Benefit rethink is welcomed

28th June 1996 at 01:00
The Government is looking again at plans for the 16-hour rule while Labour is planning training incentives for employers

Ministers may relax planned curbs on the hours jobless people can study without losing benefit.

Following months of criticism from colleges and training and enterprise councils, the Government is proposing pilot schemes to test out different arrangements in the autumn to run alongside the so-called 16-hour rule.

When the 16-hour rule is introduced in October, recipients of the new Jobseekers' Allowance will be allowed to take part in 16 hours' guided learning a week. If they exceed that they will forfeit benefit.

Education and training sector leaders insist the limit - which replaces the present 21-hour ceiling on weekly guided study - will end up deterring many potential learners, who will be denied an opportunity to gain skills to help them find work.

The latest step from the Government, announced this week in a new "policy framework" drawing together initiatives and thinking on lifetime learning, represents an acknowledgement of the wave of criticism.

Launching the framework, education and employment minister James Paice said he would be examining whether claimants' "careers might benefit if they were allowed to learn for longer hours". While people receiving the JSA should be seeking work, that "should not be stopping them learning".

The pilots could involve "relaxing the limit in certain areas", he said. The concept of guided learning hours was now being examined to define its exact meaning.

At present, no national data exists to show the correlation between part-time study and return to work.

The Government's concession was welcomed by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). Associate director Tony Uden said: "While there may be a few people who want to cheat on benefits, the vast majority want to get back into work and to keep themselves occupied while they are unemployed. "

However, many cash-strapped colleges will not have the funds to extend programmes they have already slashed back, at a high cost in staff hours, to stay within the rule.

Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, said the 16-hour rule was an "own goal for the Government".

She said: "It shows how nervous they are that they are starting to change the scheme before it has even been implemented. We expect them to make amends to colleges who have spent a great deal of time altering courses."

In its Welfare into Work document, launched this week, Labour pledges to review the JSA. But the party has come under fire from some on the Left for failing to commit itself to scrapping the allowance.

The Government's lifetime learning policy paper follows a national consultation which drew almost 500 responses from employers, colleges, TECs, unions and others.

The Government is considering launching a helpline modelled on those run during Adult Learners' Week to provide access to information and advice on learning.

The paper is intended more to proclaim Government commitment to continuing education than to announce new initiatives or investment.

Despite pressure both from the Confederation of British Industry and NIACE, the paper effectively rules out any possibility of individual learning accounts - savings schemes composed of contributions from employers, employees and the state.

The administration of a national model would be "huge and costly" and the scheme would be difficult to apply for part-timers and those on short-term contracts, it says. The paper also predictably underlines the Government's refusal to depart from a voluntarist approach to training policy. It says: "Experience in Britain and abroad has shown that compulsion does not work. "

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