Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that assurance. It may be inconceivable but is it intra vires?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, if inconceivable does not cover intra vires, I shall write to the noble Earl. He asked also in relation to Clause 25 about test cases and whether the Secretary of State should have the power to interfere and how look-alikes would be identified. We believe that it is sensible to have proper arrangements which maintain appeal rights but which prevent double-handling and confusion for claimants. The Secretary of State will be responsible for providing instructions in guidance for staff about identifying those cases. She will issue that guidance on a case-by-case basis, making clear the specific point of law in the lead case. That guidance will be checked by lawyers and other experts in the department.

The noble Earl also raised an issue which I suspect will strike a chord with many noble Lords who, like me, have only recently moved from typewriter to word processor, although we did at least abandon our fountain pens a year or two ago. The issue concerns computers and whether they could make decisions which removed responsibility from the Secretary of State. As I suspect the noble Earl knows perfectly well, the Secretary of State will be accountable for all decisions made on her behalf either by staff or by computer. It is people, not machines or processors, who have responsibility for outputs and outcomes. Neither the agency staff nor Ministers will hide behind any excuse which suggests that, "It was the computer's fault and is nothing to do with me." I suspect that if I tried that, the noble Earl would be the first to pin me to the point.

My noble and learned friend Lord Archer asked about the removal of rights of appeal under Clause 13(2) and paragraph 8 of Schedule 2. Schedule 2 sets out decisions that have no right of appeal. They are all matters which

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1207

currently do not have that right, and paragraph 8 enables that list to be extended. As we made clear in the delegated powers memorandum, we intend to use it to exclude, as now, decisions made under Regulation 4 of the social security claims and payments regulations. These are largely administration matters, such as whether a claim has been properly made. The power allows sufficient flexibility to accommodate any future changes to social security which perhaps require new processes for administration but to which it would not be sensible to attach appeal rights. We do not intend to use that power to remove existing appeal rights, nor do we intend to introduce any new welfare provision without appropriate appeal rights.

Clause 13(2) complements Schedule 2. It allows us to prescribe those administration issues on which there will be no right of appeal. If my noble and learned friend wishes further to expand that point, I am sure that my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate will do so.

My noble and learned friend Lord Archer also asked who would appoint officers under paragraph 11 of Schedule 1 and what sort of things they would do. The provision would allow the Secretary of State, who will be responsible for administration of appeals, to designate certain officers to carry out some functions. I tried to explain earlier that the administration will be handled by administrative officers but the judicial functions will be carried out by proper independent tribunal staff. The clerk will not be able to determine any appeal application or act as referee as paragraph 11(1)(a) makes clear. Again, if there are further points that need to be dealt with in that respect, I am sure that my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate will be the better person to follow them up in Committee.

My noble friend Lady Turner said that what was really needed was better and clearer explanation of decisions. She is absolutely right. That is exactly what many of the clauses in the Bill seek to achieve. My noble friend also asked what would be accepted as special reasons for late appeals. There are current arrangements for accepting appeals made out of time. In future, claimants will need to be clear about their appeal rights and how a decision has been reached. Notifications will be improved. However, as has been pointed out today, we need to ensure that an individual's appeal rights are not prejudiced and that vulnerable groups are not disadvantaged. While most claimants do appeal within a month, we want to discuss the details of the new arrangements with interested parties, including claimant representatives, to ensure that we get that aspect right.

Still on the subject of claimants' rights, I turn to a point made most forcefully by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford. He asked whether we had been listening to the views of claimants and in what sense they had been consulted. We have issued a consultation document to something like 18,000 outlets asking people to consider whether our processes of information--that is, our leaflets, and so on--were adequate and appropriate. We are in the process of receiving those replies and studying them. I am entirely

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1208

at one with the right reverend Prelate. Benefits require clear, simple and accessible information if people are to enjoy rights to which they are entitled.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, raised a question which he also put forward at the meeting that took place before today to brief noble Lords on this very technical Bill. Under Clause 13(7) tribunals need not consider all relevant issues. I believe that the briefing may have been somewhat misleading in that respect. I repeat: tribunals are still able to investigate any aspect of a disputed decision that they think is relevant. What we are not doing is requiring them to consider every aspect even if it is not relevant on all occasions. It means that appeals should be far more focused and faster.

The noble Lord also asked about national insurance and tax and queried why such matters should not go to tax commissioners. We have considered the matter. Sometimes a contribution issue first comes to light when a claim is made for benefits and is disallowed. Until now it has been impossible to take that to appeal. At present, the current process through social security tribunals would not be a proper way to resolve contribution matters because they frequently require special expertise. The new arrangements will give us the opportunity to construct panels which contain such expertise--possibly accountancy--including the use of people, for example, who currently sit as tax commissioners. None of these precludes in due course finding a common route of appeal for tax and contribution matters should that seem the right way forward.

I realise that I am speaking at breakneck speed, but it is important for me to cover as much of the Bill as possible before the Committee stage so that your Lordships will know where to come back to as regards the responses with which they are less than satisfied tonight.

I turn to the second major issue. It was obviously a matter of particular concern to my noble friends sitting behind me. I refer to the issue of child benefit and the effect on lone parents. Perhaps I may join the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, my noble friend, Lord Ashley, and indeed so many speakers tonight, including my noble friend, Lady Kennedy, in paying tribute to lone parents and the gallant work that they do in bringing up their children. I am sure that I speak for all of your Lordships when I say that I shall play no part in any scapegoating of their role or their responsibilities.

One of the difficulties expressed in tonight's debate has been the fact that lone parents are affected by two different sets of changes. Quite understandably, because it is very technical, the debate has moved rather freely between those two sets of changes. Therefore, with the leave of the House, I shall do my best to explain the position.

The first set of changes affecting lone parents are those which have already been passed by regulation through this House. They even up the situation for new lone parents in terms of the income support family premium. Concern has been expressed that although those new lone parents--especially those with children under five--would now be at the same level of income

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1209

support proportionately as workless couples, they would, nonetheless, be poorer than is currently the case. Those regulations are not the subject of this Bill. They have already gone through the House.

I should like to repeat the position quickly. I do so especially in the light of the proposals made by my noble friend Lady Kennedy and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, regarding the position of children under five. Perhaps I may share with the House the problems that one faces on that issue. I understand where both my noble friend and the noble Baroness come from on that issue. First, if we retained an additional premium on income support for those lone parents with children under five there would, initially, be the problem of what happens when the child reaches the age of six. At present, income support allowances for children increase as the child grows older because children become more expensive. We would be turning that on its head. In other words, we would be reducing the benefit as the child gets older--for example, from the age of five to six--rather than increasing it as we currently do by steps up to the age of 11, and so on.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but is not the point the fact that when the child reaches compulsory school attendance age it is much easier for the mother to have time to undertake work and thereby increase the family's income? The consideration that we were asking the noble Baroness to address was that parents with children under the age of five should not, perhaps, spend a great deal of time out of the home working? That was the major point we were trying to make.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page