiming JSA. In particular, we have addressed the problem caused by further education courses no longer being classified as full or part-time, which has caused uncertainty for jobseekers, colleges and those administering benefits. Also, we have said that after three months of unemployment, the course

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will not of itself be a reason for finding that someone is unavailable for work, provided he is prepared to take a job.

Secondly, I mentioned a few moments ago that the list of active seeking steps will be extended to include actions which improve employability. For the first time, one of the steps will be attending a full-time job-related course of up to two weeks in a year.

Thirdly, again just as with voluntary work, the current regulations specifically state that vocational study or training is to be taken into account when considering whether a jobseeker has met the actively seeking employment condition. This, too, will be carried forward into the JSA regulations.

Finally, in response to arguments from noble Lords last week, I undertook to reflect on the matter further and to collect new and better information on part-time study arrangements, and perhaps pilot new approaches. This would be intended to provide secure evidence on what kind of arrangements will best enhance jobseekers' prospects of obtaining work.

I believe these special arrangements are extensive and generous. They are a clear indication that we recognise the potential value of undertaking voluntary work and part-time study while claiming JSA. But, as I have said, the specific issue before us is whether to accept an amendment which would put a statement on the face of the Bill that voluntary work and part-time study may count as active seeking steps.

While we all agree that voluntary work and part-time study can in many cases help improve a jobseeker's chances of finding paid employment, there can equally be cases where we must question whether a person's other activities may be acting against their chances of finding employment. We have to strike the right balance in favour of both the jobseeker and the taxpayer.

I believe that we have to weigh up very carefully the questions in Amendment No. 11. In the case of voluntary work we have given a commitment to reflect and consult. In the case of part-time study, we have said that we recognise that it is important to get the balance right; that is why we shall collect new and better information on part-time study arrangements. I am afraid that I cannot go further at this stage. In particular, I cannot agree that it would be appropriate to deal with these matters in primary legislation.

I am sure that the public at least and certainly, I suspect, many of your Lordships would find it most odd if the Jobseekers Bill listed voluntary work and part-time study as examples of steps for which provisions may be made in regulations but not applying for jobs.

Let me turn to Amendment No. 21, which is very similar to an amendment that we addressed at Report stage. Its purpose is to provide that if a jobseeker has completed at least half of a course of study which is relevant to his prospects of obtaining employment and is within six weeks of completing it, that will be good cause for failing to apply for or refusing or neglecting to avail himself of a reasonable opportunity of employment.

I explained last week, when replying to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that although I could not accept her amendment, I understood the principles behind it. I

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undertook to reflect further on the matter. As I said earlier, we intend to collect some new and, it is to be hoped, better information on part-time study arrangements and perhaps pilot new approaches using the powers in Clause 29 of the Bill. I should like to consider whether an approach based on the noble Baroness's proposals might be tested alongside other ideas.

I feel that it is worth saying that if somebody is studying part-time and takes a job, he will have every opportunity to adapt the way in which he studies in order to study and carry on with the job. Many people undertake further study while they are working. I see no reason to believe that people in the situation portrayed by the Benches opposite will not be able to make the same kind of accommodations as people in work and studying, perhaps to improve their situation, are already doing.

Let me make one other point to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. She mentioned the kind of rule-of-thumb system that the Employment Service operates; namely, that if a person has invested more than £100 in fees for a course, that matter should be referred to the independent adjudication officer. I should like to make clear, as there appears to be some confusion in this matter, that it is a rule of thumb for there to be referral to the adjudication officer; the decision always rests with that officer, who will make his decision according to the usual rules of availability.

I understand that £100 may seem an arbitrary figure. But there must be some point at which one can question whether a person who has made a substantial investment in a course of study is in fact no longer available for work. We have made it clear—I have done so again today—that unemployment benefit is not for people whose first priority is to study. Those people should look elsewhere for financial support.

7.45 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. He mentioned the sum of £100. Is he prepared to index-link it?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: If, my Lords, the noble Earl will contain his patience for a moment, I shall come to the point that I want to make about the matter. There has to be some distinction made. I reflected on the points made on this issue after Report stage. I feel that there has to be some kind of level. I am prepared—I hope that it will be considered helpful, although I accept that it will not be considered nearly so helpful as accepting the amendment—to write to the chief executive of the Employment Service and suggest that he might review the level at which the employment officer will consider referring to an adjudication officer the question of whether a claimant is available for work. I hope that that will go some way toward reassuring the noble Earl and indeed the noble Baroness.

I am sorry that I have gone on a little, but I wanted to emphasise the point that both part-time study and volunteering are allowed for currently and will be allowed for in the jobseeker's agreement. I am not prepared to go so far as to say that somehow we should set aside the fundamental conditions of availability for work and actively seeking work, which are at the heart of JSA, just

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because someone is volunteering or doing part-time study. The two can go together. I hope that I have explained how we believe that they will be able to go together to the satisfaction, I hope, of the many organisations which use volunteers, to the satisfaction of the jobseeker himself and to the satisfaction of the taxpayer, whose interests ultimately have to be protected when it comes to spending public money.


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