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Earl Russell: I listened to the Minister as carefully as I could. It is a genuine difficulty. I do not understand the position that he takes. I understand that he rejects the criminal analogy. I do not understand why.
I own a house. I have an entitlement to that house if I meet the conditions. It is my property if I meet the conditions of having a proper and lawful title. Throughout its history, English law has been very heavily influenced by concepts of property. We have a traditional ruling that the right to vote is a form of property. I believe that we are thinking about this matter as though the entitlement to benefit is a form of property.
If one is to be deprived of one's property, first one retains possession pending the case; and, secondly, there have to be good reasons shown why one has no entitlement to the property before one can be moved out of it. Those have been fundamental principles of English law for about 1,000 years. If the Minister does not like the criminal analogy, I do not see why he will not accept this one.
The Minister is still repeating that there may be certain people on benefit who have savings. I understand that point. But why does he then not propose that the only exceptions from hardship payments should be those who do have those extra means of support? That would be an obvious way of looking for common ground, but because some people have extra money, I do not see the justification for depriving all those who do not have extra money, who are, after all, rather numerous.
I do not understand either the argument that says that single people are incapable of being in hardship. Hunger hurts just as much if you are single as if you are married. I hope that the Minister will think carefully about the powerful arguments put forward by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby. I, too, have seen that sort of thing in the United States. It is not pretty. It is a world in which people do not dare go out at night; a world in which everyone has to keep on big outside lights. That costs a great deal of money. It does a great deal less good than putting a meal in someone's stomach occasionally. I do not understand. I should like to, because then we might get on a bit faster.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure that I can add much. I do not agreeI made that clearwith the attempt to compare a benefit and decisions about entitlement with guilt or innocence. Nor do I compare it with a house and one's property rights. One should look at the situation of the benefit itself and not try to draw in outside comparisons to bolster up a case.
I have made my position on this clear. I thought the noble Baroness was arguing on both parts of the situation where doubts may arise as to whether a claimant met the entitlement criteria. The first situation I might envisage is at the beginning of a claim when the officer has doubts as to whether the claimant is prepared to meet the two conditions we discussed earlier. Then during the claim doubt may arise as to whether the claimant is continuing to fulfil the conditions.
It is important to recognise that in JSA, as in the current system, it is not sufficient for claimants to satisfy the benefit conditions just once at the start of the claim. They must go on satisfying them and be able to show that they are available and actively looking for work in every week in which they wish to receive benefit. That is why, if the Employment Service has a doubt as to whether a claimant continues to meet the conditions, it must refer the claim to the adjudication officer for a decision on that point.
I return to the point I made previously. This is a benefit that people receive if they are fulfilling the conditions of entitlement. Those conditions are that they are available for work and that they are actively seeking work. I suggest to the Committee, as I have suggested on a number of occasions, that if someone feels that they are in danger of losing their benefit they can take steps to fulfil the twoI should have thoughtfairly easily met conditions. They are conditions which the great majority of people who become unemployed meet, without any bother, without any help from the noble Baroness and noble Earl, and without getting into any of the problems paraded before us this evening. Most unemployed people manage without any trouble.
Most taxpayers, most people who are employed, who go out in the day to work and provide the taxes that allow us to run a generous benefit system in this country, would expect nothing less than that we insist upon those conditions being met. If they are not met, then, until we have resolved the issue, we do not pay benefit. That is the position that I believe most people would accept. I do not believe that the great majority of my fellow countrymen would consider that evil. I
Earl Russell: Perhaps I may ask the Minister to withdraw the suggestion that we are arguing for benefits for people who do not meet the conditions. None of us is. What we are saying is that people should have the benefit until it becomes clear that they do not meet the conditions.
I understand that the Minister is no happier with the property analogy than he was with the other. I ask him then: what does he think is the moral basis of entitlement to benefit, or does he think that there is no moral basis to that entitlement?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I do not intend to get into too much of a ping-pong game and I hesitate to argue with a professor of modern history about such philosophical issues. I believe that it is clear that if, rightly, we as a community decide to help people who are unemployed, we have the right to expect them to meet some conditions for that benefit to be paid. The conditions that we have decided they should meetand I believe that most people agreeare that they are available for work and that they are actively seeking it. If they fulfil those conditions the entitlement to benefit follows. If they do not fulfil those conditions doubts are placed.
I acceptand I happily retreat from the position that I put forward to the noble Lordthat the noble Lord does not believe that benefit should be paid for all time regardless of entitlement. Perhaps we are narrowing the argument down. The period about which we are in dispute is the period between the employment officer having doubts and deciding that they are sufficient for him to communicate them to an adjudication officer and the adjudication officer making the decision.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The Minister said that the claimant would receive JSA if he fulfilled the conditions of entitlement, that those conditions were twofoldavailable for work and actively seeking workand that the taxpayer would agree with him. I agree with the Minister, as does the noble Earl and every Member of the Committee, that if a claimant is not fulfilling the conditions of entitlement he is not eligible for the jobseeker's allowance. He may be eligible for something else but not for that allowance. The point is that we do not know whether he is meeting the conditions of eligibility. That is the difference.
I honestly cannot comprehend how the Minister can fail to distinguish between a doubt that is being investigated and a case that has been established. Does the Minister accept that there is a difference between doubting and proving? Does the Minister accept that? If we can understand whether the Minister agrees that to doubt is not the same as to prove we shall have narrowed the gap between us. To prove establishes the case; to doubt raises the question only.
Does the Minister accept the difference between doubting and proving? Does he accept that there is a distinction? I hope that the Minister will reply because that appears to be the basis of the difference between us. The Minister shakes his head.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The basis of the Minister's argumentand he has said it time and again in his answers tonight as he has switched from "has to establish", to "has to show", to "may be entitled to", "believes that" and so forthis that when the employment officer has a doubt it is the same as showing that the person has committed the offence of failing to meet the JSA for which benefit may be withdrawn.
The Minister has continually said that entitlement to benefit has not yet been, so to speak, earned. We are talking about a situation in which someone is receiving JSA and it is being withdrawn on a doubt which has not been established. Yet that person is being punished in advance of the case being heard.
If the Minister cannot understand why we find that so deeply offensive and repugnant I do not know how we can communicate that. However, I promise him that we shall come back and if we cannot persuade him then perhaps we can persuade other Members of the Committee that, as the Secretary of State, David Hunt, said to the EOC, it is the principle of English law that one should not be presumed guilty until one's case has been heard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.