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Lord Renton: My Lords, I regard this as merely a drafting matter. However, the provision has one or two other minor advantages of substance. I hope that I may be forgiven for repeating a thought that entered my mind at an earlier stage of the Bill: that anyone reading this subsection would, unless one reads it exceedingly carefully, think that it was referring to pinching someone else's job.
The introduction of the word "suitable" would, to a great extent, dispose of that concept even if it is regarded as not being frivolous. The expression "employed earner's employment" is taken from the benefits Act and it is right that in order to preserve the continuity of statutory phraseology it should again be used in this Bill. However, we must be careful how we use it so that it does not give a misleading impression.
Apart from clarity in draftingand from that aspect the amendment has a great deal to commend itI suggest that from the Government's viewpoint it has the positive advantage that "suitable" is a word of limitation. It benefits not only the person applying for the jobseeker's allowance, but it limits the well-known expression "employed earner's employment". So from the Government's point of view of naturally wishing to control the circumstances in which the jobseeker's allowance is awarded, as well as clarifying the position for the person employed, the word "suitable" should be inserted. It can do no harm. If it provides clarification and, as I suggest, "suitable" is a word of limitation, then the amendment could well be accepted.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend Lord Renton is right that the amendment limits the Bill in the way that he suggests. However, it worries me that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, there are three parties. Therefore, who is to
Lord Renton: My Lords, although it is not the Committee stage perhaps I am in order in offering my noble friend an immediate answer to the problem which he raised. The word "suitable" in the context in which my noble friend and I suggest it should be used here means "suitable in the light of the other provisions of the Bill". That is plain enough.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining the background to the amendment, which covers important matters of real interest to your Lordships, as our debate has shown.
As Clause 6 makes clear, taking its cue from existing case law, jobseekers have to be available for any employment in order to receive JSA. I have said repeatedly why this is so central to the effective functioning of JSA as a labour market allowance. The first priority of jobseekers must be to make every effort to find work as quickly as possible. That is why it is vital that jobseekers are open to as many job opportunities as possible.
Both the Employment Service and jobseekers have a role in ensuring that no opportunities are closed off to the jobseeker. Defining "availability" as the willingness and ability to take up any suitable employment would be detrimental. It is very difficult for an individual to predict in the absence of a specific offer whether a job would be "suitable" or not. Some people might well decide rather arbitrarily and without proper knowledge that particular jobs were "unsuitable" and hence not make themselves available for them. Surely that is wrong. The labour market is wide, flexible and constantly changing. We want to avoid the rigidities of the past and to encourage jobseekers to think broadly about their potential and abilities. But I should say straight away that there is no question of the Employment Service forcing people into unsuitable jobs.
Perhaps I may pick up the point made by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. The Employment Service cannot in any way compel an employer to take someone on. The Employment Service's wish is to place people in employment. If the service acquires the reputation of continuously offering people who are wholly unsuitable, it will degrade its reputation and reduce its efficacy in putting people into work.
I should now like to explain some of the safeguards in the system. There are three features of which I should particularly like to remind your Lordships. I wish to talk briefly about restricted availability.
First, as I have emphasised several times before, and as Clause 6 makes clear, we will be allowing restrictions for certain groups as part of the availability condition. We intend to provide that certain groups will be able to restrict their availability, for example, on grounds of mental or physical condition, religious conviction or because a person is caring for another
Moreover regulations will provide that in any week a claimant who does not wish to make himself available at all times may limit his availability to a minimum of 40 hours. He may agree any pattern of 40 hours across the week provided he retains reasonable prospects of securing work. Jobseekers will also be able to restrict their availability in other ways (for example, in terms of location or type of work) again provided that they retain reasonable prospects of securing employment.
I now wish to talk about refusal of employment; but before coming to my second point, I should perhaps just emphasise to your Lordships that it would be very difficult to come to a practical and workable definition of what would constitute a person's availability for suitable employment. I wish to focus on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Renton. The question of availability concerns whether jobseekers are able and willing to take up a job, not whether they actually do so. The best way to protect the jobseeker from being obliged to take an inappropriate job is through the rules on the sanctions for refusal of employment. Under JSA, as now, a person will not receive a sanction for refusing an offer of a job if he has good cause for doing so.
If a jobseeker has good reasons for not accepting an offer of a vacancy, those reasons will be put to the adjudication officer who will consider whether the jobseeker had good cause for his refusal. In most instances, if a job was unsuitable the employment officer would simply not refer the claimant to the vacancy at all. I wish to return to a point which I made on a number of previous occasionsthat it is in the inherent characteristics of the changes to the system that we propose that a long-term relationship is built up between the jobseeker and the employment officer. They can and will talk to each other and discuss items such as what they are looking for and how the jobsearch will proceed.
However, if the employment officer presented a job which the jobseeker turned down, and then on reflection the employment officer came round to the jobseeker's point of view, the matter would go no further. It is only if the employment officer concludes that the jobseeker has not shown good cause for refusal that the matter is then put to the adjudication officer. He will independently consider whether the jobseeker had good cause for that refusal.
In short, if there were grounds which meant that it was unreasonable for the jobseeker to apply for the jobfor example, because of the jobseeker's level of skill, because of any mental or physical condition, because of caring responsibilitiesthen the adjudication officer may well consider that he had good cause.
Finally, I wish to say a few words about employment on trial. We recognise that people may be nervous about taking jobs which are new or unfamiliar to them. That is the kind of point to which the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred. The
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply but remain somewhat unpersuaded by it. It seemed to me to be very much the kind of answer which the Civil Service might provide, but I wish to draw to his attention two real anxieties. Employment officers will do their best to meet the spirit of the Bill, if it is enacted. Therefore, the likelihood is that an employment officer will do everything in his power to submit the name of the jobseeker for a range of jobs which he might be able to do but which might well fall short of the definition of "suitable employment". Perhaps I may give two examples from different aspects of the field.
First, the taxpayer in this country has sunk into the education of a number of highly qualified people amounts as high as a quarter of a million pounds. That is what it roughly costs to train a medical doctor. There is range after range of qualifications that have been financed by the taxpayers of this country. Without the word "suitable", a person might be submitted for far lesser jobs, in which his qualifications are not necessary and not useful.
I am also concerned about the failure to protect the employment officer should he decide to wait in order to put forward somebody's name for a job that would be more suitable, given that person's qualifications. In the past couple of years we have seen a rising level of unemployment among skilled and qualified people. By giving the employment officer so little discretion to decide whether somebody is suitable for a job we encourage him to submit the names of people in whom the investment has been very large, rather than waiting to see whether there is more suitable employment for them.
My second anxiety arises from the fact that without the word "suitable" we are in effect weighting the scales too far, in the triangle to which my noble friend referred of employment officer, claimant and employer, in the direction of the employment officer. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, this amendment qualifies the powers of the employment officer. That is the only person whose power is qualified by the addition of the word "suitable". In my view the scales are being tipped too far against the claimantand many claimants will be sincere and genuine peopleunless the claimant has the right to discuss in effect what employment would be suitable, given his particular qualifications.
As somebody who, all my life long, has been on the opposite Benches to those of the Conservative Party, I have respected the sense that they have always had of profound fairness. I fear that this aspect of the Bill departs from that principle of fairness. I therefore must seek the opinion of the House.