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Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I believe that it is a very good idea to have a time limit for which the allowance should be suspended. But being somewhat cynical I wonder whether a time limit as long as that suggested is wise. The very fact that there is a limit on time often means that that time is worked right up to before the decision is finally made and the suspension removed. That is something about which one would have to be most careful.
Lord McCarthy: My Lords, the object of the amendment is to reduce the maximum period under the Bill of 26 weeks for which there can be a suspension. One is bound to ask the Minister to explain and defend the present period. Why is it unreasonable to propose that the allowance should not be suspended,
under Clause 18 of the legislation? Why is that considered to be unreasonable? Presumably it is because the present maximum period of suspension proposed under the Bill is required. It is required because, on average, we are told that it takes that long. On 20th April (at col. 592 of Hansard) someone on this side of the House asked the Minister what was the average waiting time on appeals, some of which would be subject to the suspension procedure. As I understand it, the Minister said that it would be too expensive to find out. Nevertheless, the average time on all appeals was 22.4 weeks. The Minister also said that the adjudication officers processed to the independent tribunal service in 21 days on average. Therefore, what is the 26-week period for?
The Minister was kind enough to send me a copy of the operational plan for 1995-96. It is interesting to note that, whereas there are targets for virtually everythingfor example, placings, interviews, the non-pursuance of claims, the dispatch of benefits, the number of frauds and the size of efficiency savingsthere is nothing about reducing the appeals period so that it would not be so necessary to have such a long period of suspension. It seems to me that it is up to the Government to explain why the amendment is unreasonable.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, there is one further aspect of the amendment to which I should like to draw the Minister's attention. It is an aspect which has not yet been widely discussed in our debates. It is perhaps a little late to start now with a new subject, so I shall do so only briefly. I am concerned particularly about subsection (5) (b) of Clause 18 and the circumstances in which a jobseeker's allowance is not payable where, your Lordships will recall, the penalty could be one of 26 weeks. My point relates to the particular circumstances listed under subsections (5) and (6).
Subsection (5) is where regulations will prescribe the conditions rather than subsection (6) which is subject to adjudication. I am more concerned with subsection (5) because it falls within the area of regulations rather than that of adjudication. My particular concern under paragraph (b) is that the whole set of conceivable penalties applies in the case of someone who has neglected to avail himself of a reasonable opportunity to take a place on a training scheme, or who has given up a place, failed to attend or lost his place, and so on.
Will the Minister consider the fact that in subsection (5) (b) we have virtually withdrawn all the normal sanctions of the market, which are that the consumer can in certain circumstances walk away from something or a product which is utterly unsatisfactory? He or she cannot be compelled to buy, swallow or otherwise take on board an unsatisfactory product. But why should the product be unsatisfactory? Of course in many cases it will not be. Indeed, there are many very good training schemes and there are some excellent ones; but there are also some very bad ones. I speak as the Minister who first introduced the youth opportunity scheme, which was the very beginning of the process under which we said that 16 to 18 year-olds should be trained and should normally not be expected to be part of the labour market. Therefore, I know of what I speak. I have been
Therefore, I should like to ask the Minister for an assurance on the issue. What happens if a young person has either been offered a wholly unsatisfactory training scheme or has found it most difficult to get on such a scheme because of the reductions in the budget mentioned by the Financial Times? Further, what happens if such a young person wants to point out that from his point of view the scheme is serving no useful purpose whatever and that he is simply compelled to be there by the threat of withdrawal of benefit for as much as possibly 26 weeks? I am not saying that that would happen in every case, but that is the maximum sanction.
Will the Minister at least consider before Third Reading whether there might be some mechanismand the Citizen's Charter springs to my mindwhereby a young person on an absolutely unsatisfactory training scheme should have some redress to an employment officer or an adjudication officer so that he cannot be compelled to continue such a course which, because of present arrangements under which contractors are paid, will mean that the contractor will continue to be paid as long as that young person is on the course? Ministers are withdrawing, although I am sure that they are not doing so conscientiously or deliberately, the entire consumer sanction. It seems to me that we should not bring up our 16 and 18 year-olds to recognise that there is no power whatever in the free market for them to have the consumer goods that they require and from which they will benefit.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, perhaps I may also intervene in the debate. I should like to suggest that one of the things that the Government need to consider is the object of the exercise in terms of suspending benefit. For example, is it to save money? In that case, the longest period of suspension of benefitup to 26 weeksmay be quite sensible from the Government's point of view, and I am trying to look at the whole matter from their point of view. Alternatively, is the object to persuade jobseekers to take the course of action, and change their approach to the matter in a way that the Benefits Agency thinks will be positive in terms of their being more acceptable to the job market?
If the object is the latterI hope that the Government will say that it is not the former; that it is not just an exercise in cutting expenditureand what the Government are seeking to do is to persuade jobseekers to change the way that they approach things and thereby
On that basis surely there should be mechanisms in place that enable an early review of a case. I am thinking in terms of weeks rather than months. I am thinking in terms of a period of one or two weeks after which the Benefits Agency, or whoever it may be, could hold an interview with a jobseeker and ask him or her whether he had changed his way of going about things. First, there needs to be a mechanism for reviewing a case and, secondly, there needs to be a carrot, if you like, in front of the jobseeker in the form of an employment officer saying, "If you change your situation, you will get your jobseeker's allowance back". It is important that we look at the shortest possible suspension period rather than thinking of a longer suspension period. I hope that the Government will respond to those comments.
Baroness Seear: My Lords, it is a great waste of time and money and an employer's time and money if people are being trained who are not suitable for the training programme to which they have been sent. That can easily happen. A bad mismatch between training and a trainee is expensive and time consuming. It is much better that the trainee leaves the training if it is not right for him. This could arise as a result of mutual agreement. It may be well understood that the trainee should not be attending a particular course of training. No employer and no trainer wants to have someone on a training course when that course is unsuitable and the trainee does not wish to attend it. The penalty for leaving training in that situation should be a minimum and not a maximum penalty.
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