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Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, it seems to me that the gracious Speech is a bit of a non-event. The vacuum created by the disappearance of the privatisation of the Post Office, which I am glad about, has not been filled even though there are enough problems requiring attention. Nevertheless, we have had an excellent debate this evening. In particular, as all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate have said, we have had three magnificent maiden speeches from noble Lords who have joined us after careers of immense distinction in their own chosen fields. As others have said, I hope that we hear a great deal more from them. We have had a couple of sparkling contributions from two seasoned performers in the shape of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, and the noble Earl, Lord Longford.
I cannot altogether follow the most reverend Primate about standards in public life, although I agree with him to some extent. I believe that he would agree that we have all lived through a very violent and brutal century and that has had, I fear, a coarsening effect. What the answers to that are I do not know. I agree with the most reverend Primate that standards in public life are immensely important.
Nevertheless, as far as the gracious Speech is concerned, the Government have indicated that they will continue with their present fiscal policies designed, they say, to bring about rising employment and other matters. Of course, we all welcome the recent drop in the figures for the unemployed although, with other noble Lords, I have some doubt about the manner in which the statistics are arrived at. As we know, they are simply based on those claiming and actually getting unemployment benefit. But hardly a day goes by without a report that some large institution somewhere is going to cut large numbers of staff. Moreover, as my noble friend Lady Dean said, many of the new jobs created appear to be part-time.
For many years after the last war, governments (both Conservative and Labour) acted on the assumption that the maintenance of high levels of employment was a priority for government. For most members of my generation, unemployment was not a problem. If you lost one job, another was likely to be fairly readily available. However, as everyone knows, that is no longer the case and is the root cause of many of the problems, social and financial, that we all face.
The lack of security that is implicit in job flexibility, which the Government have done their best to encourage, has social effects upon the economy generally and upon the way in which people organise their lives. If the only employment available is on a short-term contract, or part-time or temporary, the people so affected are naturally unwilling to enter into long-term commitments, so the housing market continues to be relatively stagnant. Retailers in the high street report that customers are hanging on to the money in their pockets because they are worried lest they do not have it at all next year. Individual car sales are lower than expected for a very similar reason. There are also problems about insurance and pensions provision since they depend to some extent on long-term security.
The result is that people in white collar employment in the finance sector, the public sector and the Civil Service who at one time would have confidently looked forward to a career and to a job for life--and what is wrong with that? --are frequently facing unemployment at a time when they would once have anticipated being at their earning peak. Incidentally, many of those people were Conservative voters and it is that general lack of security and concern for the future that is turning them away from the party of government and, I hope personally, to other parties and solutions.
I for one do not worry about that over much, but I am concerned about the damage that I believe Conservative policies have done, and continue to do, to the social fabric of our country. One of the Government's responses, along with deregulation, is to try to cut public expenditure. Hence we have the jobseeker's allowance which appears to be based on the assumption that if only the unemployed were to seek non-existent jobs more strenuously, all would be well. It is claimed that the jobseeker's allowance would be a better benefit for unemployed people. That is what it says in the document that the Government have produced. However, it is difficult to see how that claim can be sustained. While
In effect, employees who have just faced an increase in the amount of national insurance contributions that they have to pay will have a cut in the benefits for which they have paid. It must be emphasised that unemployment benefit is not some form of charity. It is part of the social insurance scheme for which people pay when in employment. It is an insurance policy. What would be said of a private insurance company that defaulted upon a commitment in such a way? After six months, when the JSA is means-tested, that change may very well hit people with family responsibilities.
The JSA, like income support, will discriminate against young people. Those under 25 who are unemployed will receive a lower rate of benefit. Incidentally, perhaps I may say how much I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who regretted that the Government have not taken the opportunity to introduce a proper policy for youth.
There is also some concern about the disabled. As we know, we are to have a Bill on rights for the disabled. One can only wish that the Government had taken the opportunity, when they had it, to pass the Bill which they failed to support last year when it was passed in your Lordships' House. A number of noble Lords have spoken about the proposed Bill for the disabled--notably, my noble friends Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Rix. Like many other noble Lords who have spoken on that matter, they have a great deal of experience and expertise in the area. Clearly, we shall need to look carefully at the Bill when it comes before us to make sure that the disabled are not going to be short-changed.
As we know, incapacity benefit is to replace invalidity benefit. We discussed that earlier in this House when we pointed out that that could mean many disabled people facing cuts in their income. It now seems that that is so. Thousands of people who would have qualified for invalidity benefit will not qualify for incapacity benefit. Many disabled people are worried that they will fall between the tighter incapacity test which denies them incapacity benefit and an inability to meet the terms of the new test in the JSA.
The Government's policies appear to be predicated on the assumption that benefits for the unemployed are too generous, and that generosity means that people involved no longer bother to look for work. However, the Government themselves tightened up the rules relating to entitlement some time ago when those were changed from availability for work, which had been the test for many years, to actively seeking work. People now have to demonstrate that they are actively seeking work to qualify for benefit. No doubt the Government will say, as they have said already, that the situation is improving and that the JSA is intended to help people back into work. As I said, and as my noble friend Lady Dean emphasised, much of the work that is available is part-time, temporary and low paid. We thus have a problem of the working poor as well as the unemployed, and the taxpayer is subsidising low paying employers through the benefit system.
The problems are serious, but the Government show no sign of tackling them except for the application of "the same as before". Yet there are alternative policies which should at least be considered. The TUC and the CBI have moved closer together in recent months in an endeavour to present a programme which would result in employment-creating initiatives. The TUC's document Budget for Jobs towards Full Employment has been drafted carefully. It does not pretend that there are easy solutions to the problems of low income, whether they arise from low pay or high unemployment. Nevertheless, it proposes a three-year public investment programme which it says would create over 300,000 jobs by investing in transport and urban renewal. That would, of course, cost money, but eventually there would be savings resulting from lower unemployment and social benefits. In any event, such initiatives should be considered, and we should endeavour to persuade our partners in Europe to look also at programmes. We must embark seriously on job creation if we are to have any chance of reducing the burden of social benefits.
I turn now to the issue of pensions. We are promised a Bill. It is reported that the Government intend to equalise state pension ages for men and women at 65. It is, of course, accepted that that cannot be done immediately since many women now in employment would have been expecting to be able to retire at 60. I regret that the Government did not find it possible to accept the recommendation of the Committee of your Lordships' House, which sat under the distinguished chairmanship of Lord Allen of Abbeydale, that there should be a decade of retirement between the ages of 60 and 70, with people having a genuine choice as to when they might retire between those ages. A cut-off point which is the same for all persons and in all industries and employments has always struck me as too arbitrary.
As it is, there is likely to be opposition from women's organisations and, I believe, from the Equal Opportunities Commission, which regard this proposition as a worsening of conditions for many women. What do the Government intend to do with the money that they will save? Do they intend, as they should, to raise the basic retirement pension which is clearly now too low? The position is likely to worsen relative to wages as time goes on.
As to occupational pensions, I note that the intention is to improve security, equality and choice in non-state pensions. If by that it is meant--I understand that this is so from what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch said--that the Government intend to legislate to give effect to the Goode Report, many of us will welcome such advances. Even so, many of us felt that the Goode Report, while recommending improvements, did not go far enough in protecting members' rights. In particular, we should want to see that there is provision for employee trustees since those, if properly trained--they should be--are the main safeguard against the loss of members' rights in occupational schemes.
I am pleased to learn that minimum solvency standards will be required to protect the security of members' rights, and that there will be a regulator. I hope that the regulator will have many more powers
However, the previous occasion on which the Government made much of choice in pension provision was when their obsession with individualism led to the sale of private personal pensions to people who are better placed either in their firm's occupational scheme or in SERPS. The Government must bear a large share of the blame for what has happened, which has had the effect of damaging the pension prospects of many people. Employees were actively encouraged by government propaganda to liberate themselves--that was the way in which it was put--from their employers' schemes. And, of course, the Government were anxious to run down SERPS, which they never liked anyway.
The self-regulatory mechanisms of the industry must work extremely hard to try to clear up the resultant mess. I speak as chair of the PIA Ombudsman's Council which is expecting a heavy workload next year once the claims start coming in. While clearly much of the industry has been gravely at fault, it cannot be overlooked that the major fault rested with the Government. It was made clear at the time that the Government's preference was for everyone to have individual personal pensions. The national insurance rebates were a "bribe" to get people to take out personal pensions. They involved a very substantial loss of revenue to the Exchequer while encouraging people into private pensions when they would have been better off to have remained where they were.
Perhaps I may emphasise what was said by my noble friend Lady Dean. No specific reference was made in the gracious Speech to the industrial injury scheme. Therefore, I hope that it has been agreed to leave the scheme alone. It is the only system of no-fault compensation that we have and it is very necessary because many working environments are inherently hazardous, no matter what is done by way of health and safety to try to protect the employers who work in them. I would welcome some kind of Government assurances as to the future of the industrial injury scheme.
Our debate today has touched on a number of issues in the sphere of home and social affairs. Enough has been said to indicate the anxieties which we have on this side of the House. When the Bills are before us we shall do our best to amend and improve upon them on the lines that have been indicated today. But, really, this is not much of a gracious Speech and there seems to be a fairly general view to that effect.
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