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Benefit rules eased on jobless schemes

Strict rules on the hours jobless people can study without losing benefits are to be relaxed in a series of pilot schemes just six months after the limits were introduced.

In four areas of the country, unemployed people seeking training will be freed from restrictions insisting they devote no more than 16 hours a week to guided learning.

Those studying full-time will be excused from requirements to be available for and actively seeking work except during holidays, while part-time students will be obliged only to take work which fits around their course.

Current tough limits on jobless people's freedom to study have drawn wide criticism from colleges, many of which have been forced to re-timetable courses to ensure they stay within the permitted hours. Unemployment campaign groups argue offering those without work the chance to gain new skills would increase their employability.

The "Workskill" pilot schemes, starting next April, will lift restrictions imposed under the Job Seeker's Allowance, which came into force last month. The JSA replaced previous benefits which permitted jobless people to study for up to 21 hours a week.

People in the pilot areas who have been receiving JSA for six months or more will be able to undertake part-time or full-time education and training courses, providing they are employment-related and last no more than a year. The programmes must also lead to qualifications eligible for funding by the Further Education Funding Council.

In deciding whether someone can take a course under the Workskill pilots, employment service offices will take into account a range of factors including the individual's existing qualifications and the call for the skills involved in the local labour market.

Once on the course, participants will have to show they are attending regularly and making satisfactory progress, bringing the information to the job centre at regular intervals. They could temporarily forfeit benefit if they leave the course without good reason.

The areas involved in the part-time pilots are Liverpool South and Wirral and central and outer Leeds, while the full-time pilots will be run in Cardiff, Bridgend and the Glamorgan valleys and in Wolverhampton and Walsall. Around 1,000 participants are expected in each pilot area, and results will be evaluated after a year.

Ministers' concessions on the JSA were warmly welcomed by the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education. Director Alan Tuckett dubbed it a vital step forward.

The Unemployment Unit, an independent research and campaign group, also praised the development, but researcher Clara Donnelly warned benefits officers and claimants in the pilot areas must be clearly informed on how the scheme would operate since the JSA's introduction had led to confusion.

The unit has also criticised plans to insist those on Workskill pilots take any full-time permanent job they are offered, even if it means leaving the course.

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