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Lord Higgins: It will be convenient to link discussion of Amendment No. 4 with the two amendments referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden. These are variations on what is essentially the same point.
As we begin on what may be a rather long and tortuous journey through the Bill because the order of the clauses is somewhat confusing, perhaps I might make one or two general remarks. The comments by the Minister last week were helpful in pointing out the way in which the amendments have now been grouped.
The Bill was referred to earlier as the Peter Lilley Memorial Bill. I have increasing doubts about that. Certainly in some of the later stages of the Bill there are elements which were not in the Bill envisaged by the previous government. In many ways those elements will turn out to be highly objectionable.
The first part of this Bill is technical in nature. We would not wish in any way to be partisan about this--nor indeed would any Member of the Committee--but we are anxious that the Bill is drafted in the best possible way so that it is of the greatest help to those affected by social security decisions.
I am pleased to have the assistance of my noble friend Lady Anelay of St. Johns, who has served on many tribunals of this kind and has considerable experience. My experience is limited to the way decisions are reached at grass-roots level and the distress which may be caused if they are not correctly arrived at at the initial stage. We shall turn to the question of appeals etc. later. But it is important that we get matters right at the earlier stages.
In recent weeks there has been a great deal of discussion as to the extent to which the use of regulations is appropriate. In the context of this amendment it is entirely appropriate that one should be able to adjust without any great trouble--certainly not by primary legislation--the names of particular organisations which may reasonably consider the reports we are advocating in our amendment. However, there are many other provisions in the Bill which are dealt with by regulations and where the use of this power is open to objection.
From time to time I may have promoted measures which involve legislation by regulation. But one cannot amend regulations. The Bill refers to regulations but we have no chance at the first stage--the Government must surely be aware of what they have in mind--to amend those provisions. If we put the provision in primary legislation, we are able to amend it subsequently. But Parliament has a responsibility to consider the issue in
I am reinforced in this view by convention. I understand that in this House we do not normally vote against regulations, although I believe that the Liberal Democrat Party has adopted a different view. Nonetheless, the case for not legislating by regulation is all the stronger if the House is not able to vote against such regulations.
Having said that, we recognise and support the need for streamlining the procedures. The problem with the clause is that in effect the Secretary of State will become judge and jury in the matter rather than some other independent body. For that reason, the noble Lord who moved the amendment and I believe that it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to report in writing annually to Parliament on the standards of adjudication. While we have drafted another amendment somewhat differently, we divide this amendment, as the Bill is divided, between child support, the jobseeker's allowance and other social security benefits.
Our strong view is that there is a case for such reports. I do not know how the Minister will reply to the debate. I do not believe that it would be adequate for such reports to be included in the general reports of the agencies concerned. They need to be free-standing. The general reports of the agencies cover a huge range of different subjects. I fear that the report would become lost if it were merely included in an agency's normal annual report.
The report should be differentiated for the reason mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. The CAB has made representations. It has put forward some frightening figures. They can be borne out by one's own experience of the extent to which the system has failed at the initial stage. We must all hope that when we finally agree on the new arrangements, they lead to better decision taking. However, the figures quoted in the representations of the chief adjudication officer's annual report for 1996-97, to which the noble Baroness referred, indicate that, of the 45 per cent. of income support cases examined, 40 per cent. result either in incorrect amounts being paid or the amounts are in doubt. The adjudication deficiency rate in family credit was 37 per cent., with payments either incorrect or in doubt in 35 per cent. of cases. In child support, the adjudication decision in 57 per cent. of cases was deficient. A number of statistics are cited which are worrying. Instead of the individual having the right decision at the first stage--whether favourable or unfavourable--the lengthy process of appeal, and so on, has to be gone through.
It is clearly appropriate to seek to achieve a provision to ensure that the new arrangements work properly. It has been pointed out that, for example, the National Audit Office already carries out some degree of supervision. But that is a very narrow field and not adequate in this context. I hope that in the light of this debate we can agree that we should have an annual report of this kind, and that it should be a specific report.
Perhaps we may turn to a number of detailed points at later stages of the debate. However, finally at this stage, perhaps I may make this point. We are putting forward the idea of an annual report which can be scrutinised by Parliament. But we should consider, perhaps at a later stage of the Bill, whether, if the level of decision taking is as bad as the figures to which I and the noble Baroness referred indicate, there should be some form of sanction on those making the decisions. I do not refer to mere parliamentary debate. Saying how bad the situation has been would not be adequate. It is a point that we should consider later. In the meantime, I hope that the Government will consider carefully and sympathetically what seems an overwhelming case for having a report of this kind. I hope that either in the form proposed by the noble Lord, or that suggested in the amendment, the measure will be acceptable to the Government.
Lord Dean of Harptree: The amendments appear to be driving at much the same point. I am encouraged to think that the Minister will not have "resist" at the top of her brief because there is a government amendment on much the same lines. If I am wrong and I am to be disappointed, no doubt the noble Baroness will say so when she replies.
Before dealing with the amendment, perhaps I may say a brief word about the order in which the clauses are being debated. I am not getting at the Minister. The order is probably the best that can possibly be achieved in the light of the way in which the Bill is drafted. But anyone who spent time over the weekend, as no doubt many of us have, trying to make head or tail of the amendments, have found it very difficult to make a proper assessment while jumping from one part of the Bill to another. As a Minister at the old Department of Health and Social Security, I was used to these Bills being complex. Social security Bills always are complex. But it is more difficult when clauses are not taken in sequence. This Bill has been drafted in the interests of the department rather than of Parliament. I hope that the point will be taken on board.
The main problem with which we are dealing is the poor quality of initial decisions. If all the initial decisions were right, there would be little cause for appeal and therefore the system would not be gummed up, as it is. These poor initial decisions mean that those individuals who feel that they have not been accorded the right level of benefit are anxious. They have to wait for decisions eventually to be made. So there are very human factors involved when the initial decisions are incorrect.
There are a number of strong reasons for one or other of the amendments. First, I understand that the annual reports of the chief adjudication officer, and of the chief child support officer, will disappear. Therefore there is a need for something to be put in their place. My preference would be for the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Higgins.
I am not very keen on annual reports. They often mean civil servants having to devote a great deal of time to preparing them rather than getting on with the main job in hand in their department. Furthermore, annual reports very often gather dust; they are read by very few people. However, in this instance there is a strong case for an annual report. After all, we are dealing with very substantial sums of money--something like £100 billion a year--of benefits paid out and, of course, money which has to be paid in by the taxpayer and national insurance contributor. We are dealing with well over half of government expenditure. So in a sense it is of a very different order to many other items of public expenditure.
I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will feel able, if not to accept the precise wording of these amendments, at least to recognise that for the principle of Clause 1 to be acceptable, there should be an effective report to Parliament on an annual basis.
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