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Lord Goodhart: Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 require the Secretary of State to make and publish annual reports on standards in decision-making. That is a proposal that we on these Benches support, certainly so far as these amendments go. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, that annual reports serve no useful purpose: they serve a very valuable purpose. Even if they are not widely read, they are there, and the need to make and publish the annual report concentrates the mind of any Secretary of State.
However, the proposals in these amendments lack any element of independent monitoring. It is proposed that the Secretary of State should report on the performance of her own department and officials. For that reason, we on these Benches prefer our own version in Amendment No. 3, which I shall move shortly.
Amendment No. 39, to be moved by the noble Baroness on behalf of the Government, is much more limited. It gives the president the duty of making a report which is based only on the decisions that go to appeal. That is not a proper cross-section of the cases that come before the department. It is as important to monitor the cases which do not go to appeal as it is to monitor those which do. In those circumstances, while we do not seek to oppose Amendment No. 39, we feel unable to give it any positive support.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: In speaking to these amendments, it is right to begin by stating that, by the proposals in the Bill on decision-making appeals, we want to change the current complex system so that it is easier for customers and staff. As the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, rightly said, we want to get more decisions right first time. Then, when matters go
The proposals in the Bill on decision-making and appeals are designed to provide the framework needed for a new, active modern delivery system for social security. However, in achieving such a system, we will also take care to ensure that the fundamental basis of current arrangements will be maintained. Decisions will continue to be taken on the basis of the facts of the case and the application of the law. There will continue to be an independent right of appeal, as there is now. The proposals are about flexibility and achievability, not about reducing rights.
Before I go on to comment on the particular amendments, perhaps I may first express my appreciation that so many of the amendments both from the Official Opposition and from the Liberal Front Bench were tabled early enough to give us a generous amount of time to examine them. That is much appreciated. I wish to express my thanks for that.
Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, raised a point about the confusing order of the Bill. That concern was expressed by the House when I had to move this as a formal amendment. I tried to explain why; namely, that the topics were to some extent at odds with the issues--in other words, there were two ways of organising the matter. I will certainly do my best to ensure that we are not faced with such a confusing order in future. I take that reprimand.
In this group of amendments we are discussing some very important issues about the way the effectiveness of the new system of decision-making proposed in the Bill will be monitored and reported on to Parliament and the public.
I now turn to Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 5, moved by my noble friends Lord Evans of Parkside and Lady Turner of Camden. I thank my noble friends for tabling the amendments. They are similar to ones previously tabled in Committee and on Report in another place.
Speakers to those earlier amendments in the other place argued that it was imperative that detailed reports were provided on the success or otherwise of the transfer of decision-making functions to the Secretary of State, and on the quality of decision-making under the new arrangements.
It has always been the intention to do just that, as my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, Mr. Keith Bradley, made clear during those earlier debates. We will continue to monitor the quality of decision-making, and the Secretary of State and agency chief executives will issue annual reports on quality standards and the operation of the system.
We had previously taken the view that there was no need for reporting arrangements to be set out on the face of the Bill. However, it is now clear that noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber would welcome a requirement to report to be included on the face of the Bill. We have reflected on this matter and I am happy
I am therefore pleased to accept in principle the amendment tabled by my noble friends Lord Evans of Parkside and Lady Turner of Camden, together with support given by noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber, including the noble Lords, Lord Higgins and Lord Dean of Harptree. With the permission of your Lordships, however, we should like to consider further the precise drafting of the amendment, and table a government amendment on Report. In drawing up that amendment, I will of course take full account of your Lordships' views.
It may be helpful at this point if I describe in a little more detail our proposals for monitoring and reporting on the quality of decision-making, so that your Lordships can see how comprehensive our plans are. The Bill introduces a new decision-making system which streamlines the current processes; it is our clear aim that the quality of decisions should improve. As noble Lords have cited, there is some need for improvement to be made. We will monitor the new system to ensure that we achieve improvements in quality, and we will report fully on our efforts to Parliament and to the public.
First, there will be systems in place locally to double-check a sample of first-instance decisions. There will also be central quality assurance teams within the agencies who will be fully independent of local checkers--who will, as it were, check the checkers--and who will report on the standards of the monitoring process to agency chief executives. Those teams will also take a broader view on the standard of decision-making agency-wide.
Agencies will set up standards committees which will include external representatives. Those standards committees will consider the results of checking by quality control teams and will prompt any remedial action.
I should like to make it clear to the House that it has always been our intention that there should be comprehensive reporting arrangements. In addition to the reports from the Secretary of State--which will, as I say, be on the face of the Bill--and by agency chief executives, there will be the report made annually by the president of the appeals tribunals to the Secretary of State, in accordance with the provisions in Schedule 1, paragraph 9 of the Bill. This will include a section on the quality of decisions made in agencies in cases which subsequently go to appeal, as is made clear in government Amendment No. 39, to which I shall turn shortly.
The National Audit Office, the Government's independent watchdog, will also be fully involved. We are discussing with it how its role might be enhanced, particularly in the early stages of the new scheme. It will, where necessary, publish reports or bring matters to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee.
With annual reports from the agency chief executives, an annual report from the Secretary of State on the face of the Bill, annual reports by the president of the appeal tribunals and regular reports by the National Audit Office, I believe there are many assurances in place and that together these will amount to a comprehensive monitoring and reporting structure.
I hope that the firm commitments I have made about monitoring and my proposal to bring forward a government amendment at Report stage on annual reports on quality standards demonstrate that we are determined to improve quality and that we take our accountability to this House and to the public very seriously indeed.
With those assurances and my commitment to return to the House with a government amendment which meets the principle raised, I trust that my noble friend Lord Evans will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
My proposal to return with an amendment at Report will, I trust, meet the concerns which prompted the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, to table the first paragraph of their amendment.
The second paragraph of the amendment is designed to probe our intentions with regard to consultation with outside bodies and other organisations on the monitoring criteria to be employed in preparing reports on quality standards. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult relevant outside bodies. As I said a moment ago when outlining our detailed proposals, in setting up monitoring criteria we do intend to consult with relevant bodies. Monitoring criteria will be agreed with the National Audit Office; and the remit of the agency standards committees will be to advise on all aspects of monitoring, including the criteria to be employed. We shall also discuss monitoring arrangements with welfare rights groups. I do not believe that there is need for this commitment to be on the face of the Bill, with lists of bodies set out in regulations.
I believe that the point was made for me by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. We cannot amend regulations, and there is not just a convention but an undertaking--at least, from the official Opposition--not to vote against regulations. Such regulations would have to be displaced by new regulations every time we wished to discuss an issue with a new group which might have come into being since the previous amendments and regulations had been laid. Given the difficulties, I hope that the undertaking we have given to consult--while not wishing to tie our hands to a specified list which cannot be amended because it is through regulations--will enable the Opposition to decide not to proceed with their amendment. The first part is met in the substantive amendment moved by my noble friend and the second part would take us into the area of difficulties explored by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins.
I now turn to the government amendment in this group, Amendment No. 39. This amendment puts on the face of the Bill a requirement for the president of appeal tribunals to make a written annual report to the Secretary of State on the standard of appealable Secretary of State decisions coming before the tribunal. It also provides that the Secretary of State shall publish the report. This report will be in addition to, and will complement, the annual report that the Secretary of State will make on quality standards, which is the subject of the amendment we have just discussed.
During the Second Reading debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked why there was no provision in the Bill for the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on appeals and standards of decision making in the agencies. I subsequently wrote to the noble Baroness suggesting that paragraph 9 of Schedule 1 to the Bill provides for the president of appeal tribunals to supply the Secretary of State with such reports and information as she may require on the functioning of appeal tribunals. This would include information on the quality of those agency decisions seen by tribunals. However, I agreed to consider whether it might be helpful to specify this on the face of the Bill. With this amendment we are responding to the concerns raised at Second Reading.
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