Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2004

– in the House of Lords at 2:24 pm on 18th March 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, the regulations are intended to reduce the numbers of jobseekers who reach long-term unemployment and increase labour market flexibility through the intensification of the jobseeker's allowance regime.

Compared with 1997, when half of all claims lasted for more than six months, now only a third do so. Two-thirds of people come off within six months. However, nearly 300,000 current JSA claimants have been unemployed for more than six months and further support is therefore needed to ensure that a greater number of claimants find work earlier.

At present around 60 per cent of people who make a claim for JSA leave benefit within three months. But thereafter the rate at which people flow off benefit declines with duration. Of those reaching three months, about half leave in the next three months, while of those reaching six months, about 45 per cent leave before reaching nine months.

So we know that once jobseekers have been unemployed for three months, it becomes progressively more difficult to find work. Since 1997, the Government have introduced a number of programmes, such as the New Deal, that have focused help on those who most need it. Those policies have been successful in reducing long-term unemployment. But we are now seeking to intervene at an earlier stage. In particular, we want to focus more activity on people who have been unemployed for between three and six months. The intention is that, by intensifying jobsearch earlier, fewer people will enter long-term unemployment.

The Budget report 2003 therefore announced a package of changes aimed at reducing the number of people who become long-term unemployed. At the start of the claim, the emphasis will be on increasing the amount of jobsearch: jobseekers will be asked to take three weekly steps to look for work instead of two. After three months the emphasis will shift to increasing both the quality and the quantity of jobsearch—first, by asking people to search more widely for jobs, in a geographic sense, and, secondly, by requiring weekly signing for six weeks. The introduction of weekly signing is possible under existing powers. Failure to comply with these measures without good reason could result in a jobseeker losing benefit.

I could explain what is meant by the steps and by the geographic outreach, but it may be that if your Lordships accept the push of these regulations that may be unnecessary, so I will sit down, and if they wish to pursue that further I will then give the rest of the speech. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2 March be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative

My Lords, I suspect that is true of the Liberal Democrat Benches as well, that we understand the points which the noble Baroness thought it unnecessary to describe. There are only two points covered here—on the minimum number of steps, on the one hand, and the change in the travel allowances, on the other.

As for the travel allowance, can the noble Baroness tell us who pays the costs of the travel? What increased costs does she imagine will be incurred, if any, on changing from one hour travel to one and a half hours? It took me over one hour to get from Vauxhall Bridge to the House this morning, so I am not sure that that is an enormous improvement. The explanatory memorandum is very helpful, except under the heading, "Social Security Advisory Committee". It says that the regulations refer to the Social Security Advisory Committee on 3 December 2004, and that,

"a copy of the committee's report and the Government's response is available in the Library (insert reference to the Command Paper)".

I am not clear who is supposed to insert the reference to the Command Paper. It is rather oddly drafted. No doubt the noble Baroness can tell us. Is it the case that the regulations refer to the advisory committee on 3 December 2004?

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Social Services, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, I too understand that noble Lords are eagerly anticipating the return of the Energy Bill and I therefore will be similarly brief. I should like the Minister to explain, whether on paper or today, why if somebody spends a considerable amount of time making two good job applications in a week that is deemed to be better than them doing three cursory ones in a week. Is the expectation that somebody's travel time will be an hour and a half rather than an hour a simple indictment of our public transport system or is there a rationale for it? Has the department taken into account the effect on family life? Many people in that situation are single parents. Has the department taken into account the impact of increased travel expenses? Were the regulations drawn up before yesterday's announcement of reductions in staffing? Will there be knock-on consequences such as the closure of Jobcentres? Has the difference between the availability of public transport in rural areas and urban areas been taken into account?

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) 2:30 pm, 18th March 2004

My Lords, I think that we all feel under pressure at the moment, so I shall be as rapid as I can.

The Command Paper was No. 6145, and the noble Lord may wish to pursue the matter further. By steps, we mean not just newspapers but training opportunities and the like. If the noble Baroness wants me to write to her more fully about what we mean by that, I am happy to do so. Basically, we are trying to up the flurry of activity, so that people will make a job of seeking a job and not just do so in a perfunctory way.

We know that if we have not got people back into work by six months, it becomes increasingly hard to do so. We want to concentrate effort on the period between three and six months, including, if necessary, weekly signing-in, so that people will continually see an adviser or receive guidance. We must try to ensure that they do not become long-term unemployed and, therefore, dependent on benefit.

Noble Lords also pressed me on the issue of travel. At the moment, no one is required to travel more than an hour in either direction to find an acceptable job. Of course, many people travel far more than that. If someone in Birmingham is seeking a job in Glasgow, the department would expect Jobcentre Plus to help with their travel costs, as that distance is unreasonable and disproportionate. In the normal course of events, people should expect to meet the costs of travelling to work.

We are extending the geographical range over which we expect people to be able to travel in taking up a job. That is our purpose. Most of us may travel like that already.

Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative

My Lords, the Explanatory Note says that the regulations were referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee on 3 December 2004.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I shall check the misprint.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked me whether the changes would be particularly disadvantageous to people living in rural areas, where public transport is less available than in cities. The average travel-to-work times in the UK in autumn 2002 were 35 minutes by bus, and 64 minutes by rail. The time taken is less in rural areas than in big cities, oddly enough. In the east of England, travel times by bus and rail were shorter than in central London. So, one cannot extrapolate too easily.

In 1993, 22 per cent of households had no car; now the figure is just under 10 per cent. Eighty-seven per cent of people now live within six minutes' walk of a bus-stop. That reflects substantial investment in public transport, particularly in rural areas, by the Government since 1997. Obviously, there will still be problems, in which case the jobseeker can raise them with Jobcentre Plus staff and their adviser. If appropriate, such problems could be regarded as a good reason not to accept a job, particularly if, for example, there was also a health problem.

I will write to the noble Baroness with a fuller description of the additional steps. It would take too long to do it now. I hope that noble Lords will accept the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.