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Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I hope that it may be of assistance to the House to explain the Government's position generally and their amendments which I shall move, and to speak to the noble Earl's amendments which he has already spoken to. In his opening remarks, he referred to the eating habits of the 17th century epicurean, Lord Hay, and his dinners. Just as he had a fore-dinner, I hope that my speech will succeed it as the main dinner.
In Committee on 11th May the Government brought forward important amendments to those parts of the Bill which deal with availability for employment and actively seeking employment. Your Lordships were pleased to approve these, and they now form part of the Bill.
In introducing those amendments, my noble friend the Minister said that we would also be tabling amendments to the clauses dealing with the jobseeker's agreement and variations to the jobseeker's agreement, now Clauses 9 and 10. Noble Lords will have seen from the Marshalled List that we have met this commitment. These amendments are proposed in the same spirit as the government amendments that your Lordships considered in Committee and approved on 11th May, and we hope they will be welcomed by the House in the same way.
I should like to begin by explaining briefly the thinking behind these amendments. As my noble friend the Minister made clear in Committee, we fully understand the concern to secure the right balance between primary and secondary legislation. As your Lordships are aware, we have taken careful note of the report and recommendations of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. The committee's final report did not make any recommendations in respect of the clauses dealing with the jobseeker's agreement. But we have considered the views expressed in the committee's interim report. We have re-examined carefully the clauses that deal with the jobseeker's agreement with the view that new provisions, and, in particular, new decision-making procedures, should be specified on the face of the Bill.
If I may, I should now like to say a few words about the purpose of the jobseeker's agreement and how we intend that it will work in practice. The jobseeker's agreement is central to JSA. It will be the means of ensuring that every jobseeker has a plan to help him back to work. It will also ensure that every jobseeker understands clearly the conditions of receiving JSA and the nature of the help that they can receive from the Employment Service.
At the start of his claim for JSA, the jobseeker will have an interview with a skilled employment adviser (this is the person called, more formally, the "Employment Officer" in the Bill). The jobseeker and the employment adviser will discuss the jobseeker's work experience and qualifications, the sort of work he is looking for, his availability and his plans for getting back to work and a range of other issues. Together, they will seek to draw up a jobseeker's agreement.
The agreement is an important way of ensuring that jobseekers understand right from the outset the conditions of receiving JSA, and how their benefit may be affected if they do not satisfy those conditions. It will contain a statement that the jobseeker understands that he must continue to be available for employment and actively seek it; that he may be asked to give evidence of what he has done and has been advised to keep a record; and that if he does not do enough to meet these conditions, his allowance may be affected and his case will be referred to the adjudication officer, in which case he will be informed. He will also be told about his right of appeal.
The agreement will also set out the nature of the help back to work available from the Employment Service. It will explain that Jobcentres display up-to-date details of job vacancies and that the Employment Service will not display vacancies which discriminate against jobseekers on the grounds of race, religion, sex or disability, and that people of all ages will be encouraged to apply; that the Jobcentre can offer information about opportunities on employment and training programmes and schemes to help people become self-employed; that when the jobseeker attends the Jobcentre, his progress in getting back to work will be reviewed with an employment adviser; that wherever possible, the jobseeker will see the same person who understands his circumstances, or someone from the same team; that he will also be able to receive information about other social security benefits, including in-work benefits.
When the jobseeker and the employment adviser have drawn up the agreement, they should both sign it. The jobseeker will thus have an agreement in force and will have satisfied the condition of entitlement contained in Clause 1(2) (b) of the Bill. The jobseeker will be given a copy of the agreement and the original will be kept in the office. It will be used as a basis for discussing the jobseeker's progress in finding work when he attends the office.
If at any point the jobseeker or the employment adviser feel that the agreement needs to be changed, they can suggest this. Again, they will discuss the situation and draw up what is called a "variation" to the agreement. We envisage that variations will be needed in particular if the jobseeker is still unemployed at the end of his permitted period, when he will be required to widen the range of jobs he is available and looking for beyond his usual occupation and rate of remuneration. Variations may also be needed from time to time to respond to changes in the labour market or the jobseeker's circumstances. For instance, if the jobseeker has gained a new qualification, he may find that this opens up new job opportunities. Equally, if, for
We have heard from time to time that the jobseeker's agreement will be forced on jobseekers. I hope I have reassured your Lordships that it will in fact be the outcome of a dialogue between the jobseeker and the employment adviser. But we recognise that it may not in all cases be possible for the jobseeker and the employment adviser to reach agreement. As Ministers have explained repeatedly in this House and in the other place, that is why the Bill provides an extensive procedure for independent adjudication and appeal. Again, at the risk of trying the House's patience, I should like to explain this briefly.
The jobseeker and the employment adviser will be able to refer a proposed agreement or variation to an independent adjudication officer. I should say at this point that I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the honourable Member for Withington in the other place, for their suggestions earlier in the passage of the Bill that the referral to the adjudication officer should be made "forthwith". This is now provided in the Bill.
Adjudication officers carry out their functions independently of Government under the Social Security Administration Act 1992 and receive guidance on carrying out their adjudication duties from the chief adjudication officer, not the Secretary of State. When he receives a proposed agreement or variation, the adjudication officer will consider it and determine whether, if the jobseeker complied with it, he would satisfy the availability and actively seeking employment conditions of JSA; and whether it is reasonable to expect him to have to comply with it. If the jobseeker or the employment adviser is dissatisfied with the adjudication officer's determination, either may seek to have it reviewed by a different adjudication officer. If the jobseeker is still dissatisfied, he, but not the employment adviser, will have the right of appeal to the social security appeal tribunal; and thence to the commissioner on a point of law.
We recognise that the agreement is a new feature of benefits for unemployed people, and we have therefore provided a number of features in the adjudication procedure over and above the standard procedure set out in the Administration Act. First, the adjudication officer will be able to direct the employment adviser to enter into an agreement on such terms as he considers appropriate. If, for example, the adjudication officer considers that both the jobseeker's and the employment adviser's proposals are unacceptable, he may suggest terms which he considers appropriate rather than simply rejecting what is put to him. The employment adviser will be required to enter into an agreement on the basis put forward by the adjudication officer. This is a constructive provision, wholly to the jobseeker's advantage.
Thirdly, there is the provision that I have already mentioned for a review by a second adjudication officer before the case goes to the social security appeal tribunal. The intention of this is that cases will be dealt with quickly and simply. It will be to the advantage of the jobseeker to be able to have his case dealt with in this way. But of course, as I have made clear, if he is still dissatisfied after the review, he will be able to appeal to the social security appeal tribunal.
Finally, the adjudication officer will be able to bring a jobseeker's agreement to an end where the jobseeker fails to comply within a prescribed period with the adjudication officer's decision that his agreement should be varied. This will prevent the jobseeker from being able to keep to the original agreement indefinitely when the adjudication officer has decided that his agreement must be varied.
Your Lordships have been very patient in listening to this explanation. I should now like to turn to the government amendments themselves, Nos. 37, 40, 42, 43, 45, 50, 51, 53, 54, 56 and 59 on today's list. I am pleased to see that in several cases the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Seear, have tabled amendments which are identical to the Government's. It is clear that they, too, have been considering the Scrutiny Committee's interim report and are suggesting to the Government exactly the same means of meeting it as we are indeed proposing. I am glad of that. I think it shows this House at its best when, on a non-partisan basis, we try to work towards common solutions.
The amendments appear extensive in the sense that there are many words on the page. But that is largely a matter of drafting. They are actually quite simple in their intent. They go to the heart of what I have said about the Government's response to your Lordships' concerns about the balance between primary and secondary legislation.
Clauses 9 and 10 contain a number of regulation-making powers. We have re-examined each of these carefully with a view to seeing whether or not the powers could be removed and the provisions could be put on the face of the Bill. I would like to set out our main conclusions. First, Clauses 9(8) and 10(5) at present enable regulations to provide for a proposed jobseeker's agreement or proposed variation to be referred to the adjudication officer. It has always been our intention to make these regulations. We have given commitments to this effect to both Houses and in the memorandum to the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. Our purpose in proposing to deal with these matters through regulations was to provide sufficient flexibility to deal with detailed procedural matters. But we have decided on reflection that it is not necessary for this to be provided through regulations and that these are matters which can be dealt with in primary legislation. That is the purpose of Amendments Nos. 40 and 51.
Secondly, Clause 9(9) (b) at present provides that regulations may provide criteria to which the adjudication officer is to have regard in making his determination. Noble Lords have asked us what those criteria will be. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and his colleagues have tabled Amendment No. 46 on today's Marshalled List which addresses this very issue. We have always made clear that the criteriathe only criteriawill be those set out in the provisions of Clause 9(8) (a) and (b) and repeated in those of Clause 10(5) (a) and (b). As I have explained, these are: whether the proposed agreement (or variation) would allow the jobseeker, if he complied with it, to satisfy the availability for employment and actively seeking employment conditions of JSA; and whether it is reasonable to expect the jobseeker to have to comply with the proposed agreement.
Noble Lords have rightly asked why, if those were the only criteria that we had in mind and they were already on the face of the Bill, we needed the regulation-making power in Clause 9(9) (b). We want the JSA regulations to be as clear as possible. The current legislation on unemployment benefits is contained in many different regulations. JSA offers an opportunity to consolidate the legislation. Setting out the criteria in the regulations so that all the key provisions on the adjudication of the agreement can be found in one piece of legislation would make it easier for those who administer JSA and for jobseekers and advisory organisations. But we understand the concern that this provision has provoked. We propose, therefore, that it should be removed altogether and your Lordships will see that it does not appear in Amendment No. 45.
Thirdly, Clause 9(9) (c) provides that regulations may provide for the adjudication officer to make his determination before the end of a prescribed period. Our intention here was to ensure that adjudication matters are dealt with promptly. That is in the jobseeker's interest. We proposed, therefore, a power to set a time-limit in regulations. As the memorandum made clear, we believed that regulations would provide the flexibility to deal with different circumstances. On re-examination, however, we have concluded that we can put this on the face of the Bill. Amendment No. 45 states that the adjudication officer
should read, "14 days from the date". There is a similar mistake in subsection 6(a) of Amendment No. 56. We propose to amend that on Third Reading. That brings this aspect of the Bill into line with Section 21 of the Social Security Administration Act. I hope that your Lordships will welcome that.
Fourthly, noble Lords, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in particular, have sought assurance that the jobseeker's agreement will not be capable of being used to impose individual conditions of entitlement on jobseekers. We have repeatedly given this assurance, pointing to the provisions in Clause 9(8) (a) and (b) and
Perhaps I may also draw your Lordships' attention to two small technical matters. In all but one respect, the purpose of Amendment No. 56 is to make the changes that I have already explained. The minor exception is subsections (6) (b) and (c) of the amendment, which deal with the procedure by which the adjudication officer will be able to direct that an agreement should be varied and bring it to an end if the jobseeker fails to comply with that direction. Those provisions make no changes of substance to the equivalent existing provisions of Clause 10(6) (b) and (c) of the Bill. But we consider that the drafting of these provisions is a little unclear in some respects and we have dealt with that in this amendment in order to avoid any possibility of confusion.
I should also mention that, if carried, the amendments will result in an additional clause in the Bill. Currently, Clause 9 deals with the jobseeker's agreement; Clause 10 deals with variations; and matters connected with reviews and appeals are dealt with in both clauses. In an effort again to make the Bill as clear as possible, we are proposing that Clause 9 will deal with the agreement; Clause 10 with variations; and Clause 11, introduced by Amendment No. 59, with reviews and appeals. This is a matter of drafting and involves no changes of substance other than those that I have already explained.
There is one final point that I would like to make before sitting down. The changes that we are proposing to make to these clauses will result in a genuine and substantial reduction in the number of regulation-making powers. I do not wish to get into a counting exercise, but noble Lords will be able to see for themselves that that is the case. The small number of regulation-making powers that will be retained by the amendments are needed to deal with very specific and generally procedural matters.
I turn now to the amendments. I hope that I shall cover them all comprehensively. On Amendment No. 33, the noble Earl, Lord Russell is, I think, once again seeking reassurance. I am entirely happy, once again, to offer him and the noble Baroness that reassurance. We believe that the amendment is quite unnecessary. As I have explained to the House on previous occasions, the jobseeker's agreement is a supportive measure intended to help each jobseeker to decide how he should best tackle returning to work and then set that out. I can reassure your Lordships that it certainly does not impose
The agreement will give expression to the steps the jobseeker has agreed to take to find work, and the terms on which he is prepared to be available for work. It will act as a reminder of the discussion with the employment officer and what he has agreed to do to meet the availability and actively seeking entitlement conditions.
Once the jobseeker has an agreement in force, the key to his continued receipt of jobseeker's allowance will, however, be the actual steps that he takes to find work, and his actual availability for employment. The agreement will be used to help to establish that jobseekers meet the conditions of availability and active seeking, but abiding by the precise letter of what is in his agreement will not be the test of whether someone continues to meet the conditions.
That is an important point, and it is right that your Lordships should have focused on it, now and previously. I hope that it will reassure your Lordships to note that in the revised Clause 9 which we have tabled, we have removed the power to prescribe criteria against which an adjudication officer should make a determination about a disputed agreement. The reference was never intended to add to the eligibility conditions, but we understand the concern that it provoked. We have, therefore, done away with the reference specifically to make it absolutely clear that there is no question of the agreement setting different standards of availability and actively seeking conditions than are applied by the basic condition.
We are in the business of helping as many people as possible back to work as quickly as possible. We do not intend to tie up their efforts with unnecessary red tape. To introduce the concept of complying with the jobseeker's agreement into the Bill would, in fact, be to add an additional requirement, and I am sure that the noble Earl would not want that. Employment and adjudication officers would want to know what would happen if the jobseeker were to fail to comply with an agreement. That is not a requirement we want or need to introduce.
I hope that the noble Earl and the noble Baronesses are reassured by my explanation, and by the government amendments that have been tabled in relation to the jobseeker's agreement and to which I have referred. By far the greater part of the provisions relating to the jobseeker's agreement, with the exception of minor technicalities, is now part of the primary legislation in this Bill.
I should like to reassure the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and other noble Lords that that power is benign. Our intention is to make regulations that set out what will be needed to constitute an agreementbroadly speaking, the headings that it will contain.
The intention is to include things such as the jobseeker's name, his availability, the sort of work he is looking for, any period that is agreed in which he can restrict his availability and jobsearch to his normal occupation and rate of pay and a dated signature of both the jobseeker and the employment officer.
I hope that the noble Earl will be reassured that the regulations under subsection (1) will be used only to clarify the requirements of the agreement, and not to add any additional requirements. Our purpose is only to provide clarity as to what constitutes an agreement, and to ensure that agreements are made in a standard form.
Perhaps I may thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his explanation of Amendment No. 36. I am sure that he is satisfied that the Bill would benefit from the additional definitions that subsection would bring. I must, however, assure him, and other noble Lords, that not only is it unnecessary but it is also in some respects misconceived.
As I have explained to the House on previous occasions, the jobseeker's agreement is a supportive measure intended to help each jobseeker decide how he should best tackle returning to work. I can reassure your Lordships that it certainly does not impose additional eligibility conditions, and neither the employment officer nor the independent adjudication officer will be able to impose individual conditions of entitlement to benefit.
The agreement will give expression to the steps the jobseeker has agreed to take to find work, and the terms upon which he is prepared to be available for work. It will act as a reminder of the discussion with the employment officer and what he has agreed to do to meet the availability and actively seeking entitlement conditions. The phrase "terms and conditions" as used on the face of the Bill means nothing other than the contents of the agreement.
As I have explained previously, once the jobseeker has an agreement in force, the key to his continued receipt of jobseeker's allowance will be the actual steps that he takes to find work, and his actual availability for employment. The agreement will be used to help to establish that jobseekers meet the conditions of availability and active seeking, but abiding by the precise letter of what is in his agreement will not be the test of whether someone continues to meet the conditions. For example, if a person states in his agreement that the will apply for jobs in a factory, there is nothing to stop him from applying for jobs in the local supermarket as long as he continues to satisfy the actively seeking test. No one could possibly want that to be the case. The amendment is therefore misconceived.
I hope that it will reassure your Lordships to note that in the revised Clause 9 that we have tabled we have in any event removed the references to the "terms and conditions" of an agreement. The reference was never intended to be confused with the eligibility conditions, but we understand the concern that it provoked. We have, therefore, done away with the reference specifically to make it absolutely clear.
With regard to Amendments Nos. 44 and 55, it is clear from the range of amendments tabled that clarification is sought of the distinction between the phrases "terms and conditions" of the jobseeker's agreement and the "conditions of entitlement to JSA".
As I explained earlier when introducing the government amendments the intention has always been clear but we have recognised that the drafting of those provisions gave rise to some concern. Our amendments have dealt with that by replacing references to the "terms and conditions" of an agreement with "terms" or simply "the proposed agreement". I was pleased that those amendments received cross-party support.
Amendments Nos. 44 and 55 raise a related issue upon which I should like to spend a few minutes. As I have already explained to the House, the Bill provides that the adjudication officer will consider two matters. Would the proposals allow the jobseeker, if he complied with them, to meet the availability and actively seeking employment conditions of JSA? And is it reasonable to expect the jobseeker to have to comply with the proposed agreement?
To be clear, what the Bill is saying here is that it is possible that the proposed agreement would allow the jobseeker, if he complied with it, to satisfy the availability and actively seeking employment conditions. But the adjudication officer will be able to determine that it would be unreasonable to expect him to have to comply with the agreement. That offers an important protection to the jobseeker.
Take, for example, a proposed agreement which stated that the jobseeker would apply for 90 jobs a week. Applying for 90 jobs a week would clearly enable him to meet the actively seeking employment condition, but it would be unreasonable to expect him to have to do so. Or, take the example of a proposed agreement which stated that a declared anti-vivisectionist would be available for jobs as an assistant in a laboratory that uses animals for its testing. Again, that would be unreasonable because there are many other types of job for which the jobseeker could be available in order to meet the availability condition.
In both those cases, the adjudication officer would be able to determine that it was unreasonable to expect the jobseeker to have to comply with the agreement. He would be able to suggest changes to make the agreement reasonable and the employment officer would have to enter into an agreement on the basis upon which the adjudication officer has directed.
That is the distinction that the Bill is making here. These amendments, however, suggest that, in considering the proposed agreement, the adjudication officer should determine whether it is reasonable to expect the jobseeker to have to comply with the availability and actively seeking employment conditions. That is a different question. We have had
I hope and believe that I have covered comprehensively the various points contained in the amendments tabled by the noble Earl. I hope that we have made our position clear and that that will reassure those who have tabled the amendments so that they may feel able not to move them and to support the Government's amendment.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask him a question about his amendments. New Clause 11 provides that any determination of an adjudication officer under that clause shall be binding. However Amendment No. 59 states:
There is then a procedure for review and appeal, which I welcome. If that is so, should not new Clause 11 contain a rider to the effect that it is binding, subject to the provisions of the new clause put forward in Amendment No. 59? Otherwise, it looks as though the adjudication officer makes a final decision, and that is it.
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