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Coal Mining Dispute (Benefit Cases)

Volume 78: debated on Wednesday 1 May 1985

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Archie Hamilton.]

1.38 am

I wish to discuss a matter which affects many of my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members—the criteria for deciding benefit cases arising from the miners' dispute.

I wish to bring to the notice of the Minister the strange findings of the regional adjudication officer at Leeds in disqualifying many individuals from receiving unemployment benefit. It appears that, just because certain individuals were at one time employed in the pits in my area, and because the miners went on strike. the adjudication officer refused to allow unemployment benefit.

I shall give a few examples of people who have been refused benefit. I do not intend to deal with those mineworkers who were sacked, because I hope. Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) will catch your eye later. A constituent of mine left the mining industry after the strike began and went to work in the building industry. Work on the project lasted for about three months. He was then made redundant. He claimed unemployment benefit, but his claim was rejected by the adjudication officer who said that he was still on strike. He was not a member of the National Union of Mineworkers and he was not on strike. The result was that he received no unemployment benefit. Furthermore, £16 was deducted from his wife's social security benefit because it was said that her husband was on strike.

Many mineworkers in my constituency were made redundant during the early stages of the strike and received redundancy payments. However, the regional adjudication officer ruled that they could not claim unemployment benefit because they had been involved in the strike. There must be many similar cases in other mining constituencies. In another case, well before the strike began, a lad who was on strike won a scholarship to Sheffield university to read philosophy, politics and economics. At the beginning of the academic year in October he left the pit and the union and went to Sheffield university. He could not find a holiday job at Christmas, so he thought he would be entitled to unemployment benefit because his national insurance stamps had been paid. The adjudication officer refused his claim because, it was said, he was involved in the mining dispute. That was unbelievable. He was no longer a mineworker; he was studying for a degree at a state university.

In a letter dated 19 April 1985, from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment, I was told:
"I should first explain that Section 19.1 of the Social Security Act 1975 prevents the payment of unemployment benefit where a person loses employment because of a stoppage of work due to a trade dispute at his place of employment. Unless a person can show that he is neither participating in nor has a direct interest in the dispute".
All the cases that I have mentioned fall into line with that letter. They have nothing whatever to do with the dispute. These men are not members of the NUM. According to the Social Security Act 1975, therefore, the adjudication officer's decision was wrong.

Some of the men in my area say that the adjudication officer acted as a tool of the Government during the strike. Because of some of his findings, the lads could not come to any other conclusion, I sympathise with them. I have twice asked the Ombudsman to look into the matter, but it is not in his remit. He has reluctantly had to refuse. The debate is the only way open to me to bring the issue to the notice of the Minister of Social Security. Is there any way in which he can help the people who have wrongly been refused unemployment benefit by the adjudication officer at Leeds?

1.46 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh) and the Minister for allowing me to say a few words. I fully support what my hon. Friend has said.

Decisions taken by the adjudicator are repugnant and beyond the comprehension of anyone with a rational mind. They lack common sense and are contrary to natural justice. I do not believe that when the House passed the Social Security Act 1975 it thought that the legislation could support such decisions. I know about the Act and the amendments made to it in 1976 and 1980, and I have read section 19 of the Act.

I believe that the adjudicator is exceeding his remit and his terms of reference. His judgment that ex-employees are still employed by the coal board or connected with the dispute is wrong. The strike is over and either the decisions are daft or they indicate a rather sinister overtone.

In spite of the alleged independence of the adjudicator, the Government will stand condemned by the country. If there is no sinister involvement of Ministers, I look forward to the Minister for Social Security telling us what steps he intends to take to end the gross misuse of power by the adjudicator.

Men who were sacked by the NCB during and after the strike did not stand to gain anythig from the strike after they had been sacked. The break in service is a clear sign that when they were sacked the fight for jobs was over for them. The bail conditions that the judicial system imposed stopped them continuing to support the fight for jobs, even if they were inclined to do that. They had no connection with the dispute.

A constituent of mine left the industry after the strike was over and has been denied benefit. The correct decision in his case should have been the loss of benefit for six weeks, but he was classed as still being on strike. The stupidity of the adjudicator's decisions is shown by the fact that a miner who worked, say, at the Cadeby pit throughout the strike, but was sacked for a contravention of the Mines and Quarries Acts after the strike was over would be classed today as being involved in the dispute and both he and his family would be denied benefit.

During the strike the adjudicator took decisions which were implemented immediately throughout his area, but now that the strike is over he is making decisions on a week to week, bit by bit basis. I do not knnow how stupid a person can get, but the adjudicator is not God and the miners should have the right to appeal against his decisions. The Department, however, has stalled and effectively stopped appeals from taking place, thus denying people their rights under the law of the land. How any Minister can stand by and do nothing is beyond my comprehension.

The nudge and a wink brigade may have had something to do with this, but appeals lodged 12 months ago are still in the pipeline. That is disgusting and appalling. The system stinks and the stench from this malpractice must have reached the Minister by now. He may be an innocent party, but unless the adjudicator is called to account the Minister will stand to be condemned by association.

1.51 am

I wish to say straightforwardly at the outset that I recognise the strength of the concern expressed by the hon. Members for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh) and for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) in this debate and by a number of Members on both sides in recent months about some aspects of the application of the rules.

Clearly, I cannot respond in detail today to the exmplification cases——

The hon. Gentleman intervenes from a sedentary position on, somewhat unusually, the Opposition Front Bench, but I will answer his question. The reason is that I have not been given details of the particular names and cases, but I know that the hon. Members for Doncaster, North and for Don Valley understand that I will look into the details if they are given to me, especially the case of the student mentioned by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North. Having said that, I must emphasise that Ministers literally, genuinely and in good faith do not have power to override the decisions of adjudication officers, but I shall return to that later in my remarks.

This debate gives me the opportunity to set out again the framework of the legislation and the position in which both hon. Gentlemen and I as a Minister find ourselves in terms of the current legislation.

I will deal, first, with unemployment benefit. I remind the House—not in any partisan spirit but because it is important that this should be recognised—that the relevant legislation was introduced not by the present Administration, in the context of the miners' dispute or indeed of any other specific dispute, but by the Labour Government in the shape of section 19 of the Social Security Act 1975, which provides that a person who has lost employment as a result of a stoppage of work at his place of employment is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit unless he can show that he is not participating in, or directly interested in, the trade dispute which caused the stoppage of work.

That means, or is held to mean, that the criteria for deciding benefit in those cases relate to four basic questions. First, is there an industrial dispute at the claimant's place of employment? Secondly, is there a stoppage of work at the claimant's place of employment? Thirdly, is the stoppage of work due to the industrial dispute? Fourthly, has the claiment lost employment as an employed earner as a result of the stoppage? However, if the claimant can show that he is not participating in, or directly interested in, the trade dispute that caused the stoppage, he escapes the disqualification.

The principle underlying those criteria is that public funds should not be used to finance strikes. There is nothing new in that. It goes back a long way before the Social Security Act 1975 and has been accepted by all Governments. Those criteria have been part of the national insurance scheme since 1948. Even before that, similar considerations were a feature of unemployment insurance in a slightly different form from 1912 when unemployment insurance first started. Therefore, in one way or another we are talking about a modern version of principles that have been in social security legislation for very many years.

At this point I want to emphasise the central role in determining benefit claims that legislation gives to stoppage of work—that is, a significant interference with or hindrance of the normal operation of the employer's business activity. I shall return to that point later when I explain the criteria for lifting the disqualification for receiving benefit.

I now turn to supplementary benefit. Here, the legislation is very similar and is contained in section 8 of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976—again introduced by a Government of a different complexion. Section 8(1) provides that where a person, by reason of a stoppage of work which is due to a trade dispute at his place of employment, is without employment for any period during the stoppage, his requirements for that period are disregarded for the purposes of supplementary benefit, except so far as those requirements include the requirements of another person which are treated as his. In other words, benefit is not payable in respect of the striker himself—only for his wife and family. As in the case of unemployment benefit, a person who proves that he is not participating in or directly interested in the trade dispute which caused the stoppage of work, escapes disqualification.

Section 19 of the Social Security Act 1975, to which both hon. Gentlemen fairly referred, also provides that a claimant who, during a stoppage of work at his place of employment, takes up bona fide employment in his normal occupation elsewhere, or becomes regularly employed in another occupation, removes himself from the disqualification. Otherwise, the disqualification remains in effect until the end of the stoppage of work at the claimant's place of employment.

At this point I must re-emphasise what I said at the outset about the position of adjudication officers.

I shall come to that point.

I am aware that some scepticism has been expressed. Without reference to any specific issue, I think that I can fairly say that Ministers find themselves occasionally frustrated. I might carry you, in a former incarnation, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with me on that. We are sometimes frustrated by the views that adjudication officers reach, acting quite properly within their responsibilities. In their private moments, Ministers think that it would be quite nice if they had the power to overrule adjudication officers. The fact is that they do not.

I hope that hon. Members accept that in this matter, as in others, there has been no question of Ministers leaning on adjudication officers and that they do not have the power to override them. Indeed, it would be quite improper if they had the opportunity to do so. It is always open to Parliament to ask Ministers to change the regulations, but that is a quite separate matter from seeking to override the decisions of adjudication officers within the existing legislation.

At the end of the miners' strike, people who had been dismissed were being denied supplementary benefit as they were deemed to be still on strike whereas those who had returned to work and those who did not have the prospect of any income were in a position to receive full supplementary benefit Why did that happen?

I could not comment sensibly on that without the details of individual cases. The decisions will have been taken by adjudication officers in the way that I have described, which is by interpreting the regulations. I want to emphasise that strongly because I am aware of the scepticism in some quarters.

In making decisions on supplementary benefit, the adjudication officer has to take account of any decision concerning the trade dispute which has been made for unemployment benefit purposes, otherwise there might be inconsistency. If a decision about the unemployment benefit position has not yet been taken, or an appeal is pending, any supplementary benefit claim has to be dealt with meanwhile on the assumption that the decision will be adverse. As I have emphasised, Ministers have no powers to intervene in these decisions, and there is no question of our seeking to use the social security system to penalise miners, ex-miners or any other strikers. The whole point of having an independent adjudicating system is that it should be even-handed between all categories of claimant to benefit.

The hon. Member for Don Valley spoke about appeals. I should be disturbed if I thought that appeals were being delayed deliberately or deliberately not processed for any reason. Undoubtedly there can be delays, and there are delays in the appeal machinery quite apart from the miners' dispute. That is something that we have been seeking to tackle by reforms in the adjudicating system, which were implemented under the Health and Social Services and Social Security Adjudications Act. The reforms included the creation of a more independent status for the adjudication machinery and a president of the tribunals, who is now Judge Byrt, in place of the previous arrangements, which gave the impression that they were controlled more directly by the Secretary of State for Social Services. I shall draw to Judge Byrt's attention the comments of the hon. Member for Don Valley. It will be for the president to examine them because we have created greater independence for the adjudication machinery. I am sure that Judge Byrt, like myself, will be disturbed by the comments that have been made. If the hon. Gentleman cares to give me the details, I shall pass them on. Alternatively, he may wish himself to draw the suggestions directly to the attention of Judge Byrt as president of the social security appeal tribunal machinery.

I recognise that the industrial disputes legislation has given rise to a number of difficulties in interpretation, and I am aware of the concern that has been expressed about cases where benefit is still being refused even though there has been a general return to work in the coal mining industry following the decision of the National Union of Mineworkers on 5 March 1985. This is because, as I have explained earlier, the effect of section 19 of the Social Security Act 1975 is to link the lifting of the trade dispute disqualification to the ending of the stoppage of work at the individual claimant's place of employment.

The traditional authority for determining when a stoppage of work ends is the social security commissioners' decision R(U)25 of 1957, which states:
"a stoppage of work may come to an end without any settlement of the dispute, by the workers returning to work in a body, or by driblets, or by their places being taken by other men. In such cases the stoppage of work comes to an end when the employers have got all the workers they require, that is, when work is no longer being stopped or hindered by the refusal of workers to work on the employers' terms or the refusal of employers to employ the workers on the workers' terms. It may be that the employers cannot at one re-employ all the workers who are willing to work because the work has to be reorganised, or because repairs necessitated by the stoppage of work have not been completed. But when work is again proceeding normally and is not being held up, either by the men holding back or by circumstances directly resulting from the stoppage of work, the stoppage of work is at an end."
As I have explained, this test of a resumption of normal working must be applied to each individual claimant's place of employment. That picks up a point raised by the hon. Member for Rother Valley. I am sure that hon. Members will accept that applying it to the numerous and widespread places of employment in the coal industry, where the circumstances vary from colliery to colliery, has presented the adjudication authorities with formidable problems, including obtaining the relevant facts from the employer.

The recent dispute, which was of unprecedented length, has required the adjudicating authorities to apply the statute law in circumstances not met before, and they have had to follow case law which was decided in different circumstances, although close enough to make it binding now. Hon. Members may recall the Adjournment debate on 14 January initiated by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), when the House discussed the payment of benefit to redundant mineworkers, which has also been mentioned this evening. On that occasion, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State explained that several cases were being referred by the chief adjudication officer to the social security commissioners. The hearing of one case by a tribunal of commissioners took place on 16 and 17 April, and it is expected that its decision, which is due shortly, will provide further guidance on the position of persons to whom the trade dispute qualification applied, but who were made redundant before the stoppage ended, and also as to the principles to be applied in determining when a stoppage of work ends.

We shall, of course, examine closely the outcome of the social security commissioners' decisions on all the cases going before them, and give careful consideration to whether they reveal any need—this answers the intervention of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan)—for legislative change. But, as I come to the end of my speech, I remind the House once again that we are talking about legislation which is based on principles and criteria that go back to 1912 and which have, for half a century and more, been accepted by previous Administrations of all political colours.

Therefore, I hope that hon. Members will recognise the difficulty in which I am placed in commenting on individual cases and the difficulty that the proper independence of the adjudicating authorities creates for any Minister in this position. I have offered to examine matters that hon. Members bring to my attention, against the background that I described. I shall draw to the attention of the president of tribunals the remarks which the hon. Member for Don Valley made about appeals. I hope that they can be assured, with all the good faith at my command, that I recognise their anxiety and am grateful to them for the opportunity to place those points on record again. The debate has given them the opportunity to do the good job which I know they always do on behalf of their constituents in bringing such matters before the House. I can well appreciate the pressures on them and the concern that is felt in their constituencies——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes past Two o'clock.